“Why don’t you sit down or go see her?” Teaspoon asked, a mite irritably, as he watched Jimmy jump up from his seat and wander over to the big plate glass window in the Marshal’s office to stare longingly across the street at the restaurant.
Jimmy turned back to his mentor and smiled sheepishly, before shrugging. “Don’t know what ya mean,” he said as he strode back over to the table where Teaspoon had laid out their latest game of checkers. “I was just waitin’ fer ya ta make yer next move.”
Teaspoon hmphed. He knew a whopper when he heard one. He’d made his ‘move’ five minutes ago. But he wasn’t ready to call Jimmy on it yet. It was his fondest wish to convince Jimmy to settle down in Rock Creek and take over as Marshal here. The way Teaspoon figured it, Lydia was his best lure at the moment. That boy was caught and caught but good.
Teaspoon watched as Jimmy’s hand hovered over first one checker piece, then another, as he surveyed the board trying to figure out which one to move. Finally, he picked up one red piece and moved it a space. Teaspoon hid a grin behind his hand as he ‘contemplated’ the board, then reached out to make his move, clearing it of all the red pieces left.
“I win,” he gloated. “Again.”
Jimmy turned away. “I’m tired of checkers. Think I’ll stretch my legs a bit. Make sure everythin’s calm ‘round town.”
Teaspoon watched the young men head out the door. He knew where he was headed. Straight across the street to Jarvis’ Restaurant. Or should he say, Lydia?
He was so lost in thought he didn’t hear the bell over the entrance jangle when someone came through the door, not until he cleared his throat. Teaspoon jumped and turned toward the sound, a hand already resting on the hilt of his gun, to see what was going on, who was coming in.
Teaspoon started to relax when he saw it was Buck, until he saw the look on Buck’s face. Suddenly worried, he stood up. “What is it, son?”
Buck held out a piece of paper to Teaspoon wordlessly, his normally well tanned face almost sheet white. “This just come in from a friend of mine over in Grand Island.”
Taking the paper, Teaspoon scanned the scant lines quickly. Then slowly re-read them, the blood draining from his own face. Suddenly he was in motion, heading out the door.
“Head on over ta Lydia’s place,” he ordered over his shoulder as he left. “Make sure Jimmy stays there. I’m gettin’ Teresa and the children. We’ll be along shortly.”
Buck nodded and was soon loping across the street in one direction while Teaspoon was trotting away in the other.
“What’s this all about?” Jimmy demanded the second Teaspoon stepped into the restaurant kitchen through the back door, herding Teresa, Mary Kate and Carl, Jr, ahead of him.
“You didn’t tell them?” Teaspoon asked, looking at Buck.
“Figured it was best ta wait ‘til we were all here and go through this just once,” he said, shaking his head.
Teaspoon sighed, running a hand over his face. “The short of it is… Louise’s ruse didn’t work.”
“We all know that, Teaspoon,” Jimmy complained. “Hell, I shot two of them myself!”
“One,” Lydia said quietly from her place by the stove where she was closely watching her day’s creation. “I shot the other one.”
Jimmy whipped his head around to start arguing but the words stopped, caught in his throat, when he glimpsed the warning glare on Teaspoon’s face. Holding up his hands in a gesture of peace, he leaned back against the table Lydia used for cutting and prepping food, and waited.
“I meant the way we’ve been shuffling folks around, had you ladies dressing like Lou, tryin’ ta make them think Lou was still in hiding here,” Teaspoon explained. “Friend of Buck’s in the telegraph office in Grand Island intercepted a message that seems ta be from them. They’re on Lou an’ Kid’s trail, plannin’ ta ambush ‘em just outside Grand Island, ‘fore they kin get ta Fort Kearny.”
Jimmy was already moving toward the door by the time Teaspoon had finished.
“Where do you think yer goin’, young man?” Teaspoon demanded.
Jimmy stopped and looked back at the others, bewildered. “After ‘em. They’re gonna need our help.”
Teaspoon smiled at the boy that was most like him in so many ways and walked over to clap a hand on his shoulder. “That’s true, son. But they don’t need us runnin’ off hotheaded an’ not thinkin’ things through.”
Jimmy sighed, tossing his head, his long locks swishing behind him at the movement. “You’ve got a plan, don’t ya?”
“I see ya ain’t fergot all I taught ya,” Teaspoon grunted, pleased.
“And I ain’t gonna like it, am I?”
“Not particularly,” Teaspoon agreed. “Then again, neither is Buck.”
“What’s the plan already,” Buck asked impatiently.
