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?
“Hollander ain’t our real name,” Tucker started. “It was his name.”
“His?” Kid questioned.
“After our Pa died, we had trouble keepin’ up the payments on our farm. The bank was ‘bout ta take everythin’, when in he walked, James Hollander. Said if Ma married him, he’d pay off all our debts and take care of all of us.”
“Why do I think that didn’t happen?” Lou said quietly.
Tucker just kept staring into the distance in front of him as he spoke.
“He brought Ellen with him when he moved in. Dropped her in Ma’s lap and didn’t do a lick of work after that. Just sat there, expectin’ ta be waited on all the time. Had me and my big brother doin’ all the work on the farm.”
“Brother?” Kid asked curiously.
“He run off after Albert was born and Ma died,” Tucker said, raising his knees to his chin and wrapping his arms protectively around his legs. The campfire outside cast flickering yellow and gold shadows across his tortured face. “So he decided it was Martha’s turn.”
“What do you mean by ‘Martha’s turn’?” Lou asked, almost menacingly.
“Said since Ma was dead she had to take her place. Made her quit school to stay home and take care of him and the babies.”
“That’s not all, is it?” Lou asked quietly, looking at the rounded mound of Martha’s belly under the covers.
Tucker shook his head violently. “No,” he whispered. “She tried to stop him. He wasn’t even married to her. I tried to stop him. But he was too big, too strong. Said it was her duty, just like the cookin’ and cleanin’.”
Tears coursed down the boy’s cheeks unnoticed.
“How’d you end up out here?” Kid asked, changing the subject in an attempt to relieve the tension in the wagon.
Tucker looked up at met Kid’s eyes, searching for something. Something he apparently found in their depths, because he took a bracing breath and returned to his story.
“He was real mad when he found out Martha’d… ‘got herself in trouble’ as he put it,” Tucker said bitterly. “But then he said somethin’ ‘bout how it was all fer the best anyway and settled down again. Until some stranger come ta town, askin’ after Ma and her children.”
Kid and Lou shared a concerned glance as Tucker kept talking.
“I was with him when the man come inta the tavern and started askin’ ever’body these questions. Man, you never seen someone hop around so scaredy like,” Tucker chuckled wryly at the remembrance. “He skedaddled outta there like his tail was on fire, straight back ta the house, where he tol’ Martha ta start packin’ up. We was movin’ west. We left the next mornin’, without even sayin’ goodbye ta none of our friends and neighbors.”
Tucker lapsed into a silence it quickly became obvious he wasn’t going to break. Lou spoke up. “Where’d you start?”
“Tennessee. The hill country. We wasn’t rich, but we had a place of our own, was gettin’ by,” Tucker grunted. “Took us weeks just ta make it ta Independence. By then, it was so late in the season we didn’t have but one choice in trains. The wagon master charged us ever’ cent we had ta join up. Didn’t have no money fer extra supplies or spare parts. When our axle broke, the wagon master said he couldn’t afford ta wait fer us ta find a way ta fix it and left us behind,” Tucker sighed. “That made him real mad. And he blamed Martha fer it. Said us bein’ stuck out here was all her fault. He beat her pretty bad. You saw.”
Lou nodded somberly. They all had seen. Only once before had she ever seen someone whipped that badly. And that had only been well after the fact, when all she’d seen were the scars left over from the beating. She couldn’t imagine what Martha must have gone through.
“He insisted she get up the next day and do her chores like normal, stop bein’ so lazy,” Tucker continued. “We was purt’ near out of food, so we went huntin’ fer somethin’ ta eat. I did most of the huntin’ so’s Martha could rest, ya know? Didn’t find nothin’ but mushrooms an’ wild onions.”
Suddenly, the boy seemed to draw in on himself, as the words seemed to spill out of his mouth, faster and faster.
“Martha’s a good cook. She turned it into a real good smellin’ stew. Made all our stomach’s growl in anticipation. But he insisted on bein’ served first. And he ate it all. Wasn’t like we’d found much. Ain’t much around this time of year.”
