Witches Peak, Nebraska 1867
Teaspoon stood straighter as the train rumbled into the station. His niece, Violet Talbot was on board. He wondered if he would even recognize the girl. He had not seen her since she was four years old. But he was fairly certain that she still possessed those unmistakable large blue eyes, his sister Minerva's eyes. Ever since the day she was born, Violet had those bright eyes, hence the name. Maybe he should be more worried about Violet recognizing him. After all, he was supposed to be nothing more than a simple caretaker.
Violet was coming to town so that she could claim her inheritance. Her father's uncle, Amos Farthington, had died last month and there were no other living relatives on that side of the family. Minerva had written Teaspoon and asked him to see Violet to the house. It seemed like an ordinary request. Witches Peak was only one hundred and fifty seven miles away from Rock Creek. But it was the last line of the letter which made Teaspoon worry. Hence this elaborate charade.
Teaspoon reached into the pocket of his trousers and removed the letter. Unfolding it carefully he reread it for the thousandth time.
Teaspoon's eyes misted over. He knew the last sentence was meant to be nothing more than a sisterly jibe. Minerva was one of the kindest souls he had ever known. Wearily he rubbed his eyes before continuing.
But I am not you (much to our father's chagrin). I am writing however to ask a favor. Violet has received an inheritance. She will be coming to Witches Peak, a town not too terribly far from your own, on June 16th. Could you please see her safely to her great uncle Amos' home? He has passed and she is to be his beneficiary.
Teaspoon chuckled. Minerva was his bossy older sister. She had troubled him since the day he was born.
but I am so worried about her. She is all that I have. Don't laugh, Aloysius, but I have a bad feeling. Please look out for my girl. The last year has been very difficult for her.
Love always, Minerva
If Minerva was concerned then Teaspoon would pull out all the stops to make sure Violet would be okay.
He sighed, hoping that his plan would work. He was going to be Teaspoon, Amos' assistant. And for backup he had gathered his "boys". Cody was unable to come, but the others were there. Kid and Lou were to be the live in help, a husband and wife housekeeping and cooking team. Buck was head groomsman. Jimmy was Amos' former bodyguard who was staying on until Violet was settled. He did not want anyone who might harm Violet to suspect that her uncle was a lawman. And there was no point in alarming Violet either. He would tell her who he was once she was safe.
Teaspoon quickly refolded the letter and placed it back in his pocket as he was the train come to a halt. He waited at the platform, looking at all the passengers, but none of them seemed even remotely familiar. Could Violet have changed that much? How would he ever find her?
It was then that he saw her, wearing a dark blue dress with lace edging around the collar. She had on a dark hat covering her blond hair. Teaspoon noted that the hat set off her beautiful eyes just so. Teaspoon smiled as she turned his way. "Miss Violet," he called out, hurrying to her side.
"Miss Violet," he said once more, his eyes shining with gladness. She may have her mother's eyes but she had her father's regal nose. "I'm so glad you are here."
"Uncle Aloysius?" Violet said, a frown marring her features.
"Sorry Miss," Teaspoon said quickly. "He was unable to make it. I am your uncle's caretaker, Teaspoon."
"Teaspoon," Violet repeated hesitantly.
"Yes, Miss," Teaspoon said formally. He pointed to a carriage a few yards away. "If you can show me your bags, we can be off right quick."
"I'm so terribly tired," Violet said, "and the train was so dusty." She batted her eyes at him. "Could you fetch them for me? I need to sit down for a bit."
"Of course," Teaspoons said quickly, wondering how he would find her bags. Hopefully she had her name on them.
"My girl, Mattie, she can help you," Violet told him.
Mattie? Her girl? Teaspoon was rather taken aback. Minerva lived a simple life in Iowa. Having a girl to serve Violet did not seem like Minerva at all.
"There she is," Violet continued. "Thank you," she said softly, putting a hand on Teaspoon's arm.
"Of course, Miss," Teaspoon replied, instantly softening. She was exhausted; anyone with half an eye could see that. There were dark circles under her large eyes. "Please sit, I'll get the bags."
"Thank you," Violet said before walking toward the carriage.
Teaspoon waited until a young woman, who appeared to be the same age as Violet, twenty, reached his side. She was a bit smaller than Violet. "Mattie?"
Teaspoon studied her. She had big green eyes and dark brown hair. She was wearing a simple gray dress and unlike Violet, whose hair was pinned under her hat, this girl wore hers in a long braid that hung down her back. She flashed Teaspoon a quick smile.
"You're Violet's girl?" Teaspoon asked, feeling a bit awkward at the phrasing but that was the way Violet had referred to her so he had decided he should as well.
"Apparently so," she replied dryly. "My mother works for her mother, so I am supposed to work for her."
Teaspoon was a bit taken aback. Mattie appeared to be mocking the whole arrangement.
