Topic #80: Ice
|Snow Bust by: catsimmie||No Good Deed... by: Cindy|
|Bath Time by: Lori||The Cutting Edge by: Dede|
|One Little Favor by: Debbie|
Lou felt horrible. The riders had awoken to the ground covered in snow, and as soon as they were dressed and had a warm breakfast, she was eager to go play outside. Winter had always been her favorite time of the year. The snow made everything seem so pure and innocent and she had looked forward to making snowmen and snow angels. The last thing she had expected was a patch of ice immediately outside of the door and sliding off the edge of the porch, twisting her ankle and bruising her backside. Now not only could she not play in the snow, but she couldn't even help do the morning chores.
Rachel had insisted she rest and take it easy inside the bunkhouse, but Lou had refused. She didn't want to miss a moment of the fun, so Rachel finally relented into letting her sit bundled up on the porch. There she could watch the others and she couldn't help but gaze at both Kid and Jimmy. Despite the below freezing temperature, both had removed their shirts and long john tops as they mended some boards on the corral.
Out of nowhere, a snowball hit Jimmy square between the shoulders and he turned to see who may have thrown it. Cody was standing by the barn with a grin on his face.
"Can you believe him?" Jimmy asked Kid. "We're workin' our butts off and he just stands there thinking it's funny to throw snowballs at us."
Kid turned and looked at Cody. "I don't know, Jimmy. I think Cody would see throwing the snowballs fun, but makin' them might be too much work for him."
Lou watched as both men went back to work, a mischievous grin spreading across her lips.
A few minutes later, Kid was hit in the back of the head with another snowball. He immediately looked towards Cody who actually seemed to be working. The only one who wasn't working as he looked around was Lou. She was sitting in a chair on the porch and appeared to be reading. But he knew better.
"I think I know who the guilty person is," Kid told Jimmy, nodding with his head towards Lou.
"Are you sure?" Kid nodded. "I don't know, Kid," he said looking over at Lou. She was sitting there looking sweet and innocent. "I just don't see Lou doin' that."
They went back to work and sure enough a few minutes later, both Kid and Jimmy were hit with snowballs. Kid grinned and shook his head as he turned towards the bunkhouse and walked towards Lou.
"Hey," he grinned.
Lou looked up and smiled innocently. "Hey."
"How are you feeling?" Kid asked sounding concerned.
Lou shrugged. "Feel bad that I can't help you boys with the chores. You know how much I love winter and I really wanted to play in the snow afterwards."
"Seems you couldn't wait, could you?" He asked grinning.
Lou looked horrified. "I don't know what you're talkin' about. I've just been sittin' here reading this book," she said, raising the book she was reading.
"Upside down?" Kid questioned, trying not to laugh. He gently picked her up in his arms, hoping not to hurt her more than she already was. "Can't have you missin' out on all the fun, now can we?" He asked as he carried her off the porch.
"Put me down!" She demanded. "Kid, I'm serious, this ain't funny."
Kid grinned wickedly and leaned his head to kiss her forehead. "Anything you want, Lou," he said as he found a huge pile of snow and dropped her. She was immediately assaulted by a dozen snowballs being thrown by the other riders.
Lou squealed as the cold wetness soaked her clothing. "I'm gonna get you, Kid," she yelled as he lifted the back of her shirt and dumped two huge handfuls of snow down her back. She reached out and grabbed his leg, tripping him.
Kid landed on top of Lou and immediately looked worried. "Are you okay?" He asked as he struggled to get up.
Lou pulled him back down on top of her, the heat radiating from his bare chest warming her up. "I am now," she grinned, wrapping her arms around his neck and began kissing him passionately.
Kid groaned in pleasure as her hands began to roam his bare back. They had only begun to be intimate a few weeks ago, and he was surprised at her boldness. Since they had returned from Redfern, she insisted they keep the displays of affection to a minimum to avoid teasing from the others. His desire decreased as his body shielded hers from another snowball attack from the others.
"I better get you back in the bunkhouse so you can get warmed up," he said, standing up. "Can you make it?"
He held out his hand and Lou allowed him to help her up. But as soon as she put weight on the ankle, she faltered. Kid quickly scooped her into his arms once more. Lou shivered at the closeness and wrapped her arms around his neck.
"You're shivering. Maybe I should take you over to Rachel's and have her draw you a hot bath."
Lou shook her head. "I'm fine," she insisted. "I'm sorry I hit you and Jimmy with snowballs, I just wanted to have some innocent fun."
Kid nodded and then laughed as he saw the impression their bodies had made. "Well it may have been fun, but not so innocent."
"Huh?" Lou asked confused. She looked down at where their bodies had been entwined only moments earlier and started laughing. Instead of the snow angel she wanted to make, the impression looked more like a snow devil.
He could ignore the clinking of the coffee pot on the stones around the fire, and the hissing of the flames as more wood was added. The sound of the twenty horses corralled by a low brush enclosure were soothing, nothing to worry about. Even the sounds of someone saddling a horse could be pushed to the background.
But the constant humming… that was too much.
Rolling back just enough of the blanket to uncover his face, Jimmy glanced over to where Kid was now dumping a can of beans into a pot – humming all the way. He sighed, scowling as his breath turned to a frozen mist in front of his eyes. “Kid, what the hell’re you doing?”
“Making breakfast,” came the cheerful reply.
And then more humming.
Jimmy groaned and pulled the blanket back up to his nose. “It ain’t hardly light yet.”
“Sure it is,” Kid said, gesturing toward the eastern horizon with the spoon he was using to stir the beans.
Jimmy spared a glance in that direction with one eye and he did have to admit, grudgingly, that the sun did seem to be up. But on this December day, with deep winter cold having settled in early for the season, that didn’t seem to make much difference. So he tried a different tactic. “Kid, we been ridin’ for over a week to get them horses. No reason we gotta start so early, ‘fore it even warms up a little.”
“Ridin’ for a week,” Kid agreed, a grin spreading over his face. “And home tomorrow!”
There was no sign of another person in the camp, other than a blanket covered lump on the other side of the fire. But now Buck’s muffled voice joined the conversation. “You’d almost think he’s got some reason to hurry up getting home.”
Even though Buck was nowhere to be seen, the smile in his voice was evident, and Jimmy had to grin himself. “Don’t hardly seem fair,” he said. “Seein’ as how me an’ Buck were good enough to help you get these horses for that new farm o’ yours, an’ now you’re drivin’ us so hard.”
Kid’s grin faltered momentarily as he considered that. “Well, an’ I really appreciate it! Me an’ Lou couldn’t get that old farm in shape, and ready for some horse breeding, without your help! But, uh… it’s cold out here. I was just figurin’ the sooner we get going the sooner we’re back to Rock Creek.”
“See, Jimmy,” Buck said. “Kid’s just thinking of us.”
“Yeah, he ain’t in no hurry himself.”
“No, always just thinking of others.”
“That’s real noble, ain’t it, Buck?”
Kid sighed and turned back to the fire, grabbing a rag to use to pick up the coffee pot. Obviously his friends were just in the mood to tease him this morning. And, even though he did want to get moving toward home, the friendly delay wasn’t all bad. It helped remind him how lucky he was to have friends like these two men.
“It is noble,” Buck agreed, finally peeking out from under his blankets. “You’re sure there ain’t another reason you’re in such a hurry, Kid?”
Kid could feel the warmth of a blush rising from his neck to his face as he poured a mug of coffee and set the pot back. And even with his collar turned up against the bitter wind, he was sure the other two men could see the reddening of his skin. “All right, I miss her.”
Buck grinned over at Jimmy. “Her?” he asked, all innocence.
“Katy’s right over there, Kid,” Jimmy pointed out. “Can’t really miss her she’s so close.”
Kid choked on his coffee, spitting some of it out onto the ground. “It ain’t Katy I’m talkin’ about, and you know it. It’s Lou. I mean, we been gone a week…”
“Newlyweds.” Buck and Jimmy said the word in unison, both laughing.
“Oh, you go ahead and laugh,” Kid said. “You just don’t know how it is.”
“Well, tell us, Kid,” Jimmy replied. “How is it?”
Kid stared at his coffee, a smile spreading over his face. “It feels like I’m the luckiest man alive,” he said softly. “Or at least I will be when I get home again.”
Buck pushed his blanket down a little further. “I suppose we shouldn’t keep such a lucky man waiting.”
“No, guess it ain’t right,” Jimmy agreed. “I guess…”
A scream, of terror and fright, cut through the air, stopping Jimmy’s words. That first sound was wild, wordless – and then it changed.
Kid tossed his mug to the ground and ran to where Katy stood, already saddled. Vaulting into the saddle he turned the mare in the direction from which the scream had come and edged his heels into her flanks, sending them shooting out of the camp.
The time for joking was ended, and Buck and Jimmy scrambled to disentangle themselves from the blankets. Quickly, with no wasted movement, they reached for the essentials – boots, guns, gloves. To experience riders, who always kept their gear cleaned and ready, the act of saddling two horses took very little time.
Even so, by the time Buck and Jimmy rode out of camp, Kid had disappeared into the trees well beyond where they were. Riding fast, they could only hope to catch up before Kid found too much trouble to handle alone.
