Topic #66: 'Out of Time'
Desperate Times by: Cindy
Out of Time from this Wonderful Life by: Debra
Truth or Dare by: Dee
In Muddy Water by Debbie
Borrowed Time by: Miss Raye
On Time by: Miss Raye
Down to the Wire by: Miss Raye
Never Trust a Pretty Face by: Jo
No Time to Say It by: Cindy
 
Desperate Times
by: Cindy

Everything looked normal as he approached the Laskey farm, the next to last way station before getting back to Rock Creek.

In fact, everything about this run had been normal - or even better. The weather had cooperated, giving him warm, sunny days and gentle, star-filled nights. He hadn't gotten a troublesome mount the entire trip, and all of his signoffs at the various stations were well ahead of schedule. There hadn't been a single gunshot fired within his hearing distance, not a single suspicious rider crossing his path, not a hint of trouble or danger.

Not even a pregnant woman to take him hostage with an empty gun - and then to be saved later.

All in all, Buck decided, it was the best run he'd had in a long time. And maybe, just maybe, his luck was changing. After the pain of Ike's death, he'd had his doubts about ever saying that again, but things were getting better.

The Laskey place was coming up fast. They had a small farm, and earned a bit of extra money by renting out space for horses and their services to Russell, Majors & Waddell. The farmstead itself was cozy and looked like someone's home, not just a place to live. The house was basic, nothing fancy at all, and the whitewash was peeling in many places. But Peggy Laskey's flowers, and the carefully tended garden, gave it a look of love, and family. Across the way, a barn housed the family's livestock as well as the company's horses. Beyond that, the crops rose in all their autumn, pre-harvest glory, a tribute to the care Pete and Peggy Laskey put into their land.

It was the kind of place he wouldn't mind having himself - someday. After growing up with the Kiowa, the concept of land ownership was one that had taken some getting used to. But now, the idea of a place of his own was growing on him.

He slowed a bit as he rode into the yard, still at ease. There was a saddled horse at the corral, waiting, and more horses milling about behind the fence. The only thing that was odd at all was that the west-bound stage was sitting in the yard, and he couldn't see anyone around it. This was just a small way station, so the stage normally wouldn't stop more than to water the horses before moving on again.

But he also knew that Peggy Laskey was known far and wide for her cooking skills, and sometimes, if the stage was a little ahead of schedule, the drivers would stop. Peggy would feed the passengers for far less than if they waited to eat during a stop in a town. And it wasn't as though Buck had eaten in so very many fine restaurants - he figured few of them would even seat him - but he had sampled Peggy Laskey's food.

It was hard to figure the fancy restaurants could do much better.

She often brought cookies out to the riders, sometimes even a sandwich, or a glass of cool cider to drink while their logs were signed. He looked around, hoping to see her coming out of the house now, plate in hand - but she didn't appear.

In fact, no one appeared, and that was a little strange. One or both of the Laskeys always came out right away, often with their five year old son, Michael, in tow.

Peggy was pregnant, he knew, and in fact was almost due. He might have figured they'd gone to the nearest town for the doctor, but that still wouldn't explain the apparently abandoned stage sitting in the yard.

Even if they were busy with people from the stage, this still felt odd. But it probably was just that the stage being there was keeping the Laskeys busy - and if this hadn't been such a perfect ride the little delay probably wouldn't have even raised his attention.

Buck dismounted and pulled the mochila off the incoming mount, then tossed it onto the mare standing saddled and ready. He knew the horse from previous rides, and she was a good one, fast and steady. Still, he needed someone to sign his log.

"Hello?"

There was no response so he tried again. "Pete? Peggy? It's Buck."

Still no answer.

The first niggling doubts touched the back of his mind as he looked around. There was no sign of trouble, no obvious indication of any kind of struggle.

They were probably just in the barn, or in the house, and couldn't hear him.

The barn was the closest so he stepped that way, left hand resting on the handle of his pistol. He had to walk by the stage to get there, and that's when the first tingle of danger struck him. It wasn't anything he saw or heard so much as something he just felt. He reached slowly for the door of the stage, drawing his pistol . . .

"Far 'nough, injun."

Buck froze at the words, growled by someone near the barn. He turned slowly, dropping his hand away from his gun as he saw two men come out the shadows. Both of them had guns trained on him and one, a large, swarthy man, held Peggy Laskey in front of him, his arm around her neck. Her much smaller frame seemed dwarfed by the man, and her face flushed red as she struggled against his arm, her arms held protectively over her swollen abdomen.

He was weighing his chances at two successful shots when the cold steel of a gun barrel pressed against his neck. Someone inside the stage had reached out the window with a gun, and Buck silently cursed himself for not listening to that little voice in the back of his head.

"You just toss that gun down, real easy like," the big man ordered, shoving Peggy forward like a shield. "That knife too."

His odds of settling the situation with his gun were pretty much zero now, he figured, so he did as requested. He slowly pulled the pistol from the holster and tossed it to one side, then bent down and did the same with his knife.

"All right, now in here!"

Buck followed as the big man pulled Peggy Laskey back into the barn. He stepped inside, pausing a moment to let his eyes adjust to the relative darkness within. But it wasn't more than a second or two before he felt the gun at his back, pushing him forward.

As he moved farther into the barn, Buck saw Pete sitting off to one side. The other man's left temple was bloody and he was cradling his right arm in an awkward manner that suggested a broken bone. Beside him, the frightened eyes of a tow-headed little boy looked up as Michael huddled next to his father.

Beyond that, Buck recognized Alec, the stage's driver. The man had a bloody rag tied around his left hand, and the right side of his face was bruised and swollen. There was a man in a suit next to him, no one that Buck recognized. The man appeared frightened, but he had no obvious signs of injury.

A woman sat nearby, blond hair askew. The shoulder of her dress was torn, and Buck could see a trickle of blood by the side of her mouth. Next to her, a little girl, probably a couple of years younger than Michael, was curled up against the stall wall, a rag doll clutched firmly in her arms as she watched everything with huge, dark, terrified eyes.

And on the other side, back toward the front door . . .

Tompkins?

Buck had known the shopkeeper was out of town, but it seemed to defy even the random laws of coincidence that the man would have been on this particular stage.

"How much money you got, boy?" The question came from the gunman who had been inside the stage.

