Topic #54: Turn Around
Going Back For by: Ty
A Question of Direction by: Raye
Turn Around by: Destardi
The Wrong Path Home by: Raye
Wishing for a Lie by: Raye
Oops! by: Jo
If You Put Your Mind To It by: Raye
To Help a Friend by: Cindy
A Woman's Wrath by: Lori
To Everything by: Raye
If Wishing Made it So by: Raye
Making Choices by: Cathy
Worth Your While by: Debbie
Just a Misunderstanding by; Cindy

Going Back For
by: Ty

Kid was riding East, he had been traveling for five days. Each day seemed longer than the one before. Each night seemed harder to get through than the last.

Why was he out here all alone? Why was he going back? What did he have to go back for?

Land? He never had owned any land, it had been his parents. A patch of dry bare useless ground that wasn't fit for an animal much less a man to live on and it was sold long ago anyway.

Family? The only real family he had every known was behind him, not in Virginia. Lou, his wife. Teaspoon, his father. Jimmy, Cody, Buck, his brothers. All behind him.

Friends? Dorritha had been the only friend he had wanted to go back for, and she was gone now.

Memories? He had once told Lou, he would never let others take those away from him, but he had learned since that day, that memories weren't what he had thought they were. Hadn't his reunion with Dorritha shown him that? Memories were carried inside not by the land as he had once thought.

So what was he going back for? To fight? To perhaps die? For what? Family and friends that weren't there. Memories that he carried with him where ever he was. A patch of land he was born on, but was glad to be away from.

Suddenly every fiber of Kid existence screamed "TURN AROUND"
A Question of Direction
By: Miss Raye


“What have I done?” The question echoed loudly through his mind as he stared at the riders, moping through their chores. Lou and Cody had fought hard for their friend. Ike too, in his quiet way had thrown his own words back in his face.

He’d heard through the Emma grapevine that both Lou and Cody had been to see Hickok over in Sweetwater, Lou had even ventured inside to talk to Jimmy. He didn’t know any more of the details, but Lou had been sullen ever since.

Really, if it wasn’t so important that everything be kept a secret, he’d have broken down and told them tonight.

Oh, he trusted them to keep the secret, well, maybe not Cody, but once they knew… once they knew the kind of danger Hickok had walked into, there’d be no stopping them. They’d wade right in beside their friend and probably scare Grace away.

A little chuckle warmed his mood. “They’d certainly make an all-fired mess of it, that’s for sure.” Still, it did him good to see them care so much. It had only been a little over a month since the Express started and at the beginning it was hard to imagine this bunch of boys ever becoming any more that a hard scrabble group of puppies fighting over a bowl.

“Just goes to show that I still got lots to learn about the world.” He gave a long sigh and shook his head. If Hickok made it through this assignment alright, he’d be able to relax a bit, knowing that things would finally be heading in the right direction.
Turn Around
by: Destardi


Sitting on the hard step of the bunkhouse Lou watched Kid saddling Katy with cold precision. There had been a distance between them, a rift that had only widened of late. Especially since Samantha had left town.

She could still recall the fights they’d had. The comments she’d made about how he was only dating Samantha to humiliate her. She’d been hurting and had struck out at him to make him as miserable as she was. And it had worked with uncanny accuracy.

Granted her temper got the better of her at times but still Kid didn’t need to take everything she’d said as gospel. He’d taken to avoiding her completely, even going so far as to sit on the other side of the table next to Ike rather than next to her.

The one run they’d shared had been filled with uncomfortable silences, dark looks, and cold, bitter, indifference. She’d never felt so miserable in her entire life. Now after another terse, bitter exchange over some menial task Kid was once more getting ready to go for a run.

“Staring at him ain’t gonna fix things,” Jimmy stated settling next to her.

“I know,” Lou sighed her gaze never leaving the tall figure standing next to the brightly colored paint. “I just don’t know how to fix it. I love him Jimmy…I just don’t know if it’s enough.”

Jimmy nodded pensively, “Hard to say Lou. Never believe in love before, never really knew what it was…”

“But everyone’s always saying how it can set you free. How Love can fix anything. It’s supposed to be this great thing. All its ever done for me is leave me alone and bleeding.”

“Maybe that’s the problem Lou. Maybe you’re not ready to accept the unknown. Perhaps you just need time. Love is a good thing, I mean look at Emma and Sam.”

“Time? No time isn’t what I need. I need Kid. I need to figure out how to fix it so we’re back together.”

Hearing the distinct sound of a hoof beats they watched as Cody raced toward them. Glancing at the dancing paint and stoned faced rider waiting impatiently Lou shivered. Kid took the mochilla easily, familiarly and galloped out of the yard.

“Turn around Kid,” Lou muttered her eyes glued to the rapidly fading view of the rider. “Please, please turn around. Just look back once.”

“I don’t think he can hear you Lou,” Jimmy said as Cody dismounted next to them.

Lou stared hard as the Kid disappeared out of view without once pausing to even glance over his shoulder. Watching until even the dust had settled she clutched her legs tightly hoping to hide the tremble in her hands, the pain in her heart.

“Hey it’ll be okay,” Jimmy hugged her, “You’ll see.”

Lou shook her head slowly, “Not this time. It’s never gonna be okay again.”

“Why not?” Cody asked.

Rising Lou stifled a sob and turned to dart inside, mumbling a response.

Glancing at each other Cody frowned, “What did she say?”

“He didn’t turn around,” Jimmy replied softly. Staring out over the trail Jimmy wished desperately that he could fix this that he could heal their hearts for them even as he knew he couldn’t. It was up to Kid and Lou to WANT to ix it. And he wasn’t sure that they were ready for that fight.
The Wrong Path Home
By: Raye


It was early to be leaving Emma’s house. He’d be back in plenty of time to relieve Barnett from his shift. It wasn’t the timing that bothered him, or the dark clouds on the horizon. It bothered him that he didn’t say good-bye. At least not the way he should have.

He’d given her a peck on the cheek, something considerably chaster than he’d given her before. He’d done a lot more than have dinner there, before. He clenched his jaw tight and stared straight ahead, toward Sweetwater. There was guilt in his heart and it was riding low and heavy, making it hard to get a decent breath.

Something inside told him it was the coward’s way out, but he wasn’t going to listen. Why should he, now? He’d turned a deaf ear to that voice over the last few weeks. The voice that told him to hold on to this woman, that she could handle the life he’d sworn himself to… that she wasn’t Jenny. She wouldn’t be taken by surprise and she wouldn’t flinch… then why didn’t he want to ask?

He pulled his hat brim down to ward off the cold cutting wind that sliced across his cheeks in the afternoon air. Clicking to his mount he felt the stallion lurch to a faster gait and welcomed the bone jarring pain of bouncing around on his saddle. He deserved it. He deserved that at more.

It would take a brave man to go back to Emma and tell her he was wrong. To tell her that the pain he’d seen in her eyes had been all his fault for being such a fool to think he could walk away from her…ever.

He knew she’d welcome him with open arms, knew they’d end up in her bed, knew he’d feel like he’d come home when he fell asleep beside her… but he didn’t want to lose himself ever again. He didn’t want to know what it was like to feel humanity slip away if something were to happen to Emma while they were together. Didn’t want to admit that it wouldn’t matter if they were together or not. That ever since she’d sighed his name that first candlelit night he’d been hopelessly in love. That he was already lost. A coward could only admit so much before he had to go back and beg a woman’s forgiveness.

So, he kept riding. Kept regretting. Kept wishing he felt as bored as he told her he felt. Hell, he was lying to everyone and it hurt… bad.

He didn’t offer an ounce of sympathy for the lonely man shivering inside of him.

After all, a coward didn’t deserve an easy way out of anything.
Wishing For a Lie
By: Raye


It was easy not to run after him. It was easy to admit she wanted to. It was easy to read exactly what had been on his mind, because for the first time since she’d become a woman… a man had told her the truth.

Sam Cain was bored with her.

It hurt. It cut her heart in two, but at least it was the truth.

She’d married as a child. Ideals and innocence shining in her eyes hadn’t done much to shield her from pain and disappointment. She hadn’t shied away from hard work and lived to work beside Evan, but when their child had died, he’d walked away.

It wasn’t an instant thing. No, he’d lied about his feelings for weeks… or had it been months, she just couldn’t remember anymore. It had been staying overnight in town to talk to a friend. Then it had been the offer of work, one job, then another. There just wasn’t a clear line of that very moment that Evan decided it wasn’t worth going home, but he never came out and said it.

He just disappeared.

There had been other men, not more than one or two since Evan that had even tried to spend time with her. She’d done her best to smile and carry on her part of any conversation, but she knew they‘d found her lacking in their eyes and they too had faded away without explanation, but certainly with warnings.

She’d read it in their postures when they’d walked out to the porch at the end of an evening. The way their eyes didn’t quite meet hers as she’d said her goodbye. The way they didn’t seem to say much of anything except, “It’s been nice.”

So really she should be grateful that someone had respected her enough to look her in the eye and tell her what he was thinking. Even if he’d had that silly half grin on his face and she’d wanted to slap it away, he’d set her straight. She should be grateful.

‘It was the truth, Emma… take it like a man. Isn’t that how you do everything else around here?’ She swiped away the tears coursing down her cheeks in quick and efficient strokes of her fingers. This wasn’t something to cry about. There were chores to be done and she couldn’t afford to stand out here on the porch wishing that Sam Cain had just lied to her.

Wishing that he would come back.
Oops!
By Jo

It was a beautiful bright sunny day, just one of those warm spring days that everyone looks forward to. The birds were gathering twigs to rebuild their nests, the other animals and children from the mission school were all finding reasons to go outside or stay out longer just basking in the warm sunshine. Well everyone except Buck Cross and Ike McSwaine they were standing in opposite corners of Mother Superior’s office facing the bare walls; both had felt the bite of the switch on their backsides.