Leaning low over Katy’s neck, Kid gave the horse free rein to run as he concentrated on the direction from which the screams had come. There was no repeat of the initial blood-curdling scream, but pleas for help could still be heard, and were growing closer.
He topped another rise, and paused to take his bearings. In the hollow below there was a small cabin, with a barn and corral on one side of the yard. A thick stand of trees stood to the other side, with a large open field beyond that.
But it was what lay in front of the home that caught Kid’s attention now.
Large and flat, its icy surface shining in the early morning sun, there was a pond. A small child stood near the center, crying as something bright pink was lifted away by the wind behind her.
There was a woman trying to reach the child, and Kid knew it was her screams he had responded to. She was slipping on the ice in her hurry to try and get to the child, and thus making little progress. And even as he watched…
The sound was almost like the report of a gun firing. He saw and heard the thin ice fracturing, watched as the woman fell to her knees just short of a fissure that had suddenly opened up.
Spurring Katy on, Kid rode down the hill and pulled the horse to a stop just short of the frozen surface. He leapt from the saddle and started out onto the fragile ice, forcing all thoughts out of his head except for the goal of reaching the little girl on the ice – he knew if he really thought about what he was doing, it would only frighten him, and make the task that much harder.
Step by careful step he made his way across the ice. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the woman crawl slowly away from the open water, and he thought there might have been another figure too, but he didn’t dare take his mind off of what he was doing to really look.
He was almost out to where the girl stood, sobbing, when all of a sudden there was another loud cracking sound. Kid felt the ice shift under his feet, and found that he was now balancing on a free-floating piece of ice. So was the little girl, but the sensation scared her even more and she started to move.
Before Kid could even open his mouth to tell her to stay still, the ice shelf she stood on tipped up on one end. The child slipped into the water, and the icy liquid closed over her blond hair.
With no thought other than to save the child, Kid plunged into the water after her. The icy fluid enveloped him, sending a shock through his whole body at how cold it was. It seemed like he almost immediately lost the feeling in his fingers. Water seeped into his boots, making his feet heavy, dragging him down.
But the cold water was also clear, and he saw the little girl just in front of him. Grabbing her arm, Kid pushed her toward the light that marked the surface. It seemed to take forever, though some part of his mind told him it had really only been a matter of seconds, and then he felt the girl breach the surface. A moment later his head was above the water too, and he was gasping for breath – but he had the little girl secured firmly in one arm.
Kid scrambled for something solid, feeling disoriented. His legs were numb, and it was hard to use them to move. Finally he reached the edge of the ice, but when he touched it the ice crumbled under his touch. He tried again, and again, finally finding a section that seemed to stay whole. He put his free arm out, searching for anything to give him a handhold, some leverage.
But his groping fingers found nothing, and he felt himself slowly slipping back.
He seemed to be having trouble with his eyes – things were very blurred. But he saw someone slowly coming toward him on the ice. He thought it might be the woman, though he couldn’t say for sure. It did remind him of the child in his arm though, and he looked at her, struggling to clear his vision. She was trembling, her lips turning blue – and although he was having trouble thinking, he was pretty sure that wasn’t a good thing.
With all the strength he could muster, Kid pushed the little girl up and out of the water. He managed to put enough power behind the maneuver so that the child had a good deal of momentum when she got onto the frozen surface. She slid on the slick surface, making it to where the ice was thicker.
Both hands now free, Kid made another attempt to pull himself out, but again he could find nothing to use for leverage. His frozen fingers scrabbled helplessly on the ice, but he could feel himself slipping.
He had a brief thought that he didn’t feel cold any more, and that seemed strange. And then he slipped under the water…
Reaching the pond first, Buck was just in time to see Kid push a child out of the water. There was a woman crawling on the ice, trying to get to the little girl.
Kid was trying to climb out from a hole in the ice, but even as Buck dismounted he watched in dismay as his friend slipped below the surface.
Starting out onto the ice, Buck called over his shoulder to Jimmy, who was just arriving. “The rope, Jimmy!”
“Right!” Grateful that they had ropes ready for dealing with the horses, Jimmy quickly grabbed the one hanging from his saddle and freed the looped end. He expanded the loop, swung it a few times over his head, and then tossed it out to where Buck was inching closer to the broken ice.
Not wanting to take his eyes off the ice, Buck had not turned around to watch for the rope. But the loop brushed his shoulder, and he managed to grab it as it slid down his arm. Pulling it over his head, he tugged the rope tight under his arms and kept moving.
When the ice started to crack and shift, Buck dropped to his knees and crawled forward.
Just then, Kid’s arm broke the surface of the open water, hand outstretched. Buck lunged forward, stretched out on the ice on his stomach, but the hand disappeared before he could grasp it.
Inching forward, Buck looked down into the hole, hoping to see Kid struggle to the surface again, and ready now to help. But the water showed no disturbance, no sign of anyone struggling in it.
With a quick glance back at Jimmy, who had the rope braced against his hip, Buck signaled that he was going into the water. He swung carefully around until his feet were at the edge, took a deep breath, and plunged in.
The cold nearly took that saved breath away, and he struggled for a moment to calm himself. But that was all he had, a moment. He knew that if there was any chance to save Kid, the other man needed to be found quickly.
The icy water seemed to be pressing on his chest, making it hard to breathe. Buck forced himself to look around, trying to make out the solid form of a body amongst the shadows in the water.
Buck managed to snag Kid’s arm, and then he tried to make for the surface. But his hands and feet didn’t seem to be cooperating. With what remained of clear thought in the frigid conditions, he gave the rope around his chest three swift tugs.
Almost immediately, Buck felt the rope pulling against him, lifting him. He kept a tight hold on Kid, watching as the light at the surface got brighter and closer.
When his head finally broke clear of the water, Buck drew in a deep, ragged breath, then shuddered as the cold air made his lungs hurt. He was still holding Kid tightly to his side, and he tried to help free them from the frozen trap. but, like Kid before him, his frozen fingers could find nothing to grasp onto.
Vaguely aware of a voice, Buck looked toward the shore. Jimmy was moving slowly toward them, and there was another man as well, sliding gingerly on the ice.
Buck hoped they could hurry…
Jimmy dropped to his knees as he neared the open water. He had tied the rope off to a tree, but he still kept a tight hold on it. He’d found, though, that he couldn’t get enough leverage from the shore to pull Buck and Kid out.
Stretching out on his belly, Jimmy worked his hands as close as he could to the hole and started to pull. It seemed like Buck came a little farther up, but not far, and not enough. Damn it, he had to pull harder somehow…
Just then someone else dropped to the ice next to him. Jimmy spared the man only a quick glance, and a brief nod of thanks. Who he was could wait until later – after they got the two freezing men out of the water.
With the two of them pulling, hands practically on top of each other, muscles straining, they finally made progress. Buck’s body was soon almost clear of the water. The fingers of one of his hands were wrapped tightly around the rope. His other arm kept Kid’s body rising as well.
As Buck toppled onto the ice, his grip was shaken, and Kid started to slip. But then someone reached in, grabbing Kid securely by the collar of his coat and pulling him away from the hole.
While the stranger dealt with Kid, Jimmy pulled back on the rope, sliding Buck well away from the thin ice. Then he knelt by his friend, alarmed at how pale and blue Buck looked. And when he tried to remove the rope, it seemed like Buck’s fingers had frozen into a grip around it.
There was a scraping sound, and Buck looked up to see a woman pulling a sled onto the ice. The little girl Kid had saved sat on the sled, bundled in a heavy blanket.
“Come on!” the other man called. “We’ve got to get them warm!”
Jimmy didn’t need any further proof of that – Buck’s violent shivering was frightening.
It was more frightening, though, that Kid didn’t seem to be moving at all.
The stranger started to pull Kid toward the sleigh, and Jimmy did the same with Buck. They met the woman part-way out, and she took the child into her arms, hurrying back toward the house. They wrestled Kid and Buck onto the sled, using the partially frozen rope to keep them in place, and then pulled the sled toward the yard.
The ground was frozen, but there was no snow, so the going was slow. But with two men pulling they made it to the house in just a few minutes.
The other man threw open the door, and Jimmy could feel the welcome heat of a fire coming from inside. He tugged Buck’s knife free of the ice that had formed around it and sliced the rope. The two men then carried Kid inside, laying him next to the fire, and quickly returned for Buck.
The woman came from a back room, her arms full of blankets. “Joseph?”
“Get some coffee on, Liv,” the man answered. “And that bottle of brandy from my brother.”
She nodded, paused just a moment to tuck a blanket closer around her daughter, and went to work in the kitchen.
Jimmy busied himself trying to get Buck’s sodden and icy boots off. The leather had swollen, and it was a difficult job. It didn’t help either that Buck was shaking all over. “Just hold on, Buck,” Jimmy whispered. “Gonna get you dry and warmed up.”
Buck tried to nod, but it seemed his muscles didn’t want to cooperate. “Kkkkkid?” he finally managed to stammer.
Jimmy chanced a quick glance to where the other man, Joseph, was trying to rouse Kid. “You got him out, Buck. I don’t know…”
“He…he…he wwwwas in longer,” Buck whispered. “Help him.”
