Topic #58: A stage rolls into town and...
|A Solemn Vow by: Lori
Man's Plan by: LMS
Next Ten Years by: Miss Raye
||Opportunity of A Lifetime by: Miss
|Mirror, Mirror on the Wall by: Jo
||Gunslinger by: Miakoda
|Waiting On The Stage by: Lori
||The Value of $25 In Gold by: Tracy
|Molly by: Nikole
||Seek by: Cathy
|Trouble Comes to
Town by: Cindy
||The Stage Is Set
Death rode into town in a stagecoach.
Pulled by four black steeds obviously spawned from the fiery depths of the inferno below, the coach wasn’t bright and cheerful red with yellow wheels. Coal black and silver, it arrived in a cloud of dust thick and oppressive. The driver matched the coach, dipped in ink with only the whites of his eyes peeking out from the protective cloth covering his face.
The entire town stopped to stare at the spectacle. For they all knew who had come, and they all knew why. One of their own was going to die. There would be no escaping it. Attempts to escape would be useless, pleas for mercy would be scorned, only justice would prevail. The law would be upheld, and executed fully. And that meant death.
The gallows had been constructed in the middle of town, its shadow stretching into the farthest corners of the square every morning and evening. A reminder to all of the imminent, inevitable event. Nobody could escape its grasp, and they would be wise not to do anything that would resign them to the same fate as the poor soul already awaiting this trip. The lesson had been clearly made, and duly received. People walked with their eyes cast to the ground, not the wooden structure that now inhabited their town. Conversations were held in whispers, large groups were looked at suspiciously, and trips outside were conducted quickly so they could return to the safety of their homes and businesses.
The town was in a state of waiting, and now judgment had arrived. Death nipping at its heels.
The stage door swung open and the sole occupant stepped out, alighting onto the street. Judge Arthur Dashwood turned a shrewd eye on his surroundings and appraised the town in an instant. His permanent sneer, caused by a scar above his lips that pulled the skin abnormally taut, increased; he clearly found the town wanting. It did nothing to endear the townsfolk to him. They already didn’t want him there, but there wasn’t any way to prevent his coming. Or the miscarriage of justice he would bring.
Daniel Emerson, richest man to ever pass through these parts, had decided to make his home in their sleepy little town after fleeing the overcrowded environments of Boston. With his money came a disdainful and entitled attitude that chaffed the townsfolk and created a fair amount of ill will towards the man. When he was found murdered one morning in his bed, his staff had immediately called the marshal. His son, who was visiting, refused to allow a backwater, ignorant and bumbling fool like Sam Cain to investigate his father’s death, and immediately called for the Pinkertons. When they rolled into town, the already intense atmosphere increased.
Everyone was a suspect, from merchants who were angry that he shipped everything from back East and didn’t patronize their stores, to farmers surrounding his property who were upset that he encroached on their land and was trying to drive them away by devaluing their holdings and plummeting the price he would offer. Nobody escaped scrutiny, several people were held for several days, questioned and then released but never officially cleared. Emerson’s son was worse than his father and the townspeople prayed that the murderer would quickly be found so they could get back to their lives.
But when a suspect was found, arrested and charged, the town was in shock. A widow, that Emerson had seemed sweet on, was accused of murder by the Pinkertons. The son backed their claims that she had murdered his father. He had seen her reject the older man’s advances and claimed he heard her say if he didn’t leave her alone she couldn’t be held responsible for her actions. The fact that her boyfriend was the marshal seemed to condemn her even more. Which was why the son had insisted Judge Dashwood be called in to hear the case. The judge would insure his father’s murderer was brought to justice.
The inhabitants of Sweetwater no more believed that Emma Shannon was a murderer than they believed the owner of the cathouse was a god-fearing woman who was going to renounce her wicked ways and join a convent. Emma had survived worse things than unwanted attention from a man, and she’d never resorted to violence before. Clearly the son and the Pinkertons were fabricating their evidence, and nobody believed that Judge Dashwood would give her a fair trial. They hated the man on sight, they hated Frederick Emerson, and they hated the gallows that stood in the town square, looming over their heads and mocking their beliefs in justice.
Helplessness pervaded the town.
Except for one small corner. The riders of the Pony Express were not going to let Emma hang for a crime they knew she didn’t commit, even if it meant they had to break her out of jail and confess to the crime themselves.
They used their job to their advantage. When they were in other towns, after delivering the mail, they would head to the telegraph office and send wires to the territorial governor, begging for him to intervene. They sent requests for information on the Emerson family, hoping to find out why Daniel Emerson had suddenly shown up in Sweetwater. They visited land and legal offices, and pooled their money, sold their belongings and hired the best lawyer they could find for Emma.
But day after day passed and they could find nothing to assist them. And hope began to fade. Even for the staunchest believers.
The trial started, and from the very beginning, it was clear Frederick Emerson was intent on nothing less than Emma’s guilty conviction and her death. The judge was doing nothing to stop it. He ruled for the prosecution, blocked the defense on every move they made, and every day people left the courtroom disgusted by obvious bias, but knowing they couldn’t stop it.
Despair reached an all time high.
And then the verdict was announced.
Emma was found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged at noon the following day.
When the moment arrived, the town turned out, not out of morbid curiosity, but from the expectation that a miracle would occur. Surely, if there was a merciful Creator, He would not allow an innocent woman to die. Someone would find the way to stop this, the Express riders had been working on something, the town knew it.
It never came.
At 12:01, the executioner slipped a bag over Emma Shannon’s head, tightened the noose around her neck, and hanged her until she was dead. Sam Cain broke down in the street and cried. He refused to let anyone touch her body and carried her to the undertaker’s himself. Teaspoon and the rest of the Express riders gathered around him in mute shock. Tears stained their faces, grief numbed their hearts. Their friend, their supporter, their mother was dead. Nobody could make sense of it, nobody wanted to believe it.
Except for one rider.
Jimmy stood apart from the group, already in black clothes. But it wasn’t because he was dressed for mourning; he was dressed for revenge. As he watched Frederick Emerson smile smugly and thank Judge Dashwood, he was already planning. He’d left the note for Teaspoon back at the station; the rest would find it when they returned without him. Because Jimmy Hickok would never be going back.
Jimmy Hickok didn’t exist anymore.
In his place was a man who had vowed revenge against every person responsible for Emma’s death. He would not rest until every person from Emerson and Dashwood, right down to the staff at Emerson’s house was dead. Retribution for their part in this tragedy.
After all, what good was it to be Wild Bill Hickok, if he didn’t right a few wrongs and take the law into his own hands?
**I had thought to have the last minute miracle, but really, when you start out with “Death rode into town in a stagecoach”, how can you pull a rabbit out of the hat?
Teaspoon took a sip of his coffee and gave a satisfied smile before setting it down on the desk and propping his feet up. It was just after nine in the morning and everything was quiet in town.
He had almost drifted off to sleep when Buck slammed the door behind him and began searching for something.
Looking at him with one eye Teaspoon sighed. It looked like Buck'd come straight to the office once he'd finished his leg of the latest mail run.
"Buck… is everything all right?"
The rider paused long enough to meet the marshal's gaze then continued his search. "There was a warning in the last post. Sam sent word to Devil's Gate Station about it."
"And?" Teaspoon prompted as he sat back up and handed Buck the stack of wanted posters and updates that had arrived.
Buck took them, nodding gratefully. "He said it looked like they were working their way east along the Express Route."
"They who?" Teaspoon asked in exasperation. Sometimes it was hard to get a straight answer out of his riders, and Buck was proving to be no exception.
There was a moment of silence as Buck flipped through the papers until he found the first of the wanted posters he was looking for along with the reports Sam had told him about. He looked up and triumphantly handed them to the Marshal.
"The story I'm getting from every town that's been hit is the same-A stage rolls into town and three men come out firing. Everyone's too busy taking cover to do much of anything else, and before they know it the men've kidnapped the town's banker or a merchant or in one case the Mayor." He shook his head in disbelief as he finished. "Then they just climb back into the stage and ride out like they do it every day."
"From the sound of things-they are doing it every day."
Buck nodded. "Word is they hit Split Rock yesterday."
Teaspoon nodded before tilting his hat back over his eyes and putting his feet back up on the desk.
"According to what you've said-we have a few days to get ready. So I'm going to get me a little shut-eye."
"Buck, I don't know about you, but I know I think a whole lot better when I'm rested and since we have a few days… I suggest we take the time to rest while we can. I'll stop by the station in a few hours and we can get started then."
Buck watched in disbelief as Teaspoon's breathing gave way to a gentle snore.
Jimmy blinked into the
daylight as he exited the stage. He was still groggy, confused… blank.
*this Quick fic was an homage to the film
'PURGATORY' with Sam Sheapard playing "Forrest/Hickok"*
The stage jolted to a
stop and Sam had to grit his teeth for fear of biting off his own
tongue. He set his hat down low over his eyes and listened for
the call from the driver.
Buck checked the mirror one last time. He smiled as he remembered the last time he’d been this nervous. Lou and Noah had both teased him then. Lou had tried to tell him he looked fine and Noah was sure the “old friend” had been a “Pretty Old Friend”. That was the time Little Bird had drifted back into his life for a brief few days that had almost gotten both of them killed. He’d gotten a letter from her, she called herself Camille Barlow now, telling him that she and her husband were doing very well and were expecting their second child in the fall.
He was back in Sweetwater again. Ike and Noah were both gone and the Express had ended almost two years ago. He’d worked as a deputy for Teaspoon for awhile and then this offer came up and he’d jumped at it. He, Kid and Lou had all moved back to the old station which they bought from Sam and Emma. They were doing well with the horse ranch they’d started and supplied many animals for the stage coaches that took travelers further west where the trains didn’t travel. Teaspoon and Rachel had stayed in Rock Creek, Teaspoon as the marshal and Rachel as the school teacher. They’d all gone back for her wedding to the blacksmith about a year ago. Cody was still working for the army and Jimmy had finally settled down with a raven haired beauty and took over Buck’s old job as deputy.
Buck checked the mirror one more time and heard a soft giggle from behind him. He shifted slightly and saw Lou in the doorway. She was expecting her first child any day now and Kid was a nervous wreck. “Do I look funny or something?” He asked only slightly in jest.
