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?
McCloud Ranch, Near Sweetwater, Wyoming Territory
Straightening her shoulders, Teresa faced her sister and brother-in-law with her chin thrust out defiantly. Unfortunately, that thrust a few other things into prominent view.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Lou sighed, holstering her pistol with a sigh. Walking, well, stomping really, over to her sister’s side, she slipped off her winter coat and wrapped it around the younger girl’s shoulders.
Teresa reached up reflexively and clutched the coat closed around her body, starting to shiver despite the relative warmth of the barn.
Stepping back, Lou crossed her arms over her chest and glared at the younger girl, then switched her glare to Barnett when he started to move.
“You can just stay right where yer at,” she growled. “I still ain’t decided whether I aim ta shoot ya or not. And just cause I ain’t drawn down on ya don’t mean I couldn’t hit ya in the backside long ‘fore ya ever made it ta the door!”
Barnett shuffled his feet in the loose straw on the barn floor, flushing bright red and muttered something unintelligible that might have been a “Yes, ma’am,” or might have a been something a lot more foul. At the moment, Lou didn’t really care.
“I think it’s time to start talkin’, young lady,” Kid interrupted the glare-a-thon going on between his wife and sister-in-law. “I can’t wait to hear how you’re going to explain this. Somehow I doubt Barnett attacked you and I don’t think your clothes just fell off when you tripped over a rake.”
Now it was Teresa’s turn to blush bright red.
“Uh, no, Sir,” she mumbled, looking down at her bare feet, toes curled in the straw and dirt of the barn floor. But she didn’t say anything else.
“Well?” Lou prompted, tapping one booted foot impatiently.
Teresa looked back up and squared her shoulders again. “We’re married.”
That’s when all hell broke loose.
“Like hell, you say,” Lou exploded. “You’re barely out of school yourself. You’re way too young to be gettin’ hitched!”
Turning her anger on Barnett, she stepped forward, her fists clenching at her sides, ready to let fly if he made a single move she could use as an excuse. “You! This is all your fault! What’s the matter? Couldn’t find a woman in town what would give you the time of day so ya had to turn yer sights on my baby sister? She’s young enough to be your daughter!”
Kid said nothing, simply holstering his own weapon as quickly as he could so he could keep his wife from drawing hers and opening fire.
“Lou,” he said softly in her ear even as he wrapped his arms around her shoulders to pin her arms at her sides, “Louise. Calm down. Why don’t we let them explain.”
“I love him,” Teresa said firmly, reaching out to twine her fingers through his. “And he loves me.” Turning defiantly toward her sister, she added, “And he’s not too old for me. Age is just a number. Don’t mean nothin’ when yer matched as perfectly as we are.”
Lou opened her mouth, a scoffing noise exiting before Kid squeezed her in a demand for silence. Teresa kept right on talking anyway.
“And I know what yer gonna say. Everyone says it. Barnett’s slow. He’s stupid. He’s dumb. Well, I aim ta tell ya he ain’t none of that. He…” she paused to look up lovingly at the taller man. “He just cain’t hear too well is all. So, he misses a lot of stuff. When yer lookin’ right at him while yer talkin’, he does fine. But if ya ain’t facin’ him, he has ta try ta figure out what it is yer sayin’. And that means he misses a lot.”
“I promise, Miz McCloud,” Barnett finally spoke up. “I never disrespected Teresa. I love her.”
The simple sincerity in his words made Lou look at the couple more closely. It was obvious they were truly, deeply in love. What could she say in the face of that?
“You’re too young ta be gettin’ married, Teresa Mary McCloud!”
“I turned 15 last month,” Teresa said. “I’m old enough ta be graduated from school and hold a teacher’s license. I figure that’s old enough ta become a wife. Ain’t like you was all that much older when you and Kid started.. well….”
“Don’t even go there, young lady,” Kid said, stiffening. “What went on between yer sister and me, that was a whole ‘nother situation in a different life. There ain’t no comparison.”
“He’s right,” Barnett nodded. “You ain’t yer sister.”
“Oooooh!” Teresa growled, at a loss for words. “How dare you take their side,” she fumed. “I didn’t hear you complainin’ I was too young last night! Or the last week since we got married!”
Without another word, she turned fled toward the house.
Both Lou and Barnett started to follow her, but Kid pulled back on Lou’s arm.
