Angel: (staring down at a drunk Jimmy lying on saloon floor) I know you from somewhere. Give me a minute, 'cause I never forget a face. I know! You're one of the Express riders out of Sweetwater. My name's Angel. I worked at the Wild Horse Saloon last year. You don't remember me, do ya? Come on, let's get you upstairs. You can sleep it off, some.
Jimmy: Why're you doin' this fer me?
Angel: You really don't remember me, do you? There was some trouble one night at the Wild Horse. Saddle tramp with a broken bottle (reaches up to run pinkie across scars along right cheekbone) … thought I was his missus. Guess he didn't have much of a marriage. You and your friends, you saved my life.
Jimmy: *nods* *lies back and closes eyes in sleep*
Angel: Sleep tight./i
He stood there, staring down at her. How could she have betrayed him like this? Tears coursed down his weathered cheeks, tracing white trails through the dust and grime ground into his skin. He'd loved her with every bone in his body. He'd been ready to give up the life of a wandering cowboy for her. Reaching out, he tenderly brushed the blonde curls off her pale forehead. Her still warm skin seemed to burn his hand and he brought it up to his lips, seeking those last traces of her presence.
His look hardened as the cowboy lying next to her teased at the edges of his vision. But she'd rejected him. Laughed in his face and walked off with this… this… two-bit Express rider. Straightening to his full six feet two of height, he kicked the body lying next to her disdainfully.
Well, he'd shown them both. No one got the better of ol' Matt Trimble. Not even if she was the love of his life, the traitorous whore! And most certainly not if he was some jumped up cowboy with delusions of grandeur.
"Hmph!" he grunted, spitting a stream of tobacco juice into the still face of the dead cowboy. Turning, he walked out of the small, isolated cabin, never looking back.
Ike heard the call floating across the prairie moments before he rounded the last bend in the trail and sighted the windmill standing watch over Emma's house and the home station. He could hear birds chirping as he pounded past them on his horse, startling them out of their secure hiding places. In the distance, one of the dogs at the station started barking excitedly. A few more minutes and this run would be over. He was home.
"Ride safe, Cody! Hey, Ike!" Lou called happily, waiting to grab his horse's bridle as he came skidding to a halt by the corral after passing the mochila to the chipper blonde. "Did you have a good run?"
Ike shrugged noncommittally. It hadn't been a good run, but it hadn't been bad either, just your normal, average, everyday grueling 75 mile galloping race across the prairie. Lou laughed.
"Let me cool down your horse," she smiled at him, "while you get cleaned up for supper. Emma's got your favorite, Kid Pie!, in the oven!"
*Yum!* Ike signed, grinning broadly back at Lou. Then both burst into laughter at the joke. Kid Pie was Ike's favorite, one of the Kid's too. Although the main ingredient was actually goat, not the Kid, that didn't stop any of them from mercilessly teasing their fellow rider about being a cannibal every time he dug in. *Is Kid home?*
Lou shook her head. "Naw. He took off East this morning. Won't be back for a couple days. Go on, get cleaned up. I'm hungry and Cody's just left which means won't none of us have to fight over seconds."
"Pass the spuds, would ya, Buck?" Jimmy asked, even as he stuffed a forkful of Kid Pie into his gaping maw. Lou looked away, disgusted. Emma tut tutted at the sight.
"Chew with yer mouth closed, Jimmy," Emma warned sternly. "Or you'll be eatin' in the barn with the cows!"
Jimmy's mouth slammed shut and he swallowed the food in it in a single gulp. Looking up, he said, "Sorry, Emma. It's just sooo good. Sure ya didn't butcher the Kid this time round?"
"Oh, go on with ya!" Emma laughed, unable to stay mad at the beguiling young man for long. Taking her own seat at the foot of the table, she turned to Ike as she filled her plate. "Anything interesting happen on your run, Ike?"