“You’re as handsome as ever…..and you are so cute when you blush!” Lou teased. “You look fine Buck.” Lou said when he turned to her.
“Thanks, where’s Kid?” Buck looked behind her because these days Lou was almost never alone.
“I told him I was going to the privy and if he followed me I’d make him regret it.” Lou said. “You invited her to stay at the house until the rooms over the store are ready didn’t you?”
“I asked her in the last letter I sent her but she didn’t write back. She said she’s looking forward to seeing me again but wants to talk to me face to face. All I know is Tompkins asked her to take over the store here and she said she’d be on this afternoon’s stage.” Buck ushered Lou out of the bunkhouse and they saw Kid coming around the house from the direction of the privy, he looked relieved. Buck laughed as Lou’s eyes narrowed looking at her husband. “I’ll bring her here for dinner and um, I hope you’re still in one piece, Kid!”
Buck left the couple in the door yard as he entered the barn to prepare his horse for the journey into town. He couldn’t blame Kid for keeping close to Lou, he’d probably be just as nervous if his wife were about to have his child. He still hadn’t found anyone that felt he was husband material but maybe…. Buck shook his head as he led the horse out to the waiting wagon and hitched it up. He climbed up in the seat and took the reins “I’ll be back soon.” He called as he left for town.
Almost two hours later the stage rolled into town and finally came to a stop in front of the depot Buck stepped up and called to the driver. “Hello Charlie, How’s the family?”
“Just fine Buck, thanks! Any news on the McCloud’s baby?” Charlie climbed up to the top and began unstraping the luggage. “Can I pass this down to you?”
“No, no baby yet but soon….the Kid is as nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs!” Buck laughed, that was something Teaspoon would have said. “Just toss those down…” the bags were soon all on the boardwalk and the occupants of the stagecoach were getting ready to step out. Buck opened the door and pulled the step down to help the passenger alight.
An older couple was just inside the door and Buck held his hand out for the woman to steady herself on. She thanked him and stood off to the side as Buck helped her husband out. She explained they were visiting their daughter and her family for the first time in several years. Seconds later Buck heard someone call to them and saw two women embrace out of the corner of his eye.
He’d turned back to the door just as Jennifer Tompkins stepped up to disembark. He offered his hand to her and she took it smiling. She put her other hand on his shoulder and stepped gracefully down. Her long hair was tied back in a long golden ponytail that cascaded down her back; he longed to touch it. He had just opened his mouth to speak when she turned her back to him and reached into the open door of the stage coach. “Buck, this is the reason I had to leave before….” She turned back to Buck with a small child in her arms. “This is my son, Ethan.”
Buck stood there, somewhat shocked. The child looked to be about three years old and was obviously of mixed blood. He had thick black eyelashes that framed large brown eyes and shoulder length hair that gleamed almost blue in the sunlight. He managed to recover quickly and said “Hello, Ethan….Jen? Um, Lou is expecting you for dinner and she’s hoping you’ll stay at the house with her and Kid until the store is ready. It’s really a mess, the man who took over the store for your father didn’t stay there, he used the rooms for storage.”
“Oh! I’d like that, but I’m not sure she was expecting two. If you could help me with my bags I’ll get a room at the hotel.” Jennifer was looking at the ground, balancing her son on her hip. “I should have told you before but…”
“Mama, I want down.” Ethan chirped in a little voice and began to struggle.
“Buck, could you close the door if everyone is out? I have to be at my next stop by tomorrow morning.” Charlie called down from his seat high on the stagecoach.
“Ah, sure, have a good trip!” Buck closed the door and turned as the stage began to move. He picked up the bags Jennifer had indicated while she carried a smaller one and had a firm grip on Ethan’s hand. He carried the bags to the wagon and placed them in the back. Lou’s expecting you and she’ll kill me if you don’t come back with me, I’ll let you tell her you don’t want to stay.” Jennifer laughed and agreed to go to the ranch with him. Buck helped Jen and Ethan up onto the seat and climbed up beside her.
They talked about everything and nothing on the ride to the ranch but avoided one important subject that sat between them. Just before they reached the ranch Buck noticed Ethan was asleep curled in his mother’s lap. “Why didn’t you tell me you had a child? What about a husband?”
“I don’t know Buck, I guess because of his father. I never married you know that. I guess I was scared you’d tell me to go to hell.” Buck stopped the wagon and looked into her face; silent tears spilled over her lashes. Buck looked at the little boy, his skin, was about the same color as his own but his features were not Buck’s.
“He’s not mine….why would I say that to you?” Buck touched the sleeping child and used his other hand to wipe a tear from Jennifer’s cheek.
“I was…I wanted….Damnit! I love you and I left because I knew I was carrying Black Wolf’s child. I didn’t want you to think I’d been with you to trap you and…..” She shut up when Buck’s lips covered hers; his arms encircled both mother and child.
“I’m not going to tell you anything….I am going to ask you to stay.” Buck said when he finally released her. Ethan smiled in his sleep.
It as a rainy day in Sweetwater, Teaspoon was in the jail house with his feet up and hat over his eyes. Sam had asked Teaspoon to cover things for the week while he and Barnett took a couple of prisoners to Fort Laramie. So Teaspoon had deputized the riders to give him some assistance. At that particular moment Jimmy and Cody where at the jail playin’ cards. It had been an exceptionally quiet day, what with the rain. The stage was expected that day and that was excitement in itself seein’ who would get off when the stage rolled into town. Most of the time it was rich people trying to find land or business to invest in, usually they didn’t find what they where looking for and left. As far as excitement goes that was all.
Cody and Jimmy finished their last hand; Jimmy stood and put his hat on. “I’m gonna go for a walk make sure everything’s in order,” stated Jimmy as he crossed to the door.
“It’s rainin’ you’ll get wet,” said Cody matter-of-factly.
“Don’t worry about me Cody, you just stay here and keep an eye on things.” ordered Jimmy.
“You sure you don’t want some company? It’s kinda boring in here,” complained Cody.
“I’m sure bye,” Jimmy said exiting the jail before Cody could say anything else.
Truth was Jimmy just wanted to get away from Cody. Jimmy loved Cody like a brother, though he would never admit it, but sometimes that boy got on his nerves, and he needed to get away.
Jimmy walked down the boardwalk, he saw Tompkins out in front of his store straightening a few items the wind had knocked around. A couple men Jimmy didn’t know where entering the saloon. It didn’t matter the weather the saloon always had good business, today being no different. Other than that activity in town was non existent.
Jimmy liked days like today it gave a man time to think he had been thinking it was time he learned to read. He also thought a lot about his future, he knew he wasn’t gonna ride for the express forever. He would keep in touch with his express family after all they where all he really had in his life. Jimmy always liked horse so he thought he might save up, get himself a couple good mares and a good stallion and start himself a herd. He needed money for that, Jimmy wasn’t a big spender still good horses and good land cost a lot of money. He was young and had plenty of time, that is if the gunslingers didn’t get him first.
When Jimmy got to the saloon he decided to stop in and have a sarsaparilla. When he stepped through the door he saw the saloon was quieter than usual. He crossed to the bar and ordered his drink. He sat with his back to the wall enjoying the silence. As he sat there he saw the stage pass by the window, he checked the clock hanging on the wall behind the bar.
“Right on time,” he said to himself.
Checking the time when the stage rolled into town had become a habit that he had picked up from Teaspoon. Teaspoon only did it when he covered for Sam, like it was part of being the marshal or something.
A few minutes had passed since the stage had arrived. Jimmy had just finished his glass of sarsaparilla and was going to get another when he heard, “JAMES BUTLER HICKOK I’M CALLIN YOU OUT.”
Jimmy didn’t know the voice, but being who he was he felt obligated to go out and find out why he was being called out. When he got outside he saw the town had come to life. There were so many people finding a place to walk was difficult. As Jimmy stepped on to the boardwalk he looked for the man who belonged to the voice. The man spoke again, “so you ready Hickok?”
“Who are you and why are you here?” asked Jimmy.
There standing a few feet from Jimmy a boy not as tall as Jimmy was. He had short curly blonde hair, light blue eyes. His clothes looked two years too small and were many months past mending.
“Names Luke Taylor you killed my brother, came in on the stage just now to settle the score with you so lets get to it,” Luke said as he stepped to the middle of the street.
Jimmy stood down the street from Luke in the rain, for a few minutes they stared each other down. Jimmy could tell this kid didn’t understand what it meant to be a gunslinger. It was obvious to Jimmy the kid didn’t have any experience. Jimmy saw Luke draw his gun, without hesitation he drew his colt and fired. Luke went down and Jimmy still pointing his gun walked toward him. Jimmy knew he wasn’t dead; he had decided to show Luke some mercy and winged him. Luke was lying on the ground looking as thought he was going to get up.
“Stay down,” ordered Jimmy.
Luke didn’t listen and raised his gun to Jimmy again. Jimmy did the only thing he knew to do; he shot Luke and killed him.
After it was Jimmy felt bad, but he knew that if he hadn’t Luke would have just kept coming. That didn’t really matter though, because there would always be one more. As long as there was something to prove and “Wild Bill” Hicokok, there would be someone trying to prove it, or trying to cut Jimmy down.
**Fluff to make up for the last offering. Ahh…I prefer happy muse to dark muse.
Jimmy hated waiting.
He once thought he had patience, and he’d developed some of it once he became a father, but there were times when he could rival his children in impatience. Right now was one of those moments.
The stage was late. By two hours. And Jimmy had apparently turned into a worrying woman because he was imagining every horrible thing that could have happened to it. From a flooded river due to winter snow melting, to highwaymen, each scenario was worse than before and did nothing to calm him down. The only thing keeping him from flying into an all-out panic and riding off in search of the conveyance was the fact that his children were sitting beside him.
Well, not all of his children. Two of them, along with their mother, were on the stage. That was late. By two hours and five minutes.
“Daddy, Jordan’s eating mud.”
Jimmy blinked and looked first at his daughter Becky, and then at his youngest son who was, indeed, scooping up handfuls of mud, fashioning them into balls and eating them.