“Let ‘em be, darlin’,” he said, smiling lopsidedly down at her. “Seems to me I remember you flyin’ off the handle like that at me a few hundred times when we was courtin’ and newly married. Heck, I seem ta remember ya takin’ a few potshots at me just a couple weeks ago. And, admit it or not, your little sister is a younger version of you in all the ways that count. If she’s got her heart set on Barnett, ain’t nothin’ we can say or do ta stop her.”
“Why you!” Lou sputtered angrily, pushing away from him to let fly with a punch to his shoulder.
“Oh, is that the way you want to play it?” he grinned. “Two can play at that game.”
Without another word he hauled her back into his arms, pulling her tight against his chest as he leaned forward to silence her sputtering with his lips. Once she’d stopped trying to pull away and begun to sink into the kiss herself, he whispered against her mouth, “Seems to me there’s a stall with a nice soft bed of hay goin’ unused just down the way.”
“Well,” she murmured, smiling against his lips as she reached up to begin unbuttoning his shirt. “We can’t have that, now can we?”
“You’ll probably end up sharin’ a room with Teresa,” Jeremiah said as he set Martha gently onto the settee in front of the fireplace in the main parlor. “Tucker, you and I’ll probably have ta share the bunkhouse with Barnett.”
The sound of the kitchen door slamming shut interrupted whatever Martha had been about to ask. Jeremiah turned to see what was going on only to catch a glimpse of his younger sister running up the stairs, Lou’s coat clutched tightly around her, her bare legs flashing white as they took the stairs two at a time.
“Teresa?” he called after her, worry in his voice. “Teresa, you alright?”
“I’ll be alright just as soon as Louise stops treatin’ me like a baby,” she yelled down at him, stomping across the upper floor of the house, tossing things wildly around by the thumps and bangs coming from her room.
The door opened and closed again, more controlled this time, followed by the solid thumps of a man’s stride. Jeremiah turned from the stairs to see Barnett coming through the kitchen door. The hired hand didn’t even look toward the parlor, heading determinedly straight for the stairs.
“Oh, no you ain’t,” Jeremiah called out, rushing over to interpose his body between the man and the stairs leading to his upset sister. “Are you the reason why my sister’s so upset? And why wasn’t she dressed proper?”
Barnett’s head came up as he ran into Jeremiah. He started to answer, but Teresa’s voice overrode his.
“It ain’t Barnett’s fault,” she said firmly. “All he did was marry me, like I asked him to. It’s our sister and her high and mighty attitude, thinkin’ she knows what’s best fer us. She ain’t my ma and I’m old enough ta make my own decisions.”
“What?” Jeremiah exhaled, exhausted from the trip and this confusing whirlwind of emotions. Looking up, he saw Teresa, now fully dressed, standing at the top of the stairs, a bulging carpetbag in each hand. Shaking his head in bewilderment, he asked, “Where do you think you’re goin’? And what do you mean, married?”
Teresa pushed past him down the stairs to Barnett’s side. Handing him one carpetbag, she slipped her now free hand into his elbow. “Exactly what I said. Barnett and I got married while everyone was gone. Lou ain’t takin’ too kindly to it, but she’s just gonna have to get used to it. This is the way things is gonna be.”
Turning, she began to lead Barnett toward the parlor door that led onto the porch facing the ranch yard.
“Um, Teresa,” Jeremiah asked, almost timidly. “Where are you goin’?”
“Home,” she smiled sweetly over her shoulder. “With my husband.”
“And, where’s that?”
Teresa sighed in exasperation at the silly question. “The bunkhouse you numbskull. That’s where Barnett lives, which means that’s where I live now.”
Teresa sighed contentedly, snuggling closer into her husband’s warm side. But a persistent waft of cold air kept following her. She grumbled, half asleep, until her husband’s soft chuckle dragged her fully awake.
“What’s so funny?” she groaned. “I’m tryin’ ta stay warm here.”
Barnett just leaned down to press a passionate kiss to her mouth. When she wrapped her arms around his neck to drag him back down under the warm blankets with her though, he pulled back. Tilting her face up so he could see her lips as she spoke, he said, “I gotta go.”
Teresa frowned. “Why? Where?”
“Huntin’,” he said. “Kid, Jeremiah an’ me ‘re gonna go lookin’ fer a turkey or goose. Somethin’ fer Christmas dinner.”
Teresa slumped back against the pillows, her lips extending into a childish pout. “What am I s’posed ta do all day, while yer gallivantin’ off with the ‘men’?” she whined. “I’m gonna be soooo bored.”
