Topic #95: Comfort
|Simple Comforts by: Ellie||Situpsa by: Jo|
|A Mother's Touch by: Wendy||The Comfort of a Home by: Debbie|
|A Place to Call Home by: Georgia||Comfort Zone by: Dede|
|Southern Comfort by: Dede||A Touch of Comfort by: Cindy|
|Healing Touch by: Lori||The Comforts of Home by: Karen|
Lou heard the snickers from the desk clerk as she plodded up the hotel stairs. But who cared, when there was something as luxurious as an uninterrupted bubble bath in her very near future.
She opened the door and watched the men carrying in the big tub - - big enough to stretch out in, for a change. Most of her bathing was done hurriedly, with Kid standing guard outside the shower in case Teaspoon should happen by. And that was when she was lucky enough to be able to shower outside . . . in colder weather, Emma set a large tin tub in the center of the bunkhouse and lit a fire in the stove for boiling water on ‘bath day’. Lou grinned to herself at the memories from before the boys knew she was a girl and began indignantly ordering her from the bunkhouse; having to stay dirty herself was a small price to pay for the sights she was treated to in those early April Saturdays before any of them knew.
Ever since her secret got out with the rest of the riders, though, she had to bathe first and in a hurry while they waited on the porch, then empty the tub and rinse it out before the next rider used it. Not to mention, she had to sit outside alone while the other five took their baths after her; and outside her home station it was a hundred times worse.
The hotel workers hauled up buckets of boiling water and dumped them in the tub, handing her a stack of towels when they were done. She dug in her pocket for a tip, and then shut the door behind them, feeling a little giddy as she approached the side of the tub. She’d bought a small bottle of scented soap for just such an occasion, and pulled it from her saddle bag, pouring its contents into the hot water, and stirring gingerly with her free hand to help make more bubbles.
Stripping off her dust-caked clothes, she flung them onto the chair next to the bath and eased into the tub, feeling the hot water and steam sinking into her stiff and tired muscles. The lavender scent from the bubble bath enveloped her, and she swept a handful of them up in her fingers, blowing them in the air and laughing as she settled back, reveling in comfort.
The run so far had been quiet, almost relaxing. Teaspoon had asked him to take this special run because he was expecting some problems as it crossed through the route the Lakota Sioux used to travel to their summer hunting grounds. Since Buck was part Kiowa and spoke Lakota Teaspoon figured that he could avoid some of the problems the other riders might encounter. Buck had seen the village on the move earlier in the day but they took no interest in him. The rest of the day had been routine. He’d reached the fort and dropped off the package, picked up some mail, had a meal and started the return journey. The soldiers had offered him a place to sleep for the night but Buck figured he could be a few miles closer to home if he just started back.
He chose his campsite not far from where he’d seen the Lakota early that morning. The land was covered in lush green grass that made for a soft bed. He spread his bedroll out, ate one of the sandwiches the cook at the fort had made for him and fell asleep counting the stars. The moon had already set when he opened his eyes, he was being watched, he could feel it. Cautiously he looked around. A movement over by a large bush signaled that he was not alone. He lay still hoping that whoever was watching him would show themselves. He didn’t have to wait long. Buck was about to draw his knife when he realized that the person watching him was very small. The darkness was beginning to give way to the coming dawn and the person hiding in the bush crept forward to look at Buck. Buck could see the person was either a small woman or a child. The person had long dark hair, small hands and wore a doe skin dress. Buck heard a sniffle and he took a chance…”Toka?” He asked quietly in Lakota, what is wrong?
The person stopped crawling forward and sat down, looking at Buck with a dirty tear stained face. “Miye nuni mitawa Mama…” The child answered. I lost my mother.
Buck sat up. The light was now bright enough for him to see that this was a small little girl maybe four or five years old. Buck continued speaking in Lakota to the child trying to find out her name and how she had become lost. “I’ll try to help you find your family; can you tell me your name? My name is Buck.”
“Miye Cikaka Kimi Mila.” The child answered inching closer to Buck.
“Little Butterfly, that’s a really pretty name. How did you loose your Mama?” Buck asked as he looked her over to see if she was hurt. She was very scared and there was what looked like blood on her dress. “I won’t hurt you, I want to be your friend.” Buck held out his arms hoping she would come to him.
The little girl looked at Buck and suddenly flung herself into his arms. The child cried harder and spoke rapidly into Buck’s shoulder the few words Buck managed to understand were Cakpe and Wahca, knee and flower. Buck held her tightly, patting her back until she stopped crying. Once she released her grip on him he looked her over more closely. She’d managed to injure her knees; both of them were scrapped and bruised.
“Did you fall down picking flowers?” Buck guessed. The child nodded. “Does anything else hurt?” She shook her head. “Are you hungry?” Little Butterfly nodded. “Alright, let’s get something to eat and then find your family.”
