Reconstructing a Family (Sep - Dec 1865)
Music: Rock & Roll Dreams, Meatloaf (Cody)
Miles To Go Before I Sleep, Celine Dion (Lou/Kid, Hickok)
It's Ok To Be Broken, Bon Jovi (all)
Will The Circle Be Unbroken?, Randy Travis (all)
The Twilight In Your Eyes, Sirenia (Polly)
Outlaw Blues, Pat Benatar (Jesse)
Amigos (Friends), Juanes (Buck)
The Love of My Life, Sammy Kershaw (Lou/Kid)
Lou looked around the crowded table and sighed in contentment. It was good to be home. Things felt… right. Rachel sat at one end of the table, a hand resting on her rounded belly, Janusz at her side. Teaspoon sat at the other end with Polly at his side. Kid, Lou and Cody filled the bench down one side with Buck, Standing Woman and Dawn Star on the other side. The children had already sacked out for the night. Everyone else was loathe to let the reunion end.
“In rides Buck, big as you please, followed by this horde he calls a family,” Teaspoon said. “And announces he’s not only gotten himself married, he went and done it twice!”
“Ya know,” Cody said, looking across at Buck, “All those times Teaspoon talked about how often he’d been married, he didn’t mean it as a challenge.”
Standing Woman and Dawn Star laughed as they watched their husband squirm, albeit happily, under the scrutiny of his friends. They’d never seen him so relaxed and content.
Kid smiled, joining in on the fun. “It’s always the quiet ones. All those years holding up walls at town socials and dances, he was just waitin’ fer us to clear out so’s he could scoop up all the available, pretty women in the territory!”
“Excuse me?” Rachel and Polly asked in simultaneous, exaggerated outrage. Lou just landed a slap to the back of her husband’s head.
“Well, you three were obviously already spoken for,” Kid defended himself. “Otherwise, he’d be challenging Teaspoon fer his title of most often married!”
“Kid, tell me, what’s it like to take orders from your wife?” Buck asked, attempting to turn the heat on one of his brothers, and thus off himself.
Kid just shrugged.
“Yeah, Kid,” Cody said, unable to not jump in. “Tell us what kind o’ commander Lieutenant Lou was!”
“Well, there was this time she gave me a black eye,” Kid said, a twinkle in his eye.
“Lou!” Teaspoon chided.
“It was that or tell ‘em I was a girl and get kicked out,” Lou said.
“I can’t see as how Lou being in command was any different from the way they were before they left,” Rachel added.
“Speaking of finding out about girls in the unit, how was it your Thatch got caught again?” Polly asked.
As the banter continued to circle the table, Kid slid his hand beneath the top and grabbed Lou’s in a tight grip. She gently squeezed back and leaned her head on his shoulder, sighing slightly.
“We’d better call it a night, folks,” Kid said, stepping back from the table and helping Lou up. “Lou still gets tired easily and we had a hard ride today.”
A few moments later, the couple found themselves alone in their room.
“Thanks,” Kid muttered, gathering Lou close in his arms and resting his head on top of hers. “It was startin’ to get to be too much in there.”
“It’s fine, Kid. That’s what partners are for,” she whispered, kissing his neck. “’Sides, I was gettin’ a little tired. I just didn’t wanta say anythin’.”
Kid stretched and yawned, enjoying the feeling of the comfortable bed beneath him and the clean sheets around him. As he pushed his arms to the limits of their length, he realized he was alone in the big, double bed Rachel and Polly had prepared for him and Lou. Raising his head, he called out quietly, “Lou?”
When he got no answer, he groaned and got up, muttering to himself, “Good Lord, years of havin’ ta wake her and now she’s gotta go and show me up!”
He quickly dressed, pausing a moment to consider his gunbelt before walking out of the room without donning it. He moved down the hall between the new bedrooms that led to the old bunkhouse, now kitchen, of Rachel’s house. As he entered the kitchen, he sniffed appreciatively.
“Sure have missed yer johnny cakes, Rachel.”
“Sit on down then,” Rachel said, turning from the stove with a platter piled high with the scrumptious smelling pancakes. “The maple syrup’s right there on the table.”
“Have ya seen Lou?” Kid asked as he piled three cakes on his plate and began buttering them up before drenching them in the syrup.
“She’s out with the horses,” Polly said as she came in from the barn carrying two buckets of milk, “getting acquainted with Katie and Lightning’s offspring.”
“I still can’t believe they had two foals while we were gone!” Kid exclaimed.
“Teaspoon says they spent too much time around you two,” Standing Woman said, entering with a baby on her hip and a little girl holding onto her hand. “Rachel, can you hold Shines Brightly while I get Shining Star set up with some breakfast?”
“Sure thing,” Rachel said taking the baby from her. “It’s good practice.”
“When are you due?” Kid asked.
“Sometime in November,” Rachel smiled. “Just a couple more months to go!”
“And they’re the most difficult,” Standing Woman smiled.
As the two women began to discuss pregnancy, its joys and difficulties, Kid quickly scarfed down his hotcakes and made his escape.
“There you are,” Lou said as she heard him enter the barn.
Wrapping her in his arms, Kid dropped a good morning kiss on her lips. “I missed you this morning.”
“Sorry,” she said. “You just looked so peaceful, I couldn’t bear the idea of waking you. And I wanted to see the youngun’s.”
“Are these the foals?” Kid asked, pulling away from Lou to inspect the two young horses in the stall in front of her. The older one was a beautiful solid black horse, just like her sire. The younger one, not quite a year old but past the nursing stage, was a paint, like her dam. “They’re beautiful.”
“And both bein’ fillies, they’ll make a great start on that ranch of ours,” Lou said, laughing as the yearling pushed her nose against Lou’s hands, looking for a treat.
“That’s not all we’ve got,” Buck said, walking into the main room of the barn from the tackroom at the back.
“What do ya mean?” Lou asked, following him as he walked out the main barn doors.
“I didn’t spend all the time you two were gone getting married,” Buck smiled. “I had a few extra minutes here and there.”
“And what did you do with those ‘extra minutes’?” Kid asked, half-running to catch up with Lou, grabbing her hand in his as they crossed the yard and walked around behind the bunkhouse.
“Got a little start on our ranch,” Buck said, holding his arm out to direct their gazes toward the temporary corral he’d built while awaiting their arrival.
“A little?” Lou gasped.
“That looks more like a whole herd!” Kid added, astonished.
“Well, you two gave me plenty of time to work on it,” Buck said, smiling. “They’re all halter and harnass broke. But I’ve only had time to saddle break a handful.”
“Looks like we’ve got somethin’ to keep us busy,” Kid said, climbing over the fence to get a closer look at the Indian ponies milling about the corral.
“We still need to find a place,” Lou said, following him up onto the top of the fence, but remaining there, sitting and watching as Kid inspected the horses. “How much do you still have set aside?”
“Pretty much all of it,” Buck said, coming to stand next to Lou as Kid continued to wander amongst the horses. “Didn’t ‘xactly need it out on the plains.”
“Same here,” Lou said. “We only touched enough for the trip home.”
“Yep, should be able to afford somethin’ real nice,” Kid added.
“What you guys talkin’ ‘bout?” Cody asked, walking up to the group of ex-riders.
“Our ranch,” Kid said.
“The one we were planning… before,” Lou answered.
Buck remained quietly in the background, as Kid added, “We’d have asked if you wanted in on the partnership, but we figured you’d be bored stuck out on a ranch, without an adoring audience.”
“Ya got that right, Kid!” Cody said, slapping his friend on the back. “Besides, Louisa could never handle livin’ out in the middle of nowhere. She’s a city girl. Not sure what I’ll do, but it’ll have to be somethin’ that allows me to have a home base in a town of some sort.”
Miles away, Jimmy tossed the dregs of his coffee cup into the fire before kicking dirt over it to completely kill the flames. After scrubbing the cup out with a handful of sand, he slipped it into his saddlebag and mounted up.
“Let’s go girl,” he whispered to his horse. “We’ve got family waiting.”
They took off at a quick canter. A few hours later they rode into the yard of the old station to the sweet music of a voice calling out his approach. He cantered right up to the hitching post outside the old bunkhouse, pulling his horse to a stop and sliding off in a single motion. Taking the steps two at a time, he rushed into Rachel’s open arms and hugged her tight.
“It’s so good to see you, Jimmy,” Rachel said.
“Feels like you’ve been busy while I’ve been gone,” Jimmy joked, placing a hand gently on her stomach.
She laughed and grabbed the hand to drag him into the bunkhouse turned kitchen. “Look who’s here, ladies!”
That evening, Lou and Kid walked in, followed by Buck, covered in dust and obviously exhausted. Jimmy was leaning back in his chair, listening to the tales of Buck’s rocky courtships. Three of Buck’s four kids clustered around Jimmy, the fourth and youngest was tucked safely in his arms.
“Now there’s a scene we never thought to see,” Kid said.
“Kid! Lou!” Jimmy jumped up and started to move toward them before remembering the baby in his arms. Turning, he thrust the little girl at Dawn Star before rushing to greet his friends.
Hugging the two of them tight to him in a simultaneous embrace, he whispered, “Don’t you two ever do that to me again! I can’t live through y’all dying on me.”
“We didn’t exactly plan on it the first time,” Lou said gently. Reaching up to run a hand down his cheek she smiled, “How are you doin’?”
“I’ve been better,” Jimmy said, pulling back from the emotional precipice he was on and sitting back in his chair. Patting the bench next to him he motioned Lou and Kid over.
Lou reached out and tweaked the long handlebar mustache Jimmy had grown since returning from his spy mission, then grabbing a lock of the long curls that twisted to the middle of his back.
“What’s this?” she asked. “Practicing to be a mountain man? Or were you goin’ for the river boat gambler look?”
“No,” Jimmy joked, pulling her own still painfully short locks. “Just thought I’d make up for your lack of hair.”
The three laughed easily and started the long process of catching up. That’s how Teaspoon found them when he came in just in time for supper. He grinned broadly and spread his arms wide. “Now there’s a sight for sore eyes! The last of my boys has made it home.”
“Whatta ya mean, the last?” Lou asked. “Ain’t ya hopin’ Jesse’ll make it back.”
Teaspoon turned his back on the group as he pretended to search for something in his coat pocket before hanging the coat up on a hook by the door. Turning back around, he said, “No, not really. I read a lot about that gang he and Frank hooked up with in Missouri during the war. They were more outlaw than soldiers. Don’t know where I went wrong with him.”
Jimmy moved over and patted Teaspoon’s shoulder. “Ya didn’t do nothin’ wrong. Just didn’t have as much time with him is all.”
Then, trying to change the subject, Jimmy added, “Kid and Lou tell me Isaac and his grandson aren’t here. Didn’t they make it this far?”
“Oh yeah, they made it son,” Teaspoon said, grunting as he settled into his chair. “Got ‘em a job workin’ a ranch ‘bout 20 miles west of here, close to Seneca.”
“I figured to find ‘em workin’ here.”
“I know son, but there warn’t no work fer ‘em here and they wouldn’t live off charity,” Teaspoon consoled Jimmy. “They said ta expect ‘em back fer the holidays.”
After supper that night, Teaspoon turned to Kid and asked, “Have ya thought ‘bout what yer goin’ ta do now, son? I could sure use yer help as a deputy. ‘Specially now that Buck tells me he’s quittin’ to start that ranch with you and Lou.”
“Sorry, Teaspoon,” Kid said. “But that ranch isn’t just Buck’s. ‘Sides,” he added in a much quieter voice, “in case ya ain’t noticed, I don’t pack a gun no more. Couldn’t work as a deputy, anyway.”
Teaspoon nodded, and turned to make the same offer to Jimmy.
“I’ll be glad ta work with ya, Teaspoon. It’ll be just like the old days.”