The little boy looked up, handful of mud halfway to his mouth and his eyes went wide. Dropping the mixture back to the ground, he wiped his hands off on his pants and Jimmy sighed. His clothes needed washing, again, but at least he was no longer eating mud. The little boy had taken to eating the strangest things lately, but not his dinner. Not when Jimmy fixed it, not when Rachel fixed it, not even when Polly fixed it. He only liked what Mama made for dinner.
But Mama wasn’t here, and hadn’t been for the last month. She had been to visit her sister Darlene. The two sisters hadn’t seen each other in years, what with all the birthing the two women had done between them, and Karen had expressed her desire to go visit. Jimmy hadn’t objected - much. Sure he would miss his wife, but he understood her longing to see her only sister. They had both thought it would work best to visit while the three oldest were still in school. Jimmy could get them ready for school, and then work while they were instructed. Teaspoon had agreed to let Jimmy change his schedule around, and everything seemed perfect.
That was Jimmy’s thinking a month ago when he’d kissed his wife and children and watched them head out of town. Now, he understood a bit better why she’d told him that she would leave him if he ever went on a month long manhunt again. Sure, he didn’t have an eight-month-old baby to manage like Karen had, and Polly and Rachel had kept them well-supplied in meals and clean clothes, but Jimmy never wanted to repeat this past month. His respect and admiration for his wife had increased, as well as his longing for her companionship.
He looked at Seth, who at 8 years old had decided he was too old to call Jimmy ‘Daddy’ anymore. “Yes?”
“Is it true that Uncle Cody’s been to Europe?”
“Yes,” Jimmy answered, keeping one eye on Jordan, who was no longer eating mud but looked like he was searching for other mischief to get into, and one eye on the road for the cloud of dust that would signal the stage’s arrival. “He’s been back East and to Europe.”
“Do you know if he’s there now?”
Jimmy paused and considered the question for a moment, thinking back to his last letter from his friend and what the showman had said concerning performances. “I don’t believe so,” he finally answered. “I’ll have to check his latest letter to be sure. Why?”
“Rachel…sorry, Miss Dunne, assigned us our countries to do reports on and I get to write on France. I thought I remembered you and Mama talking about Uncle Cody being in Paris. I thought I could write to him and ask him to tell me what he remembers, places he visited…like that.”
“Isn’t Becky also doing a report?” Jimmy asked his son.
“Yes, but Miss Dunne gave me an assignment also.”
He turned and looked at his son who was the mirror image of him, dark straight hair, brooding dark eyes, and had to remind himself that his son – while looking like him – was nothing like the student Jimmy had been. Seth often worked out of the same schoolbooks as his older sister, and Rachel gave him extra projects simply to challenge him so he didn’t get bored in class. He was interested in everything it seemed, and his favorite question – Jimmy had discovered – was ‘why’, followed very closely by ‘how’.
“Well,” he said with a smile when Seth peered at him, as if not understanding Jimmy’s lingering gaze, “when we get home I’ll find his latest letter and if he’s at home you can write him a letter tonight. I’ll post it for you tomorrow.”
Seth smiled, looking at Jimmy as if he’d just accomplished the greatest feat ever, and Jimmy felt his chest puff up just a little bit. He had no idea it would be something as simple as promising to write a letter that would cause his son to look at him with such admiration, but he’d certainly enjoy it.
“Daddy, I gotta go potty.”
“Daddy, the stage is coming.”
Jimmy looked up and sure enough, a great billow of dust signaled the imminent arrival of his deeply missed family. But one look at his youngest son and Jimmy knew that the boy wouldn’t be able to wait. As much as he missed his wife, he couldn’t let her come back to a crisis.
“Becky, Seth, you wait here for your mother and sisters,” he instructed as he scooped up Jordan, “we’ll be right back.”
Then he all but sprinted around the corner to the privy behind the marshal’s office, all the while calling himself a fool for letting Jordan have the extra glass of lemonade with his snack after school. At least Teaspoon wasn’t around to witness his comical behavior and add his quips into the matter. Jordan hurried as much as he could, but suffered a crises of buttons upon his exit and by the time Jimmy got those attended to and they returned to the stage depot, his family was already in the midst of a reunion. Without him.
Jordan took off like a flash, and Jimmy wasn’t that far behind. He waited for Karen to hug Jordan and set him back on his feet, and then he swept her into a crushing hug, and right there, in front of everybody, kissed his wife soundly. His children giggled, and his wife blushed when he pulled back, but he didn’t care, he had missed her fiercely.
A tug on his pants accompanied the word and he let go of Karen to bend down and lift Emma to his side. Her curly hair, a mirror of her mother’s, bounced with the movement and she giggled as he tickled her sides in greeting. She kissed his cheek and then laid her head on his shoulder, and Jimmy felt a sigh of contentment catch in his chest. Things were finally to rights again. His wife and children were all returned. He had greeted them all, except for one.
With a scanning look, he found his youngest nestled against the hip of his oldest and he smiled. Becky loved her younger siblings, and was proving to be quite adept at helping her parents with them. With a kiss to Emma, he handed her back to Karen, and then approached his other daughters. Becky looked unhappy to be giving her sister up after only just getting to hold her, but she let Jimmy take her and cradle her to his chest. Ten-month-old Melanie stiffened for a moment, but then spread her arms wide against his chest and let her head settle against him.
“She’s gotten so big,” he said to his wife as she approached them with a melancholic smile.
“She’s trying to pull herself up to stand,” she told him and he was both horrified at the thought of it occurring, and sad that he’d missed it. At least she hadn’t learned to walk yet.
“Let’s go home, Mrs. Hickok,” he smiled at her, wrapping his free arm around her waist.
“I couldn’t agree more,” she sighed with exhaustion. “These two about ran me ragged while we traveled. Next time, I’m visiting my sister alone.”
He chuckled at her pronouncement, “Then it could be a while, dear.”
The older kids reached for the bags and carried them, tilted at odd angles to offset the weight and the family started for home. As they passed by the marshal’s office, Teaspoon called out a greeting to them and Karen smiled in response. Jimmy nodded to his boss and friend, deciding to wait until tonight after the kids had gone to bed, or maybe even until tomorrow to tell Karen that Teaspoon had decided to retire and was recommending Jimmy be promoted. There was no sense in telling her that now, not when she’d just returned. But seeing his friend did put a thought in his mind.
“What do you say we ask Grandma and Grandpa to watch the kids Friday night?” he asked low in her ear. He had learned not to let their children overhear his suggestions until both of them had talked about them.
She turned to look at him, almost with horror on her face and shook her head. Confused, and a bit hurt, he asked, “Why not?”
“Because every time we celebrate one of us coming home, nine months later we have another little one,” she said matter-of-factly. “And I’m not ready to do that again, Jimmy. So let’s not tempt fate.
“Besides,” she stated, “Teaspoon wrote me and said he’s planning to retire soon and you’re going to be busy with your new duties and looking to hire a deputy. I can only deal with one new change at a time.”
“You knew?” he asked her in surprise.
“Let’s just say that after the puppy, Teaspoon’s learned his lesson. Before making a recommendation that would impact our lives, he wrote to me and let me know; asked me if I objected.”
“What would he have done if you had?”
She paused for a moment and looked at him, “Jimmy, do you really think I would object to you being marshal?”
They resumed walking and she smiled up at him. “I know you, Jimmy Hickok, and I know how much you enjoy this job. I’m just pleased to know that both of you have learned your lessons and consulted me first. You know how I feel about surprises.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he grinned at her. “I’ll definitely keep that in mind for the future.”
“Good,” she nodded. “Now let’s put these little ones to bed and help the older ones finish up their schoolwork. Polly and Rachel are fixing supper for all of us.”
“I didn’t know that,” he frowned slightly.
“You weren’t meant to. It was a surprise.”
“I thought you didn’t like surprises.”
“Only when I don’t know what’s happening,” Karen chuckled. “Otherwise, I love them.”
The stage rolled into Sweetwater and brought with it a cloud of dust that swirled up into the pre-dawn sky. Each dust particle thumbed its nose at the leaden air as it soared up and out of Sweetwater. Jimmy watched the stage roll to a halt outside the hotel. The team blew heavily; arching their necks in pride.
For the umpteenth time that morning Jimmy reached into his pocket and rubbed his thumb and forefinger over the twenty five dollar gold piece that he carried. The Judge had given him that gold piece four weeks ago to the day at almost the exact same time of the morning.
“Keep this on you. When you understand that your place and your future is here, that’ll be enough to buy your way back here from whatever God forsaken backwater you wind up in,” the Judge had said with a smug sneer. “And you will be back. You’ll never amount to anything without me to guide you.”
Jimmy had heard those words many times in the last week during his training to be an Express rider. Every time his backside hit the dirt, every time Teaspoon looked at him and shook his head, the phrase ‘never amount to anything’ paraded through his head complete with the full brass band. Fear for the Judge turning him and Brad against each other had driven Jimmy to leave, but the dread that the Judge was right about his prospects in the world on his own was drawing him back.
All through the night Jimmy had thought about the ease with which the others had picked up the riding tricks Teaspoon had been passing on that he’d hoped would help keep them alive when they commenced the Express runs. Lou, Buck and Ike were gifted horsemen and Kid and Cody weren’t far behind, but Jimmy knew that Teaspoon had all but despaired over Jimmy ever getting good enough. It was Jimmy who always fell off, who always seemed to get the horses riled up which made them uncooperative. His pride had kept him at it but falling into the mud yesterday to the peals of laughter from Cody and the Kid had been the final straw, so in the very early hours of the morning Jimmy had packed his belongings and walked into town to wait for the stage.
Squaring his shoulders, Jimmy walked over to the stagecoach office to buy his ticket back to the Judge. With every step he felt the weight of the gold piece grow. He knew that wasn’t possible, but nonetheless, by the time he’d reached the office door he was actually leaning to one side to compensate for the weight of the gold in his pocket. The clerk looked up with sleep crinkled eyes at Jimmy’s approach.
“Where to?” the clerk asked in a husky, dry voice. He was usually a cheery man but the early starts over the past week had taken a toll on his good humor.
