Sunday, December 30, 2012

This Moment

She snuggled closer into the warmth of his body, almost moaning in appreciation for the comfort it afforded.  There was nothing she loved more than to be wrapped around him.  Unless it was to have him wrapped around her.  Even in the heat of summer, she welcomed his embrace.  But especially now, in the depths of a cold winter night, she sought out this comfort.
Trying to get closer she pulled one leg over his hips, smiling quietly to herself when he reached down and shifted it into a more comfortable position for both of them, then left his hand wrapped around her knee.
She tightened the arm she had flung across his chest in a slight hug.
“Mmmmm,” he moaned sleepily, rubbing his whisker-rough face across the top of her head.
For long moments they stayed that way, quietly enjoying the warmth and comfort each provided the other.  She could hear the thump-thump-thumping of his heart under her ear.  It’s steady rhythm providing a counterpoint for the near snore that issued from his throat with each breath.  She could stay like this forever, she thought to herself.
Turning her head slightly, she pressed a kiss to his chest.  The arm that had been under his head suddenly snaked down around her shoulders, pulling her tightly to him in a demanding grasp.
“Don’t leave,” he whispered into her hair.  Then his lips found their way past the fall of dark brown curls to her ear, her neck, across her cheek.  His whiskers left a slight red burn on the tender skin that she’d have to explain away in the morning.
Pushing her head back against his arm, she turned to meet his roving lips with her own soft ones.  The flames in the fireplace cast a golden glow across his cheekbones, adding a roguish glint to his eyes.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she murmured against his lips, before opening her mouth to admit him, one foot rubbing up and down the smooth skin of his leg, enjoying the rough texturing the hair on it added.
Snow fell steadily outside the window, added an odd glow to the morning sunlight peaking over the horizon, cushioning every sound to a quiet hush, so that not even a songbird disturbed the couple’s morning symphony.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Gift 11/11

Summary:  It's been four long years of war and separation.   But now the hostilities are over.  But Kid's family is still flung to the far corners of the earth and he's feeling guilty he didn't go with them.  Will the spirit of the Christmas season help him forget?

Chapter 11
McCloud Ranch, Near Sweetwater, Wyoming Territory
“I’m hunry,” EmmyLu whined from her place at the children’s table.
“Can we eat yet?” Ellen asked quietly.
“Pwease, eat!  Now!” demanded Noah, banging his wooden fork on the table top.
“I think the children have the right idea,” Teaspoon said.  “Why don’t we sit down, finish thanking the Good Lord for this food, and talk while we’re eatin’.”
The rest of the players continued to stare at each other in silent shock.
“Come on,” Teaspoon urged, pounding his crutch on the floor to get everyone’s attention.  “Let’s sit down.”
Kid shook his head.  “Yes, you’re right.  Please,” he added, turning to Harbinger and waving toward the table.  “Join us.”
While everyone else was getting seated, Jimmy reached out and grabbed at Kid’s elbow.  Kid turned to look at the man he’d been closest to during their Express years, a question in his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Jimmy said quietly, not quite meeting Kid’s eyes.  “I… I guess I shoulda come sooner.”
Kid reached out and pulled Jimmy into yet another hug.  “You came when you could, Jimmy.  That’s all that matters.”  Stepping back and pointing toward the table, he added, “Now, let’s eat!”
Back at the table, Kid uttered a few short words of thanks and then stood to begin carving the turkey.  As he sliced through the bird and began laying slices of rich, dark meat on the plates Lou held out to him, he asked, “So, you mind explainin’ yerself, Harbinger?”
“Please, call me Tom,” the young man said, smiling around the room at those gathered for Christmas dinner.  “Well, it’s simple really.  Old Man Rockefeller died about a year and a half ago.  Split his money evenly between all his sons.  I was hired by the will’s executor to find the black sheep of the family, one William Rockefeller.  Disappeared into the Tennessee mountain country about 18 years ago or so.  Headed out on a surveying expedition and was never heard from again.”
“That’s our Pa!” Tucker exclaimed excitedly.  “Our oldest brother’s named after him.  Will, Jr.”
“Ma always used to talk ‘bout how he come ta town with a bunch of big city yahoos, fell in love with her at first site and never left,” Martha added in a wondering tone of voice.  “You’re sayin’ he come from money?  And gave it all up fer her?”
“It would appear so,” Tom nodded, accepting a plate piled high with turkey and biscuits.  “Assuming you’re his children, Martha and Tucker Rockefeller.”  Setting it down in front of him, he sniffed appreciatively.  “This looks like the finest meal I’ve had since I crossed the Mississippi River, ma’am.”
Lou smiled a bit uncertainly, still not sure she believed him.  In a stern voice, she asked, “So, why’d you go about sayin’ they was wanted back in Box Elder if ya were just tryin’ ta deliver an inheritance?”
“Well, I found I got more attention from folk if they thought I was looking for someone wanted by the law,” Tom said, blushing a little.  “Didn’t set right, lying to folks like that, but I was getting pretty desperate.  I thought I’d found them back in Cherry Gulch.  The banker was real eager to show me where they lived if I’d agree to pay off their mortgage.  But by the time we got out there the place was picked clean.  Not even a chicken on the place.  Damndest thing I ever did see.”
Martha suddenly burst into tears.  Lou stood and rushed to her side, Teresa right behind her.
“It’s all right,” she soothed.  “You’re safe.”
“But, don’t’ya see,” Martha sobbed.  “If only I’d fought a little bit harder that day.  Made him wait ‘til the next morning at least,” she added, raising her tear covered face to look up at Lou.  “Maybe we wouldn’ta had ta go through all that.”
