Chapter One

Lou frowned as she watched the spectacle in front of her in her former home, the bunkhouse. Jimmy was sitting in a chair getting a haircut. A haircut! Lou could not believe it.

Rachel took her fingers through his hair, which was still soaking wet from the dunking she had given him in the horse trough. She studied the ends that were in her hand before picking up the scissors. She sharpened them against the strop while Lou glanced out the window.

Kid should be back soon. This was his final ride. Hers had been weeks ago, before the wedding. There were so few runs now that Jimmy and Buck could handle the rest.

Lou and Kid would be moving into their new home, a few miles away from the way station. It was a small home but with potential to be so much more. Lou smiled to herself, indulging herself in her favorite fantasy. The one where Kid comes home all grimy from a hard day at work on their cattle ranch. . .

"Huh?" Lou said, startled.

"Could you get me. . . " Rachel said. She waved her hand and set the scissors on the table. "Never mind. You probably wouldn't find it anyway. Not with your mind a million miles away." She gave Lou a teasing grin before she left the bunkhouse.

"She wanted you to fetch her comb," Jimmy grumbled.

"Oh." Lou rose from her perch at the table and put her arms around Jimmy's shoulders. "It's not like you are Samson or something. It's just hair," she said impishly, hoping to raise his spirits. He looked so down.

"Jimmy?" Lou frowned. It hadn't been the best joke she had ever told but it certainly didn't warrant the silent treatment. She wondered what was going on with Jimmy. She had thought everything was going well for him. Cody's leaving and Noah's death had been hard on all of them, but Jimmy and Buck most of all. They were still at the bunkhouse, looking at their friend's empty berths every single night. They were the ones sitting at the tables with so many empty chairs.

But Jimmy had Rosemary. And as far as she knew, things were going well. Or were they?

"Wanna talk about it?" Lou asked.

"Nothing to talk about," Jimmy replied laconically.

"Why are you cutting your hair?" Lou asked, her frown deepening. She had been so wrapped up in her newfound happiness that she had ignored the obvious.

Jimmy shrugged.

"Are you and Rosemary leaving Rock Creek?"

"Pony Express ain't gonna be up and running much longer. Everyone's gotta go somewhere," Jimmy said and Lou noted the defensive rise and fall of his voice.

She reached out and tousled Jimmy's hair. "And this won't fit in Rosemary's world?"

Jimmy dropped his head.

Lou moved so she was in front of Jimmy. "You'll fit in just fine."

"Only 'cause I'm William Hickok's son," Jimmy told her wearily. He looked at Lou. "I don't wanna be someone else."

"So don't be," Lou chided him gently. "Rosemary cares for you, not who your father was." When Jimmy didn't respond, Lou added, "Right?"

"I guess," Jimmy said with a shrug. "Rachel said the same thing."

"You have some bright women in your life," Lou smiled. She watched as he stood up and removed the sheet that Rachel had tied around him. "No haircut?"

"No." Jimmy began walking to the door.

"Jimmy, can I ask you something?" Lou's smile had vanished as she recalled something.

He stopped just short of the door. "Shoot."

"You were willing to turn your life upside down for that girl who was part of the Peacemakers -"

"Alice," Jimmy interjected softly.

"Alice," Lou repeated. "Why is this so different?"

"Maybe because I loved Alice," Jimmy told her, opening the door and closing it behind him, never once looking back. Because if he had, he would have seen Lou standing there, her mouth open in shock.

Chapter Two

Rosemary turned away from Jimmy and he heard the sniffles and saw the shoulders shaking. Rosemary was crying. But he did not have it in him to take her in his arms and offer her comfort.

He scuffed his toe in the dirt awkwardly, involuntarily glancing around. No one was in sight. The bunkhouse was empty, as was Rachel's house. Much to his relief, since he did not need an audience for this particular conversation.

He hated seeing a woman cry, even now, when it was expected. He had told her he could not accompany her to Kansas. That was the plan until yesterday. Yesterday, after Jimmy had spoken to Lou, he went searching for Rosemary. He hadn't found her but he did learn a saloon girl had been murdered.

At first Jimmy had taken the easy way out in this conversation. He had told Rosemary that he could not leave with her as planned. He had to stay, Teaspoon needed his deputies. And he only had two - Buck and Jimmy. Buck and Jimmy did most of the jobs the seven used to do, he thought sadly.

He had tried to explain that to Rosemary but she had been angry when she heard the words. She had told him that sometimes life required hard choices and that Jimmy had to be willing to make them.

So he made the hard choice and Rosemary had been surprised by it. But in retrospect she shouldn't have been. He had been hurting and she was there, ready to care for him, ready to give his life purpose and he did not have to go to Kid and Lou's wedding alone, have them look at him with sympathy because, once again, he had been the odd man out.

Sure, Lou didn't pick him. So what? Jimmy sighed to himself. Yes it stung but it did not hurt anymore. He was not so sure if he was in love with Lou or just in love with the idea of being in love.

Lou might say that she would be able to handle life with a gunfighter but she had not pursued it. And he did not pursue her, not anymore. That had to mean something. Was he holding back because she had chosen Kid? Or was there another reason?

Then yesterday, Jimmy had recalled the way he had been willing to turn his life upside down for Alice after being reminded by Lou. Yet Alice had never once mentioned doing the same for him. 'Why was it always him?' he thought sadly.

"I can't believe you let me believe we could be together?" Rosemary said shrilly, turning back to face him.

"I'm not ready to step into Isaiah's shoes," Jimmy told her quietly. Lately that's all he could think, that Rosemary had found a replacement. He did not think she cared for him, not really, not as an individual but as someone who could sit by her side and take charge of the abolitionist movement in that part of Kansas. The son of William Hickok was a good candidate. After all, like father like son, right?

Wrong. Jimmy did not want to lead a movement. He knew eventually there would come to a time where joining the army would be something that his future would hold. But that was not now.

Now his family needed him and the fact that Rosemary could not see how much Teaspoon meant to him showed him how little she actually knew him.

"I never meant to hurt you," Jimmy added. He reached a hand out. He still did not feel like holding her in his arms but neither could he stand there dumbly and watch her cry. But she jerked herself away from his touch.

"I don't need your pity," she cried, hurrying away from the way station. And all Jimmy could do was watch. He was fairly certain she would move into the hotel and then leave town and all he could feel was relief. The charade was over.

Chapter Three

Rachel reached into the laundry basket sitting beside her and shook out a sheet before draping it over the line. She watched it billow in the breeze before reaching for a shirt, the last item in the basket.

It made her a bit sad, seeing how light the laundry load was. Just another reminder of how few of them still lived together.

"Stop that," Rachel chided herself aloud. "You should be happy. You can go have a slice of pie and sit down and eat it without worrying that Cody will appear and eat the whole thing. And then you'd be stuck baking another one for dessert." She tried to smile but failed miserably.

She trudged wearily to the house and once inside she moved to the window and reached for her pie. But it was gone.

"Teaspoon!" she shouted. Maybe that old rascal had absconded with her pie. But there was no response. "Buck, Jimmy," she called out hopefully. Again her words were met with silence.

"Am I losing my mind?" she wondered. She knew she had set the pie on the sill. She looked at the window once more. Then she saw them, footprints.

Rachel hurried outside, once more, and followed the tracks in the dirt. They led straight to the barn. She flung the door open. "I got you now!" she cackled gleefully.

A small blond girl wearing boy's clothing jumped to her feet, the pie falling from her hands onto the ground. The girl looked around and began racing to a window.

"Hold on," Rachel called out. But the girl kept on running. The girl hoisted herself up and was halfway out the window when Rachel caught her by the ankle and dragged her back inside.

"You let me go!" the girl shouted furiously, struggling to get away.

"Listen, I don't tolerate thievery," Rachel told her sternly. She noted the girl's filthy clothing. Her long hair was pulled into two very untidy braids that were in the same state as her clothing.

"If you were hungry, you should have asked," Rachel continued calmly.

The girl eyed her warily. "Like you would have cared."

"I don't let babies walk around starving."

"Baby!" the girl responded indignantly. "I'm nine."

"That pie was for our supper," Rachel said.

The girl dropped her eyes.

Rachel crouched down in front of her, suddenly feeling very useful again. Ever since Jesse had taken off, she had found herself at loose ends. Even teaching couldn't fill the empty evenings. Teaspoon was busy working and Jimmy and Buck were out helping him. They would rush in for dinner and be off again, leaving Rachel feeling very lonely.

"I got plenty," Rachel told her.

The girl raised her head, hope appearing in her blue eyes.

"We'll get you cleaned up -"

"No way, no how! I'm just fine the way I am."

"You'll not be sitting at my table looking like that," Rachel said firmly. She smiled a bit, softening her stern voice. "It won't be torture, I promise. And then maybe you can help me make a new pie. My Express Riders love pie."

The girl regarded her solemnly for a long moment before she nodded shyly.

"Good," Rachel said, taking her hand. As they walked to her home, she asked, "What's your name?"

"Victoria, but no one calls me that . . ." she let her voice trail off. The girl stopped walking and looked down the road and began playing with the end of her long braid. "I should be going."

Rachel longed to ask her more. About her family, how she had been living, but she knew well enough not to push. Not yet anyway. "Wait, you don't have to go yet do you? We can still make a pie." She wiped some dirt off the girl's cheek leaving a white spot in the sea of grime.

"I have been awful lonely lately with the Express just about closed down," Rachel added. The girl regarded her intently and Rachel recalled the way she had bonded with Lou last year. She had to open herself up first for Lou to allow her in. The same thing had to happen here. She was sure of it.

"What do most folks call you?" Rachel asked, relieved to be able to ask one question that should not scare the girl off.

"Tory."

"Well, Tory, let's get to my house and see if there is a girl under all that grime." Rachel smiled and was pleased to see Tory smile back at her.

Tory nodded. "Alright."

Chapter Four

Teaspoon shoved a stack of papers off his desk in the marshal's. Watching them flutter slowly to the ground gave him no sense of release either. It just irritated him further, knowing he would have to pick them all up. So he did the mature thing, he kicked the papers across the floor.

Jimmy and Buck opened the office just in time to have a few papers float their way.

"Am I not paying you boys enough?" Teaspoon growled. "Is Pony Express suddenly experiencing an upturn I'm not aware of?" The Pony Express was dead, he thought bitterly. But that didn't mean these boys could just laze the days away.

"What happened?" Buck asked, not responding to Teaspoon's harsh words, his face creased with concern.

When Teaspoon ignored them and began gathering up the papers, both Jimmy and Buck crouched down beside him, scooping up the remaining flyers. Jimmy put his hand on Teaspoon's arm.

Sighing Teaspoon rose to his feet while his boys did the same. "Been another murder," he told them wearily. It was his fault that this senseless death had occurred. He was the law, he was supposed to protect the town, but here it was another murder, and in the exact same place. Teaspoon could not hide his frustration.

"At the saloon?" Buck asked quietly.

Teaspoon nodded. That was two saloon girls killed in two weeks. "I don't know what else to do," he whispered. Seeing young girls, murdered like that, it just took the wind right out of his sails. He looked at Jimmy and Buck. He was like that once, full of bravado, never knowing what failure was. But Teaspoon knew now and he hated knowing that he had failed again.

