Topic #68: Picture Prompt
|Thief! by: Cindy
||Killing Time by: Dede
|Last Promises by: Raye
||Through The Fire by: Raye
|Worth Its Weight by: Raye
||Starting Over by: Raye
A/N: OK, this one is all Lori’s fault!!!!!!!
“It’s 10:32 in the morning.”
When no one responded, Cody tried again. “Now it’s 10:33.”
“No one asked, Cody,” Lou muttered without looking up from her journal.
“Well, I’m just saying . . .”
“Cody, you been saying the time for two days now,” Jimmy grumbled.
“Ever since you went and bought that watch,” Noah added glumly.
Ignoring the exasperation of the others, Cody held the pocket watch up and smiled. “It is a real nice one, ain’t it,” he said, studying the case. Then he puffed a quick breath on it and rubbed it against his shirt. “All shiny and everything.”
Ike rolled his eyes theatrically and his hands flashed. *We know!* he signed, then flopped back onto his bunk.
“Just don’t understand where you got the money,” Kid commented. “Thought you owed a bunch of people.”
“Like me,” Buck said from his bunk. He lowered his book and stared up at Cody.
The blond rider wasn’t about to be distracted by his bunkhouse mates. “This was too good to pass up,” he insisted. “Tompkins gave me a real good deal.”
Buck just snorted in response, and Jimmy shook his head. “What you mean is he hiked the price up first so’s he could give you a deal.”
Cody just ignored the jabs and looked back at the watch. “It’s 10:36,” he announced – to a decidedly less than interested audience.
Buck sighed and put the book down. He sat up and started to pull on his boots. “I’m going to go get started on those chores in the barn.”
“Buck, it’s pouring out,” Lou objected.
Buck just looked from her, to Cody, and back again, one eyebrow raised.
Lou thought for a moment and then closed her journal, reaching for the cap to the ink bottle. “You’re right,” she said. “I’ll come and help.”
“Kinda silly to go out in the rain,” Cody insisted, still staring lovingly at the watch.
Buck just grabbed his jacket, his jaw tight. Then he started toward the door, followed by Lou and Ike.
“Guess maybe I’ll come too,” Noah said, pulling on his jacket.
“Yeah, why not,” Kid agreed.
“Well, I’m just stayin’ here where it’s warm and dry,” Cody announced, stroking the watch.
“Figures, since there’s work to be done,” Jimmy grumbled, heading for the door.
Cody ignored them all, including the way Jimmy slammed the door as he left. “It’s 10:40 . . .”
Following three days of rain, the late summer heat returned with a vengeance. Teaspoon had the riders out most of the day extending the corral fence in preparation for the new horses that were to be arriving in a few days.
By the time they finished the fence, all of them were tired and sweating.
“Looks real good,” Teaspoon said, inspecting the work. “Now, if you boys could just . . .”
“Teaspoon, I can’t hardly move,” Cody groaned, leaning heavily against the rails.
“It is pretty hot, Teaspoon,” Noah chimed in.
“We could use a break,” Kid agreed.
Teaspoon eyed the riders for a long moment. “Look at you,” he chided. “You don’t see me complaining.”
“Teaspoon, you were sittin’ in the shade,” Jimmy pointed out.
“Supervising,” Buck added.
“Hmmmmph. Supervisin’s hard work, ‘specially with boys like you,” Teaspoon griped. He wiped a hand theatrically across his forehead, flicking away a drop of sweat. “But,” he continued, emphasizing the word. “Seein’ as how I’m a generous man, I’ll say this is a good job for today. Paintin’ the barn can wait ‘til tomorrow.”
There were groans all around at the thought of accomplishing that task, but then Ike thumped his chest for attention and his hands formed words.
“A swim would be good,” Buck agreed.
“Cool off real good,” Jimmy said.
“I was just gonna suggest it myself!” Cody said, standing upright again.
“Well, you boys enjoy yourselves,” Teaspoon said. With a wave of his hand he headed toward the house. “I gotta get back to town an’ see what Barnett’s been up to. Not all o’ us can just lollygag you know . . .”
But the riders were already gone, running for the swimming hole.
It was maybe half a mile from the station, sheltered by trees and long grasses, and it didn’t take long to reach it.
“Lou’s on a run,” Kid said, teetering as he balanced on one leg to pull a boot off.
Jimmy grinned. “We can strip down.”
“Best way to cool off,” Noah agreed.
Boots and clothes went flying as they all hurried to get to the water.
