Monday, March 25, 2013

2012 Onions

And the results are in.....

Here's how stories on this blog placed in the 2012 Onions.  For complete results go to: The Writers Ranch: The Onions

On Bended Knee
1st Starting Over Pilarcita

Multiple Hankies
2nd The Long Journey Home Paola and Pilarcita

Bloody Knuckles & Raw Steak

2nd Starting Over Pilarcita

2nd The Healing Wall Pilarcita

Final Say
2nd Nothing Sweet: The Goodbye Pilarcita

Cover Art
1st The Healing Wall – Pilarcita, Miss Raye (I didn't make the cover art for this story)

2nd Just Like You Pilarcita

2nd Starting Over Pilarcita

Union Pacific
2nd The Home Front Pilarcita
2nd Sweetwater Romance Series Pilarcita

Just the Two of Us
1st The Long Journey Home Paola and Pilarcita

The Rockin’ Chair
1st The Healing Wall Pilarcita

Song Fic
2nd Missing Her Tonight Pilarcita

1st The Healing Wall Pilarcita

Best Couple – Canon
2nd Kid & Lou in “Sweet Reunion” Pilarcita

Best Couple – Non-Canon
2nd Ike & Lou in “You Were Always There” Pilarcita

Friends to the End
2nd Lou, Rachel, Emma, Jimmy, & Sam in “Just Call Me Jimmy” Pilarcita

Back in Town
2nd Boggs in “The Unforgivable Sin” Pilarcita

There were a lot of ties this year.  Just goes to show the quality of the writing going on in the fandom right now.  Congratulations to all the winners.  And, write on!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Courtship of James Hunter McCloud, Chapter 5