A few days later, Jimmy was sitting in the Marshal’s office, beating Teaspoon at checkers. He looked up at the sound of several horses galloping down the main street of town. Through the paned window he saw the stage pull up, with Cody in the driver’s seat.
“Whoa! Whoa, there, dang ya!”
Jimmy stood and waited by Teaspoon’s desk, knowing Cody would be in as soon as he handed the horses off to the stageline’s hostler. He watched as Cody jumped up onto the boardwalk, eschewing the use of the nearby steps, and swaggered into the Marshal’s office.
“Jimmy!” he greeted. “Nice ta see ya finally made it home.”
Jimmy just nodded, not ready to deal with his talkative brother’s jibes.
Turning to Teaspoon, Cody said, “It was a smooth run. Nary a sign of outlaws nor renegade Indians. I swear, if the Express had been this easy they wouldn’ta needed us!”
“Don’t count on it stayin’ that way fer long,” Teaspoon warned.
“I know, I know. But I can enjoy it while it does. Anythin’ I need to know before headin’ over to Rachel’s for some food?”
Jimmy shook his head even as Teaspoon answered Cody. Things had been quiet around Rock Creek since he’d arrived. In fact, the return of all the former Express riders was the biggest news in town at the moment.
“Alright then,” Cody said. Turning to Jimmy he added, “Want ta come along?”
Looking to Teaspoon for permission, Jimmy said, “Things have been slow around here. Ya don’t really need me at the moment, Teaspoon.”
“Go on with ya,” Teaspoon said, making shooing motions. “I’ll see y’all at supper.”
As they walked out, Cody chattering, Jimmy listening, Teaspoon smiled. Putting his feet up on his desk and pulling his hat down over his eyes, he muttered, “It’s great havin’ y’all back, but yer sure messin’ up my naptimes.”
When Teaspoon returned to the station for supper he found everyone already gathered around the table waiting for him. He grinned and said, “Somehow I ain’t surprised. Ya gotta get ta supper early if’n ya want ta get yer fair share when Cody’s around!”
Kid and Lou smiled at the old joke, then went back to their conversation with Buck about the merits of the various possible ranches they’d looked at in the area.
As Teaspoon sat down in his customary seat at the head of the table, he paused. “Oh, almost forgot. Cody, this here letter came fer ya today.”
Jimmy watched curiously as Cody took the letter from Teaspoon, glanced at the return address and then simply tucked it into a pocket.
“Who’s it from?” he asked.
“That Thatch gal he rode with in the war,” Teaspoon said, not noticing Cody’s sudden frantic motions to ‘shut-up!’
Jimmy stiffened and turned to glare at Cody.
“Ya know where she’s at?” he growled.
His angry tones caught the attention of everyone else in the room and all the other conversations ceased.
“Now, Jimmy,” Cody began in a placating tone.
“Ya know I’ve been lookin’ fer her ever since she left and ya knew where she was all along?”
Cody’s tone hardened at this, “Jimmy, ya had yer chance with her and ya ruined it!”
“I ruined it? Me? She’s the one what left without any explanation! Just some note ‘bout not bein’ able ta live with my ghosts.”
“I warned ya,” Cody started only to be interrupted.
“Tell me where she is!”
“No. She don’t want ya ta know. Ya think she hasn’t heard ‘bout that mess in Springfield? A shootout over a girl? So far’s she’s concerned, ya’ve moved on already. If ya want me ta tell her somethin’, I will. But I ain’t gonna break her trust.”
“Cody, I swear to God Almighty, if you don’t tell me where she’s hidin’ I’ll knock ya inta next week.”
Kid stood up, ready to get between his two friends and stop the incipient fight. Lou and Teaspoon each grabbed an arm and jerked him back down into his seat.
“No, son. He needs to work through this,” Teaspoon said.
Even as he said that, they heard the smack of Jimmy’s fist hitting Cody’s chin. They all turned just in time to see Cody hit the ground, out cold. Jimmy started to reach forward to pull the letter out of Cody’s pocket, but Rachel stepped in between him and his unconscious brother.
“Jimmy,” she said gently, “that’s his letter and it’s his decision whether or not to share any of the information in it.”
Jimmy glared at her for a moment, but couldn’t bring himself to raise a violent hand against any woman, let alone a heavily pregnant woman. Finally he snorted in anger and turned to stomp out of the bunkhouse.
“Kid, Buck,” Rachel said, “come get Cody and take him to his room. He’s gonna have a heck of a headache when he wakes up.”
“Serves him right,” Buck muttered. “He’s always givin’ us a headache!”
As they lifted the blonde rider up from the ground, Kid grunted.
“Fer such a skinny man, he’s sure heavy.”
“Yep. It’s all Rachel’s cookin’ he’s been stuffin’ down that hollow leg of his,” Buck agreed as they dragged their friend through the door and down the hall to his room.
After laying him on his bed, Buck stopped long enough to remove Cody’s boots. Then, he and Kid turned and headed back up the hallway toward the kitchen. Sudden shots rang out from behind the building.
“Jimmy’s takin’ his anger out on some innocent bottles, again,” Buck grinned, turning to share the humor with Kid. “Kid?”
Kid had gone white as a sheet and was sweating heavily. Reaching out a hand, Buck tried to touch Kid, who violently shoved him away.
“Lou. Where’s Lou?” Kid started mumbling. “Gotta watch her back ‘fore them Yanks shoot her.”
“Kid,” Buck tried again, getting no response. So, he yelled through the door into the kitchen, “Lou! You’d better get out here!”
Lou came running through the door at top speed, only to skid to a halt at the sight of her husband.
“Go into the kitchen, Buck,” she said quietly. “You’ll only make things worse.”
Buck nodded and walked backward toward the kitchen, watching his two friends every step of the way.
“And Buck?” she asked without taking her eyes off Kid, “Could ya get someone to tell Jimmy to stop shooting?”
“Sure thing, Lou.”
“Kid,” she said softly, walking up to him slowly. “It’s me, Kid. It’s alright. I’m right here. I’m safe. We’re back at the home station. Nothin’ kin hurt me now. Ya done yer job Kid. Ya brung me home safe.”
Continuing her neverending reassurances, Lou walked up to Kid and wrapped her arms around him. At the feel of her body pressed against his, Kid’s body relaxed and he started to slump against the wall.
“No, Kid,” she said. “Don’t do that. Come on, let’s get you to bed.”
Slowly, she maneuvered the taller man toward their bedroom, continuing to reassure him.
“Yer sure you’re alright,” he asked once as she started to remove his shirt.
“I’m fine, Kid,” she smiled up at him. “Now, let me take care of ya, like a good little wife.”
He relaxed, letting her do what she would, so long as she remained within arm’s reach of him. Soon, she had him stripped down to his longjohns and climbed into the bed next to him.
He wrapped his arms around her waist and buried his head in her shoulder. It was only then, in the darkness of their room, secure in her embrace, that he could let go and cry. She continued to brush his hair, like a mother would a young child’s, and whisper words of love to him. Eventually, he cried himself out and fell asleep.
The next morning, she awoke to find Kid already up and gone. Knowing his routines as well as her own, she was pretty sure he was either out with the horses or in the kitchen cooking. Quickly, she threw on the nearest clothing she could find, her single pair of britches and Kid’s old shirt that she’d appropriated. Soon, she was half running toward the kitchen.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Polly was saying, as Lou walked into the kitchen.
“That’s nothing,” Buck said. “You should’ve seen him last night.”
“It’s gettin’ better,” Lou said. “Slowly.”
Polly, Rachel and Buck turned at her words. Standing Woman smiled and patted the seat next to her.
“What’s wrong with him?” Teaspoon asked.
Lou sighed and prepared herself for an explanation she’d hoped not to have to give. “The doctor called it Battle Fatigue. Said a lot of soldiers are suffering from it since the War ended. Basically, he said the stress of constant battle and,” she smiled bitterly, “and constant worryin’ ‘bout my safety, not ta mention the guilt he felt over havin’ dragged me inta a war he no longer belived in, got ta be too much fer his mind. Like I said, he’s gettin’ better, but some things still set him off.”
“Like gunfire,” Jimmy said, walking in behind Dawn Star.
“Like gunfire,” Lou nodded. She turned to Teaspoon. “That’s why he don’t wear a gun no more. Can’t stand to hear ‘em go off, let alone shoot one.”
Teaspoon nodded in understanding. “I knew some men from the Mexican War were the same way. Noise is a problem, too, ain’t it.”
Lou nodded again. “Yep. Noisy crowds can set him off, although there it’s more of a case of a little goes a long way. He can handle it in small doses, but not too much. That’s why we keep leaving y’all so early in the evenings, when we’re all gathered together.”
Polly smiled. “I’d wondered ‘bout that.”
“Most of us just figured y’all was enjoyin’ a second honeymoon, darlin’,” Rachel added.
Janusz, who rarely spoke, asked, “Vhat can ve do to help?”
Smiling gratefully at the taciturn man, Lou said, “Don’t take things personally when he loses it. Get me, if I’m not around. Ya did the right thing last night, Buck. Since his main fear is my safety, I’m the best thing to calm him down when one of his panic attacks hit.”
As she paused to think, Lou noticed several dozen muffins stacked near the stove. “And, don’t tease him about how he handles things afterward. He finds comfort in spending time alone with animals, especially the horses,” she said. “But, cookin’ seems ta do him the most good. Don’t josh him over it, alright?”
“No problem, Lou,” Jimmy said. “Though we may have to gag Cody. The only time that man ain’t talkin’ is when ya want him to spit somethin’ out.”
“I made a promise, Jimmy, and I ain’t gonna break it,” Cody said, stepping into the kitchen, rubbing absentmindedly at the bruise on his chin.
Jimmy grunted and turned his back on Cody, slamming the door of the kitchen behind him as he walked back out into the yard.
“’Tween you two and the Kid, I’m thinkin’ it’s time ta head out to the sweatlodge,” Teaspoon muttered.
Lou, Buck and Cody all groaned, but knew by the stubborn look on Teaspoon’s face there was nothing they could do to dissuade him from the idea.
All of the former riders were gathered in the sweatlodge with Teaspoon. Both of Buck’s wives had chosen to join them. It made for a tight fit in the small hut.
Teaspoon looked around. Kid was seated next to Lou, as usual, with his arm wrapped tightly around her. Lou, who didn’t have longjohns anymore, was dressed in a frilly camisole and lacy bloomers, and glaring at anyone who even looked like they were thinking about commenting on her underclothes. Cody was seated between Lou and Teaspoon, glaring at Jimmy who sat by the door gasping for every breath of cool air he could get. Buck sat sandwiched between Standing Woman and Dawn Star, who’d stripped down to a simple cotton shift each. He looked supremely uncomfortable, yet both women appeared completely at ease. Everyone had, without thinking about it, squeezed close together so they could leave Ike’s and Noah’s customary seats open. Teaspoon grinned as he poured water over the hot stones, causing a cloud of steam to billow up into the air.
“Ahhh,” he sighed. Then, tilting his head to one side, he added, “Looks like I’m gonna have ta enlarge this thing before we use it again. Gettin’ a mite crowded in here.”
“You could let me outa here,” Jimmy complained. “That’d leave plenty of room fer the others.”
“Now boy, yer the one that needs this the most,” Teaspoon admonished.
Cody snorted. “That’s an understatement.”
“And you, Cody, you got your own thinkin’ ta do,” Teaspoon said, turning on the blonde rider.
“What’d I do?”
“Ya forgot who yer brothers were,” Teaspoon said.
“I don’t mean ya should tell Jimmy what he wants ta know,” Teaspoon continued, unfazed by Cody’s interruption. “I just mean ya shoulda let him know ya’d had word from Thatch and that she was safe.”