"Just between the help," Mattie whispered to Teaspoon, "okay? Violet is a bit daft."
"What?" Teaspoon exclaimed. Minerva was sharp as a tack. Violet was daft?
Mattie gave him an odd look. "You know, pretty girl but dumber than a hitching post."
"Violet?" Teaspoon exclaimed. This is not what he had been imagining at all.
"Oh she isn't a bad sort," Mattie told him quickly. "Just a bit spoiled and this inheritance talk has gone to her head."
Teaspoon relaxed a bit. That was understandable. Amos' house was one of the largest in two states. Violet's inheritance could turn anyone's head.
"Teaspoon, Mattie, do hurry." Teaspoon heard Violet call out to them.
"Her highness can't be kept waiting," Mattie announced with a grin as she grabbed one bag. She thrust the large valise in Teaspoon's arms and then piled two smaller ones on top and grabbed two mediums sized cases.
"Those all hers?" Teaspoon exclaimed, staggering a bit under the weight of all those bags.
"All but the small one on top, that's mine," Mattie informed him.
"I'll show you to your rooms," Kid said grabbing three bags, obviously enjoying this bit of playacting. He gave Jimmy a look that said 'join in'.
Jimmy rolled his eyes but helped Kid and picked up the remaining valises.
"Please come this way," Kid continued formally.
Jimmy did not say a word, but Teaspoon noticed his less than causal glance toward his niece. Jimmy Hickok seemed to be smitten, he realized with a start. Just one more matter for him to worry about.
"Thank you," Violet told him.
A few moments later, Jimmy and Kid had disappeared up the long staircase along with Mattie and Violet.
Lou turned away from the stairs and asked, "Violet didn't recognize you?"
Teaspoon shook his head. "I haven't seen her in years. She did call me uncle Aloysius at first but I think it was more a guess than a remembrance."
Buck opened the front door and hurried inside. "No one was following you," he announced.
"Good," Teaspoon said. He sat down heavily on a flowered chintz settee that was next to the staircase.
Lou tugged on his arm. "Let's go in the kitchen. It's quieter there," she said softly.
Wearily Teaspoon nodded. He was already tired and it was not even dinner time. But the preparations, going to town, fetching the girls and all their bags had taken its toll. Not to mention all the lies, he thought sadly. But it was better than telling the truth if it left Violet unprotected. He wanted whoever might be after Violet and her inheritance to be unaware of what was going on. And he didn't want Violet dropping any hints even though it might be unintentional.
Teaspoon ambled into the kitchen. Lou and Kid had done a wonderful job, he thought, as he looked around. The kitchen had been a large mess when they first arrived, but it was now spic and span. The large stove in the corner was no longer spewing smoke. The kitchen sink had been scoured and clean and all the dishes were no longer scattered on the long counters.
Lou placed a cup of hot coffee in front of him.
"Thank you, darlin'," he told her, taking a deep drink. "The house looks good," he continued. Kid and Lou had been working inside for days. Amos' housekeeper, Jane, was also here. Jane had been here for years and a lawman friend had looked her up and as far as Teaspoon could tell she had been living a quiet law abiding life. She had left the house after Amos had died but returned upon hearing a relative would be taking over the place.
Jane was a tall, stately woman with light brown eyes and even features. Teaspoon could tell she had been quite the beauty in her time. He had tried to flirt with her a bit but had been rather coldly, in his opinion, been rebuffed. Other than Jane, the rest of Amos' staff had vanished for good.
"Kid, Jimmy, and Buck finished up in the stables and the surrounding areas. Jane, helped out here," Lou said.
"Fine work, all of you." Teaspoon wondered what had happened to Amos. Why had the house fallen in to such a god awful state? He knew the man still had money. The staff could have been paid to stay on. But they had not.
The lawyer had stopped by yesterday and they had discussed Violet's inheritance. She would not be filthy rich but more than well off. The lawyer had also given Teaspoon some money to fix up the house, buy food and buy whatever was necessary for the security arrangements.
Lou sat across from him. "How are you?" she asked, her voice full of concern.
"Holding up." He patted her hand. "Don't fret. I'm just worried about Violet."
"But why?" Lou frowned. "Nothing has happened."
"Yet," Teaspoon said cautiously. "Amos dies and no finds him for over a week. I think it's kinda strange that he dies right after his help is sent to Bridgeport for a bunch of supplies." They had found the supplies in the barn and what was even stranger was that none of the supplies were even remotely useful. No food, nothing for the worn out buildings. Nothing but what looked like pieces of art. Damned ugly art, Teaspoon thought, but art.
"You think he was murdered?" Lou asked.
Teaspoon nodded. "I don't know if anyone realized he had an heir. Amos was a recluse after all."
