Chapter Forty One

"Do you want to go back in?" Jimmy asked Mattie, setting her back down on the ground as they stood outside the social hall, wrapped in each others arms. He stroked her hair gently.

Lou had been right after all, he thought. When he had run after Mattie, he did what she had suggested. He looked into Mattie's eyes and what he saw had astounded him. It was like looking in a mirror. Her eyes were filled with the same emotions that were in him, affection and worry. Thus he chose to follow the rest of Lou's advice. Mattie's kisses did not lie. She had feelings for him so he did what he had wanted to do for weeks. He owned up to his feelings and pushed Mattie to own up to hers. And he was damn glad of it.

"No," Mattie answered. "It's just my dress," she said in a muffled voice. "I don't want to go back inside, have people stare at me."

"Then let's go home," Jimmy told her, taking her hand in his. Together they walked to the stables a short distance away.

Mattie was quiet as Jimmy led the horse out from the stable. He worried that she was have second thoughts about what she had just agreed to. After he hitched the horse to the buggy, he asked, "Are you okay?"

"Hmm," Mattie said, as Jimmy broke into her reverie. "I'm fine."

"You are kinda quiet," Jimmy told her, lacing his fingers together so she could step into them.

As Mattie climbed into the buggy, she said, "Nervous, I guess."

"Why?" Jimmy asked cautiously. He sat next to her and snapped the reins. Slowly the buggy began moving. He wrapped an arm around her as they began their trek back to the house.

Mattie pulled the edges of her dress where it had been torn together. "I don't want to disappoint you."

"Why would you disappoint me?"

"I'm not, I mean," she paused. "I don't have a lot of experience," she said finally.

"I know," Jimmy said, lifting her chin up and kissing her. He let his fingers travel to the tear in her dress and brushed his fingers against her skin. Mattie drew a sharp breath and he felt her shoulders tighten, her discomfort readily apparent. She was not ready for him to see her injuries.

When that does not happen, he thought, then the time would be right. "And if you are thinking what I think you're thinking, well, let me assure you. It ain't gonna happen tonight." Jimmy removed his shirt and draped it over her. Mattie wrapped it tightly around herself, the tension disappearing from her shoulders.

Mattie nodded, looking away.

"Not for the reasons you think," Jimmy continued. "I am not going to sleep with you and have you regret it. When it's right, you'll let me know."

"And you don't mind waiting?" Mattie exhaled softly.

"No," Jimmy replied with a smile. "I just want you with me." He inclined his head toward her and touched his forehead to hers. "You mean more to me than I can ever hope to say. Seeing you hurt," he stopped. "I don't think I knew until then how important you were to me," he told her quietly. "I'm not good with words, but I hope you believe me when I say that."

"I do," Mattie said in a scratchy voice as if she was fighting back tears. She moved closer to him and wrapped her arms around his midsection. Silently they held each other for a long time.

"You know," Jimmy said slowly as he straightened up. He once again focused on the road in front of him, "You never did tell me that story you ma used to tell you."

"Your stories are so much better," Mattie began but Jimmy quickly cut her off.

"I want to know you, Mattie," he told her solemnly. "Don't keep holding me at arms length. I have told you about myself. Can you please start telling me about yourself?"

"You want to hear it now?" Mattie asked after a long pause, looking up at him.

"Sure do."

"Well, let me start by telling you my name," She said with a quick smile.

"Ouch," Jimmy said softly. She had thrown those words at him once before.

"I'm just teasing," Mattie said kissing his cheek. "My name is important to the story."

"Well, okay then," Jimmy said with a small laugh.

"Matilda Swanson."

Jimmy looked at her expectantly.

"Matilda Katya Swanson," Mattie told him. "My ma used to say that the story is our family history. That I am just one in a long line of Russian princesses."

"Royalty huh?"

Mattie grinned. "Makes you look at me in a whole new light, doesn't it?"

Jimmy smiled.

"Anyway, supposedly my grandmother, also named Katya, escaped from the prince's evil henchman's clutches. The prince loved her and when the queen found out he loved Katya, she arranged for her death. Katya was a royalty too, but just one of the minor ones, so naturally that meant she was nothing."

Jimmy looked at her expectantly.

"She escaped to America," Mattie continued "and she brought three things with her. One was a gold clock to sell so she could live. The second was a lacquer box to keep all her treasures. The third was a necklace with half a heart. When the prince came to join her he would bring the other half."

"Kinda like a promise ring," Jimmy said.

Mattie nodded. "In the beginning before she meets the prince there was a lot about the evil family Katya lived with and how she had to outwit them to finally meet the prince. When I first heard Cinderella I was sure that someone had stolen my ma's story," she laughed.

"The most romantic part about the whole story," Mattie said with a wistful sigh, "was the that fact that my pa had gotten a half a heart necklace made for himself and he gave it to my ma so she'd have a whole heart and he told her it was his."