Chapter 5

Jamie found himself unable to keep his eyes off Julia on the ride home.  Oh, he tried.  He spent a lot of time watching after his little sister, who was playing tag on horseback with the younger Cross children.  But it seemed like with every blink he caught himself looking at Julia again.  Her cheeks were flushed becomingly, a smile graced her soft lips, her hands flashed in the waning afternoon sunlight as she described something to her sisters in the buckboard animatedly.  She was all he’d ever wanted.  He knew some thought her too slender, too dark, too outspoken, too educated.  But those were the things that drew him to her like flies to honey.  They fascinated him.  He’d known her his entire life.  She was nearly two years older than him, after all.  Yet, he felt like he’d not even begun to discover all the facets that made her so unique.
When she’d left for school, he’d thought she’d be back soon.  She’d see a little bit of the world and then be ready to settle down.  Yet, with every term, she’d gone back, more excited than ever by her studies.  Slowly, he’d put his old dreams of a life with her aside. It had become obvious that she wanted, needed more than he could ever offer her.  And yet… and yet…
He didn’t know how to put it into words.  Not really.  But something about this afternoon had not only satisfied his constant, all consuming hunger to be in her company, but had suggested that perhaps, just perhaps, she might still be content with a life right here, with him.  As stupid and uneducated as he might be, she’d seemed… happy… to spend the afternoon with him.
“Guess we don’t have to wonder what you two were up to on that picnic of yours,” Jed interrupted Jamie’s reverie, pushing at him slightly to get his attention.  “Not the way yer moonin’ over Julia agin.”
“Tol’ ya,” Harry said, grinning, as he leaned forward to talk across Katelyn’s whithers to Jed, completely ignoring Jamie.  “He’s in looooovvvvvee.”  He dragged the word out in a sing-songy rhythm and spoke plenty loudly enough to catch the attention of Buck and Dawn Star, who turned to look the direction of the three young men in question.
Jamie felt a red flush rising up his neck and wanted to sink into the ground in mortification.
“Shut up, already, would ya?” he growled, pushing the two others away.  “This ain’t none of yer business.”
Tightening his knees, he urged Katelyn into a faster pace, leaving the other two, laughing, behind him.
But, despite his best intentions, Jamie found himself jerking his eyes away from her profile yet again, as he caught her own gaze sliding in his direction.  He didn’t want to be caught staring.  He heard Julia and her sisters laughing loudly about something as the caravan that was their family pulled into the ranch yard.
“He’s looking at you again,” Rose North Star Cross teased her big sister, giggling.
Julia fought off a blush, even as she grinned at her 17-year-old sister.  Rose was actually only her half sister.  She was their second mother’s youngest daughter.  But it made no difference in this family.  Julia truly missed her other mother.   It hardly seemed like it had been nine whole years since she’d been killed in the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
“Tell us again,” 18-year-old Victoria Laughs A Lot Cross begged.  “Just how did you get so mussed up on your picnic?”
“Did he kiss you?  Oh, please tell me he kissed you!” Rose added enthusiastically.  Julia threw her head back and laughed exuberantly at that.  Both of her sisters knew her love for Jamie and her intentions to court him.  They’d teased her mercilessly about it, but were also her biggest advocates, helping her plot her strategy.
“Well….” she began to tell the tale again, going over every detail of that precious afternoon, as much for herself as for them. She didn’t want to forget a single moment, she thought, looking out of the corner of her eye to catch a glimpse of Jamie, surrounded by his brothers and hers.  She wondered what he was blushing so hard about, then stifled a snort as Rose pulled yet another twig out of her hair.  With a family as close as theirs was, there was no such thing as privacy, especially when you weren’t really trying to hide things.  Although, Julia thought with an internal grimace, judging by the disapproving looks her mother was throwing her way, maybe she should try to be a little more circumspect next time.
She turned her head slightly to get a better look at Jamie, as he pulled away from the other boys in a huff, and put a hand over her mouth to hide her grin.  Yes, there most definitely would be a next time.  And next time?  Next time she’d make sure they weren’t interrupted.
"Put me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death, jealousy is as severe as Sheol; Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord.  The Song of Solomon, Chapter 8, verse 6,” the preacher intoned solemnly from his pulpit.  “Ladies and gentlemen, marriage is a sacred covenant that should not be tampered with.  But the pleasures of marriage are a gift from God to us, His children.”
Jamie squirmed in the hard pew, trying to get comfortable.  Ever since yesterday, it felt like everything everyone said was aimed directly at him and his thoughts about Julia, which were hardly pure to begin with.  Even in church, he couldn’t escape it.  Why today of all days did the preacher decide to send the youngsters out to a special Sunday School program and give a sermon about the proper marital relationship?
"My beloved is mine, and I am his; He pastures his flock among the lilies.”
Jed, Willie and Harry all turned to look simultaneously at Jamie and leer.  Jamie groaned and sank down in the pew.   It wasn’t just him, then, he thought miserably, even as he shifted once more, trying to escape the growing discomfort.  It wasn’t right to talk about these sorts of things in church, was it?  It couldn’t be!  Yet, it was in the Bible. 
"Many waters cannot quench love, nor will rivers overflow it; If a man were to give all the riches of his house for love, it would be utterly despised."
He desperately wanted to look over at Julia, to see how she was taking all this, but was too afraid of what he might see.  Would she be calmly listening to the services without any problems?  Or would she be as discomfited by the sermon as he was?  He wasn’t even sure which reaction he wanted her to have.  So he just didn’t look.
“The Bible is clear, ladies and gentleman,” Preacher Jansen said, clearing his throat.  It was obvious even he was fighting not to blush at his chosen topic.  “The pleasures of the flesh are a sin outside the bounds of holy matrimony.  But within it….. within it they are one of God’s most wondrous gifts, to be enjoyed, to be honored and to be shared.”
Lou put a hand to her mouth to stifle a giggle that was threatening to burst out as she watched her son writhe in mortification in the pew in front of her.  Kid looked down at her questioningly and she jerked her chin in Jamie’s direction.  Kid smiled ruefully and shook his head.  But his smile softened as he continued to listen to the preacher while gazing down at his wife, more beautiful than ever.  He reached out with one hand and captured her fingers in a gentle grasp, pulling her closer to his side in the process.  He began to softly run his fingertips along the back of her hand, then trace the lines of her palm in adoration.  Lou sighed and forgot all about her son’s discomfort as she began to try to control her own reactions to her husband’s attentions in the middle of church services.