Ike shoved another forkful of food into his mouth and then started signing rapidly while he chewed. *Back at the Harper's Ridge station, all the talk was about Boyd Creese.*
"What's up with ol' Boyd?" Buck asked curiously. "Did he finally ask his gal ta marry him? Every other word that came outta his mouth was 'bout her the last time I was out that way."
Ike shook his head sadly. *No. He up and disappeared. No one knows where. Left to see his gal after a run and never come back.*
"Maybe he decided to just stay with her," Jimmy suggested, reaching for the last biscuit on the platter only to have Lou snatch it out from under his hand. "Seein' as how he was already plannin' on askin' her ta marry him and all."
Lou shook her head, but Buck beat her to the punch.
"Unh unh," he grunted. "No way. He said he needed to work at least another six months ta be able ta get a big enough grub stake ta buy a place for them. Any other job he coulda gotten would've taken three times as long."
"That's for sure," Lou said around crumbs from the last bite of biscuit she'd just consumed.
"Lulabelle," Emma said, clearing her throat. "You have a napkin for a reason. Use it."
"Yes, ma'am," Lou said, ducking her head to wipe her mouth.
*The sheriff said the same thing when they called him in,* Ike signed. *Guess we'll have ta wait 'til Kid gets back ta find out what happened.*
Jimmy swiped his spoon across the plate one last time, sweeping up the remnants of his Kid Pie and shoving them into his mouth. He washed it all down with a swish of coffee.
"In the meantime, I'm in the mood ta head inta town," he said, leaning back from the table. "Anyone game ta come with?"
"Naw," Buck said, smiling. "I've got the first run in the morning. Besides, I'm just not in the mood ta deal with the townsfolk tonight.
"What 'bout you, Lou? Wanta ride along?"
"I don't know," she hedged. "I'm not sure I want ta risk my savin's, ain't interested in gettin' drunk or in spendin' time with any of the 'ladies' there."
"Come on, it'll be fun," Jimmy pleaded. "You can try yer hand at some poker. Yer gettin' pretty good. And the last time we were in there, the men playin' didn't look like they could beat a 5 year old. Heck, I'll even spot ya $2 ta get ya started."
"Oh, alright," she reluctantly agreed. "I supposed. But I ain't stayin' out all night. I may not have a run in the mornin', but there'll still be chores ta do."
"What about you, Ike?"
*Sure,* Ike shrugged. *It was an easy enough run today. I'm not too tired.*
Buck looked at Ike strangely. Every run left them ready for food and a bunk, not always in that order. But he didn't say anything. If Ike wanted to go into town, that was his business.
Even as Jimmy, Ike and Lou began donning their hats and gunbelts, Emma moved to clear the table. "You boys be careful now," she warned sternly, clearly not at ease with their plans but unable to come up with a reason to keep them at the station. They were growing up on her so fast! "Don't be getting into any trouble, you here? That goes for you, too, Lou."
"Yes, ma'am," they dutifully chorused as they trooped out the door.
Ike paused in the entryway to sign, *I won't let them stay out too late.*
"You do that, Ike," Emma smiled.
"Whiskey!" he demanded, pounding on the bar.
"Just hold yer horses," the barkeeper barked back irritably. "I'll get ta ya when it's yer turn."
Turning around to survey the saloon while waiting for his drink, Matt Trimble found his eyes once again drawn to the curvy blonde with the long ringlets moving around the room with effortless grace. He wondered how his Lucretia had ended up working here. She should be helping out down at the school.
He stiffened in anger as she slid into a cowboy's lap, laughing as she wrapped her arms around the man's neck.
"Whore." The epithet slipped from his lips like a rumble of thunder presaging a storm.
"Did you say somethin'?" the barkeep asked, pushing Trimble's ordered whiskey across the bar to him.
"No," Trimble said, grabbing the shot glass and downing the burning liquid. Pushing a coin across the bar, he grabbed the bottle of whiskey from the barkeep's hand. "Just give me the bottle."
