Teresa stood on the bunkhouse porch leaning against one of the newly repaired support posts. One hand cradled a cup of coffee while the other caressed the butt of the pistol strapped to her hip. The first rays of the morning sun washed over the planes of her face, throwing them into sharp relief. But for all her alert poise, she saw none of the beauty of the prairie dawn unfolding before her. Her sights were fully focused, in furious anger, on the couple still exiled to the sweat lodge hidden behind the bunkhouse.
The sound of door hinges squeaking as someone exited the house across the yard brought her attention back to her present location. Seeing Polly and Rachel walking toward the bunkhouse, each loaded down with a platter of food, she straightened, narrowing her eyes. Sure enough, Teaspoon came stepping out the door after the two women a moment later. He had two napkin covered plates balanced carefully in his hands.
Without taking her eyes off the old stationmaster, Teresa set her tin cup down on the bench behind her, along the bunkhouse wall, and yelled out, “Buck, come take the watch.”
She didn’t wait for a response, but took off, practically running, across the yard. Nearly tripping over her own feet to switch direction and match paces with the silver haired Marshal, she reached out and plucked the plates out of his hands.
“Here, I’ll take those,” she said without preamble.
“Hey,” Teaspoon protested to her back as she was already speeding toward the sweat lodge with long, determined strides. “Wait a minute,” he called after her. “What do you think yer doin’?”
“I’ve got a think or two to say to my sister,” Teresa growled. “It’s time she started actin’ her age and takin’ care of her responsibilities!”
Teaspoon finally caught up with the younger woman and grabbed frantically at her arm to stop her, almost spilling Lou’s and Kid’s breakfasts in the dirt in the process.
“Now just hold on a sec’ there, young lady,” he started to intervene, but Teresa glared him into silence and jerked her arm free of his grasp.
“No,” she said in a hard, determined voice. She shook her head emphatically when Teaspoon opened his mouth to say something. “I’ve waited long enough, and those children have paid the price.”
“Them two’s got things ta work out ‘tween ‘em ‘fore they can get back ta bein’ the parents they should be,” Teaspoon sputtered. “They ain’t gonna get that done if ya start interruptin’ ‘em. That’s why they’re out there.”
“I let you have your way yesterday,” Teresa spat. “I even let them alone all night. Now,” she ground out, her eyes narrowing, “it’s my turn.”
Having taken her stand, Teresa whirled about and resumed her inexorable march toward the sweat lodge. Teaspoon watched her a moment, shaking his head in wonder.
“She’s a McCloud alright,” he finally muttered to no one as he watched her jerk the lodge’s door open without any warning. “Ain’t no doubt ‘bout that.”
Still muttering to himself about the capriciousness of women in general and the McCloud women in particular, he turned and headed at a more sedate pace toward the bunkhouse, a hot breakfast and his own wife, who had at least mellowed some with age.
“I’ll never figger women out.”
“So, just when did you fall in love with her? When did ya fall in love with Mrs. Lydia Cathers?”
Lu looked at his erstwhile wife, head tilted and brow furled in confusion. “What on earth are you talkin’ ‘bout?”
“Well, ya was gonna marry her,” Lou said slowly, speaking patiently as if to a two year old. “You must’ve fallen in love with her at some point.” She looked down at her hands, beginning to fiddle with the buttons on her longjohns. “When?” she whispered just barely loud enough to be heard.
She was so lost in the misery of her own thoughts she didn’t hear or see Lu crawling across the sweat lodge to her side, so she stiffened in surprise at the feel of his hand under her chin. Gently, he pushed upward, forcing her to meet his eyes. She nearly gasped at the sight, the corners crinkled in a smile she could tell was plastered across his lips, though she couldn’t see them, a bright inner light enhancing their blue depths.
“Let me be very clear about this Louise McCloud,” he said softly, his face just inches away from hers. “I don’t love Lydia Cathers. I never did. We’re friends, sure. Sorta like you and Jimmy used ta be, from what he told me. We was gonna get married fer Carl’s sake and so’s she could join a wagon train west. But it was never about love.”
He reached out with his free hand and slowly traced one finger down the side of her cheek. “So far’s I can remember I ain’t never been really, truly in love with anyone.”
Lou opened her mouth to say something, but Lu placed a finger over her lips to silence the words before they were spoken.
“But,” he continued, “I think I just may be fallin’ in love with you. Think my wife would mind?”
Unable to speak, tears of happiness and relief gathering in the corners of her eyes, Lou shook her head ‘no’.
“Good,” he whispered, just as his lips replaced his finger, settling gently over hers. She gasped in surprise and he swallowed the escaping breath, along with all the rest of the air in her lungs.
“Well, it’s nice to see you two have worked things out.”
The pair jumped apart almost guiltily, turning as one to face the source of the scornfully sarcastic voice that had just interrupted them.
“Teresa?” Lou asked, slightly bewildered.
“Yeah, yer sister. Remember? Or did ya ferget that, too?” Teresa demanded.
“Now hold on there, young lady,” Lu spoke sternly, trying to intervene, but Lou placed a hand on his arm to pull him back and shook her head, even as Teresa turned on him.