Julia pushed through the crowd of chattering townsfolk standing around outside the front steps of the small church.  For many of the farming families this was their only chance to see friends during the week.  Several were already headed to an area behind the church to set up makeshift tables for a potluck meal. 
Sometimes the Crosses and McClouds would stay, but that wasn’t the plan today.  Every other week the two families would go back to the Ranch.  They’d developed a routine for those weeks.  On one the two families would spend the day together in a tradition that harkened back to when they’d first bought the place and everyone had lived in the Big House together.  The other week, each family would go its own way for the day.  That’s what this week was supposed to be.  But she wanted to invite the McClouds to join the Crosses anyway, since it was her first Sunday dinner back from university.  Of course, it was really the presence of just one McCloud she was particularly concerned about.
And there he was, surrounded by not only her brothers and his, as well as their friends from school, but also a bevy of the town’s young beauties.  Julia slowed to a stop to watch as a particularly pretty little blonde clutched at Jamie’s arm and laughed up into his face at something he said.
“If you watch long enough, you’ll notice he’s doing his best to completely ignore her.”
“Hmm?” Julia asked, jerked out of her thoughts by Lou’s voice.  “What are you talking about, Aunt Lou?”
“Miss Arabella Hodgins has been after Jamie for the last three years.  She’ll hang on him at the least chance, but he’s never done more than give her a ‘Howdy’ and a smile,” Lou said, patting Julia gently on the arm.  “She’s no competition.  His eyes never light up when she’s around the way they do at the mere mention of your name.”
Julia blushed and ducked her chin to hide the sudden blast of pleasure that had her heart tripping over itself.  “I hope you’re right.”
“I know I am,” Lou laughed lightly.
“Um,” Julia turned away from the tableau in front of her and looked over at her aunt.  “I was looking for you or Uncle Kid anyway.   I wanted to invite you to join us for Sunday dinner, to celebrate my return.”
Lou’s smile widened at the very formal tone of Julia’s invitation.
“I believe your mother mentioned something about that this morning,” Lou said.  “Don’t worry, we’ll all be there.”
Jamie couldn’t help wondering what his mother and Julia were talking about that had Julia blushing such a bright red.  The group around him burst into laughter at something Harry had said and he laughed along with them, even though he had no idea why they were laughing, just so no one would notice his distraction.
“Time ta go, boys,” Kid called as he walked past the group toward where the horses and buckboard were hitched.
Without looking twice at Arabella Hodgins, who Jamie found more annoying than anything, he slipped his arm free of her grasp, trying to hide his sigh of relief, and turned to follow his Pa.
“Come on,” he grumbled, grabbing a reluctant Jed’s arm and pulling him along forcefully.  “There’ll be plenty of time ta chat up yer gal this evenin’.”
Jed laughed as he jerked himself free.  “Just ‘cause yer eager ta get close ta yer lady love doesn’t mean ya gotta jerk me away from mine!  Let a fella flirt a bit, why don’t ya!”
Jamie ignored his brother as a lifetime’s worth of experience had taught him was the only way to deal with annoying younger siblings who saw too much and weren’t afraid to tell the world what they’d seen.
“So, what’re we plottin’?” Harry panted as he jogged up to join the others. 
“How ta help my brother win yer sister by continuein’ ta ignore her,” Jed joked.
Jamie tuned the duo out as they continued their comedic shenanigans.  Little did they know he did have plans.  After Sunday dinner he was thinking about going over to the Big House and seeing if she’d like to go for a ride with him.  It had been a long time since they’d gong riding together.
“Boys, when you’ve done puttin’ the stock up, come help me get the dishes ready ta take over ta the Big House,” Lou called as she dismounted in the ranch yard by the larger of the two barns and handed her mount’s reins over to Kid.
“I thought this was our ‘at home’ week,” Jamie said, confused.
“It is,” Kid answered him.  “But we’re having a special welcome home dinner for Julia.”
“Oh,” was Jamie’s brilliant response to that knowledge.  Suddenly he felt a new urgency to get the tack off the horses and put away and get the horses rubbed down and set loose in the corrals.
Rushing through the work he normally did with such exceeding care, he failed to notice his father’s and brothers’ grins and shared, knowing looks.  He was too caught up in his own plans and wondering what Julia was thinking about his unexpected addition to the dinner party.
Soon, he was wiping his hands clean on a piece of toweling cloth Lou kept hanging by the barn door. 
“I’m done, Pa,” he called over his shoulder.  “I’ll just go help Ma get ready.”   And he was headed toward the house, moving at a rapid, half trot.
“Here,” Lou said when he came through the kitchen door, trying to pretend she hadn’t been watching him for the last several minutes.  “Why don’t you take this on over.”  She handed him a covered dish that smelled suspiciously like her chicken stew everyone loved.  “I’ll bring the pies.  Yer Pa and brothers can get the rest.”
Jamie nodded, taking the pot from her, and turned back around and headed out the door again.  As he crossed the yard toward the Big House he argued with himself over how to ask Julia to go riding.  How should he phrase it so she’d get the point that he liked her but wasn’t pushing for more, not yet?  After their picnic at the church social on Friday he had hopes of something more, again, eventually.  But he still wasn’t sure.  She’d changed so much in the years she’d been gone. 
The sound of a wagon pulling up jerked him out of his thoughts and he turned to see who would be visiting, uninvited, on a Sunday afternoon. 
“Willy!” he cried, seeing his blond haired, blue eyed, flamboyant younger brother hauling back on the reins, pulling the prancing pair of matched palominos to a halt.  “We weren’t expecting you until next week!”
“Finished the last of my finals a day early,” Willy grunted, shoving the brake into place and wrapping the reins around it.  “That let me catch this week’s train ‘sted of next.”  Standing up, he clambered down off the conveyance and hustled over to give his older brother a bear hug.
“Watch the food, Willy!” Jamie laughed, pulling back to protect the pot of stew.  “It’s Ma’s chicken stew.  You spill that and yer a dead man!”
“Heaven forbid,” Willy shuddered dramatically.
A cleared throat interrupted the family reunion.  Jamie turned in the direction of the sound to see a tall, slender negro dressed finely in the latest fashions, from top had to frock coat and patent leather shoes.  He was climbing down from the other side of the wagon.  Setting both feet on the ground, he straightened his coat and stepped toward the pair of young men, holding out one hand. 
“Abraham Lincoln Johnson!” a familiar female voice called from the porch of the Big House.
Jamie turned, again, this time to watch as Julia came flying down the porch steps and flung herself into the newcomer’s arms , grinning for all she was worth.
He smiled and hugged her tightly to his chest.  “Well, it’s good to see you, too, darlin’.”