Ike was mad at Buck for opening his big mouth at the wrong moment but the memories of the events that led to them the office brought a smile to his face. Buck was also mad at himself, if only he’d kept quiet or used Indian sign to talk to Ike about what they had done they would be outside enjoying the day instead of dreading sitting down for supper. It had seemed like a good idea at the time and it was really funny; he smiled.

For weeks, several of the older girls had been taunting Buck and Ike, stealing their homework or causing them to spill ink on their lesson books and papers. Mealtimes were the worst, almost daily either Ike or Buck would be bumped hard enough to spill their meal or drink and have to spend the rest of the meal cleaning the mess up. The girls were being encouraged by the older boys who found great pleasure in the second hand torture of the mute and the Indian. A week ago the boys had humiliated Buck by making it seem like he had wet his bed. They had poured a liquid into Buck’s bed while he slept and then used a stick and a can to make a loud noise that scared and woke everyone. Buck had run to the window and looked out along with the others. One of the boys shouted that the Indian had wet his pants and when he got back to his bed he found it wet too, the whole dorm had laughed as he changed his bedding and clothing. Buck had had enough.

Buck knew that at least two of the older boys and two of the older girls were sweet on each other but the nuns would not allow them to be alone. Buck had followed them and found out where they were sneaking off too and exactly what they were doing. He plotted his revenge, he wanted them to be as embarrassed and humiliated as he had been. He was still being teased about wetting his bed or being scared enough to wet himself; neither was true. He knew that when the day had dawned so perfect that the four would be meeting in their secret place. He’d told Ike that he planned to steal their clothes and then drop a snake onto them from the tree. He’d be in the tree but he didn’t think they’d see him. Ike wanted in on the game too and he’d volunteered to be in the tree.

Buck saw the girls leave walking in one direction and the boys in the other; he put is plan into action. Ike and Buck had captured a large brown snake two days before, it wasn’t poisonous but at nearly three feet long it was scary! Ike retrieved the snake from the barn where they had kept it and hurried to the tree. Buck hid himself in the bushes and waited. He watched as the young couples met and the outer layers of clothing landed on the ground. He waited until they were engrossed in each other and crept out of his hiding spot, grabbed the clothing and silently left. He and Ike had agreed that the signal to drop the snake be an owl hooting; they sleep during the day and Ike wouldn’t mistake a real bird call for the signal to drop the snake. If he dropped it too soon they might both get caught. The plan worked perfectly.

Ike heard Buck hoot and dropped the snake, which wasn’t happy about being captured in the first place, right on the back of one of the boys as he kissed his girlfriend. He broke the kiss looked over his shoulder, saw the snake, let out a yell that Buck heard all the way back at the mission school, and jumped up. The snake landed right on his girlfriend’s stomach. Everyone within a half mile heard her scream. The other couple had jumped up too and added their voices to the screaming. People were running toward the screams from all directions. The snake made a hasty retreat into the tall grass and disappeared. As the couples began searching for their clothing Ike snuck down from the tree and slipped in, unnoticed, into the throng of people running toward the screams. He noticed Buck arrive a few moments later.

*Where are their things?* he asked Buck.

Buck signed back *Sister Agnes’s desk.*

The first people to reach the clearing under the tree were laughing at something those near the back couldn’t see. The nuns pushed their way through and Buck noticed that Sister Agnes, who arrived a bit behind the others, had the clothing with her. Someone started crying and Mother Superior actually raised her voice. The other nuns began turning the children back toward the school. Comments like ‘this is none of your business,’ ‘nothing here to see,’ ‘go back to playing or whatever you were doing’ were heard repeatedly. Buck turned around as did Ike but not before seeing the two couples standing before Mother Superior in their long johns, pantaloons and camisoles animatedly trying to explain exactly what they were doing.

Buck and Ike had returned to the school secure in the knowledge that they had not been caught. The whole school was buzzing about the events of that morning at lunch. The rumors were flying. Buck and Ike listened and smiled. Revenge was sweet.

Their day had changed when Buck had been excitedly asking Ike what the couple had looked like when the snake had landed on them. Buck was repeating the events of the morning again when he noticed that Ike was silent. “Ike, you OK?” Buck asked innocently.

*Turn Around* Ike signed back shaking his head.

Buck blanched and swallowed hard. Mother Superior stood about three feet from the boys, hands on her hips and a stern look on her face. They knew they were in trouble when she slowly raised her hand, extended one finger and motioned for them to follow.
If You Put Your Mind To It
By: Raye


Jimmy gave Lou’s hand a squeeze and felt her faint one in response. He moved to the edge of the chair and really began to consider if the doctor’s order to stay off the bed was a hard and steadfast rule or just one of them ‘keep outta my way’ rules, because he wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep the fear off of his face. It would be easier to hide if he was sitting on the bed next to her.

Polly came back in the room, her arms over flowing with linens, freshly washed and pressed in the last few days. Anticipation was her strong suit. The woman was prepared.

The doctor stood up, his hand going to his lower back as if the action was a severe strain on his muscles. He gnawed on his lip a bit as he absently wiped his free hand on his coat. “Well now, I think I know what we’re lookin’ at…”

“You think?” Jimmy nearly jumped up out of the chair. “I’d like to know that you’re certain about this, Doc.”

Lou held him down with a look, her hand unable to do more than twine with his. Looking back at the doctor she tried to offer him a smile, weak and weary, but it did curve the corners up. “Tell us.”

“Ma’am, your baby’s comin’ feet first.”

“Breech.”

Jimmy tried to ignore the worry he heard in Polly’s voice. Tried, but couldn’t stop hearing the word echo through his head. Then it popped up in his mind, he remembered the letter from Emma about her son, Trevor.

He’d been early, too. He’d been early and breech. He’d died and nearly taken Emma with him.

“Check again.” Jimmy gave the doctor a look that didn’t brook disobedience.

The older man was slow to agree, but didn’t argue with the younger man. Instead, he gave Polly an entreating look before he proceeded to re-examine Lou.

Her hiss of pain froze the Doctor on the spot. “Jimmy…”

Answering the frantic grip on his hand, Jimmy sank to his knees beside the bed. He met his wife’s questioning look with a rock solid look of assurance. She remembered the letter too. “Don’t worry, Lou. She’s a fighter, just like her Ma.”

That brought a smile to her lips. “You said it was going to be another boy.”

“I change my mind. A girl, the baby will be a girl.”

She was panting with exhaustion, but couldn’t resist the look of challenge in his eyes. “Just because you said so.”

“That’s right.” He gave her a quick peck on the cheek. “Just like I know you’re both going to be fine… healthy… perfect.”

The contraction ended and Polly put a clean wet cloth to Lou’s forehead and met Jimmy’s eyes with a smile. “I like your confidence, son.”

Lou looked up at her dear friend and gave her a weary smile. “Oh don’t get it mixed up, Polly. It’s not so much confidence as just bein’ stubborn. Jimmy can stubborn anything into happening. He doesn’t give up.”

“That’s right, darlin’,” he pressed a kiss to the back of her hand, “that’s how I got you.” He looked up at the doctor and nodded. “Well?”

“Well?” The man looked a little more than a bit afraid at the moment.

Jimmy rubbed his thumb over the back of Lou’s hand while he nodded at her belly. “You’ve got my daughter in there and if she’s anything like Lou she’s just takin’ her own sweet time to do some things, but when she does ‘em it’s first class all the way. So you’re gonna help her as best as you can and when she’s ready we’ll be waiting to hold her.”

The older man measured his words, carefully pouring over them in his head until he saw the start of a new contraction, the tensing of muscles across Lou’s belly and the sensation spreading through her body. “I’ll need more towels…” soon the man was off like a rocket, barking out quiet yet efficient orders to his staff of one.

Lou tugged on Jimmy’s hand and he leaned in closer to his wife.

“You’ve got him in working order, hmm?”

“I had to; he’s got my girls in his care, right?”

She smiled through her tears. “Then you have one more person to get hopping, sir.”
Jimmy caught her meaning and leaned over to the swell of her belly, leaning his left cheek down so he could still see his wife’s face. “I’ve been told that you need a talkin’ to, lil’ miss. Seems like you’re one that wants to make a grand entrance into the world and that seems just fine to us, but wouldn’t you rather make it easier and get out he so we can spoil you rotten with love instead of worry?” He smiled at Lou’s peevish grimace and warded off the hand that tried to swat him. “Now be a good girl and come on out here and join your family. We’re waiting.”

As soon as Jimmy knelt back beside the bed, the doctor, with Polly’s help started to massage Lou’s belly in a clockwise motion, gently, yet still firmly, nudging the baby in the right direction. A few minutes and contractions later Lou felt a momentary release of pressure in her body and took a long indrawn breath.
To Help A Friend
by: Cindy

A/N: This story follows “On the Edge” from Quick Fic #53.

Buck stopped his horse on the next hill and looked back. Behind him, he could still make out the lone figure under the tree, watching the bridge.

He sat there for a long time, watching the watcher, and trying to make sense of what had just happened. Finally, he saw Kid pack up and ride toward the bridge.

And still, Buck just watched. He watched as Kid slowly crossed the river, and he watched until the tiny figure was lost among the people heading into St. Joseph.

I could still find him . . .

No.

What good would that do? What could Kid possibly say now that he hadn’t been able to say half an hour ago?

There was still no answer to be obtained.

Buck could hear the wagon train rumbling by, and he heard the excited voices of the people just starting out on their grand journey to a new life. They were happy about their journey west.

When he turned around and went back that way, he couldn’t imagine it would be a happy trip.

He guided his horse over another hill, slipping down into a depression where a stream raced by. Taking shelter under a tree from the persistent rain, he spread his bedroll on the ground and sat down. He was exhausted from the hard ride to try and catch Kid. And as he watched his horse’s head droop wearily toward the water in the stream, he knew she was tired too. It would be good to rest a while, and think.