"Buck and I can start taking turns patrolling the saloon," Jimmy suggested. "Maybe having us around will spook the killer."

"Excellent suggestion," a voice said from the doorway. "Not that I think it will deter the killer, but it is a prudent course of action."

Buck, Jimmy and Teaspoon all turned around and stared at the figure. He was tall, thin, very blond and very pale. He looked like he came from money, Teaspoon noted, as his clothes were impeccable, his haircut just so and his manner, yeah he was definitely from money. He had a bit of trail dust on him but, other than that, the man was resplendent.

He looked down his regal nose at them. "Lyons, Sanford Lyons," the man said smoothly. He moved toward them and shook each one of their hands.

For such an elegant looking man, he had powerful grip, Teaspoon thought. He made a mental note not to take this man lightly. He may look like a Yankee dandy, but there was something about him that told Teaspoon this man had a will of iron.

"I am a detective with the Pinkerton agency," Lyons continued.

"Are you here about the murders?" Buck asked.

"Why won't it work?" Jimmy growled, still focused on his own line of questioning.

Lyons nodded at Buck. "Yes, I am here about the murders. And," he continued turning to look at Jimmy, "I thought the same thing in Bertie's Bluff. I patrolled, diligently I might add. But the killer struck again." The detective closed his eyes briefly. Once he opened them, he began speaking, "The killer strikes thrice and moves on."

When Lyons heard Jimmy begin to sputter, he added, "Always. I have tracked him through two towns. Unfortunately this case is a low priority and I can't seem to get any help." He smiled sadly. "I seem to be a bit of a Cassandra -"

"Who?" Jimmy interrupted.

"A seer," Teaspoon informed him with a wave of his hand. "A seer who is always right and who no one ever believes," he continued sorrowfully.

"Thus I get little cooperation in my own agency and even less with local law enforcement." Lyons regarded Teaspoon solemnly. "I trust things will be better here?"

"Safe assumption," Teaspoon replied wearily. "We ain't doing much to stop this killer by ourselves. I'd appreciate the help." Teaspoon rubbed his jaw. From Lyons' tales, it appeared that the killer was not local. A bit of a relief. The murders had been quite brutal. The women were cut beyond recognition, even to those who knew them well. They were only identifiable by their clothing, which was in shreds but at least the other saloon girls seemed to know who was wearing what.

"How long did you say you been tracking him?" Buck asked, his eyes filled with suspicion.

Teaspoon smiled. He had trained his boys well. Lyons could be the killer. It would be a clever disguise, pretending to track the murders while committing the crimes. "Do you have any identification?" Teaspoon asked.

Lyons beamed at them. "Why yes I do." He gave Teaspoon a wallet, which the marshal passed around. Teaspoon checked it thoroughly. The man was who he said he was. Once it was returned to Lyons, he placed it back in his jacket pocket.

"Why are you smiling at us like that?" Jimmy grumbled.

"The last town I was in did not ask for any identification," Lyons told them, continuing to smile.

"Well, la-dee-da," Jimmy grumbled under his breath.

"I've told you all I know, which I realize is not much," Lyons told them regretfully. "Hopefully you can all shed some light on this case."

"There is a traveling band of musicians in town," Buck suggested hopefully.

"Seems kinda obvious, don't it?" Jimmy scowled.

"It's a place to start," Teaspoon told them all. "Buck, why don't you go question these musicians, see where they have been, how long the troop has been together, any new members, that sort of thing."

Buck nodded.

"Me and Mr. Lyons will get better acquainted and then I'll introduce you around town, see what that loosens up."

Lyons beamed at him. "Nothing like stirring the pot, eh?"

Teaspoon ignored the man and looked at Jimmy. "You start by spending more time at the saloon."

"Never thought I'd hear you say those words," Jimmy grinned.

"Doing your job," Teaspoon called out to him as both Jimmy and Buck left the office. "Shall we, Mr. Lyons?"

"Indeed."

Chapter Five

"Marshal," Lyons began quietly. He stopped.

"Yeah?" Teaspoon frowned. He did not know the man well, but he did not seem like the type to dance around an issue and it was abundantly clear that he had an issue.

"What makes you so certain that the killer isn't local?"

"What?" Teaspoon exclaimed. "You're the one who said you have been tracking him through two towns. We're number three."

Lyons shook his head ruefully. "But these towns are all in the Nebraska territory," he said. "All within riding distance."

Teaspoon exhaled loudly, his disgust evident. "So we are back at square one." They could not start ruling out anyone.

Lyons gave Teaspoon an apologetic smile. "I still think your idea of checking out the musicians was a splendid idea. As well as introducing me to the townsfolk."

Teaspoon scowled. He did not need to be humored.

"I can look at everyone with a fresh eye," Lyons continued. He stopped walking and Teaspoon had to stop as well.

"Marshal," Lyons began, "I know this is hard on you."

"No harder than it is on you," Teaspoon said wearily. He was just feeling sorry for himself, he decided. He loved this little town and even though he did not know the women who were killed, it still hurt. He was supposed to be the town protector. He just could not escape the notion that he had let everyone down. The whole town was on edge.

"Let's get on with the introductions," Teaspoon sighed.

The two men made their way down the road. He stopped in the general store. Tompkins had claimed to be thrilled to meet the Pinkerton. "Good to see a trained lawman around," the shopkeeper had told them. Instead of feeling irritation, Teaspoon chuckled. At least Tompkins was still Tompkins; something's would never change.

Next was the doctor. Doc Wheeler was cordial as always and offered to help whenever possible. They had met the livery owners, Mr. and Mrs. Langely, the hardware storeowner, Mr. Blankenship, the preacher, Reverend Snyder, and the teacher, Rachel Dunne.

Teaspoon had been pleased to see Lyons quite flustered around Rachel. At least the man was human, he had mused to himself.

Teaspoon and Lyons stepped into the saloon. The man behind the bar, the owner, John Towers frowned.

"Relax, John," Teaspoon said, taking a seat at the bar, as Lyons stood pensively beside him, "we ain't gonna scare off your business. I just wanted to introduce you to Mr. Lyons here. He is a Pinkerton."

"Bringing in the big boys, I see," John said wearily. "Do you have any leads?" he asked, his voice filling with concern. And Teaspoon saw that the man was genuinely worried. He could just be worried about his business. Teaspoon could only hope that he was worried about his girls as well.

"Not really," Lyons told him.

"I also came by to tell you Jimmy is gonna be spending some time in here," Teaspoon said.

"You think him just being here will do anything?" John said with a frown.

"I hope so," Teaspoon replied.

Chapter Six

Tory trudged after her sister. "Hurry up," Kyla chided her. She smoothed her dark hair back into place. "We don't want to screw this up already." She brushed Tory's blond locks back as well.

Tory sighed. What did it matter? It would be screwed sooner or later.

She paused at the schoolhouse steps, biting her lower lip when she saw Kyla smile and greet the teacher. She turned away, not wanting the teacher to see her.

"Tory!" Kyla called out to her. "Come here. Mrs. Dunne wants to meet you."

Reluctantly, Tory turned back around and walked slowly to Mrs. Dunne's side.

Rachel's eyes grew wide but she said nothing. She merely smiled. "Good to meet you, Tory."

"My husband and I are quite busy with the farm," Kyla told the teacher. Spinning her web of lies, Tory thought miserably. Kyla was quite adept at telling the tale. Carrying it out was a whole different matter. And now their cover was already blown. Rachel Dunne knew that Tory was pretty much homeless. But as Tory gave her a sidelong glance, Rachel did not appear to be ready to spill the beans. She could not help but wonder why.

"So you probably won't see much of us," Kyla continued.

"That's fine," Rachel said softly. "Many parents have that same problem." She looked at Tory. "Will Tory be starting today?"

"Yes, now, if you don't mind," Kyla replied, wringing her hands. It was the only thing she could not ever control. When Kyla was uneasy, she wrung her hands, playing with their grandmother's gold band on her left hand.

Tory sighed softly. Kyla had given up her life, her own education, her many beaus. But Tory still did not understand why. They left their hometown almost a year ago. But Kyla had her reasons and Tory knew the number one reason was she. Kyla did everything she could to keep her safe, enrolling her in school so she could have an education, giving her food and a place to sleep whenever she could. And money, Kyla did everything she could to earn money.

Kyla crouched down in front of her when Rachel turned her attention to an unruly group of students a few feet behind them. "You know the drill, right?" she whispered.

Tory nodded.

"Don't come by right after school. Maybe around five and I'll sneak some supper out to you," she added. "The livery been okay?" she asked, her voice filled with worry.

And Kyla worried about her. She could not be there for her all the time, but she worried. "The livery is fine," Tory told her. Kyla did not need to know that she had been sleeping in the teacher's house for the past two days.

"It'll be okay." Kyla tried to smile.

"I know it will," Tory said, trying to smile back.

After giving her a quick hug, Kyla hurried off.

"Your sister?" Rachel asked, coming to stand beside her.

Tory looked up at her, relief flooding her limbs. There was no judgment, no condemnation in her eyes. "Yeah."

"Really? Not your ma, pretending to be your sister?"

"No, she's my sister."

"Are your folks dead?"

Tory nodded, unable to bring herself to lie to Rachel. Rachel had been nothing but kind to her since day one. She would lie but by omission only.

"Your sister works at the saloon?" Rachel asked.

Tory stared at her, her mouth agape.

"I've lived that life," Rachel told her quietly. "You do what you have to do to survive." She paused, watching Kyla continue to hurry away. "Maybe someday you can tell her that I know and that I don't mind you staying with me. It would ease her mind."

"Maybe," Tory replied noncommittally. It just depended on how skittish Kyla was here. They moved around whenever Kyla got scared. Why exactly they moved, Tory did not know. But if Kyla wanted to go, then Tory went with her. Kyla may not explain her reasons but she had them and Tory knew Kyla loved her. That was all that really mattered.

Rachel gave her a quick pat on the head. "Let's go inside, get you a desk." She waved a student toward her. "Tory, this is Michael. He is the preacher's boy. Michael," she said, smiling at the tall young man, "could you introduce Tory to the rest of students at recess. Maybe eat lunch with her?"

"Sure," Michael replied.

"Thank you," Rachel said. "Why don't you go ring the bell. I think its time for school to begin." Once Michael had scampered away, she added, "Michael is fairly new to Rock Creek. He knows what you are going through. That's why I asked him to show you about."

Tory nodded as she and Rachel walked into the schoolhouse. But before they could enter, Tory tugged on Rachel's sleeve. "Mrs. Dunne," she said slowly.

"Hmm?"

"Thank you."

"You are welcome," Rachel told her sincerely.

Chapter Seven

Jimmy leaned back in his chair, ignoring all the other sights and sounds in the saloon. He crossed his arms in front of him and watched her again. Kyla. Seeing her move, laughing as a man approached her, it made him burn inside. She was not the most beautiful woman in the saloon. She was too skinny, too angry, snapping at customers, who Jimmy noted, never seemed to mind. But she had hair that Jimmy longed to touch. Her long dark hair was pulled back into a loose knot at the nape of her slender neck. Jimmy thought about loosening that knot and winding her hair around his hands every time he saw her. He wanted her big blue eyes to look at him. To see the hunger he felt for her reflected back at him. But her eyes never settled on him, never really looked at him or any other man in the saloon. Yet Kyla still made him burn. He thought about her day and night, about touching her, wanting her arms and legs around him, about -

"Watch it," Jimmy yelped in surprise as a man sat down across from him. He was jarred from his nightly obsession, watching Kyla's comings and goings.