“Don’t you start in on me. You ain’t my Pa. You gave up that right when ya left us with Lou to run off and play soldier,” Teresa sneered. “Just ‘cause ya cain’t remember ain’t no excuse, neither.”
“Just what is your problem, Teresa McCloud?” Lou demanded huffily, having had enough of her sister’s diatribe. “You know better than to speak to people like that. I may not be yer Ma, but I’ve tanned yer hide often enough ta be. And ya ain’t too old, nor too big,” Lou added, staring up at her ‘little’ sister, “fer me ta do it again.”
“If there’s anyone in need of a good hidin’, it’s you two!”
“What the hell are you talkin’ ‘bout?” Lu asked irritably.
“Your children? Or have ya forgotten yer parents? With responsibilities?”
Lou gasped, a hand coming up to cover her mouth as she thought about how they’d ended up in the sweat lodge together. But Teresa didn’t notice, continuing to tear into her sister.
“Just because yer world got turned upside down is no reason ta leave her thinkin’ she ain’t loved or wanted! Yer a mother, Louise McCloud. Ya oughta know what that means by now. You don’t have the luxury of actin’ like a silly girl in love fer the first time no more!”
“Mary Kate!” Lou exhaled, trembling at the thought of what her daughter had gone through.
“Ah, so you do remember you’ve got a daughter,” Teresa snorted.
“What’s wrong with Mary Kate?” Lu demanded, worried now, glancing back and forth between the two women.
Lou turned to him, her face blanched whiter than her longjohns.
“I hadn’t told her… yet,” she whispered.
“Hadn’t told her… about me?” Lu guessed, his own face beginning to lose its color as he remembered their heated argument. Lou simply nodded, tears starting to leak out of the corners of her eyes. Lu reached out and pulled her into his arms, hugging her tightly to him. Looking over Lou’s head at Teresa he asked quietly, “How is she?”
“Fine, now,” Teresa answered shortly. “After I did what y’all should have!”
“I’ve got to find her, talk to her… apologize,” Lou suddenly spoke up, pulling out of Kid’s embrace. Without a second glance at either her husband or her sister, she ducked out of the sweat lodge entrance and began running toward the bunkhouse, still wearing only her longjohns.
Lu started to follow her, but stopped in the doorway, turning back to look at his sister-in-law when she called out his name.
“You might want to talk to Carl, too.”
“Why? Lydia and I already discussed things with him,” Lu asked, impatiently looking after his wife, trotting quickly away from him.
“That may be, but he thinks Mary Kate’s gainin’ a Pa means him losin’ one. Ya might want ta talk to him again.”
“Thank you,” he said simply, before taking off after Lou.
Lu saw a flash of white from Lou’s longjohns as she disappeared through the barn door and quickly hurried to catch up with her. Pushing through the door a moment later, he heard the soft murmur of her voice coming from the hayloft.
He reached the ladder and climbed hurriedly up the rungs, stopping for a moment as his head and shoulders cleared the hayloft floor. From there, he saw Lou sitting in a pile of loose hay, leaning up against a haybale, with Mary Kate snuggled in her lap. He smiled in appreciation of the site. His two girls. He marveled at the idea and just how happy it made him.
“So, my Pa really ain’t dead?” Mary Kate asked plaintively.
Lou shook her head. She gently brushed hair out of the little girl’s eyes with one hand, then hugged her close with her other arm. “No, honey. He ain’t dead. And that’s reason ta be happy. But we’re all gonna have ta work at gettin’ used ta each other. He’s been gone a long time and he ain’t the man he was when he left.”
“Maybe he fergot us ‘cause he didn’t want a little girl,” Mary Kate said mournfully, playing absently with a piece of straw, so she wouldn’t have to see her Ma’s reaction to the statement.
“Now that ain’t true at all,” Lu said, finishing his climb into the hayloft. “There’s nothin’ more I want than a little girl of my very own.”
Coming over to Lou’s side, he sat down next to her and pulled both women into his arms.
“And now that I know all about you, I ain’t never lettin’ you go.”
“What about Carl?” she asked timidly, raising her eyes to brave looking at her father.
“What about him?”
“Is he still yer son?”
“Yes,” Lu said, smiling at the little girl he still couldn’t quite believe was his. “And he always will be. So, in a way, I guess that makes him yer brother.”
Confused, Mary Kate looked from one parent to the other. Lou laughed and said, “You remember all the stories I’ve told you about my Express family, yer Grandma Emma, Grandpas Sam and Teaspoon and all yer uncles?”
The little girl nodded slowly.
“Well, you know we made a rather unusual family. Right?” Lou waited for Mary Kate to respond with another nod, before continuing. “Well, this is just more of that. You and Carl may not share any blood, but you share a Pa and that makes ya brother and sister. Do you think you can handle being a big sister?”
“That’s a mighty big responsibility fer such a young lady,” Lu added, smiling down at the girl who was now sitting half on Lou and half on him, leaning back against his chest.
