Welcome to Sweetwater (by Stardust)

Summary:  This is Young Riders/Bordertown crossover story. It takes Jack Craddock of Bordertown back to his younger days when he could have known the Young Riders.
Category: Crossover
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  13,500


Teaspoon Hunter leaned on the corral fence and watched the latest bunch of horses as they milled around learning the confines of their new home. A rider pulled up beside the Marshal. He had long white hair, dusty trail clothes and a weather-beaten hat. He looked tired thought Teaspoon. But still Frank Morris was one of the best horse buyers that he knew of. The man had been buying horses for the Pony Express for quite some time now, and they were always good ones. “There a fine lookin’ lot, ain’t they?” asked Morris.

“They sure are, Frank. Best I’ve seen in some time. Looks like they might make these boys earn their pay breakin’ ‘em in, too,” said Teaspoon as he watched several horses kicking and bucking. There was a nice-looking buckskin in the bunch and Teaspoon thought that maybe it was time he had a new horse.

Two young men rode up in a final cloud of dust herding the last of the horses into the corral. After seeing the gate securely shut they reined in my Teaspoon and Franklin. Always the lawman, Teaspoon took a second look at the two men, but found nothing unusual about them. They were a bit dirty as anyone would be coming off the trail, and looked to be about eighteen or twenty years old. He thought they were a lot like the pony express riders usually looked.

“Well, there’s your horses, old man. Now where’s our pay?” spoke the first rider. He was about twenty with dark, blond hair and bright blue eyes and seemed very sure of himself.

“You boys in a hurry, are you?” asked Teaspoon, not liking the man’s attitude. He wondered where Morris might have got these two. He knew the horse buyer usually hired some help to bring in a herd of this size but surely he could have found some fellas that didn’t look like such troublemakers as these did.

Blue eyes answered with a loud laugh. “We sure are. There’s a town awaitin’ just for us.”

The other rider sat calmly on his horse. He tipped back his hat from his dusty, sweaty face and crossed his hands on his saddlehorn as he waited. He looked to be about the same age as his companion only with dark brown hair and even darker brown eyes.

Frank Morris sighed and pulled a wallet out of his inside vest pocket and handed several bills to each man. The one with blue eyes let out a wild whoop causing both their horses to sidestep nervously. “Come on, Jack. Let’s go see if Sweetwater has them purtty gals we been hearin’ ‘bout.” Both men kicked their horses into a run and headed down the road for town.

Teaspoon stared after them for a long moment and finally spoke. “Where did you find them two, Frank?”

Hunter remembered that Teaspoon was not only the manager of the Sweetwater Pony Express way station but was also the Marshal of the small town. “Quit your belly-achin’, Teaspoon. You’re thinkin’ with that lawman’s brain you got again. They’re just a couple of drifters lookin’ to make an extra dollar to spend. I don’t think they are wanted for nothin’.”

“Well, Frank, you never can be sure and they sure look like trouble to me,” commented Teaspoon. “Think I’ll remember to keep an eye open for them. Sure as shootin’ they’ll wind up in one of my jail cells tonight.”

Still looking out across the plains Teaspoon spotted a distant movement. As he watched it grew into the shape of a horse and rider coming in at a hard run. He glanced toward the bunkhouse to see Buck Cross had led a horse from the barn and was checking his saddle one last time. “Rider up!” yelled Teaspoon to alert Buck who then bounded into the saddle. The Kid thundered into the yard and threw the mail pouch or machila as it was sometimes called in Buck’s direction. Buck caught in and dropped it across the front of his saddle and was gone in a swirl of dust.

*****

Standing in front of his office in the town of Sweetwater Teaspoon Hunter watched the two young drifters that Franklin had paid off the day before. So far they hadn’t done anything any other red-blooded, hard-ridin’, fun-lovin’ rider or cowhand wouldn’t do when they had a few dollars in their pocket and a chance to come to town and spend it. They had rented a room at the hotel, had a bath and a shave, a meal and a couple of drinks. Actually they had kept it a lot more low-keyed than the Marshal had expected.

The two young men had just stepped from the saloon across the street and were watching the town, also. Trying not to be noticed, Teaspoon observed the brown eyed one. Something about him seemed familiar, but the Marshal was sure he had never met the man before. Just a lot of men like him.

Memories flooded his mind. No. It couldn’t be. The man he was thinking of was much nearer his own age. —– His thoughts ran back about eighteen years to when he and a friend had competed for the attention of a very attractive girl who had lived on a near by farm. Both men had been scouting for the Army and were taking a well-deserved leave for a few days. Teaspoon remembered he had needed to remind his friend Lucas Craddock of his wife and baby back home several times when Lucas had seemed determined to win the affections of the farm girl. Not only had Teaspoon wanted the girl for himself, he hadn’t wanted her to be hurt by a man that was already married. Plus Lucas’ wife didn’t need her husband cheating on her. After several reminders Lucas had backed off and Teaspoon had spent quite a bit of time with Rosie. He hadn’t wanted to leave her, and when he did, he had promised her he would come back when the scouting job with the Army was over. He really had meant to go back. But had never made it. He wondered what had happened to Rosie. And to his friend Lucas. He had heard a rumor once that Lucas had been riding with a gang of outlaws. He had hoped that was all it was. Just a rumor. For sure the young man with the deep brown eyes looked like Lucas.

“A penny for your thoughts, Teaspoon.”

“Huh.” Teaspoons memories had been so strong he hadn’t even noticed when Jimmy Hickock had walked up beside him. “Oh, nothing much, Jimmy. Just wondering how the heck I ended up wearin’ this badge and lots of other men I’ve know’d ended up the way they did. On the other side of the law.”

“Yeah, it sure can make a man wonder, ‘specally ‘bout what the future might have in store for us,” said Jimmy.

Both men turned at the rumble of hooves and wheels coming into town. “Looks like the stage is on time,” said Teaspoon taking out his pocket watch and checking the time as the concord pulled up in front of the hotel. The door opened and a soldier stepped out, turning to help down a woman and a girl.

“Well, now, female visitors,” smiled Teaspoon as he and Jimmy walked toward the hotel. “Maybe we should just welcome them to Sweetwater, don’t you think?”

“Yeah,” said Jimmy, “I think we should. But that little girl’s a bit young even for me. She can’t be more than fourteen or fifteen.”

The two drifters had seen the woman and her girl and beat Jimmy and Teaspoon to the stage. “Afternoon, Ladies,” said the blue eyed one tipping his hat to them. “Be glad to help with your luggage.”

The older woman, equally as good looking as her companion was little-girl cute, even through several layers of trail dust and dirt, was quick to take up the young mans offer. “Why, thank you. My daughter and I would like to rent a room here and – yes, your offer would be appreciated, Mister – -,” she hesitated waiting for an introduction.

“Bowman,” said blue eyes. “Ty Bowman and this is by partner Jack Craddock.”

“Ma’am,” said Craddock, also tipping his hat, but looking at the girl. She was smallish with brown hair and dark blue eyes, her mouth was set in a grim line and she looked very upset. He wondered why she was so unhappy. He was sure she would be very pretty if she would just smile. But on second thought he wondered why he should even think of getting to know her better. He didn’t plan on being in Sweetwater but another day or so. Besides her ma probably wouldn’t approve of her daughter stepping out with a range rider like he was.

Both cowboys accepted the heavy trunks and bags that the stage driver handed down to them, then followed the women into the hotel, dropping everything in the lobby.

“Glad to be of help, Ma’am,” said Craddock as he grabbed Bowman’s arm and headed back out.

“Hey!” squeaked Ty.

“Come on. They ain’t our kind,” whispered Jack. “Just come on.”

“Thank you,” called the woman to the two men. She turned to register at the hotel desk but the girl watched them leave. She might be just a girl, in a strange town that she hadn’t wanted to move to, but at least the town seemed to have some good looking young men in it. Her mother had told her that Sweetwater was on the Pony Express Route. Maybe these two were Express riders. She had her heart set on being a rider someday herself. That is if they would let girls be Express riders.

Teaspoon and Jimmy had entered the hotel and overheard the desk clerk asking questions of the woman. “How long will you be staying Mrs. Trent?”