"And whoever killed Amos is after Violet because they want the inheritance?" Buck surmised.
"That's what I'm afraid of," Teaspoon said quietly.
Lou pressed her lips together.
"Yes?" Teaspoon said giving her an expectant look. Lou had something on her mind.
"I think you should tell Violet," she declared firmly.
"Not every woman is you," Teaspoon told her with a small grin. "I don't want to scare the girl."
"You'd rather lie to her," Lou muttered.
"Not rather," Teaspoon said quietly. "If I'm wrong and nothing is amiss I'll tell her everything, gladly," he continued. "But if I'm right." He stopped, shaking his head slowly.
Clearing his throat Teaspoon continued, "If I'm right then I want the element of surprise." He gave a tired look. "I'm worried, Lou, this is my sister's little girl. You might not agree with me, but I feel like I have to use every trick I ever learned, just in case. If I'm wrong I hope she will forgive me," he said softly. When he began once more he tried to finish what he had started earlier. "But if I'm right." He stopped once more. Being right and being unprepared would destroy his sister.
"No," Buck cut in quickly, shooting Lou a silencing look, "I agree. Let's get to know the town and the girls. No sense in showing our hand before someone calls us."
Teaspoon was able to grin then. That was something he might say and in fact he may use Buck's words later on as they rang true. But even though he appreciated the analogy he also knew what Buck was doing and he appreciated it. He had a feeling. He could usually articulate why he was doing something as crazy as this, but this time he could not. This was too close to his heart. One thing he had learned from his many experiences was that the gut was usually right.
Reluctantly Lou agreed, obviously heeding Buck's silent warning. "I guess."
"Thank you," Teaspoon told her gratefully. He needed her support, all his 'boys' support.
Mattie dropped her bag on the floor while Violet hurried to the door and pushed it shut. She then turned the bolt and locked it. She looked at Mattie, raising a brow.
Mattie suppressed a giggle. She looked just like that Teaspoon person when she did that.
"Can you believe them?" Violet burst out.
"Shh," Mattie admonished her, raising a finger to her lips.
Violet hurried to the bed and sat down, Mattie quickly joined her. "Can you believe them?" Violet repeated. "Do I really look that stupid? Does my uncle Aloysius," she paused, "Teaspoon, think my mother has never shown me a picture of him?" she continued angrily.
"And the rest of them," Violet scowled. "Teaspoon wrote my mother all about them. I know exactly who Buck, Jimmy, Lou and Kid are."
Mattie shrugged once more. She knew too. Her parents had died when she was five years old and her aunt Sarah and uncle Hank had taken her in. They were good people but they also had seven children of their own. They did not have time to worry about a little girl who did not say or do much. Her parents had died when an errant spark set their small house ablaze. Her father had gotten her out, deposited her in front of their burning home and then had run back in to get her mother. But he never came back out.
Thus she had moved in with her aunt and uncle in Iowa. She was the third youngest in that crowded household and was often overlooked. Her aunt did say things like 'I'm worried about Mattie, she is so quiet.' But her aunt never had time to actually do anything about it. Her uncle was too busy trying to either get a crop in the ground or harvest it to worry about any of the children. And once the boys got older they were in the fields with him. All the girls were in school or helping their mother. It was not that they wanted to ignore her; they just did not have time to worry about her. Mattie understood that.
It was only after she met Violet in school that Mattie began to heal. Violet had invited her to her house and it seemed like Mattie never left. Minerva Talbot always invited her for dinner or to stay the night. Theodore Talbot sat down with her and Violet after dinner and helped both of them with their homework. Minerva, Aunt Minnie as Mattie referred to her as, was the first person Mattie had opened up to about losing her parents. She may have lost her parents at a very young age but she was never mistreated by her aunt and uncle and she was loved by Violet's family.
That is the reason she was here now. Violet had received an inheritance from some long lost uncle and Minerva was worried about her. Violet did not want to leave Mattie behind nor did Mattie want to be left so they traveled here to Witches Peak (what an awful sounding place, Mattie thought, even though in actuality it was very pretty). It was on the journey here that they concocted this plan, that Violet instead of being the smart, attractive woman that she was was a vain, silly creature and she was her hand maiden.
Violet was a beautiful woman, drop dead gorgeous truth be told, with her long blond hair and her bright blue eyes. She also knew how to use her considerable charms to get a man to do what she wanted. Until the last man. That man, Joe, was an ex-Union solider. Joe had broken Violet's heart to pieces. Ever since that day, her warm-hearted, fun-loving friend had become listless and so very sad. Oh Mattie knew Violet could put on a good front, but anyone who took the time to notice would see how false her smile was. Mattie would love to see Joe again, just so she could wring his neck.