Jimmy started to argue, but he also knew Buck was right. Grabbing one of the blankets he wrapped it tightly around Buck’s shoulders and helped him move a little closer to the fire. “You holler if you need me.”
Going to kneel next to Kid, Jimmy felt his breath catch, and there was a hard lump in his throat.
Kid was ghostly pale, except for the blue around his lips. Joseph was rubbing him with a blanket, but there was no sign of Kid recovering, or even of him breathing.
In desperation, Jimmy reached out and pushed hard on Kid’s chest, and again, and again. It was something he remembered his mother doing one time when one of his sisters had nearly drowned. And it had helped his sister, forcing water out of her lungs.
But when he tried it now, there was only a trickle of water coming out of those blue lips. With a growing dread, Jimmy tried it again, then turned Kid over and pushed under his shoulders.
Again, a trickle of water, but no movement.
“I’m sorry, son,” Joseph said softly, laying a gentle hand on Jimmy’s arm. “Your friend ain’t breathin’.”
“No!” Jimmy turned Kid over again, onto his back, and pressed his chest, again and again. But now there wasn’t even any water coming out, much less a breath. “No,” he said again, though it was more of a plea this time.
“I’m so sorry,” the woman said softly. She was standing by the kitchen, holding her daughter in her arms. The little girl was still bundled up, but she peeked out at all the activity from under long, wet bangs. “Dulcie and I were going to the barn to gather eggs. But she must have managed to untie her bonnet, and it blew off.” She paused, choking back a sob. “Dulcie ran after it and… oh, I only turned my back for a moment!”
“Nnnot your ffffault,” Buck whispered, staring at Kid’s lifeless body.
“It’s just what Kid would try to do, save her,” Jimmy added quietly.
“Kid? That was his name?” their host asked.
Jimmy nodded. “All he ever told us.”
“I’m Joseph Turner,” the man said, extending his hand. “This here’s my wife Olivia, and our little girl Dulcie.”
“Jimmy Hickok. And this here’s Buck Cross.”
Joseph shook hands with Jimmy, and nodded a greeting across to Buck. “I don’t even know what to say about your friend. I’d gone out to chop some wood, wandered in a ways out of the wind. I came runnin’ fast as I could when I heard Liv screamin’ and all, but he got here first.”
“We’re driving a string of horses back to Rock Creek,” Jimmy explained, his eyes still on Kid. “Camped not far from here last night. Heard the screams this mornin’ and Kid was already up, horse saddled, so he got here ahead of us.”
Olivia had disappeared back into the kitchen area, and now she came back carrying three mugs of steaming hot coffee. She set them down on a small table by the hearth and took the bottle of brandy from her apron pocket, pouring a generous amount into each one. Then she carried one over to Buck and knelt beside him. “Can you hold this?”
He reached out both hands, still shaking a bit but not as much as earlier. By wrapping all his fingers around the mug, he was able to hold it fairly steady. “Thank you.”
“You drink that up,” she replied with a smile. “Then we’ll get you out of those wet clothes. I’m sure Joseph can find you something to wear.”
“I sure can,” the man answered. He’d doled one mug out to Jimmy, and sat now with the other in his own hands.
Jimmy reached over to Kid’s body, gently closing the dead man’s eyes. “Luckiest man alive,” he whispered, so softly that the words barely carried.
“What’s that?” Joseph asked.
Jimmy shook his head slowly. “Just rememberin’ somethin’ Kid said,” he explained. And had it really only been less than an hour earlier…
How quickly things could change.
It was about almost two hours later when Jimmy walked back into the cabin. After assuring himself that Buck was cold, but would survive, he and Joseph had carried Kid’s body out back to the wood shed. It would rest there until Buck recovered and they could complete the trip home.
Joseph had also helped Jimmy gather the horses from their camp, bringing the animals back to the farm. The small corral wasn’t built for twenty animals, but it would do for the short term.
Their own mounts he brought into the barn, where he spent an extra amount of time brushing Katy down. It seemed at once to be both trivial and necessary.
As he closed the door behind him, Jimmy saw Olivia watching him from the stove. She was cooking something, and it smelled good, but he found he really didn’t have much of an appetite. He nodded a greeting to her, then turned toward the living area.
Buck still sat by the fire, propped up against an overturned chair padded with a blanket. In dry clothes now, he still was wrapped tightly in a quilt, but his color seemed to be back mostly to normal.
Next to him there was another, smaller, quilt-wrapped bundle. Despite everything, Jimmy couldn’t help but smile when he saw Dulcie’s blond head cradled on Buck’s leg. She had one thumb stuffed firmly in her mouth as she slept peacefully.
Buck, however, was wide awake, and Jimmy went to sit by him. “How ya doin’?”
“A lot better. I think I’ve had enough coffee and brandy to stay warm for a week.”
“That’s good,” Jimmy said. “Me an’ Joseph brought the horses in. Kinda tight out there, but it’ll work ‘til you’re ready to ride.”
“I can ride…”
“No.” Jimmy cut him off quickly. “Buck, you were practically froze when we pulled you out. “We ain’t goin’ anywhere today, and probably tomorrow neither. I ain’t gonna have you gettin’ sick on me on the way home.”
Buck gave him a lopsided half-grin. “Yes, sir, Dr. Hickok.”
Jimmy couldn’t help but grin a little himself. Besides, that got him away from adding that he wasn’t sure he could handle it if Buck did get sick… and died. Losing two friends that way would be more than he could take.
“Don’t you worry, Mr. Hickok,” Olivia said. She stood between the two rooms, drying her hands. “We’re not letting him leave too early.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Jimmy said, giving Buck a victorious grin. “It’s good to know you’ll help me tie him down if he tries to sneak out.”
Buck raised an eyebrow in response to that, then turned his head toward Olivia. “We do appreciate the hospitality, ma’am.”
She paused for a moment to look at her daughter, sleeping snugly next to Buck. “It’s the least we can do,” she whispered before turning back to her cooking.
They sat silently for a few moments, watching the fire burn. The snap and crackle of the flames was soothing in a way. But Jimmy finally broke the silence. “What’re we gonna tell Lou?”
Buck took a deep breath, let it out. “The truth. It’s what she deserves.”
Jimmy sighed. “Yeah,” he agreed, then paused. “You know she’s carryin’ a baby?”
Buck nodded. “Yeah.”
“Gonna be real hard on her.”
“I know. But she’s got us, Teaspoon, Polly, Rachel. We’ll get her through this, Jimmy… somehow.”
They turned their attention back to the fire, watching the flames jump and sputter. It was simple, peaceful, and uncomplicated.
Everything their trip home was not going to be.
A/N: Don't read just after eating...I tried to not be too descriptive. Inspired by my own little stinker.
When Mommy was sick, the whole house fell apart. It was a sad, but true fact, and Jimmy was slightly ashamed to admit it. He tried to do what he could to help out, and after dealing with seven pregnancies and six births, he liked to believe he was actually pretty good at handling the children and letting his wife rest.
But he never did things the way Mommy did, and he didn’t tell the stories the way mommy did and he didn’t give hugs and kisses the way Mommy did, so while he could feed the kids and get them dressed and out the door to school, he didn’t do it the way his wife did. It made the children miss her, it made them want her, and they were not happy when they were told that Mommy was sick and needed her rest. Not six kids in the room pestering her and trying to get her to take care of them.
Becky, bless her heart, helped out with her younger brothers and sisters and helped get Emma and Melanie dressed. Seth would help out with Jordan and the chores, and that left Jimmy to take care of their one year son, Jonathon. Becky helped with the cooking where she could and tied pretty ribbons in the girls’ hair in order to appease them and keep them from running into Karen’s bedroom. Polly and Rachel came and helped out, sometimes taking the children, sometimes bringing meals, sometimes taking the family’s laundry or other such things. Their assistance was helpful, especially when Karen took a turn for the worse.
It was bad to say, but Jimmy had been mighty relieved when the doctor said that Karen’s symptoms didn’t mean she was pregnant again. In fact, Karen was able to tell him most assuredly due to her courses that she wasn’t. Much as he loved their children, six was quite stretching his patience and abilities. Having a new one every year and a half to two years was becoming a bit much and he knew that it was wearing on Karen as well.
What she had, was the influenza. And based on the way her fever spiked about a week ago, it was a pretty bad case. The children were shuffled off to other homes and the doctor worked on bringing Karen’s fever down. He’d even gone so far one night, when she burned to the touch, to place her in an ice bath in order to break her fever.
It had worked, though it had been several frightening hours. Jimmy hit his knees the following morning and gave thanks that it seemed his wife would live. Each day she felt better, her color returning along with her appetite on a slightly slower pace. The one thing that didn’t seem to be making a speedy recovery was her strength. She tired easily, spending most of her time sitting in her favorite chair or on the sofa, and still didn’t have the energy to chase after the children. So their friends and family continued to help as they had when she was confined to her sickbed, and Jimmy continued to do things for his children that normally their wife took care of. And their children continued to grumble and insist that he wasn’t doing it right because that wasn’t the way Mommy did it.