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Love's Reasoning

Summary:  Why do we love the ones we love?  Is there a reason behind the choice?  Or does love choose for us?
Author's Note: This is a sequel to A Promise Kept, in the Post Script series of stories.
Lou sighed with weariness as she trudged quietly into the dark house.  It had been a long night patrolling the unusually unruly streets of the growing town of Rock Creek.  Ever since the war the small village had been steadily growing, and with rumors of the railroad building a spur through town, on its way from Lincoln down toward Wichita in Kansas, more and more folks were moving in every day.  Not all of them were as law-abiding as she’d like.
Peeling off her coat and toeing off her boots, she silently padded across the kitchen into the living room and sank into the welcoming embrace of the rocking chair Kid had built for her with his own hands all those years ago, when they’d just learned little Jamie was on his way.
She snorted slightly at the thought.  ‘Little’ Jamie wasn’t quite so little anymore.  He was a grown man himself, taller than Kid and getting ready to take over their interest in the ranch.  Maybe it was time for her to retire, too?  Let someone younger, more energetic take over for her as the U.S. Marshal.  Nights like tonight were becoming a little too exhausting, emotionally, not just physically.
She shook her head, leaning back against the smoothly polished headrest of the chair, thinking about the young man she’d left in one of her cells, sleeping off a night of too much liquor and too little common sense. He’d reminded her so much of Jimmy when they’d first met, all those years ago, so full of anger he was nothing but piss and vinegar.  But, underneath, she could sense the pain and hurt that lurked in his heart.  She hoped when she went back into town later today she could maybe talk some sense into him, do for him what she’d never been fully able to do for Jimmy.  No one had.
With a slight nudge of one foot, she pushed the rocker into motion, lost in her thoughts as she considered what might work.  But something blocked it’s generally smooth back and forth sway.
“Wha?” she mumbled, looking down to see what was in the way.  “I’m gonna have ta talk ta that girl,” she muttered, reaching down to pick up the memory book full of family pictures her youngest, Mary Margaret, had apparently left in the corner of the room where she liked to curl up and read in the evenings.
Mary Margaret had been fascinated with the photos and the stories Lou’d told her about their Express Family last week and had taken to looking at the picture book every night before bed, talking to the boys in the pictures as if they were her best friends.
 Lou shook her head, smiling slightly.  They probably would have been, if they’d lived long enough or just plain stuck around.  They’d have loved Lou’s sprightly, opinionated, smart little girl and would have spoiled her worse than she already was.
Setting the album on her lap, Lou tucked her feet up under her in the chair and flipped the book open to a random page.  It was a picture that British photographer had taken of Jimmy, Cody and Noah.  Lou couldn’t even remember why he’d been in town anymore.  She just remembered the excitement they’d all felt about getting their images preserved for all time.
With one finger, she reached out and softly, slowly traced the lines of those beloved faces.  Unnoticed tears slipped down her cheek as she thought about all the loved ones she’d lost over the years.  Of all those deaths, and departures she mentally added looking at Cody’s twinkling gaze, Jimmy’s had hurt the most.  
She’d always harbored the hope that someday he’d come to his senses, find a good woman, preferably his Thatch he’d spent so many years searching for, and come back to join them at the ranch and settle down.  He’d come and stayed with them a few times, sticking around for several months once.  But someone seeking to make a name off his reputation always seemed to find him and then he’d disappear again. He’d eventually found his Thatch, they’d even married.  But they’d only had a few months before that glory seeker had caught up with Jimmy one last time.  He’d never had the chance to bring her home to meet the family.
“How come you didn’t marry him?”
Lou jerked in surprise as a large, warm hand came to rest gently on her shoulder.  Looking up, she saw her eldest son, Jamie, looking down at her, a cup of coffee cradled in his other hand.  She hadn’t realized how late, or rather early, it was when she’d come in.  Jamie was already up, getting ready to start morning chores.   The other boys would be following soon.
“What are you talkin’ about?” she asked, hastily wiping away the tears she could now feel laying wet and cold on her cheeks.
Jamie squatted down beside her and set his coffee on the floor.  He reached out and took the photo album from her and looked at it in complete silence for a long moment, considering.  Lou resisted the urge to reach out and push a stray lock of hair off his forehead.  He reminded her so much of his father sometimes it was nearly unbearable.
“I remember when Uncle Jimmy used to come visit,” he finally said, choosing his words carefully.  “You would always light up like it was Christmas mornin’.  Even then, I could tell there was somethin’ special ‘tween you two.  But it wasn’t ‘til last week, when you was tellin’ little M and M all them stories ‘bout the Express I realized you loved him.”
He turned his head slowly toward her, looking her straight in the eye as he asked, “So how come ya didn’t marry him, ‘sted of Pa?”
“I love your Pa,” Lou started to respond defensively.
“I know ya do,” Jamie said, putting a reassuring hand over hers on the rocker’s curved arm.  “That ain’ t never been in question.  Anyone lookin’ at ya can tell ya love each other ta distraction.  But it ain’t the same.  Not like I remember you bein’ when Uncle Jimmy was around.”
Lou opened her mouth to answer, but Jamie waved his hand, indicating he wasn’t done yet.
“It wasn’t just that you looked so happy and relieved ta see him, Pa would look that way, too,” Jamie continued, thinking as he spoke.  “There was an…. energy between ya.  It was like ya fed off o’ each other.  Almost like… like you were two parts of a whole bein’.”
Reaching out, Lou gestured for Jamie to give her the album back.  She slowly flipped through the pictures, flipping through her memories as she thought about those days.  She’d never really considered marrying Jimmy, despite that one intensely passionate kiss they’d shared on the trail.  But, Jamie had a good question.  Why not?
“I guess….” she started to say, then stopped, thinking some more for a moment.  “I guess that’s precisely why.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We were like two peas in a pod.  We both had a thirst for adventure, hearts desperate to be loved but afraid ta… ta open up ta someone ‘cause of what had happened ta us, startin’ with our own fathers.” 
