Topic #99: Don't Make Me...
Don't Make Me Choose by: Georgia A Short Stick and a Short Fuse by: Lori
A Nighttime Conversation by: Mollie A Long Trip To Town by: Catsimmie
Elk Dreamer's Vision by: Dee Learning To Adjust by: Karen
Enough! by: Leah The Magic Bean by: Dede
Quiet Time by: Dede Drunk and Orderly by: Miss Raye
Together by: Miss Raye Unexpected Birthday Surprise by: Shannon
Clear the Way by: Debbie Adjusting by: Cindy
Don't Make Me Choose
by: Georgia

“Rachel, I just can’t decide. Don’t make me choose. I want them both!”

“Lou, how many times are we going to go through this? I thought you’d made your decision.”

“So did I. I thought that I’d decided on my one true love, but the more I think about it the less sure I am. I just can’t make up my mind.”

In response, Rachel shook her head and gave Lou an exasperated look.

Lou knew that she should be able to make up her mind and that her indecision was wearing on Rachel’s patience. She had the decency to look sheepish, but nevertheless continued voicing her plight.

“On one hand, I can choose simple, straightforward sweetness that makes me feel happy and content. A good choice, and I didn’t think I would ever find anything better.” Lou’s eyes softened as she talked. She sighed and then continued with a smile, “I know the other is darker with a little bit of an edge, but just as sweet. If I’m being honest, I find that edginess exciting.” Lou’s eyes glowed.

“Enough already!” Rachel’s tolerance had finally come to an end. “I think there’s a big enough batch of each for you to have some of both. I’ll make sure Teaspoon lets you have a scoop of vanilla and a scoop of chocolate! I swear Lou, I’ve never seen someone get so worked up over ice cream!”

A Short Stick and a Short Fuse
by: Lori

“You better shut up right now before I punch you in the mouth.”

A smart man would have recognized the lethal growl in Jimmy’s voice and would have stepped back and stopped his taunting. But the search for a good joke sometimes robbed men of their sense and the hilarity of the moment blinded them to what was happening. Right now, Cody and Kid were trapped in a cycle where their laughter was growing exponentially and every comment was funnier than it really was. They also didn’t realize they were poking a tiger with a very short stick and they were about to get bit.

Buck could admit that the situation was funny at first. It had happened to them all before and it was merely Jimmy’s turn to play the lovesick pup who was shot down by the object of his affection. At least that’s how it appeared on the surface.

The riders had been enjoying a day at the town’s fair and were all looking forward to the contests and games. They’d seen the men setting up for the shooting contest, and more importantly they’d seen the prize for the shooting contest and they all felt that their friend would want to enter along with the rest of them. So they’d set off in search of Jimmy and finally found him in the alley by the boarding house in an intense conversation with the pretty gal he’d been seen around town with and the couple had not been happy at all with the interruption. Penelope fled with tears in her eyes and Jimmy had rounded on the assembled group and let loose his anger over being interrupted.

He wanted to go searching after Penny, but Cody and Kid had each grabbed one of his arms and dragged him along. There would be plenty of time for him to kiss and make up with his girl once he was done with the contest. Jimmy dug his heels in and fought against their hold and tried to leave, but neither man would have it. They thought it was funny that Jimmy was being kept from Penny and the more he fought with them, the more determined they were to thwart their friend’s plans of romance. They teased and joked, but all the while Jimmy’s ire was growing.

Not even when Lou shook her head in disgust at them and told them to leave Jimmy alone did they cease their merriment. Not when Buck or Ike cautioned them that perhaps it was time for the joke to be over did they let go of the other man’s arms. Not even when Noah warned them flat out that Jimmy was beyond tolerating their comments did they stop their remarks.

The two riders thought it would be funny for Jimmy to have to go search for the newspaper editor’s daughter who would probably have run straight to Daddy. The newspaper owner was a small, thin-necked man with wire spectacles and a balding head and he stammered every time he was in Jimmy’s presence. But he loved his daughter fiercely and they figured that Penny’s tears might get Daddy riled up at Jimmy and it would be funny to have to watch their friend smooth over the ruffled feathers of both father and daughter. It would be a change in the courtship that had progressed so far and what had begun as good-natured ribbing was now delving into merciless taunting.

Especially when Cody made an off-handed quip about Mr. Randall’s reaction if he ever discovered that Jimmy and Penny had danced. That seemed to really anger the dark-haired rider and Buck watched as the man’s normally dark eyes seemed to turn coal black with fury. He wrenched at both his arms, his protests no longer polite or even attempting to be cautious towards people he considered his friends. His right arm slipped free of Kid’s grip and he swung around and delivered the promised punch to Cody’s jaw. The blond staggered back under the blow and with his left hand now free Jimmy turned and hit a very startled Kid.

“Don’t ever talk about Penny like that again,” he hissed at the two men, but the warning reached out to the rest of the group.

Cody and Kid straightened and regarded the angry rider, all merriment and teasing gone. They didn’t fight back and Buck was grateful for small favors. Even if they’d both gone after Jimmy, the other man was angry enough that he probably would have inflicted significant damage on the two men before the rest of them had a chance to get in and break up the fight.

Holding up his hands, Kid’s tone went from teasing to apologetic as he said, “We were just having a little bit of fun, Jimmy. We didn’t mean to make you so angry.”

“I told you to leave me alone,” he spat at them as he picked up his hat that had fallen in the scuffle and dusted it off perfunctorily before shoving it on his head. “But you had to make a big game out of it. I gotta go find Penny.”

“Is everything alright, Jimmy?” Noah asked in concern as he stepped towards the other man. “You need us to help you with anything?”

“Just hope Mr. Randall don’t own anything bigger than a shotgun,” Jimmy answered, “and go find the preacher or Teaspoon. Maybe we can keep her father from gettin’ too angry when he finds out me and Penny are gonna be parents in six months if I show up ready to marry her.”

A Nighttime Conversation
by: Mollie

A/N:Characters are from my Lost and Found series. Rose is Jimmy's daughter, David is Ike's son.

David felt Rose shudder next to him. Neither had been able to fall asleep since going to bed. David stared up and into the dark and the mattress twitched beside him as Rose fidgeted in agitation. It was unusual for her to turn her back to him at night; it had rarely happened in the three months of their marriage. But after an eventful day, it seemed like it was bound to be an unusual night.

Rose sat up abruptly, drawing her knees to her chest and hugging them tight against herself. David automatically lifted himself up and putting his arms around her kissed her shoulder. “What’s wrong, Rosie?” he muttered, his voice sleepy.

Rose shook her head and would not answer. David sighed and sat with her for a moment in the silence. The bedroom was warm and dark and the whole world was quiet but for the almost imperceptible sound of their breath. At last David hazarded another kiss, on Rose’s neck this time, and worked his way slowly to her ear before whispering, “As long as we’re both up…” She turned her face to his and let him kiss her, slowly relaxing and turning her body towards him. Her palms were flat against his chest, his own hands wrapped around her as he slowly lowered her back to the mattress.

But she pushed him away. And David pulled back to see his wife’s face contorted with absolute terror. “I can’t.” she whispered shakily.

David sat up again and drawing her up with him, held her tight. He felt her tears burn his shoulder. “What happened, Rosie?” he asked, afraid to know the answer. He swallowed but still felt as if a rock was lodged in his throat. “Did I hurt you?”

“No, no. I just can’t anymore.” she cried before her words were lost in a meaningless mush of sobs and mumbles.

David stroked her hair and sighed again. “I don’t understand.”

She lifted her face, shiny with tears. “I can’t do it, David. I won’t do it. I…I don’t want to have babies. Not after today. It was so awful! There wasn’t anything amazing or miraculous about it. It was just…dirty and bloody. And the baby wasn’t beautiful or cute or anything…it was just,” she shuddered again at the memory, “purple and screaming and she screamed too. Joss screamed. It was terrifying!”

David bit his lip to hide a chuckle. “It couldn’t have been that bad, Rosie.”

“You weren’t there! You didn’t see it. It was a nightmare.”

“Joss seemed fine when I went up to see the baby. And the baby looked pretty cute too me, not purple at all.” Rose said nothing. She pulled away from him and left the bed to pace the small room. “Rose,” David said, “Come back to bed.” Rose shook her head and kept pacing, wringing her hands. With a groan David climbed out of bed himself and took her hands in his. “Come back to bed. Let’s not worry about babies just yet, alright? I know things weren’t easy for Joss but she’s a lot older than you, and besides she got through it, didn’t she? And now she and Buck have a daughter! That’s worth a little pain, isn’t it?”

“You wouldn’t say that if you were going to have to go through the pain part of it yourself,” she muttered back.

David ran his hand over her hair and pulled her against his chest, “Maybe you’re right.” He pressed a kiss on the top of her head. “We won’t talk about it anymore tonight. Just come back to bed. I won’t touch you. We’ll do nothing but sleep at night until you’re ready.”

She let him lead her back to bed. “I’ll never change my mind,” she stated. “I’m not doing it. I’m not going through that.” Her whole body shivered in revulsion at the thought.

“We’ll see,” he said.

“I’m not,” she yawned, and clambered between the sheets next to him, “We’ll just have to die old and child-less,” she curled up against him and mumbled against the pillow, “We’ll have dogs. That’s fine. But I’m not-“ she yawned again, loudly. “I’m not doing that,” she closed her eyes.

“We’ll see,” he said.

A Long Trip To Town
by: Catsimmie

Emma had known it was a bad idea when she thought of it. For the past three days, it had been cold and stormy and the riders had been confined to the bunkhouse. When she awoke this morning to sunshine breaking through the clouds, she decided it was a perfect day to go into town for supplies and knew the boys would be eager to help.

