Topic #75: GUILT
Child of Mine by: Cindy
In the Way by: Miss Raye
Circle of Guilt by: catsimmie
The Past Comes Back by: Cindy
The Gate is Open by: Miss Raye
Lost by: Miss Raye
Time in a Bottle by: Cindy
Afterthought by: Dede
A Tail of Woe by: Dede
The Case of the Sliced Pie by: Dede
Guilty Pleasures by: Dede
Blinded By The Guilt Within by: catsimmie and Shannon
Old Ghosts and Guilt by: Destardi
A Poor Substitute I by: Destardi
A Poor Substitute II by: Destardi
Innocent Until Proven Guilty by: Ellie
Still The One by: Shannon
Finding Peace by: Lori
Guilty Thoughts by: Michelle R
I Promise by: Cindy
Words We Say by: Cindy
Fear and Loathing by: Miss Raye
Forgive Me by: Miss Raye
Child of Mine
by: Cindy

Fort Kearny, Nebraska Territory

ELIZABETH KELLY

He knelt by the wooden marker, running his fingers lightly over the name etched there.

"Wish I'd known 'bout you," Teaspoon whispered, the words catching in his throat.

Elizabeth Kelly… Beatrice's daughter…

His daughter.

He closed his eyes, remembering. He'd been so angry after learning that Cyrus had betrayed his trust, and stolen Beatrice away. All he could think of was getting away - far, far away.

That didn't necessarily mean that Beatrice was far from his thoughts. In fact, he'd thought of her often, especially in those first few months… years…

It had taken some time, but he'd even come to acknowledge that his own extended absence had played a significant role in losing Beatrice.

The prospecting had never panned out anyway, and for the life of him now, he couldn't recall why he hadn't abandoned the venture and gone home. Home to Beatrice.

Home to their daughter.

Several times in those first few years he'd wound up back in the area, but he could never quite get past his anger to actually try to see Beatrice. By the time the anger faded and he did go back, she had moved away.

And he had never known about Elizabeth.

Teaspoon sighed, thinking back to when he had thought he had met Elizabeth. The conflicting emotions - surprise, sadness at the years he'd missed, love…

It had all been a lie, of course. A plot by Amanda O'Connell and her cohort to try and steal the money Beatrice had set aside for him. But in the end, Amanda hadn't been able to complete the plan, not when it had turned toward murder.

Before she left, Amanda had told him the whole story. How she had met and befriended Elizabeth, and how they had spoken about Elizabeth's plan to find her father - as soon as she got well. Except her illness had only worsened, and nothing the doctor could do had changed the outcome.

But even with larceny in mind, Amanda had had enough heart to see that Elizabeth received a proper burial, and she told Teaspoon where to find the grave.

Kearny was too far from Sweetwater to be an easy trip, and so he'd only been able to think about visiting his daughter's grave, and what he would say. But now, from Rock Creek, it was a more manageable trip. And having captured some outlaws wanted by the army had provided the perfect reason to travel to the Fort.

He just wished he had come up with the right words to say.

Teaspoon wiped a stray tear that trickled down his cheek, and cleared his throat. "I had a real love for your mama," he said softly. "And you gotta know I'd o' never left her if'n I'd known she was carryin' you."

And how much would have been different then? He would have married Beatrice, settled down, raised a family. He would have been there for Beatrice, holding her hand when she died. And Elizabeth never would have had to set out to find a father she'd never known. She wouldn't have gotten sick on that journey, wouldn't have died…

"Teaspoon?"

He looked up, finding Buck standing a few feet away. But he couldn't quite find any words to say.

"Are you all right?"

The concern on the younger man's face, and in his voice, brought a small smile to Teaspoon's face. "I'm fine," he replied. "Just kinda hard, sayin' goodbye to someone I never knew."

Buck nodded in understanding. "I've got the supplies," he said. "But if you want to stay a while, that's fine."

Teaspoon got to his feet slowly and looked back down at the grave. Yes, he wished he had known Elizabeth - wished he had been there for Beatrice and his daughter. But wishing wouldn't turn back the clock and make it so. And if he had settled in to raise a family all those years ago, he never would have been involved with the Pony Express, or found the family he had there.

"Guess there ain't much more to say," Teaspoon said, laying a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "We done our job, got them prisoners here. Now it's time to go home."

They started toward the horses, but when they reached the cemetery gate, Teaspoon paused and looked back, one more time. What if he had…

He shook his head, a sad smile playing at his lips. Nothing would completely erase the guilt he felt at never knowing his daughter, but being here had helped, at least a little. Now it was time to get back to his family in Rock Creek.

And who knew what kind of trouble those boys had gotten into in the week he and Buck had been gone…

In the Way
by: Miss Raye

It didn't really hit anyone until he broke down that night at dinner. Broke down and dove across the table at Jimmy.

They'd gone up and over the bench on Jimmy's side of the table someone's foot caught the edge and set the plates dancing as the salt shaker fell and rolled away.

The fists were flying and Ike, the first one into the fray took an elbow in the face for his effort. Buck pushed in and laid a hand on Kid only to be knocked back as Jimmy rolled, trying to remove himself from the bottom of the pile.

"Kid!" Teaspoon's surprised bark faded into the shouts and confusion of the bunkhouse.

Rachel was more concerned with platters and pots coming down on someone's head than the spilled food. She scrambled to move them out of the way as the fight continued. Three riders had to pull the young Virginian off of Hickok.

Jimmy sat up rubbing his jaw with his knuckles. "What took you so long?"

Kid struggled against the hands that held him back, spit punctuating his words. "You walk around like it's nothing!"

"I'm alive, Kid… you wanna do something about it."

Balling his hand into a fist Kid pulled back his arm only to have Teaspoon step in and hold him back. "Son… I think we should sit down and talk about this."

Brushing off the restraining hands of his friends, Kid dusted off his clothes and refused to look at Jimmy. "Y'all can talk all you want. I need some fresh air." He swung the door open and left it sitting open behind him.

*** ***

The moon offered him no solace, its wide milky surface only seemed to shed light on the ground around his feet. It wasn't a comfort. Anger loved the dark. Anger loved hiding in the recesses. The more light there was meant you might discover something. More light meant-

"Kid?"

He swung around and gave Buck a look. "Drew the short straw?"

Buck shrugged and walked past the Kid and up to the corral fence. There wasn't anything to look at in the enclosure and that seemed to suit Buck just fine.

"You don't have to say anything," Kid began, "can't say anything 'sides what I've been rollin' over and over in my head the last few days." He kicked a rock that stood out in shadow on the patch of dirt at his feet. "Ever since they closed that lid over his head… it's been eatin' at me." He tried valiantly to pull air into his lungs. "The undertaker told me it was a waste to buy him clothes to be buried in." He scoffed at the memory, voices loud and clear in his head. "I just couldn't put him in the ground wearing nothin' but his unders, it just ain't right."

Buck nodded, but Kid could barely see the silhouette of the Kiowa. Still he continued on building up momentum as he went. "So there we were… all standin' around while the preacher read from the Bible and everyone standin' around all sad and solemn when it was a lie!"

He kicked the low rung of the corral and the stinging pain gave Kid something to focus on instead of the unsettling thoughts. "They weren't there for Jed… couldn't have cared if he lived or died on the street. Only folks that knew him around these parts were me and the men he rode with and they're all dead except for the one waitin' on his trial and he didn't want to come… doesn't that strike you as odd, Buck?"

The silence went on for nearly a minute until Kid overflowed with questions. "So what were they all doing there? Why come to put him in the ground? Why Jimmy? Wasn't it enough that he put a bullet through his back?"

There was a shift in the night… as if even the shadows seemed to move and tremble at the anger and loathing sliding free from his words.

"I guess Jimmy thought he was doing the best that he could."

"He was wrong."

Buck nodded slowly, taking the words into consideration. "It's possible. It may be, but why was Jed still there? Why didn't he run when he had the chance? "

"I… I…" Kid brought the side of his fist down on the top rung of the corral, gritting his teeth against the pain. "He wanted to run… he wanted to…" He looked to Buck who was now watching the moon move slowly through the sky over their heads.

Ike walked out of the bunkhouse at that moment and passed by without a glance on his way to the barn. Buck turned to join him and left the Kid alone with his thoughts.

He watched them go. Watched them walk away and tears bled through his vision as he wondered aloud for the first time. "Why didn't I let him go?"

Circle of Guilt
by: catsimmie

AN:This directly follows my Quick Fic #74- Circle of Life.

Kid sat there stroking Katy’s mane long after she passed. He knew that he had had no choice; her leg had been broken too badly. But the guilt still settled over him.

He felt guilty for not making sure the barn was locked tight, for not making sure that the fence on the corral wasn’t broken. These past few days he’d been so distracted by worrying over Lou, he’d neglected his daily chores, and because of it, his beloved horse had to be put down.

“Son,” Teaspoon said coming up behind Kid. He stopped at the sight in front of him. “I’m sorry, Kid.”

“Didn’t have much of a choice,” he said quietly. “It was my fault she got hurt.”

Teaspoon placed his hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Sometimes these things can’t be helped. Don’t go blamin’ yourself. You gotta healthy baby girl up at the house waitin’ to meet her pa.”

“Lou… I missed the birth of my daughter,” Kid sighed. Another thing to feel guilty about, he thought as he stood up.

Teaspoon and Kid walked to the house and Kid finally smiled as he heard his daughter's cries coming from up the stairs. He raced up the stairs only to bump into Rachel coming down them.

“Excuse me, Rachel,” Kid said trying to push his way past.

Rachel blocked him from continuing up the stairs. “Kid,” she started. “You need to wait downstairs.”

Kid immediately heard the seriousness in her voice. “Rachel, what’s wrong? What’s happenin’?”

Rachel turned him around and started walking him down the stairs. “Doc Barnes will be down to explain what’s goin’ on.”

Kid stopped. “If something’s happening to Lou… Rachel, please.”

Rachel felt bad as she heard the panic in his voice. “Kid, there’s nothin’ you can do right now. You’d just be in the way, and Lou doesn’t need that right now.” Rachel continued to guide him down the stairs.

“Is she…” Kid couldn’t finish the thought. He’d already lost Katy today and he couldn’t bear it if he lost Lou as well.

Rachel shook her head. “No, but right now it doesn’t look good,” she replied honestly.

Kid collapsed on the sofa. “I shoulda been in there with her! I should be in there with her now,” he cried as he buried his head in his hands.

“Stop beatin’ yourself up, son,” Teaspoon said. “Louise is gonna be fine. She’s strong and she’ll pull through this.” Or at least I hope so, he thought to himself.

“Kid, if you’ll stay down here, I’ll bring your daughter down. I’ll check on the situation while I’m there.”

“Thanks, Rachel,” Kid said quietly, as if he were already shutting down.

You shoulda got the Doc last night, Kid thought. If you had ridden into town then Katy would still be alive and Lou wouldn’t be up there fighting for her life.

As Kid was beating himself up inside, he didn’t notice as Rachel came down the stairs with his daughter. “Kid?” she asked, unsure what to do.

Kid looked up and held out his arms. Rachel placed the tiny bundle in his arms and as with her mother, Kid fell fast and fell hard. “For someone who can’t seem to do anything right, looks like I did at least one good thing.” Kid nearly lost it as his daughter opened her eyes and looked right at him and grasped onto his finger.

“She’s beautiful,” Teaspoon said coming up behind Kid and looking down at his “granddaughter.”

“She looks just like Lou,” Kid said sadly. “Teaspoon, what do I do if…”

“Son, I know you’re thinkin’ this is your fault, but sometimes these things just happen. I know Rachel said it don’t look too good right now, but you know how Lou is. God forbid somethin’ does happen, well you just need to be strong for your little girl here. Have you guys picked out a name?”

Kid nodded. “Katherine Louise,” he said softly. “After both our mothers.”

Teaspoon nodded. “That’s a good name, a strong name. You two did good on this one.”