Buck reached into his vest pocket and pulled out some coins. With a quick glance in his hand, he figured it would be about four dollars and some change. Not exactly a lot when it came to armed gunmen.

The man scowled at the coins, the action making the scar along his right cheek pucker and redden. "That's all?"

"I'm a Pony Express rider," Buck explained. "I don't have need to carry much money on my runs."

"And mebbe you's hidin' something," another of the gunmen challenged. He came right up in Buck's face, and the stench of the other man's breath made him take a step back.

Buck took a deep breath as the man turned away and sighed. "I don't have anything else."

The big man, who seemed to be the leader, had finally released Peggy and now he turned toward the other two gunmen. "Search him."

Buck tried hard not to grimace as Stinky Breath came forward, grinning, as Scarface held a gun trained firmly on his gut. Stinky's hands roamed over his body, probing for hidden pockets. But his search came up empty.

"He ain't got nothin' else," Stinky reported, as Buck took the opportunity to turn his head away for a breath. "Hey, mebbe in the mail!"

"How 'bout it?" Big Man asked, stepping forward. "What's in that sack?"

Buck shook his head. "I don't know. Only the regional stationmasters have keys." Teaspoon had a key, but right now Rock Creek seemed a very long distance away. "But we only carry letters, not payroll or anything."

"Yeah, the payroll was s'posed to be on the stage," Scarface growled. He crouched down next to the blond woman and ran his hand along her cheek. When she whimpered and tried to move away his smile only grew larger. "Guess I might gotta get me some payment some other way."

"No, please, leave her alone," Peggy pleaded.

Big Man covered the distance to her in two strides, backhanding her across the face. "Told you afore to keep your mouth shut!"

Peggy stumbled, and probably would have fallen but Pete managed to get his good arm out to break her fall. "Ain't no call to hit a pregnant lady," he said softly.

Big Man just laughed. "Guess I'll decide that," he said. He cocked his gun and crouched next to Pete, pressing the barrel against the injured man's temple. "Got any other objections?"

Pete just shook his head, but he managed to push Peggy slightly behind him.

"Whatta we do now?" Stinky demanded. "Weren't no gold like s'posed to be."

Big Man walked to the wall where various tack hung and pulled a rope down. "Tie 'em up," he ordered, tossing the coil to Scarface. "Hands an' feet. We got everythin' worthwhile from these folks an' the house. Time to get outta here."

Scarface and Stinky moved quickly to comply. Buck found himself pushed to the ground next to the blond woman and the little girl. His hands were pulled roughly behind his back, the ropes tied tight. As they moved to tie his feet, he realized it was his own knife being used to cut the rope. Scarface had obviously picked it up from out by the stage.

It took the two men only a few minutes to complete their task, and soon everyone, including the two children, was trussed up. Then, as if to make sure no one would get free very quickly, the two men tied the captives together.

Just when he'd figured things couldn't get much worse, Buck found himself roped back-to-back with Tompkins; knowing that the other man was probably even more unhappy with the situation wasn't much consolation.

When they finished, Scarface tossed Buck's knife onto a work table by the door and the two gunmen went to join their leader.

Big Man grinned, though it wasn't the kind of happy smile that made people feel good. "You enjoy yourselves, now," he said, almost laughing. "Might get a little hot."

All three men laughed as they left the barn, closing the door behind them, and Buck heard the heavy bolt being dropped into place. Only the fact that the loft door was open kept the interior of the barn from becoming totally dark.

"Ain't that hot out today," Alec muttered.

Buck looked around the room. Alec was tied to the male passenger from the stage. The woman and her daughter were bound together, and the three Laskeys were roped together. Peggy still looked dazed from being hit, and Pete's face was pulled back in a pained grimace from having his injured arm yanked back behind him.

Buck pulled against the ropes binding his hands, but there was no give. "Anyone have ropes that are loose at all?" he asked, hoping that maybe the gunmen had gotten lax in one of the knots.

But all around heads shook in the negative, and voices all answered the same way.

"If we pull on the ropes long enough, maybe they'll loosen a bit."

That was the male stage passenger, and a few voices joined in in agreement, though somewhat half-heartedly.

Buck figured the ropes would loosen up - eventually. But it was going to be a long and uncomfortable process. He twisted his hands, trying to find a way to reach the knots, either his or the ones binding Tompkins' hands, and he could feel the shopkeeper testing his bonds as well. The gunmen had tied their prey well, however, and he couldn't find a way to get to the knots.

"Papa, what's that smell?"

Everyone looked over at Michael Laskey. The little boy's nose was crinkled up in obvious displeasure at what he was smelling.

Buck stopped struggling for a moment and took a deep breath. There was definitely something . . . "Pete, do you keep kerosene around the barn?"

Pete looked up, eyes still glassy from pain. "Couple o' barrels outside," he replied. "Gotta keep lanterns lit for stages and riders comin' in at night." His eyes suddenly cleared and went wide as he realized what he was saying. "They're dumpin' the kerosene!"

"Why . . . why would they do that?" the woman from the stage asked.

"Because it burns," Tompkins growled.

Buck could feel the shopkeeper renewing his efforts to work the ropes loose even as he got the first whiff of smoke. A moment later he heard horses running out of the yard.

"They set it on fire!" Alec cried, almost as though he couldn't quite believe it.

The kerosene, combined with the dried autumn grass and leaves made good tinder for the fire and the smell of smoke quickly grew more pronounced. The first flicker of flame showed up through a gap in the boards near the rear of the barn. Michael and the little girl were crying, and in one of the front stalls a lamb bleated in terror, all adding to the confusion.

They were running out of time . . .

Buck looked around, desperately seeking anything to help. He glanced at the work table, looked away - and then looked back.

The hilt of his knife was hanging just over the edge.

"Tompkins, we have to get over to that table."

"What for?" the other man demanded.

"They left my knife."

That got the shopkeeper's attention, and he stopped his futile struggling against the ropes. "Well, how ya gonna get it?"

Well, he hadn't quite figured that out yet . . . "We need to get over to the table," Buck repeated. "And see what we can do." He tried his legs - they were tied such that he couldn't stretch them out, but he could pull them up closer to his body. "I can pull us toward the table," he suggested, "if you can push."

"I'll try," Tompkins replied.