Case in point: Jimmy was sure that if Jonathon could talk, his son would tell him he was giving the one year old a bath all wrong. He wasn’t holding him right, he wasn’t being gentle enough, he wasn’t singing the songs that Mommy always sang when giving their youngest his Saturday evening bath. While the little boy couldn’t speak, he conveyed his displeasure quite clearly in the squirming and fussing. He kept trying to wiggle out of Jimmy’s grasp, he kept trying to climb out of the little tub they used for his washing, and his face kept twisting up in irritation.
Until the moment that Jimmy realized Jonathon’s irritation was not due to his slightly clumsy and awkward washing skills, but something else entirely. Something that Jimmy was now holding in his hand, delivered most unhappily by their child who was now vocalizing his desire to be out of the bath.
He hated to disturb his wife while she was still recuperating, but he needed her immediate assistance and he did not want to deal with Becky or Seth trying to help. “Karen!”
A slow shuffling came into the kitchen. “What is it?”
“Watch Jonathon,” he snapped as he stood.
Then he stomped outside and to the outhouse where he promptly disposed of his son’s offering and then back to the kitchen, after a stop to wash his hands. Karen looked up from the chair she was sitting on beside the quarter tub and asked, “What happened?”
“We need to get him out of the tub,” he said. “’Cause he pooped in the tub and then handed it to me.”
Her eyes went wide and then she giggled.
“It ain’t funny, Karen,” Jimmy retorted. “He was startled and scared and fussed and while I was trying to discover what had upset him, he handed it to me. I couldn’t walk out and leave him alone, so I had to wait for you to get here. Now get him out of there so we can dump the water. I guess I’ll have to use the water I was gonna use for me. Great, now I’ll have less water for my own bath.”
“Or,” his wife said softly, still fighting with that blasted twitch in the corner of her mouth. “You could just give him a bath with you.”
Jimmy looked at her dubiously. “You want to put him in the tub with me?”
“He’s already messed, Jimmy,” she sighed. “If you wash him up quickly, hand him to me, I can dry him and dress him while you wash.”
His irritation and disgust over the whole unfortunate incident quickly faded into concern for his wife, and he sighed, “Karen. I know you’re tryin’ to offer a solution, but you’re still recovering. And it’s late. By the end of the day, you can barely hold this bundle of energy on your lap; you can’t hold him and walk across a room.”
“Bring everything to the table,” she said, her chin lifting up a notch. “I can sit him on the table and get him ready. Then we’ll just sit here and watch Daddy while he cleans up and then you can put him to bed. Maybe he’ll fall asleep while I’m holding him.”
He could see she was going to be stubborn about this and knew that it was very hard on her not to be able to do all that she had before. She told him one night it was like recovering from giving birth without the joy of a new baby or the excuse of one to be lazy. He didn’t think she was lazy, she was recovering. He’d been scared he would lose her when she was so sick and he didn’t care how long it took her to feel better. Despite the days that tried his patience, he and the children had come up with a routine and they were doing alright. Yet, he also knew how important it was for her to feel like she could help out with their brood and so he agreed to her suggestion.
Bringing the big tub near the table and getting all the things she would need to dry, diaper and dress their youngest, he set up the new bath. It was slightly harder to hold a slippery, squirming baby while he was soapy himself, but somehow they managed it. Jonathon got clean; Karen dried him off and dressed him while Jimmy hurried through his own clean-up. While she put the powder on his bottom, Karen sang to Jonathon and Jimmy felt his throat burn as the sound of his little boy’s contented gurgles and his wife’s pauses as she struggled with her own emotions. Singing was a part of bath time and the gentle sound had been missing for weeks. It was nice to hear it again, even if under slightly altered circumstances.
By the time Jimmy was done and drying off, Karen had their youngest wrapped up in a blanket and softly cooing to him as she sat in the chair holding him. The extended exposure to warm water had soothed their little boy and he was struggling to keep his eyes open. Jimmy saw now why his wife had been so insistent on doing it this way. She had missed holding her children, missed helping them with things and she was determined to do what she could. He’d have to talk to Becky in the morning. Maybe Karen could help the two youngest girls with their hair ribbons; it should be easy enough for her to do while sitting in her chair. She needed to reconnect with her children and this had been her way of making him see that.
“Nearly asleep,” Jimmy said softly as he neared Karen’s chair and looked down at their son. “Guess Momma’s still got the magic touch.”
She smiled up at him and he nodded. She was getting better and it would be slow, but she could do things. He would let her, instead of insisting she just rest. While he’d keep an eye on her to make sure she didn’t over do it, he knew that it was his own fear that was making her an invalid.
They would all need to find a new way, and just continue to adjust. Jimmy knew he’d do whatever he needed to, because as long as Karen was beside him he’d face anything.
“Listen to that wind,” Lou murmured as she looked out the window into the darkness.
There was definitely going to be more snow on the ground the next day. She pulled the shawl she was wearing tighter around her shoulders. Luckily Teaspoon was already in his room for the night. She’d hate for him to see one of the boys wearing a crocheted shawl. She giggled at the thought and turned back to see what the others were doing.
“Yeah, makes ya’ cold jus’ thinkin’ ‘bout goin’ out there,” Jimmy said, sliding his chair closer to the wood stove. He slumped down, stretched his legs out, and continued cleaning the cylinder from his gun.
“Nice to be inside,” Kid mumbled, concentrating on the cards Buck had dealt him. He grimaced slightly but hid it behind the hand. He folded the cards into his palm and crossed his arms, leaning on the table.
Ike glanced at his cards and laid them face down on the table. *Fire and Emma’s good meal.* He smiled as he rubbed his stomach.
Buck laughed. “Yeah Ike. Emma’s cooking makes you warm no matter what it’s doing outside.”
“Sure,” Cody moaned, “but whaddabout tomorrow? We’ve gotta go out in the mornin’ and get our chores done.” He moaned again as he hunkered down in his bunk and pulled the covers up to his chin keeping the warmth enclosed. All anyone could see was his head and his fingers holding his book opened.
“Good grief Cody,” Buck said, shaking his head as he pondered his cards. “That’s hours away. Besides, be happy none of us have rides tomorrow.” Everyone murmured their agreement. Cody just snorted.
Lou walked over to where Jimmy was sitting by the stove. She had to admit, Ike was right. The fire and the good meal they’d had earlier made her feel warm and content. That feeling gave her an idea for the next day.
“Ya’ know,” she said, “we should get up as early as we can tomor –”
“What?” Cody cried out sitting up in his bunk, his book falling to the floor. “You’re crazy! I’m sleepin’ as late as I possibly can.”
“Uh, Lou,” Jimmy said, glancing up at her before returning his attention to his gun, “can’t believe I’m sayin’ this but I agree with Cody.” He grinned teasingly and added, “The ‘you’re crazy’ part too.” He laughed when she swatted him on the shoulder.
“Yeah, why would we wanna get up?” Kid asked. His brow furrowed, he studied his hand as if the cards would change suit.
Even Buck and Ike looked at her doubtfully. Sighing, she shrugged out of her shawl, draping it over a chair, and walked over to stand by the table.
“Don’t ya’ see,” Lou said, exasperated with the group, “if we get up, do our chores fast, we’ll have the entire day to play cards,” she pointed at Kid, Buck and Ike, “sit by the fire with,” she pointed at Jimmy and laughed when he held his gun to his chest as if hugging it, “or sleep.” She ended her explanation with a flourish by bowing to Cody.
“Ya’ know, she’s right,” Cody said, slowly getting out from under the many covers he had on his bunk. He sat on the edge wearing a thoughtful expression.
“Then you’ve lost me,” Jimmy drawled, “‘cause I only agree with Cody once ev’ry two or three days at most.”
Everyone laughed but she saw that they were considering her point. She wasn’t going to lose her foothold so she pulled a chair over to sit by Kid and push the idea.
“Think about it.” She leaned forward and grinned. “If we all,” she glanced noticeably at Cody, “pitch in and work hard, we should be able to finish in a couple of hours. Then, we’ve got the day to do whatever we want.”
“What about Teaspoon?” Buck asked. “He usually comes up with something for us to do. Especially if we get done early.”
Jimmy snorted and sat up. “That’s the truth.”
“But with the weather the way it is, what could he possibly come up with?” Cody asked.
*I’m in.* Ike was wearing a big grin. Almost the entire day to draw, he couldn’t think of a better way to spend it.
Buck looked at Ike, contemplating Lou’s suggestion. Placing his cards back on the table, a small smile appeared on his face and he chuckled. “Me too.”
“What the heck,” Kid said, throwing his cards on the table; it looked like the game was done before it even started. “I can think of a few things I’d like to do.” He eyed Lou slyly. Smiling, she rolled her eyes and shook her head.
“Okay you two,” Jimmy said, standing and stretching. “I ain’t stayin’ in here tomorrow if that’s the way you’re spendin’ –”
“Alright Jimmy,” Lou interrupted, blushing as the others chuckled softly. “Are you in?”
Jimmy looked over at her and grinned. “I guess so.” He pulled his chair up to the table and Cody joined them.