Tucker’s breath caught for a moment, but he steamed right on through with his story, determined to get it finished. “Well, he started actin’ real strange almost immediately. Seein’ things, getting’ confused. Callin’ Martha by our Ma’s name. Stuff like that. Then he started puking his innards out. We thought he was gonna die. And I ain’t ashamed ta say we prayed he would. But… he started gettin’ better. That’s…. that’s when we decided ta do it.”
“Do what, Tucker?” Kid asked quietly.
“Martha an’ me,” he answered so quietly Kid and Lou had to scoot closer to catch his words, “we put a pillow over his face while he was sleepin’ and kept it there ‘til he weren’t breathin’ no more.”
Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory
“Well, this place sure ain’t changed much,” Buck sighed as he swerved his horse to the side to avoid a troop of Regular Army cavalry headed out the front gates, refusing to wince at the protest his broken ribs set up over the unexpected, sharp movement. No way would he show weakness in front of these Blue Coats.
“What are you talkin’ ‘bout?” Jimmy asked. “I ain’t never seen it so busy.”
“You ain’t been around the last few years.”
“No,” Jimmy snapped. “I’ve been off fightin’ fer my country, fer the freedom of folks like Noah, Sally and Ulysses.”
“Wearin’ the same colors as these yahoos who’ve been trying to subjugate my people the last few years. This last year your precious Army murdered two innocent Oglalla leaders by hangin’ them, just ‘cause they were Indians and had somethin’ the Army wanted,” Buck hissed, before spurring his horse into a quick trot and disappearing down the main street into the fort.
Jimmy looked at Cody, slightly befuddled. “What’s subjugate?”
Cody just shook his head and trotted off after Buck.
Jimmy threw his hands up in the air. “What’d I say?” he grumbled, before following his brothers into the fort.
The trio rode down the middle of the street side by side, earning glares from wagons and individual horseriders trying to move around them. But they didn’t notice. They were too busy looking at the signs hanging in front of the various businesses up and down the street.
Suddenly, Cody shouted. “There!” He pointed at a sign three doors down that read Territorial Marshal. “That’s it! Come on, boys,” he encouraged, pushing his horse to a faster pace, cutting in front of an oncoming buckboard loaded down with bags of feed to pull up in front of the office.
Soon, all three were swinging down out of their saddles and trooping into the Marshal’s office. A dusty looking man leaned back in his chair, tipped back on just two legs, braced against the wall. He had his hat pulled down over his face. A shiny tin star declaring Deputy Territorial Marshal shone on his chest.
The three young men shared a look.
“I thought that was just a Teaspoon thing,” Jimmy whispered.
“Dunno, looks like it comes with the badge,” Buck shot back. Nudging Cody, he added, “Billy, maybe you should look into the law for a career after all.”
Cody glared at his two companions before striding confidently up to the bar separating the front of the office from the desks and cells at the back of the room where the deputy snoozed away. Aggressively, he cleared his throat.
The deputy startled and dropped the chair to all four legs, pushing the hat back onto his head. Yawning, he looked up and asked, “Yes? How kin I hep you gents?”
“We’re lookin’ fer yer boss,” Cody said, tucking his hands into the belt of his jacket. “Sam Cain? He and his wife are ol’ friends of ours.”
“If that don’t beat all. Marshal’s got ol’ friends comin’ out of the woodwork today,” the deputy muttered to himself, standing up and grabbing a ring of keys. “Well, come on. I’ll show ya the way.” Stepping through the knee high bar, he held out his hand in greeting. “I’m Phil Campbell, chief deputy.”
Cody shook his extended hand heartily and smiled back at the other man, a year or two younger than Cody and his brothers. “I’m William F. Cody. These are my… brothers…. Running Buck Cross and Jimmy.”
Campbell looked at Hickok more closely at the introduction. “Jimmy? You look awful familiar ta me. There a reason why ya won’t give me yer last name?”
“Hickok,” Jimmy said, rubbing a hand across his freshly shaven chin, thinking to himself he should’ve left the trail beard on a bit longer.
Campbell took a surprised step back. “Hickok? As in Wild Bill Hickok?”