It wasn't a quick journey, or a smooth one. The two men, so totally unaccustomed to working together under any circumstances, struggled at first in their awkward crawl. But finally they managed to coordinate pulling their knees up. Tompkins would then push, Buck would put his legs out as far as the ropes allowed and pull, and slowly they made progress.

The smoke was getting much thicker by the time they reached the table, and they could hear the flames crackling.

Now the problem was that the table was much higher than Buck could raise his legs, given the way they were tied.

"Well, can you get it?" Tompkins asked, breaking into a cough at the end.

"Maybe," Buck answered, studying the table. Maybe . . . "I'm going to need to brace against you, work my feet up."

"Do it," Tompkins grunted.

Buck pressed his back against the shopkeeper and lifted his feet against the leg of the table. Then, inch by inch, he worked his feet up toward where the knife lay, so close and yet so far. Finally, with Tompkins bent nearly double, and his own back almost parallel to the ground, he got his feet onto the flat surface and edged toward the knife. He knew he'd probably only have one shot at this, so he took an extra moment to study the way it was placed, then he twisted onto his right side and kicked at the knife handle.

It moved, hung precariously, agonizingly, on the edge for a moment, then dropped to the ground a few feet away.

"Over here," he urged, pulling on Tompkins' bonds.

They slithered together, covering the distance, and then Buck's hands were fumbling between them, his long fingers finally closing around the hilt. He struggled to maneuver it behind his back - but his hands were tied too low to the ground and he couldn't get a good enough grip on the blade to work on the ropes.

When they'd been struggling against the knots though, he'd felt Tompkins' hands higher on his back. "Tompkins, can you grab the knife?" he asked, trying to hold the handle up.

There was more fumbling for a moment. "Yeah, yeah, I think I've got it."

Buck considered how the knife had been held, trying to picture what was behind his back. "My hands are directly underneath you," he said, trying to sound confident. Having anyone try to cut through ropes sight unseen was unnerving enough; having it be Tompkins just made it worse.

Unfortunately, they didn't have much choice. Flames were lapping through the boards at the rear of the barn and the smoke was getting thicker.

They were really running out of time now.

He felt the knife start to slice into the ropes, and then he gasped as the blade slipped and gashed his arm.

"Sorry," Tompkins mumbled.

Buck bit the back the pain. "Keep going," he said. He put all his concentration into holding his hands steady, trying to anticipate where the knife would be going. He got a few more nicks from the blade, but nothing as bad as the first, and finally he thought he could feel a little give in the rope. "Almost there," he said, starting to cough.

Tompkins continued to work the knife, and suddenly Buck pulled his hands free. "Got it!" he cried, twisting around to take the knife. He sliced the ropes binding his feet and legs, then turned and pulled the blade quickly through the bonds on the shopkeeper's hands. "Get your feet free," he said as he scrambled to his feet. "Then see about getting the door open. "I'll cut the others loose."

Tompkins just nodded, coughing too much from the smoke to even say anything. Buck watched as the older man started working on the knots by his feet and then he moved on. He sliced the ropes binding the Laskeys and helped them to their feet. Tompkins had just gotten free and was fumbling with trying to move the bolt on the door from the inside. Pete stumbled forward to try and help as Peggy tried to shield Michael from the worst of the smoke. The little boy was still crying and trying to get to the bleating lamb, but she held him close.

Buck moved on to the woman and her daughter. The little girl was crying and shaking in terror, so he had to use one hand just to hold her still while he carefully worked the knife between them. The smoke was so bad now that he could barely see, and the heat was intense; flames were flickering mere feet away.

There was a sudden burst of air, and the room brightened for a moment. "Door's open!" Tompkins called out.

Buck's throat was so raw from the smoke he couldn't even answer. He cut the last rope and helped the woman up, pushing her toward the door as she grabbed her daughter's hand. "Stay low," he said, his voice little more than a rough whisper now.

He moved on to Alec and the other passenger. The open door had given them a moment of fresher air and light, but now the fire seemed to be burning even hotter - and ever closer. He had to work mostly by feel, but finally the ropes fell away and he pushed the two men ahead of him toward the door.

The fresher air and the lighter sky seemed tantalizingly close when he felt something brush against his leg going the other way. A moment later Peggy screamed. "Michael!"

"Willy!" Michael yelled, over and over, from somewhere behind Buck.

"He went after the lamb," Pete cried.

"I'll get him," Buck said as loudly as he could, but he really doubted his voice carried over the roaring of the fire. He doubled over, retching, as the smoke nearly drove him to his knees. Finally, he gave in and dropped to his knees, crawling toward where he thought the lamb had been. There was less smoke down low, and through burning, stinging eyes, he finally saw two small feet.

Michael was trying to free the lamb, tugging on the rope that held the animal in place. The frightened Willy wasn't making it easier, pulling back and bleating even more frantically.

Buck crawled the last few feet, every breath now a challenge as his lungs burned. He reached out with the knife and sliced the rope, picking up the lamb and shoving Willy toward the door. Then he picked Michael up and started toward the light himself.

Every step seemed to take more energy than the last, and he was coughing so hard it was difficult to even move. He could see the light at the open door, but his legs were not cooperating.

Finally, he sank to his knees, pushing Michael in front of him. "Go," he rasped, shoving the boy toward the door. He doubled over, coughing, as the smoke and heat seemed to envelop him totally.

The boy disappeared, and Buck hoped he made it out. He tried again to move himself, but he only started coughing more. The flames seemed so close now that they must be almost on him.

At least everyone else got out . . .

He felt the hands under his arms almost as if they were touching someone else, and then he was moving - or maybe he was imagining . . .

The burst of fresh air as they cleared the burning building was like a breath of life. He tried to take a deep gulp, but it only served to start him coughing again.

Buck felt his shoulders laid against the ground and he forced his eyes open, blinking hard to clear the smoke from them. His vision was somewhat blurred as he looked up into the face of the man who had pulled him out . . .

"Tompkins?"

The word came out barely as a whisper, mostly covering the surprise he felt. "Did . . ." He broke off, coughing. "Did everyone . . ."

"Everyone got out," Tompkins supplied.

"Thanks to you," Peggy added. She knelt by his side, an action made considerably more difficult by her advanced pregnancy, and took his hand. "Even Willy," she added, smiling. "Thank you."

"Yes, thank you." The woman from the stage knelt down, gently pulling his head onto her leg. Then she held a mug to his lips, helping him drink.