Had this mad rush to catch Kid even done any good? Buck mulled that question over for a few minutes, arguing with himself back and forth. He’d gotten no real answer as to why Kid would leave what he had in Rock Creek to go back to a place he hadn’t seen for years.

But maybe no answer was in a way the real answer.

Kid had spoken of so many things from the past, memories, drawing him back to Virginia. Apparently those memories had overwhelmed the present . . .

But Lou was in the present, alone now, sad and frightened. Once the shock wore off, he figured she’d be plenty mad as well.

Buck leaned back against the tree, pulled his hat down over his face, and closed his eyes. Both he and the horse needed some rest before they turned around and headed back to Rock Creek.

And he had plenty more thinking to do.

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

Rock Creek came into view, growing steadily larger as he rode on. After four days in the saddle, it was a welcome sight.

Buck rode slowly through town on the way to the station at the far end. He looked as he passed the marshal’s office, but Teaspoon wasn’t there.

Well, probably better that he talk to Lou alone anyway.

He reached the station yard and stopped near the barn. It had been a long ride, so he knew he’d better take care of his horse first. She’d done him stellar service, holding up for whatever he asked of her.

Opening the barn door, he walked the mare in and led her to a stall. Then he removed the saddle and tack. He filled the feed bin with grain and let her happily munch while he brushed her coat down.

He stopped long enough to drop his own gear off in the bunkhouse. On the way out he noticed that someone had marked off the days on the calendar he used to keep track of when the stages came through. With the end of the Pony Express, that was the reason the station still existed – and his only real duty. Teaspoon must have found someone to fill in while he was gone, but there was another stage due in that afternoon.

Well, hopefully his next bit of business would be done well before the stage arrived.

Buck left the bunkhouse and headed toward the house, very aware that his gait slowed as he got closer. He had no idea what he’d find when he saw Lou.

He knocked softly on the glass to announce his presence and then opened the door, stepping into the house. The curtains were drawn in the front room, leaving wispy tendrils of sunlight to peek through and dance across the floor. No one was in that room, but he thought he heard someone in the kitchen.

“Hello?”

Rachel appeared a moment later, wiping flour off her hands. A smile crossed her face as she came into the room. “Oh, Buck, I’m so glad you’re back!” she said, punctuating the statement with a hug and a quick kiss to his cheek.

“It’s good to be back,” Buck said, his eyes roaming to the stairs. “Is she up there?”

Rachel just nodded.

“How is she?”

“I’m worried about her, Buck,” Rachel admitted. “She’s hardly come out of that room, she barely eats.” She paused, looking up at the top of the steps as if to make sure no one was there. “Did you find him?” she asked softly.

Buck nodded. “Yeah, I found him. And he didn’t have any answers.”

“You didn’t . . .”

Buck gave a little half-hearted laugh and shook his head. “I didn’t touch him – not that the thought didn’t cross my mind. He rode on to Missouri, and I came home.”

Rachel took his hand and squeezed it. “What are you going to tell Louise?”

“She doesn’t know I went after Kid, does she?”

“No, Teaspoon told me, but we didn’t tell her.” Rachel shrugged. “What good would it have done? We just told her you had to leave for a few days.”

“None,” Buck admitted. He looked at the stairs again, and suddenly his chest felt tight, as if he couldn’t breathe. “I’m going to go talk to her,” he said softly, trying to draw in a deep breath.

“She’ll be glad to see you.”

Buck decided he wasn’t so sure about that – but he did hope he’d be able to make his friend at least a little happier. He eased his hand away from Rachel and started up the stairs.

The door to the extra bedroom was ajar. Standing in the hallway, he could see Lou curled up on the bed, turned away from him. He knocked, and waited for an answer, but none came.

Buck pushed the door open a little and knocked again. “Lou?”

At first he was sure that the person who turned to face him couldn’t possibly be Lou. Her eyes were bloodshot, her skin pale, her hair disheveled, and it looked as though she’d barely slept in the days that he had been gone.

“Buck, I’m glad you’re back,” Lou said. But the gladness didn’t extend to her eyes or to her voice.

Buck stepped all the way into the room and went to the bed. “I’m glad I’m back too,” he said, reaching over to brush some hair out of her face. It hurt to see his friend in so much obvious pain.

“How are you?” Buck asked.

Lou just shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know,” she whispered. “I keep thinkin’ maybe I’ll wake up and this was all a nightmare, but I can’t even sleep.”

Buck sat down on the edge of the bed and took her hand. “I’m so sorry Lou.”

She looked away, not answering. “Where were you?” she asked. “Teaspoon wouldn’t say.”

“I had something I had to do,” he replied, reaching into his jacket pocket. “And I got this for you.”

Lou just looked at the envelope in his hand. “What is it?”

“Guess you’ll have to open it and find out.”

She looked up at him, and he almost thought he saw a spark of annoyance in her eyes. That would be a sign of the ‘old’ Lou coming back. But then she looked down again before he could be sure.

She took the envelope and ran her fingers over it, as if trying to determine its contents that way. But then her hands started to shake.

All of a sudden, the problem was clear to Buck – the last time she had opened an envelope the contents had turned her world upside down. He placed his hand gently on her arm, and when she looked up at him he smiled. “This one’s all right, Lou. Trust me.”

The look she gave him was one so filled with pain that it almost hurt. But he also saw the trust appear, and she broke the wax seal.

Lou opened the envelope, her hands still shaking. The paper that came out was folded and had an angel drawn on the front along with a house, and three people, and a horse. Then she opened the paper . . .

We love you, Louise. Jeremiah and Theresa.

She wanted to laugh, she wanted to cry . . . In the end she leaned into Buck’s chest and buried her face against his shoulder. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“You’re welcome,” he replied, holding her tight. It hadn’t been a wasted trip after all.

They sat there in silence for a few minutes until Lou finally sat back and looked at Buck quizzically. “You went to St. Joe?”

Buck shrugged. “Wound up there,” he said simply. He was hoping she wouldn’t ask too many questions about his trip.

Lou studied her friend’s face for a moment. “You went after him, didn’t you,” she said softly.

Damn!

He met her eyes, and he couldn’t lie. “Yes.”

“And you found him.”

Buck could only nod.

“Why’d he do it?”

It was the question he hadn’t wanted to be asked – but of course it was the one question she needed to ask.

“He just said he had to do it,” Buck said finally.

Lou just stared at him for a long moment. “I don’t understand.”

“I’m not sure he did either, Lou,” Buck replied. Thinking of how Kid had struggled to answer the question, that seemed a fair assessment.

Lou leaned back against the pillows and just stared ahead. Finally she spoke, so softly Buck had to lean in to hear her. “What am I supposed to do? I can’t stay in this bed forever, I know that. I’ve been thinkin’ about it since you left. But I don’t know what to do.”

Buck drew in a deep breath, held it a moment, and then exhaled. It gave him a slight pause to consider how to answer. “Well, you’ve got the money that you and . . . that you’ve been saving up, right?” Lou just nodded, so he continued. “Then I think you should buy that farm you’ve been looking at,” he said, trying to sound confident.

“I don’t know if I can do that alone,” Lou admitted softly, her voice shaking.

“You wouldn’t be alone, Lou. I know the place – it has that big old house, plenty of room for Jeremiah and Theresa, just like you always wanted. And it’ll be planting time soon, so you’ll be able to get a good crop in.”

“It’s a lot to be responsible for,” Lou said. “I never thought of doing it without . . . well, by myself.”

“I’d help you, Lou.”

Lou hesitated. “You’re staying in Rock Creek then?”

It was Buck’s turn to hesitate. Although he hadn’t been asked directly for a while, he knew that question had circulated among his friends. And he’d given it a lot of thought himself, with no clear answer in sight. “For now, at least. And the stages only come through a couple of times a week, so I’d have time to help you.”

“Teaspoon said . . .”

“I’m not cut out to be a lawman,” Buck said, cutting her off gently. Teaspoon’s offer of a position as a deputy was generous, but it was one thing he knew he didn’t want. “I’ll help Teaspoon any time he needs me, and he knows that. I just don’t want to wear a badge every day.”

Lou nodded. “I guess Jeremiah and Theresa are old enough to be some good help,” she said slowly. “And if you can help . . . maybe it would work.”

“It would work,” Buck replied, happy to hear some life back in Lou’s voice. “That farm has good land, Lou. The house needs some work, but nothing that can’t be done.” In fact, he’d helped Kid compile a list of what needed to be done there.

For a moment it almost looked as though Lou might smile – but then she dropped her eyes and looked away.

“There’s somethin’ else, Buck,” she said softly.

“What?”

“I think . . . well, I think I’m pregnant.”

Well, that did change things. Buck just looked at her for a long moment, not sure what to say. It should have been a happy announcement, but under the circumstances . . . “You’re not sure though?” he finally asked.

Lou shrugged. “I’ve been gettin’ sick in the mornings,” she explained. “And, well, there’s other signs. I was gonna go see the doc the day . . . that day. But I ain’t gone yet, and I ain’t told anyone else either.”

“Well, I think you should see doc before you get all worried,” Buck suggested. He had her on the way to acting like Lou again, and he didn’t want to push too hard.

“But what if I am?” Lou insisted, tears welling in her eyes again. “I grew up with a father who was no good, and when he left, I thought it was best. But I never wanted to raise a baby without a daddy.”

The words came out of his mouth before he even had time to think. “I’d help you, Lou. I know that wouldn’t be like the baby having a real father around, but I’d do everything I could. And you’ll meet someone else someday.”

“Someone who wants to take on a woman who’s been abandoned and her child?” Lou shook her head. “Ain’t likely. More likely you’ll find a wife and go off to have your own family.”