Cody was the last one standing on the bank. He had his pocket watch in his hand, and he carefully piled his pants up under a bush to make a pillow. “It’s 3:42,” he said, not really talking to anyone in particular. Then he closed the watch and laid it gently on top of the pants pillow.
He took a step back, admiring how the watch gleamed in the sunlight that filtered through the bush’s branches. And then, with a WHOOP!, he ran for the water and jumped into the fray.
Cody stepped out of the water and made his way gingerly toward his clothes. The rocks bit at his feet, and he could feel the prickly little seed pods of one of the local bushes stabbing his toes.
All in all, it put him in an even worse mood – and he was upset to begin with. “It just ain’t fair,” he grumbled, reaching for his shirt. Yeah, it was true that Lou was due in soon, and he did have the next ride. But then he shouldn’t have had to work so hard during the day! In fact, he’d made that point, several times, that morning. Not that any of the others had cared, of course. Hickok had even threatened him with great bodily harm.
He still wasn’t sure the human body could even bend the way Jimmy had described, but he’d decided it maybe wasn’t a good idea to find out.
“Work all day, barely get a chance to cool off, and now I gotta ride all night,” he groused. “Dinner prob’ly ain’t gonna be ready either, ‘fore I have to go. I’ll have to ride on nothin’ but a sandwich.” He bent down for his pants . . .
The others came running, sure they’d find Cody torn to pieces, or at least bloodied somehow after the scream they’d heard.
Instead, they found him clad only in his shirt, on his knees, frantically scrambling in the dirt.
“Where is it?”
Kid finally stepped forward. “Uh, Cody, what are you . . .”
Cody jumped to his feet and spun around. “Where is it?” he demanded. “One o’ you took it.”
Noah tried next. “Cody, what . . .”
“I want it back right now!” Cody insisted. “Which one o’ you . . .” He stopped and glared at Buck, pointing. “You! You did it. It’s all ‘cuz o’ that medicine pouch ain’t it. Just ‘cuz I took what was in it when we was here at the swimming hole. So you figured now that we was here again, you’d get back at me!”
Buck looked around at the others, and then back to Cody. The blond rider was making even less sense than normal – if that was even a word that ever applied. “Cody, what are you talking about?”
Cody stomped a couple of feet to one side and pointed at a bush. “It was right here,” he said. “Your medicine pouch. So now you figured to get back at me.”
“Cody, you’d best start talkin’ English,” Jimmy said. “What . . .”
“MY WATCH!” Cody shouted. “It was here, and Buck took it.”
Buck’s face registered a combination of disbelief and anger. “Cody, I didn’t take your stupid watch.”
But Cody wasn’t listening. “You already done put me through that ceremony,” he insisted. “Made me cover myself in grease, an’ dirt. Figured that’d be enough. But no, you had to go and . . .”
“Cody, I did NOT take your watch!” Buck took a deep breath, held it a moment, and then exhaled slowly. He held up his hands and stood there, naked and dripping. “Where do you think I’ve got it? Besides, I was in the water before you, and got out after!”
*He was there the whole time* Ike signed.
Cody looked from one face to another, still fuming. “Well, someone took it!”
“Kinda strange,” Noah said. “I lost a few coins last time we were here.”
“I lost a sock here last week,” Jimmy said.
“Lou lost a button off her vest,” Kid added. “She said it might have been loose, but she knows it was there when she got in the water.”
The look on Cody’s face turned from anger to bewilderment to something akin to fear. “You don’t suppose . . . I mean, maybe they really was pissed . . . an’ they did it.” His eyes turned toward the sky.
“They?” Kid asked.
*Spirits?* Ike suggested.
Buck just snorted and shook his head. “Believe me, the spirits have better things to do than steal buttons and coins.”
“Watches,” Cody added.
“Or watches,” Buck said firmly. He turned and started to gather up his clothes, and a moment later the others did the same.
“It’s gotta be here,” Cody said, dropping back to his knees.
“Maybe you wore it out,” Jimmy suggested, pulling on his longjohns. “You sure do me.”
“And you got a ride comin’ up,” Noah said, tossing Cody his pants.
Cody looked stricken. “But I gotta find that watch!”
“You rode without a watch before, Cody,” Kid said. “You can do it again.”
“But . . .”
“You got a ride, Cody!”
Reluctantly, Cody dressed and pulled on his boots. And then he took one more look around. “It’s gotta be here,” he said softly.