She on the other hand, had no such man troubles. Mattie knew she was not as beautiful as Violet. No one was. But she was all right. She had had a few beaus but those relationships had not progressed very much. It was hard for Mattie to open up to people and even the men she had become involved with saw that. Maybe it was some kind of test, she thought; she wanted to wait and see who stuck around. But she also knew she was keeping men at arm's length because she was so afraid of losing them.
"Why are they lying to us?" Violet hissed.
"Why are we lying to them?" Mattie countered.
"Because we don't know them!" Violet half shouted.
"Shh," Mattie admonished her friend once more. "Do you want them to hear us? They don't know us either and you know that we thought up this plan because this whole inheritance thing sounds fishy. Maybe they are suspicious too."
Violet sighed. "Who gives money away to a complete stranger?" she said, her voice calm now. "An aging old fool or a criminal with something to hide. Something he wants to pin on someone else."
Mattie nodded. "And if it's an aging old fool we can admit our charade. I'm sure your uncle will forgive us."
"And if it's the latter," Violet paused.
"Then we have the upper hand," Mattie concluded for her.
"Good morning," Lou called out brightly, setting a plate full of eggs on the large dining room table.
"Good morning," Mattie and Violet chorused.
"I hope you slept well," Lou told them, hoping she sounded the way a servant should sound.
"Very," Violet said, taking a spoonful of eggs. "My house is quite lovely," she drawled.
"You've kept it up quite nicely," Mattie put in.
"They should," Violet said sharply, "that is their job." She smiled at Kid when he entered the room carrying a tray of fresh bread and jam.
"Mmm," Violet said and Lou narrowed her eyes at Violet. She wasn't sure if Violet was appraising the food or her husband. She balled her fists up tightly.
"Mmm, jelly," Violet continued and Lou was amazed how suggestive those words sounded. Good Lord what kind of girl was this Violet.
"You don't happen to have any sweet potato pie do you?" she continued.
"Sweet potato?" Kid looked at Lou in confusion. "I suppose I could ask Jane," he stammered.
"It's not the season, dear," Mattie said, patting Violet's hand. But she rolled her eyes at Lou in a conspiratorial manner.
Lou gave her a look of surprise. Teaspoon had told them that Mattie said Violet was daft but she did not really believe it until now. Teaspoon's niece should be sharp as a tack. Be charitable, Lou, she told herself. It could just be an honest mistake. But she did not like this girl so it was hard.
"Morning," Jimmy said, coming into the room. He flashed Kid and Lou a broad grin before nodding at Mattie and Violet. Lou noticed how he did a double take upon spying the lovely Violet.
"And good morning to you," Jimmy continued with a wry grin as he took a seat across from Violet.
Violet giggled at him.
"And you are?" Mattie asked. But Lou noticed that she was looking at her plate when she said the words.
"Jimmy," he replied easily. He leaned in. "I'm here to watch over you," he told Violet.
"Me?" Violet gasped.
"Your great uncle didn't want there to be any trouble before you got your inheritance," Jimmy explained.
"Oh, so you will be watching over me all the time." Violet tilted her head and cooed the words and Lou found herself balling up her fists once more. The nerve of this woman, she fumed silently. Jimmy just smiled at her. He appeared to be completely taken with this girl.
"Maybe you could show me the property after we eat," Violet said. She batted her eyes at him. "My property."
"I reckon I could," Jimmy replied.
"Well, I'm done -" Violet began.
"And so am I," Mattie put in.
"I think you should stay and help," Violet giggled, "the help."
Lou's temper began to boil even hotter. How dare this girl dismiss her?
"Fine," Mattie snapped, "I'll do just that. But first I'll go to the stables and tell the groomsman to get two horses ready. I wouldn't want you to wait for anything," she added caustically. Mattie quickly rose from the table and hurried off.
"I wonder what's gotten into her," Violet mused quietly.
Jimmy shrugged. "Why don't you tell me about yourself," he said.
"Why?" Violet said with a smile.
"It will help me do my job."
"Just your job?" Violet purred.
Jimmy shook his head and smiled. "Does it really matter?"
Lou rolled her eyes and stomped off to the kitchen. Jimmy was making her stomach turn.
Mattie stormed off. She hated this feeling inside her. There was no reason to be so upset but she was anyway. She shook off her feelings of irritation. Violet was just playacting she reminded herself.
Now where were the stupid stables anyway? She hurried along a worn path and soon came upon the stables. She stopped short when she saw an Indian outside currying a horse. Automatically her stomach tightened into knots. What was an Indian doing here?
"Can I help you?" the Indian asked, his English perfect.
"Buck," Mattie said, quickly letting out a sigh of relief. She suddenly remembered Buck from the letters Teaspoon had sent.
Mattie quickly clapped a hand over her mouth when she realized what she had done and clearly her gaffe was noted by Buck as he stared at her then grabbed her by the arm, dragging her into the barn.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, she thought to herself. Just because she had never seen a real life Indian up close was no reason to run her mouth, but she had. She had just been so frightened then so relieved that she spoke without thinking.