Kid shrugged as he continued to gaze down at his beautiful daughter. His guilt slowly fading as he tried to concentrate on being strong for her. He looked up as he heard footsteps and saw Rachel on the stairwell.

“Kid…”

He sprung from the couch, handing his daughter to Rachel on his way up the stairs.

The Past Comes Back
by: Cindy

We'll be traveling through Rock Creek next month, somewhere near the fifteenth. I am so looking forward to seeing you again!

He re-read that line again, but the meaning didn't change. She was coming here, to Rock Creek. And she wanted to see him.

He read it again, the whole letter this time. The news about her engagement, the future she envisioned with her fiancé.

And she was coming here.

Buck took a deep breath and laid the paper on the table, staring at his hands - they were shaking, badly.

The letter from Little Bird - Camille - had awakened so many memories, and some of them were weighing on him heavily now. Oh, there were good memories too, the kind that her occasional missives usually called to mind. He remembered her sparkling smile, her warm laughter, her friendship.

He remembered the day they had been pledged to be joined. It was among the happiest of the memories he had of his childhood. To be pledged to a woman meant that he was being accepted as a man in the tribe, and he would be allowed to go on the next big hunt.

She hadn't wanted him to go. The smile and laughter were replaced by tears and fear, and she begged him not to go, to stay with her.

And she'd been right, of course. The men had returned from a successful hunt, only to find the village in smoldering ruins, bodies of women and children scattered about.

And no sign of Little Bird.

He'd left the Kiowa shortly after that, searching for a way to learn about his white half. From the migratory trails of the Kiowa, he knew where a mission was. It was the closest white man place in his knowledge, so he had headed there.

The white world had been as unfriendly to him as the Kiowa world, at least until that fateful day when adversity brought Ike into his life. He'd known some English, courtesy of Little Bird's teaching, and his command of the language grew daily. He wanted to learn, and often would slip outside with a book to improve his knowledge. His favorite place was under a large tree just outside the mother superior's office.

That's where he was when he overheard them talking about a letter that had arrived - a letter from the Ludlows of San Francisco, with an update on the young relative they had picked up from the mission. A young girl who had been rescued from captivity with the Kiowa by brave trappers, and placed with the nuns until her family could be located.

Camille…

He'd told Ike, of course, and between the two of them they had come up with a plan. They snuck into the office one night and found the file with Camille's name on it. There was an address for the Ludlows and he had copied it down, and then carefully guarded it through the time he was at the mission. The sisters would see any letters coming in, and how could he explain that Camille knew he was there - assuming she answered, of course.

But once he'd left the mission, and settled into a job that promised to last for a few months, he'd used some of his scant earnings to buy paper, pen and ink, and then he sat down to write. His hand had been shaking then too, and he remembered being glad he'd bought extra paper. Slowly though the words came out, the lines formed on the paper to complete his thoughts. He was Running Buck, now known as Buck Cross. And he wanted to know if she was all right…

He'd ridden to the nearest stage stop to post the letter, and watched the coach disappear to the west. He really didn't know if he'd ever hear from her - and then one day the letter had come. She was happy with her aunt and uncle, she had a good life and many friends.

And she was glad he had written.

They had corresponded now and then over the last couple of years. She told him about moving to a small town near Denver, and he told her about the Pony Express. She wrote about the death of her guardians, and he told her about the move to Rock Creek.

But throughout their correspondence, he had never admitted the guilt he felt for leaving her. If he had stayed like she had asked…

Words on paper had just always felt so impersonal, and the guilt he felt was very personal. And so he had never told her.

Now she was coming to Rock Creek. They would meet face to face, the words would finally be personal again…

How could he ever tell her?

Voices outside the bunkhouse door brought Buck out of his memories and back to the present. He quickly slipped the letter into his trunk, closing the lid and straightening up just a second before the door opened and Cody's head peered in.

"Hey, Buck, you ready? We promised to help Rachel out at the Holcomb place."

Buck nodded and reached for his jacket. "I'm coming," he replied. Cody disappeared back outside, and Buck placed his hat on his head and started for the door.

But he paused once, looking back toward his trunk. He could almost see the letter in there, tugging at his mind. He'd have to tell the others something, of course, but he had some time to consider that. What would be much harder would be figuring out what to say to Camille, to finally admit his guilt and ask her forgiveness.

No, the middle of next month wasn't nearly enough time to figure that out.

The Gate is Open
by: Miss Raye

Charlotte watched the events unfolding outside her window. There wasn't anything remarkable to see, but that was its own charm. Everyday people came and went shaking hands, tipping hats as they went about their business.

It was everyday life on the street.

It was simple.

It was everything she'd ever wanted.

Charlotte touched her fingers to her temple and tried to knead out the knot of pressure that had formed there. A simple life.

It had been such an easy plan. Pack up, take her money, and run to Louise. She expected to find Louise struggling, expected to find her in dire straits, never happy. From the looks of it, part of a group of people… maybe even a family.

And there she was sticking her foot in it again. The first time she'd done it around Louise the little girl had found out that Miss Charlotte the woman she idolized was a whore. The pain that she'd felt had been on display in her little face and Charlotte had to wait days before Louise could manage to look her in the eyes again.

"I should have sent a letter first." She sighed and stood from the chair making her way to the dressing screen. "I should have asked her if I should come." She dropped her dressing gown over the top of the screen and lifted up a smart green silk confection. "I had all these hopes for the two of us. I should have known that maybe… maybe she'd had a dream or two of her own."

"That maybe," she whispered to herself with tears shining in her eyes, "she'd have folks that mean more to her than I did."

The Emporium. They'd dreamed so long and hard, both them bent over her dresses, sewing and mending by lamplight before dawn. They'd dreamed of a place of their own away from the men and the worries of the 'boarding house'.

Louise had quickly learned greater and greater skill with her needle and it was a skill she didn't share with many. Working together was fun and they enjoyed their association becoming much more than friends. There was such love in her heart for the young girl. Heavens, she'd grown up so since she'd left. Since she'd become a woman.

She'd had it all planned. A few letters to find her and then she'd sweep into town and they'd spend the days huddling over dress designs and perhaps even a quick trip to New York to purchase fabrics and trims. Oh! It was a grand plan. A grand plan that could not fail, and so when the chance had come. She'd taken the money that was hers… and a little that Lou hadn't taken with her when she'd left and run, and the two of them would be as thick as thieves the instant they saw each other.

That had been the plan. That had been her only thought since she ran from Wicks. Now, it seemed she'd have to rewrite those dreams. Reimagine the world without her little friend. She would do it, Charlotte knew herself well enough, knew the resilience of her own spirit. Only now she hoped she hadn't hurt Louise in the process.

Lost
by: Miss Raye

The dark is very comforting; full of shadows and silence. The dark doesn't wag its finger at you and doesn't look at you as though its heart was breaking.

She was old enough to know the pain that she saw in Charlotte's eyes was real and somehow it had turned back around with an accuracy to rival any arrow and had hit her square in her chest. Clutching at the thin cotton shirt above her heart Lou squeezed her eyes shut and fought off the tears.

"I'm sorry." The words were soft and barely audible, but they nearly rent her heart in two.

The kindnesses. Lou could play them all in her head over and over so desperately had she memorized them. So many kind words and gestures had been given to her by a woman she thought of as a paragon. A goddess of goodness in a world full of strangers.

Her old friend… her old savior who deserved more than a quiet 'How do' and a nod. The woman that had saved her life with a swift kick in the pants and a pair of scissors. Charlotte had been like Pygmalion in a way, twice recreating her in their time together.

The mother that had plucked a starving little girl off the street and given her a warm place to sleep and food in her belly. She'd given her a job that earned money and shoulder to cry on when she longed for her family.

The teacher that had seen her aptitude with a needle and thread and given her the skill the use it and create

The friend and fellow dreamer who had such beautiful ideas and longed for the same things she did security, family.

The mother who saved her life a second time with scissors and a pair of pants, picking her up off the floor and not allowing the tears that threatened to fold her legs under. Charlotte had pulled her up on her feet, washed her skin clean and sent her out the door before Wicks saw the light of day and given her enough money for a train ticket and a meal.

Charlotte gave her freedom. Lou returned that with a cold look and grudging introduction. She didn't deserve that. She didn't need the shame that Lou had heaped on her just because she showed up.

Wasn't that what they'd always planned on? Find a safe place and make a go of it. Just the two of them.

Only now, it wasn't just the two of them. Louise had new friends… a new family, and without Lou having to say anything Charlotte knew it. And it hurt.

Gone was the time they'd been apart. Gone were the years and the growing up. Gone was the tough attitude she'd grown over the soft heart. All that was left was a little girl crying in the dark.

Time in a Bottle
by: Cindy

The headache was all too familiar, as was the feeling of blankness - of having lost a portion of her life that she couldn't recall.

Rachel pulled her robe tightly closed as she made her way slowly down the stairs. The empty bottle she stubbed her toe on was all too familiar as well.

She knew better. Damn it, she KNEW better!

Just like she knew, deep down, that Mike Stalder had a drinking problem. But he also had a smile that made her toes tingle, and a way of putting her at ease that she hadn't known since Henry was killed.

That's why it had been so easy to take the bottle he offered last night. And…

She paused, staring. It was Mike's jacket, in the house. In her house.

Rachel gasped, and stifled a sob, thinking about what that meant.

It wasn't that she was so pure and innocent. She'd been a wife, after all, and she'd lost a baby. In her younger, wilder, card-playing days, she'd even made a few bad choices with men. But, bad or not, it had been her choice…

No, the problem now was that she couldn't remember. Meeting him in the barn, taking those first sips - that she remembered. But after that…

The sob escaped her lips this time. After all she'd accomplished, the changes she'd tried to make in her life, this shouldn't have happened. She'd vowed long ago that it would never happen again - and yet it had.

She kicked the empty bottle, wincing at the pain in her toes and in her head. It seemed as loud as a riverboat whistle as it skittered across the floor.

With trembling hands she piled some wood into the fireplace. She was shaking so badly it took three matches before she finally got one to light. When the kindling sparked and caught she stumbled toward the kitchen and pumped water into a kettle, then dragged the heavy vessel back to hang it over the fire.

She tried not to think as she completed her other tasks. She lit the stove and filled the large coffee pot with water, then set it over the heat. Then the tub needed to be dragged in from the back porch. A few buckets of cold water had to be added to the tub, along with some lavender bath powder. Her hands still trembling, she dumped too much in, and the bubbles threatened to overflow the tub - but she didn't care. Finally, the water in the coffee pot and the kettle started to boil and she dumped the hot liquid in, creating even more bubbles.

Without even testing the temperature, Rachel dropped her robe and stepped into the tub. The warm water and the aroma of lavender surrounded her as she lowered herself under the bubbles. They almost seemed to form a blanket, a way to cover her shame.

She looked again at the bottle and the jacket. They seemed to mock her, screaming out that she had failed. You've tried to set a good example for the riders, and now look what you've done!

Rachel scrubbed at her skin, trying to wash the failure away, but it was no use. She leaned back in the tub and closed her eyes tight, willing the tears not to escape.

It shouldn't have happened, but it had. She'd lost herself, and more of her life, to the bottle.

And she could only wonder what else she had lost.


Afterthought
by: Dede
As I stared at the man lying in the street in front of me, with my two bullets in his gut, it occurred to me I really didn’t know what finally pushed me into actually shooting. It wasn’t the taunts, I’d lived with those all my life; maybe it was when he called Ike “dummy.” No, I’d heard that ever since Ike and I became friends. I think it was when he said “You ain’t got the nerve.” For some reason, I felt the need to prove to him I did.

Teaspoon asked if he drew on me but I could tell just by how he asked that he knew the answer already so I stayed silent. “Buck ya’ know what you done? Remember what I said about crossin’ that line? Well that’s what you done. Now yer gonna have to live with it.”

Was he expecting remorse? Regret? Should I have shown some expression of guilt? The only guilt I felt was that it had been Ike and not me. I could see in Teaspoon’s eyes that a small bit of trust, maybe respect, had been chipped away and I did feel guilty for letting him down. But I also think that Teaspoon understood. I guess he just didn’t expect this from me.