"Are you doing your job at all?" Buck exclaimed. "Did you notice anything in the saloon that might have been out of the ordinary?"

Jimmy scowled at him.

"What are you looking at?" Buck asked, his voice still filled with irritation.

"Nothing," Jimmy muttered.

Buck continued to glance around the saloon. "Who is it? Him?" he asked, tipping his head in the direction of a loud young man. "He looks new."

Jimmy's scowl deepened.

"Well obviously not him," Buck said upon spying his friend's fierce look. "What the hell have you been doing in here?" he exclaimed loudly. "Jimmy," he said, lowering his voice, "what's wrong with you?"

Jimmy looked once more at Kyla and realized it was a huge mistake when Buck followed his eyes. Sighing, Jimmy said, "You ever look at a woman and want her so bad you can't even think straight? That seeing her makes you forget what you were doing in the first place?"

"Not someone I don't even know," Buck replied with a frown. "Do you know her?"

Jimmy shook his head. He was considering getting to know her though. "Don't look at me like that."

"Like what?"

"Like I'm crazy." But Jimmy felt crazy. Sure, it had been a while since he had been with a woman. Maybe he was lonely. But this was different, this was crazy. "Am I?"

"What?" Buck was gaping at Jimmy, his eyes filled with confusion and concern.

"Crazy." Jimmy raked his hand through his hair. "I don't know, should I just be with her, get it out of my system?"

"Jimmy," Buck said quietly, "I know losing Rosemary had to hurt. But you are just filling the emptiness with more emptiness. She is a stranger. She might make you forget Rosemary for one night but when you walk out of here, you'll still be alone."

"This ain't about Rosemary," Jimmy sighed. It was about madness, he decided. Looking at someone and letting them so far into your head, you didn't know how to drive them back out. Who did that kind of thing?

"You've done this before," Buck told him, answering his unspoken question. "Sarah Downs, remember her?"

"I remember," Jimmy grumbled. But he knew this was not like Sarah Downs. He had been so young, not literally, but he had been young. He hadn't been around women much before. And seeing Sarah, having her respond to him, it had been a shock to the system. But he hadn't even spoken to Kyla. What was it about her? He wished he knew so he could tell Buck, maybe tell himself too. But the little niggle of yearning he first felt when he saw her was now a full-grown pang.

"She walked into your life and turned it upside down and you weren't in the same place as you are now."

"Where's that, Buck?" Jimmy snapped.

"Lonely, hurting," Buck replied, his voice filled with pain. "I know how you feel. I miss them too."

Jimmy lowered his head. Was that all his obsession with Kyla was? A way to forget all the people he had lost? Right now he wasn't sure about anything.

Buck continued to watch Kyla. "She looks like Lou," he commented.

"What?" Jimmy exploded. Lou had short dark hair and big brown eyes. Kyla had long black hair and blue eyes that never smiled.

"Her features." Buck waved his had in the air. "You know, so delicate, like Lou's are." Buck smiled. "I don't know how anyone ever believed she was a boy."

"She looks nothing like Lou," Jimmy said, between gritted teeth.

"Do you want me to watch the saloon?" Buck asked quietly, giving his friend a sad look.

"No." Buck would not blend in here so easily. Especially if a stranger was responsible for the killing. "I'll be okay," Jimmy replied somberly. But once again his eyes drifted to Kyla. She was going upstairs with some man and Jimmy longed to be that man. Even though what Buck said hit a nerve, it didn't make the longing go away.

Jimmy stepped out of the saloon, yawning. It was early Sunday morning and he had been there late last night before returning to the bunkhouse. Nothing out of the ordinary had occurred last night but he felt the need to come back and check this morning. Teaspoon had given the saloon to him and he took it upon himself to make sure no one died, not on his watch. He didn’t think Teaspoon could handle another death. Losing Ike, then Noah, knowing the Express was ending soon as well, it just made these deaths even more difficult.

And Jimmy had to admit, if only to himself, that he did not think he could either. The murders were so brutal, so disturbing. What kind of person did something like that? And why? It was so senseless.

But the one thing it wasn’t was random. Those murders were well planned and executed. Only saloon girls were killed and there were no witnesses. Not a one, not here in Rock Creek, not in Bertie’s Bluff or Genoa. The killer butchered a girl, three times in each town, save Rock Creek, so far, and there was not a single clue left behind. But Jimmy knew if the pattern held, there would be one more death. It was his job to prevent it.

He closed his eyes, trying to see the saloon and it’s inhabitants from the killer’s eye. There were girls, but Jimmy could not think of anything that made one more of a target than the other ones. And men drifted in and out. Some were regulars. Jimmy had pretty much ruled them out as suspects. It just did not seem logical that the killer would be so familiar with the girls, then rip them to shreds. Whoever killed the girls hated them; they had to, to mutilate them like that. As for the other men, they were usually cowboys, stopping in to get a drink before continuing their drive. Jimmy had made mental notes of all of them. If one of them returned and a murder was committed, well then he would have his man.

He frowned. If it was a man. But he was reasonably certain that the killer was a man. The killer had to be pretty strong. The first saloon girl had been found with a broken neck. Jimmy did not think a woman could break someone’s neck so easily.

He rubbed his eyes. The only good thing about the murders was that it kept him busy. He did not have time to dwell on his own problems, the loneliness both he and Buck were experiencing. It surprised him the way he missed everyone. And Rosemary. He did not love the woman, but he did care for her. He just did not want the same kind of relationship she did. He meant it when he said he wanted to take things slow. And he had thought Rosemary did too. But with each passing day, he got the sense that Rosemary was in a hurry and that urgency was off putting. But he still missed her. He did not form attachments easily, nor did he given them up easily.

Jimmy stopped his reminiscing when he heard something. He looked around the corner. At first he thought it was just a shadow but when he looked again, he saw it. Someone was sitting at the back of the saloon. Now that would be the way he would expect the killer to enter. He put his hand on his gun and ran; hoping the thudding of his boots did not give him away.

The girl he rapidly approached jumped to her feet and gave a small shriek. “What the hell is wrong with you? You scared me to death.”

Jimmy skidded to a stop. It was one of the saloon girls, he realized, his heart sinking in disappointment. Kyla. She was wearing only her shift, Jimmy noted as Kyla sat back down on the back steps, wrapping her arms around her knees. Her large blue eyes, the color of cornflowers, were staring at him, almost bemused now, the surprise that had filled them earlier completely gone.

“Still chasing the killer I see,” she told him dryly. “I feel so much safer when you are around, nothing gets by you.”

“I didn’t recognize you,” Jimmy mumbled, embarrassed. When Kyla laughed at him, his shame grew. Obviously she had seen the way he ogled her. Of course anyone who wasn’t blind would have seen it. But she never once looked back and Jimmy realized it was deliberate. Whether it was a game for her or something else, he did not know. But if it was a game, her plan was working. The more she ignored him, the more he wanted her. And as he raised his eyes, he knew it was not just because she looked a bit like Lou. That may have been the initial attraction but it had snowballed into something else entirely.

“What are you doing here anyway?” Jimmy asked suspiciously. Dammit all, he was a lawman. He needed to start acting like one, not some boy who had never seen a pretty girl before.

Kyla was new. Even if the killer was a man, didn’t mean he worked alone. Why not pair up with a woman, a saloon girl in fact. Now that would make his life much easier, not to mention the killings.

“Nothing.” Now Kyla was the one looking shamefaced.

“Nothing?” Jimmy snapped. “Waiting for your accomplice?”

“Yes, that’s it exactly. I am a murderer. I drift from town to town, working in saloons then killing girls who are just like me.” She rolled her eyes at him. “No wonder you are a deputy and not the sheriff. At this rate, you will be the town dog catcher.”

“Marshal,” Jimmy said unthinkingly.

“Who cares?” Kyla stood up and Jimmy could not help but notice that she was not as skinny as he first thought. She filled that shift out quite nicely.

“Wait,” Jimmy said, grasping her arm. He was a bit surprised when he felt his stomach start to flutter. Something about her, her presence, her touch, it unnerved him. But he could not get Buck’s words out his mind either. So he willed himself to ignore the sensations of longing that filled him once more. Kyla, for whatever reason, had a grip on him. But it was up to him to get a grip on himself. The killings were a serious matter.

“I need to know why you were out here,” he said, forcing his voice to grow more serious. If she was an accomplice, it didn’t mean she could not be of help.

“God, you are nosy.” She jerked at her arm. But Jimmy had a firm hold of it. “I was listening to the choir. They were singing,” she frowned, once she realized Jimmy was not about to release her quickly.

“What?” Jimmy gaped at her.

“The choir,” Kyla repeated slowly, as if Jimmy had a mental defect. “You know, they sing hymns.”

“You go to church?” Jimmy sputtered. Why did everything about this girl intrigue him so? Every word that came out of her mouth made him want her; every touch made him want another. Would he ever be satisfied? It almost terrified him. What would it take to get her out of his system? Because she was there, inside him, and it was pretty obvious to him that she wasn’t going anywhere either.

Kyla jerked her arm free. “I wasn’t born a saloon girl,” she snapped before storming up the stairs.

Jimmy stared at her, his eyes filled with confusion. No one was born a saloon girl but he could not recall any of them in the church, at least when he went as a child or the few times Emma dragged the riders to service. But Kyla seemed like she wanted to go. Why else would she sit out here, all alone and listen to hymns? Because she knew she probably could not step foot inside the church.

“Kyla,” Jimmy shouted behind her but it was too late, the back door had slammed shut. Still feeling perplexed; Jimmy sat in the spot Kyla had just occupied. He did not want to dwell on the mystery that was Kyla. He already had enough mysteries to deal with. But instead of focusing on the killer, Jimmy’s mind went where it always seemed to go lately, back to Kyla. What was she doing out here?

Chapter Nine

“Jimmy,” Teaspoon drawled, “go see what is keeping that girl.” He grinned in Rachel’s direction as he leaned back against his chair, surveying the activities in the kitchen. Rachel was cooking like a mad woman.

“Tory?” Jimmy frowned.

“She is supposed to be getting water,” Teaspoon told him, “and Rachel here is gonna bust a gasket if she don’t appear soon.” He cackled with glee. Sanford Lyons was coming to dinner and he was going to have some fun for a change. Sanford Lyons was almost clumsy whenever he was within three feet of Rachel. As he glanced at Rachel, he was sure she was just as flustered, just better at hiding it.

Slowly Jimmy left Rachel’s house and made his way to the well. He found Tory standing beside it, a full bucket next to her. But Tory was not any in hurry from the looks of it. She had her eyes closed tightly, her hands clasped together as if she was praying, and her lips were moving.

Jimmy stood silently, waiting for her to finish. When Tory’s eyes opened she smiled at him.