"So this is real?" Jimmy exclaimed.

Mattie shrugged. "I don't know. I don't remember my ma saying anything about being from Russia. Maybe my grandmother or great grandmother was. Or maybe she made the whole thing up so I'd think good of my pa. I used to get upset because he'd be gone so much," she said sadly.

"You're a little girl who missed her father," Jimmy told her upon hearing the self reproach in her voice.

"I know." Suddenly Mattie buried her head against Jimmy's shoulder.

Jimmy cupped the back of her head and dropped a kiss on her temple. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bring up bad memories."

"I told you your stories were better," she told him with a small laugh. But there was no joy in her laughter. "I'm sorry," Jimmy murmured once more.

"Don't be, I didn't realize it would be so painful. So how could you?" Mattie said quietly. "I don't mind talking about my folks. I just haven't, not really, for a long time."

Jimmy nodded.

She managed a small smile, a genuine one, when she spoke again, "You can make it up to me by taking Max for the night." She yawned. "I am worn out."

Jimmy frowned.

"I'm fine," Mattie assured him, "just tired."

"It's a deal then," Jimmy replied.

Chapter Forty Two

Buck came out of the woods where he had hidden himself. He did not like the fact that Violet was standing outside by herself. When he was beside her, his eyes followed hers and he saw the buggy with Jimmy and Mattie on it disappear around the bend.

"Where are they going?" he asked.

"Home," Violet replied, unfazed by his sudden appearance.

"Why?" Then he stopped himself. He had a good idea what had happened.

"They finally worked it out," Violet said, turning her head to look at him.

Buck smiled.

"Why are you here?" Violet asked.

Buck shrugged, unable to meet her eyes. His reasons for being here were utterly foolish. So he asked a question of his own. "Did you expect me here?"

"In a way," Violet said quietly. "I didn't think you'd let Teaspoon keep you out of the mix."

Buck smiled. "It was not just that," he told her sincerely. He wanted her to be safe. And when he saw Jimmy bringing Mattie to the dance he was certain that the gunfighter's attention would be focused elsewhere.

Violet smiled. "Thank you."

Buck was pleased to see that she was not avoiding his steady gaze. "Are you feeling okay?"

"Just a mite tired."

Buck frowned.

"I'll ask Teaspoon to take me back soon." She stifled a yawn. "I don't know if we are learning anything new here."

"New?" Buck asked puzzled. "What have you learned?"

"Amos Farthington was an old leach," Violet grimaced. "He moved out here with his staff of two women. He hired some men for the other heavier work, and some other women as need be, but the two women stayed on permanently with their children. There was a boy and girl and they both kept close to the house except for school. No one really got to know them." "Jane and Kate," Buck recalled. "They had children?"

"Yes," Violet said with a nod. "Most of the townsfolk suspected there was hanky panky, but it was mostly gossip, nothing else. Amos kept to himself. And the women didn't know very much English so no one in town got to know them either."

"Immigrants?" Buck guessed.

"I suppose. I think someone said he came from out east so it was probably easy and cheap to get some immigrant girls to come work for him." Violet shook her head sadly. "Poor things, I doubt they got much of a say when he decided to move them all out here."

They both turned when they heard the sound of the door opening.

"See you back at the house," Buck whispered.

"Bye." Violet mouthed the word, her eyes dancing. And once again Buck felt his heart lurch. It was foolish and utterly premature to think that things between him and Violet were changing, but he could not help but think things were getting better.

Chapter Forty Three

Violet came from the house, an apple in hand as she took a seat on the swing, contemplating the events of the last week. Jimmy and Mattie had gotten close. They spent every afternoon together. Violet smiled to herself. Mattie had been in such good sprits since the dance. Jimmy clearly made her happy. The only tiff they had had was when on one of their rides they had come close to the small house the fire had occurred in. Mattie had hurried away quickly from the house, angry because she felt Jimmy was pushing her. What Jimmy had not realized at the time was Mattie was still having nightmares about the fire. She felt he was forcing her to confront her fears, but in reality Jimmy had not even been aware of her fears. Once he realized what was going on they had made up. He promised never to ride near the house ever again.

Violet sighed; even though she was thrilled for her friend, she could not help but feel a bit jealous. No one had ever made her smile the way Mattie smiled at Jimmy.

As if on cue, Mattie appeared from the house. "Hey, Violet," she said.

"Going someplace?" Violet asked in a teasing voice, as if she couldn't guess.

Mattie wrinkled her nose at Violet and did not reply. There was no need. She placed a hand on her forehead, shading her eyes as she glanced around. A few seconds later, Jimmy appeared, holding two horses by the reins.

"Ready?" he called out.

Mattie beamed at him. "See you later," she yelled back at Violet as she ran toward Jimmy and jumped into his arms.