“Her name’s Agnes!” Jimmy interrupted.
“At the same time, son,” Teaspoon said, turning to Jimmy, “Ya should apologize to Cody. Ain’t no reason to beat up on a man ‘cause he’s keepin’ a promise. That’s part o’ what makes him a man.”
As Jimmy opened his mouth to protest, Teaspoon held up a warning finger. “I ain’t done yet.”
Jimmy closed his mouth and leaned back against the wall of the sweatlodge, trying to get closer to the door while waiting.
“I know ya don’t understand what Thatch, uh Agnes, done. Heck, I still don’t understand half of what women do,” Teaspoon smiled. “But, ya gots ta work things out with her without putting yer family in the middle of it. Do ya remember what happened ‘tween Kid and Lou when y’all got involved?”
The others all reluctantly nodded at the reminder. Sighing, Jimmy turned his head in Cody’s direction. “I ain’t gonna say I’m sorry I hit ya. But I am sorry I did it over the letter. Shoulda waited fer a better reason.”
Cody grinned. “Apology accepted.”
“Great. Can we leave now?” Jimmy asked, turning to Teaspoon.
“You two ain’t the only reason we’re here.”
“What?” chorused three voices.
“What’d we do?” Buck asked.
“Yeah, we ain’t done nothin’,” Kid added.
“This war that’s just over was a bad one boys, and y’all were scattered around the country without the support of yer family,” Teaspoon said. “That just made things worse fer ya. Yer all hidin’ wounds ya don’t want ta share. But, that’s what family’s fer. To share the things ya hide from the rest of the world.”
Teaspoon paused to let his words sink in. Looking around the gathered group he watched as each person thought about what he’d said.
Finally, Standing Woman looked tentatively at Teaspoon and moved her hands fluidly in a question.
“Yes, you can go first,” Teaspoon nodded.
She paused, took a deep breath and finally said, “I’ve been hiding the fact that I’m mad at Buck and Dawn Star. Their marriage wasn’t supposed to be real. When it became real, I got mad. I’m sorry.”
Buck and Dawn Star pulled her toward them in a group hug. The rest of those gathered in the sweatlodge looked away, giving the family a moment of privacy.
“What ‘bout you, Kid?” Teaspoon prompted. “Ya got anythin’ ya’ve been hidin’ from us?”
“You know I have, Teaspoon. And y’all already know what it is,” Kid sighed.
“I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout yer post war problems, though we’ll get ta that.”
Kid looked at Teaspoon with a question in his eyes and Teaspoon jerked his head toward Jimmy. Kid’s eyes widened in sudden understanding.
Turning to his best friend, he opened his mouth. “I’m sorry, Jimmy, for the way I acted before… before the war. Ya were right. I was wrong.”
Jimmy reached over and patted Kid’s shoulder. “From what I saw, there was a whole lot o’ wrong on both sides, Kid. ‘Sides, I forgave ya a long time ago, thought ya knew that.”
“Told ya,” Lou said, smiling at her husband.
Slowly, one by one, the riders began to open up about their hidden feelings, sharing with each other the wrongs they felt they’d committed, asking forgiveness, discussing their concerns over the present and fears for the future. None noticed as the hours slipped past and they slowly found their way back to each other.
Over the next few weeks, they all fell into a routine. Jimmy helped Teaspoon out at the Marshal’s office, while Lou, Buck and Kid rode all over the area looking for the perfect ranch. Cody continued to make his twice weekly stagecoach runs.
One day, riding back from looking at the old Haverman place, Lou, Kid and Buck were discussing its merits.
“It’s the right size,” Kid said.
“But it’s the Haverman place,” Lou protested. “You know what they did to Buck! I just can’t see us living there.”
“If it don’t matter to me, I don’t see why it should matter to you, Lou,” Buck put in. “I’m the one that got tarred and feathered. This place’s got everythin’ we’ve been lookin’ for and it’s a great price, havin’ been empty ever since they left town.”
“Lou, the barns are extensive enough to handle all the stock we’ve got and still have room for expansion,” Kid laid out the case in favor of the property. “The only thing that needs any work is the main house, and that’s minor.”
“It is big enough to hold all of us for the winter,” Lou mused. “Even if we get some long-term guests.”
“And we’ll be able to build our own house next to it in the spring,” Kid encouraged. “The way Buck’s family’s growin’ he’s gonna need that entire place for himself!”
Buck swatted his friend with his hat, but grinned in appreciation of the jibe.
“Plus, it’s been empty so long, it’s dirt cheap,” Buck added. “Can’t beat that. Leaves us more money to make it through the winter and still be able to make improvements next spring.”
“You two’ve made up my mind for me, haven’t ya?” Lou asked, acerbically.
“Is that a yes?” Buck asked, eyes twinkling.
“I guess so,” she sighed heavily.
“Great!” Kid whooped. “We’ll head to the bank tomorrow morning and get the paperwork started.”
That afternooon, Jimmy found Kid sitting on the steps of the old bunkhouse porch staring at something in his hands. Walking up, he could see that Kid was holding his old revolver as if he were afraid of it.
“Whatcha doin’?” Jimmy asked, sitting down next to his friend.
“If I’m man enough ta strap this back on.”
“A gun don’t make ya a man, Kid,” Jimmy said. “I learned that the hard way, and only after it was too late ta take the gun off and survive. Ya ain’t got my problems. Ya never need ta put a gun on again.”
Kid turned and looked at Jimmy. “And what happens if Lou and Buck aren’t around and I need to scare off coyotes, four-legged or two? How do I do that without shooting a gun?”
Jimmy shrugged. “Ye’ll find a way, I spose.”
“Go with me out back and help me get through shootin’ this thing,” Kid whispered.
“Do ya think that’s a good idea?”
“The doc said, once I could handle things on a regular basis, it might help me ta force myself ta endure the things that cause my panic attacks,” Kid admitted. “I’m almost ta the point where I can spend the entire evenin’ with the family, even when Cody’s here.”
Jimmy grinned in commiseration.
“I figure it’s about time ta move on ta shootin’.”
“Do ya want Lou ta come?” Jimmy asked, standing and heading toward the fence out back where they all did their target shooting.
“No,” Kid said after a moment’s thought. “This is somethin’ I’ve got ta do myself.”
It took a few minutes to gather enough broken bottles and set them up along the fence. Then, Jimmy checked both their guns, to make sure they were in working order. Finally, with nothing left to do but start shooting he turned to Kid and asked, “So, how do ya want ta do this?”
After a moment’s thought, Kid said, “Why don’t we start with you shootin’. If I can stand here and not lose it while the gun’s goin’ off, then we’ll move on ta me shootin’.”
Jimmy waited a few seconds to make sure Kid wouldn’t change his mind, then walked over and set himself in position. His hands hovered over the butts of both guns. Then, in a motion too fast to be truly comprehended by the human eye, he pulled both guns and shot out all the bottles. When he finished, he turned to find Kid standing behind him, eyes clenched closed and hands fisted at his sides.
“Ya all right, Kid?” Jimmy asked.
Taking a deep breath, Kid relaxed his body, opened his eyes and smiled. “I did it. I didn’t run away and I didn’t have a panic attack.”
“Alright. You ready ta try?”
“Might as well,” Kid said, suddenly eager to push himself.
When Lou and Buck returned from tending the stock, they found Kid pulling a pie out of the oven, whistling as he worked. As he stood up and turned to place the pie on the table to cool, Lou noticed the gun strapped around his waist. Her eyes flew to Kid’s face and saw complete peace there. She opened her mouth to ask what had happened, then snapped it closed and turned to walk out of the room.
Buck followed her as she broke into a run, straight for the Marshal’s office. She burst through the door, asking even before she saw Teaspoon and Jimmy, “What happened?”
Jimmy grinned at her. “Kid just did some target shootin’ with me today.”
Teaspoon stood up and stretched. “Buck, come on. Seems these two got some talkin’ ta do. And I figure Kid’s ‘bout done with that pie o’ his. If we hurry, maybe we’ll get a piece ‘fore Cody steals it all.”
No one said a word about the gunbelt and revolver that had reappeared on Kid’s hip. Yet, the meal that night had a sense of the celebratory about it.
“I’m so glad this was the last day of teaching,” Rachel said, as she stood to help Polly clear the dishes.
“Tired?” Standing Woman asked, noticing the bags under Rachel’s eyes.
“Yep. Been havin’ the worst time sleepin’ the last couple of days,” Rachel smiled. “Got a back ache that’d kill a mule.”
Dawn Star stood up and walked over to Rachel. She began to slowly massage the other woman’s lower back.
“Oohhh,” Rachel moaned in appreciation. “That feels wonderful.”
“Vhat are you doing?” Janusz asked, curiously.
“Like this,” Dawn Star started to show him. “It relieves the tension in her back from carrying the baby’s weight.”
Carefully Janusz copied Dawn Star’s movements, until he was massaging Rachel’s back on his own. Suddenly, Rachel let out a gasp that had Janusz jumping back as if scalded.
“Vhat is vrong?” he asked concernedly.
Rachel leaned over, grasping her belly.
“I think this baby’s comin’ now!”
“But, Rachel, I thought ya weren’t due ‘til after Thanksgiving,” Lou said.
“Well, apparently this baby ain’t willin’ ta wait that long,” Rachel snapped.
“Babies do tend to have a mind of their own,” Standing Woman said. “We should get her to her bedroom.”
Quickly the women gathered around Rachel and ushered her out of the room, leaving behind a gaggle of gaping men.
“Hey, does that mean I can have her piece of pie?” Cody asked.
Over the next several hours Jimmy, Kid, Buck, Cody and Teaspoon stood watch over Janusz, who leaped to his feet in worry every time the door to the bedroom opened and a woman moved in or out. The moans and then screams coming from the room had him blanching in fear.
Teaspoon patted his shoulder in commiseration.
“Here, have a drink,” he suggested, holding out a glass of whiskey.
Janusz grabbed the glass, tossed the amber liquid down his throat and resumed his pacing in front of the fireplace, unfazed by the influx of liquor into his system.
As the dawn broke still there was no sign of the baby. The only thing that kept Janusz from completely losing it was Standing Woman’s and Lou’s occasional appearances to reassure him that all was fine and progressing normally.
“Vhatefer that means,” he muttered as Lou once again scurried back into the bedroom at an urgent call from Polly.
Kid prepared a breakfast no one ate, as they continued to keep vigil, waiting. Looking at the untouched food, he couldn’t find it in himself to make anything for lunch.
Shortly after noon, all noise coming from the bedroom stopped. The men looked at each other, then stood as one and walked toward the door. They stopped nearly simultaneously as they heard first a tentative, then a stronger wail.
“Congratulations, papa,” Teaspoon said, patting Janusz on the shoulder. Soon, all the men were gathered around him, pounding his back and congratulating him. Then, the door opened and Polly stepped out, wiping her hands on an apron. Lou, Standing Woman and Dawn Star followed.
“You have a fine son, Janusz,” Polly said. Whoops of excitement greeted her announcement. “Well, what are ya waitin’ fer? Go in there and meet him!”
Needing no other encouragement, Janusz sprinted into the room and his waiting wife’s arms.
Lou slipped over to Kid and wrapped her arms around him. He smiled and buried his nose in her hair.
“It was wonderful, Kid,” she said. “The most wonderful, scary, sacred thing I’ve ever seen.”
“I can’t imagine,” he said. “But, ya got ta promise me, not ta lock me out when we have a baby. I couldn’t handle waitin’ out here, not knowin’ how you were doin’.”
Lou nodded silently against his shoulder.
“Please,” Janusz said from the bedroom door, motioning inside. “To come and meet my son.”