“Yeah.  Or maybe ya’d’ve gone through worse,” Lou said softly.  “From what Tucker and you tol’ us ‘bout Hollander, and what Harbinger just said, sounds like he was after yer Pa’s money.  It would sure explain why he acted like he did and why he ran when he thought someone was there ta take ya away from him.  Even why he treated you like a wife, Martha.  To keep you tied to him.”
“But it’s all over now,” Kid added, placing a reassuring hand on the girl’s frail shoulder.  “You’re safe.  And nobody’s gonna make ya do a thing you don’t want to,” he added firmly, glaring sternly at Harbinger.
“Oh, I’m not here to make anyone do anything,” Tom agreed quickly, nodding vigorously.  “I’m just here to let you know how you can access the money your grandfather left you.  It’s being held in an account back in New York City.  But I just have to wire them to let them know I’ve found you and they’ll send it on out here to the bank of your choice.  Except,” he paused a little uncertainly.  “You both look a bit young.  How old are you?”
“I’m fifteen, sir,” Martha said, sniffling.  “And Tucker’s just turned thirteen.”
Tom Harbinger gaped at her, looking from her face to her rounded belly and back again.  “Fif… fif.. fifteen?”
She raised her chin proudly.  “Yes, sir.  I got two older brothers.  One joined the Army durin’ the War and got killed.  That was Will, Jr.  The other run off after Ma died.  We haven’t heard from him since.  It’s just Tucker and me now.  Well,” she paused and looked over at the children’s table before adding, “And Albert.  But he’s Hollander’s, so I don’t s’pose he counts toward this inheritance.”
“Legally?” Tom shook his head.  “No.  But at your age you’ll have to have a guardian to watch out for the money to you reach your majority.  You have any family left?”
“Maybe,” Martha said uncertainly.  Setting her utensils down, she nervously twisted her hands in the fabric of her skits.  Looking around the table, she added, her southern accent deepening with emotion, “In my heart you’re all family.  I know we ain’t known ya all that long and maybe we ain’t got the right ta make such claims.  But ain’t no one treated us as much like family since our Pa died.  I know you really had to dig deep to find enough to provide for us, even temporary.  And… well, it isn’t like I need to be rich, just be able to put food on the table.  Make sure there’s enough to provide for my siblings,” she paused and rubbed a hand over her belly.  “And my baby.”  Lifting her chin determinedly she finished, “That’s why I want to give the money to y’all.  If we can stay here and help you run the ranch, that is.  This is a good place.  You’re good folk.  We could be happy here, if you want us.”
“Oh, darlin’,” Lou smiled, hugging her tightly around the shoulders, even as tears formed in the corners of her own eyes.  “I already think of you like a sister.  But don’t you think you should at least find out how much money we’re talkin’ ‘bout here before you go givin’ it all away?”
“Uh oh,” Teresa groaned playfully.  “Better watch out.  That means she’ll be tryin’ ta run yer life before ya got a chance ta live it!”
“Oh, hush yer trap,” Lou smiled.
“Well,” Martha asked, turning to Harbinger.  “How much is this inheritance?”
“I don’t know what it’s at by now, what with interest earned over the last year and all,” he averred.  “But, when I was hired the amount put into the account was $550,000.  Your grandfather was a very rich man.”
Lou and Martha issued twin gasps.  Kid’s face blanched white.
“That’s…. that’s more money then there is in all of the Sweetwater Bank,” Jeremiah murmured, awed.
“Honey, you don’t really want to give it all away, do you?” Lou asked, concerned.
Martha shrugged.  “One thing I’ve learned, money can make things easier, but if it comes down to it, I’d rather have family than cold cash.”
“Well, we won’t go makin’ any decisions immediately,” Kid said, meeting Lou’s eyes in agreement.  “Things might change.  You might need that money someday.  But, you’re welcome to stay with us as long as you want.”
Lou stood, leaning back against Kid, his arms wrapped tightly around her middle, while she watched her brothers, her children and her newest family members laughing and chattering around the Christmas tree.  Cody was stuffing one of the gingersnaps in his mouth, Teaspoon held tightly to a turkey leg he’d been nibbling on all afternoon.  Jimmy was needling Buck about something, until Buck winced with discomfort.  Then Jimmy was all solicitous concern.  Martha and Tucker were laughing and sharing memories of their family with Harbinger, who was telling them what he knew about their father.
Kid sighed and rested his chin on Lou’s shoulder.
“What are you thinking?” Lou asked quietly.
“Remember when we got engaged?  That minister said we were blessed?  And you said maybe you’d forgotten it for awhile?”
Lou nodded.
“Well, I think I’m the one what forgot this time around,” Kid said quietly.  “All these months worrying about the money to keep the ranch going, wondering what had happened to the others, feeling guilty for not having gone with them, I kind of lost track of what I did have.”
“Nothin’ like family to remind you of what you’ve got,” Teaspoon agreed, having snuck up on them somehow.  “And sometimes it’s the family we don’t even know we’ve got that makes the biggest difference.  You stoppin’ ta help Martha and Tucker out?  That was an act of family.  And look at how well that’s turned out?  Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares*.  That’s what this season’s all about.  The true spirit of Christmas, the real Gift He gave us that night He was born.  The Gift of Love, of Family.”
“You’re right, Teaspoon,” Kid sighed happily.  “You’re right.”
“Well damn, son,” Teaspoon hmphed.  “Ain’t ya learned yet?  I’m always right.”
 --The End--
Merry Christmas! ¡Feliz Cumpleaños! Joyeux Noël! Fröhliche Weihnachten! 
*Hebrews 13:2 KJV

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Gift 10/11

Summary:  It's been four long years of war and separation.   But now the hostilities are over.  But Kid's family is still flung to the far corners of the earth and he's feeling guilty he didn't go with them.  Will the spirit of the Christmas season help him forget?

Chapter 10
McCloud Ranch, near Sweetwater, Wyoming Territory
“It’s Christmas morning!”