The cool well water tasted better on his parched throat than any ambrosia offered to the ancient Greek gods.

Buck used his free hand to tip the cup up again, downing more of the refreshing liquid. "The barn . . ."

"Just a barn," Pete said, stepping up beside them. One arm still hung awkwardly at his side - and his good hand gripped Michael's hand firmly. "Nothin' but dirt headin' over to the house, so that's safe."

"Dirt out back too," Peggy added.

"The fire's already burning itself out," the blond woman added.

Buck blinked a few more times, finally feeling some tears starting to lubricate his eyes again. He looked over, and confirmed for himself that the flames were, indeed, dying out.

By the corral Alec and the other stage passenger had gotten the horses out. The animals were tied to the rails on the far side from the barn, ready for a quick escape if the need arose. But the two men were also throwing water on the rails closest to the barn, and so far it didn't look like any part of the fence was burning.

"They ran off the stage horses," Tompkins said. "We're gonna hook up a couple of the others, enough to get to Barneston, get the doc and the sheriff."

Buck nodded - that seemed like a reasonable plan. Intending to help, he tried to sit up . . .

And promptly fell back, landing hard against the blond woman's leg as the world spun wildly and he started coughing again.

"You've done enough," she chided. "You just rest."

"Jus' west," another voice said.

Buck looked up and had to smile as the little girl curled up by her mother. "Yes, ma'am," he whispered, letting his body relax. He obviously wasn't going anywhere.

"You, uh, you did all right," Tompkins admitted, the words obviously coming hard.

"You pulled me out," Buck replied. "Thanks."

"Least I could do," the shopkeeper mumbled. An awkward moment of silence followed; neither man had any idea how to actually talk to the other. Tompkins finally broke it, looking over at the stage. "Guess I'll go help with the horses," he said quietly.

Buck watched the older man walk away, and then he closed his eyes. It was hard to believe that it was only an hour or so earlier that he'd been thinking that his luck had changed, that things were getting better. The last hour had changed that . . .

Though as he thought more about it, he decided maybe that wasn't true. The experience of being held at gunpoint and tied up in a burning building certainly hadn't been good. But everyone had gotten out all right, and that's what was really important.

Finding out that Tompkins had saved his life felt kind of strange. It might take a while to figure out what that meant. But there was time to work that out later.

He'd do as ordered now and rest. Maybe by the time the others came back with the sheriff he'd have some strength back and be able to ride - and track. There were three men he really wanted to catch up with.

With any luck, he might even be able to give them a taste of the desperate times they'd caused here . . .

Out of Time from this Wonderful Life
by: Debra


Kid lay awake in the double bed that he shares with his beautiful wife Lou of the past ten years. His mind trying desperately to wonder and reminisce back to the time in their lives when they were ten years younger and riding for the Pony Express first here in Sweetwater, and then their lives took them to the Pony Express Station in Rock Creek where many tragedies occurred that had left all his family feeling as if their happiness had been drained from their lives. Kid blindly stared at the ceiling thinking that if they had not uprooted and moved their family to Rock Creek that Ike and Noah possibly could be alive today. He can still see the day, a beautiful sunny day, when Ike had been shot by Neville, a man that would later die from Buck's gun. Ike was killed protecting Emily, a woman that had settled in Rock Creek with her father, and Ike had fallen in love with her. Ike lay helplessly dying in Doc Barnes office while Teaspoon was trying his best to keep the rest of them from doing anything foolish to avenge Ike's torment. Teaspoon wasn't able to shelter Buck from all the pain he later was feeling over Ike's death, and he killed Neville. Teaspoon believed that Buck killed Neville in cold blood, but he could never prove what Buck had done, nor did Teaspoon want to prove it, because he knew that Buck would hang if he had been accused and convicted of killing Neville in cold blood.

That day Ike was lost to their family for good, but a piece of Buck had died also. It was not even a year later, as he and Lou were planning their wedding that Noah was killed by the gun of Jesse's brother, Frank James. The entire family had been so happy planning for his and Lou's wedding day, but then tragedy struck again! Just as it had been difficult to except Ike's death it was also difficult to understand why Noah had to die. The Pony Express was ending and all of them were trying to find a new direction for their lives, but Noah's senseless death didn't stop the killing that would last for the next several years as the Civil War raged on between the North and the South.

Kid sighs heavily as the daylight of morning creeps through the curtains of the bedroom beginning him back to the reality of the present time. He pulls the covers from his weary body and swings his legs off the bed and onto the cold wooden floor of November. He hadn't shaved in over a week since his and Lou's twin babies were born, and he was in severe need of a long, hot shower. Feeling like an old man of seventy instead of only closing in on thirty, he stumbled completely out of bed and struggled to get his clothes on. As he buttons his shirt closed he catches the man staring at him through Lou's vanity mirror. He discovers that the man looking back at him is not the same man that married Louise ten years ago. When had he changed? Had he changed just in this past week, or had this change in his physical appearance been silently happening to him over the past ten years of tragedies and hardships to his family.

In the distance he hears the cries that are coming from the newly born twins, Jacob Isaac and Rena Louise, his and Lou's fourth and fifth children. The sound of their familiar cries for their morning feeding doesn't bring a smile to his face like he smiled when his and Lou's other three children had been born.

He and Lou had settled down in Sweetwater after the Civil War. Sam and Emma had married and fixed up the old Sweetwater Pony Express station, and now lived there. Sam had resumed his job as Marshal and he pleaded with Kid to return to Sweetwater as his deputy. Lou encouraged Kid to take the job which he did and they found a small ranch to live on just a couple of miles outside of Sweetwater.

Kid smiles as he walks down the stairs at how Lou wanted to own just a few animals. She promised him that she would do the ranching while he held down the job as the town deputy. But a few animals soon became an entire farm, a dozen horses, six cows, hens and a rooster, pigs and a few goats. Kid slowly walks out the front door of his and Lou's home listening intently to the sounds of the twins being fed in the kitchen. He shuts the door quietly so he doesn't alarm the children. Lou loved her animals and she kept up with the chores as well as being a mother to their three children Lisa, Ben and Molly. Through the years as their children got older they would help Lou tend to all the animals on their farm. Every Sunday Lou would open up their home to the citizens of Sweetwater and sell eggs, milk, vegetables from her gardens, and baked goods. It was like a treat for the folks of Sweetwater, and for Lou it gave her the knowledge that she was appreciated by people other than her family.

