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?
On the road to Sweetwater, Wyoming Territory
It had been a long day, Kid thought, sighing as he sank down next to the fire, a cup of coffee cradled in his hands. He still didn’t understand Lou’s haste to leave town. He’d have rather stuck around and asked a few questions of this Harbinger fellow. Why was he looking for Martha and Tucker? Was there something the two kids hadn’t told him? Possible. But he couldn’t imagine them being hunted desperadoes. Was their step-father someone important back East? Maybe. That might explain things.
Well, as soon as he got everyone home and settled in, and the holidays were over, he’d head back, find the Pinkerton and ask a few questions of his own.
“Tired?” Lou asked, settling down beside him.
“A little,” he smiled at her, removing one hand from his coffee cup to wrap that arm around her shoulders and pull her in close. “But…. in a good way.”
“Think we’ll be able to make home tomorrow?” she asked.
“If we get an early start? Maybe,” he nodded. “We’d have to push pretty hard and we probably wouldn’t make it back until after dark, but we could do it.”
“I really think we should,” she said softly. “We’ve been gone too long already. And these kids need to be settled, get a chance to recover.”
Kid grunted in agreement. They sat silently, cuddled into each other, contemplating the fire before them, just enjoying this moment of peace before heading to bed.
“Kid,” Lou said, breaking the silence. “How are we goin’ ta afford this? Four more mouths to feed? We’re barely makin’ ends meet as it is.”
Kid shrugged, before answering heavily. “I dunno. But we’re gonna have to figure it out. We can’t just leave them out to starve in the cold. Martha’s old enough to get a job, once she’s better. Even Tucker could pick up work after school. They’ve already sworn they won’t take charity from us, plan to work for their keep.”
Lou nodded, her head moving up and down against his chest in a familiar motion he found comforting. He moved the hand of the arm wrapped around her up to caress her soft hair, tangling his fingers in the long strands.
“And Christmas?” she asked.
“Give ‘em my pwesents,” a little voice said.
Lou jerked out of Kid’s arms, turning to see EmmyLu standing just outside the ring of light cast by the fire. Kid held out his arms to the little girl, who happily ran to him, crawling into his lap and sticking her thumb into her mouth to suck at it vigorously.
“But, EmmyLu,” Lou said, smiling at her, “Those were meant for you. They were bought or made with you in mind.”
“You always say… we should give to those in need,” EmmyLu said simply. “I got my howsie and my bwudder and my dolly. I don’t need nothin’. They do.”
Kid smiled down at his little girl. Sometimes she made him so proud.
“Out of the mouths of babes,” he whispered.
“But--” Lou started to argue again. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to help Martha, Tucker and the little ones. She just couldn’t bring herself to give away her own babies’ Christmases to do it.
“No,” he shook his head. “She’s right. We have what we need. We’ve been blessed. It’s time to share with those who have so much less than us. It’s what the season is all about.”
At that, Lou relented. Smiling, she said, “You’re right. It is.”
Leaning her head against his shoulder she reached up to caress his cheek, even as he began to hum a wordless tune to their baby girl.
Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory
“You sure we got enough?” Teaspoon asked, a twinkle in his eye as he looked from the bulging saddlebags on his horse, to those behind his boys’ saddles and even further to the packhorse Sam had lent them, to carry the gifts he and Emma were sending along.
“It’s been four years, Teaspoon,” Jimmy said.
“We’ve got a lot of making up to do,” Cody added, swinging into his saddle. “And I’ve got a niece and a nephew to coddle.”
“Hey, if they’re our niece and nephew,” Buck spoke up from where his horse stood at the back of the little group, “Does that make them Teaspoon’s grandkids?”
Three pairs of eyes turned to eye him, one shocked, one considering, one narrowed in mock anger. Suddenly, Jimmy burst out into laughter.
“Hey, Grandpa, can ya keep up?” he burbled before kneeing his palomino into a trot out of town. A trot that quickly turned into a gallop as Teaspoon took off in hot pursuit.
Buck looked over at Cody, raising his eyebrow in question. At Cody’s nod, they, too, took up the chase, Cody letting fly with his characteristic whooping and Buck adding in a ululating war cry, boyish grins plastered across both their faces.
Emma’s and Sam’s voice carried after them, “Ride safe!”
Buck paused at the top of the ridge to pull out his canteen and take a deep swig of the water. Their earlier play had petered out and now they were simply trying to cover as much ground as quickly as possible. Buck had ridden ahead, scouting for a place to camp for the night, as they were well off any trails any of them might recognize. Having found a good spot, now he waited for the others to catch up, enjoying the last moments of the water, winter sun before it set. Already he could feel the bitter, prairie winds gathering in preparation for a long, cold night.
As the others neared he could hear Teaspoon chattering on about this and that.
“You oughta put a little bear grease on that leg, Jimmy,” Teaspoon was saying, pointing down at the other man’s mount. “It’ll keep it from gettin’ infected. After all, bear grease is--”
“The secret of health,” the three ‘boys’ chorused.
“Yeah,” Cody sniffed. “I think I’ve heard that somewhere’s before. Grandpa.”
Teaspoon reached out and whacked the younger man upside the back of the head.
“I ain’t too old to whip some respect back into you, ya young whipper snapper,” the older man growled, trying to hide his laughter.