An hour and a half later Buck had found the tracks the Lakota had made the day before and by early afternoon he had caught up to the group. He’d washed Little Butterfly’s face and cleaned the scrapes on her knees before they broke camp that morning. She had slept much of the day in Buck’s arms as she rode in front of him in the saddle. Buck knew he was being watched closely as he approached the encampment. Before he’d managed to come far into the camp he was surrounded by several angry braves demanding to know why he was there. “I found this child. Does she belong to this village?” Buck asked praying he had the right group. Little Butterfly was wide awake searching for her parents from the security of Buck’s arms.
“MAMA!” Little Butterfly suddenly cried out. A woman was running toward them followed closely by a man, several other children and a couple of dogs. The woman reached up and pulled Little Butterfly off Buck’s saddle hugging the little girl closely to her body and saying my baby over and over again. Buck could feel the mood around them change; the braves were smiling.
The man hugged both the woman and the child then reached up his hand to Buck. “Thank you for bringing my daughter home. We thought she was lost to us. Please share a meal with us.” Buck took the man’s hand and shook it.
Buck dismounted and breathed a sigh of relief. He allowed someone to take his horse knowing they would feed and water the tired animal. He followed the family into the village and over the next few hours learned that Little Butterfly had wandered away unnoticed until the group had stopped for the night but by then it was too late to look for her. Buck spent the night with the family and as he prepared to leave the next morning Little Butterfly and her father approached him. The child was carrying one of the puppies Buck had seen yesterday.
“We have a gift for you.” The father began. “You gave us our child back, please accept this dog. She will be a good hunter when she grows. Her father is a wolf, so she will be loyal and her mother is an excellent hunter.”
Buck figured the last thing he needed was a dog but not to take the dog would be a terrible insult and he didn’t want that at all. “Thank you…she’s adorable.” Buck said taking the dog and mounting his horse. The puppy was too small to run beside the horse so Buck had no choice but to carry the little fur ball. He really needed to make up some time so he buttoned the puppy into his shirt and headed for home. The puppy slept much of the day but got a little restless about a mile out from the station. “I know Ike is gonna love you but I’m not so sure about Emma…You gotta stop with the claws buddy, they hurt.” Buck finally had been scratched enough and put the puppy in his saddle bag for the last half mile.
“Rider Comin’!” Kid sang out as Buck came into view. “It’s Buck!” he announced.
Buck rode into the station and hopped down. “Where have you been? We expected you back yesterday.” Teaspoon said as everyone gathered around Buck and his horse. “You look alright.”
“I found a lost child and brought her back……” Buck began but he was cut off by the sound of Jimmy’s gun cocking. “Don’t shoot it!” Buck cried as he spun around toward the sound.
“Buck your saddle bag is moving.” Lou exclaimed. “Oh!” The puppy poked her head out from under the flap and yipped. “Oh Buck he’s cute!”
“It’s a she I think and a long story….” Buck began as Ike lifted the puppy from the bag and confirmed it was a girl. “I told her you’d love her I hope she and Puff get along….I didn’t have a choice I had to keep her.” Buck said scratching the puppy’s head. The puppy only had eyes for Buck and when Buck started to walk to the bunkhouse she struggled out of Ike’s arms, plopped onto the ground, rolled until she found her legs then followed Buck.
“Awe, Buck she knows her daddy!” Jimmy laughed.
Buck stopped, looked at Jimmy with a scowl then laughed as the puppy almost fell over herself running toward him. As soon as the puppy reached Buck her little tail wiggled so fast it was little more than a blur. She jumped up and put her front paws on Buck’s legs and yipped again.
“Her whole rear end wiggles when she wags that tail!” Emma laughed.
“What’s her name?” Cody asked laughing.
Buck looked at the puppy a moment then reached down and picked her up. The puppy immediately began licking his face. “Hmmm, Situpsa, I think works well!” Buck laughed as the puppy continued giving him a bath.
*What’s that mean?* Ike signed.
“Wags tail!” Buck said pointing to the tail that just wouldn’t stop moving. Everyone laughed.
Kid felt the mattress shift underneath him as Lou slipped out of their bed. His eyes fluttered open in time to see her reaching for the knob on their closed bedroom door.
“Where are you going?” he asked sleepily.
“I’m going to check on the children. I thought I heard one of them crying.” Lou said before she opened the door and stepped out into the dark hallway.
Kid rolled over in bed, plumped up his pillow and closed his eyes, trying to go back to sleep, but he eventually gave up. He had never been able to sleep in their bed without Lou there beside him. He slid out of bed and prodded barefoot out the doorway into the hall.
He followed the dark hallway down to their daughters’ rooms. One glance around the room told him that Katerina, Emma, and Mary were all sleeping peacefully in their beds. By the position of their blankets, Kid knew Lou had gone around the room, straightening them out, and covering their daughters against the coolness of the night.