“I’m not sure. Until I find a place to live,” answered Mrs. Trent. “Also, can you direct me to the Marshal’s office?”

“Why, yes Ma’am. It’s just up the street, but – but if ‘in you want to talk to Marshal Hunter – he’s right behind you.”

The woman turned to stare at Teaspoon. Finally she greeted him. “Hello, Teaspoon. It’s been a long time,” she said softly.

Teaspoon stared back. Where were memories when you really needed them? Who was this woman? Gradually it came to him. It couldn’t be. It was. It was the girl he had just been thinking of – Rosie. “Rosie?” he asked hesitantly. “Rosie.” Eighteen years fell away and Teaspoon remembered the dark-haired, blue eyed, dusty completed girl he had courted, and then had left behind. Then she had been a quiet girl in a simple calico dress. The woman who now stood in front of him had on an expensive, very fashionable, tailor-made traveling suit and was ever inch a lady. Now she looked very sophisticated and calculating, if he was any judge of woman, and he thought he was. But it didn’t matter right now. It was good to see her. Forgetting himself he grabbed her and swung her around. “Rosie!” he shouted. “By God, it’s good to see you. But what are you doin’ here in Sweetwater?”

Laughing at the surprised Teaspoon as she adjusted her disheveled clothing after the boisterous greeting Rosie answered his question. “I’ve decided to come here to live.”

“Live here? In Sweetwater? Well – if that don’t beat all.” Teaspoon realized that Jimmy was standing beside him, wondering what was going on. “Oh, Rosie, this is Jimmy Hickock. He’s a friend, plus he works for me as a Pony Express Rider.” At his words Teaspoon noticed that Tessa jerked her head up and eyed Jimmy thoughtfully. But just as quickly she ducked her head again and pretended nothing had happened.

“Ma’am,” Jimmy greeted Teaspoon’s friend Rosie, and tipped his hat to her.

“Mister Hickock,” said Rose, acknowledging the introduction. Turning to the silent girl beside her, she said, “This is my daughter, Tessa. Tess, this is my old friend that I was telling you about, Teaspoon Hunter.”

“Hello”, mumbled the girl to Teaspoon. “Ma, can I go to my room now and change?” she asked.

Taking a good look at the girl Jimmy could see that she was upset. Figuring it was having to move to a new place, he decided to see if he could settle her down some. “You’ll like Sweetwater, Miss Trent. It’s a nice little town. But it’s got lots to do what with the hotel and eateries, stores, the railroad, and the sal…” Jimmy realized he had almost said saloons. What was he trying to do anyway, he wondered? Girls like Tessa didn’t go to saloons. “It’s usually fairly quiet and friendly around here,” he finished lamely.

Teaspoon saw his dilemma and came to his aide. “Well, we’ll leave you ladies to get settled,” said Teaspoon. “Can I escort you to dinner tonight, Rosie? You and Tessa.”

“Fairly quiet and friendly sounds nice,” said Rosie. “We’ve been living in a boom town. It was never quiet. And, yes, I’d be honored to have dinner with you, Teaspoon.”

“All right, I’ll pick up you and Tessa about seven o’clock then. Ladies.” He tipped his hat to them. “Come along, Jimmy. We got work to do.”

Jimmy grinned at his suddenly overly polite friend. He could since how excited Teaspoon was at seeing Rosie Trent again, even though he was trying hard not to show it. Jimmy couldn’t blame Teaspoon. Rosie was still a very beautiful woman, and Tessa was certainly cute, even if just a little girl.

*****

Teaspoon Hunter and Rosie Trent lingered over dinner catching up on old times. Tessa did show some interest in Teaspoon’s stories about the Pony Express and it’s riders but that was all.

“Tess loves horses and loves to ride them,” explained Rosie. “She had to leave her horses behind for now. They will be coming along with our other things in a couple of weeks. We decided to come ahead on the stage.”

“Where did you come from and what do you plan on doing here?” asked a very curious Teaspoon.

Rosie sighed and was silent a moment. “I married Dan Trent twelve years ago. He took me away from that dirt farm and taught me to be a real lady. Dan was a gambler, Teaspoon, and he gambled on me. Me, a half-breed dirt farmers kid with a kid of my own.” She hesitated a moment, opened her mouth as if to say something else, changed her mind and then continued with her story. “I did my best to live up to his expectations, and I guess I did, ’cause he never kicked us out. I guess we actually did love each other. At least in our own way. He was good to Tess, too. He treated her like she was his own daughter. Spoiled her good. Giving her them two fancy horses he won in a poker game once.” She smiled fondly at her daughter. Pausing to sip her coffee she said to Tess. “Why don’t you go on up to bed, honey, I know you’re tired.”

“But, Ma, I’m not tired, really. And it’s early yet,” protested Tessa.

“Evenin’, Teaspoon,” interrupted a man. They turned to see a tall, young man in a buckskin shirt with long, straight, blond hair. He grinned at Tessa and then asked the Marshal. “Aren’t you gonna introduce these lovely ladies to me, Teaspoon?”

“Hello, Cody,” said Teaspoon looking up at another of the Express riders. “This is Mrs. Rosie Trent and her daughter, Tessa. Ladies, this is another of the Pony Express riders that I was telling you about, Mr. William Cody.”

“I’m pleased to make your acquaintance Mrs. Trent – Miss Trent,” said a very polite Cody as he tipped his hat to them.

“Cody, I was telling Rosie and Tessa about the work you do carryin’ the mail.”

“Oh. Yes,” said Tessa, now smiling for the first time all evening, took in the gallant rider. “It sounds so very exciting. Maybe you could tell us more.”

“Tessa, how would you like to go for a walk with Cody. It would give me and your ma a chance to talk without boring you to death. That is if it’s all right with you, Rosie?” asked Teaspoon.

Tessa got up so suddenly she almost knocked her chair over. “Can I, Ma?”

“We won’t go far, Ma’am. I’ll take good care of her,” said Cody.

Rosie looked from Teaspoon to Cody to her daughter. “Well – I – I suppose so. If Teaspoon thinks its safe and you won’t be gone to long.”

Teaspoon reached over and patted Rosie’s arm. “Ain’t nothin’ gonna harm Tessa as long as she’s with Cody.”

“Miss Trent.” Cody offered his arm to the girl; she accepted it and they left the motel.

“Is she really safe with him?” demanded Rosie of Teaspoon. “She’s all that’s important to me, you know. She’s the only thing I have left.”

“With Cody? I guarantee it. Besides, I kinda thought you might want to talk without Tess around. Since you were suggesting she go back to her room.”

“Yes, it might be better. I was going to tell you why we came here and it is very upsetting to her.” Rosie raised her spoon and played at stirring her coffee. A waitress stopped at their table to refill their cups. They waited until she was gone.

“You were saying, Rosie?” prompted Teaspoon. He took a swallow of the fresh coffee.

“Like I said, Dan was a gambler. About five years ago he managed to buy a saloon in a place called Lone Pine, New Mexico. It’s a mining town. A boomtown. In the southwest corner of the territory. You know how boomtowns are. They just spring up overnight. Tent cities, with lots of miners, prospectors, gambles, rough men of all kinds. But Dan knew what he was doing, and we were doing fine there. The saloon was making a good living for us. Then last year Dan was killed in a gunfight that broke out on the streets one day. He wasn’t even involved. He was just walking down the street to the barbershop to get a haircut. He just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Rosie looked down at her plate and a tear leaked out of one corner of her eye. She used her napkin to wipe it away and whispered to herself. “I am not going to start crying again.”

“I’m sorry about your loss,” sympathized Teaspoon. “I can understand why you wanted to get away from where you had memories of your husband, and the horrible things that happened.”

“That’s part of it. And I decided Tessa should know about something besides life in a saloon.” Again Rosie opened her mouth as if to say more then changed her mind. Teaspoon was sure there was something that she couldn’t bring herself to tell him yet. After a moment she continued. “I sold the saloon when I heard of a small store for sale here in Sweetwater. It sounds like the perfect answer.”

“What store for sale?” asked Teaspoon thinking of Thomkin’s store where he did most of his trading.

“The Kordel store at the south end of town. I talked to Mr. Kordel this afternoon and I think we can come to an agreement. It even has living quarters in the back.”