She had hoped the bickering would stop and they boys attitude would be as bright as the sunshine. Even poor Lou looked like she had a needed a break from them, so Emma had allowed her to drive the buckboard. When she had suggested it, Lou had given her a look of gratitude and Emma wished Lou would confide in her about her secret.

Lou thought Emma didn’t know, but she did; she had from the start. Emma was trying to support her in the little ways, just like this. She knew it had to be tough for her to live with the boys without having another woman around, so whenever Emma got the chance, she would assign chores for Lou that would let her spend as much time with Emma as possible.

“I’m tellin’ ya,” Cody started with a love struck tone in his voice. “With the weather clearing up, the flowers are gonna start bloomin’, just like the love I have for the ladies.”

*More like the love he has from himself,* Ike had signed, after thumping his chest for attention.

Emma noticed that Lou was trying to suppress the giggles from their behavior.

“Something around here stinks, and it ain’t just the pile Buck’s horse just dropped,” Kid replied.

“Why, Kid, I think you’re jealous. At least all my ladies now how I feel about them.”

Emma noticed that Kid and Lou both looked at each other and blushed. She couldn’t help but smile at the couple.

“Shut up, Cody,” Kid growled.

“Come on, Kid,” Jimmy teased. “We all know you have a girl on the side. Why don’t you tell us about her?”

“Maybe because there’s nothin’ to tell?” Lou said in her masculine voice, trying not to catch Emma’s gaze.

By now, all the riders were getting in on the teasing.

“How about the person you’re seein’, Lou?” Buck added. “You never talk about her.

“Maybe because gentlemen like Kid and Lou don’t flaunt their romances,” Emma offered.

"Very funny, Buck,” Lou said. “You know I'm not seeing anyone."

Kid pulled up next to the buckboard and leaned in towards Lou. "What's that supposed to mean?" he whispered.

“Yeah, Lou. You see her every day,” Cody said.

Lou bit her lip, really wanting to tell Cody where he could stuff it.

“As for Kid,” Jimmy said. “Maybe he waited too long and the right time passed him by.”

That started everyone arguing with each other, and Emma felt a bad headache coming on. Rubbing her temples, she finally had had enough. “Enough!” she bellowed. “Don’t make me pull this buckboard over and…”

The riders quieted immediately, knowing by now that what ever threat Emma had in mind, she would carry out.

Emma smiled as the rest of the journey into town was peaceful and quiet.

Elk Dreamer's Vision
by: Dee

They had left the village early a few days back and rode toward the rising sun. Running Buck asked several times where they were going and all Red Bear would say was, “Away.”

Running Buck knew he had been singled out for something because of the shouts that had come from Elk Dreamer’s lodge a few days before. His brother, Red Bear, had gone to the wise one’s lodge for council and before long the shouts had begun. He could only make out a few words but one statement had been clear as his brother had left the lodge. “He is too young to live he will forget the Kiowa and our way of life.” That was when Elk Dreamer had looked at him and insisted that it was Running Buck’s path and that his vision had been clear that Running Buck must follow it.

As he had sat outside of his family’s lodge listening to the argument, he had grown scared of what it might mean. He knew Red Bear was to be chief when Last Buffalo joined the ones that had passed to the Great Spirit. It had been decided the summer before when Red Bear had fought a grizzly that had entered the village. Many of the warriors had fled including Last Buffalo’s son, but Red Bear had fought the beast and killed it with only a few scratches to show for it.

His brother was wise and very brave; Running Buck hoped he would be like him when he was grown. He watched his bother as they traveled, and listened to the things Red Bear told him along the trail. He felt it was important to learn as much as possible on this trip. As they drew closer to the white man’s world, there were new things to see and each one was a wonder to the young boy. Running Buck knew how much Red Bear hated the white men since one had killed his father and taken his mother as a man would take his wife. He wanted to ask why they were traveling this far toward the rising sun when all that was in that direction was the white man’s villages.

That day Red Bear stopped on the top of a small hill that over looked a stone lodge down below. “You must go there, my brother.”

“Why?” Running Buck knew better than to question his brother, the man that would be his chief one day, but he didn’t understand why he was being sent away.

“Because Elk Dreamer said you must spend time in your...” Red Bear sat up straighter and cleared his throat, “your father’s world before you become a warrior.”

Running Buck stared at his brother his eyes wide with questions and a plea. He didn’t want to be with Red Bear anymore but wanted t o be back in the village with his mother. He shook his head slightly. “No,” he said quietly. “Don’t make me…”

Red Bear had known this was going to be hard but he hadn’t realized how hard. Even though the man that had taken his mother and killed his father was his young brother’s father he did not blame the boy. “You must,” he said his tone one not to be argued with. Red Bear took a deep breathe; he hadn’t wanted to tell his brother the rest of what Elk Dreamer had said. He thought it was too much to tell a boy only twelve summers old but he knew that the boy would not leave if he didn’t. “Elk Dreamer saw this in a vision. The whites are coming like a cloud of hungry grasshoppers to our land. The Kiowa are going to be all but wiped out no matter how hard we fight. He has seen that although you are half white you will one day lead our people when I am gone,” Red Bear stopped, that was enough for now.

“How long has he known I had to leave?” Running Buck asked. He was not a favorite among the people being half white and many of the boys in the village including Small Pony—Elk Dreamer’s grandson, tormented him. Many turned their backs when it happened and he had long ago stopped running to Red Bear and his mother when he was teased.

Red Bear looked toward the stone lodge as he said, “Since Small Pony and his friends chased you into the nest of stinging flies. When Elk Dreamer was healing you, he saw the warrior you would become one day and that it would be for you to find our people a way to live apart and among the whites.” The young boy stared at his brother; he had not known that Red Bear knew who had caused him to become injured.

Tears stung his eyes as Running Buck nodded and nudged his horse to move forward. He stopped again only a short distance away from his brother. He turned and looked at Red Bear. “How do you know the stone lodge is safe?”

“There are only women there with many children that have no village. I have seen it when we have passed by. They have allowed us to water our horses and have given us food when the journey was many moons. They are kind and though they have no men to protect them they are left alone and honored with gifts from the white man’s village near by.

Running Buck looked back at the stone lodge. “I can return one day?”

“Elk Dreamer has said it will be so and you will become a warrior.” It was becoming harder for the future chief to keep his voice level. He was against his brother leaving.

“Then I will go.” Running Buck then urged his mount forward toward the stone lodge.

As his younger brother rode down the hill on the first pony he had trained by himself, Red Bear yearned to call to him to come back and return with him to the village. But he knew to do so would change the boy’s path which could lead to trouble for the people. “Be safe, my brother,” he said turning his horse toward the now setting sun.

***************

Buck sat straight up in the bed he lay in and looked around unsure for a moment where he was. It had been years since he had thought about the trip to the orphanage he and Red Bear had made. He stood and walked to the door of the cabin leaving his vest and shirt lying on the bed. Looking out into the yard he saw Warrior standing there in front of the cabin with a white feather tied in his mane. He looked back over his shoulder. He knew the new found love he had left laying in bed would most likely still be asleep when he returned.

He walked out of the cabin and swung up onto Warrior’s back. He nudged the horse into motion letting his feelings guide him to his brother. In no time he was at the pond where he had first seen the woman he had just left and spotted Red Bear near the rocks by the edge of the pond.

“You didn’t tell me about everything, did you?” he asked his brother in Kiowa.

“A boy would not have believed me, or would have fought against his path.”

Buck smiled as he slid from Warrior’s back and embraced his brother. “You could have told me last year.”

“You had more important things to concentrate on. You needed to devote yourself to the tests before you,” Red Bear replied with the wisdom Buck had always admired in his brother.

“She is my other half.” It was a statement and Red Bear could now see what Elk Dreamer had seen in his brother long ago.

“Elk Dreamer has said it is so.”

“She’s so different, so…”

“Yes, she is a part of this path you must take, the one where we will all find peace, red and white alike.” Red Bear went toward his horse but paused next to Buck. “You will thank the Great Spirit for this path now?”

It was a question with a deeper meaning. Buck knew Red Bear wanted to know if he had accepted his path in this life as Elk Dreamer had seen it. “I will,” Buck replied as he clasped his brother’s arm in farewell for now.

Learning To Adjust
by: Karen

“Please, I won’t do it again.” The frightened boy glanced at Sister Catherine who was the nun who oversaw the dorm before turning back to face his teacher.

His words tore at the young lady’s heart, but there was nothing she could do to stop what was coming. The boy had been warned numerous times already. Besides, she didn’t trust her voice not to betray her anger if she dared address her superior. So, she waited.

For a tense few seconds, nothing happened. Just when the younger nun was about to speak up, the boy quietly held out his hand. The older nun in charge of the classroom rapped it soundly with her stick. Both of the women noticed how the boy did his best not to let the others see the pain it caused him to be struck.

As he sat, Sister Martha spoke to the entire class. “Continue with your lessons; I did not tell anyone to pack away their supplies. Does someone else need a reminder on how we do our work?”

“No, Sister,” came the response as twenty heads bent back over the task of coping this week’s scripture.

Sister Martha relaxed when the student who had caused the disruption went quietly back to work. She glanced to where her young assistant sat working with the newest student to the classroom, trying to get him to understand the rules.

As each child finished, Sister Martha inspected the assignment. Once it was completed to her satisfaction, the child was allowed to leave for the day. Even the strange bald child working with Sister Catherine finished before Sister Martha’s “problem child.” She shook her head as she sat watching him struggle with this simple task.