A Tail of Woe
by: Dede

CRASH!

“JOSHUA ALOYSIUS HICKOK!”

Buck slowed his horse as he came around the corner before Jimmy and Lou’s house. He heard more yelling, a combination of Lou’s voice and the voices of her two older girls, Em and Maggie, but he couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. Tapping his heels against his horse, he continued forward into their front yard. As he climbed down from his horse, Lou burst through the doorway, slamming the screen door against the side of the house.

“Joshua Hickok! You had best get….” Lou saw Buck standing at the bottom of the steps, looking up at her. His eyebrow was arched and he was wearing a very amused expression.

“Nice to see you too Lou,” Buck teased. When Lou pursed her lips at him, showing she was in no mood to jest, he knew he needed to tread lightly. “So, um, what happened?”

She thrust her hands forward, holding out two pieces of porcelain. “These used to be together,” she snapped.

Buck tilted his chin up and stretched to see what she had. It was the angel Emma had given her when Emma Louise had been born. Buck looked at her sympathetically, knowing the answer to his next question but he asked anyway. “And how –”

“That…that dumb dog’s tail,” she said through clenched teeth. She looked around the yard, trying to catch a glimpse of where the fugitives might be hiding. “Did you see them when you rode up?”

Buck glanced down; he was pretty sure he knew where they were and he was right. A black nose just barely stuck out from under the porch and right beside it Buck could see the tips of a little boy’s fingers. He rubbed his chin, as if in thought, to hide his smile. “Nope, can’t say that I did.” And he wasn’t actually lying since the duo had already taken refuge under the porch when he got there.

Lou eyed Buck, knowing how much he loved both Joshua and that dog. “Right,” she muttered. Giving one last look around, she said, “When I do get ahold of ‘em, I have a good mind to cut off that dog’s tail.” With that, she spun on her heel and stalked off into the house.

Buck shook his head. “Boy, she’s really angry,” he said, a little louder than necessary. He squatted down and peeked under the porch. “Hey there.”

Joshua’s eyes widened and Hickok pulled back a bit more. “Uncle Buck,” Joshua whispered, as much as a little boy can whisper, “is Mama gone?”

“Yeah, she’s inside,” Buck said, keeping his voice low. Suddenly Buck heard a slight noise at the door and jumped up turning his attention to his horse.

“Ya’ can’t fool me,” Jimmy said, laughing at how nonchalant his friend tried to act.

“Oh, it’s just you,” Buck said, dismissing Jimmy with a wave of his hand. “I’m not worried about you…your wife, now that’s different.”

“Yeah,” Jimmy agreed, looking at Buck expectantly as he pointed down at the porch. He and Buck were the only two that knew about Joshua and Hickok’s favorite hiding place. Buck nodded and Jimmy came down the steps. Glancing up at the door to make sure the women were still inside, yammering about the accident, Jimmy knelt down. “Joshua,” he said softly, “son, ya’ need to come out of there.”

Joshua leaned forward and looked his father in the eye. “Does Mama have her scissors?” A shocked expression appeared on Joshua’s face. “Or a knife,” he said in a hushed voice.

“What?” Jimmy asked, puzzled at why Joshua would think his mother would take scissors to him. “Why would –” Buck cleared his throat and Jimmy looked at his friend for answers.

“Lou said she’d cut off Hickok’s tail,” Buck clarified.

Hickok whimpered softly and Joshua patted his friend’s head.

“Son,” Jimmy said, trying hard not to laugh. “She was just,” he paused trying to think of a way to explain the sarcasm to Joshua, “she didn’t mean it.”

“Oh,” Joshua breathed. He moved to crawl out from the safety of their secret place but stopped and ducked back under. “Does she have her gun?”

Jimmy immediately looked at Buck.

“I know nothing about a gun,” Buck answered, putting his hands up as if surrendering to a young boy’s imagination. He had no idea what Joshua had in his mind.

“Joshua,” Jimmy said testily. He was getting a bit annoyed at the silly questions. “No she doesn’t. Why would you ask that?”

“You said, when Mama gets her temper up, all weapons should be locked away,” the boy stated matter-of-factly.

Buck snorted before he could control himself. He coughed, hoping to cover it up but Jimmy glared at him. Buck did detect a bit of humor dancing in Jimmy’s eyes.

“I was teasing,” Jimmy said, sighing deeply. “Like how your mama said she would cut off Hickok’s tail.”

Joshua’s expression of annoyed disbelief told the men that he thought adults should just say what they mean. He crawled out slowly and stood beside his father. Hickok, on the other hand, wasn’t too quick to give up his freedom – or his tail.

“Come on boy,” Joshua coaxed softly.

Hickok belly crawled out and looked up at Jimmy, whining softly. Jimmy couldn’t stand it and patted his thigh. Hickok jumped up, nosing Jimmy’s hand and wagging his tail quickly. Buck looked down at his leg as the dog’s tail beat a happy rhythm against it. Jimmy laughed at Buck’s bemusement. “Yeah, I know.” Turning to face his son, he said, “Ya’ need to talk to your ma.” He pointed towards the house and Joshua plodded slowly up the steps. Hickok followed, his tail now tucked between his legs.

Buck watched and chuckled softly. “Is it me or does he look like he’s going to the gallows?”

Jimmy nodded. “Yep, he does and in some ways, I guess he is.” Jimmy and Buck followed the young boy.

As they entered the house, they saw that Lou, Em and Maggie had collected all the broken knickknacks, dishes and such that had fallen victim to Hickok’s tail. Buck saw it was a staggering number of items. He even saw the small wooden horse he’d carved for Lou; it was missing a leg and its tail. He walked over and picked it up.

“How’d this break?” He really couldn’t imagine how Hickok’s tail could break something wood.

“He sent it across the room and it smashed into the wall,” Maggie stated, indignantly.

Buck sighed and placed it back on the table. He looked over at Hickok and the dog’s ears seemed to droop even more. Walking over to sit in the chair, he spotted Polly Ann sitting on the settee. She smiled forlornly at her uncle. He returned the smile with one of his own.

“Alright,” Jimmy said, trying to sound lighthearted. “I think we need to talk about –”

“Jimmy,” Lou interrupted, “what’s there to talk about?” She waved her hand over the table that was piled high with the broken items.

“Honestly Daddy,” Em said, “that dog should be in the barn.”

“Yes and stay there,” Maggie added.

“Huh?” Joshua blurted. “Daddy?” He stared up at his father.

“Lou,” Jimmy said, sounding something like a whine.

And that was it. Lou, Em and Maggie all argued their case at once. Joshua, with the help of Polly Ann, who’d jumped off the settee immediately at the mention of the barn, countered. Jimmy stood in the middle trying very hard to keep peace and maintain some order in the discussion.

Buck watched the whole thing like it was a show, happy to be a spectator, not even thinking of joining in. Once the Hickoks got going, it was best to just let them go. Buck noticed that Hickok seemed nervous and knew it was because of the loud voices. Hickok leaned against Buck’s leg for protection and Buck patted the dog’s back. Soon the tail flew up and started wagging. Looking back at Buck, the dog’s tongue lolled out of the side of his mouth as he panted happily. Smiling, Buck scratched the dog’s back some more.

As he did, something occurred to him. He stood up and gestured for Hickok to stay. The dog obeyed, standing exactly where he was, right beside Buck. Holding the tip of the dog’s tail, Buck wanted to see where it reached on his body. It was roughly the top of his thigh. He let go of the tail and, looking around the room, saw that any of the trinkets they had were on tables, a simple floor shelf or sitting on the small corner curio he’d built for Lou. Everything was at dog-tail height. He had an idea.

“‘Scuse me,” Buck said, holding his hand up. Jimmy was the only one to notice.

“Hey,” Jimmy waved his arms, trying to get his family to be quiet. “Hush!” He saw the incredulous look on Lou’s face and pointed at Buck. “He’s the one that wants it.”

Buck rolled his eyes at the brave Wild Bill. “I think I have a solution,” he stated. “Put everything up above three feet.”

They all stared at him like he’d just spoken a foreign language. Sighing he took hold of Hickok’s tail again. “I’m pretty sure that’s the height from his paw to the tip of his tail.” He looked at each person as the information penetrated their brains.

“Good idea Uncle Buck!” Joshua was the first to back the idea. Polly Ann soon followed by nodding enthusiastically. They both looked over at their mother.

“Yeah,” Jimmy said, as he looked around the room, nodding in understanding. “That would work.”

Em and Maggie exchanged glances. They didn’t want to detract from their uncle’s logical idea but they really wanted Hickok to stay outside. “What about how he gets into our things?” Em pointed out. Maggie nodded stiffly.

“Now girls,” Jimmy said, turning to look at them. “We tol’ you both to keep your door closed.” He eyed them as they blushed slightly. They finally nodded, agreeing with Buck’s idea.

Lou watched as everyone chatted about how simple but wonderful Buck’s idea was. “Buck,” she said, in a singsong voice.

Buck’s head perked up because he knew that tone. He sighed heavily. “Yes?”

“That’s all fine and dandy, putting everything up above three feet,” she said, keeping the same light tone. She waited as he arched his brow waiting for her to finish. She grinned. “However, I don’t have anything to put the things up on…above three feet.”

“You want me to make you some shelves,” he said, eyeing her shrewdly. “That it?”

“How ever did you guess?” Lou said, sweetly. She laughed when he, again, rolled his eyes.

At that, everyone knew the debate was over and Hickok would still be a member of the family – and keep his tail. Joshua and Polly Ann jumped up and down as Hickok pranced around them. Jimmy went over to Lou and, taking her in his arms, kissed her on the forehead. The jovial mood was infectious and Maggie and Em joined in as well, laughing at Hickok’s antics.

“So when do I get my shelves?” Lou prodded, her arm around her husband’s waist.

Buck cocked his eyebrow and looked at Jimmy. “Would you –”

Jimmy put his hand up. “You started this. She’d have been just as happy with Hickok sleepin’ in the barn.”

Joshua and Polly Ann both gasped. Quickly changing the subject, Buck asked, “Who wants to go fishin’?” It did the trick as the two youngsters and Hickok resumed their joyous dancing.

The Case of the Sliced Pie
by: Dede

Emma hummed as she cleaned the upstairs rooms. She had finished stripping the beds and had put the dirty linens in her basket. At least she said they were dirty though they hadn’t been used since the week before when she had gone through the same ritual. Emma refused to allow someone into her home, to use one of her rooms, and not have bedding she considered suitable. As she picked up her basket, she scanned the room. Satisfied, she headed downstairs.

Her day was going as planned. She had the beans simmering on the stove, the chicken was ready to fry and her pie – she smiled thinking about it – her pie was cooling on the table. Pleased with herself, because she knew the boys would be too, she almost skipped across the floor to the door. Her hand stilled on the doorknob. Something was wrong.

Very wrong.

A piece of her pie was missing.

Emma slowly turned towards the kitchen and dropped her basket, hoping she was wrong. She wasn’t. Rushing to the table, she slammed her hands, palms down, on the hard surface. The tingling didn’t register. All she was aware of was – a piece of her pie was missing. Who could have done such a despicable thing? Her head shot up. She knew just the person and he was, in fact, in the bunkhouse right then.

Storming out the door, she yelled, “William Cody!”

In the bunkhouse, Cody’s head shot up from his book. He looked like a cornered animal. “What’d I do?”

Jimmy didn’t even look up from cleaning his guns at the table. “Must’a been sump’m good.” He couldn’t help but smirk.

Cody looked over at Buck just as the door flew open. Buck just shrugged.

“Cody,” Emma started but was cut off when she saw that there were two others in the bunkhouse. Two more suspects. “Oh, so there are three of you here.” She stood, hands on her hips, looking at each boy in turn. She looked back at Buck, eyeing him, considering his culpability. Buck stared back at her, putting his book aside.