“You, me and Teresa are gonna ride out after ‘em. We’ll take extra horses so’s we don’t have ta stop an’ kin catch up with ‘em ‘bout the time they should be hittin’ Grand Island.”
“But what about me? What am I s’posed ta do?” Jimmy practically whined.
“James, the children,” Lydia said quietly.
Jimmy looked over at her, then glanced at the two youngsters huddled close to Teresa’s skirts. Frowning in confusion, he looked back at Teaspoon, who was nodding in Lydia’s direction.
“I always admired a lady with a sharp mind, ma’am,” he complimented, tipping his hat in her direction.
Still confused, Jimmy looked back at the kids, taking in their tight little faces. Instinctively he held out his arms to them and they rushed over to him, swarming up his sides until he held one securely in each arm, their little faces tucked in under his chin.
Teaspoon turned back to Jimmy and laughed. “Seem’s I picked the right man fer the job, too.”
“Just spit it out already,” Jimmy growled fiercely, even as he cuddled the youngsters gently.
“We’re staying behind, as the two best shots, to protect them,” Lydia said calmly, without looking up from the sauce she was stirring constantly. She reached down with one hand to pat the butt of the pistol she wore incongruously strapped to her hip over her dress in the middle of the kitchen. “While the rest ride off to rescue Lu and Louise.”
“Quite right, ma’am,” Teaspoon agreed. “Cain’t take no chances they’ve left a rearguard behind ta try ta snatch my little granddaughter here. And I ain’t takin’ no chances at makin’ Louise mad at me by not leavin’ the best there is ta protect her.”
Reaching out he chucked Mary Kate under the chin, grinning as he surreptitiously left a piece of candy in each child’s hand. The little girl peeked a grin at him through her bangs.
Dobytown, three miles west of Fort Kearny
Nolan Wolfard, Wolf to his friends, if you could really call them that, swung off the back of the nag he’d been riding and left it standing in front of the hitching post. He really hoped someone did steal it, but probably wouldn’t get that lucky. Sauntering slowly, he made his way into the first of a string of saloons and whorehouses along the main street of Dobytown.
He could only afford tanglefoot, as General Sherman had once dubbed the awful, third rate whiskey most places served here, but it would serve to dull the pain of his chipped and broken, rotting teeth. And maybe he could scrape together the two bits needed for a quick round with one of the tarts down in the cribs while he waited for the others to show up.
A grin crossed his face. He sure hoped they managed to catch that upstart hoyden alive. He’d like to teach her how a proper woman acts. Suddenly, he changed his mind about the stop at the saloon and, turning on his heel, headed straight for the cribs filled with available women, willing or not.
Jimmy sat at the kitchen table Lydia used to chop, dice, score and otherwise dissect meats, vegetables, fruits and anything else she decided to toss into the day’s menu. At his elbow sat a plate with a couple scattered crumbs from a morning pasty she’d made. Jimmy rested his chin on his clasped hands on the tabletop and just watched as she moved gracefully from the table to the stove to the sink and back again, deftly stepping around the two children setting up dominoes on the floor. He enjoyed the treats she kept pushing on him, asking him taste this and test that. But he particularly liked to watch her move, especially when she bent over to slide something or other into the oven. He’d seen those bustles women were starting to wear in the big cities to make their nether regions look more…. plush. But his Lydia didn’t need any of that. She was plenty… plush… all on her own.
The thought stopped him. And he stepped back to check it over from all sides. He wasn’t sure how or when, but yes, she had become ‘his’ at some point over the last few days. Not that he quite knew what to do with her now that he had her. Thinking back to those long ago days in the Express when he’d scoffed at Kid’s concerns over how to move forward with Lou, he regretted his cavalier attitude. He completely understood, now, what Kid had been going through.
Jimmy’s head popped up, his hand moving immediately toward the gun on his right hip at the sound of Lydia’s angered screech. Jumping to his feet, he watched as the platter she’d just piled high with cookies tumbled to the floor, the cookies rolling this way and that, trailing crumbs in their wake. In her effort to catch the platter, or maybe rescue some of the cookies, Lydia tripped over her own feet, tangled up in her skirts and followed the lot to the floor.
“Owwww!” came the second, this time agonized, screech.
Rushing to her side, Jimmy asked, “Are you alright?”
“Does it look like I’m alright,” she ground out, leaning forward to push her skirts out of the way and examine her ankle.
“I twisted my damned ankle, that’s what,” she muttered.