“Listen, there ain’t no warrants out fer his arrest, so just leave him be,” Buck interrupted the incipient interrogation with an exasperated sigh. “Now, are you going to show us where the Marshal is or stand there starin’ at us all night?”
“Mighty strange family you got there, Mr. Cody,” the deputy said as he slipped past Hickok to the front door.
“You don’t know the half of it,” Cody said, smiling. “And Sam’s as much kin as any of the rest of ‘em.”
Campbell turned and looked at the others as they followed him out of the office. Locking the door behind him, he shook his head as the trio mounted up almost in unison. It was obviously a well practiced motion as they were completely unaware of how in sync their actions were. “Stranger and stranger,” he muttered to himself.
“Here it is,” the deputy announced, as they rode up to a tall, two story house with an expansive front porch surrounded by rose bushes, thorny branches bared to the December winds, roots covered by several inches of fresh snow. “I’d suggest knockin’ real polite-like, or Mrs. Cain’ll tear inta ya fer bad manners as if you were one of her boys.”
“We are her boys,” Buck said proudly, as he tied his mount up to the fence surrounding the house and yard. Opening his gate, he turned to his brothers. “Well, stop dawdlin’. Supper’s on. Can’t ya smell it?”
“I sure can,” Jimmy said, rubbing his hands together enthusiastically, quickly following Buck down the path trampled through the snow to the door.
“Hey, wait for me,” Cody called after them. “I’m hungry, too!”
“You’re always hungry,” Buck answered over his shoulder, even as he took off his hat, brushed his hair nervously back, tucking several locks behind each ear, then reached out and knocked on the door, at first tentatively, then with growing confidence.
Lou and Kid shared a look as Tucker fell silent. He just sat there, tears coursing down his cheeks, as he rocked back and forth, hugging his knees to his chest, one hand kept firmly on Martha’s feet, as if to assure himself she was still there and alright.
Finally, Kid sighed and asked, “What’s yer real name, son?”
The sound of the older man’s voice broke through the boy’s reverie. Looking up, he met Kid’s eyes, then looked away. “Rockefeller,” he muttered. “My Pa’s people come from somewhere even further back East than Tennessee. Martha knows more’n I do.”
Lou stood up and crossed the short distance to Tucker’s side. Placing one hand on his shoulder, she said softly, “It’s nice to meet you Tucker Rockefeller.”
Tucker looked up at her, then nervously over at Kid. “What’re ya goin’ ta do ta us?” he practically begged. “Are ya goin’ ta turn us in? Please, I’m the one suggested it. She’d’a never done nothin’ if I hadn’t encouraged her. But it was the only way. He beat her like that again, she’d be lucky ta survive. Fer damned sure she’d lose that baby. And I don’t know why but she loves that kid like nothin’ I ain’t never seen.”
“It’s a woman thing,” Lou said, smiling softly, resting one hand on her own lower belly which was rounder than it had been a few years earlier after carrying two children for a full nine months. “And as for what we’re goin’ ta do, I believe we already told ya.”
“We’re goin’ ta take ya into Box Elder,” Kid said. “That’s the nearest town. And help ya get settled in for the winter, find jobs, a place ta stay. Yer sister can get healthy again. The baby can be born in peace, not on the road. And you can save up a grubstake. Next spring, you can move on to Oregon, if that’s what you still want, or head back to Tennessee, or anything else.”
“You… you mean you ain’t goin’ ta turn us in fer murder?” Tucker gasped, astonished. His shoulders slumped with relief.
Kid sighed as he, too, stood and moved toward the entrance of the wagon to check on his own offspring. “It ain’t so much that I ain’t goin’ ta turn ya in as I ain’t goin’ ta arrest ya.”
Tucker’s eyes flew from Kid’s retreating back to Lou, who had once again settled on the floor of the wagon next to Martha.
“What’s he talkin’ ‘bout?”
Lou looked up from wiping Martha’s brow with a wet cloth. “Kid’s the City Marshal of Sweetwater,” she smiled softly, remembering back to those early years.
“I… I thought you was ranchers.”