Kid moved onto the next room, which was shared by their four sons. James and Jed were sprawled on their beds, blankets twisted around their legs. Cody was curled underneath his blanket, thumb in his mouth, and a peaceful look upon his cherubic features.
Even from the doorway, he could tell that their five-month-old son was not in the cradle against the wall to his left. His eyes traveled over to the rocking chair nestled in one corner of the room.
Lou was seated in it, with Buck’s tiny lips latched on to an exposed nipple and nursing hungrily. Even though he had heard nothing, Lou’s maternal instincts had obviously awakened her to the fact that one of their children were in need of her attention, and she had gone immediately to their youngest son. Lou’s eyes were closed and she was humming a lullaby, low enough to reach Buck’s ears, without awakening his brothers.
As he settled into the doorway to watch the nurturing sight in front of him, Buck gave a contented sigh and quit drinking. Lou’s eyes popped open and she adjusted the robe around her to cover her breast, before lifting Buck up to one shoulder to burp him.
She must have felt eyes upon her, because she suddenly looked up, and smiled softly across the room at him. He smiled back and continued to watch as she cared for their son. She set the rocking chair into motion, using her feet to rock it back and forth, while her hand patted Buck lightly on his back, hoping to ease any air he had taken in along with his milk from his tiny body. A few moments in her efforts were rewarded when Buck burped and both she and Kid grinned. There were times when he reminded them of his Uncle Cody, after he had eaten a good meal.
When the baby was sound asleep, Lou rose carefully from the rocking chair, and moved over to his cradle. She settled him onto his stomach in the bed and pulled his quilt over him. She waited just a moment to see if he would resist her putting him down, before stepping away from his cradle.
Kid smiled as Lou moved over to James’s bed to fix his covers. Buck usually gave him troubled when he laid him down in his bed. Sometimes it was only a whimper or two, other times he wailed. Whichever his reaction was, usually Kid would have to spend a few moments more patting him on the back and humming softly to him, before Buck would settle into a deep sleep.
Not even a father’s touch could take the place of a mother’s. Lou was a wonderful mother and their children were lucky to have her. Lou straightened out James’s and Jed’s blankets, and pulled them up over the two sleeping boys, before joining him in the doorway. Kid held out a hand to her and Lou placed one of hers in his, and allowed him to lead her out of their son’s room, and down the hallway to their own.
Emma glanced around the bunkhouse one last time, giving a satisfied grin at the results of her hard work. When she’d said yes to the representative from Russell, Majors and Waddell, she’d felt she’d been given a purpose in life once again. Even though the young man had been stern about what the company wanted from their way stations in terms of treatment of the riders, Emma knew in the end she would do things her way. And do them her way she was.
Everywhere she went for weeks, word was spreading about these young men being hired to risk their lives every day all for a week’s wages. Even the paperwork she’d been given as to what a station mistress’ job entailed plainly told her why the company was hiring orphans. Well they might be orphans to the world but to her they were young boys who were lost in this here big world; young boys that needed a stable existence so they could cross that boundary from boy to man. And she planned to give them that, despite what the company wanted her to do.
Running her hand over the taut blanket on the top bunk closest to the door, Emma felt like she’d taken the first step these boys needed, giving them the comfort of a home. She didn’t know the six boys that would be arriving starting tomorrow; she didn’t know anything about their backgrounds, their home lives, but they were orphans, or the company wouldn’t have hired them, so maybe some of them hadn’t seen a home in a long time. And those were the ones she was making this small building as comfortable as possible for. Now if some of them had been lucky enough to have a stable home up until now, so much the better for them, and hopefully this place would compare to what they were used to. Deep inside she doubted if the second possibility existed where these riders were concerned but she didn’t like to think of anyone young having to suffer out in the world alone. That was why from the moment they arrived, if they let her, they wouldn’t be alone any more.
Emma had listened to Teaspoon’s repeated warnings not to coddle them, that they were being hired to do a man’s job. Well, even a man needed a roof over his head, a warm bed to rest his weary body in at the end of a hard day, and a willing ear to listen if they wanted or needed someone to talk to. Emma wasn’t living in such a fantasy world to not know that they would be tough cored and maybe hard to get through to; they’d have to be tough to have made it out in the world alone. She just wanted them to know that she thought differently of them as opposed to other riders who would be passing through and possibly having to stay for the night. This bunkhouse was their home and hopefully one day they would look at it as such … and where there was a home, there was also a family and maybe in time that was what the coming group, she and Teaspoon could become. But if that wish didn’t come true then she’d done all she could by giving them as much of the comfort of a home that she could instill on them without overdoing it. They were after all, young boys pretending to be men, which wasn’t much different than her trying to be a mother to a bunch of orphans who thought they were all grown up and didn’t need a mother anymore.
With one last look around, Emma opened the door and stepped out onto the porch. She knew her life would be different from the moment the first rider arrived on her property and she found herself anxiously awaiting that moment as she needed this change in her life, hopefully as much as these boys would need her.