The boy worked slowly, but he couldn’t do well enough to please his instructor. After his third attempt, she asked him, “Why is it that the work you do outside of class is always so neat?”

The boy dropped his gaze to the floor, took a breath, but didn’t speak.

The older nun waited patiently, but after a minute or so of silence she once more picked up her stick. She moved to stand beside the boy as he sat silently studying the floor in front of him. “Are you trying to anger me?” she asked.

The boy shook his head.

“Then answer me,” she said sternly. “There must be a reason.”

The boy glanced to where Sister Catherine was clearing away her supplies. “I promised not to tell,” he said softly. “I do not wish anyone to get in trouble because of me.”

Sister Martha tapped her stick in her open hand. “You are beginning to try my patience,” she said. “if you do not answer my question immediately, I am going to take you to Father Thomas and let him deal with you. Is that what you want?”

The boy once more shook his head. “Please,” he said, “don’t make me lie.”

“How is answering my question making you lie?” the nun asked sharply. “I expect you to tell me the truth.”

A shadow fell across them as Sister Catherine moved to join them. “Answering your question would make him break his promise to me,” she explained as she placed her hand on the boy’s shoulder to calm him.

She leaned down and whispered to him. He shook his head and shifted in his seat. He wiped his slate clean and once more began to write. While he worked Sister Catherine, convinced Sister Martha to return to her desk and wait for him to finish.

This time, his teacher was pleased when he showed her the slate. He spoke quietly as he explained the difference. “Sister Catherine lets me use my left hand. I practice first with my right hand, but I copy everything over so you can read it.”

Sister Catherine spoke up before the older nun had a chance to say anything. “He does all his lessons on his own and writes them twice. He is improving, but realizes he needs more practice. He is not evil; he is not going to hurt someone because you let him use his left hand for one simple task in your classroom.”

“One?” quizzed Sister Martha.

“Let him do scripture with his best hand until his other is as good,” suggested Sister Catherine, “just scripture.”

The older nun looked at the boy. “You promised to stop as soon as you are able?”

The boy nodded.

“Scripture only; don’t let me catch you cheating during any other assignments,” Sister Martha said as she put away her stick. She stood. “Now go ahead and join the others for a bit of freedom before evening prayers.”

“Thank you, Sister,” the boy said. He went and put his supplies away before heading outside. At the door he stopped, “I won’t let you down,” he said. “I promise.”

Enough!
by: Leah

“Emma.” Cody whined for what had to be the third time that morning. “Jimmy took the last pancake are you sure there aren’t anymore.”

“No.” said Emma frustration oozing through her voice. “I’m sorry Billy but 48 pancakes between 8 of us should be more than enough.”

“Not to mention the bacon, eggs, biscuits and fruit she made and carried in here.” Teaspoon said shaking his head. “Maybe you should be in charge of meals around here for a bit. Then you’ll have a better appreciation for what Emma goes through.”

“Oh, Teaspoon.” Cody pleaded

“Wait, why do we gotta get punished?” Jimmy added

“I’m not sure I want to eat anything Cody cooks.” Lou said under her breath. “I’ve tried his trail cooking.”

Kid laughed and nodded, as Cody turned and replied, “Hey!”

“I think we’ll keep the chores the way they are for now.” Emma said, “Speaking of chores don’t you all have some that need getting to?”

“Yes Emma.” The group chorused and began clearing their plates before heading out the door.

“What has been with them lately?” Emma said looking at Teaspoon as the riders hustled out of the door.

“I know what you mean, bickering, tussling, arguing. If I didn’t know better I’d swear they were acting just like a pack of siblings.” Teaspoon said as he smiled gently at Emma. “They’ll sort themselves out, boys always do.”

“I guess, but they better do it fast I’m getting tired of the daily squabbles.” Emma said as she picked up the heavy tray “And don’t get me started on Buck and Ike when they get going at each other and there are no words. That’s just downright eerie.” She said as she headed out the door. She was halfway across the yard when she heard the yelling from the barn start again.

“They’re all yours Teaspoon.” She called as she headed inside wondering what on earth Kid and Jimmy would be arguing about.

Emma fumed while she washed dishes and told off the plates and cups for being so disagreeable. It wasn’t as good as giving those boys a stern what for but it seemed to have helped at least enough that by the time she was done with the dishes she was willing to let the boys come into town with her for a few hours.

Heading to the barn to get the wagon hitched she saw Lou and Kid arguing quietly. Emma cleared her throat “Excuse me, if you two can stop for about five seconds.” Emma said as she walked in the door.

The two jumped away from each other guilty looks on both their faces, “Sorry” Kid mumbled.

“What do you need?” Lou added looking at something over Emma’s shoulder.

“Kid could you hook up the wagon please and Lou would you tell the others that I’m going into town for a few hours and if they think they can behave and not argue that you all are welcome to come with me.” Emma said before shaking her head slowly and heading back to the house to get her basket and list, hoping she wouldn’t regret this.

“We’ll talk later.” said Lou to Kid with a look that spoke volumes in her eye, before she headed off to find the others.

Fifteen minutes later everyone met up in the yard and for the first time in days no one was making faces, throwing looks or being just basically disagreeable. “Glad to see you all in such good moods.” Emma said breathing a sigh of relief. “Remember I want you all on town manners today.” She added as Teaspoon helped her onto her seat.

“Yes Emma.” The riders said as they began to follow the wagon down the road towards town.

Jimmy looked over at Cody and said, “Hey you got something on your hat.”

Cody held the reigns in one hand and pulled off his hat and looked down proudly at his hat, “It’s an Eagle feather. I think it looks nice.”

Buck snickered and looked at Ike and nodded.

“What?” Cody asked looking over, “I missed that.”

“Turkey feather.” Buck said laughing.

“Gobble gobble.” Added Lou laughing as Kid reached over and snatched Cody’s hat.

“It fits.” Kid said.

“Emma.” Cody began.

“Enough!” Emma said with out a trace of humor in her voice. “Don’t make me turn this wagon around.”

The Magic Bean
by: Dede

“Don’t make me…please,” Joshua moaned, the last word drawn out. The pleading look in his eyes as he snuffled should have made even the hardest heart soften. Of course that all depended on whose heart it was.

“Joshua Aloysius Hickok,” Mama said, shaking her finger at him. “You will sit there ‘til that plate is clean.” She turned to finish folding the laundry.

Joshua glared down at the offending contents of said plate – green beans and spinach. Stealthily picking up a bean, he held it under the table trying to get Hickok to help him. The dog sniffed at the possible morsel and snorted.

“Traitor,” Joshua mumbled as he peeked under the tablecloth. Hickok just lowered his head to the floor and sighed heavily. “That’s why I don’t want ‘em. And, if ya’ help me, we can get out of here faster.” Joshua stared at his dog, who in turn snorted once more. Hickok wasn’t stupid; he didn’t have to eat the greens and thus wasn’t going to, no matter what it meant. Joshua sighed and dropped the tablecloth back in place.

Just months earlier, Joshua had thought all prayers had been answered when his mother’s garden had been turned into a muddy mess by Hickok. Mama had been sad but that didn’t last long. She’d decided to try and start the garden again, by herself. This was Mama’s fault. But no, Daddy had insisted that everyone pitch in to help turn it back into the proper garden Mama had wanted. This was Daddy’s fault. Then again, to make matters worse, Mr. Tompkins had happily provided all the seeds she’d wanted. No, this was Mr. Tompkins’ fault. Whosever fault it was, Joshua was the victim, he was sure of that much.

The door opened and Joshua looked up hopefully. His face fell when he saw his father but then brightened again when Uncle Buck walked in. Taking a deep breath, he started once more declaring his plight.

“Please don’t make me eat this,” he groaned, wearing his best woeful expression. “It ain’t right…” he grasped for the right words, “I’ll die.”

That didn’t work because the two men laughed and his mother just grimaced. “Joshua, ‘it isn’t right.’”

“See ya’ agree with me,” Joshua pointed out, ignoring that his mother was just correcting his grammar like always. Daddy and Uncle Buck laughed harder, to which Joshua grunted and crossed his arms over his chest.

“The drama he puts into this, I’d swear he truly was related to Cody,” Uncle Buck said, nudging Daddy in the ribs. They always compared him to his Uncle Cody, which Joshua thought was a great compliment. The man was famous and getting more so every day. It was an honor to be compared to Uncle Cody and Joshua never understood why the adults thought it was so funny.

“Now, I’d agree ‘ceptin’ this is about food,” Jimmy said, shaking his head and chuckling. This made it worse because now his mother joined in the laughter.

“Y’all are jus’ mean,” Joshua whined. “Outright servitude, that’s what this is.”

The three adults stopped laughing and stared at him nonplussed.

“Excuse me?” Mama said, glancing at Daddy and Uncle Buck.

“And what, little man, do you know about that?” Buck asked him softly, lifting one brow slightly. Joshua swallowed and lowered his head.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, peeking under his brow. When his uncle smiled again, Joshua raised his head and added, “But it is torture.” Again, the others laughed and he responded with a deep, weary sigh.

The door opened once more and this time Joshua was sure he’d get help. It was his grandpa.

“Well, I wondered where ev’rybody was,” Grandpa Teaspoon said, glancing around curiously. “I’d a’ figured that on a day like t’day, a small boy and his large dog would be outside.” He grinned but Joshua just continued to wear his sullen frown, hoping it would win Grandpa Teaspoon over. “Have I missed somethin’?”

“He won’t eat his vegetables,” Mama said, looking at Grandpa. “Says it’s ‘outright servitude.’ Wonder where that idea came from?” She giggled when Grandpa blushed slightly.