Lou paused, shaking her head.  “I don’t think ya can ever understand just how messed up somethin’ like that can make ya.  Ye’ve been too lucky.  Ya grew up in a lovin’ family, ready and able ta do anythin’ ta keep ya safe.  Jimmy and me?  We had ta keep ourselves safe, from the time we was Mary Margaret’s age.  Needless ta say….” she paused to swallow the lump that tried to keep her from speaking, “we didn’t always succeed.”
“That still don’t make sense, Ma,” Jamie huffed.  “If ya had so much in common, how come…”
“Let me finish, child,” Lou smiled.  There was just a touch of her in him.  One he rarely allowed to show, but it was there none the less, apparent in his impatience.  “Imagine if ya will, two injured birds tryin’ ta help each other.   They ain’t gonna get very far, now are they?”
Jamie shook his head, mutely.
“Well, see, that was me and yer Uncle Jimmy.  Oh, maybe if yer Pa hadn’ta been around, we mighta given it a try still, but yer Pa was and he offered me a kind of quiet, healing love and strength I needed more’n anythin’ else in this world.  Jimmy was excitin’, but yer Pa… he was…. well, I guess he was home.  Yer Grandpa Teaspoon said it best that first day we all met. Yer Pa wasn’t quite as messed up as the rest of us.  Oh, he had his problems,” she laughed.  “But they weren’t nearly the same.”
“So that’s it?” Jamie asked seriously.  “Pa was just… the safer choice fer ya?”
“Oh, no, that’s not it at all.  That’s just a small part,” Lou smiled fondly.  “There may’ve been an… energy… ‘tween yer Uncle Jimmy and me, but that was nothin’ compared ta the fire burnin’ ‘tween yer Pa and me.  Like ta burned both o’ us ta a crisp at one point.  Lord, we made so many mistakes,” she paused, shaking her head in wonder that they’d ever moved beyond their adolescent foolishness. 
“But, the thing is, yer Uncle Jimmy and me, we was too much alike, like I said.  With him, I could do anythin’ I wanted, without anyone even remindin’ me there was such a thing as common sense. Yer Pa, he didn’t always do it in the most…. politic of manners, but he was my life preserver.  He was always there when I needed him, carin’ ‘bout me, worry’n over me.   I can’t tell ya the number of times he saved me, from myself and others.  It was the surest proof of love anyone coulda given me, after what all I’d been through.  Jimmy was a bit too busy needin’ savin’ himself most days ta even see it.  Oh, I fought it, but I craved it all the same.”
“Yer Pa and me?  We was… different.  But that’s good.  I was impatient.  He spent too much time thinkin’ things over.  I was adventurous, stupidly so at times.  He was more laid back, cautious.  I was stubborn.  So was he.  It took a lot of work, but we eventually figured out how ta make that work for us.  Together we’re stronger than either one of us is alone.”
Lou laughed lightly and turned to look at her son, closing the book firmly.  “Not that I thought any of that through, back then.  Like I said, there was a fire burnin’ ‘tween us that nearly burned out o’ control.  It was all I could do ta handle that.  The rest, well, I guess the love ‘tween us just figured it out fer us.  Fortune favors the foolish, so they say.”
Standing up, Lou moved toward the shelf and carefully put the book back in its place.  Caressing the spine, she said softly, “I never once even considered marryin’ anyone but yer Pa, Jamie.  Oh, yer right, I loved Jimmy.  But… not like that.  It would never’ve worked ‘tween us.  We just didn’t… fit, not in a way that would ever have lasted.  There was a time when yer Pa and I thought things were over, went our separate ways.   We eventually found our way back ta each other, but until we did, I always felt like there was a piece of me missin’.”
“So, Pa’s like yer other half?” Jamie asked curiously.
Lou nodded.  “A marriage is like a partnership, Jamie.  Ya gotta be able ta work together.  It helps, a lot, if ya can be strong where yer partner’s weak, and vice versa.”  Turning toward the kitchen, she added, “And right now I’m a little weak on the sleep side.”  She smiled, yawning.  “I’m gonna turn in.”
“Night, Ma,” Jamie said quietly, leaning forward to kiss her on the cheek as she walked passed  him, out of the room. 
Lou smiled gently as she trudged slowly up the stairs to the room she’d shared with Kid since the day they’d moved into their snug little home.  She’d been pretty sure her boy had his eye on a particular young lady, one scheduled to come home from school soon.  His questions tonight, this morning, had told her she was right.  She just hoped she’d given him the answers he was looking for.
The door squealed as she pushed it open and she frowned slightly.  She’d have to see about oiling the hinges in the morning.  She didn’t want to wake Kid when she came in from work.  He got up early enough as it was.   She frowned.  Actually, he should be up already.  She was surprised she hadn’t seen him--
A hitched in breath stopped her in mid-thought and she looked over at the bed.  Kid sat on the edge of the thick feather mattress, hunched in over himself, in the early morning dark.
“Kid,” she asked, moving quickly to his side.  “Are you alright?”
He raised his head to meet her eyes and she gasped as the first pre-dawn rays of sunlight peeking through their window glinted off the tears streaming down his face.
“What’s wrong?!”  She rushed to him, reaching out with both arms.  He wrapped her in his embrace, burying his face in the rough material of her workshirt, turning his face in one direction, then the other, drying the tears in the scratchy fabric over her stomach.  “Kid?” she asked again, starting to get seriously worried.
“I… I always thought, deep down inside, that you married me ‘cause he wasn’t the marryin’ kind,” Kid finally muttered into her shirt.  “I figured I was the second choice, the… safe choice.  But I loved ya so much I was willin’ ta accept that if it meant I got ta spend my life with you.”
“Oh, darlin’,” Lou groaned, sinking to her knees and putting both hands on his cheeks, holding his face forcefully in place so he had no choice but to look at her.  “I wish ya’d’ve said somethin’.” 
She leaned forward and began to press her lips to his in quick, fluttery kisses of remorse and apology.  Still speaking against his lips and chin, she added, “When I said, ‘til death do us part, I meant it.  I knew there was nothin’ on this earth I wanted ta part us, then or now.”
Jamie paused at the top of the stairs, on his way to his brothers’ room to sound the wake-up call for morning chores.  He shook his head, smiling, as he heard the sounds coming from their parents’ room.  It didn’t look like his Pa would be making it down in time to help this morning after all.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Promise Kept