They all filed in slowly, oohing and aahing over the baby. Janusz moved over to sit on the bed beside Rachel, who cradled their son in her arms. She never even looked up at the crowd now gathered in her bedroom, keeping her eyes trained on the infant.
Janusz looked around and then said, “Ve know your Emma and Sam name their son Ike. So, if you haf no objection, ve vhould like to call our boy, Noah Hunter Tartovsky.”
Lou smiled, wiping a tear from her eye. Even Teaspoon snuffled a little, before taking a visual inventory of the others’ reaction to the idea. Turning back to Janusz, he nodded. “That sounds like a right fine idea, Janusz. Noah’d have been proud to have this young feller named fer him.”
“Well, it all looks in order,” the land agent said, rifling through the paperwork Kid, Lou and Buck had spent hours the previous day filling out. “Mr. Kidd? If you’ll just sign here, the Haverman ranch will be the Kidd Ranch.”
Looking confused, Kid turned to Lou and Buck for an explanation. Lou piped up, “I think you’ve mistaken us, Sir. We’re all three buying the place. Together.”
The land agent’s eyes widened as he looked from one face in the room to the next. “Well, I.. ah… well.”
Kid said, “We’re going to be equal partners, the paperwork should say that.”
“We were very careful about that as we filled it out,” Buck added.
The land agent looked back down at the papers in front of him and started reading through them again.
“Ahem,” he cleared his throat. “So you have. This is very unusual. I’m not sure how to handle this. Don’t even know if it’s legal in this territory.”
“What do you mean?” Lou asked in a stern voice.
“Well, I know blacks, even freedmen, can’t own property here. Don’t know about Indians. No offense, Mr. Cross.”
“None taken, Mr. Langley,” Buck smiled gently.
“And, well,” Langley turned to Lou. “Under the law, everything a woman owns belongs to her husband anyway. So, I’m not sure how to work it out so that you’re an equal partner.”
“Just put me in as Lieutenant Lou McCloud,” Lou said. “Far as the law’s concerned, I’m a man.”
“Well, that might work,” Langley mused. “A legal fiction, as it were. Might just work at that. And, Mr. Cross, you’re part white, are you not?”
“So, maybe another legal fiction for you,” Langley began to ponder the problem and ways around it. Looking up he appeared almost startled to see the three of them still sitting there. “I’ll have to work on this a bit. Why don’t you come back next week? I should have everything figured out by then and ready for your signatures.
“Hyah!” Jimmy yelled, urging the last of the horses into the corral between the two large barns on the new McCloud/Cross Ranch. Buck swung the gate closed after them.
“That should do it,” Cody said, swinging down off his horse.
“Yep, yer all moved in,” Teaspoon smiled. “Though I still don’t get why yer not callin’ it the Kidd/McCloud/Cross Ranch.”
Kid swatted at Buck. “I can’t believe you told them!”
“What’d ya expect, Hieronymus,” Buck asked, grinning even as he backed away. “Ya spent so much time hidin’ yer name, I couldn’t keep it to myself once I knew. Who do ya think I am? Teaspoon?”
“I only do what’s in the best interests of my boys,” Teaspoon asserted, straightening his shoulders. “I was afraid Lou might say ‘no’ if I used his real name in the ceremony.”
“Come on, guys,” Lou said. “Leave the Kid alone, or he might not invite ya over the next time he starts baking!”
That threat worked well and the group scattered.
In the following days, plans went ahead for a great Thanksgiving feast. It had been decided that since the house at the new ranch was still in need of repairs, Thanksgiving would be celebrated at Rachel’s and Janusz’ house, Christmas out at the ranch.
Kid and Polly spent all their time at Rachel’s place, baking every goodie they could think of. Standing Woman and Dawn Star took over Rachel’s regular cooking duties to give the new mother a few days rest. Buck and Lou were hard at work getting the new ranch in working order.
The day before Thanksgiving, Cody arrived with a surprise on the stage, Isaac and Samson. Jimmy was just taking the last of Teaspoon’s checkers when he heard a familiar voice behind him.
“Why if it ain’t Mr. Jimmy hisself,” Isaac said.
Jimmy jumped up and spun around with a grin on his face.
“Mister Isaac,” he teased, “ain’t you a sight for sore eyes. I was a tad disappointed when I got here and you were gone.”
“Well, see Mister Jimmy, this here freedom thing takes a bit ta get used to. A man’s gotta learn to stand on his own two feet and he cain’t do that, if’n he’s livin’ off a bunch o’ white folk.”
Jimmy laughed. “Come on back to the house. I’ve got some friends that are mighty anxious to see you two.”
Jimmy escorted Isaac and Samson back to the house, clueing them in on all they’d missed the last few weeks. He led them straight to the kitchen, where he knew Kid and Lou would be with several of the others putting last minute touches on the holiday baking.
Pushing his way through the door he said, “Kid, Lou, you’ve got a visitor.”
As they both turned to see what he was talking about he stepped out of the way and let Isaac then Samson push past him into the room.
Kid and Lou froze for a moment, before rushing to greet their friends.
“It’s good to see you,” Kid said, shaking Isaac’s hand vigorously while Lou hugged Samson.
Then, Lou turned to Isaac.
“Why, Lieutenant Lou,” Isaac said. “You shore done changed since Ise left. You looks mighty fine in that dress.”
Lou laughed and said, “It’s just Lou now. Or Louise if ya prefer.”
“Lieutenant Lou suits me just fine,” Isaac declared.
“Give it up, Lou,” Jimmy said. “I argued with him for over 800 miles and all I managed to do was talk him down to Mister Jimmy from Mister Hickok. At least ya started with yer first name.”
They all laughed at that.
Samson piped up, “So, when’s supper?”
“Oh, you’re gonna get along with these boys just fine,” Lou laughed.
After supper, Kid walked out to get their horses ready for the return ride to the ranch that night and found Cody sitting in the porch swing reading a letter.
“Letter from your sweetheart?” he asked.
Cody looked up for a moment, before going back to reading. “Yep.”
“Must be pretty good,” Kid observed.
Finally Cody stopped reading and set the letter aside. He sighed.
“She wants me to come back.”
“I thought you were trying to earn enough for a grubstake, get a start out here.”
“I was, but she’s getting impatient,” Cody said. “I don’t think she’ll wait much longer. And, to tell the truth, I don’t wanta wait anymore myself. I’m thinkin’ ‘bout goin’ back after the holidays and askin’ her to marry me.”
“Well, I won’t offer any advice,” Kid said acerbically, “seeing how all your advice didn’t help me when I needed it. So, I’ll just say, congratulations! And, you’d better invite us to the weddin’!”
“Who else’d I invite?” Cody demanded, outraged. “You’re family!”
Kid slapped Cody on the back before continuing his walk toward the barn. There, he found Jimmy sitting on a bale of hay outside Sundancer’s stall.
“What’s wrong, Jimmy?” he asked at his friend’s morose look.
“I miss her.”
“Agnes,” Jimmy said. “Didn’t realize just how much she meant ta me, ‘til she was gone. Now I can’t find her. Thought bein’ back here, with my family, would help. And it did, for awhile.”
“Now, I’m feelin’ restless. It’s like there’s somethin’ I don’t know and I gotta find her, soon.”
“Whatcha gonna do about it?”
“Figure I’ll head on out after the holidays,” Jimmy shrugged, standing and moving toward the tackroom to help Kid get the saddles and bridles for the horses. “I’ve been offered the position of Deputy U.S. Marshal at Fort Riley, back in Kansas. Think I’ll take the job. I’ll be able to search territory I haven’t checked yet.”
“Kansas, Jimmy?” Kid laughed, as he settled a saddle on Katie in the first stall. “It must be love if yer willin’ ta go back ta Kansas for her!”
“I’ve gotta find her, Kid. That’s all I know.”
“We’ll miss ya,” Kid said, slapping his hands against his pants as they finished saddling Lightning and the other horses. “But we’ll understand.”
Kid wandered back to the house, leaving Jimmy still in the barn thinking about Agnes. When he walked into the living room, he paused as Isaac put a finger to his lips, calling for silence. Then, Isaac pointed to the settee in front of the fire. There, Lou sat with a book in her lap, her head resting on the back, snoring delicately.
Kid smiled and pulled a blanket from a chest near the door to throw over her. Then he headed back to the kitchen to tell Buck the horses were ready. But Buck was nowhere to be found in the house.
Thwump. Crack. Thwump. Crack.
The rhythmic noises led Kid out back of the house to the woodpile Buck was busy enlarging.
“Uh oh,” Kid smiled. “Trouble in paradise?”
“Leave me alone, Kid,” Buck warned.
“What’s the matter, the wives teaming up against ya?”
“You’ve got no idea,” Buck said, pausing to gather the wood he’d chopped and stack it neatly in cords along the back wall of the kitchen. “Ya know how Lou would get real cranky once a month or so?”
“Well, turns out when two women live near each other, their….. cycles tend to synchronize.”
Kid’s eyes widened. “Are ya sayin’….?”
“Yep. At the same time,” Buck moaned.
“Good lord,” Kid commiserated. “No wonder yer hidin’ out here. I would be, too.”
“That ain’t the worst of it, Kid,” Buck said, plopping down on the stump they used to chop the wood on, his shoulders bowed in defeat.
“What could be worse than that?”
“Did ya know that Indian women don’t sleep with their husbands while they’re nursing a baby?”
Kid winced as he thought of the two infants Standing Woman and Dawn Star were still nursing.
“That’s right. All those jokes Cody’s been makin’ about me havin’ two wives and I’m gettin’ less lovin’ than he is!”
Kid sighed, then grinned. “Well, don’t tell him that. We’ll never hear the end of it!”
This startled a laugh out of the forlorn Kiowa.
Lou yawned as she awoke slowly. Turning her head in confusion she realized she was tucked up in the bed Kid had made for them when they’d moved into the new ranch house. It had a beautifully carved headboard with horses capering across it. Lou frowned in confusion. The last thing she remembered was sitting down to read her book at Rachel’s. How, when had she gotten home?
Pushing the covers back, Lou slipped out of bed. Dressing quickly, she grunted in annoyance when she had trouble fastening the skirt of her dress. At least that was a good sign things were improving. Heading out the door she went in search of Kid. As she passed through the kitchen she spotted the pile of drop biscuits he’d made for breakfast laying on the table next to a bowl of Dawn Star’s delicious porridge. Lou grabbed the bowl and a spoon along with a biscuit and, eating as she walked, continued on her way.
Entering the first barn, she found Kid saddling one of the mustangs that was only halter broke.
“Kid,” she called quietly, not wanting to startle either him or the horse during this delicate operation.
He finished what he was doing, then slowly turned his back on the horse and walked out of the stall, closing the door behind him. Only once the horse was safely on the other side of the wall, did Kid speak.
“Mornin’ darlin’,” he said, walking up to her and wrapping his arms around her in a good morning hug. “Feelin’ better?”
“I feel fine,” she said. “How’d I get home?”
“I carried ya in front of me,” he smiled.
“Why didn’t you wake me?” she asked. “I could’ve ridden on my own.”
“You looked so peaceful sleepin’,” he said. “I didn’t have the heart to wake you. ‘Sides, I enjoyed holdin’ ya like that.”
Pulling back, Lou took a last bite of her porridge.
“At least ya could’ve woken me up this morning!”
Kid just shrugged and grinned down at her. “Didn’t see no reason to. Yer obviously still recovering and need the extra sleep. It ain’t as if your not workin’ as hard as the rest of us when yer awake. A little extra sleep on your part ain’t gonna hurt the ranch.”
Lou nodded and turned to head back into the house. “If you say so. I’ll just go put this dish away, then I’ll be back out to help with the chores.”
“We’ve already finished feedin’ all the stock and Dawn Star and Shining Star milked the cow,” Kid said, already turning back to the nervously shivering saddled mustang. “Why don’t ya go look over the bunkhouse, see what still needs doin’ in there. Isaac and Samson’ll be movin’ in after the holidays.”