But the sun was starting to set, and the shadows were growing. With a nervous glance skyward, he hurried back to the station.
Buttons . . . coins . . . a sock . . . a watch . . .
The puzzle nagged at Buck’s mind, even with Cody away on his ride. He was still more than a little annoyed to have been accused of stealing the watch.
But his anger was waning, replaced by a growing curiosity. And that curiosity was fed by something remembered from his childhood.
He hurried through his chores, doing his best to avoid the others. Cody’s watch was still much the topic of conversation.
Finally, his work was finished, and he headed into the bunkhouse. He opened his trunk and removed his money pouch. After a quick look out the window to make sure no one was coming, he dumped the coins onto the table. He selected two of the shiniest pennies, dumped the rest of the money back into the pouch, and replaced it in his trunk.
Then he slipped back outside and circled around, staying clear of the barn where he could hear the others working.
Once in the clear he started to run, breaking into an easy stride. He was soon near the swimming hole and then he slowed, approaching quietly.
Studying the ground near the bushes, he smiled at what he saw. Then he put the pennies down, just where they’d catch the sun and really shine.
Moving back into some of the tall grass, Buck settled in to watch. And he didn’t have long to wait until he saw it.
There was a rustling in the grass, and a black nose appeared. A moment later a long, thin body followed. Sniffing, whiskers twitching, the animal approached the pennies. A tiny paw darted out, patting the coins. And then the paw turned, scooping under one of the pennies and pulling it back.
If Buck had blinked, he would have missed the disappearance entirely, because it happened very quickly.
He left his hiding place and stepped over the other penny, following the rustling in the grass. There wasn’t too far to go until he saw what he was expecting.
He crouched down again to get a better look, and a smile spread across his face at what he saw.
“What is it, Teaspoon?”
Teaspoon crossed the yard quickly, stealing a glance back over his shoulder at the bunkhouse. Raised voices could be heard coming from inside.
“Cody’s really riled ‘bout this watch thing.”
Buck nodded. Cody had barely returned from his ride before he’d rushed into the bunkhouse and begun tearing things apart.
That was why Buck had vacated the building.
“I didn’t take his watch.”
“Didn’t figure you did.”
“And it wasn’t the revenge of the spirits either.”
Teaspoon grinned. “Didn’t figure that neither. But you got any ideas? Cody’s ‘bout ready to start a new war in there.”
Buck considered his options for a moment, and then he gave Teaspoon a little half smile. “I know exactly what happened.”
Teaspoon’s eyebrow shot up. “You do?”
Buck wagged his finger, motioning for Teaspoon to follow. He stopped in the barn to get a lantern and some matches, and then he led the way toward the swimming hole.
When they got close, Buck stopped and lit the lantern, keeping the wick low so that there was only a small glow given off. He put a finger to his lips for silence and they inched forward.
They got close to the clump of bush roots Buck had found the day before and were greeted by frantic chattering and hissing.
“What the devil . . .”
Buck held the lantern out, and the mystery started to lessen.
“Well, I’ll be,” Teaspoon whispered.
“Ferrets,” Buck said.
“The original little thieves,” Teaspoon muttered.
Buck nodded and moved the lantern to one side. The light glinted off of two shiny pennies and a button.
“Quite a collection,” the older man said.
“There’s more.” Buck moved the lantern back the other way.
One little ferret stood in front, teeth bared, hissing for all his three-pound body could handle. The fur on the back of his neck stood up, and it was obvious he was guarding something.
The light from the lantern illuminated a depression just behind the brave little ferret, and Teaspoon caught his breath.
A sock filled the dip, and another ferret was curled on top of it. And nestled next to the second ferret were four tiny little babies.
“I watched them being born yesterday,” Buck said softly.
“A whole little family.” Teaspoon took a step back. “Guess we can give them some privacy.”
Both men stepped back, leaving the little ferret family safely ensconced in the darkness.
“How’d you figure it?” Teaspoon asked when they had moved a little distance away.
“Once I got past being angry at being accused of stealing the watch, I started thinking about the things the others said were missing. Coins, a button, a sock.”
“Kinda suspicious, huh?”
“Made me think of something from when I was a child. There were ferrets around the village, and some of the others would get angry when things disappeared.”
“But not you?”
Buck shook his head. “I’d feed them. Some of the younger ones would eat from my hand.” He turned away and his voice got very soft. “Sometimes, they were my only friends.”