Summary:  A child's questions help Lou keep a promise to lost family.
Author's Note:  This story falls in the Fighting For Love, Post Script series of stories, coming some two decades after the Civil War.  It was originally written for the A Few Good Lines challenge at The Writers Ranch.
“Ma? You still home?”
Louise turned from the laundry she was folding to look at her eldest son, Jamie, sticking his head through the kitchen door calling for her.
“I’m right here, son,” she said, worried by the anxious tone in his voice.  “What is it?”
“You’d better come,” he answered, relief in his face.  “Mary Margaret’s upset ‘bout somethin’ and she won’t talk ta none of us.”
Lou quickly set the sheet in her hands back down on the table and headed straight for the door.  Soon, she was following her son down the porch steps and across the yard to the barn.  Standing in the entrance, he pointed silently up to the hayloft.  Lou could hear a quiet sobbing drifting down with the stray bits of straw dislodged by the little girl’s movements.
“Thanks,” she said, putting a hand on Jamie’s shoulder.  “Yer a good boy.  I think yer Pa left some cookies fer ya on the kitchen.  Why don’t you get yer brothers and go have one each.  One!” she held up a single finger in warning.
The teen nodded, smiling, and turned to go.  Lou sighed.  Mary Margaret was her youngest and most volatile child, and the only girl.  Born several years after the three boys, who had come one right after the other, she was often spoiled by her Pa and brothers, in Lou’s opinion at least.  But normally, she was a very cheerful child.  Although she had a fiercesome temper, easily aroused, she was quick to get over her anger and begin smiling again.  But it was rare for her to cry over anything.  Lou wondered what had happened.
Hitching up her skirts, she wished she’d already dressed for work in her trousers and vest.  Climbing up into the loft would be so much easier!  Shaking her head at her own foolishness, knowing it was just a mental delaying tactic for dealing with her little girl, Louise stepped onto the first rung of the ladder and quickly clambered up it.
Peering over the floor of the hayloft, she saw Mary Margaret tucked into a mound of hay in the far corner, curled into a ball, crying.  Lou smiled gently, wondering what earth shattering crisis had precipitated this meltdown.
She finished crawling into the loft herself and moved over to her daughter’s side.  Reaching out a hand to rest it on the girl’s shoulder, she simply sat there, waiting for Mary Margaret to have the first say.
“Why do people have ta be so mean?” she finally whimpered.
“What are you talkin’ ‘bout, honey?”
“The girls at school,” Mary Margaret explained, sitting up and wiping her reddened eyes dry on the sleeve of her dress.
Lou nodded slowly.  Yes, she had personal experience with just how mean and nasty girls, little and big, could be to someone who didn’t fit in.  And, needless to say, no one in this family would ever, quite, fit in.  No matter how hard they tried.
“What happened?” she asked.
“We were talkin’ ‘bout families,” the little girl sniffed.  “We’re supposed ta do a family tree for History class.  Find out what family members were alive during what historical events, stuff like that.  And they started teasin’ me, said I didn’t have any family.  That I was a… a…. orphan!”
“You know very well that isn’t true,” Lou smiled, slightly exasperated.  She reached out and pulled the girl into her arms for a hug.  “What have I told you about letting lies get under your skin.  It ain’t worth the trouble.”
“But, Ma,” Mary Margaret wailed.  “They said all of us are ‘orphans’.  ‘Cause we’re Express babies.  I don’t even know what they meant!  But then they went on ta tell the teacher I wouldn’t be able ta do the assignment, ‘cause I didn’t have no family tree.  They said I’d faaaaaiiiiilllllll!”
“Now hold on there,” Lou said with a warning tone, hoping to hold off another crying jag.  “That ain’t true, either.  You do have a family tree.  It’s just a bit unusual.  But it’s got lots of history in it, so I doubt you’ll fail the assignment, seein’ as how the idea is ta learn ‘bout history anyway.”
“Ya think?”
“I know,” Louise smiled, chucking the little girl under the chin.  “Come on inside,” she added, standing up and holding her hand out to her daughter.  “I’ve got somethin’ ta show ya and lots of stories ta tell.  I bet yer Pa has a few too, and I know yer Uncle Buck could add to them.”
Lou walked through the kitchen door and laughed to see her three teenaged sons sitting around the table, stuffing their mouths with cookies and tossing down large glasses of milk.
“I thought I told ya one cookie each?” she said with a warning note in her voice.
“Sorry, Ma,” Willie, the youngest boy, said placatingly.  “We were just soooo hungry after that long walk home from school.”
Never letting go of Mary Margaret’s hand, she used her other hand to ruffle the boy’s hair.
“Well, put the rest away now,” she said.  “Then why don’t you come join us in the parlor.  I’ve got something to show you.  All of you.”
The three boys scrambled to do as they’d been told and soon trailed after their mother and sister.  They watched curiously as she stepped up to the large bookcase their Pa had built her next to the fireplace.  Letting go of their sister’s hand, she reached up and took down three pictures from the top shelf.  Then, she reached out and grabbed a picture album.  It was brand new, a Christmas gift the year before from Pa.
She settled down on the rag rug, another gift, this one from Rachel, in front of the fireplace and patted the floor next to her.  It was a familiar signal to gather on the rug and settle in for a story.  Story time had been a favored family tradition in the McCloud household for as long as any of the children could remember.