“Well, it is a nice little store. It should be just right for you and Tessa.”

“Yes, I think it will be, and there seem to be young people here for Tess to meet. There weren’t many young folks her age in Lone Pine.”

“How old is she?” asked Teaspoon.

“She’s sixteen, almost seventeen.”

Surprised that she was that old Teaspoon continued. “Well, she sure looks younger.”

Rosie agreed. “And it’s been an advantage raising her in a saloon until now.”

“I’m sure Lou and Rachael and the boys would be glad to show her around and meet others here in town.”

“Lou and Rachael?” questioned Rosie.

“Er…Lou is one of my riders and Rachael cleans and cooks for the way station here. I’m sure we can find a horse for Tessa until hers get here. One for you, too, Rosie. Seems I remember you used to like to ride some.”

“I still do,” said Rosie. “I guess that’s where Tess gets it from, too. So did my ma. Guess it’s just that Indian blood in us.”

Cody and Tessa returned to the hotel. She was wide-eyed at what ever Cody had been telling her.

“That boy’s one heck of a story teller. No tellin’ what tall tales he’s got her believin’,” said Teaspoon.

“Oh, dear. She seems to live in a fantasy world of horses and books anyway.”

Standing as the two young people walked up, Teaspoon spoke to Tessa. “I hope you don’t believe everything Cody is telling you.”

“Mr. Cody’s stories are wonderful, Marshal Hunter. He was telling me about how he rescued a grizzly bear.”

Teaspoon laughed. “Yeah, we’re all been wondering about that one. He keeps swearing it really happened.”

“Honest, Teaspoon, it is the truth.”

Teaspoon and Cody saw Rosie and Tessa to their rooms and Cody promised to take Tessa riding the next day while Rosie met with the storeowner Kordel and the banker to buy the store.

*****

“Marshal Hunter, WHY can’t I ride for the Pony Express?” asked Tessa Trent as she and Teaspoon stood next to the corral watching Buck and Noah break and train the new horses. The quiet, solemn little girl of two weeks ago had changed into a lively, fun-loving tomboy.

“Now, Tess, we been through this before. The answers’ still NO,” said Teaspoon. They watched as Noah roped a bay horse and helped Buck get a saddle and bridle on it.

“But you let Lou, and she’s a girl. And she’s not much older than me.”

Teaspoon looked sharply at Tessa. “What makes you think that Lou’s a girl?”

“It wasn’t hard to figure out. ‘Side I’m not quite as innocent as my Ma likes to think I am.” She yelled encouragement to Buck as he got on the bay horse and laughed as it tried it’s darnest to throw him. It bucked, kicked, crowhopped, whirled in circles and even tried to bite him, but he rode it to a standstill. It stood spraddle-legged, breathing hard, and flanks heaving as Buck dismounted and unsaddled. But as he turned away from it there was one more flash of a hind leg as the gelding attempted to kick him. Buck avoided it, but smiled at the display of spirit still left in the horse.

Teaspoon had found the fact of Tessa’s statement that she wasn’t as innocent as Rosie seemed to think only to true. He should have realized Tess knew about Lou being a girl. He was the one who had taken the longest to realize it after he had let Lou become a rider for the Express. The two girls had become fast friends. Now Tessa had friends here in Sweetwater and Lou, who dressed and cut her hair like a boy so that she could ride had a new friend who didn’t work for the Express. He knew it was good for both of them.

“Why can’t I?” asked Tessa again. “Why can’t I be an Express rider?”

Teaspoon patiently explained the rules to her again. “Because it can be so dangerous, Russell, Major’s and Waddell prefer to hire riders that don’t got no family. Boys that are orphans. Now you still got your ma and you’re still underage. ‘Sides your ma would skin me alive if I let you and Major’s and Waddell would fire me.”

“But you said you needed some more riders.”

“Yeah, I did, and I do, but it sure won’t be you, Tessa. I don’t want to take a chance on such a cute, little thing as you getting’ hurt.” Teaspoon knew he had become very fond of the girl, even if she was a persistent little cuss. There was just something about her. She was special. He knew she was. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but it was there. Maybe it was just because she was Rosie’s daughter and Rosie had been so special to him once.

Tessa and the Marshal both looked up at the sound of hoofbeats as two men rode into the yard of the way station and up to the corral. Teaspoon recognized the two drifters who had helped Frank Morris drive in this bunch of horses and frowned. Now what did they want.

“Afternoon, Marshal Hunter,” greeted the one named Bowman.

“Miss Trent,” said Craddock.

“Can I do something for you boys?” asked Teaspoon.

For once it was Craddock who spoke first. Before it had seemed like he let Bowman do all the talking and just followed his lead. “We been lookin’ for a job, Marshal, but ain’t found much. We heard you might be hirin’ riders for the Pony Express.”

“Yeah, I could use some riders but I’m kind a choosey ‘bout who I pick. The company has a rule against hirin’ riders who have family, since it’s a real dangerous job. Either of you married, or got parents, or family?” Teaspoon was hoping this would give him an excuse not to hire these two. They seemed too much like hooligan troublemakers to him, but then again a lot of the time it took that kind to be good riders. He thought about all the trouble he had from to time to time with Jimmy, Cody, Buck, Lou, Noah, the Kid, and even Rachael.

Both men looked at each other and shook their heads. “Nope,” said Bowman. “Ain’t got no one cares ‘bout me. Do you, Jack?” He knew his friend didn’t but figured the lawman needed to hear it for himself.

“Nope.”

Teaspoon frowned some more. He stared at Craddock. His old scouting partner’s last name had been Craddock. He figured the two were related some way. The boy sure looked like Lucas. But then maybe the boys’ folks were gone. It had been about twenty years and anything could have happened. He didn’t feel he had the right to ask. “Well, the Express requires its riders to sign a pledge of good behavior. No drinkin’, fightin’, gamblin’, or getting’ in trouble of any kind. You’d have to agree to that.”

“I’d just as soon stay out of trouble, if I can,” said Craddock, even though Bowman didn’t look so happy at the idea. Both of them had been in a few ruckuses here and there but nothing that was serious.

Trying one last time Teaspoon told them of the actual work. “This job is lots of long, hard ridin’, and more hard work, and can be very dangerous, and requires complete loyalty to Russell, Major’s and Waddell.”

“I ain’t never knowed nothin’ but hard work,” answered Craddock.

“Me, neither,’ echoed his partner.

“All right, then. Put your horses in the far corral and your gear in the bunkhouse. You’re on the payroll as of now, but anytime you do something I don’t like you’ll be gone just as quick. That’s what happened to the last men I hired,” added Teaspoon for good measure. “By the way,” he called out as the pair headed for the barn. “You’ll be workin’ mostly out of some of the other way stations, instead of here. That all right with you?”

“Anything you say, Marshal.”

Buck and Noah had listened to the conversation. Now Buck asked. “Want to go for a ride, Tessa. These two broncs are about ready for some work out of the corral.” He and Noah had saddled two more horses.

“Sure thing,” Tessa answered without thinking, as she watched the new Express riders unsaddle their horses at the barn, and turn them into the corral.

“Well, come on then,” said Noah as he and Buck rode out through the gate Teaspoon had opened for them.

Tessa quickly mounted a pretty, little bay mare that was standing beside her. She was glad to be riding her own horse again. The bay and her black gelding had arrived the day before with the wagonload of household items Rosie had sent overland with a couple of older cowhands she had hired for odd jobs when they lived in Lone Pine and she knew she could trust them.

“Don’t be gone long. Rachael will have supper ready soon and Rosie is comin’ out this evenin’,” Teaspoon said after the departing riders. He wondered if maybe he could get Rosie to go for a buggy ride with him in the moonlight. Now that would be enjoyable.

He was sorry to have heard that Rosie had lost her husband whom she seemed to have loved very much. But he sure was glad to have a chance to get to know her again.