"Oof," Jimmy grunted, acting as if Mattie were too heavy for him. But Violet noted how gently he held her, always so careful not to cause her any pain.

"Aw, I am too much for you?" Mattie said impishly. She slid out of his arms. But Jimmy pulled her close once more and kissed her.

It was then Buck appeared. Violet looked up at him, shocked to feel her cheeks beginning to burn as he turned her way. Get a grip, she chided herself. He was a handsome man. And she was an unmarried pregnant woman. But did that really matter? Buck had not run the other way. In fact, he had gone out of his way to make sure she was tended to. He seemed genuinely concerned about her and the baby's well being.

Buck smiled at her and Violet got to her feet. Maybe she could ask him to tend the garden with her again. "Buck" she began.

"Get down," Jimmy shouted, pushing Mattie to the ground.

Violet dropped to her knees and saw Buck hurrying toward her. In a matter of seconds he had enveloped her in his arms, pushing her to the ground and then just as quickly she felt him move slightly away from her, his head raised as he searched the area for whatever Jimmy had seen. He then got to one knee, firing his gun.

She then heard Jimmy curse loudly and she tightened her arms around Buck's leg as the roar of gunfire filled the air. Then just as suddenly as it had started it was over. Violet felt Buck pulling her up and then he wrapped his arms around her.

"Get inside!" Teaspoon shouted, appearing from inside the house, a rifle in his hands. And the small group did just that.

Chapter Forty Four

"What happened?" Teaspoon demanded loudly.

Jimmy was pacing the room like a panther while Jane sat in between Violet and Mattie on the couch.

Buck turned from the window he had been standing next to. "I don't know. I just heard gunshots," he replied.

"Where are Kid and Lou?" Teaspoon asked his voice filled with concern.

"In town," Buck replied.

Teaspoon nodded, the tension in his face vanished a bit. "Did you get a look at who was doing the shooting?"

"No," Buck replied regretfully. "It was coming from the north."

"Where the burned out cabin is," Jimmy added.

Teaspoon nodded. "I'll head up there as soon as we are through." He stared at Jimmy. "Why weren't you shooting back?" he asked quietly. When he had come out of the house he had seen the girls on the ground and Buck had been down on one knee, firing his gun in the direction of the shots. Jimmy had not even been holding his colt. His gun at been on the ground while he remained standing.

Jimmy shook his head slowly.

"Why don't I take the girls into the other room and make sure they are all right," Jane put in quickly.

"I don't -" Violet began to protest and then she stopped.

*~*~*

"What's going on with Jimmy?" Violet whispered to Mattie. It was clear something was amiss.

Mattie shook her head. "I don't know." But Violet saw the worry in her eyes.

"He hasn't said anything?" she persisted.

Once again Mattie shook her head. When they reached the kitchen, Mattie opened the bar door, put her fingers to her lips and whistled loudly. A few seconds later Max appeared.

"Can I get you girls something?" Jane asked quietly.

Mattie could only shake her head in response and Violet's concern grew exponentially. Her friend's behavior made her realize something was terribly wrong.

Chapter Forty Five

"So," Teaspoon said, looking at Jimmy expectantly.

Jimmy shrugged. He had had a niggling feeling about his arm for a few weeks now. Today had crystallized that feeling. The occasional numbness, the way his hand shook sometimes when he picked up a glass, the way he could not grip the reins of his horse with his right hand tightly, they were all not just signs of healing. They were the signs of real and lasting damage.

"Why weren't you shooting back?" Teaspoon persisted.

"What?" Jimmy exploded, "do you think I let those girls be in danger because I wanted it that way?"

"All I know is what I saw," Teaspoon said grimly. "I am just trying to get an explanation out of you."

"Well I ain't got one," Jimmy retorted.

Teaspoon glared at him. "What does that mean?" He stopped and shook his head as if he realized that he was getting nowhere with Jimmy. "I ain't just worried about the girls," he said, his voice less angry this time. "I'm worried about you. I ain't like you to just stand there and set yourself up to be a target."

But Jimmy was still too upset. "I don't need you to be my mother!"

"Your mother?" Teaspoon exclaimed.

"There's something wrong with my arm!" Jimmy half shouted. "You happy now? Now you know what was going on out there."

"What about your arm?" Teaspoon said carefully.

"When I pulled the trigger it was like my hand was on fire. I couldn't pull it." The realization of what he was saying filled Jimmy as he repeated the words, loudly and anguished this time. "I couldn't pull the trigger."

"Maybe the doctor could look at it again," Buck said quietly.

"What's the point?" Jimmy spat out the words angrily. The betrayal of what the doctor had not told him filled him. "The doctor knew something was wrong. He told me he had done all he could for me. But he never bothered to tell me that my hand is useless."

"Jimmy," Teaspoon began. And the soothing quality in his voice infuriated Jimmy.

"I'm a damned gunfighter," he exploded. A gunfighter who could not shoot was as good as dead.