“Santa Claus came!”
“Look at that tree!”
The shouts of excited children, their pounding footsteps as they raced past the bedroom door and down the stairs, followed by their squeals of excitement over the decorating she and Kid had down the night before pulled Lou from her slumber.  Groaning she rolled over and peeked through her eyelashes toward the bedroom window.  Facing east, it was her way of checking the time.  The diffused light allowing her to just barely make out the pattern on the calico curtains told her it was dawn, almost.
“Might as well get up and head downstairs,” Kid sighed.  “There’s no getting that genie back in its bottle.”
Lou smothered her own groaning laughter while tossing her pillow at Kid’s head for his insane cheerfulness so early in the morning.  Crawling out of the bed, she pulled on her wrapper and stepped into the warm house shoes Kid had given her for Christmas last year.  Made of softly tanned deerskin on the outside, inside they were lined with the softest of rabbit furs.  They made her feel like she was wearing silk slippers every time she put them on.  She loved them.
“You better hurry up,” she mock growled at him.  “You leave alone with those children for long before I’ve had my coffee and they’re liable to be the main dish at dinner!”
With that parting shot tossed over her shoulder, she stepped out into the hall, almost running over Martha, Tucker at her side, helping her make her way down the hall.
“How are you feeling this morning?” Lou asked, a touch more brightly then she really felt.
“Better, ma’am,” Martha sighed in her deep accent.  “Much better.”
“Well, you take your time getting downstairs,” Lou advised.  “I’ll make sure the children wait until everyone’s gathered.”
Lou entered the parlor just in time to catch Noah sneaking around the back of the Christmas tree, decorated with homemade pine cone ornaments, strings of popcorn and dozens of candles in special holders, which were not lit at the moment.  The toddler held a package wrapped carefully in brown paper in his hands.  Lou could see his curious fingers already fiddling with the twine holding the paper closed.
“Oh no you don’t,” she warned sternly, swooping in and gathering the child into her arms with one hand, while removing the package from his grasp with the other.  “Not until everyone’s here.”  Looking down at the package, she added, “And this one isn’t even for you!”
Noah looked up at his mother, too startled to cry, then snuggled his head into the hollow between her shoulder and collarbone and stuck a thumb into his mouth to suck contentedly.  She shook her head, sighing in mock exasperation.
Soon, Tucker and Martha had made it down the stairs and taken seats on the settee.  Jeremiah was sitting on the hearth, next to Barnett, While Teresa and Kid helped Lou corral the youngsters.
“Can we do this already?” Kid asked, once the last of the adults had found a seat.
“Please,” Lou smiled, already exhausted.
“Come on,” Kid said, leading the children, like the Pied Piper, over to the hearth.  “Jeremiah, mind handing me the stockings?”
Soon, everyone, even the adults, had a stocking in  hand.  Lou and Kid had worked hard to make sure everybody had something.  All the candy sticks had been carefully broken in two so there’d be enough to go around.  And, by breaking up the sets she’d spent the last few months knitting, she’d been able to give everyone either a pair of mittens or a scarf.  She figured she could work on completing those sets after Christmas was over, but for now at least everyone could enjoy a little Christmas surprise.
Kid had found a way to get a small toy for each of the children.  They’d scrimped and saved to buy EmmyLu a storebought doll for Christmas, with a porcelain head and real hair she could comb.  But had decided to put her away for the girl’s birthday.  Instead, Kid had rushed out to the barn and fashioned two corncob dolls, with cornhusk shawls and dresses.  Judging by the way EmmyLu and Ellen immediately retreated to one corner of the room to play with them, the little girls were quite satisfied with their gifts.  And Kid had taken the set of six horses he’d carved and painted for Noah and split it in two, half each to Noah and Albert.
For Martha and Tucker they’d found some sets of only slightly used clothes they could give them, a sweater, a coat or heavy shawl, boots.  The things they’d need to stay warm through the cold prairie winter but didn’t have.
Martha started at the gifts spread around her, one hand rubbing the top of her belly in ever more agitated circles.
“I don’t know how to thank you,” she murmured.  “We’ll never be able to repay you for all you’ve done for us.”
Lou looked over at her husband’s smiling face as he talked to Tucker and Jeremiah near the hearth.  She smiled softly herself, then turned back to Martha.  “You already have,” she said gently.  “Just by being here.”
“Well,” Teresa said, coming over to join the women, Barnett trailing along behind her.  “We’d better get started on that dinner or we won’t be eatin’ it ‘til supper time.”
Lou laughed.  That was her sister, impatient as ever.
“Alright, you,” she said.  “Let’s get a move on.”  Looking at her new brother-in-law, she added, “I suppose this means I’ve got one more pair of hands to help out this year.”  Not waiting for an answer, she shook her head and turned toward the kitchen, the sounds of happy laughter, children’s excited voices and the still howling winds of the blizzard blowing outside following her.
“Are you sure about this?”
Teaspoon looked over at Harbinger.  Despite the fact he was a greenhorn, and there was no denying that, Teaspoon had already come to realize he was smart as the day was long.
“We’ll be fine,” Teaspoon harrumphed.  “Storm ain’t nearly so bad as last night.  And we’ve got Buck ta help us find the trail.  Ain’t a better tracker in the territory.”  He paused and looked over at his boys, who were wrapping up the process of knocking down camp.  “’Sides,” he added, “it’s Christmas Day.  And we’ve got presents to deliver.”
“That’s right,” Cody added, grinning as he walked up and handed Teaspoon the reins to his horse.  “See, we’re somethin’ in the way of Santa Claus this year.”
Tipping his hat at Harbinger, he turned back to help his brothers finish tying the last of their supplies to the back of their saddles.