Lou nodded, but decided to find Standing Woman first. She found the Medicine Woman at the prayer wheel she and Buck had set up behind the house, facing the East. She waited as Standing Woman completed her prayers, fascinated by the ritualistic motions. Finally Standing Woman said a last few words and carefully stubbed out the flames on the bunch of sweetgrass she’d been using. Coming to her feet, Standing Woman turned to Lou.
“And what can I do for you this morning, Louise?” she asked.
Lou grinned. Standing Woman and Dawn Star were the only ones who routinely called her Louise and she always had to stop and think for a split second when they did. Then her expression sobered.
“I need your advice, medically,” she said.
“You don’t want to go see one of your white doctors?”
Lou grinned ruefully. “First, that might let Kid know I’m worried, which is the last thing I want to do!”
Standing Woman smiled in commiseration. “He does tend to worry overmuch about you, doesn’t he?”
“I’ll admit, I’ve given him some reason to,” Lou said, before continuing. “Besides, during the War the medicine Buck taught us did more to save lives than any of the half-trained quacks who called themselves doctors out on the battlefield. Guess I just don’t trust most docs no more.”
Leading Lou back into the house, Standing Woman headed toward the big pantry next to the kitchen that she and Buck had turned into an examining room. They didn’t expect many white patients, but figured there would be enough injuries on the ranch to call for it. And, eventually, they expected guests from their Kiowa and Cheyenne families to come calling.
“So, what’s worrying you?” she asked, sitting down in one of the comfortable chairs at one side of the room. Lou sat down next to her.
“It’s just, well,” Lou hemmed and hawed for a moment. “Well, see, I lost my courses during the War. Isaac said it was probably ‘cause I wasn’t gettin’ enough to eat and too much physical exertion. But, they ain’t come back.”
Standing Woman nodded. “But that ain’t all?”
“No,” Lou smiled self-consciously. “I’m still so tired all the time. The doctor in Chicago said that should only last another couple weeks. But it’s been months now and it’s like it’s gettin’ worse.”
“Anything else?” Standing Woman asked. “Good or bad?”
“Well,” Lou thought for a moment. “I guess I’m startin’ ta put some weight back on. I could barely fasten my skirt this mornin’.”
Standing Woman smiled at her friend. “I think I know what’s goin’ on, but I’d like to do a physical exam to be sure.”
Lou nodded and stood up to lie on the exam table. A few minutes later, Standing Woman stepped back and helped Lou sit up.
“So?” Lou asked anxiously. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing a few months won’t fix,” Standing Woman said, smiling mysteriously. Lou just looked at her in confusion. “About nine, total, to be precise.”
Lou blinked. Then comprehension dawned. “A baby?”
Standing Woman smiled broadly as she nodded confirmation.
“As to how, I’d think you’d know that by now,” Standing Woman teased.
Lou glared at her and she laughed.
“You probably got pregnant the first time you could, before you had your first courses again,” Standing Woman took pity on her and explained. “When? It’s hard to tell exactly, since you hadn’t been having your courses. But, based on the exam, I’d say you’re between two and four months pregnant. So, sometime next summer.”
Looking down at her still flat stomach, Lou let the information sink in. Putting a hand over her belly, she smiled up at Standing Woman. “After all this time, I’d begun to think it wasn’t possible. It ain’t like Kid and I were that careful, but nothin’ ever seemed to happen. I’d started to think Wick’s did some sort of permanent damage.”
Standing Woman frowned in confusion. “Wicks?”
Lou flinched when she realized Buck hadn’t shared that story with his wives. Probably, he’d considered it too personal and up to her to decide who to tell. Taking a deep breath, she launched into the story.
“Lou?” Kid asked as he walked into the bunkhouse. She was just sitting there, a chair leg in one hand and hammer in the other, staring into space. “Lou, are you alright?”
Startling, Lou dropped the hammer on her foot. “Ow!”
“Lou!” Kid rushed to her side and grabbed the injured extremity, pulling the boot off and rubbing it gently.
“It’s just bruised,” she said. “I’m alright.”
“What were you daydreaming about?” Kid asked.
Her smile grew huge and a touch mischievous.
“Just planning,” she said, trying for a mysterious tone.
“Lou!” Kid demanded, starting to get exasperated. “What kind o’ things?”
Looking down at the beloved face in front of her, Lou wondered if their baby would have his beautiful blue eyes and curly hair.
“Lou?” Kid asked and she realized she’d been woolgathering again. “What kind of things are ya plannin’?”
“Well,” she said standing up and putting the hammer away in the tool box. “I was thinking about our house and wonderin’ how quickly we could get it put up in the spring.”
“That depends,” Kid said, rising to his full height and coming to her side to take the chair leg from her other hand and set it down on the counter. “Why do you ask?”
“Do you think we can get it done before June?” she asked, smiling gently.
“Maybe, depends on when the snows melt, how much help we have and how big we make it.”
“Oh, it doesn’t have to be very big,” she said. “Just enough room for three of us.”
Lou nodded, placing a hand over her belly. “Um hm. Three. You, me and our baby.”
“Baby? We’re gonna have a baby?”
Lou nodded, enjoying his shock.
“A baby!” he exclaimed, grabbing her to him and swinging her around. “We’re gonna have a baby!”
Setting her down he kept grinning at her. “When are we gonna tell everyone?”
“I figured at Thanksgiving dinner,” she said. “We’ll all be together. I already told Standing Woman not to say anything until then.”
“Yeah,” Lou shrugged. “I decided to go to her, ‘stead of the doc in town. He reminds me too much of those quacks back East.”
Kid nodded, understanding her feelings. “I wish ol’ Doc Barnes were still around. But, I understand why he retired.”
“Congratulations, Lou, Kid!” Rachel said, coming around to hug both of them.
“Ya ain’t gonna attack us are ya, Lou, if we say we was beginnin’ to wonder when you two would start a family?” Cody asked tentatively from the other side of the room, remembering how Lou’d reacted to a little teasing about becoming a wife and a mother before her wedding.
Lou laughed. “Not this time, Cody. This time we’re both ready!”
“More than ready,” Kid said, turning the brilliant smile he hadn’t been able to drop for a second during the last two days on his small wife. “This is the last piece of our dream. Family, our own ranch, and, now, a baby.”
Jimmy hugged Lou and slapped Kid on the back, saying, “Don’t take this wrong, Hieronymus, but I’m a mite jealous.”
That finally wiped the grin off Kid’s face. He glared accusingly at Buck, who just shrugged.
“Wow, he must be happy,” Teaspoon said. “He didn’t slug ya fer that one, Jimmy.”
“Kid,” Buck asked innocently, “have you two thought of names yet? Are ya gonna name it after you if it’s a boy, Hieronymus?”
“Hell, no!” Kid exploded as everyone else laughed.
“Alright everyone, now that the good news has been shared, let’s sit down to eat,” Polly said, beginning to herd the growing family into the kitchen. “Hurry it up, before the turkey gets all dried out.”
“I like turkey,” Shining Star piped up.
Jimmy scooped her up in his arms and said, “Then you can have my share, too. Cause otherwise your Uncle Cody would eat so much you couldn’t have seconds.”
The little girl wrapped her arms around her Uncle Jimmy’s neck and he grinned.
“Never expected to see Jimmy so comfortable around kids,” Teaspoon muttered.
“Like ya said, Teaspoon,” Kid answered, “we all changed during the War, for the better as well as the worse.”
Hooking her arm through her husband’s Lou added, “But we’re still a family.”
Teaspoon smiled at them. “And ain’t that somethin’ ta be thankful fer!”
Lou and Kid were just sitting down to dinner with Buck, Standing Woman, Dawn Star and the children when they heard the sound of dozens of hoofbeats bearing down on the ranch.
Kid looked at Lou worriedly, “Wonder who that could be? We weren’t expectin’ anyone.”
Kid and Buck grabbed their gunbelts, hanging on hooks by the door and strapped them on hurriedly. Lou grabbed a shotgun, but stayed inside the front door as the other two headed out onto the porch. She peered out the window worriedly.
Dawn Star touched her gently on the shoulder. “He’ll be alright.”
Lou answered without taking her eyes off the men on the porch. “I hope so. This is the first time he’s strapped that thing on for more than target practice.”
After what seemed like an interminable wait, the group of riders they’d heard cantered into the yard. On seeing Jimmy’s distinctive palomino, Lou relaxed her grip on the shotgun. Placing it back in its holster by the door, she walked out to join Buck and Kid.
“We need yer help,” were the first words out of Teaspoon’s mouth as soon as he reached the porch.
Looking around the group of men, Kid noticed the abundance of silver stars. This was a posse.
“What’s happened?” he asked.
“Bank robbery over in Blue Creek,” Jimmy said. “We just got a wire they’re headed our direction. We’re headed out to stop them ‘fore they get here, take ‘em back ta Blue Creek for trial.”
“I’ll get my stuff,” Buck said, turning to head back indoors.
“I’m coming with you,” Standing Woman said quietly, turning to follow him. He just nodded his acceptance.
“I don’t think we should go, Teaspoon,” Kid said.
“Wasn’t askin’ ya to, son,” Teaspoon smiled. “We need Buck’s trackin’ skills, otherwise we’d a never come out here at all.”
“Hey!” Cody complained. “What’s wrong with my trackin’?”
“Yer good, son,” Teaspoon said. “But not as good as Buck!”
Turning back to Kid and Lou, he said, “I’ve got another favor to ask you two.”
“What is it?” Lou said.
“I’d like ta deputize you as well, but have ya stay in town,” Teaspoon said. “Keep an eye on things fer me. It’s been real quiet and I don’t expect no trouble, but…” He let the statement hang in the air.
“Why don’t you stay?” Lou asked. “We all know ridin’ ain’t easy fer ya no more. Not with that knee.”
“It’s part o’ the job, girl. If I cain’t lead out a posse, I shouldn’t be wearin’ this star,” Teaspoon sighed. “Now, will ya do it?”
Kid and Lou looked at each other, silently communicating their concerns over Kid’s still lack of confidence around weapons and Lou’s pregnancy. Turning back, Kid said, “Alright. We’ll do it.”
Teaspoon nodded. “Figured ya would son. I hate ta ask, but someone’s gotta do it and ain’t no one I trust more’n y’all.”
A few minutes later the posse headed out with Buck and Standing Woman in tow. Lou hurried upstairs to change into britches and a shirt, carefully hooking the Deputy Marshal star into the fabric. When she walked outside, still fastening her gunbelt on, she found Kid waiting out front for her with a saddled Lightning.
She walked up and took the reins from him, then leaned into him for a hug.
“You be careful, hear?” he cautioned.
“I will,” she smiled. “And, I’ll see ya tomorrow mornin’.”
“Or sooner. Just as soon as I can get the stock fed.”
“Do ya think they’ll accept me? I mean, me back wearin’ this star?”
“Don’t see why not,” he said. “We learned at the weddin’ most folks’d already figured out yer secret and they’d never complained ‘bout ya actin’ as deputy before.”
“But that was always as part of the group, never alone.”
“Shouldn’t be a problem,” Kid reassured her. “Just pull yer Lieutenant Lou routine on ‘em and you’ll have ‘em quakin’ in their boots in no time.”
She grinned at him and with a slow, deep kiss, they said goodbye. Then, she swung up into the saddle and took off for town. Kid watched her riding into the sunset until she disappeared over the horizon.
Lou entered the Marshal’s office after her latest walk through town. With the exception of the two saloons and the cathouse on the far edge of town everything was silent and closed up for the night. She sighed as she poured herself a cup of coffee then sat down in Teaspoon’s chair. She could understand why he spent so much time napping on the job. This marshaling business was boring. Except when it wasn’t.