As he tries to make his way to the barn, Kid has to dance around the two dozen hens or more that are gathering around his feet demanding to be fed. Kid ignores their clucking and walks around the hens to make his way toward the barn to tend to the horses and cows, but as he tries to walk briskly past all the hens they are determined to be fed and they follow his footsteps to the barn. Kid doesn't get very far with his progression to the barn when he stops in his tracks as he hears the distant sound of a stampede of horses heading toward the ranch.

Kid is stunned as he turns around and witnesses Teaspoon and Rachel riding onto the ranch a top a buckboard. As Teaspoon eases the horses to a stop in front of his and Lou's home, he sees the warm smile on Rachel's face as she gets herself off the buckboard. She starts to walk toward Kid as Kid witnesses Buck, Jimmy and Cody trailing behind the buckboard on their horses.

Rachel finally makes her way to Kid with Teaspoon lagging behind. She wraps her arms around Kid and hugs him tightly. He welcomes the comforting arms of one of the women that were as close to him as a mother figure could be.

Rachel releases Kid when Buck reaches the two of them. Buck and Kid hug. "What are all of you doing here?" Kid asked his voice cracking with emotion at the mere sight of his extended family from the past gathered at his home for the first time in a few years, and even more amazing is that they are all here at the same time. That has never happened before.

Before Rachel can answer Kid's question, Jimmy and Cody each walk up to Kid and shake his hand. "Lou asked us to come," Rachel smiled her arm interlocked with Teaspoon's.

"Lou asked you to come?" Kid questioned.

From the questioning tone in Kid's voice his extended family is wondering if perhaps Lou forgot to mention that she had invited all of them to visit. Teaspoon, Cody, Jimmy and finally Buck each pull out a letter from their jacket pocket.

Lou wrote to all of us asking us to come today, November twelfth," Buck stated as he hands his letter from Lou over to Kid for him to read.

Kid opens the letter and reads it out loud as if reading the letter out loud to everyone will better make him understand why Lou hadn't told him that she wrote the letter in the first place. "Dear Buck, I would appreciate it very much if you could travel to Sweetwater on November twelfth. The new baby will be born by then and Kid will need your friendship and help with the ranch. With all my love, Lou."

Kid looks baffled as he lowers his arm that contains the letter to side. He glances at his family with a mystified look on his face.

"We all received the same letter, Kid," Jimmy stated wishing to take away the stunned look on Kid's face.

"So Kid, where is Lou and this new baby?" Rachel asked anxious to see the newest addition to Kid and Lou's family.

Kid glances at each and every one of the happy faces looking back at him that belong to his family. His eyes start to feel misty and sadness starts to overcome his senses. His legs begin to shake, and he silently prays that he is able to keep standing as he delivers the worst news that he could possibly ever deliver to his family. "Lou...Lou...she died one week ago today giving birth to...to our twin babies," Kid spoke though is voice is shaken from his distress of losing the love of his lifetime.

Suddenly the smiles that were once upon Rachel, Teaspoon, Buck, Jimmy, and Cody's face have slowly disappeared, and have been replaced with shock and disbelief from the words that have just been spoken by Kid.

"That can't be true," Jimmy spoke not being able to fully comprehend the words that Kid had just spoke, or simply not wanting to belief that Louise is gone from this earth and that he didn't get the chance to say good-bye to her.

"It's true Jimmy," Kid replied as he returns to glance over the letter that Louise had sent to their family. Kid's family gathers around him as he rereads the letter to himself several times. "Lou...she must have known. The letter states that Kid will need your friendship and help with the ranch," Kid stated as tears escape from his eyes.

Teaspoon motions for all of them to head on over to the house so that he may speak with Kid alone. It takes a few moments for each of them one by one to leave Kid's side. Once the two of them are alone, Teaspoon reaches out for Kid's arm to offer his fatherly support.

"Teaspoon, if Louise knew that she was going to die giving birth to the twins, why wouldn't she have confided in me?" Kid asked not being able to understand why Lou would keep such a secret from him.

"The way that I know Lou, she would have wanted you to enjoy the birth of those babies rather then to spend the time worrying about her," Teaspoon stated slightly shaken by the news of Louise's death.

Kid shakes his head. "Louise's death has brought back haunting memories of Ike and Noah's deaths. Before all of us joined the Pony Express with you, we were all going in different directions, and it is possible that if we hadn't been brought together by the Pony Express that we might all be gone from this life by now."

"I'm not sure I quite understand what it is you're trying to say Kid," Teaspoon spoke trying to help Kid understand why Lou has been taken from him when he isn't sure he understands the timing of her death himself.

"The Pony Express was a dangerous job and we all knew it, but everyday we took the risks of being ambushed or worst yet killed. I'm surprised that more of us haven't run out of time from this wonderful life that we have all been given to live. But we survived as a family watching after one another when times were difficult."

"Our being a close family wasn't enough to save Ike or Noah from dying at such young ages. There are always going to be circumstances beyond any of our control that could take the life of our loved ones away from us," Teaspoon spoke thinking that Kid is blaming himself for Lou's death.

"Don't get me wrong Teaspoon, Lou and I have had a great life here in Sweetwater living close to Emma and Sam, but I know that there were many times when Lou missed being home with you, Rachel and Buck. She missed Jimmy stopping by and she even missed Cody's occasional visits that Rachel would write her about. She has missed being close to Rock Creek where Ike and Noah both lived and died. I was thinking that we lose the one's we love forever when they leave us, but in reality their memory lives on inside of us. It is the people that we share our daily hopes and dreams with that really matters the most in our lives. I want Lou's and my children to grow up around our Pony Express family. I need to spread Lou's ashes back home, and the children and I need to move back to Rock Creek," Kid stated finally having some relief from the burden that he had been carrying for the week since Lou's death wondering if she had been truly happy in Sweetwater away from most of their family for the past ten years.

Teaspoon brings Kid in for a fatherly hug. "Let's get you and the children packed up, if you're sure this is what you really want to do."

"I'm sure Teaspoon. I'm finally taking Lou back home," Kid spoke as the two men walk toward the house where not so long ago five boys and one girl shared a home and a lifetime of hopes and dreams.

THE END

Truth or Dare
by: Dee

"Ok, Buck, what's it gonna be," Cody asked grinning. He believed he knew exactly what Buck's answer was to Lou's question.