Teaspoon heard the pain in those words, and he clapped a friendly hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “Well, you got friends now,” he said. “Waitin’ back to the bunkhouse.”
Buck nodded and turned that way, but Teaspoon’s hand on his arm stopped him.
The stationmaster looked back toward the nest. “I, uh . . . I didn’t see the watch back there.”
Buck grinned. “It’s there – under the sock. I could see the chain yesterday in the daylight.”
“Well, don’t that beat all.”
“It’s part of the nest now.”
“You gonna tell Cody?”
Buck nodded. “Eventually,” he said. “When the babies are big enough.”
“Seems fair,” Teaspoon agreed.
“Gives us a few days of not hearing what time it is every few minutes.”
“Which will be fine – if Mr. Cody stops tearing apart the bunkhouse.”
“He will, or Jimmy will stuff him in the chicken feed bin.”
Buck just nodded in agreement, and then both men laughed.
“That seems . . . fair,” Teaspoon said.
“Definitely,” Buck agreed.
“Well, let’s go see how much damage they’ve done.”
Men talk of killing time, while time quietly kills them. Dion Boucicault
Cody rode along the path, humming. Though he was looking forward to getting home, he wasn’t in any hurry. He’d been helping a neighbor with some repairs. He hadn’t minded Teaspoon volunteering him to help Mr. Branscome fix the damage caused by the wind last night. In fact, he’d been glad to go. Mrs. Branscome was a great cook and always spoiled any of the riders when they came over. And she hadn’t disappointed him. He smiled as he thought of the wonderful stew she’d made for lunch with the light, fluffy biscuits that just soaked up the liquid. He’d been so full, after three helpings, that he’d been sure he couldn’t eat another bite. Of course, when Mrs. Branscome brought out dessert – chocolate pie – his stomach had found room. It was actually growling at the memory.
He knew he shouldn’t be the least bit hungry since he’d eaten right before he left. The repairs had been a couple of shutters, part of the fence and a few shingles so it really hadn’t taken him too long. He’d gotten up early to head over there much to the amusement of his friends. They’d teased him about wanting to get two breakfasts. Of course he denied it but, in the end, he’d succeeded. He’d not only eaten what Emma had made but then, getting to the Branscomes, he was in time for a big helping of eggs, bacon and grits. His mouth was starting to water.
Grinning, he reached into his saddlebag that contained a few dozen oatmeal cookies Mrs. Branscome had given him to take home to everyone and pulled one out. As he munched, he debated whether to share any of them with the others. He decided to wait and see how much ribbing he got, particularly from Hickok. Just as the horse was rounding the curve in the road, something caught his eye up ahead. A slight shimmer off in the tall grasses. He slowed the horse down and looked in the direction. There it was again – almost like sun bouncing off a mirror.
As he rode closer, all kinds of possibilities for what it could be ran through his mind. “Maybe it’s gold,” he murmured, his eyes widening at the thought. “Or, perhaps a pretty miss lost her bag with her jewelry in it and I’ll be the man who finds it.” He liked the idea of returning property and getting a reward – of some kind. He kept his eyes glued to where he’d seen the flash, hoping to see it again.
Once he got to where he thought it was, he looked around. Had he just been imagining it? Maybe it was just the sun reflecting off a rock. He shook his head but he decided to investigate. As he swung his leg over the saddle, he saw the glint again. It was bright and Cody was excited. Quickly, he hopped down and ran over to the spot. The area was covered in low-lying rabbit brush and grasses so he was going to have to get down and search.
“At least it ain’t skunk bush,” he mumbled as he pulled off his gloves.
On his knees, he tentatively pushed aside the scrub and gently searched the ground underneath the bushes, one after another, running his hand slowly over the dirt. After a few minutes, he started thinking again that he’d just seen the sunlight bouncing off one of the rocks, until his hand brushed across something solid but smooth. Intrigued, Cody reached farther under the bush and pulled out his treasure.
A pocket watch. A very old pocket watch. Cody thought it looked to be silver though the color was more like copper from the tarnish. He rubbed his thumb over the cover. It was a simple design, a hammered spiral starting from the center, winding its way out towards the edge of the cover.
“Now how do you suppose this thing gave off such a shine?” he mused as he stared at his find. The spiral was mesmerizing.