Laughing quietly, Lou reminded herself to be thankful tonight was one of the boring ones. Hearing the rapid stomp of bootheels across the boardwalk headed in her direction, she sat back upright, sobering. Unless it wasn’t.
“Come quick!” the young boy who swept floors and did other odd jobs at the Red Garter Saloon yelled. “The Garvey brothers are on a tear. If ya don’t hurry they’re gonna destroy the saloon.”
Lou jumped out of the seat and followed him back toward the saloon at a full out run. Even before she burst through the doors of the saloon, she could hear the ruckus, shouts and howls punctuated occasionally by pistol shots.
“Alright,” Lou shouted, using her command voice from the war. “That’s enough of that! If you boys can’t play nice, yer gonna find yerselves playin’ in one o’ my jail cells!”
Everyone stopped and turned to stare at her. Then one man in a corner ‘whispered’ to another, “It’s that girl Lieutenant! Heard she’s a crack shot, almost as good as Wild Bill!”
Apparently, someone decided to test that theory because out of the corner of her eye, she saw a young cowpoke reaching for his weapon. She had hers palmed, cocked and aimed before his cleared his holster.
“I wouldn’t do that if I was you,” she growled.
Looking around she glared each man down.
“Now, pick this place up! Or I’m shuttin’ it down fer the night.”
A couple of men started to pick up a turned over table, but a third glared at Lou.
“I don’t cotton ta takin’ orders from no woman,” he sneered. “I ain’t no cowardly Johnny Reb what needs his momma ta tell ‘im what to do!”
Lou snapped off a shot right at his feet, making him jump back in sudden fear. But, rather than back down the way she hoped, he reached for his gun. This one was faster than the last, but not fast enough when she already had her gun out and ready.
She squeezed off two shots, hitting him in the hand and the shoulder and knocking him to the ground. Even as he was falling, she turned around and used the butt of her pistol to knock out the man trying to sneak up behind her.
Stepping so her back was to the wall, she surveyed the room.
“Move it!” she barked out and the rest of the men in the room quickly started putting it to rights. Once she was certain all the trouble had been scared out of the remaining men, she walked over to the injured drifter.
“Oh, shut yer caterwaulin’,” she said, bending over carefully to check his injury. “I’ve taken worse and kept on ridin’. You’ll be alright. Now, stand up and start walkin’.”
As she herded him toward the door, she pointed to the second man lying unconscious on the floor and told the bartender, “Keep an eye on that man. Make sure no one tries ta sneak him outta here. I’ll be back in a few ta collect him.”
It only took her a matter of minutes to get the injured drifter locked up tight in the first jail cell. Then she turned to collect her second attacker.
“Ya cain’t leave me here without a doc,” the drifter complained. “I’ll bleed ta death.”
“I’ll get the doctor after I’ve got all of you locked up,” she smiled sweetly at him. “Don’t worry, ya ain’t gonna bleed ta death between now and then.”
“Much as I might wish ya would,” she muttered under her breath as she walked back out the door.
Re-entering the saloon, she sighed to see the place was back to normal with some men bellied up to the bar drinking and others sitting around the tables gambling. She smiled in satisfaction, then looked down at her second ‘prisoner’.
“Need some help?” the bartender asked.
“Nope,” she said, sighing as she bent over. She grunted as she dragged his front arms and torso over her shoulder before pushing herself upright with the man in a fireman’s carry. “If I could drag Kid off the battlefield in the middle of the night, I can handle this galoot.”
Taking each step carefully, she walked back out the door, not minding that the batwing doors banged her prisoner on the head on their way out. She could hear the men murmuring behind her back.
“Didya see that?”
“She just picked him up, and he was twice her size!”
“And she just took ‘em both out, cool as ya please.”
“Man, that’s one gal with a lot o’ gumption. I wouldn’t ever wanta cross her!”
“That’s the truth. Glad I ain’t her husband!”
Lou just smiled. Kid would laugh when he heard about this. After he stopped hyperventilating.
Kid sighed as he handed over the sandwiches Polly had prepared to the prisoners. Turning back to Polly he said, “I can’t believe she took ‘em on all by herself.”
“Would you expect anything less from her?” Polly asked.
“No,” Kid said, dropping back into Teaspoon’s chair. “She’s never done less than 110% of what she thought was her job.”
“But,” Polly commiserated, “It’s hard bein’ the one sittin’ at home waitin’.”
“Polly, ya in there?” Rachel asked, poking her head into the Marshal’s office.
“Come on in, Rachel,” Kid said, waving her into the room.
“How’s it goin’, Kid?”
Polly smiled. “He’s learnin’ how hard it is to be the one left behind.”
“How do you two handle it?” he asked.
“Well,” Rachel said, “I’ve found it’s always useful to have something to do. Didn’t you boys ever notice all the clean laundry whenever ya came home from chasing after the bad guys?”
“Now that ya mention it,” Kid laughed. “I guess I did.”
“And me,” Polly said, “I like to knit. Teaspoon’s got a whole wardrobe full of sweaters, socks and scarves. More’n he’ll ever wear.”
Kid nodded. “Well, I’ve tried chopping wood, but all that got me was blisters.”
Rachel laughed, remembering the incident well.
“How about baking?” Polly said. “You already bake when somethin’s upsettin’ ya, so it’s obviously something that soothes you. Give that a try, next time.”
“Maybe I will,” he said.
“Maybe you will what?” Lou asked, coming into the Marshal’s office and taking off her coat to hang by the door.
“Bake your favorite pumpkin bread, soon’s I get home.”
Walking up to her husband for a kiss, she moaned in appreciation. “Mmmmm. Sounds good.”
“You two are makin’ me sick,” the injured drifter complained from his cell.
All four people in the room turned as one and said, “Shut up!”
“What are ya doin’ here so early?” Kid asked. “I wasn’t expectin’ ya ‘til supper.”
“Dawn Star said it looked like a pretty bad storm comin’, so I decided to come in early and weather the storm here with you. She and the kids are keeping track of things back at the ranch.”
Rachel gathered the basket with baby Noah in it back into her arms and wrapped her shawl quickly around her head at that news. “We’d better get back to the house, then, and make sure things are locked down tight. Come on, Polly.”
Following Rachel out the door, Polly waved to Kid and Lou. “Stay safe.”
“Looks like a storm’s brewing on the horizon,” Buck said quietly to Teaspoon. “That ain’t a good sign, this time of year. We need to find shelter.”
Looking around the empty plain, Teaspoon sighed. “Ain’t no shelter ta be had within a day’s ride, son.”
“There’s a waterin’ hole a couple hours ride to the east of here,” Cody suggested. “Ain’t much, but the trees should provide some protection.”
Teaspoon nodded. “Let’s get a move on, ‘fore we run outta time. Don’t wanta get stuck in the middle of the plains in a storm like this looks ta be.”
Lou stood at the window of the Marshal’s office, watching the snow coming down. It had started mid-afternoon and just kept on coming, faster and thicker every hour. It was coming down so hard now that she couldn’t even see to the restaurant across the street.
Kid walked up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist.
“They’ll be alright, Lou. Buck and Standing Woman would’ve noticed the storm same as Dawn Star.”
“I know,” she smiled back at him, lacing her fingers through his. “But they’re family.”
He squeezed her tighter and kept vigil with her.
Across town, Polly too was staring out a window, worrying over her husband.
Janusz came up beside her and handed her a cup of coffee.
“He vill be alright,” Janusz offered. “He has surfifed vorse than this many times.”
“I know, Janusz. But, he’s my husband and that makes it my job to worry. ‘Sides, how many times can he dance with the devil and escape alive?”
Janusz laughed and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder for a moment. Then, he went to curl up in bed with his wife and son.
Across the plains, Cody, Jimmy, Buck and Standing Woman shared an improvised tent with Teaspoon. They were shivering, but alright. The combined heat from their bodies and from the horses they’d carefully tethered around the tent keeping them from freezing.
Teaspoon on the other hand didn’t look so good. He was shivering twice as bad as the rest of them, even after they’d all draped their extra blankets around him. And, he’d started coughing again, a deep wracking cough that seemed to tear at his lungs with each hack.
“Is he gonna be alright?” Cody asked worriedly.
“I dunno,” Buck shrugged. “I thought he’d kicked that cough. Had it when he came back from Texas. But it was never this bad before. I just dunno.”
“There’s nothing we can do until this storm breaks other than keep him warm, anyway,” Standing Woman said.
The next morning, Lou awoke on the extra cot in the unused cell. She stretched and yawned as she sat up. She quickly straightened her back as she suddenly recognized the lack of howling winds.
“The storm’s over?” she asked Kid.
“Yep. Stopped comin’ down ‘bout an hour ago,” he said. “I’m bettin’ the posse’ll head back today, no matter what. Any chance of trackin’ them bank robbers got blown away when this storm started.”
As predicted, the posse trotted into town that afternoon. Lou and Kid stepped out onto the boardwalk in front of the Marshal’s office to await their arrival. They smiled in greeting as Jimmy and Cody rode up to the hitching post in front of the office, then looked quizzically as Teaspoon continued on toward Rachel’s house with Buck and Standing Woman riding on each side of him.
“What’s up?” Kid asked.
“Teaspoon got sick,” Cody said.
“The cold of the storm apparently got some cough he’d had last year kicking up again,” Jimmy added. “Buck’s takin’ him back ta the house ta try some Indian treatment on him.”
“Yeah. He said none of the white doctor’s medicine did Teaspoon any good last winter. The only thing that chased the cough off was the summer heat.”
“So,” Jimmy said, noticing the two prisoners as he followed Kid and Lou into the Marshal’s office, “How’d things go fer you?”
“They ain’t no bank robbers,” Lou said. “But I did nab a couple o’ rowdies who thought they could ride roughshod over a deputy. Or was it ‘cause I’m a woman?”
“That was their first mistake,” Cody laughed.
“And just what do you mean by that?” Lou started to bristle.
“Only that I’ve never met a woman that could be ridden roughshod over,” Cody defended himself.
“Unhunh,” she grunted skeptically, even as Kid helped her into her coat.
“We’ll see ya later,” Kid said. “We need ta get back and see how Dawn Star and the children did all alone out at the ranch, and check on the stock.”
“Standing Woman’s headed out that way, too, soon’s they drop Teaspoon off,” Jimmy said. “She wanted to grab some of her medicines from the house.”
Kid and Lou nodded as they walked out the door, headed to the livery to get their horses.
Lou and Kid trotted into the main barn from the rear, riding straight inside to get out of the cold before dismounting and unsaddling their horses. As they pulled their horses to a stop, they saw a new wagon, piled high with household goods standing in one corner with a group of mules munching placidly in the nearest stall.
“What?” Lou started to ask.
“Looks like we’ve got guests,” Kid observed. “Let’s hurry and get Katie and Lightning settled, so we can find out who they are.”
Working in practiced unison, they soon had their mounts unsaddled, brushed down and settled in their stalls with a heaping serving of oats and hay.
Grabbing Lou’s hand Kid led the way out of the barn’s front door and across the yard to the house.
“We’re back,” Kid yelled to the house in general, as they walked in the front door. In no time, two little boys and a slightly older girl had surrounded them, hanging on legs and begging to be carried.
Bending down, Kid promised, “If y’all let us go talk to yer mommy Dawn Star and see who our guests are I promise there’ll be a special treat after supper.”
The various requests came fast and furious.
“You’ll just have to wait and see,” Kid said, ruffling the hair on Shining Star’s head as he stood back up. “Why don’t you show us where the adults are?”