Jimmy took the gold piece out of his pocket. It felt ten times heavier and three times as thick. Its shiny surface caught the lamplight and reflected straight into Jimmy’s eyes. In its dazzling brightness he saw Emma’s kind and gentle expression of welcome, heard Teaspoon’s outrageous stories of his past exploits and felt the warmth of sitting quietly with the other riders around the bunkhouse stove drinking coffee and thinking about the day.
“Are you buying a ticket or not?” The clerk asked impatiently.
Jimmy shook his head. “Changed my mind,” he said with a small smile. “Price is too high.”
The clerk clicked his tongue in annoyance and turned his attention to the ledger in front of him. Jimmy turned and left the stagecoach office. A rosy dawn colored the sky over Sweetwater and in its pale light the gold piece looked dull and almost worthless. It didn’t surprise Jimmy one bit that the gold now felt light as dust in his hand. He chuckled to himself and turned to head back to the Express station and there across the street he saw Teaspoon leaning against the wall of Tompkins’ store.
Jimmy walked over to his boss and saw that the grizzled stationmaster wore an expression that defied interpretation.
“You’re up early. Somethin’ must have needed doin’ real bad for you to be awake without me havin’ to yell at yer,” Teaspoon commented with a raised eyebrow.
“Sure is,” Jimmy said, with a broad smile. “What d’ya say we give Emma a day off, we go get the others and I buy everyone the biggest, fanciest breakfast Sweetwater has to offer?” He twirled the gold piece in his fingers.
“Don’t you think you should save that? Might need it some day,” Teaspoon suggested.
“Nope, not this,” Jimmy answered as he gave Teaspoon an appraising look. “I won’t be needin’ it. Not now, not ever.”
A stage rolls into town and… Jimmy had an ominous feeling about the stage, there was something about it that seemed daunting to him. The stage pulled to an immediate halt, almost right in front of him, causing the coach to swing dangerously back and forth and Jimmy felt a lump forming in the back of his throat.
The door swung open and Jimmy stood nailed to the ground. He just needed to see who was on that stage coach. Everything else around him was quickly forgotten while his eyes never leave the dirty wagon. He knew it was just a matter of time before he would find out what caused this uneasy feeling.
First, a soberly dressed man clumsily stepped out. No alarm bells rang with this gentleman; he seemed more a threat to himself than to anyone else as he almost fell flat on his face trying to place his heavy suitcase onto the boardwalk. Then two dainty-dressed young ladies followed suit, still happily chatting away that Jimmy instantly recognized as the dentist’s daughters, Celia and Dory. Jimmy wasn’t interested. Not because they weren’t nice or pretty, because they most certainly were. Jimmy didn’t want anything to do with them because their father was a dentist, a perfectly good reason well known to anyone that truly knew him.
Jimmy anxiously waited for the last passenger to disembark but when it took longer than Jimmy could stand to wait, he turned around and hoped the eerie feeling would soon disappear. As he made his way towards his horse, he heard someone call out his name and his heart instantly stopped beating. That voice... there was no mistake. It belonged to the one woman Jimmy hoped never to see ever again in his life.
“Jimmy? Is that really you?!” The woman cried.
His heart started racing and his legs felt like they turned to jelly. He slightly turned his body, looked over his shoulder and his eyes met hers. A rush of sheer panic flooded his entire body, paralyzing him to the very core as he stared into the eyes of Molly. The one person in the world Jimmy was scared to death of.
“Stay away from me! You come near me and so help me, I’ll shoot!” Jimmy’s fumbling hands tried reaching for his gun.
Molly smiled and clapped her hands together. “You’re so funny, my little cuddle bunny!”
“I mean it Molly,” Jimmy made no effort to hide the panic in his voice.
With a few determined steps Molly strode up to him and wrapped her arms around him, snuggled her face deep into his collar and took in a deep breath. Jimmy, who just managed to get his gun from its holster, instantly dropped it and held his hands out in despair.
“Ohhhh, I missed you so much Numnums,” She squealed and ran her hands down his back. “. I finally found you and now we can be together. Just like it’s meant to be.’
“You’re insane!” Jimmy’s voice squeaked.
Molly lifted her head little and looked him in the eyes. “Why would you say such a thing? I love you and you love me...” her bottom lip quivered.
Jimmy took the opportunity to free himself from her tight embrace, keeping her at arms length. “You don’t love me, and I most certainly don’t love you, Molly. I told you last time to leave me alone and to stop readin’ those damn books! They ain’t real!”
Jimmy knew he was making a spectacle of himself, but didn’t care. He just prayed someone would stop staring at him like he was the one gone crazy and help him get rid of this mad woman.
“You don’t mean that,” Molly cast her eyes down. “You’re just tryin’ to protect me from all those men that try to hurt you. You just think they might come after me too, but I ain’t scared!”
“What is wrong with you?” Jimmy knew he hurt her with those words, but he was running out of options. “You follow me wherever I go, thinkin’ we’re in love when I don’t even know you. You don’t know me! ”
Jimmy regretted not taking a few steps away from Molly when he said those words to her. The slap in the face he received could have easily been avoided but he managed to anticipate the second one she was about to give him. He grabbed her wrists and pushed them down to the side of her body, causing her to stand face to face with him. If he thought he finally got through to her he was soon proven wrong, when the hurt expression on her face was instantly replaced with one of sheer determination.
“Don’t play the hero with me, Jimmy. We’ve been through too much together; I won’t let you push me away like that. Soon we’ll be married and move to a place where no one will find us and we can start the live we’ve always dreamed of. Nothing will stand in my way, in our way. I’ll make sure of that, my angel heart.” Her voice sounded sickly sweet.
Jimmy released Molly’s arms like they burnt him. “What are you talkin’ about?”
“I need to protect our love, sugar bear.” Molly’s lips curved into a devilish smile. “And I’ll do anything to ensure-“
His heart skipped a beat when Molly didn’t finish her sentence. He followed her eyes that were focused to the far end of the boardwalk where Celia and her sister just emerged from their father’s practice. Celia locked eyes with Jimmy, gave him a bashful smile and waved at him. What happened next would haunt Jimmy for the rest of his life.
“YOU LITTLE TROLLOP!” Molly shrieked as she started taking off the gloves she was wearing. “How dare you come between me and my beloved James!
Celia looked confused, probably not sure what Molly was ranting about and held out her hands to emphasize her bewilderment. Molly, however, slipped even further away in her own sick little fantasy and marched over to the young lady. Celia’s eyes filled with panic as Molly approached her with such hostility that would have sent the devil himself running for cover.
“Miss…. I…what are you…?” Jimmy heard Celia stammer.
Without any warning Molly flung herself onto the shocked woman and started pulling her hair and scratching any uncovered flesh she could find. Dory, who witnessed the scene unfold from afar, didn’t hesitate one precious moment to aid her younger sister in fighting off her attacker.
While a crowd started forming around the three fighting girls, Jimmy took the opportunity to get away, as far away as he could possibly get himself from this woman gone crazy. Though he hated leaving poor Celia and Dory to fend for themselves, he knew that by staying close to Molly, he would probably do more damage than good. He jumped on his horse and rode full speed back to the station, praying the two girls would be alright.
“Kid! Hey, Kid! I’m takin’ your ride,” Jimmy panted as he pulled Sundancer to a halt in front of his friend.
Kid frowned as he looked up. “No ya ain’t, Jimmy. Teaspoon’s been lookin’ for you all mornin’. Said he has a special two day run for you.”
“I wasn’t askin’ and two day’s ain’t gonna be enough. You got the ride to Castle Rock, don’t you?”
“Well, yeah. But-“Kid tried to get a word in.
“Hand me the mochilla,” Jimmy held out his hand. “You can take the special run and I’ll deal with Teaspoon when I get back.”
Kid handed the mochilla as instructed and scratched the back of his neck. “What’s gotten into you, Jimmy? You act like the devil himself is out to get you… are you in some kind of trouble?
“The devil is a woman, Kid. I swear on everything holy in this world that the devil is that woman…” Jimmy pulled down his hat before spurring his horse to a gallop.
Teaspoon needed a minute or two to regain enough composure to be able to give a baffled Kid a decent answer, that’s how hard he’d been laughing when he heard how Kid got to switch runs with Jimmy.
Cody, Lou, Buck and Ike all sat at the table along with Kid and anxiously awaited the reason for this outburst. They were dying to know what or better said who, had Jimmy scared so badly he ended up taking up one of the toughest runs without hesitation. The answer shocked all of them.
“It seems our fearless James ‘Wild Bill’ Hickock hightailed out of here, because of a feisty young lady called Molly,” Teaspoon let out another guffaw.
Cody was the first to speak up after a long, awkward silence. “Did I just hear you say… a woman, Teaspoon?”
“I sure did, Cody. Now there’s a ten cent hero for ya, willin’ to take out any man that calls him out but scared to death of a little lady called Molly. I spoke to Sam earlier and he told me about a little incident that occurred between Miss Celia and Miss Molly. Don’t rightly know what happened into detail, but he was able to tell me it had somethin’ to do with Jimmy.”
“Figures…” Lou muttered and excused herself from the table.
The four boys looked amongst each other, determined to find out what it was about Molly that had Jimmy so riled up. They waited for Teaspoon to leave the bunkhouse before speaking their minds.
*I think one of us should pay Miss Molly a visit,* Ike signed.
“I think you’re right, Ike,” Buck smiled at his friend.
“Please don’t tell me we’re gonna draw straws,” Cody whined.
Ike shook his head. *Nope, Kid should go. He’s has the best chance.”
“I got a run in a few hours. Why can’t any of you go?”
Buck got up from the table and picked up his hat. “Well, for one, Ike can’t speak. So he can’t go. I don’t know how she’ll react to me being half Indian and Cody… well you know how he is with the ladies.”
Cody didn’t seem to mind he was ridiculed for once as he threw Kid a wide grin. “Buck’s right ya know.”
Kid groaned and ran his hands through his hair. “Fine. I’ll go. But one of you will have to take my run and explain to Teaspoon why we switched runs, again.”
“No problem, Kid. I’ll take care of Teaspoon.” Cody got up and placed his hat on his head.
“And I’ll take the run.” Buck’s lips curved into a wicked grin.