The cover had a small circular dent in the middle of the spiral. To Cody it looked almost like the dent could have been made by a bullet hitting the watch but then, he knew that was impossible since the watch was too delicate to stop a bullet. He noticed that there had been a chain by the few links remaining on the stem. He pushed the crown and the cover popped open, much to his surprise. The dial was a pearly white with simple black Roman numerals and thin black spade hands. Though the crystal was cracked, amazingly, Cody could hear the ticking. He looked at the inside of the cover and the back, checking for any engraving that could indicate the owner. He saw nothing.
“Well, it ain’t gold or jewelry but…” He paused, turning it over in his hand, wondering whether to keep it or not. He didn’t understand why he was hesitating. Shaking his head, he laughed and dropped the watch in his pocket. “Ain’t a way in the world to find out who owns it so,” he grinned and patted his pocket, “guess it’s mine.”
He walked over to his horse, happily munching on the brush, and climbed on. Directing the animal towards the station, he headed home.
As Cody rode into the yard, he didn’t see a single person. Wondering where everyone was, he pulled his watch out to check the time. Opening the cover, he glanced at the hands and then at the sun. By his account, the watch was off about an hour. Guiding the horse to the barn, he quickly unsaddled and rushed through brushing the animal. He knew he wasn’t doing a good job but he wanted to get into the bunkhouse and clean his new watch. Polished and with a new chain, he thought it would be a pretty fancy addition to his suit for the dance the following week. Grabbing his saddlebag, not wanting anyone to spot the cookies, he headed to the bunkhouse. On his way, he saw Lou.
“Cody,” Lou said, “Teaspoon wants to talk to us about something. Might as well stay in the barn.”
“I’ll be there in just a few minutes,” Cody said, not breaking his stride. “I got somethin’ to do real quick.”
Once inside the bunkhouse, he tossed his bag onto his bunk, sat at the table and removed the watch from his pocket. Gently opening the cover, he pulled the stem up and twisted the hour hand forward so it read two o’clock. He was pretty sure that was the time but he’d check with Teaspoon later. Teaspoon always kept his pocket watch perfectly timed.
“Now to polish it up a bit.” He left the watch on the table and got up to get a soft cloth. As he was bent over, going through his trunk, the door opened.
“Cody,” Buck said, highly agitated. “What have you been doing? Didn’t Lou tell you that Teaspoon wants us in the barn?”
Cody stood up straight and looked at Buck. Why did Buck sound so annoyed?
“Yes she did and I tol’ her I’d be just a bit,” Cody said, trying to hold his temper. “I just got home so why are you upset?”
“Just got home?” Buck barked. “You’ve been in here for an hour. Or over that.”
Cody stared at Buck, nonplussed. “Um, I believe you are mistaken,” he corrected. “I just got in here a few minutes ago.”
Buck gritted his teeth. “No, you’ve been in here for an hour. Jimmy saw you come in here after you got back from the Branscomes.” Buck crossed his arms over his chest, a hostile stance. “And Lou put your horse in the stable for you an hour ago.”
“Well, Hickok is lyin’,” Cody snapped, angry that Jimmy would lie like that. “And, Lou is sidin’ with him.” He’d just seen Lou, why had she said that?
“Oh right, they’re lying.” Buck put his hands up. “If that’s how you want to tell it, fine, but Teaspoon still wants you in the barn.” Without waiting for a response, Buck spun on his heel and stormed out the door, slamming it behind him.
“What was that all about?” Cody wondered. Walking back to the table, he picked up his watch. It seemed less tarnished; the silver showing through more. “Must be from me rubbin’ it so much,” he muttered, though something nagged at him all the same.
Opening the cover, he noticed the time. The watch had seemed to gain time, about five minutes or so. He knew that he’d set the watch just seconds before Buck had come in. Cody grumbled and reset it. Just as he was about to put it away, the door flew open.
“Cody,” Buck said, highly agitated. “What have you been doing? Didn’t Lou tell you that Teaspoon wants us in the barn?”
Cody’s jaw dropped and he stared at Buck in consternation. “Wha-wha,” he stuttered. “But you…you jus’ said that…”
It was Buck’s turn to stare at Cody, but the Kiowa’s expression was irritation. “I don’t know what you’re talking about and I don’t care. Just get in the barn.” Buck turned to leave and just as he opened the door, he added, “Now!” He disappeared out the door, slamming it behind him.
Cody stared at the door, still in a state of shock. He couldn’t figure out what had just happened. Maybe the others were playing a joke on him, but Buck didn’t seem to be in a joking mood. He’d really looked angry. Cody’s brow furrowed as he tried to think this situation through. As he replayed everything since he’d got home, he felt the pressing weight of the watch in his hand. The watch. He’d changed the time forward by an hour and then back by five minutes. Staring at the insignificant looking timepiece, he swallowed hard.