It was Buck’s turn to shake his head. “Find someone who’d accept a half-breed? And then bring a part-Indian child into the world to get spat at? I don’t think so.” It used to be what he longed for, but now he had his doubts.

Lou reached for his hand and took it in both of hers. “You’ll make a wonderful daddy someday,” she said. “And I’d be happy to have you there for my baby.”

“I’ll be there as long as you want me around, Lou.”

“That might be a long time,” she warned, the barest hint of a smile playing at her lips.

Buck grinned. “You might regret it,” he said, issuing his own warning. But he wanted to encourage that smile on her face.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Lou replied lightly, a mischievous glint touching her eye. “I know how to handle you.” She snaked a hand out, catching Buck under the ribs.

He squirmed away, grabbing her hand before she could tickle him again. “Not fair,” he complained. Ever since that day when Ike let slip where he was ticklish . . .

“Why not?” she asked, all innocence.

“Well, because . . . I mean . . . I can’t . . .” He felt flushed, and he took a deep breath to halt his stammering. “I just can’t.”

“Can’t fight back because I’m a girl?” she suggested, a full smile now on her face.

“Yeah, that’s it,” he admitted, and then he smiled himself. “And a very beautiful one when you smile.”

“And you’re cute when you blush.”

He tried to scowl, even as he felt himself blushing even deeper. “I’m not cute,” he insisted. Men didn’t want to be cute . . .

“Yes, you are,” Lou replied simply, hugging him tight. “And I’m so glad you’re my friend.”

Before he could answer, they were interrupted by the sound of Lou’s stomach growling – and they both had to laugh.

“Think you could eat something?” Buck asked. After all, Rachel had said Lou had barely eaten while he was gone.

“I think I could,” Lou replied. Then she grinned and added, “But not if you’re cookin’!”

Buck tried to look hurt – but inside he was happier than he could even express at how Lou had turned around from sad and lost to happy and teasing. “I’ve tried your cooking too, Lou,” he reminded her. “It ain’t that great.”

Lou pouted for a moment, then she grinned. “Guess we better hope Theresa can cook!”

They both laughed at that, and then Buck got to his feet. He picked up the robe that had been tossed at the bottom of the bed and held it out. “Rachel was making something when I came in,” he said. “I think we should go find out.”

Lou got up and slipped into the robe as Buck held it open. “I like that idea.” She pulled the robe tight and tied the belt, walking to the door. When she reached the hallway she turned back. “I’ll go see the doc tomorrow,” she said softly. “Then maybe we can go to the bank and see about that farm.”

“That’s a good plan,” Buck agreed. And now that she’d made the first move, he’d do everything he could to keep her moving forward – not looking back.

Lou nodded and started toward the stairs. But she couldn’t resist one last comment. “Cute!” she called over her shoulder.

Buck just laughed and leaned against the door frame, watching as Lou started down the stairs. It was good to have the old Lou back, and he was happy to think that he had helped find her again.

Of course, his own life had changed significantly over the last few minutes too. And as he thought about it, he realized he was pretty happy about that as well. Oh, there was a lot of work to be done to get that farm in good shape. And what, exactly, did he know about helping raise a baby?

But for the first time since the Pony Express ended, he felt like he knew where he was headed.

Where he belonged, at least for now.

Of course, he still needed to have another talk with Lou . . .

He was not cute!

A Woman's Wrath
by: Lori

It’s not necessary to read QFs 43, 44 and 51, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

“Hold it right there.”

Even though he hadn’t planned on it, he stopped. His brain overrode the self-preservation his feet were trying to find him. Maybe he was dumb, maybe he was a fool….or maybe he was just too much of a loyal husband to deliberately walk out on his wife.

He turned around and winced when he saw Karen’s angry glare directed at him. Attempting to calm her down, he held up his hands and said, “Now, sweetheart.”

“Don’t you dare sweetheart me, James.”

He winced again. It was the full name, not Jimmy. He was definitely treading on dangerous ground. Endearments would only further anger her so he took a step towards her. “Karen.”

“No,” she held up a swift hand, stopping him in his tracks. “I am not going to let you make little boy eyes at me, James Hickok. That’s not going to work. Not this time.”

He was rapidly losing ground. He’d just had the last name added. She only pulled out that when she was getting well and truly angry. He needed to stop her before she took the third step and added in his middle name. Once they hit that, it was too far gone. She would have a full head of steam behind her fury and it would take a lot to calm her down. Especially in her current condition.

“It was just a suggestion,” he tried pointing out.

“A suggestion?” she scoffed, her eyebrows climbing to dangerous heights. “You don’t make a suggestion like that in front of the children. What were you thinking?”

“That they would like it,” he shrugged.

“Of course they would like it,” she snapped at him. “They’re children. Suggesting we get a puppy is like telling them they don’t have to eat their vegetables for a year and can have candy instead. Of course they’re going to be excited about it. And now that you’ve mentioned it, they’re going to want to get one and they’ll beg and plead for one forever.”

“Well,” he shrugged again, this time a crooked grin tugging at his mouth. “Would it really be such a bad thing to get a dog?”

“James Butler Hickok,” she shouted at him. “I know I didn’t marry a stupid man, so why are you acting like you are?”

He thought Karen was calming down. She jumped that last hurdle of anger unexpectedly and now he was left scrambling to catch her and soothe her before it got even worse.

“Karen,” he tried but it was no use. Her hips angled to the side, another move that signaled her fury. The move also served to further emphasize that in four months time another baby would be joining the family.

“We have four children,” she pointed out unnecessarily as if he wasn’t aware of how many children he’d fathered with her. “And another one on the way.”

“I know that,” he told her.

“I have two little children running around the house, pulling me in two and in four months a baby will be born.”

He nodded in agreement. So far, he knew all of this.

“And if we get a dog, just who do you think is going to be taking care of it?” she demanded angrily.

“All the children,” he told her. “Primarily Becky and Seth. They’re the oldest.”

“They’re also in school,” she pointed out. “So who will be left taking care of them? Jordan? Emma?”

“Jordan could help,” Jimmy nodded. “He’s almost five.”

“And my biggest mess-maker. I can’t wait to send him off to school simply so that I don’t have to keep him out of trouble all day long. He gets into everything, he doesn’t slow except when he’s eating and you want to add an energetic puppy into this house? I’m going to be the person taking care of a dog,” she said, her eyes snapping with displeasure. “And since I’ve got enough to do, I do not want a dog around here.”

“I’ll help,” he told her. “I’ll teach Jordan what to do when the kids are at school and I’m sure Becky and Seth will help out.”

“For the first bit while it’s fun,” she shook her head. “And when the newness has worn off, I’ll be taking care of a dog and a baby.”

She looked down and shook her head. A heavy sigh shifting her shoulders.

“No, I’m sorry,” she said, her voice oddly husky, almost like it was thick with tears, and full of regret. “I just can’t do it. We just have to tell the kids no.”

He crossed the room to stand beside her, but she didn’t look up at him. “I’m sorry, Karen,” he told her softly. “I should have talked to you first.”

“Yeah,” she chuckled humorously, “it would have been nice.”

“I’ll tell the children,” he told her, reaching out hesitantly to wrap his arm around her shoulder. When she didn’t stiffen or resist him, he brought the other arm up and drew her into a hug. “I was the one who mentioned it; I’ll tell them that we’ll need to wait a little while. We can talk about it some time after the baby’s born.”

“Thank you,” she sighed, leaning into him as much as she could with their child between them.

He closed his eyes and rested his cheek on her hair, grateful that this storm seemed to blow over quickly. Next time, he would think before he spoke.

“Mama! Daddy!”

Their children’s excited voices, as well as the door slamming against the wall in childish exuberance, drew them apart and they turned to see their brood come inside, Teaspoon following behind carrying Emma who couldn’t walk fast enough to keep up with her brothers and sister. Seth grabbed Jimmy’s hand, tugging on it with excitement as he bounced on his feet.

“Guess what,” the little boy cried. “Guess what.”

“Gampa got us a doggie,” Jordan piped in.

“Isn’t she adorable?” Becky asked, drawing their attention to their daughter who was holding a small bundle of fur in her arms.

“You were s’posed to let me tell them,” Seth said to his younger brother, pushing him away angrily.

Jimmy clamped hands on his son’s shoulders to stop them from fighting and looked at the dog in his daughter’s arms to the older man who was standing there with a pleased grin on his face. Karen’s body was rigid and her eyes were wide as she took in the scene before them. Then she looked up and glared at him, her eyes letting him know in no uncertain terms that he was in very deep trouble. Somehow, he didn’t think that even though Teaspoon had purchased the dog without talking to them first she would shift that anger onto the marshal. This was all Jimmy’s fault.

“What do you think, Mama?” Becky asked, turning so that her mother could see the puppy.

Karen swallowed, and then plastered on a deceptively bright smile. “I that Daddy better get used to waking up in the middle of the night to let the puppy out.”

Jimmy nodded. He was being told this would be his responsibility and he was going to have to figure out a way to take care of it.

“And,” his wife continued, looking at Teaspoon and giving the older man a look that caused his grin to slip and made him take a step back. “I hope that Grandpa likes sleeping on the couch, because that’s exactly where he’ll be when I get done talking to Grandma.”

The marshal turned to look at his deputy, but Jimmy just shook his head. He wasn’t foolish, he was siding with his wife on this one.

To Everything
by: Raye


“Oh my…”

Lou couldn’t help the smile that melted her fearful expression. There just wasn’t anyway to be afraid when your father was looking at you like you were a work of art. If only it were true.

“She’s beeeee-u-tiful.”

She smoothed her hands down the front of her dress and felt the blush from the roots of her hair to the nails on her toes. “Stop, you’re gonna make me cry.”

He threw his hands up in mock surrender. “Whoa there, filly, can’t have none of that, you’ve got yourself a couple of women waiting just outside that door that threatened my very life and happiness if I did anything to upset you.”