“Um, well, we mighta’ been goin’ over some history lessons,” he murmured, scratching his chin.

“What history you teachin’ him now?” Daddy smirked.

Annoyed that the attention was off his predicament, Joshua cleared his throat and tried again. “It’s…it’s….” Joshua just couldn’t think of any good words so he just looked down at his plate and stuck his tongue out. Not a good idea.

“Young man,” Mama snapped. Sheepishly Joshua bowed his head once more, as Mama declared, “Teaspoon, I don’t know what to do with him.”

Grandpa rocked back on his heels and ran his thumbs under his suspenders. Joshua knew that meant he was thinking and hoped that meant Grandpa was thinking of a way out of this situation for Joshua.

“Ya’ haven’t tol’ him yet have ya’?”

Everyone stared at Grandpa with varying odd expressions, which seemed to happen a lot Joshua noted. Mama simply looked confused but Uncle Buck and Daddy wore looks of what Joshua thought was fear or dread. Grandpa held up his hand.

“I know, we prob’ly shouldn’t say nothin’ since he’s so young but....” He stared at Joshua as if appraising him. “I think he’s ready.”

This time, the dread had passed to Mama. “Um Teaspoon, what….”

But Grandpa just walked to the table, on tiptoes, glancing around as if to make sure no one would overhear him. Joshua was captivated; the excitement inside him had pushed the horror of eating vegetables out of his mind. Eyes wide, he watched his grandpa approach the table. What could it be that Grandpa thought he was ready for?

Grandpa Teaspoon slowly pulled out a chair, sitting across from Joshua. He glanced around once more and finally looked into Joshua’s eyes. “Now, I’m about to tell ya’ a very important secret.”

Joshua let out a soft gasp, and leaned forward to make sure he didn’t miss any of it. He knew that his grandpa was the smartest man in the world and knew a lot about a lot of things. As if sensing that the situation had changed, Hickok suddenly got up, walked from under the table to sit close to Joshua’s chair, the dog’s nose coming even with the table. Joshua placed his hand on Hickok’s head, and scratched the dog’s ears, waiting for Grandpa Teaspoon to continue.

Daddy, Uncle Buck, and Mama exchanged an odd, curious look and hurried over to the table to take seats but Grandpa Teaspoon didn’t even glance their way; his attention was solely on Joshua.

He picked up a green bean and held it between his thumb and forefinger. “Ya’ know what this is?”

Slumping back down in his seat, Joshua rolled his eyes. “Tsk, it’s a stupid ol’ bean.” He moved his arms to cross them but Hickok stuck his nose in the crook of Joshua’s elbow, putting a stop to their movement. Joshua put his hand back on Hickok’s head and continued scratching.

“‘Ol bean?” Grandpa said, shock clear in his voice. “Stupid? I don’t think so. This here’s a special bean.”

Joshua squinted one eye and cocked his head. “Wha’d’ya’ mean?”

“Are you sure Teaspoon?” Uncle Buck asked, his expression was very serious. Joshua glanced from him to his grandpa and back again. Why would Uncle Buck look so concerned?

“Do ya’ really think he’s ready?” Daddy asked softly. He took Mama’s hand in his and Joshua’s eyes widened even more. ‘This must be awful important,’ he thought soberly.

Sitting up as tall as he could to show he was a big boy, he said, “I’m ready, honest.” He stared at the adults who were making the decision. Hope burst inside him as he waited for the okay.

“Lou honey, it’s up to you,” Grandpa said as he looked at Mama. Mama turned her head towards Joshua, smiled, and nodded. Joshua wanted to jump out of his seat, dance around, and go hug Mama but he knew that wasn’t what a big boy would do so he solemnly nodded in return.

“Well, Joshua,” Grandpa said, leaning back in his chair. He still held the same bean in his fingers. “This is magic.”

“What?” Joshua blurted. His mouth dropped open and his eyes bugged out. Magic? “But…but…it’s just a bean.” His voice was barely a whisper. He looked down at his plate and gaped. “And the spinach?” He looked back up for the answer.

Grandpa nodded and reverently placed the bean back on the pile. Joshua sat there taking all of this in. It must be true because Mama, Daddy, and Uncle Buck all were looking at him with such intensity like this was the most important thing. Finally, a slightly skeptical voice in his head made him say. “If’n it’s so magic, what’s it do?”

“That there’s the problem see,” Grandpa said, sighing. After exchanging a few knowing looks with the other adults, he continued, “It ain’t…’scuse me, isn’t ‘xactly known.” Before Joshua could scoff, Grandpa raised his hand. “It can’t do tricks, like make somethin’ disappear, like that man at the fair last year.”

“Or tricks like Mr. Pangalos,” Joshua murmured thinking of the Peddler Man, who could make things appear and disappear, and Grandpa nodded. “So…” he looked down at his plate once more, this time in awe, “how do ya’ know it’s special like that?”

“Oh that’s a secret that’s been passed down for,” Grandpa put his hands in the air, shrugging, “who knows how long.”

“It’s a secret shared among my people,” Uncle Buck said, impressing Joshua even more. He loved hearing things about Indians and their way of life; it was all so mysterious to him.

“Boy,” Joshua breathed. Another sticking point occurred to him. “To get this magic...do I…do I have to eat ‘em?” His upper lip curled into a disgusted expression.

“Yes Son,” Daddy said, “ya’ do.”

Joshua shuddered at the thought but Grandpa, as always, had a solution.

“Here, let’s get ya’ a full glass of milk,” Grandpa said, as he reached for the glass.

Mama quickly jumped up and hurried over to get the pitcher of milk out of the ice box. The big smile on her face told Joshua that she was proud of him for being such a big boy and accepting this important secret so well. She filled the glass almost to the top, but not quite so Joshua wouldn’t spill it. He looked at his plate and then back at Grandpa.

“Now what?”

“Well, take a big forkful, put it in your mouth and then take a big swallow a’ milk,” Grandpa Teaspoon said. “That way you can mix the good milk taste with the bad green taste.” Joshua eyed the man skeptically but did as he said because his grandfather knew everything.

It took Joshua a matter of a few minutes to finish the pile of vegetables on his plate. He got so carried away thinking of all the magic he was eating that he didn’t use the milk as much by the end. At one point, he picked up a bean and held it in front of Hickok once again. The dog didn’t seem to understand the magic behind the food and pulled his nose back. They laughed at the dog’s disdainful expression. Joshua just plopped it back on his plate and continued scooping the food into his mouth. Swallowing the last bite, he looked up triumphantly wearing a milk moustache and a goofy grin. Everyone clapped and cheered.

“Now ya’ know the secret,” Grandpa said, again glancing around. “But it might be a good idea to keep quiet about it…fer now.” Joshua nodded gravely. This was too important to go spreading around. He figured only important, smart people like his grandfather, uncle, and parents, would know about this.

“Do ya’ want your piece of cake now?” Mama asked. That was always the reward for a clean plate. Joshua normally did get his dessert; it just took him a lot longer than his sisters, who had been finished with lunch for over an hour and off visiting friends.

Joshua thought long and hard. What if, by eating something like that right after, the magic was diminished? Maybe that’s why people still weren’t sure what the magic was. “Nah, I’ll wait ‘til later, okay?”

The silence that greeted his words made Joshua uncomfortable and he looked around at his family. “Um, is that –”

“That’s fine,” Daddy said, as Mama stood there still holding the milk pitcher and staring at Joshua. “Why don’t you and Hickok run along and play outside.”

Not needing anymore encouragement, Joshua jumped down with a squeal and ran around the table. A quick hug for his grandfather, Joshua hollered, “Come on boy!” Hickok lurched from his spot and followed on Joshua’s heels out the door. After the loud slam, everything was quiet.

They stared at the door in amazement, all except Teaspoon, who sat chuckling as he reached for the glass of milk. Drinking the rest of the milk, he looked out the corner of his eye at his three children.

“How did you do that?” Lou demanded, plopping back down in her seat. “I have been workin’ on him for…well, why didn’t ya’ use this magic bean story a long time ago?”

“I thought I was going to ruin it when he looked at us with those big eyes,” Buck said, shaking his head.

“I know,” Jimmy laughed. “When he asked about the spinach, I had to bite down on my tongue.”

“I’m jus’ thankful that Buck picked it up and played along, and y’all joined in,” Teaspoon said, laughing. “And I didn’t use it b’fore ‘cause of his age. This is the perfect age to use it. He’s young enough to believe but old enough to understand.”

“Well, I’m jus’ glad it worked,” Jimmy said, draping his arm on the back of Lou’s chair. “It has become a chore to get him to eat and takes him so long to finish anythin’.” He glanced over at Buck. “And yeah, I’m with Teaspoon, glad ya’ played along.”

“Hey, like the man said, you joined right in,” Buck said, chuckling softly. “Do you think he’ll keep this up? Eating I mean.”

“Oh yeah,” Teaspoon said, “It’ll be a few more years b’fore he realizes that the only magic in those greens is that they’re good for ya’. And by then, he’ll prob’ly have a taste for ‘em.”

They chuckled at the thought, wondering if Joshua would pass this little trick on when he had children. After a moment, Teaspoon cleared his throat, breaking the silence.

“Um, about that cake…”

“Yeah,” Buck agreed, grinning, leaning over and grabbing a fork off the table, standing it at its ready.

“I was jus’ thinkin’ the same thing,” Jimmy drawled, rubbing his stomach.

Lou stood up and, with her forefinger pointing at each one, said, “Did y’all eat your vegetables?”

Groans and laughter were her answer as the sounds of a vegetable-eating boy and a vegetable-hating dog drifted in from outside.