“Asking for an apple pie for dessert?” he teased. Tory was a cute little kid, he decided. She gave all of them a sense of purpose. Rachel mothered her, Buck taught her how to ride, Teaspoon told her stories and Jimmy made sure she was tucked in at night. How that became his job, he was not sure. But he had found her on the porch one night and Tory had begged him not to tell Rachel she was out there instead of in her bed. Jimmy had acquiesced and sat with her. They did not talk that night about anything. But the routine had been established. Tory would wait for him on the porch and he would put her to bed. Sometimes she talked about her day at school, but most of the time she didn’t. There was a lot going on inside Tory’s head, but she did not let anyone in it, not really. She sure talked enough, but it was always about what happened to other people, not her.

“It’s already made,” Tory informed him, sticking her tongue at him. “You going back to the saloon after dinner?” she asked softly.

Jimmy frowned as he ruffled her hair. “I’ll still tuck you in first.”

Tory nodded but Jimmy saw that she was not satisfied. “We’ll catch the killer,” he said. “You don’t need to fret about it.”

Jimmy picked up the bucket of water and took Tory’s hand with the other. “Is that why you were praying?” Tory did that every night also. They would talk and then Tory would get on her knees.

“God doesn’t listen to me,” Tory whispered.

“Sure he does,” Jimmy said lightly, trying to cheer her. He stopped walking and crouched down in front of her. “Me I’m not so sure about,” he added, trying to make her smile. “But you, definitely.”

“I was praying for you to catch the killer,” Tory told him quietly. And Jimmy was surprised to see a tear fall from her eye.

“Then we’ll get him for sure.”

Tory nodded.

“Can I ask you something?”

Tory nodded once more.

“Why do you think God doesn’t listen to you?” Jimmy felt a strong kinship for Tory then. There had been many times in his youth he felt the same way. His devout father was not the good man everyone thought he was at home and Jimmy had prayed for his father to change. But it never happened. “Did you ask for something, something important at home and you left because it didn’t happen?”

“No, it happened. We, I,” Tory corrected herself quickly but Jimmy heard the we. He forced himself to stay quiet and continued to listen, “my leaving home was what I wanted.”

“Were your folks bad to you?”

Tory averted her eyes.

“Mine were. My pa used to beat my ma,” Jimmy added.

“No, my folks were good to me.” Tory lifted her head and met Jimmy’s eyes.

“Was someone else bad to you?”

Tory looked away again.

“You can talk to me, you know that right?” Jimmy said softly. He tugged on a braid, trying to get her attention once more.

“I know. I just can’t say right now.”

Jimmy stood upright and began walking to the house once more. “That’s okay. I’ll be here.”

Tory smiled up at him. “I know.”

Chapter Ten

Jimmy walked slowly back to the saloon overwhelmed by the nerves inside him. He was so edgy now. The whole town was nervous about the killings. And knowing that he had nothing new to report to Teaspoon after almost three days at the saloon just irritated him further. There were no new developments. Lyons had no leads, Teaspoon had no suggestions and Buck’s discussions with the traveling musicians had led no where. There was nothing to do but wait for the killer to strike next. Something no one wanted but everyone expected it.

He stumbled over a rut in the road. It did not help that he could not sleep either. He felt like he was losing his mind. All over a woman, he thought in disgust. He was sorely tempted to turn over the saloon to Buck. Let him watch over it, maybe his eyes could see what he could not. Because all Jimmy could see was Kyla.

He rubbed his eyes. He even saw her now, running to the livery. Blinking his eyes a few times, he stared. It was Kyla. Unthinkingly, he chased after her and when he caught her inside the livery and grabbed her so hard, she nearly fell.

As Jimmy caught her in his arms, he pulled her close. And he could not stop himself then. She was too near, too warm. Whatever bit of reason he had held on to during the past week vanished the second his hands touched her skin. He pressed his lips against hers and she pushed him away but Jimmy still had her in his arms and he kissed the curve of her neck, his mouth traveling down to the edge of dress, caressing the creamy skin above the lace. He lifted her up and she wrapped her legs around him.

Now, now, now, was the only thought in Jimmy’s mind. He pushed the skirt of her dress up, pressing his body against hers.

“What?” Jimmy asked, Kyla’s voice breaking through the haze. He leaned his head against hers. God he wanted this woman and from the looks of it, he was sure she wanted him just as badly. Her heart was pounding just as hard as his, her breathing was just as ragged.

But the moment she spoke, Jimmy knew she was not in the same place he was. This was still about business to her. “Ten dollars,” Kyla said coolly.

“Fine, whatever,” Jimmy said through gritted teeth. He did not care anymore. He wanted her, end of story. He lowered his mouth to hers again but like before she pushed his head away.

“What is it this time?” he growled, the frustration building.

“Do whatever you have to do to get ready but I don’t kiss customers,” she told her.

And for some reason, her words, her emotionless voice took all the wind from Jimmy’s sails, literally. He let Kyla go and she fell to the livery floor with a thud.

“What is wrong with you?” she grumbled, rising to her feet, rubbing her bottom.

“Nothing,” Jimmy muttered. Something was the matter but he did not know what exactly. Maybe it was the feeling of being treated like he was nothing. He stared at Kyla. Was he nothing to her? Probably. He frowned, realizing he should be wondering why that thought bothered him. What else did he expect?

“Why are you here anyway?” he snapped, covering his hurt and confusion by lashing out at her.

“I am a free woman, I can go anywhere,” Kyla retorted. But Jimmy saw the nervous hand wringing. Kyla was twisting a gold band on her left hand.

“Are you married?” he frowned.

“Married?” Kyla laughed in his face.

Jimmy pointed to the ring.

“Comes in handy sometimes,” Kyla muttered, averting her eyes.

“Why are you here? Are you meeting someone?” he asked, rather confused by Kyla’s words. Was she planning something? Could she really be involved in the murders? He did not want to suspect Kyla but right now he felt as if he had no choice.

“Yes, my accomplice. We are plotting the next murder,” she told him dryly.

“Don’t joke about that,” Jimmy half shouted. “Do you know how serious this is? Do you want me to haul you in?”

“I know how serious this is,” Kyla yelled back. “It’s me and mine who are at risk. Why don’t you go find the killer instead of following me, staring at me all the time?”

Jimmy flinched. So she had noticed, he thought. But judging from her reaction, he realized that this was not a good thing. Kyla was not flattered by his obvious interest. But that did not lessen his interest, he realized sadly and he could not stop himself from reaching out. He took a lock of her dark hair in his hand. “I don’t want anything to happen to you,” he said softly.

“Yeah, that’s why you stare, why you attacked me in here,” Kyla snapped.

“Jesus!” Jimmy exploded. “Are you always such a bitch?”

Unexpectedly, Kyla burst into tears. “Always,” she cried, running away.

Chapter Eleven

Kyla ran and ran, only stopping when she caught her boot in the hem of her dress and stumbled, falling to her knees just outside the saloon.

“Kyla,” she heard a distant voice call out. She prayed it was not that deputy. He was far too nosy. She had hoped he would satisfy himself in the livery and just leave her alone, but no-o-o, he had to have more. What did he think, she would become his sweetheart? Idiot, she fumed inwardly.

“Kye,” Tory said, racing to her sister’s side. “Are you okay?”

Kyla pulled Tory close. “Where have you been? I have been scared to death.” She had not seen her sister in a day and a half. She had been in the livery today, hoping Tory would be there. And when she wasn’t and that blasted deputy had been there, well it had simply been too much. Kyla hated crying and to break down like that in front of a stranger, she winced inwardly with the memory. Jimmy’s words had struck a nerve. Had she been too awful to Tory? Is that why her sister was gone so often?

Tory furrowed her brow. “Kye,” she began slowly.

“Is someone in the livery bothering you?” Kyla asked, almost frantically. It wasn’t safe, having a child live like that, but she had no other choice.

“No,” Tory said quickly. “It’s just . . . ”

“What?!”

“I’m not staying at the livery,” Tory said finally.

Kyla’s eyes grew wide. “What is going on with you?” Her baby sister looked better than she had in months. She was not as gaunt as she had been, her hair and clothes were clean, and there was something else, she looked happy, Kyla realized, almost sadly.

“It’s okay, I’m staying with the teacher, Mrs. Dunne,” Tory told her happily.

“The teacher,” Kyla whispered, her head dropping. It was over. They would take Tory away now.

“No, Kye, really, it’s okay. She knows about you and -”

Kyla jumped to her feet. “You told her I’m a saloon whore?” she asked, her voice filled with shock as she could not mask the hurt inside her. Tory had broken all their rules. Did she have no confidence in her big sister to take care of her any more?

“It’s not like that,” Tory beseeched her, also rising to her feet and grabbing her sister’s hand. “She doesn’t say bad things about you. She understands. She wants to help us.”

“No,” Kyla snapped, “she thinks I’m wonderful and you are going to be her child.”

“Don’t be like that,” Tory implored her. “I know you are scared. But Mrs. Dunne won’t hurt me. She took care of all the Express Riders back when the Express was going strong. She misses everyone and likes helping me.” She paused, giving her sister a pointed look. “She would help you too.”

Kyla took Tory by the shoulders and gave her a hard shake. “You listen to me and you listen good. You tell her it was a mistake and you move out. We are leaving Rock Creek.”

“Kye,” Tory protested.

“How could you tell her about us?” Kyla cried. “Do you want her to take you away from me? You know what that means, don’t you? They will send you home.”

“I miss ma,” Tory whispered.

“Did you forget the rest? Why we left in the first place?” Kyla continued angrily. “If they take you away, send you home, you are going alone,” she added, her voice growing less angry but she retained the harsh edge to her words. “I won’t be there.” She would not return to their home. Ever.

“No, Kye,” Tory whimpered. “I don’t wanna go alone.”

“Then you do what I say! You get ready to go tomorrow.”

Glumly Tory nodded.

Kyla pulled her close. “I don’t mean to sound so cruel but I can’t watch you get hurt and if they take you away, that is what will happen.”

“I know,” Tory whispered.

“So tomorrow after school, you meet me in the alley and we’ll leave.” Kyla gave her sister a small smile. “I made decent money here. We should be okay.”

Tory nodded. “We’ll be fine.”

Chapter Twelve

Jimmy frowned, watching as Kyla cradled Tory. How did they know each other he wondered as he stepped round the corner, not wanting Kyla to see him.

“Hey, Spud,” he said, almost absently when Tory passed him. He stopped when he realized Tory was crying.

“Hey, Jimmy,” Tory responded quietly.

Jimmy knelt before the girl. He had left the livery, trying to catch up with Kyla. He would not let her get the last word in again. He had questions, lots of them and he needed answers. Instead he stumbled upon a scene which made no sense and left him with even more questions.

“Why are you crying?” Jimmy asked, his voice filled with concern.

“Nothing,” Tory muttered, staring at the ground.

“Do you know Kyla?”

Tory’s head snapped upward in surprise.

So she did know Kyla, Jimmy realized, feeling rather shocked. Kyla was not just comforting a girl who happened to be crying. What was going on here?

“You stay away from her!” Kyla yelled, pushing Jimmy so he fell back. “Go, Tory, go.”

“But Kye, this is Jimmy. He is one of the Express riders. He lives with Mrs. Dunne,” Tory said, her voice pleading. “He won’t hurt us.” Tory tugged on Jimmy’s shirtsleeve. “She is my sister.”