Crossing the room he clasped his hands before him and gave a long wistful sigh. “We’ve been waitin’ a long time for this day, haven’t we Louise?”

She nodded, unwilling to trust her voice.

“And you know what makes this the most special of days for me?”

Honestly, she didn’t know what to say, but she dabbed at the corners of her eyes with her kerchief and gave him an expectant look.

“’Cause I feel like I’ve been there with you from day one.”

“I had but one biological daughter that I was sure of and she died before I could meet her. I tried to get close to the one that might have been mine, but she just never quite to a likin’ to me. Then Amanda, good Lord knows where she is, she seems to have forgotten all about me.” He reached out his right hand and she twined her fingers through his. “But I’m right here beside you, Lou. I’m right here to walk you down that aisle and give you away to your husband.

“Not that that means he can go and keep you all to himself, well, maybe just for the honeymoon, that’s to be expected, but really, he can’t take you away for any longer without bringing you back as soon as its over so we can make sure you’re settled up the right way.”

She just kind of stared lovingly at the older man when in truth she probably hadn’t caught more than half the words he’d launched at her.
A soft knock at the door was the signal that they were ready to begin and so he gently grasped her by the upper arms and pulled her close, “So, I’m gonna claim two kisses today. One,” he pressed his lips to her left cheek, “one for the past.”

She smiled through her misty tears as he hands shook while he gave her the kiss on her right cheek. “And that for our future, right, Teaspoon?”

“That’s right, darlin’…. That’s absolutely right.”

Ecclesiastes 3
A Time for All Events in Life

3:1 For everything there is an appointed time,
and an appropriate time for every activity on earth:
3:2 A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot what was planted;
3:3 A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
3:4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
3:5 A time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
3:6 A time to search, and a time to give something up as lost;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
3:7 A time to reep, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silent, and a time to speak.
3:8 A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
If Wishing Made it So
by: Raye

He’d been threatening for weeks. Well, he hadn’t said it in so many words, she didn’t even know the words to describe what went on in the rooms around her, but she knew how it made her feel. Small. Scared. Nauseous.

Tonight, when Charlotte came out of his room, her eyes dark with shadows, she didn’t have to say anything. She just walked by and touched Louise’s shoulder. It was a gesture meant to be comforting. Her mother had done that hundreds of times when she was a baby, but here, it sent chills up her spine.

The instant she’d been able to breathe she’d gone down and locked herself in her room. There wasn’t anywhere else to hide. All the other rooms were… well, occupied. She stuffed a knuckle in each ear to muffle the sounds from each room. Some called out in pain, others in fake pleasure, one or two laughing over jokes that didn’t make any sense, but the rooms with the men… grunting like pigs… those scared her the most.

Half her mind told her to run. Run far away. The other half wanted to know where she expected to get to with no money. Wicks kept all her wages for her; took out some for room and board, kept the rest so she wouldn’t spend it ‘like water’. He had her money, so where could she go?

“Louise?”

She froze. He was on the stairs somewhere. She heard his voice echoing in the stairwell and she pressed herself against the wall. Louise felt the hard bite of the wood against her spine and winced. ‘GO AWAY’ she mouthed into the shadows, ‘PLEASE… GO AWAY’

“Louise? Are you hiding?”

He was angry. She could hear it in his voice. He was trying to sound nice, but it wasn’t working… not with her. He sounded like… sounded like…

‘GO AWAY’ she shook her head back and forth, her braids swinging around her head, swiping past her cheeks. ‘GO AWAY’

The wood at the bottom of the stairs groaned and she hugged her legs, trembling in the darkness. He was on her floor.

‘I can still run. It’s not too late. I can still go and…’

“I own this town, Louise,” he’d once told her, “you can leave me, but you’ll be back. You’d have to.”

Her forehead touched her knees and she started chanting her words in her mind, anything to keep her silent, to throw him off. ‘Go Away… Please, Go Away… Go Away… Please, leave me alone.’
“Louise? I’m not in the mood for games. If you’re in there, you better say something right now.”

She looked at the door, saw his shadow cut off the light under the door. ‘Say something’ she willed herself, ‘Say something so he won’t be angry.’

Still, something deep down in her middle knew it didn’t matter. There wasn’t anything she could do to make him happy. She didn’t know how. How could she know what to do to make a man happy?

The doorknob jiggled and her heart nearly stopped.

“You locked it, didn’t you?”

She bit her lip. She sounded like Boggs. Sounded like he did when she didn’t do her chores. Sounded like he did right before a beating. Her skin flashed cold.

Louise heard the rattling of Wicks’s key ring and she pulled her legs closer, almost cutting off any feeling or blood to her toes. Her mind was frozen with fear. ‘go away … go away… go away…’

A single metal scrape and the keys went silent. “Got it, little girl. Now, you’re going to have to pay for wasting my time.”

The door knob rattled again, but this time the door opened under his hand and he was there, inside, with her.

He gave her an indulgent look, like he was going to let her off easy. She read the lie in his eyes. Hard and cold, like she remembered and something different. Something that made her skin crawl.

“You’re all grown up, Louise.”

Then why did she still feel so small?
Making Choices
by: Cathy

“It ain’t gonna get any easier, Hickock.”

Jimmy paused briefly, then shrugged. “It never does,” he replied, deliberately misinterpreting Teaspoon’s sentence. “But this guy ain’t nearly as good as he thinks he is.”

“Dang it, boy, you know that ain’t what I’m talking about,” Teaspoon argued.

Hickock turned to face the man who, for more than a year, had been his mentor — someone he could and did look up to. The fact that Teaspoon Hunter had tracked him down after so much time had passed meant something to him — but it wouldn’t change anything – couldn’t change anything.

It was too late for that. The war had given him some respite from his “Wild Bill” persona but the war was over and he was once again being challenged by men looking to make names for themselves.

“Why don’t you just tell me what you are talking about?” he countered, adding angrily. “And I ain’t a ‘boy’ anymore.”

“You’ll always be a ‘boy’ in my book,” the older man responded angrily. “A ‘man” would have the guts to turn around and walk away from this.”

“You ain’t been around, Teaspoon,” Jimmy answered, adjusting the gun belt so the pistols were in just the right position. “You don’t know what it’s been like.”

“I know what it’s been like,” Teaspoon told him. “I’ve been where you are right now . . .”

“It ain’t the same,” Jimmy interrupted. “You don’t know what it’s like to have people come after you over and over again. You never had people looking for you – just for you – just so’s they can prove they’re better than you are.”

“You might be surprised, Jimmy.” Teaspoon’s tone took on a softer, almost pleading tone. He wanted the boy – young man, he had to admit – to understand he did understand — he’d been there. “All you gotta do is walk away.”

“Walk away and be branded a coward for the rest of my life!” Jimmy exploded.

“You’d rather be ‘Wild Bill’?” Teaspoon played his trump card.

“I am Wild Bill,” the other man retorted. “Whether I want to be or not, there’s always going to be the next one who thinks I am and thinks he can build a reputation by being the man who’s faster than me.”

“It doesn’t have to be that way!”

“Yeah, it does,” Hickock said tiredly. Reaching for his hat, he started for the door — and the street beyond.

“Turn around, Jimmy,” Teaspoon begged. “Just this once, turn around.”

Jimmy paused for just a second, his hand on the doorknob. “I wish I could,” he whispered.

Then straightening his shoulders the gunfighter opened the door and stepped into the sunlit world beyond.

Worth Your While
by: Debbie

Episode reference: Bad Blood

“Emma?”

“I’m in the kitchen, Lou!”

Lou closed the front door to Emma’s house behind her then proceeded down the small hallway that led to her kitchen. She’d heard the ‘come in’ that responded to her knock but upon entering, hadn’t seen the station mistress anywhere. Not wanting to appear nosy by looking around, Lou had decided the safest route was to just call out for the woman.

So knowing where Emma was, Lou entered the always delicious smelling kitchen and stopped in the doorway, a smile playing across her face. “What’cha doin’, Emma?” she asked, trying hard not to laugh.

Emma sat back on her heels as she wiped stray hairs out of her face with the sleeve of her blouse. She glanced up at the small rider. “The next time one of you boys forgets to do your chores, this is going to be added on to the list!” Emma took the rags lying all around her and slowly got to her feet. “Nothin’ worse than cleaning a stove, remember that, Lou,” she told the young rider.

“I don’t think I’ll argue with you there.” Lou scrunched her face up in disgust.

“You ready to head out?” Emma asked as she took her gloves off.

Lou nodded then shoved her hands deep in her jacket pockets. She glanced down and began to rub the toe of her boot against the wood floor. “Uh, Emma, I had planned on stoppin’ in town before I leave. I wanted to pick up some things for my brother and sister since I haven’t seen them in so long.” She paused and dared to glance up at the older woman. “I was kinda hopin’ Kid could come with me into town. He’s done with his chores so he’s free right now and he’d be better at pickin’ out things for Jeremiah … I mean he reminds me of how Jeremiah might turn out when he’s older. I just figured they might have a lot more in common than my brother and I do so he might know what things I could get him.” Lou breathed a sigh of relief that she’d caught her mistake so quickly. Yes, she did want Kid’s help in picking out some toys and such for a boy but she also had another reason for wanting Kid to join her in town and that reason preceded all others by a mile!

Emma ducked her head, trying very hard to hide the grin she felt surfacing. She turned toward the counter and placed her gloves upon it to get her composure then looked once more at the young ‘boy’ peering at her eagerly. “I don’t see why Kid can’t go with you to town. He’s already agreed to take over most of your chores while you’re away so I would say that earned some free time. Go on now and git! And ride safe, you hear?”

