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?
“How’s she doin’?” Kid asked anxiously. “Do you think we can move her today?”
Lou nodded as she jumped down off the tailgate at the back of the wagon. “The fever’s gone,” she said smiling as she headed for the fire and the oatmeal Kid had been cooking for breakfast. “And she’s askin’ fer food. I think she, and the baby, are goin’ ta be just fine, soon’s we get them out of the elements and fattened up a bit.”
Kid reached out and wrapped an arm around her waist, pulling her in for a quick morning smooch. “You did good last night,” he whispered into her ear, nuzzling her neck for a moment.
Lou pulled back and looked up at him curiously. He wasn’t acting like himself this morning. Well, actually, no. He was acting like himself, as opposed to the automaton he’d been the last several weeks. She smiled happily.
“You’re in an exceptionally good mood this morning,” she finally said, reaching up on tiptoe to kiss him a bit more thoroughly.
“Mmmmm,” he murmured against her lips. “What was that for.”
She pulled away from him and moved toward the fire.
“It’s just nice to see you smiling and energetic again,” she said over her shoulder.
Kid stopped and watched her wonderingly as she began to fill a bowl with the porridge for Martha, then poured a cup of coffee for herself. He thought back over the last twenty-four hours and realized that in all that time he hadn’t had a single thought about his missing brothers. He’d been too busy trying to help Tucker, Martha and the children.
Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory
“Teaspoon!” Cody gushed, pushing forward to greet the former stationmaster, Texas Ranger and Marshal. The last any of them had seen him, he’d been riding south for Texas to join the Confederacy. There’d been a lot of bitterness over his choice, especially on Cody’s part at that time, after Noah’s death. But the war was over and he had had several years to realize he didn’t always know everything.
“Boys,” Teaspoon nodded at them. It was only as he set the little boy on his knee down and reached down to pick something up off the floor that any of them realized something was wrong. Pulling out a pair of crutches, Teaspoon struggled to his feet, or rather to his foot. One pant leg ended at the knee, leaving the old man balancing on just one foot.
“Teaspoon?” Jimmy gasped out in a strangled voice. “What happened?”
The older man looked down at himself for a moment before facing his boys again. “What, this?” he pointed at his missing limb. “Well, turns out that was my great contribution to the war. I tol’ ya onct, son, ever’body’s luck runs out sooner or later. Mine finally did just days before the war was over. Got half the leg blown off in a little skirmish. Woulda died if it hadn’t been for the Union doctors what patched me up.”
He grinned insouciantly at the trio of young men hovering just out of reach, obviously wanting to rush him but afraid to now. “Woulda been here sooner, but apparently it takes longer ta heal when yer old like me. Now,” he hmphed grumpily, “why aren’t ya greetin’ yer old man properly?”
He held out his arms widely and his three boys took his cue, rushing in to hug him fiercely in greeting, pounding his back and all three talking at once. Even Buck wrapped his arms around Teaspoon and squeezed for all he was worth, ignoring the pain in his protesting ribs. This was so much more important than a momentary discomfort.
Box Elder, Wyoming Territory
“Are we there yet?” EmmyLu whined from behind her mother’s shoulder. All four of the young children were riding in the wagon with Martha while Lou drove. And, while Albert was getting along well enough with Noah and EmmyLu, there’d been some friction between the two girls. Lou figured it was a case of two girls with strong temperaments, both used to being the ‘eldest’ and in charge trying to figure out how to work around each other. “I wanna see Uncle ‘Miah,” EmmyLu continued eagerly.
“I know honey,” Lou smiled over her shoulder at her daughter. “We’ll be there soon. See that hill over there?” She freed one hand from the reins to point toward the next rise in the rolling plains. EmmyLu nodded eagerly. “Well, Box Elder is just beyond that rise. I figure we’ll be there in about half an hour. Just a little more patience, alright baby girl?”
“I ain’t no baby!” EmmyLu protested. Lou laughed.
True to Lou’s predictions, the wagon rolled into town within the hour, accompanied by Kid and Tucker on horseback. Pulling up by the livery, Lou said, “Why don’t you two go check in with the Marshal, see if he knows about any open jobs or places where these folks can get a room for the winter. I’ll take care of the horses and send a note out to Jeremiah.”
Kid nodded, dismounted, and, leaving Katy tied to the wagon next to Lightning, turned to head back into the middle of town, Tucker trotting along at his heels. But they were back in short order. Lou had barely had time to send a messenger out to the farm where Jeremiah was working as a hired hand, trying to save up enough money for his own place.
“Bad news?” she asked at the downcast looks on both their faces.