“Well, Mr. Spoon, did they all survive the first day?”
Emma had waited for Teaspoon to finish his first drink of coffee before asking her question. He sat down his coffee cup and grinned at her across her kitchen table.
“Well, a couple of them, just barely. But, taken as a whole, it looks like they’ll do. Give me a couple of weeks with them and they’ll be ready for the Express trail.”
Teaspoon had introduced Emma to the boys by the corral that morning, and she had kept an eye on their progress throughout the day while she went about her own work. From what she’d seen, she wasn’t so sure that a couple weeks would make those boys into Express riders or that all six would survive that length of time.
“What do you know about them?”
“You’ve seen that poster that Russell, Majors, and Waddell put out. That pretty much sums them up. There’s a half-breed, a hotheaded gunslinger, a cocky sharpshooter, a Southern farm boy, a mute, and what has to be the puniest feller I’ve ever seen.”
Teaspoon took another drink of his coffee, scratched his head and continued, “All orphans, all willing to risk their lives to make some money as Pony Express riders. I hope they all live long enough to spend some of it. One thing is for certain, things won’t be boring around here with that bunch around.” Teaspoon wound up with a chuckle as he finished his coffee. Saying goodnight to Emma, he set off for his bed in the tack room.
Emma finished her own coffee and then busied herself setting out the things she would need to prepare breakfast for eight the next morning. It was going to be a busy day and those boys would certainly need a good breakfast to get them through whatever Teaspoon had planned. Glancing out the kitchen window, the lights being put out in the bunkhouse caught her eye. It had been a long time since her bunkhouse had seen any life in it.
When Teaspoon Hunter had asked her about turning her ranch into a Pony Express Station, the economics of the issue had really given her no choice. The last few years had been hard. She wasn’t one to shirk from hard work, but she’d barely managed to pay the mortgage much less been able to afford wages she needed to pay for ranch hands. A monthly wage and Express riders to help with the chores and the upkeep of the place had seemed too sound of a plan to pass up.
Emma had grown up hearing her father tell stories about the antics of his boyhood friend named Teaspoon. When she’d met the man with the odd name in Sweetwater, she had found that her father’s stories had not been exaggerations. Even though he was a little eccentric, Teaspoon had come to be a real friend and she trusted his judgment implicitly. He’d be there to help deal with the Express and riders while she did the cooking and washing along with running her ranch.
She realized that until that morning she hadn’t really given too much thought to the riders themselves. She’d seen the poster, of course, however she wasn’t too sure what she’d been expecting. It certainly was not what she had seen propped up against her corral. Their expressions had ranged from cocky to petrified, but they had all looked so young and so alone. She wondered how long it had been since any of them had known the comforts of a home and someone to care for them.
Seeing them had brought back memories of a past she worked hard not to remember. She knew too well what their lives were like. A shudder ran through her as she allowed herself to think of memories that she usually kept tightly locked away.
She’d been about the same age as these young riders when her father’s death had made her an orphan. As the memories flooded her mind, her hand drifted without thought to stroke the pocket watch she kept on a ribbon at her waist, the only thing she had left of him. Only a few months before her father had died, she’d watched a gunfight between the two men she loved take the life of one and make the other a killer. Longley had won the fight but taken away her chances for a future with either man she loved. With her father’s death she had lost all else that had remained - the bank had taken their farm and she had no other family, no place to go.
She’d had to find ways to support herself, not an easy task for a girl alone. Her options had been so limited. No matter what had happened later, she would always be grateful to Evan. When her choices had become more limited than she could bear, he’d offered to marry her. They’d moved to Sweetwater and began building a ranch and a family. A tear slid down her cheek as her eyes peered out into the darkness towards the distant tree and the little unmarked grave beneath it that she couldn’t see but her heart never forgot was there. So many sad memories.
She knew she would never forget how it had felt being so young and alone, and scared. She wasn’t sure how long those boys had been on their own or what pasts they were trying to leave behind, but they weren’t orphans anymore. She’d be sure they knew what it was like to have a place to call home.
Emma stared out the window, her hand absentmindedly resting on the small bulge beneath her waistband. It wasn’t obvious but she could only hide it for another month before chins would wag. And in this small town, considering who her father was, or had been, the chins would dance. That he was dead wouldn’t matter.
Seanach Patrick Shannon was dead and the entire town, plus many of the outlying farmers, was out to pay their respects because, Patrick Shannon was just that – respected. That in its self caused Emma such grief over her predicament. Sighing, she patted her stomach. The one good thing was Patrick Shannon hadn’t known Emma was pregnant before his heart gave out.