*****

Surprised at the efficient way that Ty Bowman and Jack Craddock seemed to settle into their new jobs, Teaspoon sent them out to a distant station that needed some good help. He was pleased at the way they made their rides and stayed out of trouble. The Marshal was also surprised at the way Rosie Trent had made a success of her new store. She had told no one except Teaspoon that she had run a saloon before and he had kept the information to himself. If Tessa had said anything to Lou or the boys they were keeping it quiet. He knew it was a good thing it hadn’t leaked out to the local ladies of Sweetwater and some of the others in the town like the mayor and the banker, for they wouldn’t have been pleased at all and might have made problems for Rosie. At the very least no one would have bought anything at her store if they had known she was a former saloonkeeper. Somehow the townspeople seemed to think she and her husband had run a store, so she had been readily accepted.

She had improved the store, remodeled and added different kinds of merchandise. Then she had converted the large front area into an eatery. She hired another widow woman to help with the cooking and was serving lunch six days a week and supper on Fridays and Saturday. It had become Teaspoon’s habit to eat there. He considered the food good and the company even better.

On this day he took a seat at an empty table and watched as Tessa waited on an elderly couple. He couldn’t get over the change in the girl. While working in the store she wore very becoming dresses and kept her hair pinned up in an appropriate manner. She was nice and polite to her customers, waiting on them in a prompt and timely manner. But anytime she could get off she donned pants, boots, boys shirts, and wore her hair braided under a hat. She didn’t even seem like the same person.

Tessa had seen him and brought a cup of coffee. “Afternoon, Marshal,” she greeted him. “Can I get you something to eat?”

“What ever you got is fine with me, Tessa. Your ma around?”

Tessa grinned at the Marshal. “Sure thing. She’s with a customer. I’ll let her know you’re here.”

In a couple of minutes Rosie came from the back. “Teaspoon, how nice to see you.”

Teaspoon stood and seated her at the table. “You sure are doing good with this place,” he said as he looked around. Each of the five small tables had some one at it, and the store was doing a brisk business.

“It’s getting better and better. I’ve already had to hire another waitress to help Tessa and a clerk for the store.” Rosie chatted on about a few other ideas for her business as Teaspoon ate. Then she asked, “Teaspoon what do you think about that boarding house next door? Do you think old Mrs. Worthington might want to sell it?”

Teaspoon sat back and looked at Rosie. “You sure you’re not gettin’ involved in to much at once, Rosie. The store takes most of your time now.”

“I know. But the rooms in back are kind of small and I was looking some for a house for Tessa and me to live in. We could live there and still take in a few boarders. That way the house would help pay for itself. Plus there’s that small barn and corral Tessa could use for her horses instead of having to board them at the stable.”

“Well, it needs some repair work and paint, but I think it’s a well built house. I just don’t want to see you takin’ on more than you can handle. I, for one, wouldn’t mind seein’ a little bit more of you from time to time. The buggy ride the other night was sure nice.”

“Why, Marshall Hunter, I do believe you are flirting with me,” whispered Rosie leaning closer to the Marshal and laying a hand on his arm. “Anyway, this is a lot easier than running a saloon was. At least I don’t have to put up with drunks.” Rosie had already let out the word that inebriated cowboys or troublemaking scalawags wouldn’t be tolerated in her establishment.

“Well I sure am glad you came here,” said Teaspoon, catching her hand in his and holding it close for a moment. Hearing the bell on the door ring they looked up to see Lou, the Kid, and Cody come in.

“Howdy, boys.”

“Howdy, Teaspoon. Mrs. Trent,” said Cody.

“Can we get some dinner?” asked Lou.

Rosie had quickly pulled her hand out of Teaspoons and rose from the table. “Certainly, Lou. Sit here with Teaspoon. I have to get back to work.”

Tessa had heard her friend’s come in and quickly brought coffee and plates of food. After everyone had eaten, they walked outside. Tessa, taking a break, went with them.

“Can you get off this afternoon to go ridin’?” asked Lou.

“Don’t you ever get enough ridin’, Lou?” asked Teaspoon, not wanting Tessa to get in trouble with Rosie.

“Sure I do, but I’m trainin’ a new horse and thought Tess might want to come.”

Tessa looked thoughtful. “May – be, I can. I’ll ask Ma,” she said, almost running as she went back inside.

“Now what are those two doin’ here?” said Teaspoon looking up the street at two riders coming into town. “They ain’t supposed to be here. They’re supposed to be on a run.”

Lou, Cody and the Kid looked and saw Jack Craddock and Ty Bowman riding down the street toward them. The Marshall stepped out in front of the pair. They had to pull their horses up sharply to keep from running him down.

“You two forget your rides?” asked Hunter, in an angry voice.

“Nope, sure didn’t,” said Bowman. “We quit. We got us a grubstake for now. That’s all we were after.”

“And just who do you think is goin’ to make your rides for you?”

“Now don’t be worrin’, Marshall. We got Buck and Ike to do ‘em for us.”

Jack Craddock just sat his horse listening to the exchange. At the time it had sounded fine to him. Now he wasn’t so sure.

“That means they’ll be doin’ double runs!” exclaimed Cody.

Bowman shrugged. “Their choice.”

Teaspoon was sure it hadn’t been. He knew that Buck and Ike had agreed to do the runs so that they would get done and not because they wanted to. “Well, don’t come back in a few weeks askin’ for your jobs back,” he said disgustedly. “You won’t get ‘em. And I thought I could trust you two better than that.”

Bowman grinned. “Don’t worry, Marshall, we got new jobs all ready lined up. Better pay, too.”

Tessa had come back out and was standing next to Lou. “I can’t get off today, Lou, but Ma said I can take tomorrow off.”

“That sounds fine,” said Lou. “I sure do understand, and apologize for even askin’. We just learned all about how some people don’t see fit to do the jobs they hire on to do, like they should.” She was as disgusted as Teaspoon and Cody at what Bowman and Craddock had pulled, if not more so. If she could make the rides each and every time she was needed, surely two strong fellas like they were could. “I’ll see you in the mornin’.”

“Sure,” Tessa agreed, looking from one to another of her friends. “I’ll come out to the station soon as I can get away.” She hadn’t caught all of what had happened between Teaspoon and the others but she realized there was a problem. She looked up at Craddock and Bowman still sitting on their mounts. She had liked them when she had met them before but now sensed that there might be trouble between them and the Marshal. She, also, realized that Jack Craddock had been staring at her. She wondered why. Mentally she checked herself over. Was her hair coming undone? Was her blouse unbuttoned?

Had she spilled some food on her skirt and not realized it?

“Mi – Miss T – Trent.” Jack stammered to the girl, riding up to the front of the store where she stood. He had thought she was the cutest, prettiest girl he had ever seen when he saw her standing there. He was sure his face was red at what he was thinking, and he almost couldn’t get the words out that he wanted to say to her. He hesitated, then put his hand inside his shirt and pulled out a small ball of fur. It was a kitten, black with white feet in color. “There was a litter a kittens at the station where I was workin’ and I thought you and your ma could use a cat in the store to help keep the mice down.” He handed the small cat down to the girl. It hissed and growled at being disturbed from its nap inside the front of Jack’s shirt, but calmed as Tessa cuddled it to her.

“Oh, how cute,” she exclaimed. “Thank you so much.” Tessa hugged the kitten to her as it began to mew, and looked up at Jack with her big, blue eyes wide with delight.

Craddock smiled at the girl and the kitten, pleased that his gift had been accepted. “I kind a thought you might like her, Tessa. She’s not very big yet for catchin’ mice, but she’ll grow. Uh – uh. Hope you don’t mind me callin’ you Tessa? And – uh, might it be all right if I come callin’ on you sometime? That is if it’s all right with your ma, of course.”

Tessa looked shyly at the handsome rider, noting how his dark, brown eyes looked at her. “Of course you can call be Tessa, and you can come visit me anytime,” she said. “I’ll be sure to take good care of her.”

Jack tipped his hat to her, and turned his horse. “Afternoon, Tessa.”

“Mr. Craddock, we’ll be serving supper tonight. Why don’t you come by for a meal,” invited Tessa after the departing rider.

He turned back to her. “Names Jack, Miss Trent – uh – Tessa. I’d like that, I surely would.” He and Bowman rode toward the stable.

Teaspoon and the others had watched Jack give the kitten to Tessa. It seemed a strange gift for a fella to give a girl he was courting.