“Shut up!” Kyla shouted desperately. “Why are you doing this? You said you didn’t want to go home but you are telling everyone everything.”

“He won’t hurt us,” Tory repeated, her chin lifted upward as she glared at Kyla. “You are wrong. We have help here. They’ll believe us.”

“You don’t know him at all. You think he would believe us when our own folks didn’t?” Kyla shot back angrily. “I’m leaving tomorrow. You stay if you want, but I am going.”

Tory dropped her head once more. “I’ll go,” she whispered. “But sometimes I hate you!” she shouted as she turned and fled in the direction of Rachel’s home.

Jimmy jumped to his feet and caught Kyla by the arm. “What the hell is going on with you?”

“None of your business.” Kyla tried in vain to jerk herself free.

“What are you so scared of?” Jimmy half-shouted, still reeling from the shock of hearing that Kyla and Tory were sisters. All he knew about Tory was that she was a ragamuffin Rachel had adopted but it appeared that Tory was not all alone. She had a sister who was a saloon whore.

“You, people like you!” Kyla yelled, pounding her fists on Jimmy’s chest but he held fast to her.

“I ain’t gonna hurt you,” Jimmy bellowed.

“No, that’s why you stare at me all the time. You are so pathetic; you’d even use a little girl to try to get what you want. You don’t give a damn, you just want me for one thing and -”

“Who the hell are you to say that to me? If you don’t want men to want you, then find a new profession.” Jimmy pushed her away as she freed a hand and slapped him, hard. He rubbed his cheek. “If you weren’t so pigheaded maybe you could look around and see that your little sister is suffering and she found someone willing to help her. Help you too. You don’t know Rachel. She would understand you -”

“You pompous arrogant fool! Don’t you dare to presume anything about my life!”

“Why not? You presume all kinds of things about me!”

“Shut up!” Kyla turned to run away and Jimmy scowled in disgust.

“Yeah, that’s right run away. That’s the only thing you’re good at,” he shouted after her.

Kyla stopped halfway up the steps that ran up the back of the saloon. “You don’t know one thing about me,” she announced coldly.

“I ain’t blind. I have eyes and what I see ain’t very nice. You won’t even look at Tory, not really. You refuse to see that she is doing good living with Rachel. You won’t see that you just broke her heart. She is running away and you don’t even care,” Jimmy told her angrily.

“She isn’t running away. She is doing what I told her to do. She knows I love her.”

“You love yourself more,” Jimmy declared. He spun on his heel, determined to go find Tory. Someone had to care about the kid. It was abundantly clear that Kyla did not or could not.

He had a sneaking suspicion that Tory would run and not to Rachel. He just did not think he could let that happen. She was too young to be on her own like that. He had left home at an early age and he was sure he had survived only because he was a boy. A little girl would not.

Plus he had grown very fond of Tory in the short time he had known her. That little girl had filled their now quiet waystation with happy chatter. Jimmy smiled to himself as he hurried out of the alley. She was a bit like Jesse, but without the attitude. He was not able to help Noah or Jesse, but he could help Tory. He glanced over his shoulder. And he wanted to help Kyla. His blood still pounded when he thought about her, his heart raced whenever he saw her but he did not want to help her because of that. She was just as needy as Tory was but she would not accept any help. He sighed softly to himself, now that was a feeling he understood all to well.

Chapter Thirteen

“Tory!” Jimmy yelled. Dammit, there was no sign of her anywhere. He had searched the school, the waystation, the general store even, but no Tory. He glanced at the sky that was darkening quickly. Soon it would be pitch black out here and there would be no way his search could continue.

He waved Buck over. The Kiowa was riding into the waystation corral. He was obviously finishing a run and it pained Jimmy to see no mochilla in his friend’s hand, ready to hand it off to the next rider. There just was not enough mail being sent through the Express for that. Runs were few and far between.

“Have you seen Tory anywhere?” Jimmy asked quickly.

“No,” Buck replied, frowning. “Something wrong? You look spooked.”

“There’s a lot wrong,” Jimmy told him tersely. “I just ain’t got time to explain it. Let’s just say I think Tory has run off. You think you could look around for her. I’m going back to the saloon.”

“The saloon?” Buck shot him a bewildered look. “Why?”

Jimmy did not want to blurt out that Tory and Kyla were sisters. It sounded crazy to even think it. But he knew it was true. He could tell from their behavior. Plus they had the same eyes, the same pretty blue eyes that turned up at the corners. “I think I can get some clues there,” he replied. “I’ll fill you in later,” he added when Buck did not move a muscle. He was standing his ground waiting for answers.

“Jimmy,” Buck said, his voice filled with concern.

“This ain’t about Kyla,” Jimmy assured him. “Really. Just look for Tory.”

Buck nodded, still frowning, but satisfied for the moment. He tied his horse to the fence post and began heading toward the schoolhouse.

Jimmy began jogging back to the saloon. Kyla was going to give him answers. She had to have some idea as to where Tory would go when she was upset. He knew Tory was not being blindly obedient to her sister. All her things, the few she had, were still in her room at Rachel’s house.

He burst into the saloon, but could see no sign of Kyla. He marched over to the bar. “Where’s Kyla?” he barked at John Towers, the saloon owner’s, direction.

“With a customer,” John told him warily. “You want her for your own, we can work something out,” he added tentatively.

“I just wanna talk to her,” Jimmy said, his teeth gritted. The whole world knew about his obsession, he thought irritably. “Now.”

“Hey,” John raised both hands, submissively, “you are welcome to find her. I don’t know who she is with. Sure ain’t the mayor or anyone like that.”

Jimmy narrowed his eyes at the man. “Fine, I will.” With that he ran up the stairs. He strode down the hall, opening doors, mumbling apologies when greeted by howls of protest.

He opened another door and drew a sharp breath. He could make out Kyla. She was lying on the bed, unmoving; her arms and legs hanging limply off the edge. But there was a dark figure poised above her and he could make out a knife slicing through the air in Kyla’s direction as a bit of light shining from the ancient lamp on the table reflected off the blade. Jimmy pulled out his gun and shot before he could utter a single word.

He cursed when he realized his shot went wide. That blasted lamp did nothing. It was just too dark in here for him to really see much of anything except a dark outline and he was in too much of a hurry to get a good enough look to take real aim. But the shot was enough that the figure stopped his movement and rushed toward Jimmy, knocking the gun in his hand to the floor. He heard the colt skitter away.

Jimmy realized that the killer was a man, as the strength of the killer sent him sprawling onto the bed. He managed to shove the man off him and reached for his other gun. But he could not remove it from its holster as the knife plunged into his forearm.

Grunting in pain, Jimmy rolled over and shoved the man back. But if he moved any further that would leave Kyla, who was out cold, vulnerable. So he flung his body over hers, all the while frantically trying to pull the gun out of his holster. Once again he felt the knife rip through him, in his shoulder, then his back. He felt it over and over until he could no longer keep his eyes open.



Chapter Fourteen

Buck hurried out of the schoolhouse. Rachel had told him that she had not seen Tory since school let out, several hours ago. She was instantly concerned and headed straight home, hoping Tory would appear. She also planned on searching around the house and other areas she knew Tory liked to play.

Buck frowned, it had seemed like there was more than Jimmy's infatuation with Kyla going on here. He had not really thought Tory missing, only that Jimmy was looking for excuses to see Kyla or something like that. But he knew now, Tory was really gone. Buck felt a shiver run down his spine. And there was a killer on the loose. Children were not the usual victims but was anybody really safe in this situation?

He took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. He needed to do something and he needed to do it now. He went back to the schoolhouse and began tracing tracks. But there were so many of them, he could not make sense of the jumble leading every which way.

Think, Buck, think, he thought desperately. He did not want to wander from building to building. It was not working. He had to try to see the world from Tory's view. That would help him find her, he was sure of it.

He closed his eyes, remembering his own childhood. He knew what it was like to be a troubled child; to feel like the whole weight of the world was on your shoulders. Where would he go? Someplace quiet, somewhere he could gather his thoughts, somewhere nearby, he decided. Tory did not have a horse and as far as he knew, none of the animals at the Express station were missing.

He began walking quickly to the outskirts of town. He glanced around, trying to look at the plains stretching out in front of him from a child's eyes. He smiled then and began hurrying in the direction of the stream.

When he reached the top of the hill and looked down, he saw a familiar towhead. He cupped his hands in front of his face and called, "Tory." The girl glanced up at him then turned back. Buck hurried down the ravine and saw Tory sitting on the banks of the creek, her bare feet dangling in the water. He took a seat beside her.

"You have a lot of scared people wondering where you have gotten to," he told her quietly.

Tory let the water run through her fingers, making no attempt to respond to Buck.

"Jimmy thought you were running away," Buck added.

"I thought about it," Tory told him finally.

"But you changed your mind?"

Tory nodded.

"Mind if I ask why?"

"I went to my room to get my stuff," Tory said. "But then I saw a dress in the closet. Mrs. Dunne got it for me," she whispered, "and when I opened my drawers, everything was so clean, all nicely folded." She stopped, rubbing her eyes.

"She likes having you around," Buck said with a faint smile. "We all do." He paused. "You are welcome to stay."

"I know."

"So why would you consider leaving?"

Tory shrugged.

"Jimmy would tear up the countryside looking for you if you did leave," Buck grinned.

Tory looked at him and laughed happily. "He would not."

"Sure he would."

"Would you?"

Buck threw a bit of water at her. "Nope."

"No?" Tory exclaimed.

"Yeah, I'd look," Buck laughed. "Teaspoon too."

Tory looked quite pleased then.

"Didn't anyone look for you when you left home?" Buck asked. Why was Tory so anxious to know that they would look? Of course they would look. Which made him wonder, who didn't look?

"No," Tory whispered.

"That's right, your folks died." Buck kicked himself mentally for being so stupid.

Tory shook her head.

"They aren't dead?" Buck's eyebrows shot up in surprise.

"They don't want me anymore." She began to cry.

Buck cradled her in his arms. "I'm so sorry."

"If it wasn't for Kyla." She began crying even harder then. "She wouldn't let them talk bad about me. She left with me and she didn't even have to."

"Kyla?" Buck exclaimed. Tory knew Kyla?

"She is my sister. Jimmy thinks she is mean to me. But she loves me." She lifted her tear stained face to look at Buck. "She went to my folks, told them to listen to me. But they called her worse names than they called me," she whispered.

"I wanna go back to Mrs. Dunne's," Tory said suddenly, jumping to her feet. She tugged on Buck's hand. "I want Jimmy to know how much Kyla has done for me."

Buck stood up as well. "Sure, Tory. We can do that." He had no idea what to make of this information. Is this what Jimmy had just discovered and could not talk about? Was he making sure Kyla knew Tory had others here to help her or was he just too angry at Kyla, because of the so called meanness. Or was it all tangled up with the way he felt about her.

Buck walked Tory back to Rachel's house and when Rachel came rushing out, he squeezed her hand. "You stay put and I'll go get Jimmy," he told her.

"Kyla too. She doesn't have to stay at the saloon. Does she?" Tory asked hesitantly.

"I'll ask her to come with me too," Buck assured her.