When the deal was sealed, Kid suddenly felt an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. For a reason he couldn’t quite put his finger on, he dreaded going to see this Molly woman. ‘I’m sure I’m worried over nothing’ he tried to reason with himself as he mounted Katy.
The end. For now…..
“Stage just passed Miller’s Fork, Ma!” Sam Cain, Jr. declared as he slid from the saddle, then stepped nimbly aside as his younger brother Jack thudded to the ground beside him.
His father slipped his arm around his wife’s shoulders and felt her trembling. “You really need to settle down, Emma,” he remarked softly. “You’re going to drop that baby right here on Main Street if you don’t.”
“I’m fine, Sam!” Emma protested. “It’s just been so long. I didn’t think I’d ever see Lou again.”
“Well, you were wrong for a change,” Sam laughed. “Here she comes now.”
The stage rumbled up the street and came to a stop slightly to one side of where the couple and their boys stood. The door swung open and an older man stepped out, followed by a young boy about Sam Jr.’s age. The man reached up to take the bag the driver offered him then turned towards the hotel.
The boy looked around curiously, then turned back to the stage to offer a hand to a woman who was standing in the door. The woman, only slightly taller than the boy, was also looking around. Her eyes lit up as she saw the Cain family standing on the boardwalk. Handing the boy a basket and a small bag, she stepped easily to the ground.
“Emma!” Lou cried, running up the short flight of steps to give her old friend a hug.
“Do I get one of those too?” Sam asked.
“Of course you do!” Lou agreed, promptly enveloping the older man yet somehow not letting go of his wife.
“Oh my goodness, look at you!” Emma commented, holding the other woman at arm’s length. “You haven’t changed a bit!”
“Liar!” Lou countered with a laugh. “But you most certainly have,” she added noting Emma’s distended midsection.
“Well, I am . . . “ Emma started only to have Sam interrupt.
“Maybe we should get along home,” the Marshall suggested. “You’ll have plenty of time to talk there out of the heat and the sun.”
“That’s a good idea,” both women agreed.
“Oh my,” Lou exclaimed, “I can’t believe I almost forgot!”
Turning to the boy who was waiting patiently by the stage, she waved him to them. “Emma and Sam Cain, this is my son, Zach.”
“Nice to meet you, Zach,” Sam replied, offering the boy his hand.
“Nice to meet you too, Marshall Cain,” the boy said shyly.
“Sam’ll do,” the older man told him. “I haven’t been Marshall Cain for a couple of years now.”
“And I’m Emma,” Emma added, giving the boy a hug. “And these are our boys,” she continued including the two in the conversation. “This is Sam Jr. and this is Jack.”
“Nice to meet you Miz Lou,” Sam said politely, then jabbed his little brother in the side.
At his nudge, Jack spoke up. “You don’t look like a Pony Express rider,” he stated.
“Jack!” his mother protested, only to have Lou wave away the protest.
“I used to be,” she told the boy. “When I was a lot younger.”
“Ma can still ride better than most men!” Zach proclaimed. “And she can drive a wagon and . . . “
“Zach, there’s no need to brag,” Lou interrupted.
“That’s what sons do,” Sam countered with a smile. He escorted the two women to the buckboard and after the boys had piled on to the back started for the ranch.
The women had talked all the way out to the ranch, while they were cooking dinner—a task where Lou insisted on helping—and into the evening. Sam and the boys had listened without listening and once they’d arrived at the ranch, the boys had run off together. Sam Jr. was anxious to show Zach their home and Zach had been eager to get out and run a bit after being cooped up in the stagecoach for several days.
It wasn’t until much later, after the boys were put to bed, that Lou brought up the subject of her visit.
“Did you find him, Sam?” she asked.
The former lawman hesitated then replied. “Not really,” he told her.
“What do you mean ‘not really’?” Lou prodded.
“I found someone who saw him a month ago,” Sam explained. “But the warden said he wasn’t there anymore.”
“Warden?” the woman asked. “Where was he?” she demanded.
“Lou . . .”
“Where?” Lou repeated.
Sam glanced at Emma, holding his response until his wife nodded with resignation. “Tell her, Sam,” the woman said softly.
“Sam?” Lou’s expression told him that she was beginning to get angry.
“The territorial prison in Rawlins,” he confessed finally.
“What was he doing in prison?”
“He’d been arrested for assault and battery.” Sam hesitated, then continued. “The court records said he was drunk at the time.”
“Drunk!” Lou exploded. Glancing at the door behind which her son slept, she continued in a softer but no less angry voice. “You know as well as I do that, other than that time when Kid’s brother got us all drunk, Buck NEVER let himself go that far!”
“That was over ten years ago Lou,” Emma commented.
“Ten years, ten DECADES, Buck didn’t like losing control like that. He would NOT be drunk!” the other woman countered.
Standing, she began to pace, slapping her hand against her thigh as she thought.
“Some things never change,” Emma whispered to Sam.
Lou whirled on her old friends. “Did the warden say anything more?” she demanded.
“No, he didn’t,” Sam replied. “Just that Buck was released from the prison a month ago after serving his sentence and hasn’t been seen around Rawlins since then.”
“Do you believe him?” Lou queried. “Remember what happened to Kid once? He would have died if the rest of us hadn’t gone after him.”
“I don’t know Warden Conicker personally, Lou,” Sam admitted. “But I don’t have any reason not to believe him. He has a reputation for being an honest man.”
Lou paused in her pacing and stared out the window for a few seconds. Finally she turned back to the couple. “I want to go to Rawlins.” She declared.
“Louise!” Emma objected. “You can’t . . .”
“I’m going Emma,” Lou interrupted. “Will you let Zach stay here or do I take him with me?”
No amount of argument could change her mind. Sam and Emma finally gave up for the night hoping they would be able to talk the younger woman out of leaving the next morning.
Emma rose the next morning to the smell of fresh coffee. Getting out of bed took a little bit longer these days, so by the time she reached the kitchen, she found Lou at the stove stirring a pot of gravy. Inhaling, Emma could smell biscuits baking in the oven.
The other woman was dressed much as she had been the first time Emma saw her. In dungarees and a faded work shirt, it was almost as if the years hadn’t passed at all.
“The boys went down to the barn to get some eggs,” Lou said brightly. “I figured the least I could do was fix you and Sam a nice breakfast. If nothing else, it’ll show you that I’ve learn how to cook.”
“Where’s Sam?” Emma asked.
“He’s down at the barn, too,” Lou replied. “He’s getting the horse ready for me.”
“Lou . . . “
“I’m going, Emma,” Lou interrupted firmly. “I made a promise that I was going to find Buck and I’m going to find him—no matter what it takes.”
“Sam should go with you,” Emma declared, realizing she had no choice.
Lou shook her head. “Not with you so close to having that baby. I won’t ask him to do that—not now.”
“You shouldn’t go alone,” the older woman protested. “It’s not safe.”
“I’ve been on my own for a long time, Emma,” Lou countered. “A lot longer than I was with someone. I can take care of myself.”
“What about Zach?” Emma asked.
“He’ll be safe here with you and Sam—won’t he?”
“Of course he will, but if . . .”
Lou took her friend by the hand. “Nothing is going to happen to me,” she said determinedly.
Turning back to the stove, she moved the oatmeal from the heat. A few quiet moments passed before she spoke again.
“I’ll make you a promise,” she said softly. “If I haven’t found Buck in the next three weeks, I’ll give up.” Turning to face Emma again she concluded. “Will that be enough?”
“It’ll have to do I guess,” Emma agreed reluctantly.
“I have to find him, Emma,” Lou continued. “I can’t let him just up and disappear without trying to find him.”
Emma stood and embraced the young woman. “Find him then,” she whispered.
“All right, folks. This here’s Rock Creek.” The stage driver climbed down from his seat and opened the door, helping the first passenger out. “Real good restaurant over to the hotel if’n you’re hungry. I’m gonna get the horses changed, be on our way in ‘bout an hour if you’re goin’ on.”
He helped another woman off of the stage, watching as the passengers headed toward the hotel. And then he turned his attention back to the inside of the stage. “All right, miss, end of the line. You only had a ticket far as Rock Creek.”
The girl didn’t move – she appeared to be sleeping. But he wasn’t buying it. He’d heard about the offer for a poker game at the last stop.
He reached in and shook the girl’s shoulder – and again, harder. “All right, get up now.”
She yawned and turned away. “I’m sleeping,” she mumbled.
“No, you ain’t,” the driver insisted. “Leastways, not on my stage. Your ticket was to Rock Creek, and that’s where we are.”
“No, my ticket’s for San Francisco!”
“Uh uh.” He shook his head and picked up the small bag by her feet. “Your ticket was for Rock Creek, an’ I got it in my bag. Now less’n you want me to go get the law to settle this, you gotta get out right now.”
The mention of the law finally got the girl moving. “Can’t believe you’re kickin’ me out . . . here,” she said, looking around, her nose wrinkled in disgust. “Ain’t nothin’ here, an’ me just a little girl an’ all.”
The driver just handed her the bag and closed the door. “Your ticket was for Rock Creek,” he repeated.
“But my daddy’s in San Francisco! He’d pay the fare when we get there.”
“Rock Creek’s got a telegraph,” he said, pointing to the wires running to the general store. “Send your daddy a wire. When he sends the money you can buy a ticket – and then you can ride to San Francisco.”
She put on her best pouty-little-girl face, but the driver just climbed up and unlocked the brake. The stage rolled off to change horses for the next leg of the journey.
And Daisy Hamilton stood in the street, looking around. What was she supposed to do in a place called Rock Creek?
Rachel pulled on her shawl against the brisk autumn wind. Any day now it would change to a winter wind, she knew.
She gathered her books and stepped outside, stopping to lock the schoolhouse door behind her. It was Friday, and no one would be back until Monday morning.
Walking to the main street, she headed toward the Pony Express . . . correction, the stage station. The Pony Express had been closed down for over a month now. But it had been such a big, and exciting, part of their lives, and it was hard to let go.
Of course, a lot of things had changed. Ike and Noah were dead. Jesse had turned his back on the people who had offered him love and stability, choosing to go off with his outlaw brother instead. Cody was already off in the Army. Jimmy was making plans to leave after Christmas, most likely to join the Union forces as well.