“Wonder why he’s playin’ up to her?” said Cody. He wasn’t sure he approved. It wasn’t up to him but he would let Rosie know he didn’t care for the boy. Jack Craddock might be all like Lucas after all.

“Guess he likes her,” said Lou.

“Yeah, but what could she see in him?” wondered the Kid.

“Well,” teased Lou, “he’s tall and handsome, and has those beautiful, big brown eyes.”

The Kid started to get mad then realized she was joking with him. “Maybe I can change my looks some, if it will suit you better,” he joked. “Maybe I can get my blue eyes to turn brown so you’ll like them better.”

“Don’t try it, Kid. There ain’t nothin’ gonna help,” said Lou and ducked as the Kid took a playful swipe at her, knocking her hat off. He picked it up and jammed it back on her head. “’Sides I like your blue eyes just fine,” she said as she shoved him away from her.

They had all been slowly making their way back to the Marshal’s office and Teaspoon had been thoughtful. “Wonder what kind of jobs they could a found that pays better than the Express does?” he mumbled mostly to himself. “I sure ain’t heard of nothin’ ‘round here that did.”

*****

Jack Craddock caught up to Ty at the livery stable and swung down from his horse. “Still don’t understand why McAdam’s wants us to keep an eye on the Trent women.”

“He sure didn’t elaborate none but I ain’t about to complain about makin’ that kind of money when all we gotta do is watch a couple of good lookin’ women. Are you, Jack?” asked Bowman as he lead his horse into the stable and started unsaddling it.

“Not for now, anyway. It just don’t seem right, Ty. There’s something fishy ‘bout it. It just don’t set right with me.” He dropped his saddle over a wooden rail and led his chestnut horse into a stall.

“You sure were playin’ up that Tessa girl. I didn’t know you had that kitten in your shirt. Wonder it didn’t scratch you all up.” He, too, led his horse into a stall. “Mind you, I ain’t complainin’ none. If we can cozy up to that girl it will make our job a whole lot easier.”

The hostler came into the stable from the back. “How long you boys gonna leave your horses here?”

The two men looked at each other. Ty spoke for them. “Day or so, I reckon. Would it be all right if we give ‘em some of that hay over there?”

The stableman shook his head and scratched his thinning hair. He wasn’t used to people taking care of their own animals. “I’ll do it for you,” he said. “Be four bits a day for each one.”

Jack tossed the man a coin and Ty did like wise. “That be enough for a couple of days?”

“I think it just might do it,” the old man grinned at them. He liked customers that did half the work for him and then paid up. “They’ll be ready when you want them.”

Ty and Jack walked out of the barn, saddlebags thrown over their shoulders, and Ty asked. “How did you keep from bein’ scratched by that cat?”

“It was sleepin’; I picked it up this mornin’ when we left. ‘Sides Tessa seems nice and it can’t hurt if’n we’re to watch her and her ma for this fella McAdams.”

*****

Early the next morning Tessa had dressed in her riding clothes, saddled her black gelding and ridden out to the Express station. She took her time enjoying the cool, early morning stillness. She knew it would warm up more as the day went on but for now there was still a chill in the air. Birds twittered and chirped, a jackrabbit darted down the road in front of her, and from a nearby hill was the yelp of a coyote. The steady clip-clop of her horses’ hooves was relaxing. She didn’t mind having to work in her ma’s store but it sure was good when she could take off like this.

Minutes later she pulled up in the way station yard. She could see Buck and Ike working with the new horses, and Lou came out of the chicken coop with a basket of eggs. She waved a greeting to Tessa.

A woman came out onto the porch to see who had ridden in. “Mornin’, Tess,” greeted Rachael. “Care for some breakfast. It’s just ready.”

“Sure would, Rachael.” She dismounted from her gelding and tied him to the short, picket fence that surrounded the house. “I took off with out getting any this morning. Wanted to make sure I was getting away before I got put to work.”

“Well, give a yell at those boys in the corral and you and Lou come on in.”

Soon they were all seated at the long table in the kitchen except Rachael who was passing out plates loaded with food and Lou who was pouring coffee. It felt strange to Tessa to have someone waiting on her when she was so used to waiting tables at the store.

“Move over, Buck. Make a little more room for Tessa,” said Rachael to the part Indian rider. Having another person at the table was making it cramped for everyone.

“You can have my place,” said Cody as he got up quickly.

“Thank you, Cody, but this is fine.” But Cody got up anyway and took his plate to the corner of one of the cupboards and stood there to eat. Tessa really was glad he did. She had felt a bit confined with all these handsome men sitting so close to her. She was squeezed in between Buck and Ike. Rachael placed a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon and fried potatoes in front of the girl. Lou poured her a cup of coffee and set it in front of her, while Ike set a pitcher of cream and a bowl of sugar beside the cup for her to use.

“Thanks, Ike.” Tessa had been quick to except the fact that Ike couldn’t talk but had made a fast friend of him by asking for his help with her horses. She liked his firm, but gentle, kind ways working with the livestock.

Forking more bacon onto her plate Lou said, “Tess and I are goin’ a ride out and work our horses. That sorrel mares turnin’ out real good. Anybody want to go along?” She looked around at Cody, Ike, Buck, and Jimmy.

All four were quick to except but Rachael spoke up. “Now just a minute. Cody, Jimmy, you promised Teaspoon you’d fix the windmill. Or don’t you remember?”

“Yeah. Uh – huh.” Jimmy and Cody sank back into their seats.

Ike signed and said he’d like to but had a ride to make soon.

“Well, I guess that leaves me, if it’s all right with you two?” said Buck.

Minutes later, they had saddled their horses and rode out while Jimmy and Cody argued over who was going to climb the windmill and grease it.

“Why don’t you toss a coin,” suggested Rachael as she watched from the yard, and then turned to weeding her small garden.

*****

For the first couple of miles Buck, Lou and Tessa let their horses run. The morning was still cool and crisp. At times it seemed as if winter was still trying to hold back spring. Yesterday had almost been hot and now today seemed as if it might stay cool all day. The horses were still fresh and wanted to run, so they let them. They raced across the prairie, the wind in their faces, laughing at the shear joy of being young and alive and enjoying what life had to bring their way. They raced on, jumping ditches, going up hills and down. A race, but no one cared who won or even where it ended.

Finally they pulled up at the top of a ridge. Steam was beginning to rise off of the horses, but still they stomped, and snorted, and fretted at being held. The three riders could see for miles in any direction. Looking behind them they could just make out the tiny buildings, corrals, and windmill of the station. Even farther off they could faintly make out the town of Sweetwater.

In front of them they saw a stream meandering through a thicket of huge, ancient oak and walnut trees. Five deer were grazing on the rich, prairie grasses. The plains were green now, from recent spring rains. The rivers and streams rolling high and swollen with rain and snow melt-off from the higher areas. Later on the grass would be almost as high as their stirrups, and then turn brown and nutritious for the next winter. But always the enormous sky would hang over the plains giving it sun, and rain, and wind. Now it was bright blue with fluffy, white clouds. Later on in the afternoon it was very likely those same clouds would come together, turning dark, and bringing more rains.

Buck and the two girls dismounted and checked their cinches on their saddles, making sure the horses hadn’t picked up any stones or small rocks in their hooves in the wild run across the prairie.

“You like it here, Tessa,” asked Lou. “I mean livin’ here in Sweetwater.”

“Yeah, I guess I do. I really miss the mountains. Lone Pine sits right on the edge of a big range of mountains. If I close my eyes I can still smell pine trees. And I miss Dan Trent, my stepfather. And I know my ma does, too. But the store is a lot better than workin’ in a saloon. Although Ma and Dan didn’t let me do much work in it. Not like in the store. The only time I worked in the saloon was when Dan was really short handed. Sometimes I’d wait tables. Other times I washed dishes, mostly beer mugs and shot glasses. I guess I didn’t really mind. Sometimes it was even fun.”

Buck couldn’t picture Tessa working in the saloon. “How come you would like workin’ in a saloon? Most are dark, smelly places where men go to get drink, gamble, and –

and…”

“Find a woman,” Tessa finished for him.

“Yeah, that, too.” Buck was getting embarrassed. Tessa and Lou giggled at him.