“Hope you don’t mind,” Teaspoon smiled, pulling himself laboriously up into the saddle.  “We can’t get you to Sweetwater today.  Only so far’s the McCloud Ranch.  It’s just an hour or so out of town, if you want to try to make it on yer own.  Or, we can get ya there tomorrow.  But, like the boy says, we’ve got an appointment ta make.”
“No problem,” Harbinger said.  “It’s not like anyone’s expecting me.”
He, too, mounted his horse, settling into the saddle just as the others rode up to join him and Teaspoon.
“Ready?” Teaspoon asked, a twinkle in his eye.
“Ready,” they chorused.
“Then let’s ride!”  Turning their horses away from the sun, they broke into a ground eating westward trot, the pounding hooves of their mounts kicking up fountains of snow as they went.
“Is dinner weady yet?”
Martha turned from where she sat at the kitchen table putting icing decorations on each of the gingerbread men in front of her.  They’d used the last of the sugar to make the icing and there would be only one gingerbread man and once ginger snap per person.
“Almost EmmyLu,” she smiled.  “Why don’t you see if your Ma is ready for you to set the table.”  Moving her gaze to the slightly older Ellen, who stood just behind EmmyLu, and said, “You can help her out, you know.  We’re not guests.  We need to carry our own weight.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the five-year-old nodded somberly.
“Here, you take these,” EmmyLu said, handing the china plates Emma had given Lou and Kid for their wedding to Ellen.  “Be careful.  Those are Special Occasion Plates,” she warned seriously.  Grabbing up the silverware, she led the way back to the dining table in the parlor.
Martha laughed as she watched the girls go.  “She’s so obviously your daughter,” she said to Lou as the older woman backed up to the table, her hands full of the roasted wild turkey she’d just pulled from the oven.
“Isn’t she?” Teresa said, following her sister to the table with a platter of fresh, hot biscuits.  “Lou’s gonna have her hands full in a few years.”
“Naw,” Lou said.  “I’ll just sic Teaspoon on her.”
“That’s assumin’ Teaspoon survived the war,” Teresa said a bit more soberly.
“It’s Christmas,” Lou said, wiping her hands on her apron.  “It’s time to think positively.”
“Well, I’m positively famished,” Kid said from the kitchen door.  “Is it about time yet?”
“What was that you were sayin’ ‘bout her bein’ my daughter?” Lou asked the room at large, sending the other women into peals of laughter.
Soon, the table was set, the food was out and everyone was jostling for a place to sit.  There was the big table for the grown-ups and a second, smaller table, set with plain wooden dishes and utensils, for the children. 
“Oh,” Martha exclaimed, as Tucker was helping her to her seat.  “Ellen must’ve set too many places.”
Lou frowned and turned to look at the table.  Quickly counting, she smiled and shook her head.  “No, she didn’t.”
“But, there’s only seven of us, not counting the young’uns, and there’s eleven place settings.”
Kid nodded.  “Yes.  That’s right.”
“The extra are for family,” Lou added.
“You never know when they’ll come home,” Teresa added.  “We’re always ready.”
Lou slipped into the chair Kid was holding out for her, then reached up to grab the hand he’d momentarily laid on her shoulder.  Looking up into his face as he took his place beside her at the table, she asked, “Would you say Grace?”
He nodded and reached out to take her hand in one of his, Teresa’s in the other.  Once everyone around the table had joined the chain of linked hands, Kid closed his eyes and bowed his head.
“Dear Lord,” he began, “we thank You for the chance to come together to celebrate Your birth and for the all the blessings You’ve bestowed upon us.  Lord, please help us to remember what we have, the love of a good family in good times and bad, instead of complain’ ‘bout what we ain’t got all the time.  We ain’t got much in the way of money, but you have spoiled us with the richness of a love that can only grow.”
Lou squeezed his fingers as his words reached her heart.  She was so glad he was feeling better.
“Lord, we do ask that you remember our missing loved ones.  We know, that even if they ain’t with us in person, they are in thoughts, even as we--”
A sharp rapping on the front door followed by the sound of a gruff voice yelling out, “Hello, the house!” interrupted the prayer.
Everyone’s heads popped up at the unexpected sound.  As the others all looked toward the door, Kid and Lou looked at each other, Lou’s hand shaking as she reached over to grab Kid’s, Kid already shaking his head in denial. 
“Do you think?” Lou asked breathlessly.
“It’s just wishful thinkin’,” Kid maintained, trying to keep a grip on his own burgeoning hope, his fingers almost crushing Lou with desperation.
“Anyone home?” the voice called again, as the rapping increased in strength and frequency.
“Um, don’t ya think we oughta go see who it is?” Jeremiah asked.
“I can--” Barnett started to offer, but Kid waved him back into his seat with his free hand.
“No,” he said.  “I’ve got it.”  Standing, he let go of Lou’s hand reluctantly, slowly set his napkin down next to his plate and moved over to the door.  Taking a deep breath to collect himself, he almost hesitantly placed his hand on the door handle and turned it, releasing the latch.  Finally pulling it open, he stared in open mouthed shock.
“Well,” Lou asked, rising to her feet in anxiety but unable to see around her much taller husband whose broad frame filled the doorway.  “Who is it?”
“Don’t just stand there, boy,” Teaspoon grinned.  “Give yer ol’ man a hug!  And where’s my girl?”
“What about us?” Cody called.
“Yeah, I’d like a hug, too,” Buck said.
“Only if it’s from Lou,” Jimmy said.  “I ain’t gettin’ that close ta Kid.  Folks might start talkin’.”
“You…. you came,” Kid sputtered, grinning as he flung himself at his returned family.  The others passed him around, even Jimmy, from hug to hug.  Then, with growing strength, almost a shout of celebration, he added, “You’re all alive!”