“What kinda’ time do you tell?”
Charlie Price wished he’d left his wife at home. He wished a lot of things, but then again, that never made them happen. “Sam?” He set the brake on the wagon and slid down to the ground, careful not to spook the marshal. Sam wasn’t in any condition to have someone scare him. Not if they wanted to live.
Charlie felt his wife walk up behind him, her hand flattening against his back. “Charlie? The baby…”
He didn’t know why he hadn’t noticed the child before, sitting in the soft earth; the hem of its gown tracked with dirt, the baby couldn’t see anything past his tears. Pitiful cries sent shivers up his spine and he felt his wife’s fingers biting into his back. “Go, get him.”
She moved slowly at first… as though her feet couldn’t quite remember the rhythm of walking. “Sam, I’m gonna pick up little Jamie… he shouldn’t be sittin’ out here in the dirt.”
She rounded Sam’s position and knelt down to pick up the boy, whose screams didn’t pause even for breath. Fear and terror gave him wind and he fought against the unfamiliar touch of a woman not his mother.
Charlie knelt down beside Sam and tried to catch his eye. “Sam, you can’t do this… it’s not healthy… it’s not,” he paused and took a breath, “what Emma would want?”
Sam didn’t pause for a second, his hand digging further into the dirt just to the north of the clothesline. “This is exactly what Emma would want. What I promised her I would do.”
Little Jamie’s cries rent Abigail’s heart in two and she gently pressed his rigid body against her own. “Sam, Emma would want you to take care of the children.”
His head swiveled toward her and his gaze pinned her lips together. “Emma would want me to find the men that did this… and put them in the ground. That’s what I’m gonna do.”
A moment of anguish crossed his features and the hard curve of his back hung down between his shoulders. “Did you pack your things?”
She nodded, even though he couldn’t see it, her hands gripping the doorway as she leaned against it for support.
He turned an inch toward Charlie and swallowed hard before speaking. “I’m gonna leave Lizzie and Jamie with you. I’ve got some things I need to do. They’ll be safe… with you and Abby.”
“Sam, let the law take care of this and-”
“I am the law!” Sam’s voice roared from his throat and Jamie’s cries changed to whimpers as he fisted his hand into Abby’s duster. “I want you to promise me that they’ll have a home with you, Charlie… promise me that.”
Charlie set his hand down on Sam’s shoulder and nodded. “That’s no problem at all, Sam… you know Abby and I love your kids like our own.”
Sam gave a grunt and yanked a wooden box free of its earthly tomb and set it down on the flat beside his knee. He flicked the cover open and stared down at the fistful of trinkets that Emma had buried in the ground. “She knew… somehow she knew, Charlie.” He scooped the items up into his palm and held them to the light. “The gold locket. The locket is for Elizabeth. She’ll want to have that for her wedding. She’ll want to show her brother what their parents looked like.” He continued on, knowing that Charlie would argue with him. “Her rosary is for Jamie… he’ll need it if he grows up to be like his old man. The watch, though… the watch needs to go to Jimmy Hickok… last I heard he was playin’ at the law in Abilene. Can you get this to him?” He grabbed Charlie’s wrist and dropped the items into his palm.
Charlie shook his head and put the items back into the box. “Sam, the undertaker’s got Emma ready for the funeral. We’ve come to bring you and the kids into town.”
“No.” Sam got up on his feet and headed for the barn. “I’ve got a trail to follow.” He heard the footsteps coming toward his back and held up a hand to stop Charlie before he got in the way.
Too bad Charlie wasn’t a very understanding fellow. “Sam. Sam, wait a minute, damn it!” His hand latched onto Sam’s arm and swung him around. “You’ve got a wife to bury and two children who need you.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Charlie… they can’t use me like this,” he swept his hand out to emphasize the disheveled appearance of his clothes and the days long growth of stubble on his face, “no one can until I find the men that touched her. And when I find them and show them what it means to fear, then I’ll be back.”
He stopped just shy of the hitching post when Elizabeth threw herself against his side. Her arms wrapped so tight around his middle he about lost the ability to breathe. She hiccupped out a few words asking him to promise. “Promise you’re comin’ back, Papa… please, promise me…”
Kneeling down at her side, he wrapped his arms around her neck and pressed a kiss to her tear-stained cheek. “I promise I’ll always love ya, darlin’… I promise you that much.”