"How do you know who I am?" Buck demanded.
"I, um, I," Mattie stammered. Then suddenly she had an idea. "They sent me down here to ask Buck to get two horses saddled."
Buck dropped her arm, his eyes still fixed on her.
"You're Buck, right?" Mattie asked sweetly.
"Yes," Buck admitted.
"Well, Violet and," Mattie furrowed her brow, pretending to be deep in thought, "the guy who is supposed to watch over Violet." She paused once more for good measure. "Jimmy," she said suddenly, "yeah, that's it. They are going to take a ride and survey her property."
Buck watched her for a moment then turned away. He saddled one horse up and then turned to Mattie. "Is Violet a good rider?"
"Yes," Mattie replied absently. She wondered if Buck believed her. He acted like he did, but she could not be certain.
Buck nodded and then went into another stall. Once the other horse was ready to go, he took both reins into his hands and led the animals outside. He tied them to a post. Then he turned to her. "I'm sorry I was so rude earlier."
"How come you are so suspicious of me?" Mattie asked. Might as well make him feel guilty, she decided. Maybe then he would not bring up her gaffe to the others.
"Just 'cause I knew your name, doesn't mean I'm out here to get Violet," Mattie continued airily.
"Is someone out to get Violet?" Buck asked quickly.
"Why else would that Jimmy person be here to protect her?" Mattie smiled inwardly. He could ask her all the questions he wanted. She was prepared now.
"So how long have you been working here?" Mattie asked. "Don't most Indians stay away from towns?"
"Most," Buck replied laconically.
"But not you."
Buck did not answer.
"Did you know Amos Farthington well?" Mattie persisted.
"I didn't know him at all," Buck replied.
"Then who hired you?" Mattie asked, narrowing her eyes suspiciously.
"How well does Teaspoon know you?"
"Mattie!" Violet interrupted sharply. She came into the barn, Jimmy right behind her. "I'm so sorry. She is a bit overprotective." She batted her eyes at Buck who regarded her carefully. "I'm Violet Talbot, and you have already met my maid, Mattie," she continued. When Buck continued to just stare at her, she added, "And you are?"
"Buck," he said. Mattie was thankful he did not look at her because she had turned beet red at Violet's words. "Buck Cross, Miss."
"Well should we be off?" Violet said, catching sight of Mattie's expression.
"Why don't we wait a few minutes," Buck said.
"But -" Violet began.
"Why don't you tell us how much you know about us?" Buck cut in smoothly.
Violet laughed merrily. "Well you work in the stables; your name is Buck Cross -"
"The truth," Buck said harshly.
"Buck," Jimmy frowned at him.
Violet blanched. She looked at her friend. What had gone wrong?
"I blew it," Mattie said quietly.
"What?" Jimmy exploded.
"I came down here and I was so surprised to see an Indian then I realized who it was and blurted out his name," Mattie explained succinctly. "Sorry, Vi."
"Nothing to be sorry for," Violet told her softly. Mattie did not have to come here with her, but she did and she went along with her crazy plan. This was not Mattie's fault.
"So you know who all of us are?" Buck said.
"Why the charade?"
Violet laughed. "I could ask you the same thing. My own uncle is lying to me and you stand here and demand to know why I am lying?" she asked shrilly.
"Teaspoon is trying to keep you safe," Jimmy explained calmly.
"I am trying to keep myself safe," Violet retorted.
"Because?" Buck asked.
"Let's all stop pretending," Mattie sighed. "We all have come to the same conclusion, right? That only a doddering old fool or someone with bad intentions would leave their money to a stranger."
"Right," Jimmy agreed.
"We lied so everyone would think Violet was some stupid twit and we could snoop around without anyone being suspicious," Mattie told them, a wry grin on her face.
Violet laughed. It sounded so naïve when the words were spoken aloud, but what else were two young women on their own supposed to do?
"Are you always so blunt?" Buck asked, giving Mattie a curious look.
Violet linked her arm through Mattie's. "Always," she replied, giving her friend an affectionate look. "I suppose you thought I was a silly little rich girl."
"It would be disappointing to think Teaspoon's niece was really so vapid," Buck told her with a smile. "I overheard the conversation at the house. I was in the kitchen eating," he explained.
"So you knew I was lying all along and you just let me go on and on?" Mattie exclaimed. She narrowed her eyes. "You know why we were lying, what's your excuse?"
"We didn't know much about you, but we figured the same as you. Someone was after Farthington's money and Violet might be in trouble. We couldn't rightly watch over you if everyone knew about us," Jimmy said.
"You could have told us," Violet said. "My uncle could have told me," she finished, her voice breaking.