"Buck?" Rachel asked breathless, her eyes full of questions, when she reached their side.

"I'll explain later," Buck said quickly. "I'm gonna go get Jimmy first."

Rachel frowned but she did not press him. She simply hugged Tory hard. "You had me scared to death."

"I know."

"Good thing I like you," Rachel added, her voice teasing.

Buck heard Tory giggle as he began hurrying away. Tory was in good hands. He just had to get Jimmy now, tell his friend what was going on. As he entered the saloon, he heard screaming.

Chapter Fifteen

Buck tore up the stairs; a small group of men hot on his heels. The first thought in his head was they missed another killing. Here they thought they had blanketed the town, making sure law enforcement was visible at all times, with Lyons, Teaspoon, Jimmy and himself, trying to be everywhere. Yet they had failed.

He felt a twinge of guilt, knowing that this was the third murder and that meant the killer would move on from their town. Rock Creek would be safe now while some other town suffered.

When Buck entered the room where the screaming was coming from, he blinked his eyes, as it was too dark to make out much of anything. He saw a large dark form on the bed and another saloon girl who was crying, her shaking hand pointing to the bed.

John Towers ran into the room and when he entered, Buck drew a sharp breath. John was carrying a lantern and the light illuminated the room. Buck saw clearly now, there were two forms on the bed, both of them completely still. He felt his stomach turn when he saw the blood. So much blood, the bedcovers were covered in red and the floor had puddles of blood everywhere. He jumped back when he realized he was standing in one such pool. He steadied himself against the wall but quickly dropped his hand when he realized he was once again touching blood. There was blood spattered all over the walls, decorating the room like some macabre wallpaper.

"Buck," John said hesitantly and the man's voice snapped Buck out of the horror-induced trance. He raced to the bed, thinking that the killer had killed a customer and a saloon girl this time. But when he turned one of the bodies over and saw the man's face, he froze.

"Jimmy!" Buck shouted. Oh God, he could not be dead. "Get the doctor!" he yelled at one of the men standing uselessly behind him.

Buck grabbed Jimmy's wrist. There was no pulse. He was too late, he thought, his heart filled with anguish. He had lost another friend. "Jimmy," he whispered. It was then he saw Jimmy's chest rise ever so slightly as he took a labored gasp.

Buck let out a pent up breath and began grabbing sheets, trying to stem the bleeding. But there was so much blood. He did not even know where to start.

As he stepped toward the bed, John touched the girl lying on the bed. "Kyla," he said softly. But he got no response.

"Is she dead?" Buck asked tensely, still wrapping sheets around Jimmy's body.

John took her hand. He shook his head. "No. I just don't understand how. I mean look at all this blood."

Buck did not answer. He could not explain it either.

"All right, all right," Doc Wheeler said loudly as he came into the room. He took one look around and said, "Let's get these people out of here."

*~*~*

"What happened?" Teaspoon bellowed, rushing into the doctor's office. Sanford Lyons trailed slowly after him.

Buck shook his head. "I don't know. I just found Jimmy in that room and it looks like both he and Kyla were the victims."

"Victims?" Teaspoon exclaimed loudly. He sank down heavily into a chair. "They are dead?" he whispered.

"Not when they came in here," Buck answered, his voice equally grim.

"Why don't you go in, see how they are?" Lyons told Teaspoon gently.

Teaspoon nodded. He got to his feet slowly and ambled into the back room.

"You think that's a good idea?" Buck asked, still haunted by the scene he had just stumbled upon.

"If they were alive when you found them, then I think it's reasonable to assume they are alive now," Lyons replied. "He loves you all like his own children," he continued, his voice growing more pained. "It's best for a father to sit by his children's side, even when he can't actually do anything." He shrugged. "And it might just do Jimmy the most good."

Buck nodded. "That it might." He looked at the back room. "Rachel know what happened?"

"Yes," Lyons said. "Someone came to the door. But Rachel hasn't told Tory yet."

Buck frowned. He did not want to think about Tory finding out what had just happened. Kyla was her sister and Jimmy had become quite important to her as well. So for a while, he and Lyons sat in silence. Until Buck finally said, "You are a Pinkerton."

"Yes."

"The Pinkerton's are private detectives, right?"

Lyons nodded.

"Did someone hire you to find the killer?"

Lyons sighed while Buck looked at him expectantly.

"My sister was the second victim," Lyons said finally.

"So this is personal," Buck said softly.

"Very." Lyons studied the tips of his Oxfords. "My sister was a troubled girl," he continued quietly. "She was quite a bit younger than me. I never really knew her." He stopped, his voice strangled by emotion.

"But you loved her all the same," Buck finished for him.

"I feel like I owe her this much," Lyons said when he was able to speak once more.

"I hope for all our sakes we solve this soon," Buck said wearily.

"I know Tory was missing earlier," Lyons said. "Has she been found? Rachel was quite worried."

"I found her."

Lyons nodded. "Good." He looked around the room for a moment then asked, "How?"

Buck frowned, feeling rather confused. "I looked for her." Wasn't that obvious?

"I mean how did you know where to look?"

"I put myself in her place," Buck explained, still feeling befuddled.

"And that was easy for you?"

Buck shrugged. "It wasn't hard."

"So put yourself in the mind of the killer." Lyons looked apologetically at Buck. "I'm a good detective, superior to most in fact," he said but Buck noted that the tone was not boastful. Lyons was simply stating a fact.

"But I can't do that," Lyons added.

"Do what?"

"Imagine myself in someone else's shoes. You can."

"Are you trying to distract me from what is going on in there?" Buck waved his hand to the room Jimmy was in.

"In a way." Lyons smiled. "And trying to get your perspective on the situation."

Buck shook his head. "I don't think so."

Lyons frowned. "But you did it for Tory and judging how quickly you found her, it was not a difficult task."

"It's not the difficulty," Buck said hesitantly.

"Then?" Lyons looked at him expectantly.

Buck shook his head. He did not want to get into this.

"Please," Lyons beseeched him.

Buck sighed softly. He saw the pain in the man's eyes. He deserved something, he decided, something more than a half-hearted brush-off. "My father raped my mother. That's how I was conceived," he told the detective, his voice filled with anguish. He did not want to get into the mind of a killer, because he was afraid. Afraid that it might be too easy to imagine that perspective and most of all, that it might be too difficult to get back out.

"There's true darkness in this world," Lyons said sympathetically. "I'm sorry." He touched Buck awkwardly on the shoulder.

"Not your fault."

"But you have seen evil, looked in the face and moved beyond it. I think that would give you the best perspective of anyone. You have met the darkness and were not consumed by it."

"You are talking about my mother," Buck told him, frowning. The man was relentless. "She faced darkness, she moved on."

"You too," Lyons persisted, giving Buck a gentle smile. "I know this is difficult, but - "

"Fine," Buck grumbled. Lyons had lost family, he reminded himself. And Buck had come very close to losing another member of his. Shouldn't he use every means at his disposal to help solve these crimes, no matter how uncomfortable it made him?

"I'll try." Buck closed his eyes, doing what Lyons asked. He forced himself to imagine the scene. He stopped, opening his eyes. He could not do this. But then he looked at Lyons. He was looking at Buck so hopefully.

So Buck closed his eyes once more. He wanted to help Lyons. He wanted to help catch the killer. He made himself let go of all his fears. This was not about him or his father. This was about a madman killing innocent women.

Concentrating on that thought, he saw himself entering Kyla's room. He did not know why he chose her but that was something he probably could not answer, not yet at least. He imagined himself placing a rag soaked in ether over Kyla's mouth, rendering her unconscious. He raised the knife and then Jimmy entered. There was a struggle.

Buck's eyes popped open. "Jimmy saved Kyla, he threw himself over her body so she would be safe." That had to be what had happened. Jimmy would not let someone die; not if he could help it and it would explain why Jimmy was hurt so badly. Kyla was not able to run from the room while he fought with the man.

Lyons smiled. "Very good. From the reports I have read, I was thinking along the same lines. It was Mr. Hickok's injuries that made me doubt myself. A man like him should have been able to thwart the killer. Especially with his gunfighting skills."

"I don't know how clearly Jimmy was thinking, seeing Kyla like that," Buck admitted softly.

"He has a relationship with her?" Lyons arched a brow upward in surprise.

"It's hard to explain," Buck sighed.

Lyons shrugged then moved on with his reasoning. "I think the doctor will back up that line of reasoning when he comes out." He cleared his throat. "Do you think the killer is still in Rock Creek?" he asked somberly.

Buck nodded. "He doesn't know what Kyla or Jimmy saw. He can't leave witnesses."

"No," Lyons said, his voice pained, "he can't."

Chapter Sixteen

Kyla stirred, a vicious pain ripping through her shoulder.

"Shh, " a soothing voice said.

Kyla struggled to open her eyes and once she finally did, she saw an older, white-haired gentleman smiling benevolently at her.

"You are a lucky girl," the man told her.

Kyla frowned. She could not remember much of anything. She had a customer and now she was here.

"You have a large cut running down your back" the older man continued. He touched her shoulder gingerly and Kyla winced.

"Sorry," the man said, immediately contrite.

"It doesn't hurt very much," Kyla managed, the scratchiness in her throat making it difficult to speak.

The man smiled. "I have you on lots of medication." The joviality soon died. "You will have to stay here for at least a day or two so I can make sure there isn't anything else injured that I can't see." He shook his head. "I wanted to spend more time with you but Jimmy - "

"Jimmy?" Kyla shook her head. "I don't understand. What happened? Where am I?"

"I'm sorry, I'm Doctor Wheeler," the man told Kyla gently. "I'm not sure what happened at the saloon but you and Mr. Hickok were injured."

Kyla frowned. The doctor was wrong, that idiot deputy had not even been in the saloon.

"Kye!" a voice shouted and Kyla winced when Tory launched herself at her. "I was so scared."

Kyla smoothed her sister's hair back from her face, wrapping her arms around her. "I'm okay."

Tory nodded and Kyla saw the red eyes, the tear stained face. "I'm scared for Jimmy too."

Kyla wanted to cry too then but out of frustration. She wished desperately that she knew what was going on.

"Tory," an Indian said, hurrying into the room. He skidded to a stop and stared at Kyla. "You're awake."

"Obviously," Kyla scowled.

"This is Buck," Tory announced.

Wonderful, Kyla rolled her eyes, another one of Tory's newfound friends.

"Do you feel like you can answer a few questions?" Buck asked her. He looked at the doctor who nodded his approval.

"I need to check on Jimmy anyway," the doctor said, leaving the room.

"Do you remember what happened?" Buck asked Kyla.

"I had a customer," Kyla said, feeling more and more bewildered and more than a little frightened. This Buck person was looking at her so seriously.

"Do you remember anything about him?" Buck persisted.

"No," Kyla half-shouted, her fear and confusion overwhelming her. "Tell me what happened. Why am I here?"

Buck sighed softly. "You were almost the latest victim," he said quietly. "Jimmy was coming to talk to you about Tory. We couldn't find her, Jimmy thought you might know where she was and instead he stumbled into the killer." He paused, studying Kyla. "I'm pretty sure he saved your life."

"What?" Kyla exclaimed.

"From what we have pieced together, Jimmy threw himself over you and the killer stabbed him." Buck pointed to her shoulder. "That's why you were hit only once."