“Dan’s saloon wasn’t that kind. It was big and always well lit, and clean. It was real nice but not one of them fancy houses like he used to tell about from his trips to San Francisco or New Orleans. Oh, there was the gamblin’, and drinkin’, and the women. But he kept it real clean. Always had several bouncers and the first time someone tried to get out a line they went out the door. Real fast.”

“I’ve worked in a saloon as a waitress a little,” said Lou. “Sure didn’t care for it and sure hope I don’t have to again. Ridin’ for the Express is a whole lot better.”

“Except that Marshal Hunter won’t let me,” complained Tessa.

“You got your job in your ma’s store,” said Buck, “and it really is dangerous ridin’ like we do.”

“Well, I hate havin’ to wear dresses and put my hair up. Think I’ll cut it off like yours, Lou.”

“No! Tessa, don’t do that. You have such pretty hair. Sometimes I wish I could let mine grow and wear dresses more.”

*****

Buck had been listening to the two girls but watching the stand of trees below them. He had spotted movement there. As he watched he made out two horses and riders. They seemed to be looking up toward where Buck, Lou and Tessa were. “Couple a fella’s down there in the trees by the stream.”

Now Buck had Lou’s complete attention and awareness as she, too, peered where he indicated. “Know ‘em?” she asked.

Buck shrugged. “Think one might be that Ty Bowman. I’m not sure ‘bout the other one.”

“Maybe it’s Jack.” Tessa leaped onto her black gelding, and had him running down the slope before Lou or Buck could stop her. They followed but more slowly.

They arrived at the trees just in time to see a man reach out and grab the bridle of Tessa’s horse. “Why, hello, Tess. You come to see your Uncle Mel, did ya?” rasped out the big, florid man, who was laughing at the surprise and shock on Tessa’s face.

“You ain’t my uncle!” she yelled at him, trying to jerk the reins out of his grip.

Buck and Lou pulled their pistols from their holsters. “Let her go, Mister,” said Buck with a low growl in his voice.

The man looked at the pair of drown guns and grinned broadly but his eyes were flat and lifeless reminding Lou of a snake. He let go of the reins allowing Tessa to back her horse away from him. “Sure thing, Injin, sure thing. Didn’t mean to scare little Tessie here. You don’t need them guns, boys.”

“You didn’t scare me and don’t call me Tessie.” Tessa circled her horse and came in behind Buck and Lou. “What the hell are you doing here, anyway?” she spit at him, not even realizing she was cussing as she asked the question.

“And just who are you, Mister?” asked Lou.

“Names Mel McAdams,” answered the man still acting as if he wanted to be friendly. “I’m Tess’ uncle, come to visit.”

Tessa screeched at him again. “You ain’t my uncle.” She turned to her friends. “He’s my stepfather’s half brother but he ain’t no kin to me or Ma. And Ma won’t like knowin’ he’s here.” She paused for breath. “I best go let her know.”

Buck could not see a gun or weapon on McAdams, so he lowered his gun. He looked around again. He was sure he had seen two men, but McAdams was the only one he could see now. Wearily he kept an eye out for anyone else. “Mr. McAdams, we’re goin’ a leave now. You best not try to follow us.” He nodded at Lou and Tessa. The women turned and walked their horses back toward the way station.

McAdams called loudly after them, “Tess, you tell your ma that I’ll come callin’ directly. She and me got business to discuss. She knows that.”

“McAdams you best stay here,” Buck commanded, then turned to ride after Lou and Tessa. He looked back several times but McAdams just sat his horse grinning evilly as he watched them leave.

After the riders were out of sight, Ty Bowman came out of the brush leading his horse and mounted. His blue eyes sparkled. He had been surprised at McAdams move, but admired the spunk the girl had shown. “That Tess Trent, she sure don’t like you, McAdams.”

The big mans grin faded and a grim frown appeared on his face. “Don’t much matter what she likes or don’t like, or what you like or don’t like. I’m callin’ the shots, Bowman. If you and Craddock want paid just do what I say.”

“Sure thing, McAdams, but how longs it goin’ a take? Seems we been followin’ that girl for quite some time now. Don’t seem like it’s getting’ us no where, and you ain’t showed us no money yet.”

“Not long now, Bowman. Not long at all, now.” Slowly they rode back toward Sweetwater.

*****

Rosie Trent was seeing her last customer out the door when a man entered. She recoiled in freight when she recognized Mel McAdams. She had thought she was prepared for him since Tessa had come to her upset over seeing him. Rosie didn’t want to seem rude in front of her customer so simply said. “We’re just closing, sir.”

“Oh, this won’t take long, Mrs. Trent,” said McAdams politely. He tipped his hat to the lady customer. “Evenin’, Ma’am.” She smiled and left, and McAdams shut the door behind her, then turned the OPEN sign in the window so it read CLOSED.

Rosie had quickly stepped behind the counter, picked up a pistol and pointed it at her brother-in-law. “What do you want? What are you doing here?”

“Why, Rosie. Is that anyway to greet your brother?”

“Brother-in-law,” she reminded him, “and I would have preferred never to see you again.”

“Oh, I’m sure you would have, Rosie, and if you give me what’s mine I’ll leave and never bother you again.” McAdams evil grin was back.

“What do you mean ‘what’s yours’?”

“You know what I mean, Rosie. The money you got from selling the saloon in Lone Pine,” he said evenly.

Rosie was shocked. “The – the mon – ey from the saloon.”

“Dan was my brother. I’m the only living kin he had. Rightfully the saloon was to be mine. Dan would have wanted it that way. You stole it from me.” McAdams’s voice had become harsh and cruel.

“Dan despised you,” she hissed at him like a mad cat. “He wanted me to have the saloon if anything ever happened to him. It was in his will. I didn’t care to stay there, so I sold it.”

McAdams pounded a fist on the counter making Rosie jump. She pulled back the hammer on her gun. “Stay back!” she shouted.

“We can make a deal, Rosie. Get me the money or I’ll make trouble for you. I been listening ‘round town. I’m sure your women customers and even most of the men in this town would be awful surprised to find a saloon keeper’s kept woman was runnin’ this here fancy store that so popular now. And that she’s a half-breed with an illegitimate daughter to boot.” McAdams paused to let that sink in then added for good measure. “And remember somethin’ else, Rosie. I could a done a whole lot more to Tessie than just scare her today. A whole lot more. You get the money, Rosie. You got one week. Then I’ll ride out and you’ll never have to see me again.” McAdams turned and opened the door. “One week, Rosie. Or you never know what might be said in just the right place here in this sweet little town to cause all them payin’ customer to never come through this door again.” He winked at Rosie as he walked out the door, closing it gently behind him.

Rosie continued to stand behind the counter for several long minutes before she realized she was still holding the loaded and cocked pistol. She laid it down on the counter and sank to the floor, putting her face in her hands and sobbing franticly.

*****

Marshal Teaspoon Hunter sat behind his desk scanning through a new batch of wanted posters. After he had looked at each one he handed it to his deputy. Barnett would then stack it neatly on the corner of the desk with the rest. “You’re supposed to look at them, Barnett, then if you see someone you’ll know he’s wanted.”

“I know, Marshal, but after a while all them faces just sort a look the same. ‘Sides with you bein’ Marshal here, don’t none of them wanted fellers ever come here anyway.”

“Well, you wouldn’t know if one did come here, since you ain’t looked at them posters. Now would you?”

“I guess not.” Barnett picked up the stack and started looking. Evening was coming on so after staring at a few posters he reached over and lit the lamp sitting on a shelf behind the Marshal.

Teaspoon put the last poster on the top of the stack, stood up, and reached for his hat. “Think I’ll go for a walk. Be back directly.”

“All right, Marshal,” muttered Barnett as he reached for the stack of posters again. He didn’t have anything better to do so he thought he would go ahead and look at some more of them.

The Marshal stepped into the street and glanced toward a saloon. It seemed quiet so he walked toward the end of town. He could see the Trent general store and eatery now. He watched as a man came out. Teaspoon saw the CLOSED sign. Last customer, the thought. Maybe Rosie would like to join him for supper.

Trying the door and finding it unlocked he went in. He came to a fast stop when he found himself staring down the barrel of a cocked pistol with Rosie behind it. “Who you fixin’ to shoot, Rosie?” he asked gently almost as if he was trying to tease her.