Jimmy looked up as the young boy forced his way through the saloon. He didn’t want everyone to know he was in town. Hell, these days he didn’t want anyone to know anything.
He pushed back the front brim of his hat and looked over at the boy. “Who wants to know?”
The boy shrugged and looked at the package. “Look, the man at the post gave me two bits to bring this over to the saloon. At this point I don’t even care if you’re Hickok. I wanna go home.”
Jimmy reached into his pocket and tossed the boy a coin. “Then hand it over and git.”
The boy shoved it in Jimmy’s hands and ran for the door as if he was afraid Jimmy would change his mind.
The bartender took a minute to step over and look at the package. “You got friends in Omaha, Hickok?”
Sliding him a hard glare, Jimmy tucked the package under his arm so that the bartender couldn’t see anything else. “You got something to do besides gettin’ into my business?”
When the man busied himself with the pyramid of glasses at the other end of the bar Jimmy tugged at the string and pushed the brown paper aside. The small wooden box inside gave him pause. It wasn’t his birthday and it surely wasn’t anywhere near the holidays… so what was Emma sending him? What was in the box?
He ignored the slight tremor of his hand, the ache in his bones and gripped the lid with a groan that bubbled up from his gut. The moment the lid was off the box he didn’t have to ask what it was, he knew. Emma’s watch. The same watch that hung from her waist in all the time he knew her… the same watch that she held to her ear for comfort when her thoughts were darker than the night.
No one noticed as he stumbled from the chair and ran for his rooms above, everything besides the watch fell to the floor. His thoughts warred with each other as he struggled to decide what to do first, send the wire or buy the ticket on the stage. He knew it would waste time to send the wire. Sam wouldn’t be in any mood to read the silly thing. He knew he wouldn’t, not at a time like this. Instead, Jimmy ran straight for the stage office and slapped down more than enough for a single one way ticket.
“Where to?” The agent wondered before Jimmy caught his breath.
“What’s you got goin’ in-”
“I’m goin’ to get answers, Jeb… just give me the God damn ticket.”
Ignoring the shocked expression from the agent, Jimmy ripped the ticket off the counter top and reached up to his breast pocket. It wasn’t until then that his fingertips touched the cool metal of the pocket watch. The watch that Sam sent him… because Emma was dead.
I've seen fire and I've seen rain
I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I'd see you again
“It’s not worth more than a couple of pennies, Missus Clarke.”
“NO,” she tried to keep the sound of desperation out of her voice, but her fingers grabbed onto his hand like talons, “it’s gold. It’s been in my family for years.”
“You may have had it for years, but it ain’t gold.” He laughed and bounced the timepiece in his hand as if testing its weight. “I’ll give you a dollar, but that’s the most anyone would give you for such a… worthless piece of-”
Mrs. Audrey Clarke covered her daughter’s ears, “I’ll take it, thank you, Mr. Cray… my daughter and I need the funds for a train ticket.”
He scoffed at her attempt to shield her child. “A dollar will get you precisely nowhere.” He looked up at the surrounding buildings and nodded toward the west end of town. “Why don’t you head over to the Garter, they’re lookin’ for a new girl.” He slid his hand along the trim decorating her blouse and smiled when she flinched. “You could make enough money for tickets… and a brand new dress.”
“Didn’t I tell you to get out of town, Cray?”
The man nearly dropped the watch at the sound of the marshal’s voice. “Nope, don’t recall you sayin’ anything like that, Sam.”
Sam drew his sidearm and pointed it in the center of the man’s chest. “Well, I do, Cray.” He looked over at the two men shadowing behind the con artist. “I remember everything I told you. Now, you take your men and find yourselves out of my town by sundown, or I’ll lock you up just like I promised.”
Cray slipped the watch into his pocket with one hand, the other tipping the brim of his hat down. “Sure… sure.” He waved two open palms before his face. “I got no quarrel with you, Marshal Cain.”
He gave the woman a chilly stare and she clasped her child to her side and stepped back into the marshal’s shadow. There were a few steps separating them when Sam finally saw the worried look on the woman’s face and his memory quickly replayed the scene only moment before. The exchange he’d seen, but hadn’t quite registered in his mind.
He knew the man froze, he saw it in the way the woman’s shoulders tensed and the way her child pressed back against her mother’s legs. “What is it, Marshal?”