Everyone started talking at once, planning when to get up, who was going to do what and how long each chore should take. Each was also thinking of how he or she would spend their time, relaxing in the bunkhouse, doing anything they wanted.
Lou was sitting up on her bunk writing in her journal. She wasn’t just detailing her day, she was writing a story. It seemed Cody had rubbed off on her. She looked up at her friends for some inspiration.
Cody was slumped down in a chair, his legs stretched out and his feet propped on a chair in front of him. He was deep in the dime novel he’d been reading, with two others sitting on his lap, waiting their turn. Buck was reading as well, from a leather bound edition he’d ordered from Tompkins. Lou didn’t know what the title was but smiled as she saw Buck chuckle from something in the pages. Ike was drawing, what she didn’t know but every so often she saw him stare off, as if seeing a scene no one else could. Kid and Jimmy were playing cards but not too seriously. She’d seen Kid throw his cards at Jimmy after some funny dealing by the dark-haired rider. They’d both been laughing. Everyone was warm, happy and content.
It had snowed about a foot the night before and the wind was still steady but not as mean. They hadn’t gotten up as early as they’d planned but they had done their chores in record time, just under three hours. Teaspoon hadn’t been around, much to their delight, so once they’d finished, they hurried into the bunkhouse.
Emma had come over soon after and made breakfast, which they had hungrily devoured. Again, Teaspoon hadn’t shown and Emma offered no explanation. They really didn’t want to press their luck so they hadn’t asked about him. Lou had offered to do the dishes for Emma, nudging Kid to help, so Emma had happily gone back to her nice, comfortable home. Now, the day spanned out in front of them.
Lou sighed and continued writing. Suddenly, the door swung open, letting in a gust of wind that sent Cody’s books, the cards and some of Ike’s paper, flying.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” Teaspoon said sheepishly as he pushed the door closed. He turned and quickly headed for the stove. Holding his hands out in front of him to warm them, he chuckled. “It’s a bit chilly outside today, ain’t it?”
Cody grunted as he helped Ike pick up the drawings while Kid and Jimmy picked up the cards. Other than that no one answered the stationmaster. They just eyed him suspiciously.
“Well,” Teaspoon said, as he turned back to face the riders. “Emma tol’ me that y’all got up and did your chores without any fussin’. Ya’ jus’ got up and got ‘em done.” He nodded approvingly at each one. “I’m really proud of ya’.” They started to relax.
‘Maybe he’s jus’ here to thank us and then he’ll leave,’ Lou thought hopefully.
“I’m tickled that ya’ got done so quickly ‘cause I was worried that there wouldn’t be time for my surprise,” Teaspoon said, rubbing his hands together playfully.
Suddenly, what was a great idea agreed on by everyone the night before had become a really bad suggestion with Lou to blame. Five heads simultaneously turned and looked at Lou, not one wearing even a hint of a smile. She swallowed and looked back at Teaspoon.
“Surprise?” she said, softly, her voice catching. They all knew that a surprise from Teaspoon was usually not something anyone happily wanted.
“Oh yeah,” he said gleefully, winking at the group. He slowly walked towards the door. “So, I want y’all to get dressed and meet me in the barn.” He got to the door and placed his hand on the doorknob. Before opening the door, he glanced over his shoulder. “Make sure you bundle up. It’s cold out there.” And as suddenly as he entered, he was gone.
The room was silent for a moment longer and then all hell broke loose.
“I thought you said we’d have the day to do whatever we like?”
“This sure ain’t what I’d like!”
“Great so now we did everythin’ fast so Teaspoon could get a hold of us?”
“I can’t believe this! I wanted to spend the day readin’!”
“This had to be the stupidest idea ever!”
“And whaddabout food?”
Only Ike wasn’t putting in his feelings, his hands were still. However, Lou didn’t need his hands to be able to tell her what he thought; all she had to do was look at his grimace. Sighing, she jumped down from her bunk. They did as Teaspoon said and got dressed, the boys as noisy as she was quiet. They tossed clothes around, grunting with every action, as she buttoned up her shirt and pulled on the knit jersey Emma had made for her. The station mother had knitted each of the riders a jersey for the cold winter months, as well as scarves. She’d been spending her winter nights knitting and was very generous with her creations.
Lou grabbed her hat, scarf and coat and walked to the door. Not wanting to see their scowls, she faced the door and said, “I’m sorry. I thought it would work…and be fun.” She slipped quickly outside before she had to hear any comments. She wrapped her scarf around her neck, put on her coat and shoved her hat on her head. Reluctantly, she trudged towards the barn.
“Well, boys here we are,” Teaspoon announced as they rode up to a familiar body of water that wasn’t water anymore. Teaspoon looked around as if searching for something.
The sun was out and shining brightly, almost blinding them as the rays hit the snow. The wind had died down but it was still very cold. So much so, that as they’d ridden, the riders had pulled their scarves up, practically covering their faces. As they looked around their destination, they pushed their scarves down so their unhappy faces could be shown - they all wanted Lou to see them.
“It’s the swimmin’ hole,” Jimmy said, unenthusiastically. “And I think it’s a bit cold to swim.” He again looked over at Lou. And she again sighed but this time it was more of a huff.
It had been that way the entire ride. One of the boys would look over at her but not say anything and she would respond with a sigh. She knew they blamed her and, in fact, she blamed herself, but there wasn’t a thing she could do about it now. And it was starting to bother her the more she thought about it.
*How could we swim even if we wanted?* Ike looked over at Lou, his lips pursed. *It’s frozen.*
“Ike’s right,” Buck said, as he looked at Lou and raised his eyebrow. “Not much good here.”
Kid looked over at Lou as well. “Um, so what’re we doin’ –”
“Mister Hunter,” a female voice called. The boys’ heads whipped around to the right and saw a pretty young woman, waving at Teaspoon. Lou was a little slower to respond and a lot less thrilled.
“Miss Vantran,” Teaspoon said, honey almost dripping from his lips. He climbed down from his mount and walked over to the woman. “I’m so sorry we’re late.” He removed his hat and bowed as he took Miss Vantran’s gloved hand.
The riders all exchanged confused looks. Jimmy leaned over to Kid and said softly, “How can we be late? I thought he said he wasn’t sure if we’d have time for his surprise.” Jimmy mocked Teaspoon’s accent on the last word.
Kid stifled a laugh and shrugged. “Beats me.”
“At this point,” Buck whispered, “nothing that man does or knows surprises me.”
Lou nodded absentmindedly as she eyed the addition to their group. She thought that she’d seen the young woman in town but wasn’t sure. Miss Vantran was dressed very well, in the current fashion out of St. Jo and the East. Lou had seen the drawings in a catalog she’d longingly looked through on one of her runs. Miss Vantran was wearing a light blue coat with white fur edging the cuffs, collar and hem. Her black hair, swept up in a twist, made a drastic contrast against the white and light blue of her coat.
“I certainly hope ya’ found it okay,” Teaspoon said. He looked around again, spotting her buggy. “Did ya’ ride out all by your lonesome? I thought Elmer was comin’ with ya’.”
Miss Vantran laughed. “After Mister Wilson…Elmer loaded the things and told me how to get here, I told him I’d be fine. I’m quite capable Mister Hunter. And before you ask, my father was fine with it.” She looked over at the riders still on their horses.
“Oh, those are my boys,” Teaspoon said, motioning for them to come over.
“Who’s she?” whispered Buck as he and the other riders dismounted.
“That’s Mister Charles Vantran’s daughter Margaret,” Cody answered excitedly, as he practically jumped off his horse at Teaspoon’s invitation. “He’s that banker from back east that’s looking into some mining property ‘round here. She’s prob’ly right ‘bout bein’ able to take care of herself. She’s got four brothers and they’re from Vermont. She used to hunt and do all kinds’a things there.” He straightened his hat, stuffed his scarf into the collar of his coat so his handsome face showed and grinned at the others. “‘Sides, she’s one purty woman.” He hurried ahead of his friends to be the first rider to get an introduction.
“How does he know all this?” Buck murmured to Jimmy, who was looking around.
“He’s nosey. What I wanna know is what we’re doin’ here,” Jimmy said. “Purty or not, I’m not trustin’ this.” He glanced around at the others and, knowing they couldn’t get out of it, they walked to where Teaspoon, Miss Vantran, and Cody stood. Cody was chatting away.
Lou didn’t really care to be introduced so she stayed at the back of the group as Teaspoon presented his crew to the young woman. Lou smiled at how puffed up Teaspoon was when telling Miss Vantran about the riders. He definitely was proud of his boys. Her smile faltered at that. What would he do when he found out that one of his boys wasn’t a boy after all? She sighed and looked down at the ground. Nothing she had anything to do with ever worked right. When she heard her name she glanced up and nodded shyly.
“Well, now that you’ve met the group,” Teaspoon said, “where’re the things?” He grinned mischievously at Miss Vantran and she giggled.
“Right over here,” she said, as she headed towards her buggy. “Since we didn’t have much time to invest, they’re a bit crude but I believe they’ll be fine. I have them under that blanket.”
The boys were now wearing uncomfortable expressions, hesitant to find out what these things were. They watched Teaspoon follow Miss Vantran to her buggy and lift up the blanket. His eyes grew wide as did his smile. The boys groaned as one but didn’t move.