Shining Star grabbed Kid’s hand while the two boys clustered around Lou, who picked up the youngest. Soon, the whole group trooped into the room they’d dubbed the family room at the back of the house, behind the kitchen. There, Dawn Star was sitting with Alfred, Tiny, and three other people Kid and Lou didn’t recognize.
“Kid!” Alfred stood up as he saw them enter, the slender, petite blonde next to him standing as well. “Lou!”
“It’s great to see you guys,” Kid said, holding out his hand in welcome. “Did ya have any trouble finding the place?”
“No,” Alfred smiled. “It was just as easy as ya said it would be.”
“Although, we were surprised to see who was here when we got here,” Tiny smiled. “And who wasn’t.”
“Sorry, we got stuck in town in the storm.”
“I understand,” Alfred said. “We barely made it here ahead of it.”
“Alfred, we should introduce everyone,” Tiny suggested.
“Oh, yes,” Alfred said, starting. “I forget y’all haven’t already met. Kid, Lou, these are my parents, Heloise and Captain Potter. And this,” he gestured to the slim blond at his side, “is my wife, Coraline.”
Then turning to his family, he performed the same introductions for Lou and Kid.
“Buck should be back soon,” Kid said, “Along with his wife StandingWoman. They were out with the posse. Jimmy and Cody are staying over at Rachel’s place. But you’ll get to meet all of them in a couple weeks, if not before then. Christmas is set to be held here.”
“His wife? I thought Dawn Star was his wife?” Coraline questioned.
Lou smiled. “It’s not unusual amongst the plains Indians for a man to take on his wife’s sister as a second wife if her husband dies. That’s what Buck did. Standing Woman is his first wife. He married Dawn Star after she was widowed and adopted her two older children as his own.”
“I can’t wait to meet everyone,” Tiny said. “We heard so many stories about them, I feel like I know them already.”
“So, what are your plans?” Lou asked.
“Well,” Alfred paused, looking around. “We were sorta hopin’ we could spend the winter with y’all, help out here on the ranch, then get our own farm in the spring.”
“I’m a good cook,” Heloise said.
“And I know plenty about carpentry,” her husband, the Captain, added.
“Welcome skills indeed,” Kid smiled. “That should be no problem. Lord knows we’ve got plenty of empty space in this big old house.”
“And there ain’t nothin’ left for us back home,” the Captain said bitterly.
After getting their guests settled in the various bedrooms, Kid headed to the kitchen to get to work on the treats he’d promised the children.
Heloise turned to Alfred, “These friends of yours are so strange. I don’t hold with it, but can understand a woman going off to fight with her husband. But living in the same house with a savage Indian? And him with two wives? I don’t know how I’ll ever sleep at night.”
“Kid and Lou’ve been living in the same house with Buck for years, Ma,” Alfred calmed her. “And ain’t nothin’ happened to them. You’ll see, he’s just another man. Things are different here in the West.”
“That’s certainly true,” Coraline smiled. “I like it. I wonder if Lou will teach me how to shoot?”
Buck looked across at Standing Woman and shook his head. Teaspoon had not improved, despite getting him back home and into a warm bed. If anything, his cough was getting worse, fast.
“He’s coughing up blood, Buck,” Standing Woman said.
“I know,” he sighed. “There’s nothing more we can do for him.”
“We need to tell the others,” she said sadly.
“I’ll go,” Buck said. “You stay with Teaspoon. I’ll send Polly in.”
“Son,” Teaspoon croaked.
“Yes,” Buck said, coming quickly to stand by Teaspoon’s head.
“Don’t let them make a fuss over me,” he whispered.
“I won’t,” Buck promised solemnly.
“There’s nothing we can do?” Rachel asked, after Polly had left to sit by her husband’s side.
“No,” Buck said sadly. “I’ve seen this before. It usually goes slowly, but it looks like he’s had this for some time, just been hiding it from us. I don’t see him lasting more than a few weeks.”
Rachel let out a sob and hid her face in Janusz’ shirt.
“Ve should let his daughter know,” Janusz said. “Vhat vas her name? The one vith that saloon in Abilene?”
“Amanda,” Polly said hoarsely. “Yes, you’ve gotta let Amanda know. She’d want to be here.”
Rachel jumped up to wrap her arms around Polly in comfort. But, after a short moment, Polly pushed her away. “I just came to get him some soup. He says he’s hungry.”
Buck nodded even as he stood up and began putting on his winter gear. “I’ve already talked with Standing Woman. She’ll stay with him tonight. I’ll be back in the morning to spell her. I’ll stop off at the telegraph office in town and wire Amanda, then go let everyone at the ranch know what’s going on.”
“Better get a room ready for her,” Jimmy suggested, from where he’d been sitting brooding by the fireplace. “I expect she’ll be here within the week.”
“Give her Kid and Lou’s room,” Cody suggested. “It’s the closest to Teaspoon’s and got the best bed.”
Rachel nodded. “I’ll get on that tomorrow. Ride Safe, Buck. We’ll see ya in the mornin’.”
Three days later, Cody pulled into town with the latest stage, hopping down even as the horses were still skidding to a halt so he could be the one to open the door and help a beautiful brunette down. Her eyes were reddened and, even as she stepped down off the stage, she brought a handkerchief to her face to wipe away a tear.
“Come on, Amanda,” Cody said. “Let’s stop at the Marshal’s office and get Jimmy. Then we’ll head over to Rachel’s.”
Amanda nodded and glanced around Rock Creek. She hadn’t visited Teaspoon since the Express had moved them here. It differed from Sweetwater only in location, she decided.
“Look who’s here,” Cody said quietly, leading her into the warmth of the Marshal’s office.
Jimmy stood and said nothing, simply wrapped her in his arms. She let go with a few more sobs.
“I barely found him,” she whispered through the tears. “And I haven’t spent near enough time with him.”
“He’ll be happy to see you,” Jimmy reassured her.
“Is he… is he in any pain?” she asked, as Jimmy and Cody began guiding her toward Rachel’s.
“Naw,” Jimmy said, the normally loquacious Cody quiet. “Standing Woman and Buck are givin’ him some herb that keeps him comfortable. But he’s gettin’ weaker by the day. They don’t expect him to last out the year.”
Everyone from the ranch had come out to Rachel’s for supper. They’d been doing so at least once or twice a week, despite the distance of the ride, wanting to get as much time with Teaspoon as possible before he left them.
Tonight however, he’d remained locked in his room with Polly and Amanda, apparently too weak to get out of bed.
“What are we gonna do?” Lou asked forlornly, just picking at the food on her plate.
“We’re gonna give him the kind of Christmas he’s never had,” Amanda said, walking in to the kitchen with Polly on her heels.
“He’s never had a Christmas with every one of his family in one place, with him,” Polly added. “So, we’re gonna make sure he has the Christmas of his dreams.”
Like generals, Amanda and Polly began marshalling the troops. Rachel and Kid were detailed to work on the baking, which was ordered to exceed the excesses of Thanksgiving and include all of Teaspoons favorites. Buck was ordered to hunt down the biggest turkey he could find. Meanwhile Jimmy and Cody were ordered to find the perfect Christmas tree, even if they had to go all the way to Denver for it! Standing Woman and Dawn Star were detailed to help Polly with cooking all of Teaspoon’s favorite dishes. Amanda and Lou were relegated to decorating the house.
“Do you get the feelin’ they don’t trust us in the kitchen?” Lou asked, smiling at her ‘sister’.
“Well, I know they don’t trust you in the kitchen,” Amanda answered. “Not sure why they’d think I can’t cook. It’s not like I’ve ever burned their dinner beyond recognition.”
Lou started to laugh at the joke, then stopped as she remembered why they were doing this.
“Don’t,” Amanda said gently. “Don’t be sad. This is supposed to be Teaspoon’s perfect Christmas. It won’t be perfect for him if we’re all walking around crying. He should hear laughter and smiles and jokes.”
“You’re right,” Lou said, a mischievous light entering her eyes. “And I’ve got a great idea….”
By Christmas Eve the Tartovsky/Hunter household was the most beautifully decorated home in all of Rock Creek. Paper snowflakes hung from the ceiling. Chains of popcorn and cranberries wrapped their way around the giant fir Jimmy and Cody had brought back, lit beautifully by the candles carefully placed amongst the branches. Boughs of holly were draped around the windows and the fireplace mantel, decorated with huge red and gold bows. Hanging over the door was a mysterious little green plant with red berries, with a little silver bell attached, so as soon as the door opened the bell would ring.
Lou looked around in satisfaction even as Buck carried Teaspoon, now shrunken to half the size he’d been just weeks ago, out to the living room and placed him gently on the already prepared chaise lounge.
“Are you comfortable?” Buck asked.
Teaspoon batted his hands away weakly. “Stop fussin’ over me, son. I’m dyin’. That ain’t changed me inta some ol’ woman!”
Buck stepped back with a smile. “Yes, sir.”
Just then the bell over the door tinkled brightly as the door opened and Alfred and Coraline started to walk in. They stopped, startled, and looked up.
“Mistletoe?” Alfred asked. “Where’d you find mistletoe?”
“Never mind that,” Lou giggled, covering her mouth. “You know what you’ve gotta do!”
Alfred turned to his wife, took her face in his hands and planted a big, noisy smooch on her lips. They broke apart, laughing, and continued on their way inside.
Teaspoon smiled at Lou. “Wonder which pair’s gonna go through next?”
“We’ll just have to wait and see,” she smiled, patting his shoulder as she settled onto the settee next to him.
A few minutes later, Cody and Jimmy opened the door, pushing at each other alternately, to see who could get through the door first. They too stopped at the tinkling of the bell and looked up.
“That there’s somethin’ called mistletoe,” Teaspoon explained, with a wicked grin on his face. “When yer caught underneath it with someone else, ya gotta kiss her, or him.”
“What?!” the duo exclaimed in combined horror. Pointing at each other they said simultaneously, “I ain’t kissin’ him!”
“Do you know where his mouth’s been?” Jimmy asked.
“Louisa’d kill me!” Cody exclaimed.
“That’s the tradition, boys,” Lou smirked. “If ya don’t kiss, it’ll bring bad luck on the family for the whole next year.”
Looking back and forth between the two, Jimmy and Cody suddenly seemed to sag in place. There was no give in either Teaspoon or Lou. Slowly they faced each other. Even more slowly they leaned forward, then so fast as to almost be unseen landed a peck on each other’s cheeks.
They ran from the room, escaping Teaspoon’s weakened guffaws and Lou’s silvery peals of laughter.
After supper that night, the whole family was gathered in the living room again, just talking and enjoying each other. Suddenly, a heavy knock sounded on the door, halting the conversation.
“I’ll get it,” Tiny said from her chair near the door. Walking over, she opened it to see Mr. Thompkins standing there, half the town behind him. At the tinkling of the bell on the mistletoe, Teaspoon perked up and looked over at the door.
“I don’t care who it is, Tiny, ya gotta kiss him!” he demanded.
Tiny blushed, while Thompkins stared at Teaspoon as if he’d sprouted a second head.
“What are you talkin’ ‘bout?”
“It’s the mistletoe,” Tiny said. “Anytime the bell rings, anyone standing under it has to kiss or bring bad luck on the house for the year.”
“Er, um, well…”Thompkins started to blush redder than Tiny had. “If it means I get to kiss a pretty young lady like you, I think I can live with that tradition.”
He took her hand in his and gallantly pressed his lips to the back of her hand, to the cheers and whistles of the entire Express family. Only Lou, however, noticed how Tiny’s other hand crept up to cover her heart at the gesture.
“Alright, Thompkins, now that tradition’s been satistifed, whatta ya want?” Jimmy demanded.
Looking around, Thompkins cleared his throat. “We know things ain’t goin’ well fer ya Teaspoon, so we, well the town, thought we’d like ta sing ya some Christmas Carols. We remember how much ya’ve done fer us over the years. When we heard how the boys, and you Lou, were trying to give you a ‘perfect’ Christmas, we figured we could help.”