"You are a lawman," Teaspoon told him firmly.

Jimmy laughed mirthlessly. "Yeah? Tell that to the fellas who call me out."

"I don't care about the fellas that call you out!" Teaspoon retorted. "I care about you."

"Thanks, Teaspoon," Jimmy said sarcastically. "At least now I have someone to give my eulogy."

"Jimmy," Teaspoon scolded him. But Jimmy did not bother to stick around and listen. He bolted from the room. He needed to see how bad his arm was for himself.

*~*~* Mattie rose from the steps of the house. It was almost dark when she saw Jimmy ride into the yard. She hurried to the barn. She had to talk to him before he got inside. He had just unsaddled his horse when she entered the barn.

"Are you okay?" she asked quietly.

Jimmy ignored her and threw the saddle on the stall wall. He began to unbridle his horse as Mattie approached him. "Are you going to say anything?" she asked.

"Don't you go acting like you are some stand by your man kind of gal," Jimmy snapped.

Mattie froze. "Because I'm not?" she asked simply.

"Just get out! You told me to tell you when I got sick of you,' Jimmy continued angrily. "Well I'm sick of you."

Mattie's eyes grew wide. She knew he was lashing out at her because something was terribly wrong and he wanted her far away from him. She knew he would be sick of her eventually. But just a few hours ago he had been happy to see her. Jimmy was lying. "Don't do this!"

"Do what? Tell you what I promised to tell you?"

Mattie winced inwardly. She knew the right thing would be to leave and approach him later. But she could not stop herself. His words were too hurtful. "I never expected this to last forever," she said quietly.

"Good, then it's not a surprise." Jimmy started to move past her.

"What's wrong with your arm?" she asked quickly. Maybe she could stop his angry words and get to the truth. Buck had told her Jimmy had said something was wrong with his arm before he disappeared. And she had gathered as much from watching him that afternoon as they had been shot at.

"None of your damned business," Jimmy told her coldly as he left.

Chapter Forty Six

Violet picked up the ball from the floor of the front porch and threw it across the yard. Max barked and ran to fetch it.

"How come you are watching him?" a voice asked from behind her.

Violet quickly whirled around, letting out a breath when she saw it was Jimmy.

"Sorry," he muttered, "I didn't mean to startle you."

Violet just shrugged, still angry at him for the way he so callously dismissed Mattie from his life. Deep down she knew why he had done it. He had a reputation, being with him would put Mattie in danger and he could no longer protect her from that danger. But seeing her friend so devastated had infuriated Violet.

Jimmy had just opened his mouth to speak again when Linda Donner, the woman who had been tending to both his and Mattie's injuries came from the house. "Well, I think I'll come by tomorrow too."

Violet frowned. "Is it really necessary?"

Linda nodded. "I think so." She glanced at Jimmy. "Do you want me to take a look at your arm?"

"No," Jimmy told her curtly.

Unfazed Linda nodded. "Tomorrow then," she said as she walked toward the barn where her buggy was.

"Why is she here?" Jimmy asked abruptly.

"None of your business!" Violet exclaimed, turning to look at him.

"Is something wrong with Mattie?"

Violet glared at him. "You have been avoiding her for a week and now you are concerned? Too little too late!" She quickly stalked away, moving toward the side of the house, leaving Jimmy standing on the porch.

"Are you okay?" Buck called out, running to her side. "I heard you and Jimmy," he added sheepishly.

"Yes," Violet replied wearily.

"Can I ask why?" he asked with a wry grin.

"Mattie, what else."

Buck nodded.

"How could he just abandon her like that?" Violet exclaimed. "He makes her care for him and then walks right out of her life, like she meant nothing to him."

Buck nodded once more, watching Violet carefully.

"What you think I'm projecting or something?" Violet asked sharply.

Buck frowned. "Projecting?"

"You know, putting my feelings of abandonment on Jimmy?"

"Is that what you are doing?" Buck asked quietly.

"No. Yes. Maybe. I don't know." Violet looked at the ground, a vision of Gerald filling her mind. "He was so handsome, big, blond haired, blue eyed and he was so sad. What happened to him in the war haunted him. "

Buck gave her an encouragingly smile, as if he knew exactly who she was talking about.

"I thought he was healing, that being with me, the long talks, the," Violet stopped, recalling their afternoons in bed. She blushed as she spoke once more. "But then one day he just up and vanished. I never saw or heard from him again." She found herself wishing once more that she knew what had happened.

"I doubt it was anything you said or did," Buck told her gently.

"You know," Violet said, as she realized the words to be true, "I think so too." She shook her head. "For a long time I thought he'd come back. Then I realized he wasn't and I blamed myself. I was sure that I said or did something to make him run. But I think now he was just too broken. He had seen too much to ever want to move on, make a life for himself. He felt so guilty, he was alive and his fellow soldiers weren't."