“Give the woman back her watch before I run you in for thievin’.”
“Oh… did I?” Cray turned on his heel and walked over to the woman until he was on the same plane with Sam. “Sorry, ‘bout that… it completely slipped my mind.”
He withdrew the watch from his pocket, dangling it from the chain. “This yers, Ma’am?”
Before she had the chance to answer he flicked his wrist and the timepiece flew across the space missing her open hands and bouncing at her feet.
The casing popped open and a delicate crunch reached Sam’s ears. The glass was broken and the metal frame hung open at an odd angle. Sam watched as Cray and his men beat a hasty retreat for the shadows and by the time he turned back the woman was on her knees picking up pieces of the pocket watch from the wear-worn boards of the walk. As she tried to fit the pieces of the casing together, a small folded piece of paper slipped out between the metal gears and Sam picked it up.
Opening up the flaps he turned it one way and then the other. He recognized the paper for what it was. A map. Sam held out his hand and the woman reluctantly set the watch in his palm. With great curiosity Sam turned the pocket watch over in his hands. A. L. Clarke.
Sam looked at the woman. “This your husband's?”
She raised her chin slightly, but her eyes never waved. “Yes. Did you know my husband, marshal?"
“I know they’re still looking for the gold he stole from Wells Fargo.” Sam tucked the paper into his chest pocket and gave her a sympathetic look. “I’ll have to keep the watch.”
She looked like she wanted to argue, but instead she took her daughter’s hand and sat down on the ground. “We’ll wait."
“How much longer do we have to wait, Papa?”
The conductor swiveled around at the sound of impatience. “Have somewhere important to go, little miss?”
Whirling around in her little white pinafore the girl set her fists on her hips and gave him a nod. “We’re taking the train to Saint Joseph… in Missouri.”
“Oh, is that so?” He gave a little laugh at her exasperated look. “Just you? Or you got folks goin’ along?”
She nodded back at her father. “That’s my Papa. He’s gonna run a real big store in Sweetwater.”
“Sweetwater?” He gave her a sly look. “I thought you said Saint Jo… you funnin’ me?”
“Nope… just didn’t get around to sayin’ it.”
He looked over at the man the girl had said was her kin and gave him a smile. “Got one at home ‘bout her age.”
Her papa gave him a sympathetic look. “Just waitin’ for the next train to board. My little girl’s a little…”
“Excited?” The conductor offered.
“That… and then some.”
The conductor reached into his pocket. “Well then, if you’ve got yourself a need to keep busy, sweetie… come on over here.”
She ran over without looking at her father, eager for something to do.
“How about I make you into my assistant?”
She tilted her head to the side and gave him a look. “Do I get paid?”
The conductor waved off her father’s concern. “It’s a fair question. How about I…” he looked at his schedule and bobbed his head a few times, “I get you and your Papa into a more comfortable car?”
“What about Mama… she’s comin’ with us?”
“Well, then we’ll have to include your Mama, too.” He bent down and opened his pocket watch, tilting it back and forth so that the sun glinted off the glass surface. “You see, things get real busy for me here at the Station and sometimes folks are askin’ me so many questions… it’s hard to remember what time it is.” He paused for a moment as if he thought of a really important question. “Do you know how to tell time on a clock?”
She gave him a sour look. “Of course I do… My Mama taught me how.” She pointed at the face with one finger. “That’s the hour… and that,” the second hand, “that tells you how long until the next one.” Her look was pleased… and sure.
“Exactly!” He pointed to the number three. “When the long hand… the ‘next hour’ hand hits the three. That’s when your train is gonna be ready to board. So, you hold on to this,” he reach up to the welt of his vest pocket and opened the clip and gathered the chain into his hand, “and you tell me when the ‘next hour’ hand reaches up and touches the twelve… that’s when we’re gonna tell everyone to start getting ready. Think you can do that?”
“Of course… what do you think I am… a ninny?”
He dropped the watch into her hand and then held his hands up in surrender. “Heavens no. How could I ever think that?”
The conductor made sure that there was a clean bench for her sit on and walked back to the tracks. The girl’s father stopped him with a smile. “Thanks… for what you did for Jennifer. She hasn’t been… eager for the move and I know it’s hard on her.”
“No problem, Sir. She’s gonna be a handful -“
“She’s one now!” He offered his hand for a friendly shake and the conductor met him half way. “If you’re ever in Sweetwater you look me up. William Tompkins… my wife, Sally and I are opening a store there. “