At least Kid seemed to have abandoned his oft-debated ideas about going back to Virginia and joining up with the Confederate forces – for now, anyway. He and Lou had purchased a farm outside of Rock Creek and were busy preparing it for winter. Of course, that meant that she rarely saw the newlyweds these days, but they had promised to come for dinner tonight, and it would be good to get caught up on the news with them.
Buck was handling the stage station duties, but it was clear to everyone who knew him that he was conflicted about his own future. The stage contract didn’t include money for a housekeeper/cook, so Rachel had made plans to move out of the house – but Buck wouldn’t hear of it. As he put it, he’d probably starve on his own cooking. So he stayed in the bunkhouse, contributed money toward the food budget, and Rachel happily did the cooking; she wouldn’t have wanted to cook for just herself anyway.
No, it was good to feel wanted, both at the station and in the school. In fact, that was what kept her from packing up and heading back to her roots in New Orleans.
Teaspoon was still in town too, doing his best to keep the peace, but he was spending more and more time with Polly, his ex- -- and possibly future – wife. She was happy for him, but seeing less of him left a huge gap to fill. He was coming to dinner tonight, however, to share news with Kid and Lou, and that would be good. They’d almost fill the bunkhouse table again.
Rachel sighed and brought her thoughts back to the present. She had a special dinner to prepare. She had almost everything on hand, but there were a couple of things she still needed to pick up, so she turned toward the general store . . .
And stopped short.
The stage was there – nothing unusual about that. But there was a girl standing nearby, and she looked very familiar. Looking closer, Rachel felt her jaw drop in surprise.
Daisy looked up in surprise at the sound of her name. Her first impulse was flight but then she recognized the speaker and a new plan sprang to mind. Putting on her best innocent little girl look, she ran forward, arms outstretch as if relieved. “Rachel!”
Rachel caught the girl in a hug, juggling the books in her arms as she did so. And then after a moment she stepped back. “What are you doing in Rock Creek?”
“I came lookin’ for you,” Daisy said, sniffling and forcing a tear from her eye. “My Auntie Rose died of . . . the consumption! Last month! An’ I’ve been tryin’ to get here ever since. I ain’t got nowhere else to go . . .”
“She died last month?” Rachel asked, her voice just a touch too innocent. “I just got a letter from your father yesterday, written last week, and he said your aunt was just fine.”
Daisy sniffed again, thinking fast. “Roger didn’t want you worrying ‘bout me,” she tried. And then, with a sob truly worthy of the stage, she continued. “An’ my poor daddy bein’ in jail, he can’t help me.”
Rachel sighed, straightening the books again. “Well, you’re here now,” she said, clearly conflicted about what that might mean. “So you’d best come home with me for dinner.”
As Rachel turned toward the Station, Daisy scooped up her pack and hurried along behind.
Finding Rachel Dunne in Rock Creek had certainly been a surprise, but one she might be able to use to her advantage. If nothing else, she’d get a good meal out of this before figuring out how to move on farther west.
She just had to play her cards right . . .
“Yes, matchsticks,” Rachel confirmed, shuffling the cards. “That’s what we play for.”
Daisy looked around the table, hoping for help – but Kid, Lou, Buck and Jimmy all just nodded. As though playing poker for matchsticks was the most normal thing in the world.
She just stared as Buck opened a box and laid out a stack of matchsticks in front of each of them.
This was not going well. Oh, dinner was a good thing. It had been several days since she’d had a full meal. And she could deflect most of their questions by keeping her mouth full. She was a growing girl, after all, and needed her food. Some well-timed nods and shrugs, and a few mumbled words, had gotten her through the meal without having to lie.
Well, not really lie, anyway.
And she’d really thought her luck was turning when the others had agreed to her sweet, innocent suggestion of a friendly poker game after they ate.
But now they wanted to play for matchsticks!
Daisy just shook her head and stared blankly at the cards Rachel dropped in front of her. She couldn’t get to San Francisco on matchsticks!
“Anyone else think that was a little too easy?” Jimmy asked.
Lou was standing at the bunkhouse door, watching as Rachel and Daisy headed toward the house. Now she shut the door and turned toward the others. “Way too easy.”
“Remember how much she took us for last time?” Kid mused.
“And she got tired awful sudden,” Buck pointed out.
“So what do you think she’s up to?” Kid asked.
Lou shook her head. “Don’t know. But I’ll sure bet there’s something.”
“You think she really knew Rachel was here?” Jimmy asked.
Buck shrugged. “Rachel did get a letter from Roger yesterday. I got it from the stage driver myself and gave it to her. Guess he might have told Daisy that Rachel was here.”
They considered that for a moment, the familiar sight of the four ex-riders sitting around the bunkhouse table, contemplating a problem. Lou finally broke the silence. “Think she’ll try something on Rachel?”
“Wouldn’t put it past her,” Jimmy agreed.
“At least run off,” Buck added.
“And then Rachel would have you out tryin’ to track her,” Kid pointed out.
Buck grimaced at the thought. “I wouldn’t be going alone.”
“Maybe we should take turns sitting watch,” Lou suggested. When the other three nodded in agreement, she continued. “I’ll take the first watch.”
“Guess it’s good we’d already decided not to go home tonight,” Kid said. “I’ll take the second shift.”
“Wake me for the next one,” Buck offered.
“Guess I get the dawn shift,” Jimmy said. Then he picked up the cards and started shuffling. “The kid ain’t goin’ nowhere ‘til she’s sure Rachel’s asleep. So what say we have a real game?”
It was the deepest part of night, and maybe his favorite, Buck mused. He was sitting on the porch swing, watching the sky. There was a full moon, bathing the yard in a soft white light. And the black sky was dotted with multitudes of stars, twinkling brightly against the inky background.
It was probably too cold to be sitting out here for very long, and he’d probably wind up back at the bunkhouse window before too long. That’s where Lou and Kid had sat their watches. But despite the brisk temperature, it was peaceful out here, so he’d stick it out a little while longer.
The peace was good for thinking. And he had a lot to think about these days. So many things to contemplate about the future . . .
His thoughts were interrupted by the slow turning of the doorknob behind him.
Buck sat absolutely still, watching as a small shadow slipped out of the house, closing the door in near silence behind her. And he watched as hse turned toward the steps.
Daisy jumped and let out a small squeak at the sound of the voice. She spun around and stared at Buck for a moment before answering. “Can’t a girl even go to the necessary house without being scared half to death?”
Buck got to his feet and picked up the pack she had dropped by her feet. “You always pack to go to the necessary house?”
Daisy reached for the pack, stomping her foot when Buck pulled it out of her reach. “Give that back!” she demanded.
“Not until you tell me what you’re doing,” he countered. He moved down onto the second step, blocking her way. “Daisy, you’re not running out on Rachel, are you?”
“Not like she cares,” Daisy muttered.
“She does care. She’d be very unhappy to find you ran out.”
“So you were spyin’ on me!”
“Trying to keep you from causing any more trouble,” Buck countered. “Tell me what’s going on.”
Daisy hesitated for a moment, almost seeming like she was going to answer. But then she suddenly feinted to her left and then darted to her right.
Buck snaked his left arm around her and caught her – and then jumped back at her gasp of pain.
He let her go back on the porch and took a step back. “Daisy?” He hadn’t grabbed her that hard, so either she was faking again, or . . .
She was trembling, tears running down her cheeks.
He knelt beside her and reached for her hand. “Daisy, did I hurt you?”
She shook her head slowly.
“Daisy, what happened?” She didn’t answer right away, so Buck tried again. “Daisy, you know Rachel wants to help you. We all do. But you have to tell the truth. What happened?”
Still trembling, Daisy pulled her hand free. She unbuttoned her jacket and let it slip to the ground. And then she turned her back and slowly lifted the bottom of her shirt.
The moonlight was plenty bright to illuminate the bruises on her back and side.
Buck’s breath caught in his throat. “Daisy, who did this?”
She just stood there shaking, so he pulled her toward him, very gently. “We’ll help you,” he whispered.
Daisy melted against his shoulder, sobbing.
Buck let her cry for a few minutes, then he got to his feet and picked her up. He cradled her gently in one arm as he opened the door and carried her inside.
Rachel placed a steaming mug of hot cocoa on the table in front of Daisy, then grabbed two more. She brought them to the table, gave one to Buck, and sat down next to him.
There was silence for a few moments as Daisy sipped at the hot liquid, and then Rachel gently reached for the girl’s hand. “Daisy, please tell us what happened. Did your aunt do that to you?”
Daisy shook her head but still said nothing.
“Daisy, we can help you,” Buck tried.
She shook her head, hard. “They’ll find me,” she whispered.
“Who?” Rachel waited for an answer and then tried again. “Daisy, if it wasn’t your aunt, then who did this?”
Daisy sniffed and wiped at her eyes. “Aunt Rose was lonely,” she said, barely above a whisper. “She married this man she barely knew.”
“And he did this?” Rachel asked.
Daisy nodded. “I tried to be good!” she sobbed. “I really, really tried!”
“Daisy, no one should ever hit a child like this!” Rachel said. She might very well have recommended an occasional spanking for the willful child, but this . . .
“I was tryin’ to get to San Francisco,” Daisy said. “But I only had enough money for a ticket to Rock Creek.”
“Who’s in San Francisco?” Buck asked.
Daisy shrugged. “Heard there was lots of opportunity out there. Figured I could get a stake for when Roger gets out of jail.”
Well, that sounded more like the Daisy they all knew, Rachel decided. “You can’t just run off to San Francisco all alone.”
Daisy straightened up in her chair. “I can take care of myself!”
Rachel just ignored that. “You can stay here for now,” she said. “I’ll write to Roger . . .”
Daisy was shaking her head violently. “No, no, no,” she whispered.
“Daisy, what’s wrong?” Rachel asked.
“It’s too close,” the girl whispered. “They’ll find me. He’ll find me . . .”
“He’ll be sorry if he does,” Buck said firmly.
“Yes, it will,” Rachel agreed. “It’ll all be just fine.” She reached over and brushed the tears off of Daisy’s cheek. “Now, doesn’t it feel good to have told us the truth?”
“Yes, school,” Rachel said. She tugged on the girl’s hair, trying to get it into a neat braid.