"War does that," Buck said softly.

"You've been to war?"

"My people have been at war for as long as I can remember."

"I'm sorry," Violet told him.

"I missed a lot of it, being that I went to a missionary school," he told her, almost casually. But Violet saw the anguish in his eyes.

"There are English schools for Indian children?"

"Yes." Buck's voice was bitter.

Violet gave him a look of surprise.

"They take the children from their families, cut their hair, dress them like the white man, and make them feel like everything Indian is dirty," Buck continued angrily.

"Was your school like that?" Violet asked, almost fearful of the answer. She hated the thought of Buck in a place that treated him like he was dirty, something to be ashamed of.

Buck shrugged.

"I'm guessing it wasn't much better?" Violet said.

"Not much," Buck said ruefully. He looked out over the horizon. "I just don't know what the world will be like for my people." His voice was filled with worry.

Violet stood beside him. "You are welcome here, for as long as you want," she said impulsively, her voice filled with an emotion she could not name. She clapped a hand over her mouth. The words had just popped out.

"Thank you," Buck said, but clearly he did not believe her. He thought she was being polite.

"I don't want you to feel like you have something to be ashamed for!" Violet was adamant. "No child should ever feel that way!"

Buck gave her a quizzical look. "I think you are projecting again."

"I think so too," Violet whispered, tears springing into her eyes.

Buck put an arm around her shoulders. "You and your child have nothing to be ashamed of."

"Most folks wouldn't agree with you."

"I'm not most folks."

Violet met his eyes, able to smile a bit. "Neither am I."

Chapter Forty Seven

"Where is Mattie?" Jimmy demanded, bursting into the kitchen.

Jane turned from the stove to stare at him. "In her room," she replied patiently.

"No, she isn't!" Jimmy told her angrily. Mattie was missing!

"Maybe she needed to use the facilities," Jane said, but it was plain to see that she was becoming concerned. She put the spoon she had been holding down and hurried up the stairs, Jimmy hot on her heels. When Jane opened Mattie's door, she stared at the empty bed.

"Did Linda Donner give her the usual treatment?" Jimmy asked loudly.

Jane nodded.

"She gives some pretty strong medication, doesn't she?" Jimmy continued angrily. "Most of the time she could barely keep her eyes open after Linda was done."

"What are you getting at?" Teaspoon asked, interrupting Jimmy's interrogation as he came up behind them.

"Mattie is missing!" Jimmy exclaimed.

"And Jane took her?" Teaspoon retorted.

"Why wasn't anyone watching her?" Jimmy half shouted.

"Why would anyone need to watch her?" Teaspoon countered.

"Ask Jane!"

"Jane?" Teaspoon looked at the woman, puzzled. Jane was staring at the floor.

"Never mind," Jimmy grumbled, feeling a bit abashed for his outburst. But he made a mental note to talk to Jane later. Jane had not protested his accusation at all, an act that just furthered his suspicions.

"But Mattie is missing, right?" Teaspoon asked. "I don't think we should jump to any conclusions," he continued patiently. "Maybe she just got confused and wandered away."

Jimmy shot him a skeptical look. Mattie could barely walk after she was given the medications. But he also had to acknowledge the fact that he had not been there. He did not know how much or how strong the medications were. "We need to find her," he said firmly.

"So let's organize a search," Teaspoon declared, ever the pragmatist.

*~*~*

Jimmy stopped his horse and stared at the burned out house. Why would she come here? Was she taken and brought here, he wondered? But he was certain Mattie must be at the house where the fire occurred. Buck had scoured all the pathways leading to town, Teaspoon had looked in odd little places, a cave no one else knew about, a hollowed out elm. Jane and Violet had searched the house.

Jimmy had ridden to the places he and Mattie used to frequent, the pond, the meadow, but she was not there. Thus he had decided to come here; the place Mattie hated most of all.

Slowly he dismounted and walked to the front of the house, kicking a blackened board and listening to the ashes rustle. The house had almost burned to the ground. All that stood was the half of the front wall and the chimney.

The fire had to have been set on purpose, he thought once more as he walked around the house, still searching for Mattie. He and Buck had discussed the possibility. The gunfire had been a way to force the girls into the house. If the gunman had wanted them to be shot, then he would not have missed, especially not the second time.

The gunshots at the house the other day had to have been some kind of attention getting device as well. Whoever was firing at them missed on purpose again. Jimmy had been just standing there and not even a single bullet had grazed him.

Was he right about Jane knowing more than she let on, he mused? He had to be, otherwise Jane would have protested but she had not, in fact she could not even look at him. Clearly she knew a lot more than what she had told them.

But Jimmy's thoughts stopped there because he saw something. He scrambled down the hill behind the house when he saw a white spot on the muddy bank next to a small creek. It was her, it was Mattie! She was lying there; face down, unmoving in damp earth.