“Come over here boys and looky what I got for ya’,” Teaspoon called, waving them over eagerly.
Again, knowing there wasn’t a hope of getting out of this, they trudged over to the buggy and Teaspoon, who was pulling the blanket out of the back. When he plopped the bundle on the ground, the riders heard the unmistakable sound of metal against metal. Their expressions grew fearful as they stared at the items lying on the blanket.
“What’re those?” Jimmy said, his pitch a bit too high. He was looking at thin, sharp pieces of metal that looked like small swords attached to flat pieces of the same metal. There were quite a few and they each had leather straps threaded through holes along the sides of the flat pieces.
“These are blades,” Teaspoon said, matter-of-factly.
“What?” the riders asked in unison.
“They’re skates,” Miss Vantran said, “or something like them.” She giggled as she bent over and picked up one of the oddities to show the boys.
“And we’re supposed to do what with them?” Buck asked. He had no idea what Teaspoon was up to with this new idea but he had a bad feeling about it nonetheless.
“You strap ‘em to your boots and wear ‘em,” Teaspoon said, taking the one from Miss Vantran and handing it and its mate to Kid.
Kid took Teaspoon’s offer reluctantly and stared at them. “Wear ‘em to do what?”
“Mister um, er, Kid,” Miss Vantran said, “you skate.” She walked over to sit on a rock that had a blanket draped over it and proceeded to attach a pair of blades to the bottom of her boots. Her blades were much nicer than the rough sets that Teaspoon was handing to each of the riders.
The boys watched her slip her boot into the leather toe and pull the leather strap attached to the back over her heel. She laced the straps tight and did the same for the other foot. She stood and walked carefully to the edge of the ice. Placing her right foot on the ice, she pushed herself off from the bank with her left foot and glided gracefully over the frozen plane. Soon she was skating over the surface as easy as walking. “See? Skate.”
*You want us,* Ike slapped his chest and pointed to his friends, *to do that?* He shook his head and stared at Teaspoon in disbelief.
“Put ‘em on and try it,” Teaspoon said smiling, but the boys could tell that the man wouldn’t take any balking so they did as they were told.
Grumbling, they sat on the snowy ground to attach the blades to their boots. It was a simple design and took no time to figure out. The flat piece of metal went against the sole of the boot and the six straps tied around the foot and the ankle to hold the skate secured. Pleased that they’d figured it out, they grinned in self-satisfaction until they tried to stand. They heard Teaspoon laughing at the sight they made.
Cody tried to push himself up from a sitting position but ended up stuck with his hands behind him and his feet sliding in front of him every time he tried to push up. Jimmy had watched Cody and figured that if what the blonde was doing didn’t work then he’d turn over and push himself up from his knees. He had the same problem as Cody, with each push, his feet slid out from under him and he just ended up with his butt in the air. Buck, Ike and Kid had watched the two battle to stand. They had no idea what to do until Buck got an idea.
“Ike, scoot over here,” Buck said, motioning for his friend to get in front of him. When Ike was in position, Buck put his blades against Ike’s and held his hands out for Ike to take. Ike nodded in understanding and took Buck’s hands. Once set, Buck said, “I’ll count to three.” Ike nodded again and Buck counted. “One, two, three.” They pulled themselves up using each other for leverage. It worked but once they tried to let go, they started to fall backwards. They threw their arms around each other to keep from falling. Teaspoon was bent over laughing.
“How the heck do you stand?” Jimmy growled, throwing snow in Teaspoon’s direction.
“Here,” Miss Vantran said, seeming to appear from nowhere. The boys could have sworn she was still skating. “Let me help those who are standing first.” She smiled at Kid and Jimmy who just nodded. “Mister McSwain, put your hand on my shoulder.” He did as she said. “Now, take a small step.” He shook his head. “Don’t worry, I won’t let you fall.”
Ike eyed the petite young woman doubtfully but did as she said. He left the safety of Buck’s arms and took a step towards the pond. She put her arm around his waist for more support and he could feel the strength as he griped her shoulder. He was rather surprised.
“Will you be alright Mister Cross?”
“Um, I think so,” Buck said. He had planted his blades into the ground and hoped he would be able to stay standing. For extra security, he stood with his feet shoulder length apart.
“Good,” she said, smiling. “Now Mister McSwain, are you ready?” He sighed resignedly and nodded. He took another step; she nodded and kept walking so he’d follow. Soon she had him at the edge. Everyone was watching with great interest. Ike felt like it was up to him to prove that this would work. He didn’t like that at all.
“Step onto the ice and push off,” she encouraged Ike.
Ike again did as she said and placed his right foot on the ice, pushing off with his left as she had done earlier. For a moment he was gliding just like Miss Vantran but that lasted for only a few seconds. When Ike put his left foot down to imitate what she had done, he tried to shuffle along but his feet flew out from under him and he landed flat on his back. A chorus of “ohs” and “ows” rang out.
“Oh dear!” Miss Vantran skated out to Ike.
“Ike you okay?” Teaspoon asked, looking concerned as the young man stayed sprawled on the ice. After a moment and no answer, Teaspoon glanced over at Buck, who had already started towards Ike as best he could. But Ike slowly sat up, shook his head and grinned sheepishly.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” Miss Vantran asked. She bent over and placed her hand on his shoulder. Buck was teetering next to her trying desperately not to grab hold of her for balance.
Ike stared up into her concerned face, grinning, and nodded. She smiled and skated back to the bank. Not to be defeated, he turned himself around and, digging the tips of his blades into the ice, he pushed himself up. Buck just watched, not wanting to touch Ike and throw his friend off balance, but keeping his hands extended just in case. Ike didn’t need it and everyone clapped when Ike was standing. He flailed his arms a bit to keep his balance but otherwise he stayed on his feet. Buck and Ike did a combination of walking and skating. They were both pleased that at least they stayed upright even if they didn’t look as graceful as Miss Vantran had.
“Does anyone else need help?” Miss Vantran asked.
Cody immediately raised his hand. “Yes please.” He winked at Jimmy and Kid.
She hurried over to where he was sitting and held her hands out. Cody shook his head. “You ain’t gonna be able to pull me up.”
“Wanna bet?” She grinned and stomped a few times, planting her blades firmly in the ground. She wiggled her fingers for Cody to take her hands. He chuckled and did as she wanted.
Jimmy and Kid laughed and tried to stand, helping each other in the process. When they were finally on their feet, they watched Miss Vantran, a head shorter than Cody and easily half his weight, pull the rider upright without any problems. She kept a hold of Cody’s hand and walked with him to the ice.
“Wonderful Mister Cross!” she yelled to Buck, who was finally doing more of a glide instead of a walk. “You have good balance.”
Buck smiled. “Than–” The break in concentration was all it took. Without warning, his feet flew out from under him and he landed on his butt. “–kyou,” he groaned. Ike’s shoulders were shaking so hard from laughter that he landed the exact same way right beside Buck. The two friends were laughing so hard; they couldn’t get up for a few minutes.
Jimmy and Kid were tiptoeing to the ice. Suddenly Kid nudged Jimmy almost throwing Jimmy off balance.
“Kid,” Jimmy growled, grabbing Kid’s arm. “Why’d ya’ do –”
“Look,” Kid said softly as he pointed towards a lone figure that was gliding across the frozen surface away from the rest of the group.
“Did ya’ know she could skate?” Jimmy whispered. He looked around for Teaspoon and saw the man watching Lou with much interest. “Uh-oh.” He nodded towards Teaspoon and added, “I think we need to put his attention elsewhere.”
Kid groaned and nodded. “And no,” he said softly, “I didn’t know she could skate.” The two watched Lou for a moment longer, both thinking how graceful and feminine she looked. Realizing that was the whole problem, they snapped into action.
“Teaspoon!” Jimmy yelled. “Why ain’t ya’ wearin’ any blades?”
“Yeah,” Kid said, “this is your idea. Can’t hack it?”
Buck and Ike looked over at Jimmy and Kid. Jimmy met their eyes, glanced over at Lou and then looked intensely back at the two. Buck’s eyes widened and Ike’s mouth fell open. “They’re right Teaspoon,” Buck yelled as he and Ike tried to hurry over to where the stationmaster was sitting. “You’re always saying that you wouldn’t tell us to do anything you wouldn’t do.”
“Wha’d’ya think Cody?” Jimmy asked Cody who was in his own world, monopolizing all of Miss Vantran’s time as the pair skated together. Or, in Cody’s case, tried to skate.
“Yes Mister Hunter,” Miss Vantran said, playing along. “Why didn’t you have skates made for you?”
“Now you boys know,” Teaspoon drawled, with one last look over at Lou, “that my knees bother me when it’s cold. Rheumatism from a war injury ya’ know.” He patted his knee and looked over at Miss Vantran. “It was pretty bad when it happened.”
“Teaspoon,” the boys groaned.
“We know how ya’ did it,” Jimmy said, laughing. He and Kid exchanged a relieved look but it didn’t last long.
“Mister McCloud,” Miss Vantran called to where Lou had been skating quietly on her own.