Lou smiled tearfully at the joyful note in Kid’s voice.  She hadn’t heard him sound so happy in years, if ever.  There’d been a similar note of disbelief, joyous discovery and love in his voice when he’d introduced his brother, Jed, to them all.  But even that paled in comparison to what she was seeing now.  She stood, watching the reunion, trying to wipe tears from the corners of her eyes without being seen.
“What about the little woman?” Cody asked, pushing past Kid as he hugged Jimmy, for the third time.  “I want a hug from her!”
Lou started to back away from Cody, who grinned with devilish mischief in his eyes.  But she wasn’t fast enough as he pulled her into his arms and squeezed her for all he was worth.
“Cody,” she gasped, pounding on his shoulder with one fist.  “I can’t breathe!”
“See, I always knew I’d take your breath away someday,” he joked, even as Buck shouldered him aside to get his own hug.
Even as the small family absorbed her into the revolving round of seemingly continuous hugs and grins and slaps on the back, the others watched the reunion in awe.
“Are… are these the people those extra plates are for?” Tucker asked, curiously.
“Yes,” Teresa nodded, leaning her head against Barnett’s shoulder, letting her own tears of joy fall unashamedly.  “I…. I can’t believe they’re all still alive
“Alive and kickin’,” Teaspoon said, using his crutch to lever his way through the door to Lou’s side.  Looking back over his shoulder, he added insouciantly, “Well, mostly, anyways.”
“Oh, Teaspoon,” Lou said, misty-eyed, as he pulled her tight to his chest.  “It’s sooooo good to see you.  But,” she paused, to pull back as she felt him start to wobble a little, “what happened?”
“Ran afoul of a Union bullet,” he shrugged.  “Ain’t of no account.  I get along jest fine.  What about you?  How’s my gal, doin’?”
“Better, now,” she breathed, smiling up at him.
“We didn’t come empty-handed, neither,” Buck said.
“Yeah, I think Emma emptied the cupboard,” Cody added, as he stepped back out through the front door to collect an armful of presents.
“And what she didn’t send, we brought along just in case,” Jimmy finished, as he added a bag full of wrapped gifts to the pile.
“Oh,” Lou gasped, overwhelmed and speechless, as Teaspoon pulled her close into his side again, resting on her more than his crutch..  “Oh my.”
“But, food first,” Teaspoon grinned.  “Smells good in here.  What’cha got fer us, Lou?” he asked, rubbing his hands together gleefully.  Turning to the others, he added, “Remember how nervous we all was the first time she cooked fer us, after the weddin’ and honeymoon?  Thought fer sure it’d be worse’n Jimmy’s porridge.  But it was heavenly fine.  Better than Rachel and Emma’s cookin’ put tagether.  I been dreamin’ ‘bout that meal fer four long years, boys!  So hurry up.  I wanta eat!”
“Aw, Teaspoon,” Cody groaned.  “Don’t ya ever think ‘bout anythin’ but yer stomach?”
Everyone burst into belly laughs as Cody looked around the room at his family and asked indignantly, “What?!?”
Everyone was so caught up in the reunion, that no one noticed the last man through the door.  Until Lou, her arm still wrapped around Teaspoon’s waist to support him, said, “Well, come on and sit down.  We were just prayin’ over the food.  It ain’t fancy, but there’s plenty to go around.”
As Lou turned with Teaspoon to help him toward the table the others were already pulling chairs up to, Martha asked, “But, who’s that man?  The one against the wall?  There’s only four extra plates.  He makes five.”
Teaspoon realized he’d forgotten something and turned to introduce the other member of their party, a man no one else had noticed yet, so caught up had they all been in the reunion.
“Ever’body, this here’s Tom Harbinger,” he pointed to a man Lou recognized the second she looked into his face.  She started to gasp, but swallowed the uneven breath even as Teaspoon continued.  “We rescued him from the storm and are gonna help him find his way to Sweetwater.  He’s a Pinkerton.  Lookin’ fer a couple kids from out Tennessee-way.”
“That’s…that’s the man what made Hollander so scared,” Tucker sputtered.
“What?” Lou asked, whipping around to look from Tucker to Martha to Harbinger.  “What are you talkin’ ‘bout?”
“Remember, I tol’ ya me and Hollander saw this man come inta the pub and start askin’ after Martha and me?  And Hollander skedaddled us out of town that night?  Well, this is him.”
“What’s your name son?” Harbinger asked eagerly, pulling off his hat.
Lou pulled away from Teaspoon, taking a moment to make sure he was balanced on his own, then stepped forward, placing herself like a shield between the newcomer and the children she’d come to consider members of her extended family.  
Hands crossed over her chest, she demanded, “Hold it right there, mister.  Who are you?  Why have you been askin’ after these children?  And what are you doin’ all the way out here if yer from Tennessee?  You followin’ them or somethin’?  You better not be up ta anythin’.  My husband’s the marshal ‘round here and he’s perfectly capable of makin’ sure ya spend the rest of the year behind bars.”

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Gift 9/11

Summary:  It's been four long years of war and separation.   But now the hostilities are over.  But Kid's family is still flung to the far corners of the earth and he's feeling guilty he didn't go with them.  Will the spirit of the Christmas season help him forget?

Chapter 9
McCloud Ranch, Near Sweetwater, Wyoming Territory
Straightening her shoulders, Teresa faced her sister and brother-in-law with her chin thrust out defiantly.  Unfortunately, that thrust a few other things into prominent view.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Lou sighed, holstering her pistol with a sigh.  Walking, well, stomping really, over to her sister’s side, she slipped off her winter coat and wrapped it around the younger girl’s shoulders.
Teresa reached up reflexively and clutched the coat closed around her body, starting to shiver despite the relative warmth of the barn.
Stepping back, Lou crossed her arms over her chest and glared at the younger girl, then switched her glare to Barnett when he started to move.