Buck wasn’t sure what was happening but Emma looked fit to be tied. He looked her directly in the eye, knowing that whatever it was that had brought their housemother to the bunkhouse, he had not done. After a moment of what seemed like deliberation, she slightly shook her head. To Buck, it seemed as if she’d just dismissed him as a possibility. He slowly breathed a sigh of relief. Now that his anxiety was gone, he was very curious as to what had happened.

Emma looked at Jimmy and then at Cody. She knew it could have been either one. Cody was a given but she’d also caught Jimmy on more than one occasion sneaking food, mainly cookies, brownies or muffins, morsels that he could just grab off a plate. But, he could have been tempted by her pie. Coming to the conclusion that she had two culprits, she said, “So, which one of you did it?”

“I didn’t do anythin’,” Jimmy protested putting down his gun. How had he suddenly gotten included in Emma’s tirade?

“Neither did I,” Cody said, peeking over his book. He really didn’t like it when Emma was angry. It was very rare for this level of ire, but he had seen it and she wasn’t a redhead for nothing.

“Um, Emma,” Buck said softly. When she and his friends looked over at him he continued, “What exactly did they do?”

Emma looked back at Cody and Jimmy, glaring at the two. “One of them knows.”

“Honest Emma,” Cody whined, slowly sliding off his cot and walking over to the table. Maybe if he sat with Hickok, she wouldn’t be able to direct her wrath at just him. “We’ve been in here most of the mornin’.” He sat down across from Jimmy, making sure Jimmy was between him and Emma.

“Most?” Emma picked up on the word like the early bird on the worm. “And where were you when you weren’t in here?”

“Emma,” Jimmy said, more than a little miffed. “Teaspoon had the three of us doin’ the chores.” There really hadn’t been much; it was actually a quiet day. Or it had been.

Emma crossed her arms over her chest, eyeing the two, thinking about what they’d said.

“Emma,” Buck tried again, “what happened?”

“Someone,” she stressed the word as she looked from Jimmy to Cody and back again, “took a piece of my pie.”

Cody’s face broke into a big grin. “We’re havin’ pie tonight?”

“Mmmm, what kind?” Jimmy asked, mirroring Cody’s same grin, as the blonde nodded excitedly.

“You don’t fool me,” Emma said, shaking her finger at them. “You knew about the pie and you know what kind.”

Suddenly the room broke into a cacophony of denials and accusations. Buck tried to get the three to calm down but it wasn’t happening. He was almost convinced it would come to blows when Teaspoon walked in.

“What the devil’s goin’ on here?” Everyone was silent for a split second and then, Emma, Jimmy and Cody started talking at once. “Wait a minute.” Teaspoon put his hands up for silence and looked over at Buck.

Buck walked over to join the group; when he did, he felt like he was giving up his safety. “Seems someone helped themselves to a piece of Emma’s pie,” Buck paused and Teaspoon nodded, “and Emma thinks it was either Jimmy or Cody.”

“I see,” Teaspoon said, knowingly. “So, did one of ya’ help yerself to a piece of her blueberry pie?”

As Jimmy and Cody pleaded their cases and Emma stated hers, all at the same time, a puzzled look appeared on Buck’s face. “Uh, wait a minute.” He put his hand up trying to get recess in the trial. No one paid him any mind so Buck said, “Teaspoon how’d you know what kind of pie it was?”

The conversation died out quickly and everyone in the room looked at Teaspoon expectantly.

“Yeah, Buck’s right,” Cody murmured.

“Good question Buck,” Jimmy drawled.

“Um, well,” Teaspoon stammered.

“Yes Mr. Spoon,” Emma said, watching Teaspoon, a slight smirk on her face. Her hands were back on her hips.

“Excuse me,” Teaspoon said, puffing out his chest and taking offense to Buck’s question. He placed his finger on the side of his nose. This can eye-dent-e-feye just about any smell you can smell.” He slid his thumbs down his suspenders and said haughtily, “Anymore questions?”

Buck had been watching Teaspoon as well but he’d also been taking in the man’s appearance. Never one to wear a pristine shirt, though none of them ever stayed actually clean, Teaspoon seemed to have an affinity for wearing his food. Buck saw a couple of blue spots on his shirt, judging them to be the juice. One thing about Emma’s pies, you needed a bib and at least two napkins when you ate one. “Um, been eating blueberries?” He reached out and put his finger in front of one of the larger spots.

Teaspoon blushed; he knew he’d been caught. Then Emma put her hand up to his face and brushed his cheek.

“A bit of the crust left in your beard,” she said, giggling.

Jimmy and Cody joined in, laughing and joking their stationmaster.

“I’ve been caught,” Teaspoon said good-naturedly. To Jimmy and Cody, he said, “I really wouldn’t’a let Emma lynch ya’, I swear.” They all laughed heartily.

“Boys,” Emma said, sheepishly, “I am sorry for blamin’ you.” She pulled each one into a hug.

“Um, what about me?” Buck asked, with mock dejectedness. “I’m the one that figured it out.” He held his arms open. Emma smacked Buck’s hand but hugged him tightly. He smiled over her shoulder as Teaspoon fixed him with one of the old man’s trademark squinty-eyed stares.

“So Emma,” Cody said slowly, “since that pie’s already cut….” He grinned and everyone laughed again.

“Come on,” Emma said, resigned that she’d be making something else for desert because these four would eat the entire pie. She turned and walked out the door, waving for them to follow.

Jimmy and Cody jumped and giddily ran after her, chanting “Blueberry pie!”

As Buck walked by Teaspoon, the older man stopped him. Worried that Teaspoon was upset, that he thought Buck had been disrespectful, Buck said, “I’m sorry if I spoke outta line, I –”

“Son,” Teaspoon said softly, patting Buck on the shoulder. “I’m not mad and I was serious when I said I wouldn’t have let Cody or Jimmy take the blame. I just wanted to see how it played out.” He chuckled. “Prob’ly not a nice thing to do but it was kinda’ funny.”

Buck nodded, relieved that Teaspoon held no grudge. Buck had expected an endless list of chores as a result.

“What I do want to say,” Teaspoon continued, guiding Buck out the door, “is that I think you have an observant eye and a good head on your shoulders; yer smart. I believe you’d do well in somethin’ requirin’ such attributes.”

Buck was taken aback by this turn and he didn’t know what to say. He just looked at Teaspoon questioningly as they slowly crossed the yard.

“Maybe law,” Teaspoon pondered, “you certainly had me on the spot,” he winked, “or perhaps medicine.” As they walked up the steps, Teaspoon clapped Buck on the back. “I’m proud of all you boys, but havin’ a doctor in the family…that’d be somethin’.” He grinned and turned towards the house as sounds of laughter drifted out. “Lord, we’d best get in there, or those two will have that pie gone.” He walked through the open door leaving Buck standing on the porch.

Buck was dumbfounded. “A doctor? Me?” He stared at the doorway Teaspoon had just disappeared through. Shaking his head, he slowly approached the door. “Dr. Cross.” He chuckled as he walked through. “Hey, there’d better be a piece for me!”

Guilty Pleasures
by: Dede

Lou concentrated on her book, trying hard to keep her eyes locked on the pages. She refused to look up at the boys as they gallivanted around the bunkhouse, joking and laughing with each other. She chanced a quick glance up and her eyes grew wide. Not boys but men.

Everyone had woken up to a beautiful, warm spring day. A slight breeze was blowing just enough to cool a sweaty body, but not chill the skin. Teaspoon had been in such a good mood (it was amazing what the sun will do after a few days of gloom) and had announced at breakfast that, other than the necessary chores, the boys had the day off. The whooping was deafening but Emma and Teaspoon hadn’t minded.

There’d been many ideas thrown back and forth of what the riders had wanted to do that day but Cody came up with the best one – a day at the swimming hole. He’d even sweet-talked Emma into preparing a basket for them to take so they could stay there most of the day. Everything had been decided on, except Lou had known she couldn’t go. Of course, they didn’t. No one knew her secret and she was determined to keep it that way. Though she’d acted excited to go, she’d feigned a cold, adding in coughing and sneezing for good measure. Emma had immediately announced Lou wasn’t going and had ordered Lou to bed. The boys had given Lou such sympathetic looks, she knew they were sorry for her but she’d just shrugged it off and did as she was told.

Off the boys went, except Ike who was on a run. And of course Lou. She’d heard the boisterous noise as they rode away but had turned on her side with her book. She really hadn’t thought she’d miss anything. After all, they were just going swimming.

Now she sat in the midst of wet, attractive, noisy men, trying very hard not to look. Finally, she gave in to her curiosity and, keeping her head down, coyly peeked from under her eyelashes. The sight was breathtaking and she bit the inside of her mouth to keep the nervous giggles from escaping.

She’d seen glimpses of men in Wick’s whorehouse but Charlotte and the other women had kept her shielded as much as they could. The bits she’d seen always seemed ugly and dirty to her. But not now. Maybe it was because she knew these boys and trusted them. As they’d learned Teaspoon’s “bag of tricks,” they’d formed a bond and a tentative friendship that grew stronger with each passing day. Smiling slyly, she took in what she saw.

Jimmy had been the first to take a shower when they’d gotten back because he’d been covered in mud. The others had been muddy but not to the extent of Jimmy. They'd laughed, explaining to Emma that he’d been tagged. Jimmy had snorted good-naturedly and insisted that he’d been the victor. Emma had shooed them off to get clean, assuring them she'd listen to them later. Leaving the laughter in his wake, Jimmy had headed to the shower and was now standing, with just a towel wrapped around his waist, drops of water slowly gliding down his skin. She sucked in air, feeling an odd tingling inside. His muscular thighs strained against the small towel and she could just make out a bulge in the center of his legs. Lou caught herself wishing that the towel was gone.

Her eyes moved on to the boy next to him, Kid. He was a tad hairy for her taste but he was nicely built. He was sitting on the bunk, his towel gapping slightly. Lou ducked her head in an effort to see something but it was too dark and the bunk provided some cover for him. He laughed at something Cody said and Lou noticed what a nice smile he had.

Then there was Cody. He was lanky but muscular and Lou could appreciate his tanned chest. The natural clown of the group, he was parading around like a peacock. He flexed his arm in Jimmy’s face, to which Jimmy swatted it away, displaying his own muscular bicep. They were in a debate over who was the better looking, which one of them would make the girls swoon.

“Don’t even try it Cody,” Jimmy drawled, “I’ll be the one the girls come runnin’ to.” The seductive smile slowly crossed his lips. From day one, it had made Lou melt. She looked back at her book, trying to collect herself.

“You don’t know what yer talkin’ ‘bout Hickok,” Cody insisted. He turned to Kid. “Kid, what do you think? Which one of us would attract more girls?”

Kid shook his head. “Don’t know Cody, ain’t a girl.” He laughed as Cody rolled his eyes.

“I’m just askin’ yer opinion,” Cody said, exasperatedly. He looked over at Lou and she tried to act like she had no idea what was going on. “Lou, help me out. Which one of us do you think is better lookin’?”

Lou slowly turned a page of her book. She realized that she hadn’t once turned a page and hoped none of the others noticed. She doubted it, they were too into themselves. “Cody, leave me out, I don’t feel so good.” Pausing she smiled mischievously and said, “‘Sides, if I was a girl, I’m not sure I’d pick either one of ya.”

“Thanks for that Lou,” Jimmy said, turning his back to the smaller rider, he continued the debate.

Pleased with herself, Lou continued her covert observations and looked at the last rider there. Buck Cross. He was definitely a mystery to Lou and not just because he was an Indian. He had this way of looking into you and discerning everything there was to know about you. There’d been more than once Lou had seen Buck watching her causing her to think he knew what she was hiding. But she knew that was impossible. So, keeping her head down, she looked up, her eyes hidden behind her glasses. Or so she thought.

As Jimmy and Cody argued and Kid egged them on, Buck was staring over at Lou. She looked quickly back down, knowing it was impossible for him to have seen her. She waited a moment, and when she heard Cody question Buck, dragging the Kiowa into the discussion, she chanced another peek.