"How many times was he hit?" Kyla whispered. She was now consumed by yet another emotion, guilt. That loathsome, annoying deputy had risked his life for her? Why?

"Too many to count," Buck answered. "All we know is that he is lucky to be alive. Doc told us you might have trouble remembering, shock and all. But if anything changes, you let us know, okay?"

Kyla nodded.

Tory squeezed her sister's hand. "And Mrs. Dunne wants you to live with us until you are healed."

"Us?" Kyla snapped. She and Tory used be an "us," she thought sadly.

"With Mrs. Dunne," Tory amended, a look of guilt passing over her.

Kyla closed her eyes. "I can't."

"You can't go back to the saloon either," Buck informed her and when she opened her eyes, she saw Buck looking at her, almost bemused by her obvious discomfort. "Not in your state and the killer will probably be after you. Lyons thinks he wants to finish off what he started."

"How nice," Kyla scowled. She almost wished the killer had succeeded. Then she would not have to deal with this. She glanced out the door that had been opened a crack. Mrs. Dunne was hovering just outside of it, looking at Tory anxiously. Kyla watched her sister. And Tory would be taken care of if she was gone, she realized and the thought simultaneously pleased and pained her.

"It is nice," Buck told her, almost angrily, "and you should appreciate what Jimmy did too." He stalked toward the door. "I'll wait for you outside," he told Tory, almost slamming the door behind him as he left.

"You made him mad," Tory said unnecessarily. She smiled and kissed her cheek. "But he'll get over it. You'll see, they are good people."

Chapter Seventeen

Kyla sighed, hating the quiet of the doctor's office. She wished she could leave. But the doctor had ordered her to stay put. She rolled over and checked the box under the bed she was lying on. Becca, one of the girls at the saloon had brought it to her. It was all the money she had in the world and Becca knew that if it was left unguarded the saloon it would disappear without a trace. She had been lucky to find a friend in Becca. Friends were few and far between. Kyla closed her eyes, trying to blot out the last person who called himself her friend.

Unable to shake off that memory, she rose from the bed and went to sit on the window ledge. She pressed her fingers to the windowpane, shivering slightly as another memory invaded her thoughts. He was out there. That's what that Buck person had said. He was out there and would probably be after her. Kyla peered into the darkness, as if she half expected the killer to appear. Like she could do anything about it, she thought bitterly. She could not do anything to stop anyone anymore. She hated the feeling of being out of control. She should be used to it. She had been like this for years. But she still hated it.

Kyla let her head drop, encircling her knees with her arms. God, she was so confused. Her life was going pretty much going as expected until she hit Rock Creek. Sliding from bad to worse, then it changed. Tory found other people, people who were good to her or at least Kyla prayed that they really were good to her.

She glanced at Jimmy who was lying across the room from her, covered in a thin white sheet, out cold. Jimmy was one of those people Tory had found. And Kyla was shocked. The man who stared at her every night was Tory's friend? She had seen him watching her in the saloon so many times before and had expected him to approach her. It was a normal thing in her line of work. But he never did, not in the saloon at least.

The way he had grabbed her in the barn, well that made sense. That's the way men were. She stared out the window once more; at least that's the way the men she knew were. Selfish and all about their own needs. But then he had stopped, became angry when she treated him like any other customer. What did he expect from her?

And then he went and did this. Saving her, putting his own life in jeopardy, this Kyla could not fathom. It was not selfish; it was kindness in the highest degree. She could not believe that another person had put himself on the line for her. No one helped her. Not even her own parents had but this stranger did. He had been out for hours and Kyla could not help but be worried. He was annoying but he did not deserve to die. Not because of her.

Why did he save her? It made no sense. He lusted after her; he did not care for her. But what he did, that was not just lust. Even Kyla knew that much.

Who was this man? Kyla knew he was a gunfighter. After she learned Tory was staying with his people; she had asked around and discovered that this fool was Wild Bill Hickok. Wild Bill Hickok! Kyla could not believe it. But she had been told by several saloon girls that that was the case, this deputy was really Wild Bill Hickok. Wild Bill Hickok would not be shy about approaching a saloon girl. He would not be shy about approaching her. He was a legend. She was a nobody. It made no sense.

He had to want something. But what? At first she had been afraid it was Tory. But her little sister was almost as jaded as her. Tory would not trust him if she thought he would hurt her. And there was no mistaking it, Tory trusted him.

She turned when she heard Jimmy stir.

~*~*

Jimmy opened his eyes. That was the only part of his body he felt like he could move without any pain. He groaned softly, his whole body was in agony. He longed to turn over, find a more comfortable position but did not think he could muster the strength. Nor did he believe there was a more comfortable position. Everything hurt.

The last thing he could remember was the knife, plunging into his body and now he was here. He looked around a bit; he was in the doctor's office. He smiled slightly. Well, at least he was alive. A flicker of fear ran through him, was Kyla alive?

Then he saw her, her knees drawn to her chest as she sat by the window, her fingertips touching the glass.

Jimmy struggled to sit up yet failed. But he got her attention anyway. When Kyla heard the rustling of the bedcover, she turned her head.

Kyla jumped to her feet and stared at him. "Should I get the doctor?" she asked finally.

Jimmy managed to shake his head slightly. "Water," he croaked.

Kyla moved quickly to the nightstand and poured him a glass from the pitcher. She lifted the cup to his lips and Jimmy took a deep drink and immediately began coughing.

Kyla's expression became pained. "I'm getting him. He said to wake him if you needed anything."

Jimmy waggled his fingers at her. He could not lift an arm to complete the motion. "It's fine. Let him sleep." He looked at the window. "What time is it?"

Kyla shrugged. "Late."

"How long have I been out?"

"As far as I know all day."

"How are you?" Jimmy asked quietly.

"Fine." Kyla paused. "Thanks to you," she added softly, almost reflectively. Jimmy gave her a wan smile. It was the first civil thing she had said to him.

"So what do you want?" she continued, her voice turning cold.

"Want?" Jimmy asked wearily. Figures, he thought darkly, the momentary truce was shattered.

"You saved me, what do you want?"

"I did my job," Jimmy told her angrily.

Kyla nodded. "So in return I do my job."

Jimmy stared at her; he could not believe what he was hearing.

"Or will this be enough?" she asked, reaching under the bed. She pulled out a small wooden box and opened it. She raised a small bag in the air and Jimmy heard the coins inside jingle.

"Keep your damned money," Jimmy growled.

"So what, I will be your . . ." Kyla stopped, shaking her head. Jimmy saw her wipe her eyes.

"What is wrong with you?" Jimmy said as loud as he could. "I save your life and now you treat me like I'm worse than the man who wanted to kill you."

"Why didn't you just let me die?" Kyla cried.

Once again, Jimmy found himself staring at her. He did not know how to respond to that question.

Kyla stalked to the window. "He's out there," she said bitterly, staring off into the darkness.

"I know."

"And your friend said he will be back."

"I know you're scared," Jimmy told her, suddenly realizing the reason for her outburst. "But we can help you."

"You?" Kyla laughed mockingly. "You can't even get yourself a glass of water." She dropped her head. "I'm sorry. But if you had let me die, the killer would have moved on." She raised her eyes. "Your town would be safe."

"Do you want to die?" Jimmy asked, feeling rather bewildered.

"Some days," Kyla admitted. "Don't you?"

Jimmy frowned.

"I've done some checking. You're a gunfighter. But you've let so many people who called you out just walk away. You know they will come back."

"I don't want to die," Jimmy told her.

"I don't understand you," she said softly.

"What do you mean?"

"Why didn't you just come to me in the saloon?"

Jimmy sighed. "I don't know." He could not say it, not yet anyway. How stupid would it sound, saying he did not want to pay for her? He still wanted her but he wanted her to want him back.

"Then why did you save me from that man?"

"You think me saving you is part of my death wish?"

Kyla shrugged. "Maybe."

"Some days I don't see the point in living," he said with a rueful smile, "but I don't want to die. I just don't want to be a killer myself," he said softly. "Why do you want to die?"

Kyla turned away from him. "Because it's easier," she whispered.

"Than living?" Jimmy exclaimed. He awaited a response but there was none. "Tory needs you," he said, trying to remind her of what she did have in this world. That was one of the things that kept him going.

"She has you people."

"She depends on you most of all." When Kyla looked at him again, he added, "She sings your praises night and day."

Kyla smiled. "So you saved me for Tory?" And Jimmy heard the question in her voice. She was not angry, just confused.

"Not just for Tory," he replied honestly, holding her gaze with his own until she looked away again. "I won't let him hurt you," he promised.

"But first you have to move away from the window," Jimmy continued, grinning at her.

Kyla laughed softly. She walked slowly to her own bed that was a few feet away from Jimmy's. She lay quietly for a moment, just looking at him. Jimmy could not turn his head to actually see this, but he felt it.

"Thank you," she said after a long moment.

"You are welcome."

Chapter Eighteen

"You want us to pretend what?" Jimmy exclaimed. He winced as his back jerked and every muscle tensed in pain. Wearily he let his head fall back, once again flinching but laying down was definitely better than sitting up.

"Pretend that you and Kyla are dead," Lyons repeated patiently. He looked at the group of people, all sitting on chairs or lying on berths in the waystation bunkhouse. Jimmy and Kyla had been moved there early this morning.

"Why?" Buck asked, arching a brow upward.

"So the killer will move on?" Rachel asked hopefully.

Lyons shook his head. "The killer knows the truth. He might suspect Jimmy is dead but he should know Kyla isn't."

"She is gonna be bait?" Jimmy exclaimed, glancing quickly at Kyla who was frowning, Tory in her arms. Tory was watching everyone anxiously.

"In a way," Lyons admitted reluctantly.

Jimmy began shaking his head.

"Then what?" Kyla asked.

"Excuse me?" Lyons said.

"The killer comes after me and then what?"

"We catch him."

"But how will he know where I am?"

"He won't. But he will be looking and I am hoping that during his search we will pick something up and stop him before he ever discovers where you are," Lyons explained.

"Mighty risky," Teaspoon drawled.

"But sound, don't you think?" Lyons asked.

"Sounder than doing nothing," Teaspoon replied quietly.

"Are you all crazy?" Jimmy half shouted. "Kyla could have been killed."

"But I wasn't," Kyla said, meeting his eyes for a moment then looking away.

"Don't you dare do this out of guilt!" Jimmy declared loudly. He did not really know Kyla but he knew enough. She felt an obligation to him and wanted to be free of it. "Kyla," he added, almost desperately.

"She'll be safe," Lyons assured him. "She will be here and so will you."

"Like I can stop anyone," Jimmy grumbled.

"You can still shoot with your left hand," Buck reminded him.

Jimmy sighed. Yeah, his left hand was fairly mobile.

"And I will be here at night," Buck continued. "Teaspoon, Kid and Lyons will stop by all the time as well."

"You are going along with this crazy scheme?"

Buck nodded. "I don't see any other way," he said sadly. "The killer will most likely be after Kyla. He doesn't know what she saw."

"I didn't see anything. I don't know that person and I didn't get a good look at him either," Kyla interrupted.

"But the killer can't be sure of that," Lyons told her.