“Sounds wonderful,” Teaspoon said. “I love me a good Christmas Carol.”
In a matter of minutes the entire gathering had donned winter wraps and walked out on the porch. Jimmy and Cody carefully moved Teaspoon out onto the porch swing, where Polly covered him with an extra blanket then sat next to him, holding his hand.
The singers started off with several high spirited songs, such as Good King Wenceslas and Deck the Halls, before moving into some of the more religious carols, including Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and The First Noel. Finally, they ended with Silent Night.
Teaspoon hummed along with the singers throughout the concert. The other riders joined in on all their favorites, enthusiastically, if not always musically. By the end, everyone was rosy cheeked and pleased.
“Why don’t y’all come in for some hot cider,” Rachel suggested, standing up and leading the way into the house.
Looking from his wife to Amanda to Lou and the boys, Teaspoon whispered, “Thank you. Thank you for my perfect Christmas.”
They all slept at Rachel’s house that night, doubling up on beds or curling up in bedrolls in front of the fire once they’d run out of beds.
Kid thought he was the first one to awake Christmas morning and decided to get started on the hotcakes Rachel was planning for breakfast, before the children descended on their stockings. He walked into the kitchen to find Polly just sitting there, staring into the fire, doing nothing, with a blank look on her face.
“Polly,” he asked, concerned.
She turned to look at him and her face crumpled.
“He passed?” Kid asked, taking her in his arms.
She nodded against his shoulder, her own heaving with her quiet sobs. Finally, she quieted enough to say, “In his sleep, last night. I found him when I woke up this morning.”
Lou carefully straightened the bodice of her new black dress. She’d had it made especially for today. Then, she went back to fussing with her hair. After several more attempts to make it look perfect, Kid walked up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders, meeting her eyes in the mirror over their dresser.
“You look fine, Lou.”
“It’s just still so short,” she lamented. “Do you remember how much he liked it once I started growing it out? Always said he couldn’t wait to see it long enough for me to put it up, like a real lady.”
She stopped, too choked up to continue. After a gulp to get herself under control, she continued.
“Now, he’ll never see it long, Kid,” she lamented. “There’re so many things he’ll never see.”
“I know, Lou,” Kid said, unable to offer any comfort. “But now we’ve got to get going. It’s time to say goodbye.”
She nodded and turned to let him help her put on her black cape, the same one she’d worn to Noah’s funeral, all those years before.
“Alright, I’m ready,” she said quietly.
Together they walked out of the ranchhouse and Kid helped her up into the buckboard, next to Standing Woman and Dawn Star. Both of the Cheyenne women, as well as Buck, had shorn their hair in mourning. But, today they wore black to honor Teaspoon’s white traditions. Buck and Kid rode alongside the buckboard as Lou started it in the direction of town.
They went first to Rachel’s house where they met up with the rest of the family, all sitting around somberly in various shades of black. Together, the extended family walked down the middle of Main Street, in a tradition Teaspoon had started amongst the riders after they’d had a hard day, headed toward the cemetery.
The next hour passed in a blur as the preacher said some nice words over Teaspoon’s casket, and then the boys carefully lowered it into the hole dug the night before. Lou simply stared at the flowers Polly had somehow found around town to lay on top of the casket.
“Amen,” the preacher closed his book and looked around at the gathered crowd that included just about everyone in town and quite a few outsiders as well. “Normally, we’d leave the family alone now to say a last goodbye, but this time, they’ve asked to share their thoughts with the rest of you.”
He stepped back and, squeezing Kid’s hand, Lou stepped forward. At last she raised her eyes from the casket to look around at all those who’d gathered to say goodbye to Aloysius ‘Teaspoon’ Hunter.
“Teaspoon was a friend to all of you,” she began. “But he was more than just a friend to us. To us, he was family. Most of us he had to teach exactly what that meant, but he never complained. Over the years, we attended a lot of funerals with him and he always found just the right thing to say. At Noah’s funeral he talked about how it hurt so much because burying your child, even an adopted one, wasn’t the proper order of things. In his opinion, his passing before ours was the proper order of things. Shortly before he died he told me he could rest easy, ‘cause he’d learnt us all his tricks.
Last night, as we were talkin’ about it, we decided, that the best way we could honor him would be to share what he means… meant to us and what we learned from him.
To me, he was the ‘pa’ my own father never was. I think he was that way for all of us. It wasn’t somethin’ any of us expected, that first time we met. I remember how he popped up out of the watering trough and started spreading bear grease all over himself.”
The crowd laughed at this, each able to imagine the scene quite vividly.
“But, what sticks with me the most is something he said when my own pa died. He said, ‘Son,’ he still thought I was a boy back then, ‘Son, there’s only one thing you can’t save a person from, and that’s themselves.’ That’s a piece of advice that’s stood me and the Kid in good stead over the last few years.”
Lou stepped back and Cody stepped up.
“I remember, back when we first joined the Express, I was so intent on making sure no one disrespected me and makin’ a good impression on folks. What I didn’t understand was that it wasn’t about respect, what I was concerned with was my pride. Teaspoon’s the one who taught me the difference. I ain’t sayin’ it was easy.
I remember when he told us, ‘You need to learn, Cody, the difference between Pride and Self-Respect. Pride is a cheap commodity, can leave a man when he’s been whupped and kicked. Pride goes on, comes off, easy. Self-Respect? Nobody can take that from ya. It goes clear to the bone.’”
Cody stepped back and Buck took a step forward.
“In some ways, I think I had about the most difficult time adjusting of those of us riders still left,” Buck began. “I already had a chip on my shoulder, dealing with what I thought was rejection by my Ma’s people and expecting the same thing from my father’s folks. In some ways, the white world delivered exactly what I expected. In others, it didn’t. I never thought to find one brother, which Ike was, let alone five brothers, a sister and a new Ma and Pa.
I remember during one of the times we were havin’ Indian trouble and Teaspoon said, ‘The Indians is fightin’ for their way of life, the right to live the way they did before we got here. Just like our kin fought the British almost a hundred years ago. Except the Indians is called Savages, our kin was called Patriots, probably ‘cause they won.’ It took awhile but eventually I understood what he was saying and it made my position, walking the line between two groups a lot easier to handle.”
Next, Jimmy stepped up.
“When I started with the Express, I wanted one thing and one thing only, to be the fastest, baddest gunslinger in town. I didn’t understand what that meant, until after first Longley then Marcus starting messing with my life and turned me into Wild Bill. Teaspoon? He taught me how to handle it when strangers came gunning for me. The fact he used to be a gunslinger and got out of the business always gave me hope.
But then, Sam,” at this Jimmy lifted his eyes and met those of Sam and Emma, standing on the other side of the casket, “Sam and Emma got married and left Sweetwater, makin’ Teaspoon the interim Marshal. I couldn’t understand why he put that gun back on, after escapin’ the curse that went with it. When I asked him, I remember, he told me, ‘Jimmy, there comes a time in a man’s life when he can’t look back. Even though it seems like the path he’s about to choose leads back to a place he’s already been to, it don’t matter. Cause he knows he ain’t that man goin’ down the path.’ I’m not that hotheaded, trigger happy kid anymore, and it’s thanks to Teaspoon.”
Polly stepped forward.
“Teaspoon was the love of my life. I left him once, ‘cause I couldn’t handle sharin’ him with the law. What I forgot is that it was the law what saved him from turnin’ out like the men he brought to justice. Some might ask, do I regret comin’ back, since we only had a few short months together again. No! I don’t. I’d go through the pain of losing him a dozen times in exchange for the bliss of having been his wife these last few months. And, although we never had kids together, he left me with an incredible family to comfort me in my grief.”
She hugged Amanda, who then began to speak.
“Teaspoon wasn’t my father, anymore than he was related by blood to the rest of us. Yet, he treated me like the daughter he’d lost. I had a hard start in life and I made a lot of bad decisions after that. Teaspoon taught me I didn’t have to let those decisions define me. He told me, ‘The greatest treasure a person has is his self-respect. You don’t have that, you don’t have nothing.’ Even after I told him my deepest, darkest secrets, he wouldn’t let me leave. Said we were going to stay together, as a family. He gave me first the self-respect then the financial means to escape my past. Along the way, he taught me what it means to have a real family, a family worth dying for. I’ll never forget him for that.”
Finally, Kid stepped forward.
“Teaspoon became not only a friend, but a father to all of us,” he began. Turning, he wrapped his arm around Lou’s shoulders again. “I only hope I’ll be half the father he was. He loved to learn and try out new things. He taught us about baseball, tennis, bicycles, science, history, and many other things. He taught us how to live a life worth living.
The one thing I’ll remember most about him, was his ability to give advice. He once told me it was his favorite thing in the world. And that man knew how to talk, even if sometimes you couldn’t figure out what he was saying.”
The crowd tittered at that, each person in it having personal experience with the confusion Teaspoon’s advice sometimes left in its wake.
“But he also knew how to get you thinking, when to push and when to let ya alone. If he’d followed the rules, none of us would’ve lasted more than a month with the Express. Instead, due to his pushing and prodding, we became the best unit the company had.
I remember, when I was havin’ trouble figuring out women, right after I found out about Lou,” once again he squeezed Lou’s shoulders and she grinned up at him. “He said something about love, and wheels and not knowing who ya was in love with all along. I still ain’t quite figured out what he meant by all that. But, he got me thinking about who Lou was and who I was and did we fit.”
Kid paused and looked around at the townspeople gathered together. He saw Thompkins standing with Tiny at his side near Sam, the Territorial Marshal, and Emma. Behind Polly stood Territorial Governor Phelan, an old friend of Teaspoon’s. At the back of the group stood a collection of Indians from various tribes, there to honor Teaspon as well.
“What other man could’ve called this motley crew friends? Family?” Kid asked. “Sometimes we’ve fought. Sometimes we’ve gone our separate ways. But always the ties that bound us together remained strong and Teaspoon held them in his hands like a master. I remember, right after he found out about Lou, he said, ‘Company’s company and Family’s Family. And I always thought of you boys, and uh, girls, as family.’ That was Teaspoon’s talent and his gift to all of us. He built us into a family. It’s a legacy that will live on long after we’re gone.”
Kid bowed his head and stepped back. The Express family reached out, each grabbing the hands of those around them. Together they began to sing Teaspoon’s favorite song, as the rest of the townsfolk and funeral guests slowly filtered away.
I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair,
Borne, like a vapor, on the summer air;
I see her tripping where the bright streams play,
Happy as the daisies that dance on her way.
Many were the wild notes her merry voice would pour,
Many were the blithe birds that warbled them o'er:
Oh! I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair,
Floating, like a vapor, on the soft summer air.
I long for Jeanie with the daydawn smile,
Radiant in gladness, warm with winning guile;
I hear her melodies, like joys gone by,
Sighing round my heart o'er the fond hopes that die:
Sighing like the night wind and sobbing like the rain,
Wailing for the lost one that comes not again:
Oh! I long for Jeanie, and my heart bows low,
Never more to find her where the bright waters flow.
I sigh for Jeanie, but her light form strayed
Far from the fond hearts round her native glade;
Her smiles have vanished and her sweet songs flown,
Flitting like the dreams that have cheered us and gone.
Now the nodding wild flowers may wither on the shore
While her gentle fingers will cull them no more:
Oh! I sigh for Jeanie with the light brown hair,
Floating, like a vapor, on the soft summer air.
One by one, the riders turned to leave, to get on with their lives. Finally, Lou and Kid were the last ones left. Lou reached down and picked up a handful of dirt, scattering it over the casket.
“Goodbye, Teaspoon. Pa. You’ll be missed, but never forgotten.”
- Background Info
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