Buck was the only one that didn’t feel the need to stay covered. He’d taken his towel off and now stood nude, as nude as the day he entered the world. Lou bit down hard on her tongue to stop the exclamation that threatened to escape. He was actually quite beautiful, like he was sculpted out of the earth, a soft brown. She giggled quietly as she decided that it wasn’t Jimmy or Cody that the girls would run to. It would be Buck, if only the girls could see him like this.

The boys were finally getting dressed since Emma would probably be over soon to prepare dinner. Lou closed her book and slowly got up, sitting with her legs hanging over the edge of her bunk. Buck walked over, buttoning up his shirt.

“That part of your book must have been very interesting,” he said softly.

Lou’s head shot up and she stared, nervously, at him. “Uh, what d’ya mean?” she stammered and looked back down at the ground, hoping he was just teasing her.

“Just that you didn’t seem to want to turn the page,” he said simply, a small, crooked smile curling his lips.

Abashed, Lou opened and closed her mouth, her brain not supplying her tongue with any answers. “Well, well,” she stammered, “if y’all would shut up about yer muscles and looks, maybe I could actually read. All the yammerin’s givin’ me a headache.”

“Ah,” Buck murmured, “sorry Lou, we’ll keep it down so you can…read.” He smiled and walked back to his bunk just as Emma walked through the door.

“Boys,” Emma said, smiling as she walked over to Lou. The boys dipped their heads in embarrassment and Lou could tell they were wondering if Emma had heard anything. “How’re ya’ feelin’?” She placed her hand against Lou’s cheek.

“Fine,” Lou mumbled, glancing around Emma to see what the others were doing.

“Hmm” Emma said, her brows slightly furrowed, “you’re still flushed.” Lou’s blush deepened, knowing the real reason she was flushed. She turned her head to hide her smile. “I’ll bring ya’ back some soup. I want you to stay in bed.” She ruffled Lou’s hair and turned to the other riders. “Sounds like ya’ had fun.” ‘

The boys all talked at once, telling Emma about the day and each one trying to impress her with their amusing tale. Lou crawled back under her covers and laid back on her bed, listening to the excited voices. She glanced over at Buck, who was laughing at something Jimmy had said, and, as if knowing he was being watched, he looked at her. He smiled a tender smile and gave her a quick wink, returning to join in the banter. She sighed softly, wondering if it really would be so bad for someone to know her for who she really was.
Blinded By The Guilt Within
by: catsimmie and Shanon

This is the prequel to my Blinded by Fear story, which will eventually have the other 2 stories done.

~*~ Lou ~*~

Jimmy and I are heading back to Sweetwater, and I’m more quiet than normal. I know Jimmy’s thinking I’m probably blaming him for what happened, but truth be told, I’m sort of glad it happened. No, glad isn’t the right word, more like relieved.

Since Kid and I broke up, I feel like I’m more alone than I’ve ever been. Kid was the first man I’ve ever been able to trust. He showed me what love was, he made me feel loved, and I loved him. But that love wasn’t enough. He wanted more than I was ready to give.

I miss him, but I won’t admit it. If Samantha makes him happy, then I’ll have to live with that. But I guess it was the fact that he moved on so quickly that makes me feel guilty for what might’ve happened with Jimmy on this trip.

I was already feeling miserable by the time we got to Willow Springs. Finding out the shipment was delayed made things worse, and then finding out we had to share a room was just the final straw. But Jimmy decided to make it his mission to cheer me up.

The dress he bought me was beautiful, the dinner was romantic, and the dancing was better than I imagined. As I looked into his eyes while we were dancing, I saw the passion he had for me. Maybe it was the wine we had at dinner, or maybe the fact that I didn’t want to be alone, but I knew what was going to happen once we returned to our room.

I think Jimmy knew it too and I know he was giving me time to make sure it was what I wanted. He suggested we check out some of the shows from the fair. But that’s how it happened. That’s how Hopkins decided to get to Jimmy; through me.

As I stood there on the wrong end of the noose, I knew Jimmy would give his life to save mine. That’s when the guilt started to eat at me. I felt guilty for leading him on, guilty for not feeling the same way as he felt for me, and worst of all, I felt guilty because Jimmy and Kid were best friends until I got between them.

When Jimmy killed Hopkins and saved me, he held me tight after I fell to the ground. For a moment I let myself pretend that it was Kid holding me. I don’t know what will happen with Kid and me, but I know I’ll never stop loving him. Maybe what happened is for the best. If somehow Kid and I do work things out, the guilt for what almost happened with me and Jimmy would’ve eaten me alive. I know I’ll never be able to tell Kid, but then again, would he tell me what happened between him and Samantha?

Can either one of them ever forgive me for not loving them like I should?

~*~ Jimmy ~*~

I can’t help to think I’m the reason those marks are on Lou’s neck. Nothing about this trip has gone as planned, and other normal circumstances, I’d be furious, but despite everything that’s happened, being with Lou has made it bearable. And for that, I feel guilty.

I know it’s wrong for me to feel the way I do about her, but I can’t help it. I’ve been in love with her almost since I learned her secret. But since Kid is… was my best friend, I stepped back from those feelings. But as I watched him throw her love aside and flaunt his new relationship, part of me hoped I’d have a chance.

I almost got that chance. After watching Lou cry herself to sleep the other night, I set outto make her forget about the pain Kid had caused her. I was so nervous when I bought her the dress, as I’d never bought one before. But she looked beautiful in it. When she thanked me and told me she loved the color blue, I watched as she got a far off look in her eyes. I realized the color was almost the same as Kid’s eyes, and I didn’t intend to remind her of him.

After dinner, I felt bad as I noticed the one glass of wine had made her tipsy. I knew she wasn’t thinking straight, but just the same, when I saw the look in her eyes as we danced in the street, all I could think about was taking her back to our room and doing another type of dancing with her.

I suggested we continue on at the fair, knowing if we did go back to the room, I’d wind up doing something we’d both regret. When she was chosen for the magic show, something told me not to let her go, but the thought of keeping her close scared me even more.

When I realized she was gone and that it wasn’t part of the act, I spent all night searching for her. I kept thinking what I was going to tell the others if something happened to her. How could I look at Kid, who’d always tried so hard to protect her, and tell him I was responsible? That it was my fault? And it was my fault.

When I learned Hopkins had taken her, I knew no matter what, my reputation would always hurt me as well as those I cared for. No matter how much I tried to convince myself otherwise, the proof was hanging from the end of a noose. At that moment, I realized I would’ve given my life for hers in a heartbeat.

But thankfully it didn’t come to that. Hopkins may have thought I was just a gunfighter, but he never expected me to have the brains to outwit him. To be honest, I even surprised myself as I killed him and saved Lou. But when I saw her limp body lying on the ground, I thought maybe I’d been wrong.

As I ran to her and saw she was still breathing, I quickly grabbed her in my arms and rocked her like she was a baby. I needed that contact more than anything. I needed to know she was all right. But as I held her, I heard her whisper Kid’s name, and I knew in my heart as much as I loved her, she loved him. She probably always would, and I knew that deep down, that stubborn southerner would always love her.

I can’t help feeling the way I do about her, but as we’re arriving back at the station, I see Kid waiting for us. He’s trying to act as if the past week hadn’t happened and I can tell he’s feeling as guilty as I am.

Maybe one day the three of us can be friends again. For that to happen, I know in my heart, I need to let her go. I’ll never forgive myself for what my reputation almost cost all of us, but hopefully one day, Lou will be able to forgive me.

~*~ Kid ~*~

As they ride in, I call out to greet them but she only nods, barely acknowledging my existence. I offer to take her horse; but being Lou, she refuses and says she can to it herself. She’s never understood that I know she can do her job as good as any of us and that she’s perfectly capable of taking care of herself, but loving her makes me want to help her and do these things for her. Yes, as much as I tried to deny it to the others, I still love her. After trying to court a so-called-proper-“lady”, I realize I’ll always love Lou.

The thing is, even though I asked Samantha to stay, I was actually very relieved when she refused. Samantha is all I should’ve wanted: charming, beautiful, proper, and in a suitable job for a female. Most importantly, Samantha made me feel needed, something I that I yearned for from Lou, but never got. However, after only spending a few days with Samantha, I found myself comparing her to Lou. Samantha would never consider helping with mending a fence or training a horse. I doubt she even knew how to ride. Samantha made me realize that everything I thought Lou should be was not what I wanted at all.

Lou’s not afraid of hard work. She’s just the opposite, always the first one to jump in and help when it’s needed. Lou has a natural beauty both inside and out. She goes out of her way to make others feel welcomed and appreciated. She’s perfect just how she is; I was a damn fool not to realize it until it was too late. She’s the strongest woman I’ve ever known, but I know that that strength was built from a lot of hurt and pain, things she refuses to talk about. It scares me to think of how vulnerable she really is. But that doesn’t matter now, I let her go. I put my ideas of what was right before our love. Then I added insult to injury when, I made light of our love to our friends.

Then I was foolish enough to get myself caught up in a duel with Robert. I was so determined to protect Samantha the way Lou wouldn’t let me, that I was blinded to the truth. Samantha didn’t need or want my help. Robert wasn’t trying to hurt her, just love her. I can’t imagine what he must have felt when he learned the reason Samantha couldn’t accept his marriage proposal. The guilt he had for causing such pain to the two women who should’ve been the dearest in his life. Seeing his pain caused my own from Lou’s refusal to marry me to resurface.

After Lou refused my marriage proposal, I tried to convince myself that she didn’t really love me, but the pain on her face when she heard me belittle what happened between us, told me otherwise. I don’t expect her to ever forgive me for breaking her heart. How can I when I can’t forgive myself? Samantha told me she never stopped loving Robert, even though she ran away from him. I know running from Lou didn’t make me stop loving her either. In a strange way, Samantha’s words give me hope that maybe, Lou could still love me as much as I love her.

Old Ghosts and Guilt
by: Destardi

Kid shifted under the heavy weight of the others scrutiny as he watched Ulysses and Teaspoon vanish into the tack shed. The flash of lightening lit up the night sky and he listed to the others as they drifted away.

He wished that the colored man had never appeared. When he’d seen him walking in out of the storm, the colt in his arms, something had twisted deep inside. Even though he didn’t know the man, Kid could relate to him, could understand the shadows that were clearly in his eyes. Shadows that haunted Kid’s nightmares on many a night. With the awakening of those shadows, resentment grew, burning cold like an icy flame.

Ulysses was a reminder of more than just a way of life to Kid. He brought with him a ghost of bitterness and anger, of pain and sorrow so deep a body could drown in it. His very presence made the past come alive, made his shortcomings, his faults come rushing back with a vengeance.

As he turned to walk to the bunkhouse Kid threw a final glance at the tack shed. ‘If only he hadn’t come,’ Kid thought, ‘He could have forgotten, could have continue to pretend.’ Hands buried in his pockets Kid shuffled off to bed.

Rain pelted the windows as Kid pulled his blankets up over his shoulder. He rolled over to stare at the wall, the sounds of the other’s breathing offered little comfort. His emotions were a tangled mess within him. As he drifted off to sleep, guilt clawed its way to the front, ripped at his throat viciously. It wasn’t the stranger’s fault that his past haunted him, no that was a crown of thorns he alone had to wear.

End

A Poor Substitute I
by: Destardi

Huddled in the blankets Lou stared at the shadows that danced along the walls. Behind her, Kid slept peacefully, his face slack, relaxed, no outward sign of emotional upheaval despite the tears he’d shed earlier. Memories, old and new stirred, but she blocked them. She would not let the past cheat her of this moment.

’Had Kid known?’ she wondered. ‘Was he experienced enough to know what she’d been unable to say? What would he think of her come the morning light? Why, oh why couldn’t the fear have stayed away?’

Lou shifted, her gaze darted to Kid when he sighed in his sleep. She didn’t want to hurt him, but deep inside a part of her clung to the fear, the horror, and shame that her past had marked her with. There would be a time when he asked questions, when he sought answers she didn’t think she could ever give him. What then? Would he leave her alone and broken, or would he do the right thing and stay out of pity?