To keep with Emma’s misery, the day had dawned cloudy and gray. By the time they’d gotten to the graveside service a light rain was falling. Now, as if the heavens had opened to show their sympathy, the sky rained in torrents. As she stood in front of the window, her black dress blended with the bleak scenery so all that was reflected in the glass pane was her pale, sorrow-filled face. What was she going to do? Of course everyone assumed her distress was solely the result of her father’s passing. She was distraught over that but there was the uncertainty of her future now.
Though warm and dry inside the Shannon home, she could not bring herself to meet with people. So many “sorry for your loss,” “he was such a good man,” and the worst one, “he’s in a better place.” What did that mean? That being here, with his daughter, wasn’t good enough? Perhaps not, since in another month he’d have been so thoroughly disappointed in her. But no matter how humiliated he would have felt; her father never would have displaced her. Unfortunately, that all came crashing down when he’d passed. This wasn’t the Shannon home any longer. Debts needed to be paid. She pressed her fisted hands to her mouth to keep the wrenching sobs from escaping.
A voice caught her attention. She knew it as well as her own. It was Evan Crandall and he was greeting people, talking quietly, thanking everyone for coming, and basically acting as a member of the family. Emma’s father had wanted that. He’d thought Evan was a hard worker with many other admirable qualities. Emma only liked him as a friend. He was attractive but there was just something about him that kept her at a distance, even though Evan had a tendency to buzz around her like a bee to a flower. Thus there had been three marriage proposals that Emma had refused, much to Patrick Shannon’s dismay. Emma had loved another. Her hand returned to her belly.
But, as she turned to stare at Evan, there was something different this time – his smile, his sympathetic eyes, his comfortable ways. That was it. Evan meant comfort. Their eyes met and Emma smiled gratefully at him. The grin he returned told her that there would be a fourth proposal, and this time she’d accept. She had to, Evan was her only hope.
Thanks Georgia for giving me the spark for this idea! d;-)
She ran her hand down his bare chest. He felt his skin tingle when her nails rubbed against his nipple. He shuddered as she whispered, “Ya’ like that don’t cha’?”
He loved her accent. The sweet twang was as rich and thick as molasses drizzling out of a jar. He chuckled and she nibbled on his ear. Tracing his jaw with soft kisses, she followed the firm jaw line, across the chin, and down his neck. He groaned when her tongue flicked over his Adam’s apple.
“Mmmm, another favorite spot, huh sweetie?”
Creamy velvety skin was covered in the sheerest of chemises and inviting him to touch. It made his fingertips twitch. Not the only thing to twitch, either. A throaty growl escaped as she rolled over to sit on his legs. He still had his pants on but that would be rectified soon enough, he could tell. She leaned over, giving him full view straight down her top, and he took every advantage. Grinning he raised his hands to pull her to him.
“Jimmy, get up!”
He bolted awake, blinking at the harshness of the scene. It was the bunkhouse and Buck was smacking him on the shoulder.
“I swear it’s getting harder and harder to wake you up,” Buck said, dryly as he walked towards the door to follow the others outside.
“Harder and harder,” Jimmy grumbled. “I oughta shoot you for that.”
“What?” Buck turned back, looking at his friend curiously.
“Nothin’,” Jimmy mumbled as he swung his legs over the edge of his bunk and rubbed his eyes. Shaking his head, Buck laughed and continued out the door.
Sullenly, Jimmy jumped down from his bunk and grabbed his pants. As he pulled them on, he heard the faint whisper of a Southern giggle and grinned. There’d always be another night.
A/N: This story follows "The Thunder Rolls" from Quick Fic #33, "On the Edge" from Quick Fic #53, "To Help a Friend" from Quick Fic #54, "By the Book" from Quick Fic #91, “Home is Where…” from Quick Fic #92, and “Memories and Nightmares” from Quick Fic #93.
His neck hurt. His neck, and then there was a cramp in his shoulder. His back was twisted in an awkward manner, and he hadn’t had any feeling in the lower part of his right arm for some time now. All in all, this might very well count as the most uncomfortable night he’d ever spent…
Well, there was the night with Jimmy on that one special run. The thunderstorm had caught them exposed and in the middle of nowhere, no shelter in sight. Of course, the rain had been so heavy that they wouldn’t have seen anything more than a few yards away anyway. And then when the twister hit – well, those few minutes huddled with frightened horses as everything whipped around them, that was pretty bad too.
Buck grimaced at the memory, and quickly wished he hadn’t when the cramp in his shoulder tightened again. He wished he could move, but one look down at his side reminded him why he couldn’t – or at least wouldn’t.
Lou was curled up next to him, sleeping peacefully after her earlier nightmares. His presence had provided enough comfort to make her feel safe, and he was glad about that.
And at least one of them was getting some sleep.
Buck tried to gently ease his right arm free, but the movement partially roused Lou. She murmured something he couldn’t quite understand, and then rolled toward him – pinning his arm above the elbow.
With a sigh, he resigned himself to more discomfort. After all she’d been through, and carrying a child in her womb, it was more important that Lou could sleep.