"Yeah, it didn't take Kid this long to answer," Jimmy put in.

Buck couldn't believe he'd gotten himself in to this mess. It'd seemed innocent enough. A simple game Lou had said to pass the time while the snow storm raged outside. Everyone took a turn, you choose someone asked a question then they had to answer or take a dare. But like always nothing was as simple as it seemed. He could answer Lou's question and everyone would know the truth or he could take the dare causing everyone to wonder what he was hiding. He was caught either way. "Damn," he muttered under his breath.

"What was that Buck? You going to answer or take the dare," Kid said joining in on the teasing.

"Well...um...,"Buck hesitated. 'Why did Lou have to ask that question? Who'd he been dreaming about that caused him to wake up with a smile on his face every morning this week, Jenny Tompkins or Jane?' Buck knew he couldn't tell the truth and knew that Lou would write either girl as soon as she found out. "Hum..."

"Boys," Teaspoon called coming in the door, adding as he looked at Lou, "and girl. Johnson's boys have wondered off in this storm looking for their dog. We're getting a group together to go look for 'em. Buck, I'll need you to track, and the bunch of you to back him up."

Everyone had started grabbing their gear before Teaspoon had finished speaking. Kid, Ike, and Jimmy followed him out the door toward the barn. Noah wasn't far behind dragging Cody with him. Buck called to Lou as she started out the door.

Walking up beside her he said, "Truth." She looked at him funny for a moment then smile when she realized what he meant. He smiled down at her saying, "Neither. You." He kissed her on the cheek and headed out the door to join the others.

In Muddy Water
by: Debbie

Kid was in muddy water. He was in muddy water up to his armpits, his eyebrows, even the hairs on the top of his head that always stood up no matter how much he wet them down! It wasn't the first time he'd been in this much trouble and it wouldn't be the last but the difference this time was that he didn't know what he was in trouble for!

Lou had been looking at him with a lust that had him needing to leave the table and splash cold water on his face on more than one occasion or embarrass the heck out of himself. But he'd just concluded it was because they hadn't been together in a couple weeks' time and had given her his best smile in return, the one she said made her weak in the knees.

This went on for days until she finally gave him a hint in the form of constantly talking about their first night together at the Red Fern station. Well it wasn't exactly a hint as Kid was kind of thick headed when it came to what women wanted. He'd just thought it, again, had to do with them not being able to spend time in each others' arms. It wasn't until last night that she'd finally cornered him in the barn and huffed and puffed incessantly about how he could be so insensitive as to forget such a momentous occasion in their lives as a couple.

Kid had actually taken his hat off and scratched his head as he looked at her with scrunched up, perplexed eyes. 'What was she talking about?!' he kept wondering until she finally slapped him on the arm, literally, and yelled that it was their anniversary of having consummated their relationship. "But it's too late for you to make it up to me now," she'd told him. "I waited and waited. I hinted and hinted but you couldn't figure it out if I wrote it on the broad side of a barn! You had your chance and blew it!" Then the short, female rider had stomped off, saddled Lightning, and went into town with Rachel and the other boys to pick up supplies. The look Lou had sent his way as the group rode off the property was one that threatened castration if he even thought of following her.

So here Kid sat, on a bale of hay with no one but Katy to keep him company. A glance at the girl that had meant so much to him since the day he'd won the money to buy her had him sighing sadly as her companionship wasn't enough for him anymore. He needed more ... he needed Lou.

Her words kept replaying in his mind and he kept asking himself the same question. "I'd had my chance to do what?" The southerner now understood why she'd started talking to him about Red Fern but did it mean she was mad because he hadn't asked to take her on one of his rides so they could sleep together again? Even if he had thought of it, none of his rides were long enough or had warranted needing another rider for him to even make such a request. Alright, so he'd forgotten a date; it wasn't like he'd forgotten what they'd done on that date. And what was the big deal about it anyway? It was just a day, wasn't it? Sure it was the most magical time he'd spent in his life so far but it wasn't like the opportunity wouldn't present itself their way again.

He glanced off toward the horizon, knowing the horses and riders should soon be making their appearance. Kid was prepared to get down on his knees and beg for forgiveness for being such a heel but just what was he apologizing for doing or not doing?! Kid sighed deeply, feeling like Lou had this set of rules on how she wanted things to be between them, only she'd forgotten to give him a copy!

He felt like he was sitting on a keg of gun powder when it came to figuring Lou out - one wrong move on his part would ignite the fire in her, and if he didn't follow the proper protocol, like he obviously hadn't today, Kid would be up a creek without a paddle ... kissing his pillow good night instead of his girl ... picking up the pieces of his broken body as he lay scattered all over the cold, hard ground ... but most of all, he would be out of time! And the more he thought about it, the more he kept asking himself - how could he be out of time for doing something that he hadn't even realized he was supposed to be doing?!

Borrowed Time
by: Miss Raye

Living isn't the problem. It's carrying on when everyone else is gone... that's what kills you.

Teaspoon Hunter stood against the wall of the Alamo and puffed on a cheroot rolled by a boy who'd come all the way from Tennessee. All around him soldiers, citizens more than killers, waving the flag of independence.

A man's tall shadow passed by and Teaspoon looked up into the sharp gaze of a man that knew what it was like to scrape his life from the wilderness. This man with the large heart and family far away, his visage was open, smiling even when starry-eyed tenderfoots stopped him over and over to hear his stories.

Bowie was a different man. Caustic wit in a man rough as the soil they'd built the Alamo on and still was a friendly man when you got down to it. He could sit down around the fire and talk for hours and never once make you feel like you were anything less than an equal.

"What are you still doin' here, Hunter?"

Teaspoon pullet the cheroot out of his mouth and straightened a bit. "Travis? Tryin' to get rid of me, again?"

The taller man smiled. "I take it you've heard the reports?"

He shrugged and took a quick puff, blowing the smoke away from the Lieutenant Commander. "Ain't everyone?"

A thin smile pinned the corners of the man's mouth to his cheeks. "That's why I'm wondering, Hunter. Why are you still here?"

Looking around at the others, how they were ignoring the line of questioning, but doing a horrible job at it. "Don't have any pressing engagements."

"No women to romance? Tired of them, dare I say?"

There was a wicked twinkle in Teaspoon's eyes. "Hell no, sir... I'll never give up on women!"