She rubbed at the chill on her bare flesh and sniffed. Love was something she knew very little about, and she wanted Kid’s love. She needed the strength and warmth of his embrace, of his heart. She wiped at a lone tear, she was greedy, she wanted it all, had learned early in her life how to be greedy. Now, she felt something else, something that hurt worse than any of the abuse she’d suffered before.

The soft rustle of the bed sheets against flesh made her look at Kid. He’d rolled over, his brow scrunched into a frown as he reached for her. His eyes opened slowly, sleep and love clouded them for a heart beat before a warmth stole into them that chased away the guilt within her heart. Loving Kid was good, it was right, being loved by him left no room for guilt, she realized, because life offered no guarantees – and she wanted every moment she could get. With a trembling smile she slid across the bed and curled against his chest.

A Poor Substitute II
by: Destardi

Silence stretched across the bunkhouse like a winding snake. Jimmy listened to the throbbing beat of it as he stared at the bottom of the bunk above him. Crack, pop, hiss, the fire spoke in tones so soft that he wouldn’t have awakened to them.

Across the room, he could hear the faint creak and groan of wood as someone moved in their bunk. A movement drew his eye and he shifted in his bed to watch as Lou slipped out of her bunk and into Kid’s.

The warm welcome look in Kid’s eyes as he lifted his blankets to allow Lou to slip into his embrace was like a slap in the face. Surreptitiously Jimmy watched the blankets move, the forms beneath them flow together with movements he knew by heart. He narrowed his eyes as he watched the top of Kid’s long johns hit the floor a moment before Lou moaned so softly the sound was barely audible.

He rolled over, the pause from the bunk loud in his ears as he opened his eyes and stared at the wall. A silent, ill-mood wish crossed his mind as he listened to the night sounds of the lovers, ‘Wish he’d just die or leave or something. Wish I could hold her, wish it was me that she loved.’ The muted sounds from across the room filled his ears as he lay there. Soon, the sound of their racing breathing and the creaking of the bunk evened out drifted into silence.

Cody’s annoying voice pulled him from the refuge of sleep and he cursed softly as he rose to greet the day. His eyes automatically darted across the room to Kid’s bunk. It was made, the blanket pulled taut and the sheet folded six inches over the top of the blanket. Above it, Lou’s bunk was made identically and his mood slid even further down as he realized that she’d probably made both of them.

Jimmy struggled to keep the irritation from his face as he sat and listened to the endless chatter around him. Everyone turned to the door as it opened and Lou stumbled in, her shirt was smeared with blood, and her face was pasty white.

“What’s wrong?” Rachel demanded as she set the plate of biscuits on the table.

“It’s Kid,” Lou gasped painfully, tears filling her eyes. “That black kicked him and I can’t get him to wake up. What if he’s dead Rachel, what if…?” Lou’s sobs grew in volume.

Jimmy felt something freeze in his chest as he stared at his fellow rider. Regardless of his feelings for her, he knew, perhaps better than most that Kid and Lou were meant for each other. Kid loved Lou enough to suffer the worse torture known to man – and come back for more. A strange roar filled his ears as the others rushed outside to get Kid and the doctor. Still, Jimmy sat at the table and stared at Rachel and Lou who sobbed with a fervor he’d never known her to exhibit. “Dear God, I didn’t mean it,” he whispered to himself, “I don’t want to lose my best friend.”

Jimmy shuddered as the door banged open and Buck, Noah, and Cody brought a silent, pale Kid inside. As he watched with the others, Jimmy felt the chill permeate his very bones and a heavy, awkward weight settle on his chest. Guilt reared its ugly head and sunk it’s sharp teeth into his throat, freezing him in place. While the others offered comfort to Lou, he could do nothing but sit and pray.

Innocent Until Proven Guilty
by: Ellie

“Sarah Gentry, rise and face the jury.”

“Does the jury have a verdict?”

“Yes, your Honor. On the first count of the indictment, murder in the first degree of Randall Downs, we find the defendant, Sarah Gentry, guilty. On the second count of the indictment, murder in the first degree of Carter Hale, we find the defendant, Sarah Gentry, guilty. On the third count, murder in the first degree of Jonathan Masters, we find the defendant, Sarah Gentry, guilty.”

“Is your verdict unanimous as to all counts of the indictment?”

“Yes, your Honor.”

“Thank you, gentlemen of the jury. Sarah Gentry, a jury of your peers has found you guilty of three counts of murder in the first degree, of men whom you first induced to bigamous marriages, with the cold and calculating purpose of committing said murders for financial motive. We have heard the arguments that you were coerced, in part, by your late husband Richard Gentry, but find those arguments unpersuasive. Indeed, it was shown that you actively engaged in a plot to frame an innocent man for the murder of Randall Downs. These crimes are shocking, in particular in the case of a member of the gentler sex such as yourself.” The judge looked disapprovingly at the defendant, who stood woodenly in front of him, seemingly emotionless.

“Do you have any statement to make to this Court before it renders its sentence?”

Sarah’s eyes flickered a moment, then she shook her head.

“The Court has no alternative in a case such as this, but to impose the harshest sentence allowable by law. This is despite the Court’s natural disinclination to order capital punishment in the case of a woman. Especially in view of the defendant’s condition.”

Sarah’s eyes were fixed on the floor, her hands clasped under her just slightly swollen belly. The judge’s face and voice dripped with revulsion as he continued.

“The Court gave due consideration to the prospects of an infant deprived of the care of his mother, and has concluded that in this case, the influence of the mother would be so pernicious as to be of no benefit to the child in any event.”

The defendant’s eyes finally brimmed with tears.

“In light of the defendant’s expectant condition, the Court orders that the defendant will be imprisoned in the Ft. Laramie stockade until she delivers herself of her infant; at which time, she shall be taken to the scaffold, and thereupon hung by the neck until dead.” The gavel cracked on the bench and the judge rose to leave.

Sarah’s self control, held through the nearly four months it had taken for the evidence and witnesses to be coordinated for the trial of three murders, finally crumbled.

“Judge Garvey!” Sarah shrieked. “You can’t do this. My baby has no one but me. For God’s sake, please think of my innocent baby,” she pleaded.

The judge looked at her contemptuously. “Your child’s innocence doesn’t alter your guilt, Mrs. Gentry. I suggest you spend your remaining time finding someone more suited to care for your child. And praying for the salvation of your guilty soul – something your victims never had the chance to do before you took their lives.”

Sarah slumped to her knees as the deputies surrounded her to take her back to her tiny cell, to wait for her baby’s life to start – and for her own to end with it.

Back in her cell, Sarah paced back and forth, her wiry, curly hair standing askew from her head, her amber eyes wild with fear and despair. She had no faith to sustain her, and wasted no time praying for her own soul. She doubted she ever had one. No, she kept thinking about the innocent life she had created during her and Richard’s most recent plot. And how to make sure that her baby would have some semblance of a chance at a decent life, the kind of chance she’d never had herself.

Just before she and Richard had killed Randall Downs, she’d been with three men in as many days. Richard. Jimmy. Randall. No way to know which of them had fathered her unborn child. But only one of them was alive. She chewed on her nails, desperately. Jimmy was a decent man . . . she shut her eyes. Not a man. A boy. He wouldn’t want a baby, especially not mine.

But why should he shirk what might be his duty? What difference did it make that . . . that I hadn’t told him the whole truth that day, when we made love the first and only time. Did that mean it hadn’t been real? Oh no, it was real. Her nights still burned with the memory of it. Of the only time she’d given herself to a man without pain, willingly, for no reason other than that she wanted to. In spite of all she had done, it had been true and real that one time, she had wanted him.

Part of her believed, somehow, that the baby must be Jimmy’s. She wanted to believe it, not just because she wanted her baby to have a living father. But because she wanted to believe her baby was conceived in something approaching love.

The baby shifted inside her, and she sat down, finally, on the cot in the small cell, her eyes closed, imagining her baby’s face. Praying he would look like Jimmy in some way, so Jimmy would believe he was his son. Or at least that the baby looked mostly like her, so Jimmy couldn’t be sure. Somehow, she knew that once she let Jimmy know about her baby, he wouldn’t let a child he might have created go without a home. She lay down on her side, feeling the baby’s movements, losing herself in the moment, in the sensations of life inside her.

She was strangely comforted to know that part of her would live on, no matter what happened to her. If the preachers were right, she was going to hell; that was for sure. If they were wrong, as she suspected, she’d go in the ground and turn to dust; but either way, this baby would live on. Something she did would live on after her, something pure and beautiful . . . and innocent. All things she hadn’t been since she could remember.

Author’s note: Thanks to Hanny, for agreeing to let me borrow her plot bunny for this quick fic, of Sarah having what ‘might’ be Jimmy’s baby after Blind Love. I hope she finds the time to tell us the rest of the story someday . . .

Still The One
by: Shannon

Lou walked out to the barn hoping to have a few moments alone to think without one of the boys bothering her. The boys discovered Lou’s secret a week ago when they rescued her and her siblings from her father. While they all agreed to keep her secret and not to treat her any differently, the fact was they were. She wasn’t surprised by some of it. She was thankful that they were a little more modest about changing around her, and even more grateful that they were respecting her privacy in that same respect. They were even assigning a lookout to keep Teaspoon and Emma away when Lou was showering. However, despite what they said about her doing her job as well as any man, there were certain things she never seemed to do anymore. Like when it’s her turn to chop would, someone else always seems to have already taken care of it. Then there was the way they would all bicker over sitting next to her or compete for her attention. Well, all that is except one; the one she wished still wanted her attention.

Ever since they had gotten back, Kid seemed to have been keeping his distant from her. She knew he was hurt when she didn’t tell him that Boggs was her father. He had more than proven she could trust him, but she was so scared for Jeremiah and Teresa and that the others might find out that she was a girl, that she felt it was best to go it alone. He doesn’t understand I’ve always done it on my own, she thought. Now, he was avoiding her and the guilt was tearing her apart.

Keeping her secret had formed a special bond between them. Kid was the first real friend she’d had in a long time. Lou had almost dared to believe that maybe there could be more than friendship blossoming between them, but now he did his best not to even be around her.

Lou sulked as she opened the barn door, trying to figure out how to make things up to Kid. She stopped dead when she saw him brushing Katy. Maybe I should leave, she thought as she slowly approached him.

He looked up when he heard her shut the door. He smiled at her. “Hey Lou,” he said before continued caring for his beloved horse.

“Hey,” she smiled back nervously. “I thought you were on a ride.”

“Ike swapped with me, he was anxious to get back to work now that the he’s fully recovered.”

Lou nodded as she leaned against a pole watching him.

“Is there something you needed?”

“Sort of,” she sighed nervously.

“Something wrong?” He dropped the brush and walked over to her. “Lou, what is it?”

“It’s not important.” She turned to leave, loosing her courage to talk to him.

“Lou?” He put his hand on her shoulder to keep her from leaving. He stepped forward and turned to face her and was surprise to see it looked like she was about to cry. “What is it?”

“I just wanted to say I’m sorry.” She lowered her head.

“For what?”

“For not trusting you enough to tell you Boggs was my father.”

“You had your reasons.”

“Still, you’re my,” she paused trying to find the courage to say it. “You were my best friend, and I lied to you.”

“Were?” He looked at her confused. “Are we not friends any more?”

“Well, you’ve been avoiding me.”

“I just figured now that the others know you might prefer to spend more time with one of them.”

“What?” Lou looked up and was surprised by the insecurity in his face. “You’re still the one I want to spend time with.”

She kissed his cheek and blushed. “I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed your friendship.”

“We’ll always be friends, Lou. No matter what else may happen,” he said before leaning in and kissing her softly on the mouth.


Thanks to Catsimmie for the beta and, as always, her friendship and encouragement to continue writing!

Finding Peace
by: Lori

More of Jimmy and Molly...