Quiet Time
by: Dede

“Don’t make me come up there. You ain’t gon–” he grimaced at his wife’s pointed look, “you aren’t gonna like how I get you quiet.” To Sam’s annoyance his two sons, Sam Jr. and Jacob, and his daughter Sarah snickered and laughed. Worse, so did his wife.

“Oh Sam,” Emma giggled, “you’re about as scary as a baby bunny.”

“Well, it don’t help bein’ corrected while I’m in the midst a’ discipline ya’ know,” he said sullenly.

Patting her husband on the chest, Emma called upstairs, “Now you children hush and get to bed, understand?”

“Yes ma’am,” they replied dutifully and in unison. Rolling his eyes, Sam smirked at how the three suddenly became well-behaved children.

Immediately, he and Emma heard the patter of feet going to separate beds, the rustle of bed clothes, and the creaking as the children got comfortable. Thinking it was over; Sam turned towards the sitting room but was stopped by Emma’s hand on his sleeve. At Sam’s questioning look, Emma held her forefinger up to her lips.

“Good night Jacob,” Sarah whispered, or tried as best as a six-year-old little girl could.

“G’night Sarah,” eight-year-old Jacob replied, in the same childlike whisper as his sister, trying to stifle a giggle.

“Goodnight Samuel,” Sarah continued, a giggle bubbling to the surface.

“How about ‘goodnight everyone,’” Emma said, receiving more snickers and giggles, but thus putting an end to the chatter – for the moment. Only seconds of silence until….

“Goodnight everyone,” Sam Jr. teased. At twelve he was the eldest and worshiped by his two younger siblings. This received gales of laughter, including his parents.

“Goodnight,” Emma sang out, a soft smile on her face. The giggles slowly died down upstairs so Emma took Sam’s hand and led him to the settee, indicating that there would be no more from the children.

Sam followed, stunned once again at how Emma could read their children so well. They didn’t always do this; in fact, they usually went upstairs to bed without much fanfare. Sam Jr. would sometimes read but Jacob and Sarah would go to sleep.

“How did ya’ know?” Sam asked as he sat down. “Actually, how do ya’ always know.” He chuckled softly as Emma sat close beside him and took his hand, running her fingers over his knuckles.

“I guess it’s just a mother’s instinct,” she said, a rosy blush covering her cheeks. Never one to accept praise well, she stared at their entwined fingers.

“Well, what about just now?” he asked. “I mean they usually just go to bed. Jacob will whine for more dessert but….” He leaned his head lightly against hers. Words could not convey how much he loved this woman, or how she surprised him every day.

“Now Sam,” she said softly, a coy smile playing on her lips, “ya’ saw them at dinner. They acted like they were sittin’ on hot coals. They jus’ couldn’t sit still.” She rolled her head against his. “I figured they’d be a bit of a handful tonight, that’s why I let ‘em stay up just a wee bit longer.”

Amused, he pulled his head back and looked at her. “And why ya’ didn’t push ‘em into their chores?” He’d noticed that she’d been much more lenient about the dishes that evening. The late hour hadn’t slipped his notice either but he figured the reason for that was they did the dishes so the children could do their schoolwork, which was more of a joke session for Sam Jr.

A sweet, innocent grin spread across her face. “Sam Cain,” she said, “you wouldn’t say I’m spoilin’ those children would you?”

He laughed and leaned over, brushing his lips over hers. “Right now, I’m not worried about spoilin’ the children, Emma Cain.”

Drunk and Orderly
by: Miss Raye

Teaspoon wound his way through the assembled crowd outside the new saloon and shook his head at the scene before him. “What’s goin’ on, Barnett?”

The young deputy turned to Teaspoon with a shrug and a slightly queasy expression on his face. “I’m havin’ a hard time figurin’ out what to do, Teaspoon.”

The older man raised a questioning brow in answer. “That doesn’t sound like you, Barnett… you’re good at the… at the… matchin’ the crime to the law thing.”

Brightening up, Barnett pointed to the three men grouped together at the center of the circle. “It’s pretty complicated Teaspoon.”

“Well,” the older man clapped a hand on Barnett’s shoulder, “lessee if we can figure it out.” He left his deputy behind and sauntered over to the three men, his gaze running quickly over each looking for clues. “What seems to be the problem, Abner?”

The bartender pointed a pudgy finger at the man sitting in the dirt. “He’s a no good drunk!”

The man in question picked up his hat from the dirt and dusted it off in a haphazard way. “Oh I beg to differ, sir…” his words were slightly slurred, but there was a tinge of humor in his tone, “I’m real good at gettin’ drunk.”

That comment got a little snicker from a few folks in the impromptu audience and the bartender didn’t like it much. “He said it… he’s drunk.” Turning to Barnett he nodded his head in an officious manner. “Isn’t there some law about bein’ out here botherin’ all these good people?”

Barnett smiled. “True, Mr. Summers.” He turned to Teaspoon. “We could charge him with ‘public drunkenness’.”

That got a verbal reaction from the man who was only now trying to lever himself up off the ground. “Right.”

Teaspoon put his hands on his knees and bent over trying to capture the man’s attention. “You got a problem with that statement?”

Getting up slowly on one knee the man winced. “Mister, I got nothin’ but problems, but if you’re tryin’ to charge me with something, I’d take exception to that particular one.”

“Do tell…” Teaspoon straightened up, his arms crossing his chest.

With a mighty effort the man was on his feet, wobbly but on his feet. “I was drunk in a saloon,” he pointed behind his shoulder at the building then at the mountain man of a man that Abner used for security, “he threw me in public.”

Giving Abner’s hired muscle a look, Teaspoon turned back to the bartender. “Abner, the man does have a point.”

“Aw hell, Teaspoon… he was loud and he was obnoxious.”

Now it was Barnett’s turn to state the obvious. “Seems to me most of your customers fit that bill at one time or another, what got your knickers in a twist this time?”

The bartender narrowed his eyes at the deputy. “You keep your mind off’a my… clothes and I won’t tell you how to do your job.”

Barnett held up his hands in surrender.

“Now,” continued Abner,“ you gonna arrest him or not?”

“What for?” Teaspoon’s tone was strained enough that Abner lowered the volume of his voice.

“Well… he, ah…” spotting the splintered wood littering the street the bartender turned a triumphant look on the marshal, “he broke my chair!”

“Over my thigh,” was the droll reply from the drunken man.

Abner, not to be outdone, launched into a tirade that had his voice soaring into the night air fit to startle any creature in a mile radius and Teaspoon had to resist the urge to stuff his fingertips into his ears. Instead of shooting the bartender down in the center of the street and relegating himself to a mountain of paperwork Teaspoon held up his hands and bellowed a, “NOW HOLD ON!”

The drunken man winced at the volume, but blessedly remained silent and Abner had the good sense to purse his lips together instead of flapping them around.

Teaspoon let out a sigh. “Barnett, you and I need a vacation.”

The deputy didn’t bother arguing.

“You,” Teaspoon stopped just short of poking his finger into the bully’s chest, “you’ll have a care when ‘escortin’ folks outta the saloon. I don’t want to have you in the jail for assault.”

“Why not?” The large barrel-chested man finally spoke. “I’ve been in jail ‘fore.”

Teaspoon mumbled under his breath. “Now how did I know that?” He raised his voice to sound official. “Mainly because I think you’d break the little cot we have in there and I ain’t got no budget to fix it.”

The muscle nodded. The idea sounded fine to him.

Abner seemed to be in need of copious amounts of oxygen and continually gasped in large gulps. “What about me, Teaspoon? I got a business to run!”

Nodding, Teaspoon handed out another pearl of wisdom to the pot-bellied man. “Then run it, but when you let your customers get stinkin’ drunk… this is what happens. So, be a little judi-jeda- smarter when it comes to tellin’ ‘em, No More.” Teaspoon turned toward the drunk man, but Abner was going to have the final word.

“How’m I gonna make money like this?” The whine that was Abner’s voice was unmistakable.

Teaspoon turned back around on the bartender. “You’ll figure it out, Abner… or if I catch you doin’ somethin’ like this again… you ain’t gonna ‘have’ a business to run. I’ll close you down.”

Abner’s sour expression said he didn’t quite believe Teaspoon would do it, but he was smart enough to keep that observation to himself.

“And you,” Teaspoon finally made it around to the drunk that had caused the whole ruckus, “I’m gonna suggest that you take up another hobby.”

“Hobby?” There was a devilish glint in the man’s eye. “What’re you talkin’ ‘bout?”

“You seem very talented at drownin’ yourself in whiskey-”

“Scotch,” the man corrected.

Teaspoon waved off the comment. “Doesn’t matter what it is… cut back on the alcohol and try your hand at something a little less…” Teaspoon worried over a few words before selecting, “dangerous.”

“Like what,” challenged the man, “soldierin’?”

That got a wide-eyed, “Hell no,” from Teaspoon. “Somethin’ a little less combustible… like-“ a spark of inspiration lit up his face so bright his hair nearly caught fire, “jokes.”

The drunk man gave Teaspoon a look. “What have ‘you’ been drinkin’? Looks like you got the good stuff hidden away.” He finished his comment with an audacious wink. “Right. Sounds like you’ve been drinkin’ more’n’me. I’m headin’ back to my room now and I plan to sleep til noon.”

“Now THAT is a good idea.” Teaspoon gave the man an approving nod and turned back to Barnett. “What’s say you and I get somethin’ to drink?”

Barnett was aghast. “Teaspoon!”

The older man gave his deputy a sharp look. “I’m talkin’ ‘bout coffee, Barnett… coffee!”

“Oh,” the deputy sighed his relief, “good… I’ve got a pot of my special recipe a brewin’.”