"Baby," he murmured, turning her over and cradling Mattie's prone body against him before gently setting her back down.

"What are you doing out here?" Jimmy smoothed her hair back from her back from her face. He did a quick check of her arms and legs. Nothing appeared broken.

"I had the worst dream," Mattie said softly.

Jimmy cradled her once more and stood up, hurrying to his horse. During their short time together, he had discovered that he could hold her close as long as her left side was pointed downward. Slowly he moved toward his horse. They only had about an hour or so before it got dark. They needed to get back to the house, not only to tell everyone Mattie was okay, but Jimmy did not relish being out here alone in the dark. Someone was out to hurt Mattie, he was certain of it.

"You left me," Mattie continued, her voice barely over a whisper.

"I'm sorry," Jimmy murmured, kissing her forehead.

"And my father told me that you needed me and I had to hurry."

"What?" Jimmy exclaimed. Mattie was not making any kind of sense. Jimmy did not think she was referring to what he had said to her in the barn. Something else had happened to her.

"Are you okay?" she whispered.

Jimmy gingerly climbed onto his horse, Mattie still in his arms. "I'm okay," he told her. "I'm just glad you are too."

Mattie gave him a weak smile before her eyes closed.

*~*~*

Lou stared out the kitchen window. It was getting dark. She had looked all over the house the minute she and Kid had returned from town. She frowned, an idea forming in her mind.

Kid wrapped an arm around her waist. "I bet Jimmy has found her and they are on their way home right this minute."

"I hope so," Lou replied, still looking out the window. "Kid," she said slowly, "I think we should go to town."

"Again?" Kid, instantly concerned, said, "Are you worried? Of course we can go to town. Your safety comes first."

Lou gave him a look that was both withering and bemused. Dear, sweet Kid, always so worried about her. He still had the power to make her utterly furious and melt at the same time. She chose not to pick this time for an argument. She knew his heart was in the right place. She stood on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. "I'm not worried about myself."

"The baby, of course, let's pack -"

"Kid," Lou was rapidly becoming impatient. "I'm not worried about the baby either. I want to go to town and talk to Linda Donner."

"Linda Donner? Do you think she saw something?"

"Maybe," Lou replied. "Maybe at the house, maybe earlier," she continued, almost cryptically.

Kid gave her a quizzical look but he reluctantly agreed. Together the McClouds went to the barn and hitched up a buggy.

Chapter Forty Eight

Jimmy pulled on the reins of his horse, bringing the animal to a stop in front of the house.

"You found her," Jane said, racing out of the house, the relief she felt etched all over her face.

Jimmy nodded, letting Jane hold Mattie up while he dismounted. Once on the ground he took Mattie back into his arms, following Jane, into the house, up the stairs and into Mattie's room. Gently, he deposited Mattie on the bed.

"Is she all right?" Jane asked.

"I think so," Jimmy replied. As he pulled the covers over her, he was realized she was fine, a trifle dirty and her thoughts were confused. "Except this". During his cursory examination of Mattie he had discovered a large gash on her left arm. "I think she needs stitches."

"Let me get my kit," Jane said quickly. When she returned, Jimmy saw she was carrying a black lacquer box. The jumble of thoughts he had running through his mind about Mattie crystallized in that instant. "I used to tend to the others who worked here, I have sewn up my share of cuts," she said with a reassuring smile.

Jimmy stared at her silently while she sewed Mattie's arm up. How could he have missed it, he thought, angry with himself for being so blind.

Once she was done, Jane wrapped a piece of gauze around her arm. "There," she said, "that ought to hold her. Now we should get the doctor." Jane rose to her feet, moving toward the door.

"You care a lot about Mattie, don't you?" Jimmy asked quietly.

"Of course I do." Jane stopped in her tracks.

"One of the first things I noticed when the girls arrived was the way you spoke to them. Violet was always Miss or Miss Violet. But Mattie was always Mattie," Jimmy said, almost casually.

Jane stared at him.

"And the dress you gave her; it was your daughter's, right?"

"So?"

"Dr. Gilbert said seeing Mattie so hurt, after the fire, had to be hard on you. Was it?" Jimmy asked his voice had become calm almost calculating as he had continued to speak. "Was seeing her like that hard on you?"

Jane stared at him. A flurry of emotions crossing her face, "How did you know?"

"Mattie told me stories about a Russian princess. The princess has that box." Jimmy gestured toward the box Jane had called her kit.

"Mattie knows the stories?" Tears sprang into Jane's eyes.

"Does Teaspoon know about her?" Jimmy asked.

Jane shook her head. "I haven't told him. I don't know if he figured it out."

"I think he should know." Along with a few other folks, Jimmy thought.

Wearily Jane nodded.

"I'll ask Violet to check Mattie while we talk," Jimmy said. "Maybe by sharing information we are holding separately we can figure this whole mess out."

Jane nodded once more.