“Oh, Teaspoon,” cried the distraught Rosie. She lowered the gun and almost dropped it, as she swiped at her tears.

The Marshal took it, pointed it away from them and toward the floor, then gently let the hammer down. He had seen the tear streaks on her face, with more tears flooding her eyes as they tried to spill over. “What happened?” he asked, seeing how upset she was. He put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her to him in a gentle hug. Rosie was shaking and more tears threatened to spill down her face.

“I thought we had left all that behind us,” she said. Rosie went on to tell about Mel McAdams visit and his threats. Both their heads turned at a slight noise from the back. Teaspoon started to draw his gun, but didn’t when Tessa called out.

“Ma, you out there?” The girl came through the back door. She saw the Marshal with his arm around her mother and then the look on her mother’s face. “Mama? What happened?” Instantly she knew. “He was here, wasn’t he?” Rosie stepped away from Teaspoon and took her daughter into her arms. “Oh, Ma, what are we going to do?”

“Now wait a minute, ladies. ‘Fore you go getting’ to upset, Why don’t you tell me more about this McAdams feller.” Teaspoon led the two women into the room behind the store. It was a kitchen where the cooking was done for the customers. Rosie and Teaspoon sat down at the table and Tessa poured coffee for all three of them. It was the girl who told the story with her mother just sitting there nodding in agreement. The small black and white kitten lay in Tessa’s lap and she stroked it absently.

“Mel McAdams and Dan Trent were half brothers. They didn’t get along to well and when Dan found Mel trying to force himself on Ma one day he threw him out. Told him never to come back. That was a couple of years ago, but he still kept comin’ ‘round when he was broke ‘cause he knew Dan would give him money to get him to go away.

“Then last year after Dan died, he seemed to think Ma would let him take over runnin’ the saloon. He even offered to marry her and when she refused he tried to get me to marry him. Said I was old enough now.

“Ma decided to sell and went to the local bank who found her a buyer real quiet like so Mel never knew ‘bout it ‘till it was done. As soon as the papers were all signed, she and I were ready and caught the stage for here.

“We didn’t figure Mel would follow us and do anything like this.”

Rose had sat quietly while Tess talked. Now she was crying softly. “What can I do, Teaspoon, all the money is tied up in the store? If McAdams tells about me working in a saloon and being part Indian I may as well give up.”

The Marshal was thoughtful a moment. “Tell you what. Let me find McAdams and lay down the law for him. That it would be best for him to leave you alone and find some other more hospitable place to stay in.”

Teaspoon walked to the door to leave. “Make sure you keep your doors locked. Don’t let in anyone you don’t trust completely. An’ keep that gun handy, but make sure you know who you’re shootin’ at before you do shoot.”

“Thank you, Marshal Hunter.” Tess had followed him to the door. Rose had continued to sit, her hands twisted in a tea towel that had been lying on the table.

“Rose,” said Teaspoon, “quit your worrin’. I’ll take care of everything.” He walked into the night, wishing he would do more, wishing he had taken Rose in his arms and held her tightly till she quiet crying and smiled for him again. Wishing he was as sure that he could get McAdams to leave as he had told Rose and Tess he could.

“Well, boys, are you still on the job?” asked Mel McAdams. He leaned against a corral post, bit off the end of a cigar and lit it. Bowman and Craddock watched the horses in the corral but kept an eye on McAdams.

“We been watchin’ ‘em, like you said. Ain’t seen much, though. Mostly just customers in and out of the store. An’ the girl goes ridin’ out to the Express station a lot,” said Craddock.

“That Marshal still hangin’ ‘round ‘em?”

“Yeah,” said Bowman. “Either him or that deputy are at the store a lot. Sometimes Hickock or Cody or one of the others. Also, they been askin’ ‘bout you. Where you been anyway?”

“Just keepin’ out of sight. Got me a plan.” The big man tapped the top rail of the fence with his fingers. He seemed to be excited.

“You gona tell us about it?” asked Bowman.

McAdams laughed sardonically at the eager young man. “I’ll let you know when you need to know.” He spit the cigar into the dirt and ground it out with the toe of his boot. He watched the cigar with interest as it flattened out, split open and the unburned tobacco spilled out into the dirt. He looked up. “You two make sure you’re at the big oak down by the river, with your horses saddled, ready to ride, at sunup tomorrow.” He turned and walked rapidly away.

Craddock watched McAdams leave frowning slightly. “Don’t like him, Ty. Let’s ride out an’ forget this deal. Man’s gonna get us in some kinda bad trouble. I can feel it. ”

Bowman punched his friend on the shoulder. “Give it another day, Jack. Don’t care for the man myself, either, but sure would like to get paid first for we ride out.”

Jack glared after McAdams. “Not sure I want a get paid for this kind a work. Too much like bein’ on the wrong side of the law.”

*****

Tessa Trent read the note again as she waited outside the back of the store.

Meet me at sunrise behind the store. We will go riding. Jack.

A small boy had delivered the note late the afternoon before. Tess had been so excited ever since. She really did like Jack Craddock and wanted to get to know him better. Now the sun was just peaking over the eastern horizon. Tess paced back and forth impatiently, her boots raising little puffs of dust. No one was in sight. Jack’s gift to her, the small kitten, rubbed against her legs and she picked it up. It began to purr. She whispered to the kitten calling it by the name she had finally decided to call it. “It’s going to be a wonderful day, Molly. I just know it is.” She didn’t notice the man sneaking down the ally behind her.

Tess tried to scream as a large hand suddenly covered her mouth and nose. An arm slipped around her waist lifting her slight form off the ground. She wiggled and squirmed and kicked, continuing to hold the kitten, unable to turn it loose if she had thought about it the way the man was holding her arms pinned to her sides.

“Be still!” hissed a harsh voice in her ear. Shocked at the sound of Mel McAdams voice, Tess fought harder but it was getting difficult to breath with his big hand covering her noise and mouth. She managed to kick again catching McAdams in the knee. He nearly dropped her. She almost broke free. Then a big open hand slapped against the side of her head. Tessa sank against him as she tried not to pass out. For several moments everything went black. McAdams threw her astride his horse, mounted behind her, holding her in place, and kicked the horse into a run. Without thinking about what she was doing Tessa still clutched the kitten, Molly, to herself.

“NO!” yelled Cody. It was his turn to watch the store as Teaspoon had instructed. He had heard a noise in the back and arrived to see McAdams racing away with Tessa held in front of him on his horse. Cody pulled his gun but was afraid to shoot. Afraid of hitting, the girl, he held his fire. He turned and ran for the Marshal’s office.

*****

Tessa came to and realized she was being held on a running horse, and her head felt as if it would fly off at each bounce of the animal. She wasn’t sure where she was but thought she could see the river through the brush sometimes in the mad dash.

She looked back and confirmed it was Mel McAdams gripping her so tightly. She remembered him attacking her as she waited for Jack Craddock, then she looked down and saw the scared kitten in her arms, hanging onto the front of her shirt with its tiny claws.

After what seemed like hours but was probably only minutes McAdams slowed the horse, then pulled to a stop. Tessa saw Craddock and Bowman standing by their horses near the edge of the swollen river that tumbled and roared as it rushed along. What were they doing here, she wondered. They couldn’t be part of this, could they? “Why are you doing this? Why are you working for McAdams? How could I have trusted you? You wrote this note, didn’t you, Jack, so he could grab me, didn’t you?” Tess ran out of breath as McAdams cuffed her.

“Shut up!” yelled the big man at the girl.

Both Craddock and Bowman were surprised to see the girl. They saw the livid bruise on her face, one eye almost swollen shut and how scared she was. They were unsure of how to answer her outburst. For the moment they could only stare.

Filled with disgust at the sight of McAdams manhandling Tessa, Craddock grabbed the bridle of McAdams horse. “What are you doing, McAdams. This ain’t part of our deal. Let the girl go.”

McAdams dismounted, hauling Tessa down with him. “Yeah, she is part of the deal. She’s gonna get us our money.”

Ignoring McAdams, Tess took the note from her pocket and thrust it at Craddock. “You wrote this, didn’t you?” she demanded.