“You can just stay right where yer at,” she growled.  “I still ain’t decided whether I aim ta shoot ya or not.  And just cause I ain’t drawn down on ya don’t mean I couldn’t hit ya in the backside long ‘fore ya ever made it ta the door!”
Barnett shuffled his feet in the loose straw on the barn floor, flushing bright red and muttered something unintelligible that might have been a “Yes, ma’am,” or might have a been something a lot more foul.  At the moment, Lou didn’t really care.
“I think it’s time to start talkin’, young lady,” Kid interrupted the glare-a-thon going on between his wife and sister-in-law.  “I can’t wait to hear how you’re going to explain this.  Somehow I doubt Barnett attacked you and I don’t think your clothes just fell off when you tripped over a rake.”
Now it was Teresa’s turn to blush bright red. 
“Uh, no, Sir,” she mumbled, looking down at her bare feet, toes curled in the straw and dirt of the barn floor.  But she didn’t say anything else.
“Well?” Lou prompted, tapping one booted foot impatiently.
Teresa looked back up and squared her shoulders again.  “We’re married.”
That’s when all hell broke loose.
“Like hell, you say,” Lou exploded.  “You’re barely out of school yourself.  You’re way too young to be gettin’ hitched!”
Turning her anger on Barnett, she stepped forward, her fists clenching at her sides, ready to let fly if he made a single move she could use as an excuse.  “You!  This is all your fault!  What’s the matter?  Couldn’t find a woman in town what would give you the time of day so ya had to turn yer sights on my baby sister?  She’s young enough to be your daughter!”
Kid said nothing, simply holstering his own weapon as quickly as he could so he could keep his wife from drawing hers and opening fire.
“Lou,” he said softly in her ear even as he wrapped his arms around her shoulders to pin her arms at her sides, “Louise.  Calm down.  Why don’t we let them explain.”
“I love him,” Teresa said firmly, reaching out to twine her fingers through his.  “And he loves me.”  Turning defiantly toward her sister, she added, “And he’s not too old for me.  Age is just a number.  Don’t mean nothin’ when yer matched as perfectly as we are.”
Lou opened her mouth, a scoffing noise exiting before Kid squeezed her in a demand for silence.  Teresa kept right on talking anyway.
“And I know what yer gonna say.  Everyone says it.  Barnett’s slow.  He’s stupid.  He’s dumb.  Well, I aim ta tell ya he ain’t none of that.  He…” she paused to look up lovingly at the taller man.  “He just cain’t hear too well is all.  So, he misses a lot of stuff.  When yer lookin’ right at him while yer talkin’, he does fine.  But if ya ain’t facin’ him, he has ta try ta figure out what it is yer sayin’.  And that means he misses a lot.”
“I promise, Miz McCloud,” Barnett finally spoke up.  “I never disrespected Teresa.  I love her.”
The simple sincerity in his words made Lou look at the couple more closely.  It was obvious they were truly, deeply in love.  What could she say in the face of that?
“You’re too young ta be gettin’ married, Teresa Mary McCloud!”
“I turned 15 last month,” Teresa said.  “I’m old enough ta be graduated from school and hold a teacher’s license.  I figure that’s old enough ta become a wife.  Ain’t like you was all that much older when you and Kid started.. well….”
“Don’t even go there, young lady,” Kid said, stiffening.  “What went on between yer sister and me, that was a whole ‘nother situation in a different life.  There ain’t no comparison.”
“He’s right,” Barnett nodded.  “You ain’t yer sister.”
“Oooooh!” Teresa growled, at a loss for words.  “How dare you take their side,” she fumed.  “I didn’t hear you complainin’ I was too young last night!  Or the last week since we got married!”
Without another word, she turned fled toward the house.
Both Lou and Barnett started to follow her, but Kid pulled back on Lou’s arm.
“Let ‘em be, darlin’,” he said, smiling lopsidedly down at her.  “Seems to me I remember you flyin’ off the handle like that at me a few hundred times when we was courtin’ and newly married.  Heck, I seem ta remember ya takin’ a few potshots at me just a couple weeks ago.  And, admit it or not, your little sister is a younger version of you in all the ways that count.  If she’s got her heart set on Barnett, ain’t nothin’ we can say or do ta stop her.”
“Why you!” Lou sputtered angrily, pushing away from him to let fly with a punch to his shoulder.
“Oh, is that the way you want to play it?” he grinned.  “Two can play at that game.”
Without another word he hauled her back into his arms, pulling her tight against his chest as he leaned forward to silence her sputtering with his lips.  Once she’d stopped trying to pull away and begun to sink into the kiss herself, he whispered against her mouth, “Seems to me there’s a stall with a nice soft bed of hay goin’ unused just down the way.”
“Well,” she murmured, smiling against his lips as she reached up to begin unbuttoning his shirt.  “We can’t have that, now can we?”
“You’ll probably end up sharin’ a room with Teresa,” Jeremiah said as he set Martha gently onto the settee in front of the fireplace in the main parlor.  “Tucker, you and I’ll probably have ta share the bunkhouse with Barnett.”
“What about--”
The sound of the kitchen door slamming shut interrupted whatever Martha had been about to ask.  Jeremiah turned to see what was going on only to catch a glimpse of his younger sister running up the stairs, Lou’s coat clutched tightly around her, her bare legs flashing white as they took the stairs two at a time.
“Teresa?” he called after her, worry in his voice.  “Teresa, you alright?”
“I’ll be alright just as soon as Louise stops treatin’ me like a baby,” she yelled down at him, stomping across the upper floor of the house, tossing things wildly around by the thumps and bangs coming from her room.
The door opened and closed again, more controlled this time, followed by the solid thumps of a man’s stride.  Jeremiah turned from the stairs to see Barnett coming through the kitchen door.  The hired hand didn’t even look toward the parlor, heading determinedly straight for the stairs.