Lou’s head popped up and she saw that everyone – including Teaspoon – was watching her. She stopped and stared back, not sure what to say.
“You’re very good,” Miss Vantran said as she skated up to Lou. “You should help the others.” She laughed good-naturedly. “They need it.”
Lou couldn’t help but smile. She followed Miss Vantran over to where the boys had gathered around Teaspoon.
“She’s right Lou,” Teaspoon said. “You should help these here graceless wonders.” He chuckled as the boys protested. “Keep skatin’.” He walked over to the log he’d been sitting on and waved for the riders to skate. He eyed Jimmy and Kid who had yet to make it out on the ice. “Go you two.”
Sighing, Kid and Jimmy carefully stepped out on the ice as Buck and Ike skated around with Lou, and Cody dominated Miss Vantran’s attention once more. Soon, everyone was skating, falling, laughing, falling and skating some more.
It was quiet in the bunkhouse. The riders back to doing what they’d been doing when Teaspoon had entered the room earlier that morning. All except Lou. She was on her bunk, but she was lying with her back to the room. She didn’t want to hear or see the others so she faced the wall and read. Even though everything worked out, she still blamed herself and felt her friends did too.
They’d stayed for a couple of hours at the pond, skating and having fun. Though they hadn’t wanted to stop, everyone was cold and Miss Vantran had to get home. Cody had offered to accompany her back to town so she wouldn’t be riding alone. Teaspoon had given his okay but had ordered Cody to come straight back to the station once Miss Vantran was home. Cody had reluctantly agreed.
The ride home had been much more relaxed than the ride to the pond, as everyone laughed about falling and talked about maybe going again, even if they sat a bit higher in the saddle. Each of the riders had kept their blades for another outing. When they’d finally arrived at the station, they made quick work of taking care of the horses and, in the bunkhouse, everyone changed into dry clothes and huddled around the stove. Emma had waited to prepare lunch until they’d gotten home and when she started, once they’d smelled the ham heating, they’d realized how hungry they were.
Cody had done as directed and arrived as they sat down to eat. Conversation was light, mainly Teaspoon regaling Emma with the amusing stunts the boys had done on the ice. He’d even mentioned how well Lou had done and how Miss Vantran had been taken with Lou, which made Lou duck her head and blush. Emma had asked about Miss Vantran, helping move the attention from Lou onto Cody, who was able to tell them so much more about the young woman that he’d still been talking when lunch was done.
It was Buck. Lou stopped reading but didn’t turn over. “Yeah?”
“Um, can we talk to you?”
Sighing, she rolled over and sat on the edge of her bunk but didn’t look up. “What?”
“Lou, please come sit at the table with us,” Kid said quietly.
She looked up and saw that the boys were in fact all sitting at the table – on pillows. She bit the inside of her mouth to keep from laughing and grunted as she jumped down and walked over. Jimmy pushed the chair at the head of the table out for her, which caused her to look up at him. Confused, she looked at the others, who were all smiling at her.
“We just wanted to tell you that we shouldn’t’ve blamed you for what happened,” Buck said, a slightly pained expression on his face as he twisted in his seat. The others nodded as she slowly sat down.
“Why?” Again, she kept herself from smiling.
“Lou it ain’t your fault what Teaspoon did,” Kid said. “And we have to admit,” he looked at the others, who nodded, “even though we’re a bit tender, we had fun.”
“My backside hasn’t hurt this much since breakin’ all them horses last summer,” Jimmy said, scrunching up his face as he tried to change positions. “But Kid’s right, I did have fun.”
*Yeah.* Ike was trying to get comfortable as well. *And I can’t believe Teaspoon.*
“I know,” Buck laughed. “He wasn’t going to have us do all of our chores after all ‘cause he wanted to take us to the swimmin’ hole.”
As everyone laughed, Lou shook her head. “But that’s worse,” she said softly. “We didn’t need to get up at all.” She crossed her arms on the table and laid her head down. “It is my fault.”
“Wha’d’ya’ mean fault?” Jimmy asked, chuckling. He nudged her to look up. She didn’t lift her head but propped her chin on her arm and looked at him questioningly. “Weren’t ya’ listenin’ at lunch?”
When she furrowed her brows, they all laughed. She sat up and folded her arms across her chest, her chin jutted out as she did when she was annoyed by something someone, normally one of the boys, had done. They all knew that look.
Jimmy held up his hand as Kid said, “Teaspoon told us that we can sleep in tomorrow and not worry about all but the most necessary chores.”
Lou’s eyes widened. “When’d he say that?”
“You were too busy studyin’ your peas,” Cody drawled and made the mistake of leaning back. “Ouch,” he grunted and sat forward a little. “He was so proud that we got up and took care of everythin’ not just the basics.” He leaned over and squeezed Lou’s arm. “And that’s only ‘cause you made us do it.”
“Made you?” Lou echoed, laughing. She considered what they’d said. “So we get to have our day tomorrow then?”
“Yep,” Jimmy confirmed. He then saw the glint in her eye. “What’re ya’ thinkin’?”
“Well,” she said, slyly. She looked up at the others. “I wanna go skatin’.”
Buck burst out laughing. “That’s what Ike and I were talking about doing.”
“Hey, yeah,” Kid said, looking at Jimmy. “Wha’d’ya think?”
“I’m in,” Jimmy said.
“Even though your…” she giggled, “you hurt?”
“We’ll wear extra padding, but yeah,” Buck said. Everyone laughed.
“Then that’s the plan?” she asked, tentatively.
Everyone nodded as they pushed their chairs out to slowly stand and leave the table. They grabbed their pillows and hobbled away. Lou looked at Cody who was staring off in the distance. She realized he hadn’t answered. “Cody, what is it?”
“Hmmm,” Cody murmured. When he glanced at Lou and saw her waiting for his response he smiled. “Well, I was thinkin’ ‘bout two things.” This announcement brought the others back to stand by the table. Jimmy snorted.
“At once? Did it hurt?”
“Shut up Hickok,” Cody grumbled.
“What were you thinking Cody?” Buck said, rolling his eyes.
“First,” Cody said, looking around to make sure everyone was paying attention, “I wonder if Miss Vantran would be able to go.” He got smiles and nods of agreement. Lou even thought it would be a good idea.
“And…” Lou prodded.
“I wonder if Emma’s got anythin’ to eat.”
Groaning, the other riders smacked Cody playfully with their pillows and walked over to resume their favorite positions. Ike was back on his bunk drawing, and Buck was on his reading. Cody stretched out between the two chairs, close to the stove, his books on his lap, his pillow under his rear. Kid sat down in his chair - on his pillow - the cards in hand for his and Jimmy’s game. Jimmy watched Lou walk to her bunk and climb up. This time though, she picked up her book and faced the room.
“Lou,” Jimmy said, as he slowly lowered himself onto his pillow and sat down in front of Kid.
“What?” Lou said, dropping her book down in her lap, a tinge of exasperation in her voice.
“You look good skatin’,” he answered.
The boys all voiced their agreement and she blushed.
“Thanks,” she said softly and raised her book to read. She couldn’t wait for tomorrow.
“Well lookee what the cat dragged in,” Teaspoon drawled out nice and long as he nodded his head in greeting at his ex-rider coming through the front door of the jail. “Thought you’d forgot where we kept hours, Kid.”
“You know I been busy,” Kid responded as he flushed slightly, feeling guilty that he hadn’t been around lately to help Teaspoon out with keeping the peace. He took his hat off and wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his sleeve. “It’s just with Lou bein’ as far along as she is, I don’t like leavin’ her alone for long periods of time.” He walked further into the room then sat on the rail of the gate that separated the marshal’s desk from the front door.
“Then what are you doin’ here now?” Buck asked as he had noticed Kid pull up to the jail house in his buckboard.
“And in a buckboard no less,” Jimmy added. “It takes longer comin’ to and from town on that thing than it does on Katy alone.”
“You got errands to run? I thought Louise done all that the end of last week. At least that’s what she told me she was doin’ when she come in to visit me … well actually it was to take a break from walkin’ around with all that extra weight on her tired feet but it was a nice gesture none the less. And it don’t hurt the reputation none to have someone come in and see the marshal in the company of a lovely young woman in need.”
Jimmy and Buck laughed as they knew Teaspoon might be getting on there in years but nothing would stop him from trying to get a woman to notice him one way or another.
“I don’t know if that would help any, Teaspoon, ‘cause one look at Lou’s stomach and the ladies are gonna think you’re about to become a grandpa and therefore too old to be doin’ any datin’,” Jimmy teased.
“Now, boys, if you knew women the way I know women you would know that the finer sex can’t resist a cute little tot for nothin’. I’m thinkin’ of offerin’ my babysittin’ services to Kid and Lou as soon as the little one can be away from her mama.”
“Her? You havin’ a girl, there, Kid?” Jimmy asked.
“That’s what Lou calls it,” Kid told him, smiling at the thought of having a little girl that looked just like her mama to spoil. “She seems pretty strong in believin’ it and I ain’t about to argue with her about it. As far as babysittin’ goes, you can try. I’m all for it but I don’t know if Lou will put the baby down once it’s here long enough for anyone to watch it. Though if Lou’s as suffocatin’ after it’s born as she is now, the baby will crawl its way to town and beg you to watch it for the day!” Kid sighed wearily.