“Already know everything I need to know,” Daisy grumped.
Rachel just laughed. “There’s more to life than drawing to an inside straight.” More, maybe – but what was it worth? Daisy opened her mouth to ask the question, but then she stopped.
Her aunt’s husband might be able to track her to Rock Creek, but these people really would protect her. For now she had an opportunity for a roof over her head, decent food, and protection.
Maybe telling the truth, for once, paid off – even if it meant going to school.
After all, if she played this right, sooner or later they’d get tired of playing poker for matchsticks. Then she could get some real money and a ticket...
Follows QF#55 Leather and Lace and #56 A Friend in Need
Sighing, as yet another stage rolled into town without him on it, Lily turned to walk back to the hotel. She'd been in Sweetwater for two weeks now, waiting for him to meet her. She'd last seen him in Dillon, where he was going to talk to a man about a job. He'd sent her on to Sweetwater, telling her he'd meet her here since Dillon wasn't a proper place for her to be. Considering that it was a small mining town full of drunken men, she was more than happy to leave.
"Where is he?" she murmured.
"You Miss Albright?"
She turned to see a young boy of about twelve or thirteen standing there staring at her.
"Um, yes," she responded.
He thrust his hand out towards her and she jumped, fearing the boy meant her harm, until she saw the missive in his hand.
"Miss Emma from the Express station asked me to deliver this to you, ma'am," he said politely.
Embarrassed that she'd thought he would do her harm, she dug a three cents coin out of her purse and presented it to the boy. "Thank you, young man," she said.
"Um," he mumbled, looking slightly confused. "I'm getting a piece of Miss Emma's chocolate cake for deliverin' this. So I don't know if I should..." He eyed the money in her hand.
"Well, look at it this way, that's her payment. This is mine," she explained, taking the boy's hand and placing the coin in his palm.
Blushing as he took the money, he smiled and turned quickly, running towards the marshal's office. He glanced back once and nearly ran into the wagon that was parked in front. Catching his balance, he blushed deeper and ducked his head as he hurried into the office.
Lily smiled after the boy. She really liked Sweetwater and the people who lived there. She still had trouble with Mrs. Purrington, but most of the time, she was able to ignore her as the woman prattled on about the townsfolk and all their comings and goings. The woman was a consummate gossip and Lily found it dreadful though sometimes, not very often, but sometimes there were bits and pieces she was interested in. Especially when Mrs. Purrington talked about the Express riders.
After Lily had rushed out of Tompkins' store in a very unladylike fashion, she'd done her best to avoid seeing any of the boys that were there, particularly the Indian and the mute. But, after much thought, Lily had been horrified at her behavior and decided that she was behaving ghastly so she had sought out the boys because she truly wanted to apologize. When she'd finally tried, she was able to talk to Mr. McSwain with the help of Mr. Hickok. That had turned out to be delightful and she was very irritated at Maggie's calling him "the dummy." She'd coaxed a promise from Mr. McSwain, though he insisted she call him Ike, that he'd teach her some of this sign language. He'd readily agreed.
She'd been thrilled at how easily the apology was and went searching for Mr. Cross. It wasn't so easy with him. In fact, Mr. Cross had done everything in his power to avoid her, or so it had seemed to Lily. Then, when Mr. Hickok had given her the new pair of gloves, explaining that Mr. Cross had purchased them for her in Blue Creek but was a bit shy, she had been completely nonplussed. Thus, she had increased her efforts to talk to Mr. Cross, not only to apologize but to also thank him for such a kind gesture. As of this very day, she still hadn't been able to do either.
Sighing, she realized she still hadn't read the message. As she did, she felt very lightheaded and her heart leaped into her throat. He was in trouble and needed her help desperately. "The marshal," she mumbled, "I have to see the marshal."
"I appreciate you takin' that to Miss Albright, Henry," Emma said, smiling as the boy gobbled down the piece of cake in front of him - his second piece.
"Yur whecome," Henry said, mouth full of cake.
"My, my," Teaspoon said as he walked over to where the boy sat, "that does smell heavenly." He eyed Emma's cake. "What do I have to do to get me a piece?" He patted Henry on the shoulder and leaned over to drag his finger through the frosting.
Swatting at Teaspoon's hand, Emma said, "Just sit down over there Mr. Spoon and..."
The door swung open, hitting the wall behind it. "Marshal!"
Henry jumped, dropping his fork with a piece of cake firmly attached, to the floor. "Sorry Miss Emma," he said, as he leaned down to pick up the utensil.
Startled, Emma saw that it was Lily and she was clutching a piece of paper in her hand. Figuring it was the message the young woman had just received, Emma said, "Miss Albright, why don't you just sit down. Sam...the marshal, isn't here right now but we expect him shortly."
"That's alright son," Teaspoon said to Henry. Turning to the distressed young lady that Emma was helping to a seat, he said, "Now Miss Albright, what can we do to help you?"
"I need...oh, how could this...he wouldn't do that...the marshal, I need..." she stammered.
"Miss Albright," Emma said, calmly, as she leaned over and took both of Lily's hands in hers to try to get the young woman to focus, "what has happened? Who wouldn't do what?" She looked up at Teaspoon, hoping the older man could help.
"Does this have somethin' to do with that letter?" Teaspoon asked, hoping to bring the young woman out of her stupor.
Wordlessly, Lily pulled her hand from Emma's and gave Teaspoon the letter just as Sam walked through the door.
"I thought I smelled choc..."
Sam stopped when he saw the worried expressions on Emma's and Teaspoon's faces and the Clark boy standing there, looking uncomfortable and clutching a fork in his hand. In a seat, seeming to be the center of the attention was Miss Lily Albright. Sam had met her on her first day when she'd asked him the direction to the hotel. He'd helped her with her bags and had told her that if she needed anything to let him know. After that, it seemed he heard about her almost daily, mainly from Emma's boys talking about her constantly. He wasn't surprised, since she was a pretty young lady. Now, though, she was a sickly pale and her hand was shaking as she gave Teaspoon a piece of paper.
Teaspoon took the letter, read it and handed it to Sam. "Son," Teaspoon put his hand on Henry's shoulder, "why don't we wrap up your piece of cake and you can take it with you. How's that?"
Henry was more than happy to oblige, knowing that the adults wanted to talk alone. Besides, he really didn't want to know what had made Miss Albright go from the beautiful, prim lady he'd given the message to, to looking like the nervous wreck she was now. "Yes sir," he replied. Emma quickly wrapped up the piece he'd been eating as well as another and sent him out the door.
Back to the matter at hand, Teaspoon said, "Well, seems you need to get to Fort Laramie by the end of the week." He looked at Sam as the marshal read the message. Shaking his head, he asked, "Sam, what do you think?"
"Well, that's not much time. Five days," Sam said, handing the letter to Emma. He eyed the perfectly-coiffed woman seated in front of him and asked, skeptically, "Can you ride?"
Lily was staring at nothing in particular, vaguely listening to the conversation around her, but the sound of Sam's voice brought her out of her daze. "Um, not really, I'm sorry." Knowing she had to pull herself together to help, she suggested, "Will the stage get me there in time?"
Teaspoon and Sam exchanged glances. Sam spoke first, "Prob'ly. We can get you on the next one out of here. Should leave in," Sam looked at Teaspoon for the answer.
"About two hours. You best get a bag together." Teaspoon started to help Lily stand and Sam walked over to his desk.
"I'll write a message to the colonel there explaining your situation and..."
"Wait just a minute," Emma snapped, as she put her hand on Lily's shoulder to keep her seated. Once the two men were looking at her, she continued, "We are not just letting this young lady ride off on that stage, alone into Heaven knows what." Emma looked pointedly from Sam to Teaspoon and back at Sam. "I think we need to help her more than just providin' the stage schedule. Don't you?" It wasn't really a question to be answered - Emma already had the answer and both men knew it.
"Well, Emma," Teaspoon said, sighing, "let's see." He took the letter from Emma and said, "Now, this," he glanced back at the letter, "Basil Wade is being accused of killin' a man."
Hearing it said aloud, Lily sucked in air, feeling faint. She felt Emma's hand lightly squeeze and the support that was sent through that one small gesture caused the tears that Lily was so desperately trying to hold in to start falling.
"Oh," she sobbed, "I know he didn't do it, I just know it. He was just going to talk to someone about a job, that's all."
Emma glared at Teaspoon and then turned to Sam. "Well?"
"Emma," Sam groaned, he knew what her "wells" meant. "I can't afford to send anyone, you know that. I don't have the men." He turned to Teaspoon. "What about one of the boys?"
Emma answered for the stationmaster. "Actually, I'm sure the boys will be more than happy to fill in for one of them to go, considering..." She glanced down at Lily and then back at the men.
Staring at the floor, Teaspoon rubbed a calloused hand over his bearded face, thinking. He really didn't think it was feasible. The boys were still pretty new to the job, even though they'd proven themselves time and again over the past several months. After a moment, he looked up, ready to refuse, but the hope he saw in Lily's eyes did him in. "Well, I suppose..."
Lily jumped up and ran over throwing herself into his arms. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!" Not normally this demonstrative, she blushed as she pulled away.
Surprised and slightly embarrassed by the young lady's response, Teaspoon chuckled self-consciously. "Now, everythin's gonna be just fine, don't you worry." Turning to Emma, he asked, "Who's in town?"
"Lou, Kid, Jimmy and Buck," she replied.
Teaspoon, again, rubbed his hand over his beard, deep in thought. "We'll have to choose among them since we don't got time to get Cody or Ike." He took Lily's hand and said, "You go on to the hotel, pack your things and come back here when you're ready."
Nodding, Lily started to leave but, again, hugged Teaspoon. She was so touched by the fact that these people, who barely knew her, were doing so much to help her. She walked over to Emma and said, "I just, I'm so..."
Not letting the girl finish, Emma pulled her into her arms. "Sweetie, that's what we're here for." After a quick hug, Emma shooed Lily out the door to get her things - and so Emma wouldn't cry too. Once the young lady was gone, Emma asked, "So, who do you think?"
"I'm not sure yet but I've got a hunch," Teaspoon said, a sly look in his eyes. "I'd best go and get 'em over here." He walked out the door and, knowing that the riders were at the livery looking over some of the stock the owner had for sale, he headed in that direction.