"Shall we meet in the kitchen in, say fifteen minutes?"

"That will be fine," Jane agreed, her voice breaking. Clearly she relished the idea of having some time to gather herself. She waited at the door. "Aren't you coming?"

"I want to sit with her for a bit," Jimmy said quietly.

Jane looked at him surprise. "I thought you ended things."

"I did." Jimmy looked at her. "That doesn't mean I stopped caring about her."

"You still care about her like that?" Jane's surprise was written all over her face. "But you left her," she continued.

"I know."

"She was very hurt by that," she chided him.

"I can't protect her," Jimmy said, his voice anguished.

"Do you think my secrets hurt her?" Jane asked softly. She was obviously trying to contain her emotions. But Jimmy heard the concern in her voice.

"I don't know," Jimmy replied honestly.

The older woman gave him a resolute nod, as if she had made up her mind about him. "I'll see you downstairs," Jane told him briskly, as she left quickly. But before she left Jimmy saw the tears in her eyes.

Once Jane had gone Jimmy moved onto the bed and put a blanket on Mattie's back, shielding her injuries from the roughness of his shirt and the protrusions of his buttons. Then he curled up behind her, resting an arm across her abdomen. With every steady breath Mattie drew, Jimmy felt himself relax more and more. She was going to be okay.

"I'll figure this out," he vowed. "I will make sure whoever did this to you never gets near you again." As he lay beside her, he felt both content and guilty. It was her unconscious state that allowed him to hold her so close. Jimmy knew that if she had been awake, he would never let himself touch her like this. But right now he would take what he could get. Lord knows he had missed holding her like this.

Chapter Forty Nine

"What's this about?" Teaspoon asked, taking a seat at the dining room table. Jane was sitting across from him, staring at her hands which were folded primly on the table.

Jimmy sat down and poured coffee into the cups, one for himself, Teaspoon, Lou, Jane and Kid. Buck and Violet had volunteered to tend to Mattie. Lou was bursting at the seams to tell him something thus she had asked Buck to help with Mattie instead of her.

"Mattie," Jimmy said. He quickly explained how after Linda Donner had treated Mattie she had disappeared. He nodded toward Lou.

"I got to thinking then," Lou said. "Jimmy was suspicious of Linda Donner, but maybe someone had been hanging around her."

"Like?" Teaspoon said, frowning.

"Pierce," Kid put in. "Lou knew Jimmy was suspicious of Linda, but that didn't make sense to her."

"Linda has been caring for Mattie for a while, and Mattie has been fine. Maybe someone altered her drugs or mentioned wanting to see Mattie." Lou said the words carefully.

"What?" Teaspoon exclaimed.

Lou shook her head quickly. "Linda explained that it wasn't possible. She mixed the medicine fresh each day, and she would do it right before she packed up. There wasn't any time for anyone to tamper with them."

"But someone could have followed her," Jimmy said. "Someone who spent time here learned the routines."

Kid nodded. "Linda admitted she would not have known if anyone had been following her."

"Like who?" Teaspoon demanded.

Jimmy shrugged. "Pierce?" he offered. Even though the word was spoken as a question, it was clear that Jimmy did not doubt that it was Pierce who had followed Linda Donner.

Jane let out an anguished gasp. "You think Pierce snuck in here?"

"It's a theory," Kid told her gently. "There is no way to know for certain."

"She said that her father told her that I needed her," Jimmy told him. "Maybe Pierce told her that so she wouldn't fight him. As strong as Linda's medicines were I don't think Mattie could have put up much of a fight though."

"But she could have yelled, done something to attract attention," Lou interjected. "Saying you needed help probably kept her quiet."

"Okay, let me get this straight," Teaspoon said, looking around the table. "Pierce followed Linda, snuck in here and got Mattie out, all without any of us seeing him?" His voice was incredulous.

"Maybe Linda Donner is lying," Jane said flatly. "From the little time Pierce spent here, I think we can all agree that he is a charmer."

"So you are thinking Linda either helped Pierce get in or got Mattie out?" Teaspoon said.

Jane nodded. "Or both."

Teaspoon's eyebrows rose up and down. "Maybe this is a question you all have already answered. We weren't watching Mattie because there was no need to or so we thought," he paused, "which makes Jane's scenario possible. My question is why is Pierce trying to hurt Mattie? We all agree that that is what he is doing, right?"

"Distract us from Violet?" Kid guessed.

Jimmy glanced at Jane. "I don't think Violet is the real target."

"What?" Teaspoon was angry now. "So now Violet is lying?"

Jimmy shook his head. "I don't think she knows the truth either."

"Jimmy," Teaspoon began sternly.

"I told you that Amos Farthington and I had been lovers," Jane interrupted, staring at her hands folded primly on the table.

"You don't have to do this in front of all of us," Jimmy told her, pushing his chair back.