“Yes, ma’am, I will,” Lou said happily as she practically skipped out of the kitchen. “Thanks, Emma, and I’ll see you soon!” She ran out of the house, letting the screen door slam closed behind her, then bounded down the steps. After all her planning, she had been so afraid Emma would spoil everything by saying she needed Kid to stay around the station and do something for her. But now Emma had accepted all her excuses so that was one down, one to go. The next one to convince though might also be the hardest because he always wanted hard proof before he went off and did anything. He just had to accept what she told him; she had already gotten him to do his chores right away so he would be at her bidding and not just because she thought he deserved the afternoon off, like she had told him.

She stopped at the gate only long enough to try to figure out where Kid might be. Lou grinned when she caught sight of him standing next to Lightning outside the barn. She ran through the gate and across the yard, coming to a stop on the other side of where Kid was running his hands over her horse’s saddle.

“I already checked things over on her,” Lou told him with a smile as she looked around the horse’s neck.

“I know but you have a long ride ahead of you, Lou, and you can’t be too careful.”

Now it was Lou’s turn to duck her head as she hid the smile that grew wider at his words. It felt good to have someone fussing over her; it wasn’t necessary but it did feel good because it showed that she meant something to someone. She wasn’t sure exactly what she meant to Kid since he wasn’t too quick to show or tell her much of anything but Lou was hoping that this little trip into town would change some of that for the better.

She came around to stand next to him and gave him a grateful grin. “Well thanks for being concerned, Kid.”

Kid looked away nervously as he felt his cheeks growing warm. “You about ready to head out?”

“I wanted to talk to you about that. How would you like to ride into town with me before I go?” At his confused expression, she quickly explained, “I already told Emma that you were done with your chores for now and she agreed that you’ve earned the time off. I told her I wanted to get some gifts to give to Jeremiah and Theresa when I see them.” Lou glanced around to make sure none of the other boys were around then moved closer to Kid. “What I didn’t tell her was that I could use your help in picking out some things that my brother might like to have.” She gave him a sheepish smile to try to cover up how close she came to almost divulging that information.

Kid grinned. “Sure, as long as it’s fine with Emma, I’d be glad to help you find some ‘boy’ things at the general store,” he told her, emphasizing the word ‘boy’ as he teased her. “But you best be careful not to hold something up and ask me out loud if he’d like it ‘cause you know Tompkins; he’d be bound to overhear that you’re asking about something you should know about!” He headed toward the barn. “It’ll just take me a minute to get Katy ready to ride,” he called over his shoulder as he headed inside.

Lou leaned against Lightning as she watched him walk away. ‘There was something mighty fine about the way that man walked,’ she thought with a naughty smile.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Thirty minutes later, Lou and Kid were dismounting their horses and tying them up in front of the mercantile. Lou stood with the end of the reins still in her hand as Kid stepped up on the boardwalk and began to head into the store. She glanced around to make sure no one they knew was standing nearby then called out, “Kid, hold up there a minute! There’s somewhere else I need to go to first before I go in there.”

Kid gave the shops up and down the street a quick glance. “What else could you need that you can’t get in here?” he asked as he jerked his thumb over his shoulder toward the store.

“I just need to pick something up, that’s all,” she told him. “Now come on, it won’t take long, I promise.” With a wave of her hand, Lou thrust her hands into her pockets and headed down the boards.

Kid paused for only a moment then ran to catch up to her. He glanced at the girl pretending to be a boy but Lou seemed not to notice as she kept her eyes directed straight ahead of them. The southerner kept watching as shop after shop was now behind them. He noticed Lou slow her stride so he stopped next to her.

“Well we’re here,” Lou told him.

Kid looked past her to the display in the store’s window and instantly began to shift his feet and looked around nervously. “Lou, this is the Dress Shop.” He figured he’d better let her know, just in case she wasn’t aware of where they were.

“Uh huh, I know.” Lou nodded her head.

“But we can’t go in there; it’s for ladies,” he said in a stunned kind of voice.

“And just what do you think I am?” Lou turned to face him as her hands came to rest on her hips.

“I know what you are,” Kid said. “Believe me, I’m quite aware of what’s under your clothing,” he muttered so she wouldn’t hear.

“What?”

Kid blushed as he leaned closer to her. “I was saying that if you want to keep on having people believe you aren’t what you really are then you shouldn’t go in a place like that either.”

“I didn’t know you were so scared to do anything, Kid,” Lou said with a challenge to you voice. “Besides, no one’s around and it’ll be fine ‘cause you’ll be escorting me.” She held her arms out so he could take in what she was talking about.

Kid looked her up and down. “Escorting you?!” he asked with a chuckle.

Lou rolled her eyes. She was too happy to have gotten him there to be annoyed. “Just get in here!” She tugged on his sleeve and dragged him in behind her.

As the bell sounded above the door, Lou took off her hat and glasses then glanced behind her at Kid who had also taken off his hat. While Kid closed the door and stood next to it, looking like he was afraid to enter, Lou walked further inside, her eyes eating up all the beautiful fabrics lying about.

“I was beginning to think you’d changed your mind, Louise.”

Lou turned around at the sound of a woman’s voice coming from across the room. “Mrs. Foster, morning. No, I wouldn’t do that. I’m sorry; I came as soon as I could.” She glanced behind her. “Mrs. Foster, this is my friend, the Kid.”

Kid nodded. “Ma’am,” he said with a smile but to Lou, he mouthed, ‘Louise?’ Why would she be on a first name basis with the dressmaker? He looked to Lou, still not understanding why they would be in here. Maybe they were just picking up something for Emma. That thought put him a little more at ease though he still would have thought if Emma wanted something bad enough from the Dress Shop that she would have come for it herself. Kid went back to looking around with his eyes, since he was still nervous about entering the shop entirely.

“Nice to meet you, young man,” Mrs. Foster said then she turned back to Lou. “No harm done; it had just sounded like you were in a hurry. I think you’ll be quite pleased. You want to come into the back?” She tilted her head toward the curtained area behind her.

Lou nodded. “I’ll be right there.” When the older woman disappeared behind the dark material, Lou went to Kid and said, “I need to take care of something real quick, Kid, so you just wait here, alright?”

“Lou, I still don’t understand what we’re doing in here,” Kid told her. “It just don’t feel right us being in a place like this. What could you possibly need in here?”

“I think it feels real nice,” Lou said softly. She found him staring at her so she grew serious. “You can’t stand blocking the door so no one else could enter if they wanted to.” Lou took him by the arms and pushed him in the direction of the front window. “Now you wait right here and make sure to keep your back to the rest of the room.”

“What?! Lou, this is silly.” Kid tried to turn around but she was right behind him, holding his arms tight so all he could do was look at her over his shoulder.

“Kid, do you trust me?”

“What? Of course I do,” he answered quickly, feeling hurt that she would think he didn’t. He knew his voice also held a hint of confusion as to what she was getting at.

“Good. Just do as I say and I promise I’ll make it worth your while.” She smiled coyly at him.

The southerner shrugged. “I don’t see how but alright, I’ll do what you want,” Kid practically grumbled.

“Thanks,” Lou said happily. She patted him on the back then turned on her heel. She paused with the edges of the curtain in her hand. Lou bit her bottom lip as she stared at Kid’s back. She had gone back and forth for so long with making this decision. She had almost chickened out last night but now that Kid was in the shop with her, Lou found herself so excited and for the first time in years, glad that she was a girl. Now she needed him to be glad that she was one too. The young woman smiled and thrust her chest out a little as she pushed the curtain aside and went into the back room.

Kid would do as she asked and not turn around but he still didn’t like being in there. He leaned forward and peered out the window, looking one way then the other. “I just hope no one comes past that I know. I sure don’t want to try to explain to someone what I’m doing in a place that’s meant for only ladies. Someone might begin to think I have a girlfriend or something,” he mumbled.

He didn’t know how long he’d stood that way and no matter how much time went by, he couldn’t for the life of him figure out what Lou would need to come there for and why she would want him to come with her.

“Kid.”

Kid’s shoulders tensed when he heard the voice behind him, a soft and gentle, very feminine voice that he had never heard say his name before. He swallowed the lump in his throat as he heard footsteps coming his way. Why was he suddenly very nervous?

“You can turn around now.”
Just a Misunderstanding
by: Cindy

“Turn around slowly, with your hands up!”

Buck froze at the sound of the voice behind him. He let go of the cinch strap and raised his hands, turning slowly as ordered.

He found himself staring at the business end of two pistols. Beyond the guns he could see two men, one of them with a badge proclaiming “Sheriff.”

With the two men between him and the livery door, and his horse blocking any path that might exist behind him, Buck knew his options were limited. “Sheriff, what’s the problem?”

“Like you don’t know,” the man without the badge fairly spat.

Buck studied both men for a moment, considering the best way to handle this. The man without the badge was younger, about his own height, with short dark hair and eyes that fairly gleamed with anger. With his collar turned up and buttoned tight, the man almost looked as though he had no neck.

On the other hand, he’d guess the sheriff was about Teaspoon’s age. Graying hair framed his face under his hat. And although his countenance was serious, his blue-grey eyes didn’t burn with the hatred the other man showed.

Definitely better to address the man with the badge.

“Sheriff, my name is Buck Cross,” he started. “I’m a rider for the Pony Express station out of Sweetwater.

“Pony Express don’t stop in Green River,” the younger man countered.

“We do a lot of special runs,” Buck continued, still addressing the sheriff. “I was sent here to deliver a package from the territorial governor.”

“Well, we had a little trouble outside of town last night,” the lawman. “Not somethin’ we’d see from a local.”

It all made sense now, Buck decided. Trouble plus an Indian just passing through added up to that he must be guilty. “Sheriff, if you tell me what happened, maybe I can clear things up.”

“Seein’ you in jail will clear things up just fine,” the younger man sneered.

“I think we’d best go over to the jail and talk there,” the Sheriff said. “You just drop that gunbelt and knife, real slow.”