"Kid will take your place as deputy," Teaspoon said, glancing at the Kid and Lou who were huddled close together by the door.

"And I'll come by during the day to be your nurse," Lou added, trying to smile.

"And that won't kill me?" Jimmy grinned back.

"I can help him," Kyla said to no one in particular. When she saw Jimmy staring at her, she added, "I'll be here anyway." She gave Lou a quick look before turning back to Jimmy briefly.

Rachel nodded. "Good. Because I will be at the schoolhouse along with this young lady," she said, tousling Tory's hair.

"So it's a plan," Lyons said, looking at everyone for approval.

"It's something," Jimmy muttered.

Chapter Nineteen

"Sanford," Rachel called out as the group, en masse, stepped out of the bunkhouse. She began moving toward her home, "will you be joining us for lunch?"

Lyons' cheeks reddened. "Thank you. I appreciate the kindness."

Teaspoon snorted at Lyons as he and Kid both trailed after Rachel. Lou pulled the bunkhouse door shut behind her. She smiled at Tory. "Wanna go help Rachel?" she asked.

Tory glanced at the bunkhouse and sighed softly.

"I think your sister and Jimmy need to rest," Lou continued. "We'll get lunch ready and maybe you can eat with them. Okay?"

"Okay," Tory agreed, albeit reluctantly.

Teaspoon watched as the group walked toward the house. When Buck moved to join them, he put a hand on his shoulder. "Hold up, I wanna talk to you."

Buck stopped. "Something wrong?"

"What was going on in there?"

"I don't understand."

"Don't play coy with me," Teaspoon groused. "I ain't got the time or the temperament to deal with it these days. Jimmy and Kyla. For a second I swear I was looking at Kid and Lou."

"She does look a little bit like Lou," Buck said.

"Not that much," Teaspoon scowled. "And you know darn well I didn't mean that. I meant that conversation. We were all talking about a plan and Jimmy and Kyla are acting like this is an evening on their folks' porch." Teaspoon had expected more questions about the plan, who the killer was, that sort of thing. Instead he felt like he was intruding on a private moment. It was as plain as the nose of his face. Jimmy did not want Kyla being used as bait. The question that immediately jumped to mind was why. Why was Jimmy so adamant? Why was he so obviously afraid for Kyla? Teaspoon sighed to himself. Maybe he should go back a few steps. Why did Jimmy risk his life for hers?

"Buck," Teaspoon said sternly, "what do you know that I don't?"

Buck shrugged.

"I ain't joking, son," Teaspoon said, his voice taking on an urgent quality. "Jimmy almost died and Kyla is still in danger. How can I help him, help anyone, if I am blind?"

Buck stared at the bunkhouse, obviously torn between his loyalty to his friend and loyalty to the man he considered a father. Teaspoon waited patiently, knowing Buck could not be rushed. But his stance made it clear. Teaspoon was not moving until Buck told him everything he knew.

"Jimmy is infatuated with Kyla," Buck told him finally, his cheeks flushing like a schoolboy as he said the words.

"Infatuated?" Teaspoon frowned. "Have they been seeing each other? I mean Kyla works at the saloon . . . " He let his words trail off, catching Buck's embarrassment.

"I don't know what has gone on," Buck said, "but I think it's all in Jimmy's head. Or was."

"Was?" Teaspoon exclaimed.

"You were in there, it was strange."

"That it was." Teaspoon made up his mind to talk to both Kyla and Jimmy, separately. He smiled at Buck. "Why don't we get some lunch?"

Buck looked at him quizzically.

"I'll talk to both of them later," Teaspoon assured him.

Chapter Twenty

Kyla straightened the pillow behind Jimmy's head. "Better?"

Jimmy nodded. "Thanks." He leaned back, suddenly weary. Talking to everyone, listening to Lyons' scheme, it was all too much. He did not like it. Kyla was being pigheaded, risking her neck like that and the rest of them . . . Jimmy rolled his eyes. They thought Kyla would meekly go along with their plans, not realizing she was doing this out of guilt. She was also probably not going to cooperate the way they thought she would. Jimmy still feared that Kyla had a death wish.

If anyone had bothered to ask him, he would have gladly told them what to do. That they should just move her out of town, act as if she really was dead. But as he watched her sway across the room, picking up another blanket and draping it across his legs, he did not want that either. He did not want to wake up and not see Kyla and as far as he was concerned, having Kyla in the bunkhouse was his reward for the ordeal he had gone through. Still going through, he thought with a grimace as a sudden pain shot up his back.

"You're friends are nice," she told him. She saw the anguish in his face and began patting the covers around him, generally fussing about, treating him like a little old woman, Jimmy decided miserably. It was bad enough he was confined to bed, but now this? But it pained Jimmy more to know he was helpless.

"Yeah," Jimmy agreed cautiously, "they are." He could not help but wonder why Kyla was making idle chatter. She was being too nice and it rather unnerved him. She was like a cat waiting to pounce.

"They rode with you, for the Express?"

"Yeah," Jimmy said once more, looking at her curiously. What was she getting at?

"The girl, Lou, her too?"

"Yeah."

"How?" Kyla frowned. "The Express let her?"

"The Express didn't know," Jimmy explained. "She dressed up like a boy."

"But you knew?" Kyla asked calmly. As Jimmy studied her face, he wondered what she was getting at. If this were any normal person, he would pass it off as small talk. But this was Kyla. Nice and normal were not adjectives he would use in the same sentence as Kyla.

But he chose to answer her question anyway. Maybe she believed he was not as bad as she initially thought he was. After all, he had saved her life. "We all found out, eventually," Jimmy said, a small smile of remembrance playing about his lips.

"But then she stopped." Kyla walked to the window and looked out before turning back to him. "Why?"

"Stopped?"

"Dressing like a boy."

"Her and Kid are married. I reckon it wouldn't look right, two men, walking down the aisle together." Jimmy looked at her expectantly, hoping she would smile.

Instead Kyla pounced. "Does that bother you?" Kyla asked quickly, narrowing her eyes at him.

"Bother me?" Jimmy exclaimed.

"Her, Lou, being married to another man."

Jimmy could not hide his astonishment. Kyla could see that? He no longer had those kinds of feelings for Lou. Well, not really. She was like a sister and he no longer had to remind himself of this fact on a daily basis. Most of the time, she really was just a sister.

"Is she why you want to drag me into bed one minute then save my life while risking yours the next?" Kyla asked coolly, as if she was asking him to pass a plate at the dinner table.

But Jimmy was not able to respond in kind. Kyla, as always, caused him to lose his composure. "I - I," he stammered. Yes, there was a resemblance but he had not focused on it for a while now. Kyla was Kyla to him, not a Lou substitute. When he looked at Kyla, he did not see Lou. Lou's beauty was almost a shock to him; he did not expect it in her. And it was not her outward beauty that ever attracted him to Lou. It was the grit, the resolve, she had inside her that made him love her. But she did not see those qualities in him. Or maybe she did but did not want to make the break from Kid. If Lou had chosen Jimmy over Kid, their lives would never be the same. Their Express family would be shattered. And maybe that was why he never really pursued her in the first place, Jimmy thought sadly.

But when Jimmy looked at Kyla, even now, with her cheeks stained with anger, the fury in her eyes, she still took his breath away, made his stomach do little flip flops. He did not see any resemblance to Lou, except maybe the pointy chin and upturned eyes. Kyla's cheekbones were higher than Lou's, her hair darker and so much longer, and her eyes were not the soulful brown ones that Lou possessed but were blue and very, very guarded. The truth of the matter was, he saw more of Tory in Kyla than Lou, a scared girl. But unlike Tory, Kyla did not admit her fears; she kept them all inside and lashed out at everyone. The way he used to, Jimmy realized.

Kyla approached him, smoothed his hair back from his face, and pressed her body against his. "Thinking of her now?" she purred.

Jimmy reached out with his good hand and grabbed her arm. "Stop it."

"Lie with me, get her out of your system. You see her in me, right? Live out fantasies of her through me," Kyla whispered, running a finger lightly down his cheek, down his chest and Jimmy was powerless to stop her. Physically that was.

"You want me to pay for your services?" Jimmy asked angrily as Kyla's eyes blazed at him. "I would never have had to buy Lou," he continued, his voice dropping as his temper grew.

Kyla laughed at him. "You forget, it's my job. Nothing personal," she added scornfully.

"Does it bother you," Jimmy asked snidely, "that I could buy you but didn't?"

Kyla looked down her nose at him. "What? Tarnish that image, the perfect woman, so untouchable, just beyond your reach? You would rather just spend your time pining for her."

"No, I'd rather be with a real woman," Jimmy spat out, his rage growing. She was amazing. He saves her life and she pays him back by hurling all kinds of accusations at him. But he also heard the words replay in his head again - real woman. Why didn't he just buy her? Why did he pull away from her in the barn? Why not just get her out of his system? He felt his heart sink when he realized he never bought her services because he did not want what Buck had told him, he did not want to be with Kyla and still be alone. He wanted to be with a real woman. He wanted Kyla to be that real woman, sleep with him because she wanted to, not because he had paid her to. He had been with Rosemary, not sleeping with her, but part of a couple and still had felt alone. Even without speaking to Kyla, not really, he felt like he was meeting a kindred spirit and the few conversations they had had only confirmed that suspicion. But he was still too angry to voice such thoughts. Kyla had said too much, tried too hard to hurt him for that.

"You weren't too good for the other saloon girls," Kyla said, her voice filled with contempt. "So why the act for me?"

"Act?" Jimmy scowled. What the hell was she implying now?

"The good man, looking for real love. Do I look that naïve?" Kyla stood up, lifted her long hair from her neck, her dress tightening across her bosom. She let in fall back down again, a display that caused Jimmy's loins to tighten.

And he hated knowing she could make him react like that. "Maybe," Jimmy said angrily, "you should be asking yourself why the fact you look like Lou, and believe me it ain't like you two are twins or even related, bothers you so much."

"What does that mean?" Kyla snapped.

"You are acting like you are jealous."

"Jealous?" Kyla snorted in derision.

"You don't like the idea, do you?" Jimmy asked, giving her an assessing look. "That a man, even like me, when you get right down to it, wants more than the services of a saloon whore."

Jimmy was surprised to see the hurt fill Kyla's eyes. He had not thought he could do that. She seemed immune to his harsh words. "I cared for Lou, I was even in love with her," Jimmy whispered, trying to soften the tone of the conversation, "but she never loved me and in the end it was for the best. We would never have worked."

"You are so pathetic," Kyla rolled her eyes at him, obviously unable or unwilling to accept the olive branch Jimmy had just handed her.

"Least I'm honest."

"And what am I lying about?"

"The fact that it bothers you. That I cared for Lou and you look a little bit like her. You think I did everything I did because of Lou and not because of you and you don't like that," Jimmy announced.

"I don't care."

"I think you do."

Kyla turned away from him and went to sit on the bunk that had been given to her, far from the single bed that was made especially for Jimmy.

"Kyla," Jimmy called out. But as he expected, he got no response.

Jimmy let out a loud breath, wincing immediately as the pain in his ribs flared. Wonderful, he thought. He was going to be stuck in the bunkhouse for days with a woman who hated his guts and he still yearned for her.

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