“Oh, that’s what we want to be,” she smiled at the boy. “But it takes time to get a successful horse ranch off the ground. In the meantime, we’ve got two young’un’s to take care of. Marshalling helps pay the bills.” Softening her tone a bit, she asked quietly, “How old are you, anyway?”
“Thirteen,” Tucker swallowed, speaking barely audibly.
Lou’s shoulders stiffened as she looked at the pregnant, feverish girl on the pallet in front of her. Barely able to push the words out past the lump in her throat, she asked, “And Martha?”
“Fifteen next month.”
Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory
“Who are you?”
Buck looked down at the gamine face of a young boy, perhaps five years old, staring up at him through the open door.
“Are you an injun?”
Buck stiffened a touch at the word. Then he relaxed as the boy followed it up with another question.
“’Cause my Pa says injuns is our friends, if we let ‘em be. Is that why yer face’s all bruised? Cause yer an injun?”
Buck smiled and carefully squatted down to look the child square in the face. “I’m an Indian alright, son,” he said. “Kiowa, to be exact. And yer Pa’s right. See, I think he’s my friend already.”
The child frowned at Buck, tilting his head questioningly, his lips pursed to form another phrase, a phrase that never left his throat.
“Who’s at the door, Sammy?” came the familiar gravelly tones.
“An injun what says he’s yer friend, Pa,” the child shouted back over his shoulder.
The response was followed by the clatter of booted feet across the wooden boards of the floor, one pair heavy with masculine weight, the other lighter, but sharper, with feminine concern. Buck slowly rose to his full height at the sound, leaning carefully against the side of the door to relieve the pressure on his aching ribs. Seconds later, Emma and Sam came skidding around the corner.
“Buck!” Emma cried, catching sight of the tall young man standing stiffly in her doorway. Without any warning, she pushed past Sam and even her son to wrap her arms around the Kiowa. Feeling him wince at the pressure, she pulled back. “Oh, Buck,” she whispered hoarsely, reaching up to cup his cheek, checking out each of the bruises discoloring his face with intent eyes. “I’ve worried so about you.”
“What about me?” Jimmy asked with a smile. “Did ya worry ‘bout me, too? We know y’all didn’t worry none ‘bout Cody. He’s too busy chasin’ the girls and a good meal ta get in any danger.”
Emma’s head swiveled to peer around Buck. Seeing the other two, she stepped carefully around Buck, keeping one hand on his arm at all times, to wrap first Jimmy, then Billy, into ferocious hugs. “I worried about all of you.”
“Emma,” Sam said, walking up behind her with the young boy now riding on his hip. “Why don’t you invite them in out of the cold? I imagine they’ve had a long, hard ride and are hopin’ fer some of your good grub. Ain’t that right, boys?”
Three heads, blonde, brown and black, nodded in unison, noses practically twitching to the tune of the smells wafting from the kitchen at the back of the house.
“Right this way,” Sam said, pointing the direction. Setting the boy on his feet he added, “Sammy, why don’t you run ahead and set three more places at the table?”
“Yes, sir, Pa,” Sammy smiled, rushing off toward the kitchen. Yelling to whoever was in the room, “We’ve got more guests and one of ‘em’s an injun. But it’s alright. He’s Pa’s friend already. And Ma was worried ‘bout him.”
“You’ve got guests?” Cody asked.
“Why don’t we come back tomorrow,” Buck suggested, already edging his way back toward the door. “We didn’t mean to interrupt a party or anything.”
Emma grabbed his arm, slipping her hand around his elbow and gently patting his forearm with her other hand.
“Nonsense. It’s just an old friend who dropped in on us unexpectedly earlier today,” she smiled, practically dragging Buck with her as she hurried down the hall. Jimmy and Cody followed so closely on their heels, they were practically tripping over each other. “He’ll be happy to see you’ve shown up, too.”
Stopping in the kitchen door, she looked at the greyed, grizzled old man sitting at the table, a toddler on his knee, feeding a spoonful of something to a baby girl seated in a high chair next to him. Turning at the sound of her voice, his eyes widened.
“Aren’t you, Mr. Spoon?” she finished with a satisfied smile at the stunned looks of the other men in the room. Sam’s gravelly laugh the only break in the surprised silence.