Tinkling piano music and raucous laughter could be heard tumbling down the main street of Sweetwater as the trio of Express riders cantered into town. Most of the small town's businesses had closed hours ago, before the sun set. Now, the only places still lit up were the Hotel/Restaurant and the three saloons in town.
"Which one should we go to?" Jimmy asked, looking at his quieter companions.
Lou shrugged. "Don't rightly care, long's the barmaids leave me in peace."
*Let's go to the Wild Horse,* Ike signed.
Jimmy flashed Ike a baffled look, wondering why he wanted to go there again, then shrugged. "Sure. Why not."
Soon, all three were dismounting and tying their horses to the hitching post outside the Wild Horse. The clatter of the bat wing doors being thrown open and the cussing of an old saddle tramp had them looking up.
"You don't watch it, and I'll cite ya fer public indecency," Sam warned.
"Ah, Sam, why don't ya just hire Emma on as a deputy," Jimmy spoke up. "She'd start washin' their mouths out with soap. Purty soon ya wouldn't have ta worry 'bout no public indecency."
Sam looked up from where he'd wrangled the protesting saddle tramp into a choke hold.
"Hey, boys," he greeted. "I'm surprised Emma let you three out on a night like tonight?"
"Just decided ta take a break from playin' checkers and listening ta the musical stylin's of Buck's snorin'," Lou said.
Sam let out a bark of laughter, before tightening his hold on his prisoner and beginning to march him down the boardwalk toward the jail.
"You three just be careful tonight," he warned over his shoulder. "Emma'll have my hide if I let you boys get in trouble and folks is actin' plumb loco. This is the third drunk I've had ta corral in the last hour." He glanced up at the full moon. "Must be the moon, or somethin'."
"Don't worry, Sam, we ain't lookin' fer no trouble, just a little fun," Jimmy said, already heading through the doors and into the saloon.
"That's what I'm afraid of," came drifting down the boardwalk from Sam's retreating from.
*Don't see how this is any different from normal,* Ike signed to Lou, following Jimmy through the doors. Lou just shrugged.
Inside, Ike quickly peeled off, heading toward the dart board at the back of the room. Lou and Jimmy watched him a moment, wondering what the attraction was. He'd spent most of the night there the last time they'd been here, when they'd all visited with Kid's brother Jed. That had been after they'd left the Silver Dollar over the owner's attitude about Buck.
Lou nudged Jimmy's shoulder and pointed toward a table in the near corner with her chin. Four men were seated there with cards in their hands.
"Let's go," she said, heading toward one of the two empty seats at the table. Lowering her voice, she asked, "Got room fer two more?"
"Hep yerself," the grizzled mountain man on her left said, never looking up from his cards. "Buy ye'll havta wait 'til the next hand ta be dealt in."
"That's fine with us," Jimmy said, taking the other empty seat, directly across the table from Lou, his back safely snugged up against the saloon wall.
"Can I get you gents anythin' ta drink while yer waitin'," a blonde saloon girl asked.
"Two sarsaparillas," Jimmy ordered, adjusting his Colt to a more comfortable position in the chair and placing a coin on the table. Lou pulled her hat further down over her forehead as she leaned back in the wooden chair and nodded her agreement.
"Comin' right up," the barmaid smiled, as she turned back toward the bar, pocketing the coin.
The whiskey burned a path down Trimble's throat and into his belly as he took another deep swig directly from the bottle.
"Outta my way," he growled, pushing past several tables filled with laughing, drinking men.
He could barely see the room around him through the red haze of anger growing inside him. How could she? How could she do this to him again?! First that cowboy, now those two no 'count kids, who else would she share her company with? All the while ignoring his presence.
She was his iwife/i, dammit! As a husband he had certain rights, granted him by God and Man! It was about time he demanded she do her duty by him!
"Three Kings and two Aces," Lou said proudly, laying down her cards. "A Full House. Read 'em and weep."