Buck did as requested, making sure that his movements were very slow, given that the two guns were still trained on him.

“Now step over toward the door,” the older man instructed, stepping aside and pointing with his pistol. As Buck complied, the man continued his instructions. “Norman, you pick up the weapons and bring them along. Get them saddlebags too.”

The sheriff nodded his head toward the street and gestured with the gun that Buck should start that way.

He’d seen the jail when he rode into town the day before, so Buck headed that way. Taking a chance that as long as he complied otherwise the sheriff wouldn’t object, he lowered his hands to his sides; bad enough to be marched across town at gunpoint without making it more obvious.

Besides, he hadn’t done anything wrong. This was all a misunderstanding, and surely they’d be able to clear it up. Except sometimes with an Indian to blame, people didn’t really care about the truth . . .

With guns at his back, he didn’t have much choice. Getting shot trying to run didn’t seem like much of a plan.

They reached the jail and Buck stepped up onto the boardwalk, opened the door, and walked in.

The entrance brought a deputy jumping to his feet from behind a small desk off to one side. A deputy who was little more than a boy, Buck realized as he looked a little closer.

“This the guy who did it, Sheriff Reed?” the boy asked, excitement in his voice as he studied the prisoner.

“That’s what we’re gonna find out,” Reed answered as he followed Buck in.

“He’s the one,” Norman growled from the doorway. His hands were full with Buck’s weapons and the saddlebags.

At least he had a name now, Buck reasoned. That might make talking to the lawman a little easier. “Sheriff Reed, if you could just tell me what the problem is, I’m sure we can work this out. I haven’t done anything.”

“Oh yeah, we’ll talk,” Reed replied. But first he turned to the young deputy. “Lem, lock the prisoner up.”

As the boy scrambled for a set of keys hanging on the wall, Buck took a deep breath and stepped into the first of two cells that the jail contained. He stood there, facing the back wall, until he heard the iron door slam behind him and the turning of the key. Then he slowly turned around to face the front of the jail again.

Reed gestured for Norman to put Buck’s things on a small table by the door, and then he settled a hip against the edge of his desk. “Now, what’d you say your name was?”

“Buck Cross.”

“Lem, you recall that name from any of them Wanted posters?”

“No sir, Sheriff. And I just straightened ‘em like you said.”

Reed considered that for a moment, then turned back to Buck. “And what was it brought you to Green River?”

“There was a special package that needed to be delivered to a man named Donald Woods,” Buck explained. “It was from the territorial governor.”

“How’d you wind up with it?”

“Like I said, I ride for the Pony Express. But we do special runs too, when needed.”

“Territorial governor ain’t nowhere close to Sweetwater,” Norman pointed out.

“The new territorial marshal, Sam Cain, used to be the town marshal in Sweetwater,” Buck explained. “Sam knows Teaspoon Hunter, the station master in Sweetwater. And he knows me.”

Norman scoffed at the idea that Buck knew the territorial marshal, but before he could say anything, the sheriff continued his questioning. “Package was from the governor, you said, not the marshal.”

“It came to Sweetwater with a note from Sam,” Buck said. “He asked Teaspoon to make sure that it got to Mr. Woods personally. I just happened to be the next rider up.” And hadn’t that turned out to be a stroke of luck . . .

“You got this note with you?” Reed asked.

Buck shook his head. “No, Teaspoon kept it in Sweetwater.”

Reed considered that for a moment before he continued. “All right, let’s say for now we believe that. What’d you do when you got to Green River?”

“I rode in yesterday afternoon,” Buck answered. “I stopped at the hotel to see about a room for the night, and I got directions out to the Woods place.”

“All the better to case the place,” Norman sneered.

Case the place. Buck had a sinking feeling in his gut. “Sheriff . . .”

“Just tell us what happened next,” Reed prompted.

Buck took a deep breath and then swallowed hard before continuing. Obviously something had happened at the Woods place, and he needed to be careful. “I got a room at the hotel and cleaned up after the long ride,” he said slowly. “Then I rode out to the house the hotel clerk directed me to.”

“You talk to Mr. Woods?”

“Yes, I did. I gave him the package.”

“And then?”

“I waited while he opened it. I was supposed to see if there was any reply.”

“Was there? A reply, I mean.”

Buck reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out an envelope. “Right here.”

“What’s it say?” Reed asked.

“I don’t know,” Buck replied.

Norman just laughed. “Stupid injun can’t read.”

Buck just stared at the dark-haired man. “I don’t know what it says because it’s sealed,” he said evenly. “And it’s not addressed to me.” He turned back to the sheriff. “Mr. Woods told me what he was writing. He said he had everything he needed to start work on the bridge across the river.”

Reed walked over to the cell and took the envelope. “Does look like Donald’s writing,” he remarked.

“It don’t matter!” Norman insisted. “Even if all o’ that is true, don’t change that this injun went back later . . .”

Reed cut him off with a wave of his hand and turned back to Buck. “All right, you delivered the package and waited for a reply. Then what?”

“Mr. Woods said they had just raised a new barn and they were having a party to celebrate. He invited me to stay.”

“And you did?”

“For a while, yes.”

“You meet his wife and daughter?”

“Yes, I did,” Buck confirmed. “Mrs. Woods came in while her husband was writing the reply. She offered to show me around the house while I waited.”

“See!” Norman exclaimed. “He got a tour o’ the house, knew just where to go . . .”

Reed slammed his hand on the desk. “Norman, I’m the sheriff, and this is my jail, my investigation. Now you either shut up, or get out.”

Norman sulked back against the wall, arms crossed over his chest. He stood there, just glaring at Buck, but he didn’t say anything else.

“What about the party. Anything unusual happen?” Reed asked.

Buck thought for a moment, then shook his head. He didn’t get invited to a lot of parties, but he couldn’t think of anything unusual about this one. “No. There was a lot of food, and music, and dancing. Everyone seemed to be having a real good time.”

Wait, not everyone . . . Now that he thought about it, Norman had been there, skulking in the shadows, just watching . . . Buck looked over at Norman, studying the other man, but he decided not to say anything – yet. He still didn’t even know what this was all about.

“All right, after the party,” Reed prompted. “What’d you do then?”

“I rode back to town,” Buck replied. “I put my horse in the livery, paid for some extra grain and the care, and went to the hotel.”

“You leave again during the night?”

“No. I went to bed. I didn’t leave again ‘til this morning, when you found me saddling my horse.”

“Anyone see you?”

“Not after I got the room key from the clerk.” Buck paused, looking around at the other three men. “Sheriff, I’ve answered all your questions. Will you tell me what happened?”

“Well, seems like after the party, someone snuck into the house out at the Woods place. The daughter, Gabrielle, just come back from Paris, France. You know that?”

Buck nodded. “Yes, she told me.” In fact the news had brought back unwanted thoughts about Kathleen Devlin, also recently returned from Paris.

“Well, she brought back quite a few pieces of expensive jewelry,” Reed continued. “Whoever went into the house attacked Gabrielle, beat her up a bit, and stole the jewelry.”

Buck could feel his pulse racing, and it felt hard to breathe. “Sheriff, I would not attack a woman,” he said. “And I didn’t steal any jewelry.”

Norman pushed himself away from the wall and stepped forward. “Well if that’s so, you won’t mind lettin’ us look through your gear, will you?” he challenged, pointing at Buck’s saddlebags.

“Go ahead,” Buck replied. But something about the other man’s triumphant smile was making him very nervous.

Norman walked over to the saddlebags, opened the straps, and dumped the contents on the table. He pawed through the longjohns, socks, shirt, book, jerky . . . until he suddenly smiled and raised his hand in victory. “Well, lookee here,” he said. “What’s this?”

His hand opened to show a glittering sapphire and diamond ring.

Buck just shook his head slowly, fighting back the nauseous feeling in his gut. “Sheriff, I’ve never seen that ring before,” he said softly.

“Oh, of course not,” Norman mocked, still grinning triumphantly.

Reed took the ring from Norman, studied it for a moment, then turned back to Buck. “If you ain’t seen it before, how’d you figure it got in your bag?”

“I don’t know,” Buck replied slowly – though the look on Norman’s face was starting to give him an idea of what had happened.

Still, he had no proof – and as the outsider, he’d need that.

“Didn’t Gabrielle – Miss Woods – see who attacked her?” Buck asked.

“Said it was dark,” Reed answered, still looking at the ring.

Maybe it was time to get nervous, Buck decided. “You said jewelry was stolen,” he said. “Was it more than a ring? And are you sure that ring is part of it?” Maybe Kid had bought Lou a present, and hidden it in the wrong saddlebags . . .

“There was more stolen,” Reed answered slowly. He walked over and took the keys that the deputy had hung back on the wall. “Lem, you put your gun on the desk there. I want you to search the prisoner.”

“Sure thing, Sheriff,” the boy answered, dropping his weapon as directed. After Reed opened the cell door, Lem stepped inside. “Lean up against that wall,” he directed.

Buck did as he was told, putting his hands against the wall and standing still as Lem ran his hands up and down, checking for anything hidden on his body.

“Get his boots, too,” Reed ordered.

Buck sat down on the hard bunk and pulled the boots off, handing them to the deputy.

Lem dutifully checked the boots, then looked up. “Nothin’ here, Sheriff. He ain’t got none of that jewelry.”

“All right, come on out,” Reed said. Once the boy was out, he locked the cell door again.

“Sheriff, I can’t tell you where that ring came from,” Buck said as he pulled his boots back on. “But I can tell you I didn’t take it from Miss Woods.”

“Truth is, I ain’t sure yet what kind o’ jewelry was taken,” Reed admitted. “Miss Woods is over at the doc’s gettin’ checked out. She’s supposed to stop over here when she’s done and give me a full list.”