Leaning back, he tried to get as comfortable as he could, which still left a lot to be desired. Sleep seemed a long way off, so he concentrated on the sounds around him. The storm seemed to have passed on by, but he could still hear a steady rain against the window. It was soothing, comforting – nature’s way of refreshing things, and bringing life.
Finally, the soothing sound of the rain overcame his physical discomfort, and he slept.
She awoke to the sounds of birds chirping, and the sensation of sunlight touching her face. There was another sensation as well, that of someone in the bed next to her.
But as awareness grew and her thoughts cleared, she knew that couldn’t be true. He was gone, and she was alone. Except for…
Lou opened her eyes, confirming her thoughts. Buck.
Memories came back, clearer now as the veil of sleep lifted further. The storm, her nightmares, Buck coming to provide comfort…
And he had, she realized. She had slept more soundly this night than at any time in the last several weeks, unbothered by the bad dreams that had haunted her recently.
Lou pushed the blanket down and pushed herself up on one elbow. She turned, intending to thank her benefactor. But when she saw him, she gasped. Buck was still almost sitting upright, his neck cocked at an angle that looked distinctly uncomfortable. His right shoulder was twisted back, and she realized she’d been sleeping on his arm, keeping him from moving. Even though he appeared to be asleep, the discomfort was etched on his face.
She reached out to touch that face, gently brushing her fingers against his temple. “Buck?”
His eyes opened at the touch and the sound of his name. “Lou? Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. Don’t think you are though.”
He couldn’t quite stifle the groan as he tried to move. “No, I’m fine,” he insisted, teeth gritted against the pain in his neck and arm.
Lou gave him a skeptical half smile as she sat up all the way, watching as he winced when he tried to move his arm. “I’m sorry,” she said softly. “You should have made me move.”
He tried to deflect that with a shake of his head. “You needed to sleep.”
“The way you been workin’ around here, and in town, you need sleep too. How much did you get?”
“Not much,” he admitted after a moment’s hesitation.
Lou slid to the other side of the bed, slipped her feet into the slippers waiting there, and stood up. She pulled her robe on as she walked over to where Buck was carefully trying to work some feeling back into his arm.
“You should get some sleep now.”
“It’s time to get up,” he objected. “Past time, it looks like. The sun’s all the way up.”
“Don’t matter. You need the sleep.”
“There’s too much work to do.”
“Won’t hurt if less gets done for one day.”
“Buck, I ain’t arguin’ with you.” Lou reached over him and grabbed the other pillow, slipping it behind his shoulders as she pulled the blanket up over him.
He opened his mouth as if to argue, but it turned into a yawn as exhaustion took over and betrayed his best intentions.
Lou laughed gently and tucked the blanket around his shoulders. “Sleep.”
Buck gave in to the fatigue and slid down in the bed until the pillows cushioned his head and neck the way he liked it. “Maybe for a little while.”
“As long as you want.” She leaned down and brushed a kiss against his cheek. “Thank you for last night. You were such a comfort.”
“I’m glad.” He fought back another yawn as he spoke.
Lou stepped away from the bed and headed for the door. Before going into the hall, she stopped and looked back. He was already asleep, a peaceful, comfortable look on his face. After a night of discomfort suffered to give her peace, it seemed very fitting.
She smiled as she slipped out of the room and pulled the door quietly shut behind her. The farm was coming together well, and repairs on the house were nearly done. Soon they’d be on the road to St. Joseph to bring Jeremiah and Teresa to Rock Creek.
And, perhaps best of all, she felt as though she’d finally, and fully, come to terms with Kid leaving. Maybe making it through another big storm was what it had taken, but this morning she felt a new confidence in her situation.
She felt something else too, something she couldn’t quite define yet. It had to do with Buck, that much she was sure of. His presence was steady and sure, comforting in a way that was both surprising and pleasant, even if she didn’t quite understand it yet.
It was definitely something she’d have to think more about.
The word hissed through the air, full of pain and despair. It was evident that it had been a rough night; the blood on his shirt was impossible to miss. Even in the pale moonlight.
She watched him as he tried to peel off his shirt, but he had trouble lifting his arms and so they fell helpless at his side. The shirt fluttered in the air; partially on, partially off, it stuck on the wounds of the night. Looks like it was another bar fight. She sighed, shaking her head at the senselessness of it all.
Opening the door quietly, she stepped out into the yard and approached the man who was trying to quietly clean up. Undoubtedly, he was trying to not wake her, but he should know better by now. He should know that she would be awake until he returned, never able to fully sleep without him home. He should know that she would want to help him and take care of him instead of watching him out here like a stubborn old goat trying to do the impossible and clean up minimal pain.
“Jimmy,” she said softly and his movement stilled.
A look of regret was on his face as she moved around him until she faced him. “I didn’t mean to wake you. I was tryin’ to be quiet.”