"Its okay," Jane said wearily, turning her head to look at him. "It will all come out eventually."

"You told me," Teaspoon said gently, "about Amos," steering the conversation back on track.

"I had a child," Jane said quietly, "Dinara."

"Mattie knows the stories you told her mother," Jimmy said.

Jane's eyes filled with tears. "I was so sure Dinara hated me." She wiped her eyes and continued. "Dinara, or Diana as everyone called her, grew up in this house, never knowing Amos was her father. She wanted me to leave and start a new life. She had big dreams, but I was too afraid to leave. I had been working for Amos since I was fourteen years old.

"I came from Russia, I didn't know a soul; and I barely knew the language. I came off the boat, some woman's group cut off my braids, and they gave me a new name and sent me on my way. But I had no way; I was lost. Eventually I ended up in a boarding house and met another Russian woman who could read English. She showed me an ad, and I ended up working for Amos. When Amos moved out here, I moved with him."

"Did Amos ever acknowledge Dinara as his own?" Teaspoon asked.

"Never," Jane said bitterly. "I hated him for that." She drew a deep breath before continuing her tale.

"Dinara eventually met Michael, they fell in love, and she left," Jane said quietly. "She wrote me that she had a child. She asked me to come, but by then Amos had taken ill. I couldn't leave him."

"Did you love him?" Teaspoon asked.

"No," Jane replied heavily. "I felt sorry for him. And I didn't want to burden my daughter. She used to write me regularly, and then there was nothing. I heard a few years ago about the fire. Dr. Gilbert was going to Iowa, and I asked him to check on Dinara. He told me the whole family had been killed."

She looked at Jimmy, her face filled with anguish. "I didn't know about Mattie."

Teaspoon patted her hand. "I don't think anyone did."

"Amos must have," Jane said her voice hardening. "But the old fool got it wrong. He thought Violet was his grandchild."

"From what I understand Mattie practically lived at my sister's house. If Amos asked and someone said the girl at the Talbot house, then that could be taken as Violet," Teaspoon said, furrowing his brow. "Violet needs to know that this isn't her house," he said, suddenly struck by the thought.

"And Mattie needs to know about you," Jimmy told Jane.

Chapter Fifty

Violet shook her head. Her mind reeling as Jimmy finished speaking. "This is all Mattie's?"

"Well, technically it's yours," Jimmy said quietly as he, Buck and Violet stood outside Mattie's room, the door cracked open so they could hear if she awoke. Jimmy had just finished filling Buck and Violet in about what had occurred downstairs.

Violet crossed her arms across her chest. "It's Mattie's inheritance," she said stubbornly.

Jimmy shrugged. "I guess you two will have to figure it out," he said. He peeked into the room.

"Is she still sleeping?" Buck asked.

Jimmy nodded. "I'm gonna sit with her for a bit." Quietly he opened the door and then shut it behind him.

"If he still cares for her then he should show her," Violet said angrily.

"Are you upset about him or what you just heard?" Buck asked.

"Both," Violet admitted.

Buck gave her a sad smile. "I'm sorry."

"I can't believe all this!" Violet exclaimed. "Someone went to all this trouble to try to kill Mattie because of this stupid house. Why not just say there were no heirs?"

"Amos probably knew there was an heir," Buck said.

"But then he got it all wrong in the end," Violet said bitterly. "How could anyone be so stupid?"

"All he had was a name," Buck said. He really did not mean to defend Amos. He just wanted to soothe Violet. But like always, his words never came out the way he intended them to, not around Violet.

"Pierce figured it out!"

"Pierce probably had a hand in making you the heir instead of Mattie," Buck told her. He had been thinking about this for a while. Maybe Pierce was somehow connected to the legal firm that handled Amos' house. Maybe Pierce hoped to deliberately cause confusion. Or maybe he wanted to get Mattie easily out of the way without anyone suspecting she was the real target, and then have someone discover that Violet was not the true heir; he was.

"And I didn't help matters by letting Pierce in this house." Violet's voice was filled with self recrimination.

"This isn't your fault," Buck declared. "You didn't let Pierce in. You didn't ask for this house."

"I didn't even want to live here until recently. My family is in Iowa."

"The house and the property are worth a lot of money. You could sell it, rent it out and then see the world or go back home."

"And I finally had a plan for this great big ole house," Violet continued. Buck realized she was still very upset. His words were barely even being heard. "I had this grand idea of opening my own school and letting Indian children keep their ways and still learn what they needed to learn to survive."

Buck stared at her, while Violet stared at the floor as if she had realized she had voiced her secret thoughts out loud.

She laughed and waved her hand, as if brushing the thought away. "I have a teaching certificate and this house is so big," she said nonchalantly.

Still looking acutely embarrassed, she said, "Max, let's go. I'll take him for his walk," she explained. The dog rose from the floor where it had been sleeping.

Buck simply watched her as she hurried away.

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