“Oh, no you ain’t,” Jeremiah called out, rushing over to interpose his body between the man and the stairs leading to his upset sister.  “Are you the reason why my sister’s so upset?  And why wasn’t she dressed proper?”
Barnett’s head came up as he ran into Jeremiah.  He started to answer, but Teresa’s voice overrode his.
“It ain’t Barnett’s fault,” she said firmly.  “All he did was marry me, like I asked him to.  It’s our sister and her high and mighty attitude, thinkin’ she knows what’s best fer us.  She ain’t my ma and I’m old enough ta make my own decisions.”
“What?” Jeremiah exhaled, exhausted from the trip and this confusing whirlwind of emotions.  Looking up, he saw Teresa, now fully dressed, standing at the top of the stairs, a bulging carpetbag in each hand.  Shaking his head in bewilderment, he asked, “Where do you think you’re goin’?  And what do you mean, married?”
Teresa pushed past him down the stairs to Barnett’s side.  Handing him one carpetbag, she slipped her now free hand into his elbow.  “Exactly what I said.  Barnett and I got married while everyone was gone.  Lou ain’t takin’ too kindly to it, but she’s just gonna have to get used to it.  This is the way things is gonna be.”
Turning, she began to lead Barnett toward the parlor door that led onto the porch facing the ranch yard.
“Um, Teresa,” Jeremiah asked, almost timidly.  “Where are you goin’?”
“Home,” she smiled sweetly over her shoulder.  “With my husband.”
“And, where’s that?”
Teresa sighed in exasperation at the silly question.  “The bunkhouse you numbskull.  That’s where Barnett lives, which means that’s where I live now.”
December 24th
Teresa sighed contentedly, snuggling closer into her husband’s warm side.  But a persistent waft of cold air kept following her.  She grumbled, half asleep, until her husband’s soft chuckle dragged her fully awake.
“What’s so funny?” she groaned.  “I’m tryin’ ta stay warm here.”
Barnett just leaned down to press a passionate kiss to her mouth.  When she wrapped her arms around his neck to drag him back down under the warm blankets with her though, he pulled back.  Tilting her face up so he could see her lips as she spoke, he said, “I gotta go.”
Teresa frowned.  “Why?  Where?”
“Huntin’,” he said.  “Kid, Jeremiah an’ me ‘re gonna go lookin’ fer a turkey or goose.  Somethin’ fer Christmas dinner.”
Teresa slumped back against the pillows, her lips extending into a childish pout.  “What am I s’posed ta do all day, while yer gallivantin’ off with the ‘men’?” she whined.  “I’m gonna be soooo bored.”
Barnett kissed her gently on the forehead.  “Why don’t you go make up with yer sister.”
Teresa glared up at him wordlessly through her eyelashes.
He chuckled.  “Don’t give me that look.  Ain’t like she’s ever gonna ‘pologize.  And, admit it or not, she did have a point.  We could’ve, probably should’ve waited ‘til you was older.  But, she’s family.  And this is Christmas.  You can’t leave things like this.  We gotta make things right fer the Lord’s birth.”
Teresa heaved a put upon sigh, before rolling over on top of her much larger husband’s muscular frame. 
“How’d I ever get so lucky to find me such a smart man?” she cooed, leaning down to press her lips to his, even as her hands began wandering up and down his body.
Barnett shrugged, giving in to the inevitable.  “Dunno,” he answered, reaching down to pull the covers back up over them.  “I’ll let ya now if I ever meet him.”
Lou sighed as she walked down the stairs and entered the kitchen.  Kid had left early that morning to go hunting with Jeremiah.  They’d taken Tucker and Barnett with them.  Along with the meat, they were charged with bringing back a tree to decorate in the parlor.
Looking around the kitchen, Lou immediately felt her sister’s missing presence.  She enjoyed cooking, but preferred to do it in company with someone else.  She hated being by herself.  It was just so… boring.  Unless, of course, she had something she needed to think over.
Disgruntled, she began opening cupboard doors, pulling items out, seemingly at random.  Soon, flour, ginger, their precious supply of sugar, butter, eggs and other ingredients were scattered across the kitchen table.
“Can I help?” a timid voice asked from the doorway.
Lou looked up, surprised, to see Martha standing there, on her own.  She was dressed in one of Lou’s old pregnancy dresses that had been let out properly to make room for her swollen baby belly.
Lou relaxed, smiling at the younger girl, no older than her own sister.  Patting the chair next to her, she said, “Sure.  Why don’t you come sit here.  I’ll make the dough into balls and then you can roll the cookies in the sugar and put them on the pan.”
“Are you makin’ ginger snaps?”  Martha asked curiously as she made her way around the table and settled carefully into the wooden chair.
“Um hm,” Lou murmured, concentrating on forming the cookie dough into a round ball.
“Yum!  They’re my favorite.  My Ma used ta make them fer our birthdays.”
“And we make ‘em fer Jesus’ birfday,” a small voice came from the kitchen doorway.
“Well lookee who’s here,” Louise smiled, wiping her hands off on the frilly apron Jimmy had given her before leaving for war.  Moving around the table, she bent down to kiss her two little ones good morning. 
Straightening, she asked, “EmmyLu, would you and Noah like to help?”
The smiles and excited squeals emitted by the children were all the answer she needed. 
“Well come on then,” she said brightly.  “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
“Can we help, too?” a small voice asked from the doorway.  Turning back, Lou smiled to see the younger Rockefeller children, she refused to use that other name after learning about their father, standing timidly.  Ellen held her brother’s hand tightly in one of hers.  Albert clutched tightly to his sister’s hand and sucked hard on the thumb of his other hand.
Waving her hand toward the pitcher of water where EmmyLu was already washing her hands, she smiled.  “Of course.  Get on over here.”
Soon, the kitchen was filled with the laughter and chatter of happy children and the smell of baking cookies.