Kid nodded. “Marshal says things’ve been real tight this year. They had a bad harvest this year and no one’s got any extra for anything. Businesses ain’t hirin’, they’re lettin’ folks go. I’d be surprised if Jeremiah even still has a job.”
Lou sighed heavily. “So, what do we do?”
“We can’t do nothin’ or go anywhere ‘til Jeremiah gets here, so what say we head over to the general store? We need ta get some supplies ta get us the rest of the way to Sweetwater. Martha and Tucker ain’t got ‘nough ta make it and we don’t have enough ta supply all of us.”
Lou raised worried eyes to Kid’s face. He shook his head. Now wasn’t the time. They’d deal, just like they always had, one way or another.
Lou and Kid walked into the general store, having left Tucker behind to watch over his sister and the little ones who were happily playing in the hayloft of the livery barn.
“We should get a little coffee,” Lou said. “Beans, some oats.”
“Maybe they’ll have a side of bacon,” Kid suggested brightly.
Lou looked at him down her nose. A difficult task given how much taller than her he was. “We only need enough ta tide us over for a few days, ‘til we get back ta the ranch.”
“Doesn’t mean we gotta starve,” Kid smiled, hugging her tight to his side. “We’ll be alright. Stop worryin’ so much. It’ll all work out.”
She snorted, mostly in disbelief at his happy attitude.
“Is that my little sis in there?” a familiar voice called from the store’s entryway.
Lou turned with a gasped, “Jeremiah!”
The siblings rushed into each other’s arms, both chattering a mile a minute, trying to catch the other up on everything in their lives.
“And I ain’t your little sister,” Lou finally said, with a glare and smack at his chest.
He stared down at her, even taller now than Kid, and laughed. “Don’t know ‘bout that. You look awful small from all the way up here.”
They all laughed at what had become a running joke in the last few years, ever since the day Jeremiah had realized he was actually taller than his older sister.
“Speaking of which, where is my younger sister?”
“Said she couldn’t miss so much school this close to the end of term,” Kid said. “There was no one ta fill in fer her. Insisted on stayin’ in Sweetwater.”
Jeremiah looked at Kid oddly. “I thought she’d arranged a substitute ages ago.”
Kid just shrugged, as if to say, ‘Who could read a woman’s mind?’ Lou however, by now, could read his and smacked the back of his head on her way back into the store.
“Ow!” Kid protested. “What’d I do?” he wailed after her, bewildered.
“If you have to ask, I oughta come back there and do it again. Might knock some sense back inta ya!”
Kid shook his head as he watched his wife move about the store, gathering the supplies they needed.
“So, what took you two so long?” Jeremiah asked. “I expected ya yesterday. Speaking of which, where’re my niece and nephew?”
Across the store, Lou was concentrating on finding what they’d need to keep their growing group adequately fed until they got to Sweetwater without breaking the bank. She was so busy calculating and recalculating totals, she almost tripped over a slender young man in a brown citified suit and matching bowler hat.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” he smiled. “I didn’t mean to get in your way.”
“No problem,” she muttered, mentally starting her calculations over again.
“Might I trouble you for a bit of information?” he continued, breaking through her thoughts once more.
“Mebbe,” she muttered, finally really looking up at the smiling gentleman. There was something about his eyes she found reassuring. “What ya need?”
“See, I’m trying to find someone. I think she may have come this way, perhaps with a man posing as her husband. Her name’s Martha Rockefeller, young girl, long, dark hair, just a little curly, pretty blue eyes? She stands about so tall?” He indicated her height with a hand in front of his own chest, just below the top of Lou’s head.
She stiffened at the mention of Martha’s name.
“What ya want with her?” she asked suspiciously. Maybe his eyes were lying to her. Wouldn’t be the first time.
“Her family’s hired me to find her,” he smiled. “Name’s Tom Harbinger. I’m a Pinkerton Detective.” He held a calling card out to her. She gingerly reached out and took it. “There’s a reward for information leading to her discovery.”
Bowing again, he headed toward the door of the store. Lou watched him leave, before dropping all the supplies she’d gathered on the table next to her and scurrying over to Kid and Jeremiah.
“We’ve gotta get outta here,” she muttered under her breath, dragging each of the larger men out of the store by their arms.
Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory
“Well, sit, sit… you boys look hungry enough ta eat a horse!” Teaspoon laughed, encouraging the trio to pull up seats at the table, even as Sam and Emma’s eldest, five year old Sam, Jr, or Sammy as they called him, brought out more plates and utensils and began setting extra places.
“Emma, I don’t know what it is, but it smells delicious,” Cody grinned, rubbing his hands together in anticipation.