The two walked off in companionable silence.

Author’s Note: The ‘drunk’ in this story is a very thinly veiled homage to Ron White from ‘Blue Collar Comedy Tour’… and thanks to Dede for inspiring and ‘gently encouraging’ the bunny :) - hwacha!

Together
by: Miss Raye

Alternate Scene to ‘the Debt’

Louise looked around the store and frowned at the mass of hay that Jimmy had spread across the floor. Things were worse than he was going to tell her. Things were going to get messy and she didn’t like the thought of him in the middle of it without someone there.

She nodded to herself knowing she was going to have a fight on her hands.

“There’s four of them… and only two of us.”

There it was. The instant of tension across his shoulders before he turned around to face her speaks volumes. “Not two.”

There had to be a way to get him to see reason. “Jimmy-”

“Lou-” he lost track of his thoughts as the pitchfork clatters down against the counter and he moved closer, using the time to gather his thoughts and hope that she’d see the determination in his eyes. She only sees the fear. For her. “You have a wedding to go to… and a whole new life to start.”

There it was. The way his whole body seemed to be pushing her towards the door without touching her. He’d already decided this was it for him. He’d already decided he wasn’t going to get out of this… and he wanted her to leave him.

Too bad for James Butler Hickok that she had other plans. “And how do you think I’ll feel at my weddin’ if somethin’ happened to you?”

A rock and a hard place for Jimmy. She knew what he wanted to say… knew it as sure as she drew breath. The man that wouldn’t dream of ordering her around wanted to with all his heart and would mostly die before the words ever passed his lips. And she loved him all the more for it.

He looked away, staring down at the counter or maybe his hands, but she couldn’t tell. She turned slightly and caught sight of her face in the reflection of glass on the wall. When had that happened, she wondered. When had he taken her heart?

She wanted to say something. She wanted to tell him… something, but she wasn’t sure what it was. “I ain’t arguin’ with you, Jimmy.” She wet her lips and wondered what to say next. There was so little time and too much to put into it. “I’m stayin’.”

He looked up at her with a mixture of relief and exasperation in his eyes. He was just as likely at that moment to throttle her for being stubborn but she didn’t care.

“I wish you wouldn’t.” He said the words and folded his arms across his chest, his lips set in a straight line. “I wish you’d just go like I want you to.”

“Really?” She picked her gun up off the counter and sank it into her holster. “You’d be fine if I walked right on out of here and saddled up?”

There was a beat before he answered. “Yeah… I would. I’d be happy to see you go and ride like the devil himself’s chasin’ you… cause he will be if the Garretts find you before they get here.”

“And so you want me to cut and run… leave you with no one to watch your back?”

His eyes closed for a moment and she wondered what it was that he was thinking on. Nothing she could imagine prepared her for the words that came out of his mouth. “I’d die happy knowin’ you were safe and goin’ to have a happy life.”

The words landed right in her middle like a punch… the air flew from her lungs as if desperate for the freedom of the night. She took one hesitant breath… then another while her thoughts tumbled about in her head. When they were done… she gave a little nod, barely visible but it was enough to get her moving. She was outside before she knew what her feet were doing and she nearly bumped into a man carrying a load of wood toward the middle of town.

She knew by the sounds behind her that Jimmy had made it to the door, but she didn’t stop until she was in the street, her feet sinking slightly into the mud. She turned, her face lifting in the night to see his eyes. There were shining like black coal in the shadows of his face and she wanted to scream at him… tell him what a fool he was being, but she knew he’d take the words like blows and he wouldn’t open up to her… not like this.

“Fine.” Her voice carried up the steps and into his ears. “You stand there and look at me like a statue. I can see what you’re thinkin’. You want me to walk away from you. You want me to make it right for you to die for these people… to die for something you think you’re responsible for.” He didn’t move, but it was the singular stillness of his body that told her she had his attention. “Well, I’ve got one thing to tell you Jimmy Hickok.” She knew by the silence of the street that everyone had stopped what they were doing to watch the unfolding scene, but that didn’t really matter to her. Not now.

“I won’t be happy livin’ in a world without you.” She sucked in a breath and continued on. “I love you and if you think I’d be able to live with knowin’ that I let you die alone in this godforsaken little town without me at your side, you don’t know me at all. I’ll go home if that’s what you want… but I’m goin’ home and packin’ my things…” she blinked back her tears, “I might be breathin’ and walkin’ around… but there won’t be much of a soul left inside me…” she looked down the street toward the cemetery, “cause it’ll be buried in that ground with you.”

The wind whistled past her as it made its way down the street and she shook her head to clear her thoughts. “So you stand there, Jimmy… and watch me ride away knowin’ that you’re letting me ride right out of your life. Or you let me stay and tomorrow, we’ll meet this together the way we’re meant to… and… and…” she looked up at him and felt her heart fall into the mud at her feet. He hadn’t moved an inch. Pain radiated through her body as she felt blindly for Lightning’s reins. “Fine… have it your way, Jimmy…”

She turned, keeping her face turned away from Lightning as the mare tried to comfort her and walked passed a few folks with her chin high even though tears were starting to slide down her cheeks.

“Lou!”

She wanted to stop, but she was afraid it was all in her imagination.

“Lou… wait!”

A sob rippled through her body as her head bent down, praying, but it was the heavy fall of his boots on the stairs that had her turning to see him running, his hat flying back off his head as he sprinted over to her. Then it was a cry of joy that had her arms wrapping tight around his neck as his hands captured her face to turn it into the light of the lanterns.

“Say it again.” His voice was warm and rough, pleading and demanding at the same time. “Say it…”

“Say what again?” She thought she knew… but she needed to be sure.

“Say you love me… make it real… so I know the night ain’t playin’ tricks on me.” He kissed her lips for a moment. “Say you love me so I know that you meant it.”

She wanted to tell him he was being silly, but there was a look in his eyes that told her he was telling her the truth… he couldn’t believe it, not quite yet. Letting go of his neck she brushed her thumbs across his cheeks feeling the warmth of his tears against her skin. Looking up into his eyes she found them shining with hope instead of desperation. If there was ever a time to open the door between them, it was now. “I love you.”

For a moment, it looked like he’d fall to the ground, his knees buckling with the force of her confession, but a moment later he lifted her from the ground, his arms cradling her against his body, his face buried in her hair as he told her, his voice shaking with emotion, “We face this together.”

She pulled back enough that she could see his face. “Yes, together.”

Thanks to Dede, Cindy, and Liz for betaing this one… and a nod to Liz for the title :)

Unexpected Birthday Surprises
by: Shannon

A/N: This is a continuation of my Expected Series from Quick Fic #73

“Mmm,” Lou smiled at her husband. “I think that was the best birthday present you’ve ever given me.”

“I’m glad you liked it,” he kissed her. “But who says that was all of it?”

“Jeremiah and Teresa should be home by now,” she shook her head as she started to get out of bed. “And Noah will be up from his nap any minute.”

Kid shook his head as he pulled his wife back to him. “I told him that taking an extra long afternoon nap would make a great birthday present for his momma.”

Lou giggled at the thought that their seven-month old son would understand such a suggestion, but then her laughter quickly turned to moans as Kid started nibbling on her neck. Despite the pleasure, she continued to protest, “The kids-”

“Are old enough to know and understand what married people do and to know better than to walk in our room when the door is closed.”

“Kid, they are not that old!”

Kid laughed at his wife’s denial of how much her siblings had grown up.

“What’s so funny?”

“You; you don’t want to see how much they’ve grown up.”

“They are just children, and they grew up in a Catholic orphanage; it wasn’t until I ran away that I learned about that sort of thing.”

“You forget Jeremiah realized you were pregnant before we had a chance to tell them we were married. And they both know where babies come from.”

“Fine, that doesn’t mean I want them hearing us,” Lou argued as she got out of bed and threw on her robe before crossing to look out the window. “Besides, they really should be home by now.”

Kid sighed, realizing his wife was trying to hide the fact that she was getting worried. “As hot as it is, they probably decided to go swimming before coming home.”

“On my birthday?” Lou looked hurt.

“Maybe they stopped in town to get you presents?”

“You think?”

Kid sighed again and lowered his head in defeat.

“What is it?”

“I promised not to say anything, but you know how they’ve both been doing extra chores for Rachel and helping Teaspoon clean the jailhouse?”

She nodded. “Jeremiah is saving to get a new fishing pole and Teresa has her heart set on a new dress for Annabelle.”

Kid shook his head as he walked over to her. “They told you that so you’d be surprised, so you’d better be.”

“They shouldn’t have,” Lou said but Kid could see the delight in her eyes that she was trying to hide.

“Lou, you’ve done so much for them, they wanted to do something for you.”

“They do enough around here already.”

“Well,” Kid looked into her eyes with love. “Since they are still going to be a little while, why don’t make we make the most of it?”

“I like the way you think Mr. Kidrick,” she linked her arms around her husband’s neck.

“Then let’s get you back to bed,” he wrapping his arms around her waist, he picked her up and carried her to bed in the same manner he did the first time they made love at the Red Fern station. Once on the bed he began slowly removing his wife’s robe, kissing her passionately on the mouth.

Suddenly, a loud crash came from downstairs. Lou sat up immediately. “What the hell?”

Kid sighed. “Guess the kids are home.”

She re-tied her robe. “If those two are making a mess in my kitchen after I spent all morning cleaning-”

“Lou relax,” Kid said. “They probably just dropped something while looking for the cookies.”

“If they broke that cookie jar I’ll skin them alive!” Lou headed towards the door.

“Where are you going?”