Martha smiled and talked more than Lou’d seen since they’d met.  That warmed her in ways she couldn’t explain.
When they finally sent the children off to play outside in the fenced in garden area by the porch and began to clean the kitchen, Martha asked, “Where’s your sister, Teresa isn’t it?”
Lou stiffened, then shrugged.  “Dunno.  She’s so stubborn.  She’ll never admit I might have a point or two, might know somethin’ bein’ a mite older’n her and all.”
“Maybe, but she’s not really all that young fer gettin’ married,” Martha shrugged.  “Most girls my age back home were either married and breedin’ or courtin’ seriously.  At least he seems like a good man.  I can’t see him hurtin’ her like… well like this.”  She winced as she gestured toward the bandages on her back.
Lou looked at her consideringly for a long moment.  Nodding she said, “You may be right.  But I doubt she’ll get close enough fer me ta talk ta her anytime soon.  Like I said, she’s stubborner than a goat.”
“Ain’t that the pot callin’ the kettle black?”
Lou spun around to see Teresa standing in the kitchen doorway, a basket hanging over one arm.
“Might could be,” she said tightly, nodding to her sister.  “Come on in and close the door.  Kid ain’t chopped enough wood ta heat up the whole outdoors.”
“Hmph,” Teresa said, knowing that was all the apology she was ever likely to get.  “I take it you two have been gettin’ along then pretty well lately,” she said sotto voce, grinning devilishly.
Lou inhaled sharply at the jab, then balled up the damp dish towel in her hands and threw it at her sister’s head.  “Ingrate.  Brat.”
“I repeat, pot to kettle.”
“I hope the men get back soon,” Teresa said, fidgeting with the corner of the curtain on the kitchen window.  “It’s lookin’ like a storm brewin’ on the horizon.”
“They’ll be fine,” Lou reassured her.  “Kid, Barnett, too,” she added, sighing at the second name, “have been around long enough ta know when it’s time ta get their rears back home.”
“What was that you were sayin’ about comin’ home?”
Lou whirled, squealing as she flung herself into Kid’s arms, shivering as he wrapped them around her, frigid coat and all. 
“Oh, thank God,” she said into his neck.  “I was soooo worried about you.”
“Now, that ain’t exactly what you was just sayin’,” Teresa commented acerbically, even as she pushed past her sister and brother-in-law to properly greet her own husband.
Lou deliberately turned her eyes away to avoid seeing the uncomfortably intimate greeting between the two.  Pulling her head back, she looked up into Kid’s face.  “Well, did ya find anythin’?”
“We got two geese,” Tucker said excitedly, the next one through the door.  “Jeremiah’s cleanin’ ‘em in the barn right now.”
“And, there’s a tree sittin’ on the porch, waitin’ fer us ta bring it in and decorate it tonight, after supper,” Kid said.
Kid sighed, as he settled onto the settee next to Lou.  Gathering her into his side with one arm, he sipped at the cup of coffee in his other hand while staring at the beauty of the tree standing in the corner of the room, near the fireplace.  Several stockings were hung carefully off the edge of the mantelpiece.  He’d always imagined having a large family, but this was more than he’d ever imagined having so soon.  There was one for each of them, Kid, Lou, Teresa, Jeremiah, Barnett, Martha, Tucker, EmmyLu, Ellen, Noah and Albert.  Yet, there was still something missing.
Sitting, he enjoyed the comfort of the warmth in the room, the fire crackling in the hearth, as the winds of the growing snow storm whipped around the snug house, trying to find a way in.
After awhile, Lou spoke.  “Whatcha thinkin’?”
Kid thought for a moment.  “That this is almost perfect.  Almost.”
“There’s still folks missin’.  Family.”
“They’ll come home, Kid,” she reassured.  “They promised. We know from Cody’s letters that at least Jimmy and he survived the war.  Buck didn’t even go to fight.”  She didn’t mention Teaspoon, of whom they’d had absolutely no word since he’d ridden off for Texas all those years ago.
“I know.  It’s easier now,” he finally said.  “To accept they had to make their own choices, I guess.  Helpin’ Martha and Tucker out have shown me that.  But…”
“But you still feel guilty?” Lou guessed.  He nodded silently.
“What would you change, if you could?” she asked gently.
He sat in silent thought for  long moments, mulling over all the decisions they’d made, together and separately, over the last five years, she knew.  Finally he sighed again.  “Nothin’.”
“Then what is there to feel guilty about?  You can’t be in two places at once.  And you weren’t the one what chose to leave.  They were.”
“I know,” he said softly, kissing the top of her head, ever so glad for her gentle acceptance of his feelings on this topic.  “But I can’t help feelin’ at least a little bit guilty I didn’t go with them.  All of them.  We weren’t meant ta be split like this, Lou.  We’re a family.”
She laughed quietly.  “Better watch it, Kid.  Yer startin’ ta sound like Teaspoon.  Keep that up too long and won’t none of us be able ta understand a word yer sayin’.”
“Hello the camp!”
“Who’s out there?” Teaspoon called, even as Jimmy, Cody and Buck scrambled for their guns.
They’d all been huddled together in a lean-to, sheltering from the wind and snow of the storm that had started kicking up just before sunset.  Now, there was enough snow piled up around the edges of the lean to that the fire in front was making their little shelter quite comfy and cozy.
A tall, slender young man dressed in an inadequate, citified coat, topped with a brown bowler hat, stepped into the circle of light cast by the fire leading a horse and pack mule.
“Mind if I join ya?” he asked.  “I was caught somewhat flatfooted by this storm.  Sure wasn’t expecting this.”
Teaspoon laughed.  “You must be new to these parts, Mr……”
“Harbinger,” the man said, holding out a hand in greeting.  Teaspoon took it and shook.  “Tom Harbinger.”