Buck shook his head. Four years of a bloody war and the loss of a leg hadn’t changed him by one iota. He didn’t understand it at all. He’d heard enough about the War Between the States to know it was just as bad as what he’d been seeing out on the plains, between the Army and the Indians. But it was like water off a duck’s back to his old mentor. How did he do it? How--
“How does he do it?”
Buck turned to look at Jimmy, startled to hear his own thoughts voiced out loud.
“What do you mean?”
Jimmy shook his head. “It’s as if nothin’ ever happened. Like, we just went off on a run, met up at Sam and Emma’s place and now we’re all headed back to the station. What’s his secret?”
“I figured if anyone knew, it’d be you,” Buck said simply. “He was always closest to you. Saw you as a son.”
“I saw you all as my sons,” Teaspoon called back. “Still do. Why do you think I call you ‘my boys’? And, if yer gonna talk ‘bout me, either speak up so’s I kin hear ya properly or wait ‘til I’m completely outta hearin’ distance so’s I don’t know.”
Buck raised an eyebrow questioningly at Jimmy, who just shook his own head in confused wonder.
But Teaspoon wasn’t going to leave them wondering long. Pulling back on his horse’s reins, he waited for the other two to catch up to him before speaking again.
“I’m too old ta be shoutin’ acrost the prairie,” he muttered, looking at them over the bridge of his nose. “Now, listen and listen close. I ain’t gonna say I ain’t changed these last few years. We all have. Folks change. That’s what they do. Ain’t no one stays the same their whole, entire lives. But, I ain’t gonna let the divil get me down. I have my nightmares, but I refuse ta let ‘em rule me. You can’t always choose what happens to ya,” he said, clearing his throat, “but you can choose what ya do with it. I choose not ta let it steal my happiness. Yer young enough, you’ve still got that choice ta make. Make the one that ya won’t regret.”
Nodding emphatically, he turned and looked over at Cody. “I think that there stand of trees down there might be a good spot. Looks like there’s a nearby stream, and they’ll make fer good shelter.”
Cody shaded his eyes with one hand to peer down where Teaspoon was pointing. “I do believe yer right.”
“’Course I am,” Teaspoon hmphed. “I’m always right.”
Lou pulled up on the reins as the wagon crested the rise overlooking their farm. After the Express had closed, she and Kid had bought Emma’s old place. They’d looked at other spots, even considered starting from scratch. But Kid had nixed that idea due to little EmmyLu’s eminent arrival. When Emma’d heard about their search, she’d offered to give them the old homestead. They couldn’t accept that, so now they made regular payments on the place to her.
Lou sighed. There was just something about that sight, the big old farmhouse sitting next to the original barn, both overshadowed by the windmill, that said ‘home’ to her.
“Is this it?” Tucker asked, riding up alongside the wagon.
“Is this yer place?” Martha added, from where she sat, fully enveloped in quilts, at Lou’s side.
Lou nodded quietly. “Yep,” she said softly. “This is home.” Turning to the others, she added, “Now, let’s see about getting’ y’all down there.”
She slapped the reins against the horses’ backs and the wagon lurched back into motion. Moments later, they were driving into the yard. The, oddly, empty yard. Looking around, Lou’s forehead wrinkled.
“Where’s Teresa?” Jeremiah asked, putting her own question to voice.
“Dunno,” she said, climbing down out of the wagon. “Why don’t you and Tucker help Martha into the house,” she added. “Kid and I’ll take care of the horses.”
Jeremiah nodded and was quickly climbing up to the seat Lou’d just vacated, gathering Martha carefully into his arms.
Kid walked over to Lou’s side, Katy’s and Lightning’s reins held in one hand. “I’ll take these two inside, then be back out to help you unhitch.”
Lou nodded, watching him walk toward the second barn they’d built a year ago behind the house. They housed their own stock there, keeping the animals they were prepping for sale in the big barn out front. She grinned as she watched him saunter across the yard. She’d always enjoyed watching him move. And that had almost given her game away more than once back then. Luckily, today she didn’t have to hide anything and, she’d unhitched the team so often she could do it in her sleep, which meant she could let her eyes rove to her heart’s content. Tonight they’d be back in their own bed, in their own bedroom with a door with a lock on it. She couldn’t wait, she thought, feeling her cheekbones heating up a bit. Reaching up with one hand, she tried to wipe the lascivious grin off her face.
The sound of a gun going off, followed by the clucking of disturbed chickens, a woman’s scream and Kid’s outraged baritone succeeded where her own efforts had failed. Without thought, Lou dropped the traces she’d been undoing and broke into a dead run toward the barn. Throwing open the doors, she skidded to a halt, her eyes nearly popping out of her head at the sight that greeted her.
Kid stood there, his six gun trained on Barnett, of all people. The hapless former deputy was thoroughly disheveled, his shirt completely unbuttoned and pulled out of his loosened trousers, his suspenders hanging down around his hips. He had both arms out, wrapped protectively around the woman sheltering behind him. The nearly naked woman. The nearly naked woman who was really more of a girl. The nearly naked woman girl who was Lou’s little sister.
Lou wasn’t even aware of pulling her own revolver, aiming and cocking it.
“Git yer hands off my sister, mister,” she growled, advancing with a slow, menacing step. “I ain’t gonna ask again.”
“Lou, no!” Teresa shouted, scuttling out from behind Barnett. Suddenly, their positions were reversed and it was Teresa protecting the older man.
“I’d suggest you start talkin’,” Kid said sternly. “And fast, young lady.”
Teresa looked back and forth between her beloved sister and the only man who’d ever been a father to her, then gulped audibly.