“To make sure they are not making a mess in my kitchen!”

“No, you can’t!” Kid panicked as he got up to stop her. “I’m sure they’ll clean up after themselves.”

“Oh, I’m gonna make sure they do.”

“Lou, wait!” Kid stepped between her and the door. “You cannot go downstairs.”

“Why not?”

“I can’t tell you, but trust me on this,” Kid pleaded.

“They are making a ruckus in my kitchen and you want me to ignore it?”

“Lou, I’m serious, you can’t go downstairs. Don’t make me tie you up!”

Lou looked at her husband in disbelief. “As fun as that sounds, I really don’t think this is the time to be-”

“I’m serious, Lou,” Kid looked her in the eyes.

“Just exactly what is going on?”

“I can’t tell you, but they’ll be devastated if you go down there and spoil it.”

“Spoil what?”

“Part of your birthday surprise.” Kid lowered his head once again in defeat.

“Oh,” Lou said sheepishly as she sat back down on the bed. “Don’t say any more then. I’m such an idiot.”

“No you’re not,” Kid crossed to her. “You are just a mother who works hard keeping a clean house and thought it was getting trashed.”

“Ever thought you’d say that about me?” she chuckled.

“I always knew you’d be a great mother; as far as the other stuff goes, you know that’s not why I married you.”

“No, you were just worried with all our dancing we’d end up with an unexpected surprise like the one sleeping across the hall,” she teased.

“That’s not true!” Kid protested.

“That’s not how it sounded at the swimming hole and-”

“Okay, that’s not why I asked you the LAST time,” he corrected himself. “Especially since we’d only danced that once after getting back together.”

“I guess I just got lucky that you did,” she smiled. “Since it was just that once to get Noah.”

“No, I’m lucky that you finally said yes.” He leaned in and kissed her. “I couldn’t imagine my life without you.”

“Oh,” was all she could say before he returned to kissing her.

Two hours later, Kid and Lou finally made it downstairs with baby Noah attached to her hip. “If your daddy keeps this up we’ll end up with another unexpected surprise.”

“I like the sound of that,” Kid grinned as they walked into the parlor. “ ‘Miah and Tessa, are you home?”

“We’ll be right out,” Jeremiah called from the kitchen.

“You two better not have spoiled your dinner by eating all those cookies,” Lou called out with a grin on her face.

“Happy Birthday!” The children emerged from the kitchen; Jeremiah presented Lou with a bouquet of flowers while Teresa carefully set a beautiful cake on the table.

“Oh my!” Lou cried as she took the flowers and hugged her siblings. “Thank you, this is the best birthday surprise ever.”

A/N: Thanks to Ellie and Wendy for the great and fast betas, and thanks to Cats for being my sounding board once again!

Clear the Way
by: Debbie

Author’s note: This story is a continuation to my story ‘You’re Not Alone’

Jimmy may have been standing listening to what Sam had to tell him but his eyes were focused on the rock behind the marshal where his fellow rider sat. Giving Sam a nod in agreement, Jimmy clenched his jaw as he began the short walk toward the Kid’s hunched figure. He’d let it go until now because there had been an audience but now Kid and Buck were away from the rest of the posse so that gave him the perfect opportunity to vent.

“What were you thinkin’? No, wait, actually, I don’t think you were thinkin’ at all. You could’ve gotten yourself killed!”

Kid had been expecting this. He deserved to be lectured; he’d just thought it would have come sooner. “I know, Jimmy; you’re right. I just got a lot on my mind right now is all.”

Buck had been wanting to say something but at the same time felt he needed to give Kid some space. Now that Jimmy had brought the subject up, though, he felt he could continue with it. “Kid, you can’t be that way. You need a clear head when we’re out there or you aren’t gonna make it.”

Kid nodded several times, hoping to make it look more convincing than he felt. “It won’t happen again.”

Buck looked at Jimmy who shook his head. The man clearly was somewhere other than on the trail of a dangerous gang.

“You know, sometimes it helps to talk about it. This have anything to do with that talk Lou wanted to have with you before we left?” When Kid didn’t answer, and only continued his staring out over the plains around them, Buck quickly added, “You don’t have to tell us if you don’t wanna; I’m not prodding into anything private between you two, just thought maybe we could help some way.” .

Kid might not have been looking at Buck as he spoke but he heard every word the man said and took it to heart that his friends, two people he’d come to consider family, would want to help him. Maybe Buck was right that talking about it would help. Obviously replaying Lou’s words in his mind was making things worse because it was when he was picturing her coming up to him saying she was indeed expecting that he’d almost blown it for the posse and gotten himself killed in the process. Well he couldn’t let that happen again so he definitely needed to do something. He decided he needed to trust them with what was so imminent on his mind. And this would probably be his one and only opportunity as each day out here would get harder than the last and their chances of being alone would be almost none.

While Kid remained quiet, Buck shrugged then moved to Kid and gave him an encouraging pat on the shoulder before walking away. Buck shrugged once more but this time in Jimmy’s direction, telling him that he’d tried and now it was all up to Kid to make the next move. And Kid did do that as Buck didn’t get any further than Jimmy’s side before the Southerner began to speak

“Lou’s late.”

“Late for what and what does it matter to you? She’s there and you’re out here.” While Jimmy stood still, gesturing in one direction then the other with his hands, Buck seemed to be drawn to Kid by the words he’d just said as the Indian was now standing directly in front of the rock Kid was on when he addressed him.

“How late?”

“Late enough to be convinced she needs to go buy bigger clothes.”

“What did she suddenly become a man?” Jimmy joked.

“She been to a doctor yet?” If what Kid had said was true, then she’d probably already been to one but he needed to ask anyway.

“Doctor? Somethin’ wrong with Lou?” Suddenly Jimmy was totally serious and all ears to this confusing conversation. He glanced from Kid to Buck for some kind of explanation.

“Rachel’s takin’ her tomorrow … I mean, they woulda went today.” That revelation began to terrify Kid as he took a deep breath to calm his nerves.

“What’s Lou goin’ to a doctor for? Kid, what’s wrong with her?”

“It looks like Lou’s expectin’.”

“Expectin’? Expectin’ expectin’?!”

“She said all the signs are there.”

“Damn you!” In one long stride, Jimmy was in front of Kid yanking him to his feet by the front of his shirt. “You planted your seed and it took?!”

“I didn’t do it on purpose!”

“That’s easy to say but a man who’s been turned down two, three times, maybe you just came up with a new way to get her to say yes.”

“Jimmy, let him go! It ain’t like he forced her into anythin’ she didn’t wanna do.”

“How do you know? Were you their chaperone for all the nights they snuck outa the bunkhouse?”

Calmly Kid wiggled his way out of Jimmy’s grasp without the need for Buck’s help. “I would never have made Lou do anythin’ she wasn’t ready for.”

“Isn’t that what you’ve already done? Makin’ her become a mama before she’s even had the chance to be a woman?!”

At his words, Kid sighed and sat back down. “She doesn’t blame me but I blame myself. I never wanted her to have to go through this.

Buck moved in front of Jimmy, hoping that would prevent the man from taking hold of their friend again. “What are you gonna do?”

“I told her she wasn’t alone, that I’d always be there for her.”

“After you told her you’d marry her,” Jimmy urged as he side-stepped Buck and waited for Kid to agree.

“I didn’t offer.”

Jimmy looked incredulously from Kid to Buck then back to Kid. “You choose now as the time to not propose?!”

“That wasn’t what she wanted me to do.”

“So you’re gonna make her be the talk of everyone in town without makin’ an honest woman of her.”

“If anyone says anythin’ about her, they’ll have to answer to me. I might be good at doin’ the wrong thing at the wrong time but I do learn from my mistakes and as hard as it might be for you to understand, Jimmy, I do know Lou, probably a little better than anyone else. When a man and woman are together the way we were together, and not the way you get together with women, they talk; they talk about things that no one else has a right to know about. That’s why I know she didn’t need me to propose.”

Jimmy looked away from Kid as the man’s words were beginning to sink into his head. What Kid had just said made Jimmy sound like the man Kid had been while he and Lou were together, suggesting things that are expected of people by society’s standards, and not what they might need.

“Kid, you shouldn’t be here,” Buck told him. “You should have stayed in town and been the one to go with her to the doctor. You don’t even know for sure.”

“I know what Lou told me and that’s enough. I gave my word that I would do this and baby or no baby, it wasn’t right for me to back out. Lou understood that. I just need to see to it that I come back to them like I told her I would.”

“Not if you pull anymore stupid stunts like you did today.” Buck gave him a stern look that said he wasn’t about to let Kid put himself in danger like that again. He loved Lou like a sister and would do anything to help her out and make her happy.

“Don’t make me have to wound you in the butt or some other fleshy part of your body to keep you outa the line of fire so you can get back to make things as easy as possible for that lady we all care about.”

Kid had been staring at Buck, catching the meaning of his stare but upon hearing Jimmy’s words, he changed the direction he was looking at. When he spotted Jimmy with raised eyebrows and a grin slowly playing across his face, Kid grinned back, knowing everything would be alright. He had their support; that meant everything to him.

“Since I know what good a shot you are and I like all the fleshy parts of my body just the way they are, I can tell you that I will do my damnedest to not do anything that will tick you off. Now if you fellas will excuse me, I think I’m gonna turn in.” With a grin that didn’t quite reach his eyes and a nod in thanks, Kid walked toward the campfire where his bedroll was waiting for him to begin a sleepless night.

Jimmy and Buck stood side by side as they watched his retreating figure. “Not only do we gotta watch out for a gang that wants us dead, we gotta keep an eye on a future daddy that could very easily wind up that way if he doesn’t come to his senses and quick.” Buck shook his head as he followed Kid toward the rest of the posse.