She jumped up off his lap, excited. “Sure! I’m a big girl! I can handle anything. And I’ve always wanted a brother.”
She turned to head toward the ladder, obviously intent on something, but Lou called her back.
“Mary Kate, there’s one more thing I need to say to you.”
“I’m sorry.” Mary Kate looked at her mother in confusion. Lou clarified. “I…” she paused and looked over at Lu, “we should have talked to you about this sooner. I guess I was just afraid.”
Lu cleared his throat, then added, “Sometimes we adults get caught up in our lives and forget to explain things like we should. We’ll try not to let it happen again.”
“It’s alright, Ma,” Mary Kate paused as she looked at Kid, then added tentatively, “Pa. It’s like ya always told me, an error don’t become a mistake ‘less ya refuse ta admit it.” Without another word, she climbed onto the ladder and disappeared.
“You’ve raised one heck of a young lady there, Louise McCloud,” Lu said softly.
Lou smiled sadly, “It was easy. She’s so much like you, all I had to do was get out of her way most of the time.”
Lu started to tighten his arms around her, trying to bring her in closer for a kiss, but suddenly she was scrambling up off the hayloft floor. Standing over him, she held out her hand toward Kid.
“Come on,” she said. “We’d better go get dressed and head in fer breakfast. No tellin’ what she’ll say ta the others if we ain’t there. I swear, she’s got a good portion of her uncles Jimmy and Cody in her, too!”
Reaching up to take her hand and stand up, Lu laughed. “I don’t know, I’d say she’s more like her mother, temper and all.” Then he scooted over to the ladder and out of the hayloft as fast as he could to avoid the woman who was chasing him, laughter in her eyes and a smile on her face, even as she tried her best to beat him black and blue.
“So there I am, standing before Mr. Jarvis mouth wide open to ask for a job, and Jimmy walks up and say, ‘I’ve found yer cook.’” Lydia laughed, smiling, as she regaled the rest of the Express family with the story of her newfound employment. “I just stared at him. I didn’t know what to say or do. Mr. Jarvis looks at him and says, ‘Oh, really? Did you finally get Mrs. Dunne to agree to leave the schoolhouse for the kitchen?’”
“Not on your life,” Rachel muttered. “I’ve done my time as a cook. I enjoy it as a pastime, but I don’t ever want to have to make a living at it, again.”
“Why?” Buck asked. “You could make your fortune with your flapjacks alone.” And he grinned widely at her while shoving a gigantic bite of said flapjacks into his mouth. Rachel just shook her head at his deliberate lack of manners.
Lydia laughed at the byplay. “Jimmy just smiles and holds out the pie plate he’d dragged along and said, ‘Nope. Better.’”
“Tell them what he said after he tasted yer pie, Ma,” Carl piped up from his seat at the end of the bench.
“He picked up the fork, took a bite and I swear he moaned in pleasure right there in the middle of his restaurant. Then he proceeded to eat the entire rest of that piece of pie, standing up!”
“I was ready ta pistol whip him, too,” Jimmy muttered from where he sat next to Lydia. “That was my pie. He didn’t even ask!”
Lydia ‘shushed’ him and moved on with her story. “As he’s licking the last bits of pie off the fork he looks at Jimmy and says, ‘Where is she?’ Jimmy just pointed at me. Mr. Jarvis raised a brow as he looked me up and down and said, ‘Looks a mite puny for a cook. Sure she can handle the job?’”
Teaspoon cleared his throat at that. “Them’s fightin’ words in this family.”
“Anyway, he offered me twice whatever I was making now to start tomorrow. Tomorrow! Can you believe it? He’s going to pay me to cook!” She beamed her pleasure at everyone seated at the table.
“Congratulations,” Lou offered as she walked in the door. Knowing Kid had never really loved the other woman made it so much easier to be nice to her, she found.
“Thank you,” Lydia said softly, accepting the unspoken olive branch with grace.
“We should celebrate,” Lu said.
“How?” Jimmy asked.
“What about a picnic?” Polly suggested.
“Oh, yeah! A picnic! Can we Ma? Please?” begged Mary Kate.
“It would be ever so much fun,” Carl added. “And maybe we could find a spot near a creek. Then Pa and I could go fishin’.”
“Fishing, hunh?” Teaspoon asked, smiling. “Did I ever tell you--”
“Not now, Teaspoon,” Teresa interrupted smiling. “Save the story for when we’re on the way, why don’t you.”
“I know the perfect place,” Lou said softly, looking over at Kid, who’d followed her into the bunkhouse. “It’s full of wonderful memories.”
“Don’t count on them comin’ back,” Lu warned her gently. “Nothin’ else has worked.”
“Doesn’t mean we stop tryin’,” she said determinedly.
“So, where are we goin’, Ma?”
“I’d wager she’s takin’ us ta the Kid’s old thinkin’ spot,” Jimmy answered her, smiling. “And I think it’s a grand idea.” His eyes moved over to meet Lydia’s. “It’s a perfect spot for gettin’ ta know someone better.”
Lydia broke his suddenly intense gaze, blushing as she turned away.