Once they were seated around her, Lou began to speak.
“Y’all know yer Pa and I, and yer Uncle Buck, used ta ride fer the Pony Express,” she said.  “We rode fer two different stations, the second one right here in Rock Creek.  Folks in these parts have long memories.  One of the things the Express preferred was ta hire orphans.  And that’s what all of us were, more or less.”
The children all nodded.  They’d all heard this plenty of times.  They loved to hear stories about their parents adventures with the Express.
“Thing is, a family ain’t just ‘bout blood.  And, while we didn’t have no blood parents, that ain’t ta say we didn’t have any parents a’tall.”
“But, if yer Ma and Pa were dead, how could ya have parents?” Mary Margaret asked.
“Hush,” hissed Jed, the middle boy.  “She’s gettin’ to it!”
Lou glared at Jed over the tip of her nose and he winced before looking an apology at his little sister.
“Anyway,” Lou said, clearing her throat.  “Like I said, just ‘cause our parents was dead didn’t ‘xactly mean we was orphans.  One of the first things I ever remember yer Gramma Emma sayin’, was we wasn’t orphans as long as she was around.  And it was true.  She was like a Ma ta all of us.  Eventually, yer Grandpa Teaspoon started actin’ like our Pa, even though he didn’t want to.  And later, when Rachel joined us, she was like a big sister.  The rest of us, well, we were tight as brothers can be.  Remember, I was livin’ like a boy then.”
Lou paused to look down at Mary Margaret who was tugging at the sleeve of her dress.
“Who’s Grandpa Teaspoon?” she asked.  The children had all met Gramma Emma several times, when she and Grandpa Sam came to visit with their children, or when they all went to Omaha to visit them.  But Teaspoon was a new name for the little girl.  Lou laughed.
“Teaspoon?  Well, Teaspoon Hunter was our boss.  He was the stationmaster in charge of us.  He was also the Marshal after Grandpa Sam married yer Gramma Emma and ran off with her ta be the Territorial Marshal.  I swear, if we hadn’t all objected and insisted on a proper weddin’, he’d a run off with her in the middle of the night!”
They all laughed, each with their own memories of just how in love their nominal grandparents were.
“And Mary Margaret, you can put this in yer assignment,” Lou advised.  “Yer Grandpa Teaspoon was a survivor of the Alamo.  He and a few others rode fer help before Santa Ana’s army surrounded the mission.  Unfortunately, help didn’t make it back in time.  That always pained him.”
“Really?  You mean he knew Davie Crockett and Jim Bowie?  Personal?” Willie exclaimed.
Lou nodded.  “After that, he went on ta become a famous gunfighter, though they didn’t call them that back then, and later a Texas Ranger.  He did lots of things.”  The light faded from Lou’s eyes for a moment.  “Unfortunately, he got sick and died of the consumption when I was carryin’ you, Jamie.  He never got the chance ta meet any of ya.  But he’d’ve been mighty proud of what fine young men, and lady,” she paused to smile down at Mary Margaret, “y’all have become.”
“Is he in them pictures?” Jed asked, pointing to the framed photographs Louise had taken down off the shelf.
She nodded her head.  Holding out the first of the frames, she pointed to an older man with grey hair and a rough, unshaven chin.  He had a black hat on, a grey shirt with suspenders to hold up his pants, and a gunbelt slung low over his hips.  He stood at the back of a group of young men, some of whom they recognized, others they didn’t.  A pretty, lighthaired woman sat on a stool next to him.
“Is that Auntie Rachel?” Mary Margaret asked.
Lou nodded.  Pointing to the young man seated on the porch steps in front of Teaspoon, she added, “And that’s me.”
“Who’s that?”  Jamie asked, pointing to the tall black man standing at the edge of the group, a coiled whip attached to his hip.
Lou smiled sadly as she traced his form with one finger.
“That’s yer Uncle Noah,” she said softly.  “He wasn’t with us from the first, but he was just as much a member of our family as anyone else.”
“How can he be my uncle?” Mary Margaret asked curiously.  “He’s colored.”
“Awww, don’t be stupid,” Willie snorted.  “Uncle Buck’s indian and he’s still our uncle.  Why couldn’t we have a colored uncle, too?”
“Willie, while I agree with the sentiment, that wasn’t a very nice way to speak to someone,” Lou cautioned.  “And here’s somethin’ else ya can put in yer project Mary Margaret,” she added.  “Yer Uncle Noah?  He helped with the Underground Railroad.  Do you remember what that was?”
The little girl nodded.  “It was how they helped slaves ‘scape ta Freedom.”
Lou nodded.  “See, yer Uncle Noah, he was born free.  But he felt a powerful obligation ta help others who hadn’t been as lucky.  He and his Aunt Sally both helped with the Underground Railroad when they could.  They even helped with one of the Freedom Trains that took freed and escaped slaves back to Africa and eventually founded the country of Liberia.  But you know what yer Uncle Noah’s favoritest thing in the whole world ta do was?”
She looked around the circle of her children, holding them in suspense a moment, before saying, “He loved ta buy slaves at auction, right out from under the slaveowners, then set them free then and there.  Thought it was a hoot!”
“Wasn’t that dangerous?” Jamie questioned.
Lou nodded, the smile slipping off her face.  “Unfortunately, yes.  Noah lived a very dangerous life.  Always said he was born ta hang.”
“Did he?” Jed asked.
Lou shook her head.  “No.  He was killed in one of the first battles of the Civil War.  He wasn’t even in the Army.  They wouldn’t take him ‘cause he was colored.  The colored units didn’t come until a couple years later.  Oh, he would’ve loved ta have been able ta join up then!  But he was killed tryin’ ta help a woman escape the battle.”