“No, I didn’t,” said Craddock roughly. He took the note but only glanced at it. “What are you doing with the girl, McAdams?” he demanded again.

“Told you I have a plan. She’s just a little insurance. Her ma owes me money. Now she’ll pay. Or else we’ll keep the girl.” He stroked his hand across her hair, causing Tess to jerk her head to keep him from touching it. “Maybe I’ll just keep her even if I do get the money.”

Craddock looked at his friend. “We don’t hold with kidnappin’.”

“We sure don’t,” said Bowman. Neither of the two riders was sure of what to do. They hadn’t planned on anything like this.

“You boys want paid you better play along. She ain’t gonna be hurt.” As McAdams dismounted and pulled Tessa from the saddle, his hand came in contact with the small ball of fur. The already frightened kitten lashed out. McAdams jerked back and yelled an oath as four red streaks appeared on the back of his hand.

“Damn Cat! What are doing with it?” He asked Tess. He had not even noticed it before. “Get rid of it!”

“NO!” screamed Tessa, backing up a step. The river was now directly behind her. It was running bank to bank, dark and muddy from the recent rains.

“I said get rid of it!” McAdams snatched the kitten from Tess and before she could realize what he intended to do with it; McAdams threw the small cat a dozen feet out into the river.

“Molly! My kitten! How could you!” yelled Tess. She jabbed both hands into McAdams chest shoving him back. As he doubled up a fist and swung at her she ducked under his arm and turned toward the river, looking for the kitten. Appalled at the thought of it drowning while she watched, she wondered what to do. The frantically swimming kitten was already just a speck as it rapidly disappeared down river. Before anyone realized what she intended to do, Tess dived into the swift water and began trying to swim after her pet. Craddock and Bowman looked on in horror as the girl’s head went under the dark water.

Marshal Teaspoon Hunter, Cody and Buck thundered up just as Ty Bowman slammed a rock, hard fist into McAdams gut. “You’re not goin’ a hit that girl again.”

“What’s goin’ on here?” yelled Teaspoon.

Ty pulled McAdams gun from his holster. “This feller kidnapped Tessa.” The look on his face said he would be glad to shoot McAdams if the man moved even just a little finger.

“Where is she?” yelled Cody, staring out across the river, then he saw the girl just as she reached the kitten. She pulled it to her and it grabbed hold of her shoulder with four sets of claws. At that instant girl and cat were slammed into a small log, which was, also, going down river.

There was another splash as Jack Craddock followed Tess and the cat into the flooded river. The swift water pushed him rapidly toward where Tess had managed to catch a hold of some brush caught up with the log in the middle of the river. Swimming strongly he was almost to her when the current caught him and he was swept on by. He turned and started back. It took several tries before he reached Tess and the log, while Hunter and the others watched in terror of the outcome.

“Hold on!” yelled Jack to Tessa. They both were spitting and coughing water thick with silt.

“Cody, give him a hand,” cried Teaspoon. It looked as if man and girl would be swept on down river any second. “Buck, keep an eye on them two,” He nodded at Bowman and McAdams.

Jack and Tess were numb from the cold water. Their fingers were getting stiff and both were beginning to shake violently from the bone-chilling cold. They couldn’t hold on much longer. Craddock grabbed Tess around the waist. “We can’t stay here.” They started for shore but the current threw them back into the brush caught on the log, then carried them and the log on down the river. All the time the wet kitten clung to Tessa’s shoulder.

Still on his horse, Cody raced along the bank trying to get ahead of them. Teaspoon followed him. Cody shook out his rope. He pulled up and tossed a large loop toward Jack and Tess. His aim was good and the rope encircled both of them and Cody pulled it tight. Backing his horse slowly, he pulled them to where Teaspoon could help them out of the river.

“Tessie, you alright?” asked the Marshal, as he held the shaking girl to him. He didn’t want to think about what might have happened if Cody’s rope hadn’t caught them on that first throw. Gently he pried the dripping wet kitten from Tessa’s shoulder that was turning red from the claws dug into it.

Spitting out river water Jack lay gasping on the bank beside of Tessa and Teaspoon. Finally he was able to speak, “That was sure a stupid, fool thing to do,” he managed to say as he coughed up more river water. Teaspoon was unsure weather he was referring to himself going in after Tess, or Tess going in after the cat. Or maybe both.

Tess took the bedraggled kitten back. “I couldn’t just let Molly drown.” Both she and the cat were shaking uncontrollably.

“She’s just a cat. You could a got another one.” Managing to sit up Jack pulled Tess back into his arms. “You could have drowned. You almost did.”

Tess didn’t seem to resist his holding her, just leaned into him harder. But she had to ask, “Why did you come in after me? You could a let me drown. There’s other girls, you know.”

“Yeah,” said Craddock, as he continued to hold the wet, shivering Tessa into his arms, cat and all. “I know there are but – a – a, well, I guess your special.” He hugged her tight.

“So is my cat. You gave her to me.” Tess laid her head on Jack’s shoulder and started crying.

“Now, don’t do that,” whispered Jack in her ear. “Everything’s all right now.”

Teaspoon watched the girl and young man. He knew that the two now had a special fondness for each other. He wondered where it might lead. Although he was more than grateful that Craddock had rescued Tessa, he wasn’t sure he wanted them to have more of a friendship than they seemed to have. And it looked like they might the way Craddock was holding her, and Tessa was letting him hold her.

Cody, still sitting on his horse after rescuing the pair, but not seeming to receive any attention for it, sighed and began coiling up his rope. He watched Jack and Tess almost in disgust. For a while he had thought that maybe he would be the one holding the Tessa like that. “Should a let you both drown. Should a just rescued the cat,” he muttered.

Teaspoon grinned at the rider. “You’ll just have to find one a them other girls out there, Cody.”

Jack got to his feet, pulling Tess up with him. He turned to the Marshal and Cody holding out his hand to first one and then the other. “Thanks, Marshal Hunter, Cody. Thanks for both of us.”

Tessa continued to lean against Jack and grinned sheepishly.

*****

Upon their return to Sweetwater, they had found a very upset Rose, who was thrilled to see her daughter even if she was wet from her unplanned swim in the river. Rose told of finding Tess missing and then finding a note from Mel McAdams demanding the money in exchange for her daughter’s life. Rose sent the men out while she doctored the scratches on Tessa’s shoulder from the kitten, and Tess finished drying Molly.

Wanting to thank them again, and hear the full story, Rose had allowed the men back in. Teaspoon Hunter sat drinking coffee at the kitchen table. Tessa and Jack sat opposite him. After making sure everyone was dry and warm, Rose had fixed breakfast for all of them, including the black and white kitten, which now purred contentedly on Tessa’s lap.

A comparison had been made and the handwriting on the ransom note was the same as that on the note Tessa had received that was supposed to have been from Jack.

“McAdams used me to get to Tess,” said Craddock. “Both me and Ty. I – I, hell, I couldn’t a writ that note. I can’t read or write.” He hated to admit it but knew he should. He hoped it didn’t make him any less of a man to Tess.

“He sure did, but you had enough since to quit when you saw what was happin’, ‘stead a goin’ along with the no-good plan of his.” Teaspoon thought there might be hope for the young man and his friend, Bowman, after all. Bowman had insisted on helping Cody and Buck put McAdams in the jail.

“I guess I better open the store.” Rose headed for the front. “Before we have customers breaking down the door.”

Teaspoon looked at Jack thoughtfully. “Did you know, son, that I knew your pa, Lucas Craddock?”

“You knew Pa?”

“Sure did. He was a good man. I’ll tell you a story or two ‘bout him and me sometime.”

“I’d like that,” said Jack, as he sipped his coffee.

Teaspoon followed after Rose. Rose hadn’t unlocked the door but turned back to the Marshal.

“Teaspoon, there’s something I need to tell you.” She hesitated, unsure of herself. “I – if – uh – Teaspoon, Tessie is your daughter,” she finally blurted out.

Teaspoon reached out and pulled Rose to him in a hug. “Wondered when you were goin’ a get ‘round to tellin’ me, Rosie.”

“You knew?”

“Well not fer sure, but I kinda hoped she might be.” Teaspoon leaned toward Rose and gently kissed her.

***The End***

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