Laughter spread through the group and Teaspoon gave them all a look that said he knew they were listening all the while.

"Well, then...you think you can follow a few orders for me?"

Shrugging again, Teaspoon gave him a nod. "Why not... I finished that book I was readin'."

"Bring your group into my office in an hour." His expression grew serious, the corners of his mouth sinking below the waterline as he looked around at Teaspoon's men. "Tell no one. Don't be late."

The cheroot dropped from his fingers and Teaspoon snapped to attention, his men all following suit. "Yes, sir... we'll be there."

On Time
by: Miss Raye
"You've been quiet."

Jimmy didn't hear her. Didn't see the worried look in her eyes.

Rosemary reached out and laid her hand on his arm. "Jimmy?"

He flinched and tried to cover it up with smile, but it was too late. "Sorry... guess I was dozin' off a bit."

It had nothing to do with sleep. Rosemary sat there on the wagon seat beside him wondering how it was she'd missed it. Missed the truth.

They were heading to the wedding. Heading to the wedding that Jimmy was supposed to miss thanks to that fight with the Kid. The wedding that he wanted to stop.

How had she missed it?

Suddenly she was desperate for the wagon to lose a wheel. For the horse to throw a shoe. Anything that would keep them away from Rock Creek. Anything that would keep Jimmy away from Louise.

"Are you sure we should go?"

"Go? Why not?" Jimmy gave her a flicker of attention and turned back to the road, his hands gripping the reins through his leather gloves. "I promised Lou."

"Lou."

He turned back. "What did you say?"

"Nothing... nothing..."

And that's exactly what he must have thought, because he turned back to the road, his gaze intense on the long stretch before them.

Rosemary thought back to the fight between the two men. She'd assumed them close friends and guessed that they were... to a certain extent. Initially, she'd thought that the conflict between them stemmed from their ideology between the Northern and Southern states, given the recent secrets between the men. Then, somewhere in the middle of the night... when she couldn't get Jimmy to lay his head down... or even let her touch him, she knew.

She knew that there was more than agriculture and imperialism tainting the relationship between them. Louise meant more than Jimmy was letting on and now as they raced to get to her wedding, Rosemary was left wondering if Jimmy was desperate to get there to give her away... or keep her for himself.

Down to the Wire
by: Miss Raye


"Hey Lou?" Buck nudged Lou's shoulder, trying to wake up the boy from a sound sleep.

"Hmm?"

"We're goin' out to take our showers, Ike said the water comin' out of the tower's warm."

"Whatever..." Lou groaned and turned over onto his face.

"You don't come out now... it's gonna be cold before you know it!" Cody tucked his clean clothes under his arm and headed for the door. "Get him up, Ike!"

Ike tugged on Lou's foot and nearly got that foot shoved in his face for the trouble. He turned back to the others in the room and shook his head. *I tried*

"Right," Jimmy laughed and elbowed Ike out of the way and yanked off Lou's blanket. That got the boy's attention.

Lou sat bolt upright in his bunk and swore like a sailor. He finished up with, "Who the hell?"

"You did it now, Jimmy..." Cody fell out the door laughing and Ike went with him.

Lurching at Jimmy, Lou ended up on the floor tangled in his sheets and it took Buck and Jimmy to disentangle the smaller boy.

"What's wrong, Lou... we're just tryin' to help."

"I'll wash when I need to."

Jimmy got down near Lou's shoulder. "What if I said you need to?"

Lou shoved at Jimmy, his palm hitting the older rider on the bridge of his nose. Howling, Jimmy stepped back and cursed when he saw blood.

Lou saw the anger in Jimmy's eyes and tried to scramble away. Buck stepped back giving him an exit, but it wasn't enough.

A moment later Lou was hanging over Jimmy's shoulder, feet kicking like a dervish and hands pelting blows on Jimmy's back. "Let me down..."

"No, thanks to you we both need to get cleaned."

Buck hung back a moment. He knew this had gone too far, but there didn't seem to be anything he could do.

They stepped out into the sun and Cody started hollering. "That's it, Jimmy... show him whose boss!"

The others joined in, either cheering or asking Jimmy to put Lou down. The resulting noise was enough to bring Emma out onto the porch. "Jimmy? Jimmy Hickok?"

He stopped, swiveling slightly to see her expression. "What?"

"You watch that tone with me, young man." She lifted her chin, pointing at Lou. "What are you doin' with him?"

"Gonna make him take a shower... he needs it."

"You better see to that nose first, Jimmy. And-" she held up her hand to stop him from protesting, "don't get any idea about doin' this again. Lou's perfectly capable of gettin' under the water under his own power." She gave the younger man a smile as his feet finally touched ground and the boy stepped quickly away from Jimmy.

The other riders were talking so loudly amongst themselves that they didn't even notice Lou stopping at the door of the bunkhouse and giving Emma a grateful smile.

Never Trust a Pretty Face
by: Jo

This takes place during 'Speak No Evil'

"Here let me help you with those." Buck managed to say as he bent to pick up some packages that the pretty young woman standing in front of him had dropped after bumping into him.

"Why thank-you I'm just going…." She was speaking but Buck wasn't listening, he was carrying the packages and following the woman.

"If you don't come back we'll understand" Buck heard Jimmy say, or was it Sam, she smiled at him again and he continued to follow her.

"My wagon is right over here, you really are very kind." She smiled at him again and motioned to a wagon. Buck walked up to the side to place the packages in the back when he suddenly became aware of someone behind him. He realized he was in trouble a moment too late and his hesitation cost him. The world went black.

He slowly became aware of two things he was cold and he could smell damp earth. Buck couldn't sense any light so he figured it was still night. He tried to move and discovered that he was tied up and gagged. He carefully opened his eyes only to discover that he couldn't see anything; the darkness was absolute. He lay still on the earthen floor hoping to hear something and thought he heard faint voices and the occasional tinkle of a piano. He guessed he was in a root cellar. Eventually exhaustion took over and he slept.

He awoke as someone was dragging him across the floor towards an open door. Buck could see it was still dark but there was a dim glow on the horizon signaling that dawn was near. Buck began to struggle. He only saw the one man…..maybe.