“Nothing fancy, boys,” she smiled as she walked over from the stove with a pot in her apron-wrapped hands. “But filling.”
“I promise ya, Emma,” Jimmy smiled up at her as she began to dish the venison stew onto his plate. “It’ll be better than anything I’ve had to eat in years.”
“Just make sure to save some for me,” Buck added eagerly.
“Now, boys,” she placated happily. “There’s plenty to go around. Did I ever let one of you leave my table still hungry?”
“No ma’am,” they chorused.
Teaspoon laughed. “Nice ta see some things ain’t changed!” He turned to Buck and pointed the spoon he’d been using to feed baby Sarah Elizabeth applesauce at the bruised young man. “Now, you wanna tell me what all them marks on yer face are about?”
Buck stopped in his silent shoveling of stew into his mouth and looked up at Teaspoon for a moment. Shrugging he finally said simply, “Same tale, different day. They took exception to an injun wantin’ ta get somethin’ ta eat.”
Teaspoon shook his head sorrowfully.
“All this fightin’ ta end one form of bigotry, but another lives on,” he said mournfully. His visage brightened. “At least you still had your family around ta stick up fer ya.”
“We rescued him,” Cody bragged.
“You damned well oughta,” Teaspoon glared playfully at Cody for a moment, before letting his approval show in the twinkling of his eyes. “So, what are y’all doin’ here?”
“We’re on our way ta visit Lou and the Kid,” Cody answered around a mouthful of food, even as he reached out to grab a biscuit off the platter Emma had just placed in the middle of the table.
“Don’t talk with your mouthful, young man,” she admonished strictly.
He gulped down the food and apologized. “Sorry, ma’am.”
“That’s good ta hear,” Teaspoon said. “He needs ta see yer all alright.”
“Is he as bad as it sounds in Lou’s letters?” Buck asked, Cody having shared his letters with the other two on the ride from Denver.
“Worse,” Sam sighed. “And nothin’ we did got through to him. It was almost as if he weren’t even here.”
“You three eat up tonight, get a good night’s rest, and take off first thing in the morning,” Emma encouraged. “I bet you can still make it out to the old homestead before Christmas morning!”
“So, what have they been up to?” Buck asked curiously. “They got any children yet?”
“Two,” Teaspoon boasted. “And they already call me Grandpa, even if they haven’t met me yet!”
Soon, the table was full of chatter as everyone got caught up on the goings on of the last several years.
“Louise, what on earth is goin’ on?” Jeremiah protested as she dragged him and her husband down the boardwalk toward the livery.
“Hush,” she hissed, continuing her march. Within moments they were walking into the dimly lit barn, Lou carefully closing the barn doors behind them, peering out to see if they’d been followed in the process.
“Now would you like to explain?” Kid asked, mildly exasperated.
“We need to talk to Martha and Tucker,” she said, heading toward the wagon at the back of the barn.
Inside the wagon, they found Martha awake for the first time since the day before. Tucker had helped her sit up and then piled every pillow the family owned behind her to brace her in place.
Martha saw Lou’s worried face as she climbed into the wagon and asked immediately, “What’s wrong?”
“Why would a Pinkerton detective be lookin’ fer ya?” Lou answered with her own blunt question.
“What?!” Tucker and Martha gasped in unison.
“He was in the store, askin’ after ya, Martha specifically. Said there was a reward, that yer family had hired him ta find you.”
Martha began to wildly shake her head back and forth. “It must’ve been his family,” she said almost desperately. “We ain’t got no family left. We gotta get outta here. They find out he’s dead and they’ll arrest us fer sure!”
“Now, calm down,” Kid said reassuringly. “They’d have ta come through me ta do that and I ain’t gonna let that happen. As far as I’m concerned, what you two did was self-defense. I saw how you almost died of the wounds he caused.”
“Well, I’d say we need to get back on the road right quick then,” Jeremiah finally spoke up.
“Who!?” Martha asked, gaping like a fish. “Who are you?” Fear made her voice quaver.
“Martha, that galoot is my little brother, Jeremiah McCloud,” Lou introduced. Turning to him, she added, “And I’d like to know what you mean by ‘we’? Don’t you have a job here?”
Jeremiah shrugged a touch defensively. “They had a drought this summer, then lost what was left of the crop to a hail storm,” he explained. “Barely got enough ta get themselves through the winter. I been workin’ fer food, waitin’ fer ya to come through town so’s I could hitch a ride home with ya.”
Lou sighed deeply, feeling the responsibility of yet another mouth to feed pressing in on her.
“Well, ya better grab yer things and get back here quick, then,” she said. “Cause we’re pullin’ outta here in half an hour. Come hell or high water.”