Barnett kissed her gently on the forehead. “Why don’t you go make up with yer sister.”
Teresa glared up at him wordlessly through her eyelashes.
He chuckled. “Don’t give me that look. Ain’t like she’s ever gonna ‘pologize. And, admit it or not, she did have a point. We could’ve, probably should’ve waited ‘til you was older. But, she’s family. And this is Christmas. You can’t leave things like this. We gotta make things right fer the Lord’s birth.”
Teresa heaved a put upon sigh, before rolling over on top of her much larger husband’s muscular frame.
“How’d I ever get so lucky to find me such a smart man?” she cooed, leaning down to press her lips to his, even as her hands began wandering up and down his body.
Barnett shrugged, giving in to the inevitable. “Dunno,” he answered, reaching down to pull the covers back up over them. “I’ll let ya now if I ever meet him.”
Lou sighed as she walked down the stairs and entered the kitchen. Kid had left early that morning to go hunting with Jeremiah. They’d taken Tucker and Barnett with them. Along with the meat, they were charged with bringing back a tree to decorate in the parlor.
Looking around the kitchen, Lou immediately felt her sister’s missing presence. She enjoyed cooking, but preferred to do it in company with someone else. She hated being by herself. It was just so… boring. Unless, of course, she had something she needed to think over.
Disgruntled, she began opening cupboard doors, pulling items out, seemingly at random. Soon, flour, ginger, their precious supply of sugar, butter, eggs and other ingredients were scattered across the kitchen table.
“Can I help?” a timid voice asked from the doorway.
Lou looked up, surprised, to see Martha standing there, on her own. She was dressed in one of Lou’s old pregnancy dresses that had been let out properly to make room for her swollen baby belly.
Lou relaxed, smiling at the younger girl, no older than her own sister. Patting the chair next to her, she said, “Sure. Why don’t you come sit here. I’ll make the dough into balls and then you can roll the cookies in the sugar and put them on the pan.”
“Are you makin’ ginger snaps?” Martha asked curiously as she made her way around the table and settled carefully into the wooden chair.
“Um hm,” Lou murmured, concentrating on forming the cookie dough into a round ball.
“Yum! They’re my favorite. My Ma used ta make them fer our birthdays.”
“And we make ‘em fer Jesus’ birfday,” a small voice came from the kitchen doorway.
“Well lookee who’s here,” Louise smiled, wiping her hands off on the frilly apron Jimmy had given her before leaving for war. Moving around the table, she bent down to kiss her two little ones good morning.
Straightening, she asked, “EmmyLu, would you and Noah like to help?”
The smiles and excited squeals emitted by the children were all the answer she needed.
“Well come on then,” she said brightly. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
“Can we help, too?” a small voice asked from the doorway. Turning back, Lou smiled to see the younger Rockefeller children, she refused to use that other name after learning about their father, standing timidly. Ellen held her brother’s hand tightly in one of hers. Albert clutched tightly to his sister’s hand and sucked hard on the thumb of his other hand.
Waving her hand toward the pitcher of water where EmmyLu was already washing her hands, she smiled. “Of course. Get on over here.”
Soon, the kitchen was filled with the laughter and chatter of happy children and the smell of baking cookies.
Martha smiled and talked more than Lou’d seen since they’d met. That warmed her in ways she couldn’t explain.
When they finally sent the children off to play outside in the fenced in garden area by the porch and began to clean the kitchen, Martha asked, “Where’s your sister, Teresa isn’t it?”
Lou stiffened, then shrugged. “Dunno. She’s so stubborn. She’ll never admit I might have a point or two, might know somethin’ bein’ a mite older’n her and all.”
“Maybe, but she’s not really all that young fer gettin’ married,” Martha shrugged. “Most girls my age back home were either married and breedin’ or courtin’ seriously. At least he seems like a good man. I can’t see him hurtin’ her like… well like this.” She winced as she gestured toward the bandages on her back.
Lou looked at her consideringly for a long moment. Nodding she said, “You may be right. But I doubt she’ll get close enough fer me ta talk ta her anytime soon. Like I said, she’s stubborner than a goat.”
“Ain’t that the pot callin’ the kettle black?”
Lou spun around to see Teresa standing in the kitchen doorway, a basket hanging over one arm.
“Might could be,” she said tightly, nodding to her sister. “Come on in and close the door. Kid ain’t chopped enough wood ta heat up the whole outdoors.”