“Is that why you came to town, as an escape?” Buck asked between chuckles.
Kid shook his head. “I’m actually here on account of Lou. She asked me for one of her little favors. And you know how she gets me to do what I don’t wanna do.”
“Uh, oh,” Jimmy chuckled. “Is it as good as her wantin’ strawberries in the middle of February and you spendin’ nearly a week’s paycheck on everythin’ red you could find between Tompkins’ store and the restaurant in order to satisfy her?”
“Well it worked,” Kid reminded him, “everythin’ I got satisfied her cravings. But this is worse. She wants ice.”
The three men exchanged looks.
“Shoot, that ain’t hard at all. There’s a whole ice house full of the stuff behind Tompkins’ place,” Jimmy told him.
“I don’t know how full it is anymore,” Teaspoon said as he poured a couple glasses of water from a pitcher, took a drink from one then handed the other to Kid. “As soon as this heat wave hit, folks were runnin’ to get ice to help keep their food fresh. Bill said it got so bad he had to put a lock on the door and has to charge top dollar to anyone who is willin’ to pay it.”
Kid nodded. “I came prepared just in case.” He patted his pants pocket that was bulging a bit more than usual. “Tompkins has a soft spot for Lou so I figure the buyin’ it won’t be the hard part; it’ll be the gettin’ it home.”
“Why does she need ice anyway?” Jimmy asked. “Why don’t you just take her to the pond for a swim or can’t expectant women swim anymore? They too heavy or somethin’ that they might sink?” He laughed at his own joke as he looked at the others.
“You’re lucky Louise ain’t around to hear you say that,” Teaspoon cautioned as he waggled his finger in the long haired man’s direction. “I would bet the water around her would be a welcome relief from carryin’ around all that extra weight.”
“It usually does make her feel better and I suggested the pond but she gave me that look she does all the time, you know the one that makes me think I’ve lost my mind. She said there’s too much sun shinin’ on it so it ain’t cool and refreshin’ anymore.” He shook his head. “So that’s why she wants the ice. She says it’s the only thing that’ll cool her down. She wants to rub it all over her body.”
“And have you help her rub it all over her body?” Jimmy asked as he raised his eyebrows in his good friend’s direction.
“Not if I don’t bring her any home,” Kid admitted, blushing.
“Wouldn’t it have been quicker if you’d just brung her to town with you?” Buck asked.
Kid shook his head again. “I tried that suggestion too. She said it’s too uncomfortable sittin’ on the buckboard seat that long; hurts her back somethin’ fierce. ‘Sides could you see an expectant woman sittin’ in the middle of town runnin’ an ice cube down her blouse?!” We’d been thrown out for sure!”
The others roared in laughter at the pictured Kid just painted for them. The southerner didn’t laugh along with them, instead his shook his head. “She’s goin’ through all this to give me a child – gettin’ sick, gainin’ all that weight, not sleepin’ well as her stomach gets in the way. Me bringin’ her a chunk of ice is the least I can do for her givin’ me a baby.”
“I guess it don’t sound too hard,” Jimmy agreed.
“Too hard? It’s impossible!” Kid exclaimed. When Jimmy looked at him in confusion, since he was the first one to agree with Lou needing ice, Kid stood and gestured with a wave of his hand for the man to follow him. The father-to-be stood in the open door way, he waited for Jimmy to join him before speaking. “What do you see up in the sky, Jimmy?”
“And what do you feel beatin’ down on you?”
“The heat of the sun.”
“And what do you think the heat of the sun will do to a chunk of ice?”
“Right,” Kid dragged out. “So now you see my dilemma.”
“You mean the one where you’ll never have more than this one child Lou’s expecting now if you don’t bring her home something solid and cold?” Buck asked teasingly as he joined them on the boardwalk.
“Lou would never last that long … at least I don’t think she would.” Kid began to panic once more.
Seeing the look come across the married man’s face, Jimmy gave him a sympathetic slap on the back. “Come on, Kid, I’ll go with you to see Tompkins. The faster you get that ice home to your wife, the faster you can work on runnin’ pieces of it all over her body. ‘Course with how much her body’s grown as of late, you’re gonna need an awfully big chunk of the stuff.”
“I’d watch it if I were you, Jimmy. Somehow Lou knows when one of you is teasing her about her new shape,” Kid warned. He called out a good-bye to Teaspoon then nodded to Buck who stood on the boardwalk and watched as the two ex-riders went down the steps and sauntered across the dusty street toward the general store.
“But this is an emergency, Mr. Tompkins!” Kid had stopped trying to rationalize with the man and was now resorting to pleading. He glanced at Jimmy as the store owner seemed to be listening to him with his ears only half open, instead focusing on the order he was checking in instead. So as the older man moved to a new pile of crates, Kid moved quicker in order to block his path.
Bill Tompkins gave a sigh as his steps were halted by the body standing in front of him. “Kid, an emergency would be the food at the restaurant gettin’ spoiled or the beer kegs at the saloon gettin’ warm; the yarn you been tellin’ me is not an emergency. Now would you get out of my way?” He lightly poked his elbow into Kid’s arm so as to move the young man out of his direct line of travel.
“Have you seen Lou lately?”
“She’s kinda hard to miss, Kid,” Jimmy reminded him.
“You ain’t helpin’ any, Jimmy.”
“Yeah, I seen her. She was in here Friday afternoon doin’ her shoppin’. Looked mighty fine to me.”
“Can you imagine what it’s like for her bein’ that far along during the hottest part of the year, and especially with this heat wave we’ve been having and no rain? This is the only way we know of to cool her down.” Kid resorted to using his puppy dog eyes, as Lou calls them, to try to get the man to have sympathy on him. It always worked with his wife and if the store owner wouldn’t do it for him, hopefully he would do it for Lou.
Jimmy ducked his head as he tried to control the laughter that threatened to escape. He could tease Kid all he liked but Jimmy knew if the cards had been turned and Lou had asked him to go get her some ice, he would be using every trick in the book to get her what she wanted.
The sound of a wagon had Lou opening her eyes and leaning forward in the rocking chair she was sitting in on the front porch of her house. Squinting into the sun, she smiled and struggled to stand as she spotted Kid riding into the yard.
“Kid!” she called out as she went to the steps. “You were gone so long I was beginning to get worried.”
“Lou, before you say anything, I want you to know I tried … I really did.” Kid jumped down off the seat and moved to the back of the buckboard as he spoke. “You can ask Jimmy how Tompkins didn’t wanna part with his precious ice. He finally said if it wasn’t for you he wouldn’t be givin’ it to me but since it was, I could have some and he wouldn’t even take any money for it in the end despite all his complaining.” He paused, knowing that would elicit a smile on her pretty face and he was right. “Jimmy then had to help me come up with a way to keep it from melting … or at least from dripping once it did begin to melt.”
Kid untied some ropes and took two metal buckets off the buckboard. He gingerly carried them up the steps and placed them at Lou’s feet. “I’m really sorry, Lou. I was makin’ good time and the ice had gotten smaller but it was still ice looking but then Katy picked up a stone. It took some time to get it out as it was really wedged in tight then had to go slow from that time on as she was favoring that foot. I’m gonna have to soak it tonight, that’s for sure.”
“Oh, Kid, you are the best husband a woman could ever ask for.”
The Virginian looked to where his wife was now seated on the top step, a bucket on each side of her. Kid climbed until he was eye to eye with her. “But Lou, it’s nothin’ but water now.” He reached down and picked up the heavy burlap he and Jimmy had tied around the tops of the buckets, hoping the fabric would block the sun from hitting the ice sooner than it would if it was uncovered. He tossed the cloth aside as he knew nothing would have worked.
“But it’s cooler than the pond.” To demonstrate her point, Lou placed her hands in one of the buckets and brought the wet liquid up to her face, running her hands down her face and around to the back of her neck. “And look what I found.” The expectant woman smiled at her husband as she raised her hands out of the bucket, bringing with her several pieces of ice. They were small and began to get smaller as her hands wrapped around them but Lou suddenly found an energy she didn’t know she had anymore.
One look from the woman he loved and Kid was by her side, unbuttoning then pulling off her blouse. He then let her do the same to him as she said he deserved a reward for all his hard effort. And who was he to agree with that good a point?
As Lou retrieved her pieces, Kid reached in the second bucket and pulled out his own bits of ice. Armed with the dripping, melting cold pieces, they faced each other before their hands began to attack each other’s body with a frenzy that belied the heat of the day. Laughing and chattering away, the expectant couple worked their way through the measly bits of ice that was left then hit the full buckets until they were standing soaking wet in their undergarments out on their front porch. Neither cared how hot it would be in a few hours or the next day; all that mattered to them was that for a short amount of time, there was nothing but a coolness washing over them. And to Kid, his wife got a welcome relief that was long over due her as the little favor she had asked for proved to be worthwhile for the both of them.
Kid knew he would do it again in a second but he just hoped she would have the baby before she got any other bright ideas in that pretty head of hers.