He shouldn’t have left her alone. He shouldn’t have walked away from Molly and left her with her overbearing and abusive father merely because there was no way the law would support any interference in Mr. Emerson’s treatment of his daughter. Looking back now, Jimmy realized that there was so much he could have done to help her out. He had stayed away because he was trying to respect her wishes.

However, knowing that her father was practically starving her to death and then running off and spending time at the cathouse in town…he should have done more. While there were some people in town who didn’t like to get involved in other people’s business, Jimmy knew that there were plenty of people who would have supported some sort of intervention. They wouldn’t stand back and let someone suffer in silence just because the law said they couldn’t do anything.

Even if no one else would have helped out, Emma would have. And the other riders would have supported him. It would have been six of them, more including Emma, Teaspoon and Sam, against Mr. Emerson. The man who was no doubt a tyrant when it came to his daughter, but wouldn’t fight anyone else. He had obviously acted as he had because he didn’t want anyone to know he had a daughter. By putting the knowledge out there, they would have taken away some of the power he had had and would have helped ease the treatment he was inflicting on her.

Letting out a ragged sigh, Jimmy scrubbed his hand over his face and then climbed out of his bunk. For the third night in a row, sleep wouldn’t come to him and he decided to spare his fellow riders and not impinge on their sleep by his constant tossing and turning. He slipped into his pants and grabbed his boots, and then quietly exited the bunkhouse. Maybe if he walked around for a while and tired his body out, he could finally quiet the recriminations in his mind and get some sleep.

As he set out on his nighttime meandering, he realized there was another person out here taking advantage of the full moon’s light. Teaspoon was walking as well, his shoulders slumped with a weight Jimmy felt settled upon his own. Something was plaguing the older man. He didn’t want to disturb the man, and so tried to pick a different route, but Teaspoon had an uncanny sense of everything around him and stopped to look back and then wait for Jimmy to join him.

“Can’t sleep, son?” Teaspoon asked as Jimmy neared him.

He shook his head in reply. “Haven’t been able to for couple o’ nights.”

The older man nodded, and the two of them fell into step beside one another. “Thinkin’ ‘bout Molly?”

“Yeah,” he sighed. “I keep thinkin’ I shouldn’ta left her there. I shouldn’ta cared ‘bout what the law said. You and Emma…Sam and the others…we coulda stood up to Emerson. If the town knew that he had a daughter and what he was doing to her…I’d like to think that the reverend and his wife wouldn’t have stood by, and maybe some of the others.”

Jimmy swallowed thickly. “He coulda starved her to death. He coulda beat her to death. And I…I was watchin’ over her and I knew things was gettin’ worse, but I stayed away.”

“Why did you stay away?” Teaspoon asked. Not in accusation; it felt almost like idle curiosity.

“Molly asked me to. I…I made her afraid. She didn’t want her father findin’ out I’d been there, or that someone knew about her. She…she was so afraid.”

“And so you listened to her,” the stationmaster answered. “There’s nothing wrong with that, son. Sometimes we feel like we owe it to the other person to respect their wishes even if we’re not happy with the decision. It’s not ours to make, and if we can make their life a little easier, then we want to do that.”

He paused and looked into the distance, staring into the past instead of the darkness. “But it sure ain’t easy to live with it. ‘Specially when we find something out later on and we think that maybe we shouldn’ta listened to what they said. Maybe if we’d been a little more stubborn, pushed a little more…then things coulda been different.”

Jimmy frowned slightly, knowing they weren’t just talking about Molly Emerson anymore. “Teaspoon?”

“I been thinkin’ ‘bout my daughter, Jimmy,” the older man sighed. “I’m pleased to know Amanda, and there’s a part of me that don’t care about blood and I consider her my daughter. But I didn’t get to know Elizabeth. And the reason I didn’t was ‘cause her mother asked me to stay away ‘cause she was confused ‘bout me and Cyrus and I wanted to give her space.”

With a weary shrug and a heavy breath he said, “Maybe if I hadn’t given in so easily and allowed Cyrus to manipulate the situation as he did ‘causing her to be sad and share that grief with our child, then my daughter wouldn’t have died. Maybe things would have been different.”

“Yeah,” Jimmy nodded. “That’s how I feel. I feel like I should’ve done more instead of standing by and just watching. She’s so…”

“She needs time to heal, Jimmy,” Teaspoon told him. “And she will. Emma’s a good woman and she’ll help Molly. I can see her startin’ to look healthier.”

“Yeah,” the young rider agreed wearily. “It’s just hard ‘cause I remember how she looked that day in the barn when we went and got her.”

“We can’t live in the past, son,” the older man said, resting his hand comfortingly on Jimmy’s shoulder. “’Cause we can’t change it and it doesn’t do us good to live with recriminations over something we can’t change. We did the best we could at the time and we have to find peace with it. Molly’s gettin’ better, so take comfort in that. And don’t be so afraid to talk to her, Jimmy. That girl needs a friend, and she considers you one, so you need to step up and be there for her.”

By now they were back near the bunkhouse and Jimmy stepped up onto the porch. He still wasn’t tired, and he had a whole new set of things to think about, but talking tonight with Teaspoon had helped, and maybe in the morning he’d figure out how best to deal with the rest of it.

Guilty Thoughts
by: Michelle R

"Why?" That's the question that kept going through Kid's head.

"Why'd I do it?" Of course, that was the other part of the question that was running its course, driving Kid into his own personal Hell.

Kid sat on the porch of the bunkhouse staring at the horizon. If he wasn't so deep in thought, he would've seen the storm that was blowing in.

The clouds were dark and ominous and rapidly rolling in, matching the Kid's mood.

The sky rumbled and then was lit by bright lightning that seemed to split the sky in two. As the sky split, it acted as a trigger for the Heavens to open and the downpour began.

Yet Kid still sat on the porch deep in guilty thoughts. 'I shouldn't have said what I did. How was I to know that Lou was standin' there?'

Rachel came out of the bunkhouse after watching Kid sitting there unmoving in the pouring down rain. She knew he was upset, but she figured she best figure out what it was that was causing the young rider to be so down. 'It really started from what I saw after Samantha left. Maybe he's just upset that she's gone,' Rachel thought to herself.

"Kid?" She quietly called to him, not wanting to startle him out of his revelry.

He still didn't stir so she tried again, this time a little louder and with a slight touch to his shoulder. "Kid?! You better get inside 'fore you catch your death. You're getting' soaked out here."

Kid finally looked up at Rachel realizing that she had been calling him and finally seeing the state that some of his clothing was in.

"Sorry Rachel. Didn't hear ya callin' me. Matter of fact, I didn't even realize it was rainin'."

Rachel lightly smiled down at him. "No worries. Let's just get inside 'fore it gets worse."

Kid slowly stood up to follow Rachel inside. His shirt sleeves were soaked through as was the lower half of his pant legs, from where they hung out from underneath the veranda.

Kid tried wringing out his sleeves a bit before going inside the warm bunkhouse.

Rachel turned around as she heard the bunkhouse door shut. "So what's on your mind Kid?"

"Ah Rachel…is it that obvious?"

Rachel nodded her head, "Yeah…just to 'bout anyone who knows you. So what's goin' on?"

"Rachel…I've done somethin' awful," Kid said forlornly.

"What could be so awful that you were willin' to sit outside in a thunderstorm with out even realizin' it?" Rachel knew it had to be somethin' to do with either Louise or Samantha. Kid was known for broodin' when it came to Louise especially.

"I said some things to the boys…right after I met Samantha. Some things that I'm not proud of sayin'." Kid looked up at Rachel as she urged him to continue. "Somethin' 'bout Lou."

That got Rachel's back up on that comment. She knew that Kid was hurt when things ended between him and Louise, but she didn't know what to expect with this conversation.

"What'd you say Kid? Is that why Lou was so upset when she and Jimmy left for Willow Springs?" She fired off the questions at him, not giving him a chance to answer. Louise was like a little sister to her, and she was not gonna be happy to hear what he said, that he knew.

"I was just talkin' Rachel. You know how boys talk." He could tell by the look on Rachel's face that she didn't like where the conversation was going, but he marched on with dread.

"Cody, Noah, Buck and Ike were just funnin' me about Samantha. I couldn't help but be happy that I found her Rachel. She was everything I'd been lookin' for in a woman. But I wasn't gonna tell them that, but I guess they could see it written all over my face. I was grinnin' like an idiot." He still smiled when he thought how Samantha made him feel when they first met. The smile went away though when he realized why he was talkin' to Rachel in the first place. It was because of what he said about Lou.

Rachel sat down across from him, "Kid…somethin' tells me that you grinnin' over some new woman all love sick isn't the only reason why Louise was upset. What else did you say that's makin' you feel guilty?"

Quietly Kid looked down at his hands that he had folded on the table in front of him. "The boys thought that maybe I should take some time to heal after what happened with Lou…but I asked how long I was supposed to brood over somethin' that just wasn't meant to be. Then I said that Lou was sweet, but maybe things would've never worked out between us 'cause we work and live together..." He looked up at Rachel again, "and Lou heard what I said."

Rachel took in a slight gasp. 'No wonder Louise was so hurt. After everything Kid and her did together, she probably thought it meant nothin' to him.'

"Oh Kid. Now I know why she was so upset. I know you're feelin' guilty about this, but my question is this…are you feelin' guilty 'cause of what you said, or is it 'cause Louise heard you?"

Kid sat straight up in his seat, ready to fire off in a tirade at Rachel implying such a thing, but then quickly calmed down when he saw that she was just protecting Lou.

"I don't know Rachel…maybe it's a bit of both. I feel bad 'cause she heard what I said, but I can't honestly say that I didn't mean all of it. I mean…Lou is a sweet girl, but she's so independent that sometimes I don't think she needs me at all. Samantha on the other hand…she liked that I helped her and was always genuinely happy that I was around. I don't know what to feel right now other than I feel like my head's gonna explode 'cause of this headache."

She smiled slightly at Kid and his predicament. She sure understood about the headache. She was known to get them often 'cause of the boys and there antics.

"Kid…I don't know what to tell ya. All I can say is, maybe you're right. Maybe you and Lou couldn't have worked it out, maybe you could've, but either way, what you said sounded awful cold, especially after everything the two of you have been through together." She put her hand on his damp shirt sleeve. "I do think though that you need to talk to her when she and Jimmy get back from Willow Springs. Set the record straight 'tween the two of ya."

He had almost forgotten that Jimmy and Lou were out on that special run together. His anger started to build again. He always knew that Jimmy and Lou were close. It was one of the constants in his and Lou's relationship that seemed to cause an argument.

He looked back up at Rachel. She could see the change of demeanor in his eyes. There seemed to be a fiery anger that built up after she mentioned Jimmy and Louise being out on a run together. 'Oh Lord, here we go again.'

"Maybe I won't need to worry 'bout Lou after all Rachel. She's got Jimmy with her and he always seems to know what to say to her." He sulked sitting at the table.

"Kid! I swear…you are so exasperatin' sometimes! You need to think about this. Why is it alright for you to move on with Samantha, but it's not okay for Louise to be happy? Huh? Answer that!" Rachel was angry again.

"I want Lou to be happy Rachel. I don't know why it bothers me so much that I think it's gonna be Jimmy that does it for her. Maybe it's 'cause he's my best friend. I don't know. Maybe it's 'cause it ain't me. All I know is that I'm tired of feelin' guilty about the whole thing!" He shot up from the table and stalked over to his bunk to sit down on it.

Rachel walked over to him and kneeled down in front of him, taking his hands in hers.

"Listen to me Kid. You gotta get past this thing or it's gonna tear you up inside. Trust me. If it doesn't tear you up, then it's gonna tear up what's left of your relationship with Louise. If you want to be friends with her, then you're gonna have to talk to her when she gets home, and you know you're gonna have to do it with Jimmy there, 'cause that man is gonna stick by her side no matter what."

Kid looked angry at her, but knew that she was speaking the truth. "I know Rachel. I know."

With that Rachel got up from the floor and walked out to the porch of the bunkhouse leaving Kid to his thoughts and his guilt.