"Teaspoon didn't want to frighten you," Buck told her gently. He waited until Violet met his eyes before continuing. "The last thing he would ever want to do is hurt you."
"Why don't we head back," Buck continued, "and we can all lay our cards on the table."
"Good idea," Mattie agreed. "Maybe together we have more knowledge than separately."
"That's everything," Teaspoon said heavily.
Violet nodded. "I see," she said curtly. Teaspoon had told them that her mother had written him and expressed some concern for her safety. He had surmised that Violet might be in some kind of jeopardy. Because of his concerns, he had concocted this plan of pretending he was just a caretaker and his "boys" were simple servants. "You and I had the same idea."
"You should have told me the truth. I gave you an opening to tell me who you were," she continued her voice becoming angrier. "But you lied to my face."
"I am sorry," Teaspoon said quietly. "I never meant to hurt you. You are my niece and you mean the world to me. But frankly I didn't know how you might react to this whole situation."
Violet gave him a hard look.
"We wanted to get a feel for Amos Farthington's life," Teaspoon continued. He stopped and shook his head. "I was worried for you, plain and simple. I lied and I am sorrier than you'll ever know." He gave her a sad smile. "I've always been one for crazy schemes, just ask your ma. She'll tell you if there's a simple way and a complicated one, I'll always choose the complicated way."
"She says that about me too," Violet replied softly.
Teaspoon smiled. "I hope you'll forgive an old man for his foolishness."
Violet looked at her hands which were folded in her lap. Sometime after the conversation began everyone save Teaspoon had quickly vanished. It was her and her uncle sitting in the book filled library of this huge house right now. Violet began rubbing the arms of the brown leather chair she was seated in. When she finally looked up she saw Teaspoon doing the exact same thing. He was seated in a similar chair directly across from her.
She wished she could forgive him. She had done exactly what he had done, but she was too hurt to tell him it was all okay and mean it. His lie had been far more elaborate than hers. And it hurt. Fighting the tears, she rose to her feet.
"Violet," Teaspoon began, also jumping up.
"If you don't mind," Violet said, her voice beginning to quaver. She hurried from the room and straight into Buck.
"Sorry," she said. She turned toward the stairs. She wanted to go to her room and have a good cry. She knew it was silly. Nothing had been done to her. Her uncle set up this charade to catch someone he thought might be trying to hurt her. He wanted to protect her. But he had left her out of all this, like she was some child or worse, a fool. And try as she might, Violet could not help but be hurt by that.
"He did this because he cares," Buck told her quietly.
"Yeah, I know, he told me," Violet snapped.
"He thinks Amos was murdered."
Violet turned around and looked at him. "What?" She must have misheard him.
"He thinks Amos was murdered," Buck repeated. "He didn't want to lie, but he would have done anything to keep you safe."
"Does he think someone is out to kill me too?"
"I think that is what he is most afraid of."
Violet sat down with a thunk on the stairs. Buck sat down beside her. "Are you okay?" he asked.
"I didn't think it was that serious," she said.
"Teaspoon wouldn't lie to you if it wasn't."
"How do you know?"
"I have worked with him for quite a few years. I can see when he is really worried." Buck patted her hand. "He is really worried about you. It might be because you are his niece or because he is worried for your life or some combination of the two, but he is definitely worried."
Violet clutched at his hand. Someone killed Amos? She was ready to pack up and go home. She didn't need this Amos Farthington's money. "Do you think someone is going to try and kill me?" She needed an objective opinion.
"I don't know," Buck told her seriously. "But I trust Teaspoon's instincts."
"So it's settled," Teaspoon said, addressing the large group of young people gathered around the dining room table. Everyone had finished their breakfast thus he had taken this opportunity to talk to them all about the current situation. It had been decided that they would go about their business as usual. Violet would act as if she was inspecting the property; everyone else would play the roles they had already given themselves.
"We do everything we have been doing," Teaspoon continued, "until the lawyer comes here with the papers for Violet to sign."
"Sounds just dreadful," Violet said.
"Safety is more important than adventure," Teaspoon admonished her, raising a brow.
"We could go for a ride around the place," Jimmy suggested nonchalantly. "You could get to know the place better."
"Now?" Teaspoon exclaimed. He had just got done laying down the law and theses children wanted to take off?
"Now that sounds lovely," Violet said quickly. She looked at Jimmy. "Thank you, that is very kind of you to offer," she added sweetly. She then glanced at Mattie and Teaspoon noted it was a rather furtive glance. "Mattie has been feeling cooped up."
"I what?" Mattie exclaimed.
"She loves being outside," Violet added.
Teaspoon frowned. He did not like the undercurrents going round the room. But he didn't have time to worry about these young 'uns love lives. Whoever fancied who was not his concern. They were all adults. He just wanted his niece to be safe. "You watch over them," he told Jimmy. "Buck, you go along too, just in case."