"Hey, he's wakin' up, get over here and help me. Stop wigglin' boy" a gruff voice said and a well placed kick caught Buck in the stomach, taking all the air from his lungs. Buck rolled onto his side and turned his head just in time to see the butt of a rifle aiming for his face; he turned away. The blow knocked him out and opened a gash behind his left ear.

"Damnit, we're not supposed to damage him yet….you heard the boss." The gruff voice growled at the other man.

"He'll be easier to get in the water tower now….'sides if we're gonna kill him anyway what difference does a little cut make?" The other man answered. Between the two of them they carried Buck to the water tower and dumped him into it.

The foot of water in the bottom did nothing to soften the landing and Buck made a sickening splash thud as he hit the bottom. The two men had already rigged a rope from the rafters that would keep Buck in an up right position but not touching the water. They hauled Buck up so he hung from his wrists, still gagged and feet tied together.

Buck woke up in pain. His head was throbbing and his shoulders were screaming with each breath he took. The man who had hit him with the rifle was sitting on a ladder which lead to an opening in the roof of the tower. The sky was bright blue and Buck prayed he'd live to see another day but he had some serious doubts.

"Ha, you're awake, I was beginnin' to wonder if'n I'd hit ya too hard. Betcha got a hell of a headache, huh Injun…." The man droned on and Buck tried to block out the taunts until he heard the man say something about Ike. "….your dummy friend shoulda kept his mouth closed, Oh I forgot he cain't talk." The man laughed and Buck made a growling noise in his throat.

The man poked Buck hard in the ribs with the barrel of the gun he was holding. The motion caused Buck to roll slightly on his ropes but it also caused his feet to find a board that would hold his weight. Buck quickly and quietly shifted his weight so that his arms and shoulders could get some rest. He couldn't even feel his hands or fingers. The pain eased slightly and breathing became easier. The man never shut up. Buck wondered if this was part of his torture having to listen to the drivel pouring from the man's mouth.

Finally the man got back to Ike and Buck began to listen again. "See what's happnin' Injun is that we sent a note to your so called friends last night tellin' 'em we had you 'n that if your dummy friend pointed his fingers in front of the judge today we was gonna kill you! They tried looking for you and that yella one walked right over the door to the cellar this morning, stepped in your blood too! You was already in here…..the boss, see, he don't like loose ends and either way you die. But see if the dummy takes the stand I get to shootcha!" The man smiled and Buck silently cursed him. "If he don't, I think I'll just use your own knife on you….is it sharp? I'll bet…." The man kept up his endless dialog and Buck wondered what time it was.

Somewhere in the distance Buck heard a bell chime. The man heard it too and stopped talking. "You're outta time, friend." The man laughed back at Buck as he climbed the ladder and sat half in, half out of the opening to the tower. The man was blissfully silent as he watched for something; Buck assumes it was a signal of some sort. Several painful long minutes passed until the man shielded his eyes from a bright light and stuck his head back inside. "Too bad…. Your friend took the stand." The man taunted Buck.

Buck heard the distinct clicks of the gun being cocked. He squeezed his eyes shut not wanting to see the bullet that would end his life. In that brief moment he thought he heard Lou yell something then he heard a shot. He waited for the pain and was surprised that he felt nothing more then he had all morning. Was this what it was like to die? He wondered briefly then opened his eyes and looked at the opening. The man was gone. He'd heard a muffled thud but thought nothing of it. Buck began to struggle hoping to free himself. Suddenly he heard the sound of someone climbing the outside ladder quickly and braced for the worst.

"Buck! Man, am I glad to see you!" Cody exclaimed as he climbed into the tower. "You were right Lou! He's alive but I think I need a bit of help." Buck heard someone else scrambling up the ladder as Cody positioned himself near Buck. Lou's head popped into view as Cody pulled Buck's knife from its sheath. "Here, cut him down while I steady him."

Lou took the knife, sliced easily through the ropes and Cody eased Buck down. Lou jumped down and carefully cut the ropes binding Buck's wrists and ankles. Cody got the gag out of his mouth. "Thanks, I thought I was a dead man." Buck mumbled accepting Cody's help to stand as his legs and arms began to get feeling back in them.

"Yeah, well, so does everyone else, we gotta get you over to that courthouse, Ike thinks you've been killed cos of him." Lou said as he climbed the ladder and disappeared.

"Can you do this yourself or do you need help?" Cody asked as Buck stumbled trying to walk.

"Let me try…." Buck managed to choke back the nausea that rose in his throat from the pain in his arms; his one thought was 'get to Ike.' Buck almost fell off the ladder twice but Cody steadied him both times and his legs felt better once he was on the ground. Lou had found his coat and he quickly put it on. Buck started to walk and finally managed to jog to the courthouse just as the judge was telling Ike it was his last chance to identify the man who'd robbed the stage.

The three riders burst into the court house and the judge called for order. "Go ahead Ike, tell him….." Buck smiled at Ike. A smile spread over Ike's face then he stood, turned and pointed his finger. A photographer captured the moment.

No Time to Say It
by: Cindy

It was cold.

That was strange, because he remembered it being a warm day. Standing at the grave, watching as Emily's father was buried, it had definitely been warm.

And sunny.

So why was there a darkness invading the periphery of his eyesight?

Ike tried to concentrate on what Buck was saying. This man was closer to him than any other, a true brother in everything except blood.

Buck's words were so positive - things they would do when Ike got better . . .

But Ike knew.

He could feel it now, the iciness touching his feet, working up his legs. His chest was heavy, each breath coming harder and harder.

He struggled to work his hands, to say what needed to be said while he still could. Before the ice took over his hands too, and took away his only means of speech.

There was so much to be said . . .

*I love you.*

"Me too, buddy."

Those simple words from his friend, his brother, gave Ike a brief surge of warmth. They'd had so many good times together - good times even amid the bad and hard times.

Buck would take this hard, Ike knew. His brother was sensitive, deep, caring - and he also tended to shoulder blame for things that weren't his fault.

Ike wanted to tell Buck it was all right, that there was no guilt for his brother to bear. He wanted to say that life had been good, and he'd do it all again as long as he had his brother by his side.

He wanted to say that the bright light beckoning him seemed warm, and friendly, and he even thought he saw his mother's face at the edge. He wanted to say it seemed to be inviting him to a good place.

But his hands felt icy cold and as heavy as if they were encased in blocks of ice.

It wasn't fair, because there was so much he wanted to say . . .

And no time left to say it.

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