“Wow, I never knew there was so much history in our family, Ma,” Mary Margaret said.
“And that ain’t all, is it Ma?” Jamie said, smiling.
Louise shook her head.
“After all, Uncle Bill is famous even today,” Willie said proudly.  “He’s who I’m named after and someday I’m gonna go ride in his Wild West Show.  I’ll be a better shot than he ever was.  Better even than Annie Oakley.”
Lou laughed at her exuberant youngest son who reminded her of Cody more and more as he grew up.
“That’s true,” she said.  “But there are other parts of history that aren’t quite as famous, but perhaps just as important ta remember.”
“Like what?” Mary Margaret asked, rapidly scribbling down notes on all she was hearing.
Louise pointed to the man standing between Uncle Buck and Noah.  “You can’t see it here very well, but if you look at this other picture, it’s more obvious.”  She pulled out the second picture and pointed the man out to the children.  They gathered close to look.
“Why, that man has no hair, Ma,” Mary Margaret exclaimed excitedly.
“What happened to him?” Jed asked.
“Yeah, did he get scalped or somethin’?” Willie piped in.
“Oh, please,” Jamie scoffed, rolling his eyes.
A catch in her voice, Lou explained.  “He lost his hair, and his voice, to scarlet fever when he was very young.  Younger even than you, Mary Margaret.”
“What’s his name?”
“Ike McSwain,” she said softly.  “He was the gentlest of all of us, always ready to love, animals and people, and perhaps the most easily hurt because of it.”
“How come you never talk about him?” Willie said.  “Or Noah?”
“Well, see, your Uncle Buck has some different beliefs, you know that, right?”
The children nodded.  They understood a lot more about their Uncle Buck’s religious beliefs than even their parents, having been raised with them along with the Cross children on the Ranch.
“See, he doesn’t like ta talk about those what’ve already passed, especially by name,” Louise explained.  “Believes it disturbs their spirits and might bring on bad luck.  And…” she paused as she looked back down at Ike’s faded face delineated in sepia tone, “well, Ike and Buck were like brothers even before they met the rest of us.  So, we’ve respected his wishes.”
“How’d he die?” Jed, the most sensitive of her three boys asked quietly.
“He’d fallen in love and died protecting her,” Louise said quietly, a tear rolling down her cheek as she remembered that awful day.  “It was even worse than Noah’s dyin’.  We all expected Noah would get killed sooner or later anyway.  He had an awful chip on his shoulder.  But Ike?  That was a big shock.  Especially when things finally seemed to be goin’ so right for him.”
Uncomfortable with their mother’s obvious grief, the boys glanced at each other, wondering how to snap her out of it.  Finally, Jamie leaned over, putting on arm around his mother’s shoulders and pointed to a young man in a black hat, tan coat, black gloves and trousers, sitting in front of their Ma.
“That’s Uncle Jimmy, right?  I remember him.”
Lou nodded, turning her head to look up at her eldest son.  He looked so much like Kid when they’d first met sometimes it brought her to tears.  But he had none of Kid’s tendency to keep things to himself.  Oh, he was a thinker, like his Pa, but he didn’t over do it like Kid had.  Maybe that’s because he hadn’t had the tragedies in his young life that Kid had already suffered by this time, no drunk Pa, no beat up Ma who died when he was too young, no scrabbling to survive, no war.
“Yeah, that’s your Uncle Jimmy.  The world knew him as Wild Bill Hickok, but to us he was just Jimmy, our brother.”
“I’ve heard of him,” Mary Margaret said.  “He was a gunfighter and lawman and gambler and ladies’….. ladies’ man.  That’s what our teacher said.”
“I’d guess your teacher only knows what he’s read,” Lou said a touch sharply.  “And that ain’t even half truth.”
Handing the framed photographs to Jamie, Lou opened the album.  In it were news articles she’d clipped and saved over the years about Jimmy and Cody, even Jesse.  Sharing stories of the men she’d known as boys, she walked her fascinated children through their family tree, person by person, story by story, truth by truth.
That’s how Kid found them when he and Buck walked in from working with the horses, all huddled together around the pictures and album, asking questions and listening intently to Lou’s answers.
“What’s going on in here?” he asked, laughter in the notes of his voice.  “I expected ta find y’all already on yer way over ta the Cross house fer dinner.”
“Is it that late already?” Lou gasped.  Kid just nodded.  “I’m sorry.”  She closed the album and stood up to reverently return it to its place on the bookshelf.  “Children, go get washed up, then run on over ta Buck’s.”
A chorus of “Yes ma’am’s” and “Sure, Ma’s” sounded as the three teenaged boys and one little girl bounded out of the room.  Kid picked up the last forgotten picture frame and handed it to Lou.
“What were you doin’ in here, anyway?” he asked again, not letting go of the picture even after she’d taken it in hand.
Lou raised her eyes to meet Kid’s, then looked down at the picture of the entire Express family.  Gently tracing the faces of each of the lost members, she said in a faraway voice, “Just keepin’ a promise, Kid.  Keepin’ a promise, that’s all.”
Live Long, Taylor Swift

I had the time of my life fighting dragons with you
Promise me this,
That you’ll stand by me forever.
But if, God forbid, fate should step in,
And force us into a goodbye,
If you have children some day,
When they point to the pictures,
Please tell them my name.

Love's Reasoning