"Teaspoon," Jimmy began to protest.
"This is why I brought all of you," Teaspoon said sternly. "The more eyes, the better."
"Fine. Let's go," Jimmy said.
*~*~* Jimmy rode beside Violet. She really did not seem to be enjoying herself. Buck and Mattie were ahead of them. Mattie was chattering to him about something. Violet on the other hand was very silent.
"You don't like riding, do you?" Jimmy asked quietly.
"I do," Violet told him. "I'm just feeling out of sorts." She gave him a wry smile. "It's not everyday you hear someone wants to kill you." She sighed. "I guess you are used to it." She clapped a hand to her mouth. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that."
Jimmy looked away as he spoke. During breakfast Teaspoon had explained who all the former Express riders were. Violet knew all about his reputation. "No one gets used to it," he said quietly.
"I'm sorry," Violet said once more. "It was thoughtless and stupid to say that. But you live such a different life." She smiled and when Jimmy could finally meet her eyes he was struck once again at how beautiful she was.
"Different than yours, I reckon. I bet you never even had an enemy," he added lightly.
"Well, there was Ginny Roberts. She didn't invite me to her birthday party."
Jimmy was able to smile at her then. "Her loss."
Violet laughed. "I thought so too. And as it turned out, it was a dull party so I didn't miss a thing."
"Probably boring because you weren't there," Jimmy told her, his eyes locked with hers.
"Would you mind if we cut this ride short?" Violet asked, looking at her saddle horn.
"Why?" Had he been too forward? Why the sudden change, Jimmy wondered?
"I saw a plot for a garden back at the house," Violet explained. "I'd love to get it started. I kept the garden at home and it will keep me occupied," she continued.
"Oh." Jimmy felt his spirits began to wane. He could not imagine anything duller than spending his days watching Violet tend a garden. "I reckon. I mean yeah, sure. Let's go." He supposed he could help her carry things that were too heavy for her. And they could spend some time alone. Who else would want to garden?
"Buck," Jimmy called out. "We're heading back." When he got no response, he and Violet hurried their horses until they were beside Buck. But Buck was sliding off his animal.
"Mattie found something," Buck told them. When they reached Mattie's side, they found she was sitting down, leaning against a tree.
"What happened?" Jimmy asked quickly. He saw a small, squirmy grey bundle in her arms.
Buck quickly took off his shirt and wrapped a small dog's paw. "Looks like this little fella got caught in a trap and somehow worked his way loose."
Jimmy looked at the animal cradled in Mattie's arms. The little dog had its head nestled under her arm and he could see Buck wrapping a small bloodied front paw. When the animal poked his nose out from under Mattie, Jimmy got a good look at him.
"That's a wolf," Violet half shouted.
"Half wolf," Jimmy said. He looked at the animal. "Its snout is too short to be all wolf."
"Poor thing," Mattie crooned. She lifted him up so that they were nose to nose. She laughed as the pup licked her face.
"You should probably let it loose," Violet said. "You don't want his or her ma to come 'round."
"I think he has been out here for a while. His ma has probably left him for dead," Jimmy said crouching beside Mattie and scratching the animal behind the ears. Then suddenly he remembered why he had called out to Buck in the first place. He straightened up. "You okay here?" he asked Buck. "Violet said she wanted to head back."
"Its fine," Violet said quickly. "I can make it home alone." She gave Jimmy a smile. "I can see how much you like that little dog."
He did like the little pup, Jimmy thought, but he did not want to waste a chance to be alone with Violet either.
"I'll go," Buck offered. "I've always liked horses more than dogs."
"A horse is nothing more than a big dog," Jimmy said. He laughed when the little beast tried to lick his nose.
"I'll tell Teaspoon you're out here," Buck said as he swung a leg up and settled into his saddle.
"Yeah, sure," Jimmy said absently as he rubbed the dog's belly. He'd help Violet in the garden another time.
"Are you tired?" Buck asked.
Violet shook her head. She could not rightly tell him why she had wanted to leave, that she wanted Mattie to have some time alone with Jimmy. She had seen how flushed her friend's cheeks had gotten when she had first laid eyes on him. She had had a very visceral reaction without so much as knowing Jimmy's name. Not that she admitted anything. Violet had asked her over and over again if she fancied Jimmy and Mattie had staunchly denied it. He had just surprised her, she claimed.
Violet knew Jimmy was trying to win her over. But frankly, she did not think his heart was really in it. Otherwise he would not have abandoned her at the first opportunity to do so. Or maybe he just really really hated gardening, she mused with a smile.
"What's so funny?" Buck asked.
"Just thinking of something," Violet replied. She turned to Buck, focusing on him, not her thoughts and said, "I asked Jimmy to take me back because I had this urge to garden." It sounded ridiculous but she did not know Buck well enough to tell him the truth. And she really did enjoy gardening.