"So, what's this all about?" Kid asked as he and the other three were seated in Sam's office.
Seeing the looks that Sam, Emma and Teaspoon exchanged made all four riders uncomfortable.
"I'm not sure I'm gonna like what ever it is," Jimmy grumbled. "And if it's got anythin' to do with straws, I'm gone."
"No, no," Teaspoon said, holding his hands up. "I need someone to be an escort to Fort Laramie."
It was now the riders' turn to exchange glances. Not trusting the vague explanation, Lou asked, "Escort for who?"
Before anyone could answer, Miss Lily Albright walked through the door, bag in hand.
Covering his grin with his hand, Jimmy tried very hard not to burst into laughter, especially when he noticed the look on Buck's face. He hoped that Teaspoon picked the Kiowa; it would serve him right for not talking to the young lady. At first Jimmy completely understood but after several days of Buck ducking into stores and alleys whenever she appeared, Jimmy had almost hogtied his friend. He'd thought that a bound and gagged Buck, laid at Miss Albright's dainty feet, would have been a perfect response. But, since that really wasn't an option, this would work just as well.
"Um, I'm guessin' then, it would be escortin' her," Lou said, her lips pursed to show her displeasure at the whole idea. She looked candidly at Kid, adding, "I know I can't do it, I have a ride tomorrow. What about you, Kid?" She'd heard all about Kid meeting the young lady that was standing in front of them and had been hearing all about her, in endless detail, from Cody and Jimmy for days. She was more than a little tired of being enlightened on the wonderful qualities of the heavenly Miss Albright.
Kid sighed. It wasn't that he wanted to go; it just annoyed him when Lou got so jealous. However, he had to laugh at the thought because, if the tables were turned, he'd be just as bad. No, he'd be worse. "Sorry Teaspoon, you have me on the Willow Creek run this afternoon."
"Hmm," Teaspoon pondered his last two options.
Buck sat as quietly as he could, staring at the wall, hoping everyone would forget he was even there, but his hopes that Jimmy would be picked were dashed when Teaspoon announced his decision.
"Well, I think it's gonna have to be you Buck."
Buck nearly swallowed his tongue. Inhaling, trying to get rid of the lump in his throat, he croaked, "Why me?" He wasn't sure but it sounded rather harsh to his ears. And, when he looked at the others, especially Emma, he realized it had been rather harsh indeed. "I mean Jimmy would probably be better suited." He squirmed in his seat, right then all he wanted was the earth to open up and allow him to disappear.
"No, Buck," Jimmy said, "I actually think you're the perfect choice." Without elaborating, Jimmy stood up and added, "Right now, I think we need to let you get ready to go." Reaching over to pat Buck on the back, Jimmy grinned.
Buck glared at Jimmy and stood up so it didn't look like he was shrugging off Jimmy's hand, which he was. "Thanks Hickok," he growled and walked over next to Teaspoon.
Kid and Lou stood too and joined Jimmy as he walked out the door. Glancing back before closing the door, Kid was confused as to what had happened. Buck looked like he had just been convicted and sentenced to death. Kid really couldn't understand that. Miss Albright was a very pretty, sweet young lady, what more could any man want? Lou's voice came from behind him.
There was his answer. "Coming," he said, grinning, and closed the door.
"Teaspoon," Buck whispered, "why me? I mean it."
"Buck," Teaspoon whispered back, feeling Lily's concerned eyes on his back. "It was between you and Jimmy and I think you're the best choice." When Buck opened his mouth, Teaspoon knew it was to argue and he was in no mood so he held up his hand. "It's settled." He looked into Buck's eyes to get his point across.
Clenching his teeth, Buck turned away and walked to the farthest corner of the jail. Crossing his arms tightly over his chest, he couldn't believe this was happening. He'd been able to completely avoid having any contact with the lovely Miss Albright. At times, it actually looked like she was trying to talk to him but that couldn't be right, considering the expression she'd been wearing that day in Tompkins' store. Ike had told him that she wanted to apologize but Buck wouldn't have anyone pity him. Her apology wasn't needed or wanted. Feeling someone close behind him, he turned to see Emma standing there, the expression she was wearing was a mixture of concern and disappointment.
"Buck, I'm not sure why you seem so against escortin' Miss Albright, but I'd like you to do this for me." Emma knew the young man couldn't refuse her anything. He was like the others, they saw her as the mother they never knew or lost early and, for the good of the situation, Emma would use that knowledge. "Please."
Buck's shoulders sagged and his face fell. He'd do anything for Emma, including swallowing his pride to escort a spoiled, selfish white girl to see her soldier beau. "Fine." That was all the acceptance they'd get from him. "I'll get my saddlebag, I have a change of clothes in that. And my bedroll. I won't be accepted any place in the fort. I'll have to sleep on the plains." He walked toward the door but was stopped by a gentle touch.
"Thank you for this, Mr. Cross." Lily quickly removed her hand from Buck's sleeve when he looked at her. The pain in his eyes was palpable.
"Welcome," Buck mumbled and walked out the door.
Lily watched after him for a moment and then asked, "What does he mean about sleeping on the plains? Why doesn't he sleep in the hotel? Or isn't there one?"
Teaspoon wearily looked at Sam. "Anythin' you can do about that?"
Sam grimaced. He knew how the soldiers were about Indians in the fort. There were some that traded and came through once or twice a week but not many and only ones that had been checked out thoroughly by the commanding officers. Even with Buck being an Express rider and having Teaspoon and Sam, not to mention other stationmasters, vouch for him, Buck still received a less than cordial welcome. Mainly due to who his brother was.
"I'm not sure, but I'll put something in my message to the colonel. Since this is a special case, maybe they can find him somewhere to stay."
Though the look on Sam's face plainly showed he doubted it, Emma was hopeful. She turned to Lily and tried to explain, "Miss Albright, Buck sometimes has problems with people in certain towns and places." She left the reason unsaid intentionally because she'd heard about what had happened in Tompkins' store and hoped it had been first time shock at seeing an Indian and not the hatred for them as most people felt. Emma was happy to see how Lily reacted as she worked it out for herself.
Realizing that they were still calling her Miss Albright, Lily said, "Please, call me Lily, I mean, considering..." She stopped, Emma's words sinking in, the confusion was plain on her face. "Why in the world would someone as kind as Mr. Cross have problems? That doesn't make..." Suddenly it hit her. How had she reacted the first time she'd seen him? She felt stupid and ashamed. Looking at the doorway Buck had walked through moments before, Lily wanted to run after him and beg his forgiveness but right now, she had other, more unfortunate and pressing matters to attend.
As the stage rolled into town, everyone gathered at the depot to see Buck and Lily off. Lily was nervous about the whole situation. She didn't know what she'd find when she got to Laramie, would Basil be okay or would she be too late. As for her traveling companion, Buck had been extremely quiet, saying mainly one or two word answers to anything and only if spoken to first, thus she felt very alone. So, the butterflies in her stomach that had started when she first read the message regarding Basil and the possibility of his hanging for a murder that she was sure he didn't commit, were now a herd of buffalo that she was sure would stampede right through her chest.
"Well, Lily sweetheart," Teaspoon said as he walked up and put his arm around her shoulder, "once you get there and get this whole mess straightened out, things'll be much better."
She took comfort in his warm embrace and the hand that was holding hers. She looked down at Emma's hand and felt the squeeze in response. "I really don't know how to thank you," she said, and looked directly at Buck, adding, "all of you."
Buck looked away, watching the men load the stage. He was very uncomfortable having all the attention over this. Though Teaspoon and Sam had tried to fill in some of the situation, Buck hadn't listened. All he knew was that this Basil Wade, Miss Albright's fiancé Buck guessed, was having some sort of legal problems over a business deal and Buck wasn't sure what they were going to do about it. Of course, he'd probably get the answer if he'd just talk to Miss Albright but he wasn't willing to do that so he'd find out when they got to Laramie.
"Alright, folks, we're ready to roll," the stage driver called out.
"Everythin'll be alright," Emma said, hugging Lily for what seemed like the hundredth time. "Buck will be there to take care of you." Emma looked over Lily's shoulder at Buck, making sure the rider saw her, heard her and understood her.
Buck looked at Emma as he shook hands with Sam, telling the marshal that he'd be fine. He nodded to Emma, indicating that he had heard and understood. But, he didn't change his sullen expression, to show he still didn't like it. And didn't have to.
"Seriously folks, we've gotta get movin'," the driver called again. He wanted to be in Fort Laramie in two days and that was stretching it. All would have to go exactly as planned. He sighed, 'When had it ever gone as planned?'
Finally, the last of the goodbyes were said, the hugs hugged and the hands shook. Buck opened the door for Lily to climb aboard but he didn't hold his hand out to help her. Teaspoon did that.
Teaspoon eyed his rider critically. Pulling Buck aside for one final word, Teaspoon said, "Buck, I need for you to..."
"I understand my responsibilities. I'm to get her there safely." Buck stared straight into Teaspoon's eyes. "That's it." He turned and followed Lily into the stage. Sitting on the opposite bench, he stared out the window at nothing.
Sighing, Teaspoon raised his hand to the driver and called out, "They're ready." The driver pulled out and Teaspoon sent one last wish. "Ride safe."
Once the stage was out of sight, everyone left to go about their business. Kid and Lou went over to Tompkins' store and Sam headed back to the marshal's office along with Emma, leaving Jimmy and Teaspoon standing there.
After a few moments of quiet contemplation regarding Buck and what would happen, Jimmy turned to his friend and mentor. "You think he's gonna be okay?"
"Yes, I do." Teaspoon paused, choosing his words carefully. Finally, he faced Jimmy and, with his crooked grin, said, "Buck's gonna be just fine. Let's go get some of Emma's chocolate cake b'fore Sam eats it all." Slapping Jimmy on the back, he walked towards the jail.
Jimmy stood for another moment, staring off at the dust cloud that was already settling. He hoped Teaspoon was right but - and he hoped he was wrong - something told him that Buck was going to go through a lot before he was "just fine." Shaking his head, he trotted over to catch up with Teaspoon and get a piece of Emma's chocolate cake.
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