I Promise
by: Cindy

"I'll be back as soon as I can, Sugar Bear."

"I don't want you to leave, Louise."

"Well, I got to."

"You ain't never comin' back."

"I promise, Jeremiah." The boy's words stung, and she could hear it in her own voice as she answered. "I'm gonna find a job an' save up some money, so's we can all be together."

"Louise…"

She dug into her bag, pulling out the old rag doll. "You take care of Mrs. Mumblepuss for me 'til I get back, all right?"

The little girl pulled the doll close to her, hugging it. "I will." She nodded, tears sparkling in her eyes. "I will…"

Lou woke with a start, her hand extended as if reaching to brush away a tear.

She sat up in her bunk, trying to breathe. The dream had been so real…

A quick look around the bunkhouse showed that the others were still asleep. Good, her dream hadn't awakened anyone else. It would be hard to explain without giving away a certain secret.

Her breathing finally steadied, and her racing pulse slowed. She lay back on the pillow, thinking. She'd never planned to stay away so long. In the naiveté of youth it had seemed so simple to find a job and save up money.

But the real world outside of the orphanage had been a much less simple world. What few jobs she could find barely paid enough to keep a roof over her head and food in her belly. In fact, more than once she'd had to forego either shelter or food… or both.

Then there was the job doing laundry in what she'd thought was a boarding house. It paid a little better, and she'd stayed even after learning the real business of the house. Until the night Wickes had…

Lou shuddered, trying to block that memory away. She wrapped her arms tightly around her shoulders and took a few deep breaths until the trembling stopped. The only thing she wanted to remember from that time was how it had brought her here.

She carefully rolled to the edge of the bunk, looking over. Kid was asleep on the lower bunk, his mouth opened as he breathed deeply. Buck was in the single cot nearby, turned on one side with an arm crooked under his pillow. Cody and Jimmy were in their bunks across the way, snoring softly. Ike was on a run, otherwise the family would be complete.

Family…

They were becoming a family, this ragtag bunch of orphans, and the thought brought a smile to her face.

It was short-lived, however, as she thought about her other family. She'd promised to go back, promised to bring them together again. And now it had been five years…

Five years. Lou swallowed hard against the lump that had formed in her throat. She'd never planned to stay away so long. And no one back at the orphanage in St. Joseph knew where she was, or that she was now Lou McLoud, not Louise.

Well, she had a good job now - one that paid enough so she could actually put some money aside toward her promise. So maybe it was time to go back.

Lou sighed and stared at the cracked ceiling. She'd have to talk to Teaspoon, get some time off. It was a long ride to St. Joe. And she'd need some new clothes, something appropriate to wear when she faced the nuns.

Something she'd better make sure none of the boys, except maybe Kid, saw her buy.

She smiled at that thought as her plans came together. She'd need gifts, of course. She'd been gone for five long years.

And she had a long-overdue promise to keep.

Words We Say
by: Cindy

There was laughter coming from the bunkhouse as Lou slipped outside into the darkness.

The mood inside was celebratory, and with good reason. They'd done a good job that day, uncovering and stopping the plans of 'Snake Man' and his cronies to steal Indian land, and maybe start a war along the way. It hadn't been easy, in fact it had been downright dangerous. But they believed in each other, trusted each other…

One person had left the celebration early.

As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, Lou could make out the figure leaning against the corral fence. He was staring out across the enclosure - which was empty, so she knew he was thinking.

She'd done some thinking too, about the things she'd said to him.

She walked slowly toward the corral. Her footsteps sounded loud, surrounded by the silence of the night. She knew he heard her approach, but he gave no sign.

"Buck?"

The silent figure didn't move, so she stepped closer, stopping next to him at the fence. "Buck?"

He finally looked over, making brief eye contact before turning away again.

Lou put a foot on the bottom rail and leaned against the fence, mimicking his position. Then she stared out across the enclosure in the direction he was looking… at nothing. There was only the prairie, stretching away until it disappeared in the darkness.

"You all right?"

"Fine."

It was one word, but at least it was a start. "You left without sayin' anything. I was worried."

"Nothing to worry about. I'm fine."

"That's good." Lou nodded, a wasted gesture in the dark since he wasn't looking at her. "We did a good job today," she ventured. "All of us."

Buck took a deep breath and nodded. "Sure."

"Buck, what is it?"

For a long moment she didn't think he was going to answer, but then he finally turned toward her. "We stopped one crooked Indian agent from stealing the Indians' land. But where does it stop, Lou? There'll just be another, and another."

"Guess we'll be fightin' a lot then."

He smiled, a brief gesture before he turned serious again. "Don't know that it matters," he said softly. "There's more than we can fight."

"Don't mean we can't try."

"Gonna fight the whole town, Lou? They were mighty ready to hang Curly without a trial. And it's not just Sweetwater."

She sighed. "I know." Looking down at the ground she scuffed her boot in the dust a few times before continuing. "Don't know if I can fight 'em all," Lou admitted. "But I can try to do what's right." She paused, taking a deep breath. "Like apologize for what I did."

Buck turned toward her, a puzzled look on his face. "What?"

"I'm sorry for what I said, about savages and all. Because I really thought about what you asked, was it because they were murderers or Indians." She made sure he was looking at her before going on. "And you were right. If I'd known it was white men, I would have said murderers," she admitted softly. "And I'm sorry."

Buck considered his reply, studying her eyes. "You were worried about Kid…"

"Doesn't matter," Lou insisted quietly. "You were tryin' to help, tellin' me he was all right. And all I could do was…"

He turned to face her fully, placing his hands gently on her shoulders. "Lou, I understand."

"Thanks," she whispered. "But that don't make it right, and I've been feelin' pretty bad about it."

"You shouldn't. Your actions made up for the words." He gave her another smile. "But I forgive you anyway."

She returned the smile, and then wrapped her arms around him in a quick hug. "Thanks." She released him, and he turned back toward the darkness. "You comin' back in?"

"Not just yet."

Lou stepped back up next to the fence. "Guess maybe I'll stay out a bit too."

"You don't have to."

"I want to." She paused, chewing at her bottom lip as she considered something. "Maybe you could help me."

He turned toward her, puzzled. "With what?"

"I was thinkin', maybe you could help me understand."

"Understand what?"

"I guess I don't know much about the Indian side o' all this," Lou admitted. "I mean, I know some, 'cause you've taught me. But you don't really say much a lot o' the time, and I'd like to know."

Buck sighed. "I wouldn't know where to start."

"Tell me about bein' Kiowa," she suggested, reaching for his hand. She led him toward the barn and sat down on the tool chest outside the door, motioning him to the seat next to her. "Tell me everything."

Fear and Loathing
by: Miss Raye

"I told her I hated her." His voice shook more than his hands. "I told her that I hated her and I said it in English. I used the white man's words against her."

"She wouldn't hold it against you, Buck, you were just a boy."

"I was almost a man and I knew the pain my words would cause but I said them anyway. I said them and I meant them." He squeezed his hands together and watched his knuckles turn white.

Lou sat down on the hay bale beside him and dangled her feet. "What did she say?"

His breath was visible to them both as he blew out a sigh. "Didn't say anything." Buck swallowed hard and continued on. "I expected her to say… I wanted her to say something… anything. She could have hit me and I would've been fine with it." He turned his face to her. "I would have welcomed it."

She saw the pain that bled from his eyes, the dark shadows that hid the light she was so used to seeing. "She loved you, Buck, and-"

"Why?" He pushed himself back onto his feet and waded through the thin layers of hay on the ground. "Why did she? My father wasn't her husband, Lou. My father wasn't a man that loved her and honored her." He strode up to Lou and loomed over her in the light of the single lantern on the wall. "Do you have any idea what that must have been like for her? To know that everyone you saw knew… knew what had happened to her. Knew that a man took her in anger, bent her will to his."

She looked up at him and didn't shrink back… didn't blink as she answered him. "There was only one person who knew… until now." She gave it a moment, not really eager to lay her soul bare before him, but then again her mother always said misery loved company. "It didn't really matter that folks didn't know just by lookin' at me. I felt like they did, like it was written across every piece of visible skin that a man had touched me, crawled right up on me and had his fill."

"Lou…" Buck's anger lost its bite as he saw the shadows deepen beneath her eyes. "I didn't know that-"

She cleared her throat and swallowed around the knot that had formed in her neck. "It's supposed to be that way, Buck. I'm supposed to be just like everyone else. He may have touched my body, but I'll be damned if I'm gonna let him make me run like a jack-rabbit."

"Was there… " she could read the self-censure in his eyes, he knew he shouldn't ask, but he couldn't seem to help himself, "a child."

"No." Her denial was just a little fast… just a little desperate. "When it came time for my monthly, it was a day or two late before… then I knew I wasn't havin' a baby. I cried. Cried for hours and I didn't know if it was bein' I happy I wasn't… or from bein' sad that I wasn't. There's so much about that time that I'll never understand."

"It was easier for you, without a baby. It would have been the same for her."

"It didn't stop me from knowin' that he had his hands… all over me… that he… there was nothin' good that came of it, Buck. Nothin' except me runnin' and comin' here."

"Is that what a baby would have been? Somethin' good for you?"

Louise shrugged. "It would've made things harder. I'd have to raise it on my own… or maybe give it to folks that could care for it. I didn't have a husband or a family that could help. I was supposed to go back and get Teresa and Jeremiah-"

"The baby would have complicated things."

"You think you were a burden to her?"

Buck leaned against a post in the center of the barn, touching his forehead to the rough wood. "She used to cry when she thought I couldn't hear… I shamed her, Lou. When they would tell her how the other children made fun of me… beat me… shunned me… she'd cry. She must have hated me for all the sorrow I brought to her life."

He looked at Lou and saw the tears in her eyes as she slid off the edge of the hay bale and walked over to him, pausing to look up into his face. "It wasn't shame she felt for you, Buck. She felt pain for you." She reached up and wrapped her arms around his neck, hugging him close. "She loved you, Buck… don't question it. She knew you loved her too. I'll be she saw right through your words and knew it."

She let go of him, a bit embarrassed at her show of emotion, and stepped back.

"How do you know?" He was still worried, grasping at straws. "How do you know what…"

"It's written all over your face, Buck. You love her and it shows right through your eyes like windows. Even if I was blind you can hear it in your voice. She knew, Buck… she knew."

He shook his head; still a little boy lost after all the years. "I don't know, Lou…" he watched the younger woman walk away, "I just don't know."

Forgive Me
by: Miss Raye

Teaspoon knew he wasn't alone. Knew it and wanted to hide.

"You knew I'd find you, silly man. Don't think I don't know you inside and out."

"I'm busy right now, Polly… can we, uh…"

She moved across the room her heels the sound in his ears besides the roar of blood.

Her smile fell the instant she saw his face. "You're crying!"

He swiped at the tears. "Of course I am!" The words came out as sharp as knives and he hated himself for it. "I'm sorry, darlin'… I'm so… so sorry." His hands came down on her shoulders and he drew her tight against his body and then wrapped his arms around her until he felt the shoulder of his shirt dampen all the way through to his skin. "Can you ever forgive me?"

He'd been wallowing in his anger and frustration, beating himself up for doing to Polly what was an unforgiveable sin. He put her in the line of fire. He put her in the sights of a man intent on evil and he'd never seen it coming.

She set her hands on his shoulders, loosening his hold until she could look up into his face. "If I didn't love you so much, sugar lips, I'd smack you silly for bein' so stupid and so loveable all at the same time!" She grabbed the sides of his face and planted a kiss right on his lips. "There's nothin' to forgive, Teaspoon. That man did what he did and you aren't responsible for it anymore than you can stop the rain." Her smile returned and she cuddled up against him, her cheek pressed tight against his chest. "You can make it up to me, though."

"Oh?" He tried to make his tone light, but the rock in his throat scratched the sound on the way out. "How's that?"

Polly wrapped her arms around his waist and squeezed. "Just love me, ya big ol' fool… just love me."

AN: I owe this one to Cindy for letting me 'borrow' an idea

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