Squatting down in front of her, he took her foot from her grasp and rested it on his thigh. Running his hands up and down the foot, around the ankle and even, daringly, up her calf a bit, he carefully examined it. He tried, he really did, to keep his thoughts, and hands, on the injury. But, in all honesty, he soon found both wandering much further up her leg than was necessary.
“Mr. Hickok,” she said sternly.
Jerking out of his reverie, he looked up to meet her brilliant green eyes, shadowed with fresh pain and mild amusement. “Looks like you just sprained it. I’ll get some bandages from Teaspoon’s office ta wrap it up and you should be able to move around. Just try to stay off it as much as you can to keep the swelling down.”
“Take these children with you, before I murder them,” Lydia hissed to Jimmy, hiding her anger from the children as best she could. “I am so sick and tired of stumbling over them and their toys while trying to do my job. Take them fishing, or something, anything. Just get them out of here. I’ll take over watch when I get off work.”
Holding up his hands by his head in a peace gesture, Jimmy nodded. “Yes, ma’am. Two children out from under foot coming right up.” He stood up to his full height and leaned down to lend her a hand. “But let’s get you up on your feet first.”
He pulled her upright with a little more force than necessary, letting the momentum throw her against his chest. Her hands came up to catch herself as she slammed forward, trapping them between them. A pity. He would much rather have had other parts of her squished up against him, he thought recklessly.
Without conscious thought, his arms closed around her, pulling her even closer, as he stared down into those eyes that reminded him of a quiet cool forest on a hot summer day. He just wanted to tear off all the trappings of the world and dive in as naked as the day he was born. He felt like he was drowning. Slowly, ever so slowly, he began to lean in toward her, eager to capture her lips with his.
“Are you gonna kiss my Ma?”
Jimmy froze as a little hand tugged at the fringe of the black frock coat he was wearing. Looking down in surprise, he found Carl staring up at him with a serious little face. Jimmy cleared his throat, not quite sure how to answer the boy.
“’Cause if you are, you better ask permission, first.”
Leaning down so he was at eye level with the youngster, Jimmy quite seriously asked, “And just who would I ask permission of? You?”
“Well…” the boy paused as he considered the problem. “Yes, I suppose so. I am her closest male relative.”
“May I kiss yer Ma, young sir?” Jimmy intoned with all seriousness.
Carl gazed at Jimmy for a long moment, making the taller man suddenly nervous, then turned to look up at his Ma. Seeing the blush on her cheeks and the slight smile on her mouth, he looked back at Jimmy and said, “Yes, you may kiss her and make it all better.”
Having settled the matter in his young mind, he turned back to the line of dominoes he’d abandoned and resumed setting them up.
“Looks like they’re headed to Dobytown,” Buck said, standing from where he’d been examining a set of horse tracks headed west across the prairie. “But at least one splits off and keeps headin’ toward Grand Island after Kid and Lou.”
“What do we do, Teaspoon?” Teresa asked. “There ain’t enough of us ta split up, not with a gang like this.”
“Well, we know they’re plannin’ an ambush and we know where Lou and Kid are headed,” Teaspoon said. “Somethin’ they don’t. They gotta wait on their drag rider ta come back with that info. So I say we follow the main group, see what we can learn ‘bout their plans, then go warn Lou and Kid.” Teaspoon paused, looking from Teresa to Buck and back again. “Unless anyone else’s got a better idea.”
When neither had anything to say, they mounted up and rode out.
Smack! The sound of the slap reverberated through the room.
“Shut yer caterwaulin’ woman,” Nolan grumped. “I paid ya fair and square fer yer time. Don’t know what yer fussin’ ‘bout.”
Standing up, he pulled his pants up, hooking the suspenders over his shoulders to hold them in place before beginning to button them closed. Grabbing his hat on his way out the door, he looked back at the two bit whore he’d just spent the last hour with. She wasn’t nothing to look at, especially not compared with the little tomboy he planned to teach a lesson next, but she’d took her place well enough. Watching her cower in the corner, wailing over a few slaps, he shook his head in wonder. He’d never understand women, he thought, pushing his hat down on his head and stepping out into the late afternoon sunshine.
Moving back toward the saloons lining the main street of the small, wild, lawless town, Nolan smiled to himself. There was something invigorating about places like these. They just got the blood racing. Or maybe that was the slattern he’d just spent time with, he grinned to himself. No matter. Either way he felt damned good.
He pushed his way into the third saloon along the walkway. It was a dingy place called, a little fantastically, the Double Diamond. The only diamonds to be found in there were on the faces of playing cards. If then.
But what you could find there were men who were willing to do just about anything, even kill a woman, for the right place. And that’s what Nolan Wolfard needed at that moment.