“I wasn’t asleep,” she shook her head, holding out her hand to him. When he didn’t take it, she reached down and picked up his calloused hand and then tugged lightly. “Come on, let’s take care of you.”
He didn’t move, aside from shaking his head. “I couldn’t ask…”
With an impatient sigh she said, “You aren’t askin’, I’m offerin’.”
Dropping his hand, she balled her fists up and placed them on her hips. “We’re married, Jimmy. Why can’t you understand that I’m offerin’ to help you? Why do you do this every time? Stand out here in the yard and try to clean up when you know I’ll help you?”
“I don’t want you to see me like this,” he answered.
“You think if I don’t see it that I won’t know about it?” she wondered. “You’re my husband; I see the way you hold your side and I see the bruises on your face.”
“You didn’t want to marry me,” he protested.
“I didn’t want to marry anyone,” she countered. “I didn’t like the way it was handled. My pa sent me west and I had no idea. He said I was goin’ to a friend of his; I had no idea that friend had paid my father to marry me and had never even seen me. I wasn’t goin’ to live that life; I didn’t care what my father had promised. And I knew I was in trouble when I met my intended husband. He was a drunk, he was big, and I knew he’d probably beat me. Of course I was scared.”
He stayed silent and she went on. “And then you showed up and said you had the solution to my problem. You married me to keep me from marryin’ him and you paid the man a portion of his fee and you shuffled me off to this home and I’ve…I’ve tried to be a good wife to you.”
“You have been,” he said, his voice soft. “You keep a real good home and your food…”
The corners of his mouth turned up slightly, “Your food’s delicious. Some of the best I’ve ever had.”
“But you won’t let me help you,” she protested. “You’re out there tryin’ to keep the peace and steppin’ into the middle of bar fights and gettin’ just as beat up as the others, and then you come home and try to take care of yourself alone.”
“It…it’s not that kinda a marriage,” her husband shook his head. “You shouldn’t have to see me in this condition.”
“I clean your clothes, I mend them, I turn the ones that I can’t fix into rags and I buy you new ones out of the household funds. I know you’re bruised and hurt,” she insisted. “So why won’t you let me help you?”
He sighed her name in frustration. “What do you want from me?”
“I want you to stop bein’ so stubborn and let me help you,” she told him. “You’ve helped me even though I told you that you didn’t need to. Let me help you.”
She reached out and took his hand again, tugging lightly as she turned for the house. Taking a step backward, she was pleased when he followed. “Come on,” she coaxed him. “Let me help.”
The smell of sulfur filled the air as she struck a match and set it to the lamp wick. She kept the light dim, just enough to see, but not too bright to bother them with the harsh light. Reaching out, she pulled his shirt from the waistband of his pants, and then undid the rest of the buttons. She’d have to inspect it in the morning, but her initial assessment was she just gained another rag. Gently, wincing when he did as the fabric stuck on drying blood, she eased the shirt off his arms and tossed it to the side of the room.
“I could heat the water,” she offered, “but it’ll take time and it’s warm enough tonight that the water may not be too cold.”
“It’s fine,” he assured her. “I was just gonna use the water from the horse trough.”
She wrinkled up her nose at the pronouncement, instead pouring water from the earthenware pitcher into a wide bowl. Reaching into her rag basket, she pulled out a soft cloth and dunked it into the water. Gently she dabbed at the wounds, cleaning the blood without scrubbing it off. The water darkened as his body was cleaned and she could see shadows of bruises forming on his skin.
“Do you want me to wrap your ribs?” she asked him.
“You know how?” Jimmy questioned.
“My father,” she answered succinctly. “His bar fights weren’t because he was a lawman.”
“If it’s not too much trouble,” he replied softly, but she could see the hope in his eyes.
“No,” she gave him a ghost of a smile, “it’s not too much trouble. You’re a much better patient than my father ever was.”
With his ribs tended, she turned her attention to his face. A cut above his brow, a scrape on his cheek, a bruise on his jaw. She was standing close to him, near enough to feel his breath puff across her arm. She could see his muscles no longer hidden by his shirt, she could feel the heat of his skin, she could smell his shaving lotion that lingered even this late in the day. As she finished with the last cut, she let the rag fall into the water, but didn’t let go of him, didn’t move away.
He looked up at her, a question in his eyes, as she leaned forward and let her lips brush over the cut on his forehead.
“Wh-what are you doing?” he asked.
She didn’t answer, instead, she placed her hands on his shoulders and leaned forward again, this time kissing the wound just above his eye.
He was silent as she pulled back slightly to look at him, “What do you think I’m doing? I’m kissin’ it better.”
Then she leaned forward again and kissed the bruise on his cheek.
“We…we don’t have that kinda marriage,” he managed to get out.