"Do you garden?"
"I hope I won't bore you."
They rode for a while in silence until Buck said, "You remind me of Teaspoon when you do that."
Violet frowned. "Do what?" She had been thinking about what would go in a garden.
"Move your eyebrows up and down like that," Buck smiled.
Violet put a hand to her forehead. "I do that?"
"It's kind of cute," Buck said softly.
"Looking like a sixty year old man is cute?" Violet said in a teasing voice.
"My mother always said I was just like him," Violet said.
"How?" Buck asked.
"Headstrong, always coming up with crazy schemes and the more stories she told me about him, the more I wanted to be just like him," Violet explained.
"He's one of a kind," Buck told her.
"That's what I want to be too," she laughed. "But seriously, he has seen so much and done so many things. And he is open to everything. Most people are so judgmental, but he seems to accept people for who they are." She glanced sideways at Buck. "Did you know him when he lived with the Indians?"
Buck shook his head. "No. We met when I joined the Express." He briefly told her about leaving the Kiowa and meeting the rest of the riders.
"You have a bit of Teaspoon in you yourself," Violet smiled.
"I could only hope to be as good a man as he is," Buck said solemnly. He pulled his horse to a stop.
"We're here," Violet said, surprised to find she was disappointed. She had been enjoying her little talk with Buck, something she did not expect. Hadn't she sworn off men a few months ago? Yes, she had, she reminded herself.
Buck dismounted and walked to her horse. He held both animals while Violet got off her mount. "I'll join you in the garden," he told her, his eyes firmly on hers.
"Thank you," Violet said a bit cautiously. She certainly hoped that Buck was not getting the wrong idea about her. She wanted to garden. She did not want anything more.
Mattie pulled her fingers back as the pup nipped her. "Ouch," she laughed. "Bad dog," she said sternly but the puppy simply wagged its tail at her.
She picked him up. "I think he is hungry." She rose to her feet.
"What are you doing?" Jimmy asked loudly.
"Taking him back to get some food in him," Mattie told him, frowning.
"You are going to bring him back to the house?" Jimmy exclaimed.
"Would you rather I leave him out here to die?" Mattie asked calmly.
"Of course not," Jimmy said irritably.
"Then we take him back," she declared, walking to her horse.
We, Jimmy thought to himself, how did this become a we? He had not agreed to anything. He watched as Mattie struggled to keep the squirming pup under her arm and get on her horse. "Here," he said, boosting her up.
Mattie flashed him a quick grin. "Thanks."
Jimmy sighed loudly as he mounted his own horse. "Don't mention it," he said dryly.
As they began to ride slowly toward the house Mattie asked, "What should we name him?"
There was that word we again, Jimmy thought, somewhat dismayed. But he couldn't help but reach out and catch the little dog as he began to wriggle his way out of Mattie's arms. He grabbed the dog firmly by the scruff of his neck and held him in front of him.
"Scruffy," Mattie suggested. "Stripe, since he has that white mark on his chest."
Jimmy's mind began to drift to another time and another dog.
Jimmy barely even heard her.
"Doc," she continued rattling the names off. "I got it, Sneezy?"
"Sneezy?" Jimmy exclaimed, finally hearing her.
Mattie shrugged. "It got your attention at least."
"I was just thinking of something," Jimmy said quietly.
"I had a dog once."
"What was his name?"
Jimmy looked at the squirming ball in front him. This pup reminded him of the dog he had had so long ago.
"Jimmy," Mattie persisted.
"Max," Jimmy said softly.
"Max would be a good name for any dog," Mattie told him, her voice full of kindness for something that obviously still caused him pain.
"He ran off after my pa switched him one too many times," Jimmy said bitterly.
Mattie remained silent for a while. "I'm sorry," she said finally.
"Ain't got nothing to do with you," Jimmy said, his voice ice cold.
"I can still be sorry it happened," Mattie told him, her voice the exact opposite of his, warm and full of compassion. "I myself never had a dog," she continued.
"Why not?" Jimmy asked in spite of himself. He would have liked nothing better than to brush her off. He should be in the garden with Violet, not telling this girl his sad little tales.
"Too many kids underfoot," Mattie said without a trace of self pity. Unlike him, Jimmy thought ruefully.
"You had a big family?" he asked.
"I lived with my aunt and uncle. I had a lot of cousins."
"How come," Jimmy asked, "you lived with your aunt and uncle?"
"My folks died in a house fire and they took me in."
"I'm sorry," Jimmy told her.
"It's all right. It happened a long time ago," she said in an overly bright voice. Clearly she had her own share of pain, Jimmy realized.
Mattie reached out and rubbed the now sleeping pup's head. "I have a dog now."