Jimmy stood there for a moment, alone in the shadows from the nearby campfire. “Yeah, well I meant what I said about using my gun,” he said, finally answering Buck before he too followed Kid.

Adjusting
by: Cindy

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, “Memories and Nightmares” from Quick Fic #93, “A Touch of Comfort” from #95 and “Don’t Fence Me In” from #97.

“You don’t make me do anything!”

The two antagonists stood on opposite sides of the kitchen table, staring at each other. One was glaring in anger, while the other seemed to be more confused over the turn of events.

But it was a third party who stepped in to handle the situation.

Lou slammed her fist down on the table, startling the others in the room.

“Jeremiah, you apologize right now!”

The boy’s lower lip stuck out in a defiant pout. He crossed his arms and shook his head.

“Jeremiah…”

“He ain’t no one to me, and he can’t tell me what to do.”

Lou took a deep breath, stemming the angry retort that had threatened to slip out. The sisters at the orphanage had warned her that there would be an adjustment period, but still…

She hadn’t been prepared for the level of fighting that was going on.

“Buck is a very good friend,” she started. “Without him…”

“A friend,” Jeremiah scoffed. “Guess you didn’t wait very long after your husband left to move someone else in.”

“Jeremiah, you watch how you talk to your sister.” Buck’s voice was low and calm, but there was a definite threat lurking.

“Or what? You gonna scalp me?”

“Jeremiah!” Lou reached over and took her brother’s shoulder, turning him to face her. Although a few years younger, he was already a little taller than she was. But right now, with anger to fuel her strength, the boy didn’t have a choice but to look her way. “What is wrong with you?”

“Wrong with me?” he demanded. “What’s wrong with you? First you leave us all alone at that place, and it’s five years, we don’t know if you’re even alive. Then you show up, and it turns out you lied to us. You lied about our pa bein’ dead, an’ then you lied about bein’ back soon to get us. It’s been two years.”

The words had come rushing out of Jeremiah’s mouth, but he finally had to take a breath and Lou seized the opportunity to get a word in. “Jeremiah, you know why I had to leave you. It takes money to buy a place, an’ until I got to the Pony Express in Sweetwater, I had to keep movin’ around.”

“But you didn’t even write, Louise.”

Lou turned to look at her sister. Standing well off to one side, Teresa didn’t look angry like her brother. If anything, the younger girl seemed almost frightened. “Oh, I know, Sugar Bear,” Lou said. “And I shoulda done that, I know.”

Jeremiah grunted. “Shoulda done a lot of things.”

“I wrote after I seen you in St Joe,” Lou pointed out, ignoring her brother for the moment. “Near every month.”

“Sure, ‘bout how you were gonna come an’ get us any time now.” Jeremiah kicked at a chair, sending it skidding away from the table. “Two years,” he repeated. “Two more years leavin’ us in that place.”

“I didn’t have the money for a place,” Lou pleaded. And it had taken longer than she had hoped. Longer to get a place, longer to complete the repairs necessary to make the house livable for them. And then it was planting season, another delay, but necessary if they were to have a chance at a decent crop come harvest time.

“Money, right,” Jeremiah scoffed. “But you had the time and money to get with him,, he said, indicating Buck. “And let him do that to you,” he finished, pointing at Lou’s extended abdomen.

Lou gasped in shock, wrapping her arms around her mid-section. Teresa cried out, calling her brother’s name.

Buck had simply had enough. The doctor had advised Lou not to travel, so Buck had made the trip to St. Joseph alone. It was the least he could do for Lou – and how hard could it be?

Two days in the wagon with Jeremiah, who was alternately sullen and challenging, answered that question.

Still, he’d had high hopes that actually getting back to Rock Creek, and reuniting all three siblings, would make things better. But Jeremiah had crushed that notion in less than ten minutes.

He was around the table now in a few long strides. Grabbing the boy’s arm, he pulled, heading for the door.

“Hey! Let go!”

Ignoring the boy’s protests, Buck pulled harder. They went out the back door, across the small rear porch, down the steps, and into the yard. Buck kept the pressure on, heading toward the barn and corral.

They passed the wagon that had just made the trip from St. Joe. The horses still waited patiently to be unhitched – the task Buck had asked Jeremiah to do.

The seemingly simple task that had led to this moment.

Stopping by the fence, Buck turned the boy to face him and then released the arm. “What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded.

Jeremiah rubbed at his arm and stared at Buck defiantly. “What?”

“Look, you were rude to me the whole way here, and I put up with it for Lou’s sake. But I won’t stand by and watch you treat your sister like that!”

“Figures you’d take her side, what with her takin’ up with you…”

Buck slammed his hand against the fence, making the pole shake – and startling Jeremiah into silence. “Your sister is my friend, and I’m doing my best to be her friend.”

Jeremiah sneered. “A friend, sure.”

“At least I’m trying to help her, unlike you.” Buck gave a short, humorless laugh. “All she’s been talking about these last few weeks is getting you and Teresa here, and making this like a real home.”

“Guess she shouldn’t have bothered,” Jeremiah countered.

“Maybe not,” Buck agreed. “But you’re here now, and you’re going to behave like a civilized person.”

“Like you’d know about civilized!”

“You know, you can insult me all you like. You think I’ve never heard about being uncivilized before? But you will treat your sister with respect.”

Jeremiah clenched his fists, taking a half step forward. “Who’s gonna make me? You?”

Buck stared the boy in the eye. “If I have to.” The boy might be growing, but Buck still had a couple of inches on him – and a lot more experience.

“Pretty brave, you with your gun and that knife.”

Without speaking, Buck calmly unbuckled his gun belt, untied the leg strap, and set the whole thing on a barrel by the fence. He added his knife and turned back to Jeremiah, still without a word.

Jeremiah took a step back, his shoulders bumping against the fence. The defiant glare was still in his eyes, but there was also a bit of nervousness there.

“Well, do you want to fight or not?” Buck challenged. Lou probably wouldn’t like the idea of him fighting with her little brother – but it might be the only way to solve this.

“I just want you to leave me alone.”

“Can’t do that. Not until you learn to behave.”

“That’s not your business!”

“Well, yes, it is, as long as you’re here.”

“I didn’t ask to be here.”

“Well, you are here, because your sister wants you here.”

“So what?”

Buck shook his head and sighed. “You really want to go back to St. Joseph and the orphanage?”

That made Jeremiah hesitate for a moment. “I’m almost fifteen,” he finally said. “I can apprentice out.”

“You could apprentice here in Rock Creek,” Buck pointed out. “And there’s plenty of work here on the farm.”

“Ain’t gonna get paid for that.”

“How do you know? You haven’t given the place – or your sister -- a chance.”

“She had a chance, and she left us.”

“She didn’t have a choice.”

“She chose, and she left us! Left us in that place!”

Buck paused a moment, studying the boy. “Jeremiah, did something happen to you at the orphanage?”

Mixed emotions seemed to rear up in Jeremiah’s eyes – rage, fear, shame. “Ain’t none o’ your business.”

“Jeremiah…”

With a low, guttural scream, Jeremiah jumped forward, fists swinging wildly. His first blow caught Buck in the ribs, but it was a glancing blow, not well focused. Buck managed to sidestep the worst of the punch, and a moment later he had Jeremiah’s arms caught in his hands, pinning the boy back against the fence.

“Jeremiah, what happened?”

The boy just shook his head, still struggling.

“Jeremiah, maybe I can help. Louise can help.”

“No one can help!” Jeremiah’s struggles waned, and he started to shiver. “You wouldn’t understand,” he said, his voice cracking.

Buck eased the pressure on the boy’s arms and looked into his eyes. “Maybe I would,” he said softly.”

“You don’t know…”

“Jeremiah, I spent time at an orphanage too,” Buck said quietly. “I left the only home I’d ever known, with the Kiowa, and showed up at the gate one day. Me, a half-breed, alone, speaking only a little English.” He paused, shivering himself at the memories. “Some days I wasn’t sure I was going to even survive; some days I wasn’t sure I wanted to.”

Jeremiah looked up suddenly, as if searching Buck’s eyes for a sign that the story was untrue. Or maybe for confirmation that it was true. But he didn’t speak.

“What happened, Jeremiah?”

There was a long moment of silence, and Buck let it hang between them. Finally, Jeremiah looked down. “The town kids, they found out about my pa. And then…”

Details weren’t really required; Buck could well imagine the rest. Children with too much time on their hands, and no family for guidance, would seize on anything negative, and make the other child pay a price. Visions of days past, with dirt in his food, clothing torn and stolen, being ‘accidentally’ tripped – it all came rushing back.

“I’m sorry, Jeremiah,” Buck said softly. “I really am. But you can’t blame your sister.”

“She left us,” Jeremiah repeated, though the worst of the anger had passed from his voice.

“She made a life for you,” Buck replied. He let go of the boy completely and stepped back. “You’re here, and you’re welcome,” he continued. “I know it’ll take some time to adjust, for all of us. As long as you treat your sister with respect, you can take all the time you need.” He reached over to pick up his gun and knife. “And just know, you’re not alone. I probably understand more than you think. When you’re ready to talk, let me know.

Buck turned away, heading back toward the house. He listened carefully, but didn’t hear any footsteps behind him – and he wasn’t surprised. After the intense anger Jeremiah had been exhibiting, it would naturally take him a while to gain control again.

He could only hope that Jeremiah understood now – understood that he wasn’t alone, and that he had the chance for a fresh start.

If not, it could be a long, and painful, adjustment period for all of them.

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