“But we could,” she told him. “You’re a good man, James Hickok. You married a woman you hardly knew simply so that she wouldn’t go to a drunk, old guy who’d prob’ly kill her like he did his last wife. You’ve treated me with more kindness and decency than I’ve ever experienced in my life. You’re loyal to your friends, help out people even when they look down on you for some story someone wrote years ago, and you do your best to keep the peace among a bunch of people who’d just as soon shoot you as say hello. Who says we have to live in separate bedrooms for the rest of our lives simply because you were noble six months ago?”
She kissed his jaw, letting her lips linger before pulling back and addressing her husband, “Unless you’d rather things stay that way.”
He looked up at her for so long that she wondered if he was ever going to speak. Finally he raised his hand and with his finger, pointed to the split in his lip and said, “You missed a spot.”
As Emma tended the cut on Ike’s head, she asked him quietly if the others needed looking over also.
Ike nodded slowly. *They were pretty rough on Buck,* he signed. *He isn’t going to complain to you though; he doesn’t want you to think he’s weak.*
Emma sighed. “He going to put up a fight if I ask him to let me look him over?” she inquired as she carefully removed Ike’s shirt.
Ike shrugged. *I’m not sure. Maybe.*
Emma quietly tended the few scrapes on Ike’s back and shoulder. She then stood and emptied the bucket of water that had been standing next to the fire into the waiting tub. “You think you can get in by yourself, or shall I ask someone to help you?”
Ike replied, *Ask Buck to help, I’m going to do something so you can see if anything is wrong with him.*
Emma nodded. She made her way to the door. She handed Kid the empty water bucket. “Could you refill this for me?” she asked.
Kid nodded. “Right away,” he said.
As he left, Emma turned to face Buck. He was sitting quietly on the sofa where she had insisted both he and Kid wait as she tended Ike. He looked exhausted, but didn’t seem to be in any pain. “Ike needs some assistance getting into the tub. Could you help?”
Buck nodded. He stood and placed his hat on the sofa before following Emma into the guest bedroom where Ike sat waiting on the edge of the bed.
“Get his trousers off and him in the tub,” said Emma. “Then you can give me his dirty clothes so I can wash them.”
Buck once more nodded. He moved slowly to Ike’s side. When Ike stood so Buck could finish undressing him, he placed his hands on Buck’s shoulders for balance. As Buck knelt before him to remove Ike’s pants, Ike place most of his weight on Buck. Buck tried, but couldn’t stop the moan of pain. He waivered slightly, but managed to keep from passing out as Ike dropped back to the bed.
Emma was quickly at Buck’s side. “You sure you don’t want me to do anything for you?” she asked with a concerned look. “I know you said you were fine, but…”
Buck took a deep breath before answering. “Maybe you could take a look at my right shoulder,” he said softly. He stood looking at the ground, ashamed to be a burden to her.
“Be glad to,” said Emma. “First, let’s get Ike soaking, and then I can look you over.” She indicated to Ike that he should once more stand. She closed her eyes as she steadied him. Buck removed Ike’s pants and undergarments. Emma waited until Buck had Ike settled into the tub before opening her eyes and quickly gathering the soiled clothing. She placed these with his shirt and once more turned her attention to Buck.
“Let’s get this vest off,” she said.
This done. She examined Buck’s shoulder. It caused him some pain to move, but didn’t seem to be dislocated. She couldn’t help but notice the other areas of discoloration on Buck’s upper body. She desperately wanted to asked what had happened, but something about the way he was sitting so quietly, staring at the ground, prevented her.
“I think it’s just bruised,” she said. “Anything else bothering you?”
Buck shook his head. “Really,” he said. “Other than that, I’m fine.”
Emma sighed. She carefully touched a long, purplish spot on Buck’s back. “You sure?” she asked as she tenderly ran her fingers across the welt in the middle of the bruise.
Buck tensed and sucked in his breath as the sensation Emma’s touch sent through him. He took another deep breath and once more replied, “I’m fine.”
Emma stepped back and picked up Buck’s vest. As she moved to hand it to him, Kid returned with the water bucket. Emma had him place it near the fire. “Could you do me one more favor?”
Kid smiled at her and nodded. “What else?” he asked.
“Get yourself cleaned up first,” she said, “and then bring me your dirty clothes, as well as a change of clothes for both of these young men.”
As Kid left, Buck once more reached for his vest. “I should see about getting cleaned up myself,” he said.
Emma stopped him. “Why don’t you take off your shoes and rest while Ike finishes soaking? When he’s done, you can help him get dressed and then clean up in here. That way he doesn’t have to wait any longer than absolutely necessary to get out of the tub.”
Buck once more nodded. The thought of lying back on the bed did bring comfort to his weary soul. He quickly removed his boots and did just that. Soon he was resting in the softness of Emma’s guest bed. When Kid returned, Emma had him help Ike out of the tub and into clean clothes. She then settled him into bed next to Buck who was just beginning to snore.
“Let him sleep,” she said when Kid moved to wake Buck.