“Damn it, Reed,” Norman said, almost yelling. “I told you I seen the injun hangin’ around the house. It’s obvious he just hid the rest of the stuff. Might be he figured he couldn’t get it all out of town at once. So he’s takin’ one piece and plannin’ to come back for the rest.”

“Maybe,” Reed conceded. “Lem, why don’t you run on over to Doc Mitchell’s, see if Miss Woods is about done there.”

As the boy ran out of the jail, Norman shook his head and tried another play. “Reed, you can’t . . .”

“What I can do,” Reed countered, cutting the other man off, “is to run my own investigation.” He sat down behind his desk. “Now, we’re all just gonna wait ‘til Miss Woods gets here, an’ then we’ll see what she has to say.”

Norman didn’t look happy at all at being cut off, but he kept his mouth shut. He sat down on a chair in the back corner of the office, folded his arms, and just scowled.

Buck was still sitting on the bunk, and now he leaned back against the hard brick wall. An ‘easy’ delivery, that’s what Teaspoon had called this – he could hear the station master’s voice even now.

Well, if he got out of this mess, he was never taking one of Teaspoon’s special ‘easy’ runs again.

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

It seemed like days, but in reality Buck figured it was probably about twenty minutes before he saw the young deputy coming back toward the jail. It was funny how different time seemed from behind the bars of a cell.

The three men had spent the time mostly in uncomfortable silence. Norman was in the back of the room, scowling. The sheriff was sitting at his desk, rolling the ring around in his hand.

And Buck kept to himself, trying to keep from climbing the walls. Protesting his innocence more right now seemed to be a waste of time. At least he could take some consolation in the fact that Reed appeared to be a reasonable man. With any luck, Gabrielle Woods could clear all of this up.

When she finally appeared, however, following Lem into the jail, he felt his hopes drop a bit.

Last night, when he’d first met her, she’d been full of smiles, laughing and gaily chatting with people at the party. She’d worn her light brown hair up in a stylish bun, and the fancy green dress she wore highlighted her eyes.

When she had not only talked to him, the outsider – the Indian – but actually asked him to ask her to dance, he’d been thrilled.

But those memories were pushed away as he looked at her now.

Her hair was down now, not styled at all. Instead of smiling, she looked as though she’d been crying. A huge bruise covered most of the left side of her face, and one green eye was hidden behind a large purplish-black swelling.

Reed got to his feet. “Miss Woods. I’m real sorry to hear what happened. Thanks for coming over.”

“Lem said you had found some of the jewelry, and maybe the man who took it.” She finally looked over at the cell – and stopped in surprise. “Mr. Cross?”

Buck got to his feet and stepped up to the bars, but Norman spoke up before he could say anything.

“I seen the injun sneakin’ around your place last night,” the dark-haired man proclaimed. “When I heard what happened, I went right to the sheriff.”

“We’re still trying to figure out what happened,” Reed said, stepping forward. He held out the ring. “Is this part of what was stolen?”

Gabrielle took the ring. “Yes, this is one of the pieces.” She paused, looking between the ring, the sheriff, and the cell. “I don’t understand.”

“I found that ring in the injun’s bag,” Norman said, puffing out his chest importantly.

Buck decided it was time to speak up. “Miss Woods, I did not do this to you.” In fact, as she turned toward him and he saw more of the bruising, he was feeling sick. “I can’t explain where that ring came from, but I did not do this.”

Reed cleared his throat. “What I heard was that you didn’t see the man what done this.”

Gabrielle shook her head slowly. “No, it was too dark,” she said softly. She took a couple of steps toward the cell, thinking. “But I remember a few things,” she continued. “The man who attacked me had short hair, not long hair like Mr. Cross. And I danced with Mr. Cross, several times. My assailant didn’t smell anything like him.”

“Not exactly as good as seein’ the man’s face,” Reed pointed out.

“There might be something even better,” Gabrielle said, studying the fingers on her right hand. “I scratched the man, Sheriff. You can ask Dr. Mitchell. He found blood and skin under my nails.” She turned toward Reed, holding the hand up. “The man you’re looking for will have some deep scratches on the back of his neck, or maybe his shoulder. I’m not sure exactly where I got him.”

Reed turned to the cell. “You mind takin’ your shirt off?”

Buck had already slipped his vest off and was undoing the buttons on his shirt.

“Now if you want to wait outside,” Reed said to Gabrielle.

“No, I need to stay,” she answered softly but firmly.

Buck tossed his shirt on top of the vest on the bunk and untucked his undershirt, pulling it over his head. Then he turned his back to the bars.

The results were clear even from a distance, but Reed took a few steps closer anyway. “No recent scratches,” he confirmed.

“Wrong hair, wrong smell, no scratches. He’s not the man, Sheriff,” Gabrielle said softly.

Buck knew he could be imagining things, but he hoped that was relief he heard in her voice. He pulled his undershirt on again before turning around. “Sheriff?”

Reed seemed to consider things for a long moment before turning to his deputy. “Open up that door, Lem,” he instructed.

“Now, you can’t do that!” Norman was on his feet again, glaring. “I told you I seen him!”

“I know what you told me,” Reed answered, a harder edge to his voice now. “But whether he was out at the Woods place or not, it don’t really matter. Miss Woods here is the witness, and he don’t fit what she says.”

“I found the ring in his bag!” Norman yelled.

“I’ve been thinkin’ on that,” Reed said. He turned to Buck, who had just stepped out of the cell. “Anyone else have those bags?”

Buck shrugged his shoulders. “They were on my horse while I was at the party. Then I took them into the hotel with me last night. No one else touched them – until he carried them over here.” He stared pointedly at Norman as he said the last part.

Norman took a few steps closer. “Just what’re you saying, injun?”

But it was actually Gabrielle who spoke up first. As Norman got closer, she stepped back, wrinkling her nose. “That cigar smoke smell . . .” She looked directly at him. “That’s what I smelled last night!”

The next few seconds were a blur of action.

Norman made a break for the door, but Gabrielle was in his way. Reed was blocked from the side by her presence as well. Buck lunged across the room, trying to get his hands on Norman, but just as he got there the man twisted away, and all Buck got was the man’s collar in his hand.

Buck pulled, trying to keep his hold, but the fabric was slipping away. And just then Norman shoved Gabrielle into Buck.

There was a ripping sound as Buck fell to the floor, trying to shield Gabrielle as she fell with him. And they fell directly between Reed and the door, blocking his way.

With everything happening so fast, the four people inside the jail could only watch helplessly as Norman escaped out the door. And a moment later they heard hoofbeats racing away.

Buck scrambled to his feet and reached down to help Gabrielle up. “Did he hurt you?” he asked anxiously.

“No, I’m fine,” she replied, shaking her head. “Did I hurt you?”

Actually, his ribs were burning where her elbow hit him as she fell on top of him – but that seemed pretty minor compared with being accused of thievery. “I’m fine.” He looked down at his left hand and then held up the contents. “His shirt ripped – and there’s blood on it.”

Reed took the piece of cloth and studied it for a moment. “Guess that explains why he was bein’ so helpful. Norman ain’t usually got the time of day for me.” He paused and shook his head. “I guess I owe you an apology, Mr. Cross,” he said, holding out his hand.

Buck accepted the handshake. “No need. I’m just glad you were willing to listen, and look at all the evidence. Not everyone is.”

Reed just nodded glumly. “I try to be a good lawman,” he said wearily. “Ain’t always easy. And now I guess I’d best see about gettin’ after Norman.”

“Could you use some help tracking him?” Buck asked.

“You’re offering?”

“I’m a pretty good tracker.”

“Be glad to have ya along,” Reed said. He turned to Gabrielle. “I think it would be best if you stayed in town for now. We don’t know where Norman went, or who else might be involved.”

“I understand,” she replied. “My parents went over to the hotel for coffee when we left the doctor’s office; I told them I needed to do this part by myself. I’ll go over there.”

“That sounds fine,” Reed confirmed. He picked up Buck’s gunbelt and knife. “I got a couple of men in mind to go along. I’ll be back shortly. Oh, Norman had his horse tied up on the east side of the jail, if you want to check the tracks.”

“I’ll do that,” Buck replied, dropping the knife into the sheath. He was buckling on the gunbelt when he felt a hand on his arm.

“Will you come and tell me what happens when you get back?” she asked.

“I will,” he promised. “I’ll find you at the hotel.” He paused, brushing his fingers very lightly across the bruise on her cheek. “I’m so sorry.”

“I knew you couldn’t have done it,” Gabrielle said. She gave him a small smile, though it was evident in her eyes that the action hurt. “I enjoyed our dances last night.”

He smiled too. “I did too.”

They stood there in silence for a few seconds, and then Buck finally pulled his eyes from hers. He bent slightly to tie his holster down, then straightened up and held out his arm. “I’d be honored to escort you to the hotel.”

She nodded her head and took his arm. “I’d like that.”

They left the jail, walking down the street toward the hotel. When they got closer, Donald and Judith Woods came out. Buck left Gabrielle in her parents’ care to explain things to them as he turned around and headed back to the livery.

His horse was just where he had left her, and now he finished tightening the cinch straps. It seemed so long ago that he’d been interrupted while doing that this morning.

He walked the mare back over to the jail and tossed the reins over the hitching post out front. Then he walked around to the side. There were a number of hoof prints in the alley, but only one set that was really fresh.

He smiled as he noted an imperfection in the horseshoe print. That would make the track easier to follow. Add in his personal motivation in this case, and Norman didn’t stand a chance.

He’d planned to be well on his way back to Sweetwater by now. And he couldn’t say that the morning’s diversion had been pleasant.

But if this was going to happen to Gabrielle Woods anyway, he was glad he was here to help bring the perpetrator to justice.

In fact, it was going to give him a very good feeling.

And Gabrielle’s smile would go with him when this was done and he finally turned around to go back home.

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