“Hmph,” Teresa said, knowing that was all the apology she was ever likely to get. “I take it you two have been gettin’ along then pretty well lately,” she said sotto voce, grinning devilishly.
Lou inhaled sharply at the jab, then balled up the damp dish towel in her hands and threw it at her sister’s head. “Ingrate. Brat.”
“I repeat, pot to kettle.”
“I hope the men get back soon,” Teresa said, fidgeting with the corner of the curtain on the kitchen window. “It’s lookin’ like a storm brewin’ on the horizon.”
“They’ll be fine,” Lou reassured her. “Kid, Barnett, too,” she added, sighing at the second name, “have been around long enough ta know when it’s time ta get their rears back home.”
“What was that you were sayin’ about comin’ home?”
Lou whirled, squealing as she flung herself into Kid’s arms, shivering as he wrapped them around her, frigid coat and all.
“Oh, thank God,” she said into his neck. “I was soooo worried about you.”
“Now, that ain’t exactly what you was just sayin’,” Teresa commented acerbically, even as she pushed past her sister and brother-in-law to properly greet her own husband.
Lou deliberately turned her eyes away to avoid seeing the uncomfortably intimate greeting between the two. Pulling her head back, she looked up into Kid’s face. “Well, did ya find anythin’?”
“We got two geese,” Tucker said excitedly, the next one through the door. “Jeremiah’s cleanin’ ‘em in the barn right now.”
“And, there’s a tree sittin’ on the porch, waitin’ fer us ta bring it in and decorate it tonight, after supper,” Kid said.
Kid sighed, as he settled onto the settee next to Lou. Gathering her into his side with one arm, he sipped at the cup of coffee in his other hand while staring at the beauty of the tree standing in the corner of the room, near the fireplace. Several stockings were hung carefully off the edge of the mantelpiece. He’d always imagined having a large family, but this was more than he’d ever imagined having so soon. There was one for each of them, Kid, Lou, Teresa, Jeremiah, Barnett, Martha, Tucker, EmmyLu, Ellen, Noah and Albert. Yet, there was still something missing.
Sitting, he enjoyed the comfort of the warmth in the room, the fire crackling in the hearth, as the winds of the growing snow storm whipped around the snug house, trying to find a way in.
After awhile, Lou spoke. “Whatcha thinkin’?”
Kid thought for a moment. “That this is almost perfect. Almost.”
“There’s still folks missin’. Family.”
“They’ll come home, Kid,” she reassured. “They promised. We know from Cody’s letters that at least Jimmy and he survived the war. Buck didn’t even go to fight.” She didn’t mention Teaspoon, of whom they’d had absolutely no word since he’d ridden off for Texas all those years ago.
“I know. It’s easier now,” he finally said. “To accept they had to make their own choices, I guess. Helpin’ Martha and Tucker out have shown me that. But…”
“But you still feel guilty?” Lou guessed. He nodded silently.
“What would you change, if you could?” she asked gently.
He sat in silent thought for long moments, mulling over all the decisions they’d made, together and separately, over the last five years, she knew. Finally he sighed again. “Nothin’.”
“Then what is there to feel guilty about? You can’t be in two places at once. And you weren’t the one what chose to leave. They were.”
“I know,” he said softly, kissing the top of her head, ever so glad for her gentle acceptance of his feelings on this topic. “But I can’t help feelin’ at least a little bit guilty I didn’t go with them. All of them. We weren’t meant ta be split like this, Lou. We’re a family.”
She laughed quietly. “Better watch it, Kid. Yer startin’ ta sound like Teaspoon. Keep that up too long and won’t none of us be able ta understand a word yer sayin’.”
“Hello the camp!”
“Who’s out there?” Teaspoon called, even as Jimmy, Cody and Buck scrambled for their guns.
They’d all been huddled together in a lean-to, sheltering from the wind and snow of the storm that had started kicking up just before sunset. Now, there was enough snow piled up around the edges of the lean to that the fire in front was making their little shelter quite comfy and cozy.
A tall, slender young man dressed in an inadequate, citified coat, topped with a brown bowler hat, stepped into the circle of light cast by the fire leading a horse and pack mule.
“Mind if I join ya?” he asked. “I was caught somewhat flatfooted by this storm. Sure wasn’t expecting this.”
Teaspoon laughed. “You must be new to these parts, Mr……”
“Harbinger,” the man said, holding out a hand in greeting. Teaspoon took it and shook. “Tom Harbinger.”