"Damnit, Lou!" Jimmy groaned, throwing down his own cards in a fit of pique, even as she stood to gather up her winnings. "I didn't bring ya here ta clean ime/i out! How'd you do it? Again?"
She grinned up at him insouciantly as she started to neatly stack her winnings in front of her. "Just luck, I guess."
"Yeah, right," a tall skinny saddle tramp next to Jimmy muttered, spitting tobacco juice at a can on the floor nearby, and missing. "Five hands since y'all joined the game and every one's gone either to you or yer little friend over there."
"Are you insinuatin' somethin'?" Lou growled, reaching for the butt of her gun.
"I ain't in-sin-you-ate-in' nothin'," the tramp growled, much louder this time. "I'm outright sayin' it. You two're cheatin'! I want my money back!"
"If you can't afford ta lose, ya shouldn't be playin'," Jimmy said with a deceptive calm, reaching for the cards and beginning to shuffle them.
"Why you…" the man sputtered, jumping out of his seat and reaching for his gun, only to find himself already facing down an enfuriated Lou, her gun out and cocked.
At the same time, Jimmy's foot came up under the rails of the man's chair, tipping it backward, taking the saddle tramp to the floor with it.
Jimmy stood up and grabbed the man by the shoulders, pulling the gun out of his hands.
"You shouldn't start things you can't finish," he growled
"I got 'im," Lou said, wrenching the man's arm up between his shoulders as high as it would go with one hand while shoving the barrel of her pistol into the middle of his back. "Now walk! I'm sure Marshall Cain'll have plenty of room left in the jail fer ya."
"I…" Jimmy started to offer to help, but Lou waved him off.
"I got 'im, Jimmy. Go back to the game."
Jimmy watched as she marched the man through the swinging saloon doors and out into the night.
"Yer little friend's quite the spunky one," the grizzled mountain man spoke around a fat cigar clenched tightly between his teeth.
"Yep," Jimmy nodded with a modicum of pride.
"Ya gonna keep playin' or ya gonna go babysit?" one of the young Devlin ranch hands asked irritably.
"I'm playin'," Jimmy sighed, pulling his chair out and sitting back down.
Ike smiled as he watched Lou march the troublemaker out the doors. Walking up to the dart board, he quickly collected the miniature arrows. He hadn't found anyone to play with yet, but that wasn't really why he was here, anyway. Unfortunately, his real reason for coming had yet to come round. Heaving a sigh, he turned and headed toward the bar. He needed a little something to wet his whistle.
Reaching the bar, he slapped his hand on it to get the barkeep's attention.
"Be right with ya, Ike," the man said with a smile, already knowing what his order was. Ike had become a near regular over the last few weeks, and the man liked him, even if he couldn't talk.
"How'd ya do that,boy?"
Ike turned to the tall, scruffy cowboy next to him and shrugged, then looked back toward the busy bartender.
"Hey!" the cowboy exclaimed. "I'm talkin' to you!"
Ike looked back at the man, confused.
"What's the matter? Think yer too good ta speak with me?"
Ike shook his head and smiled at the man. Raising his hands to his throat, he shook his head.
Not understanding, the tramp reached out and grabbed Ike's shoulder, pulling him around to meet his already flying fist.
Ike's head snapped back as the cowboy's fist impacted with his left eye.
"Hey!" the bartender protested uselessly. "Take the fight outside!"
The sound grabbed Jimmy's attention. Looking up he saw the ongoing fistfight between Ike and the strange cowboy. Even as he watched, the pair stumbled over another man's chair, spilling his beer in his lap.
The new man jumped up in anger. Picking up his chair, he brought it crashing down over the heads of the two oblivious combatants.
Jimmy sighed and put down his cards. Standing up he said, "Excuse me, gents. I'll be right back."
Wading into the growing battle, he grabbed Ike's original assailant and smashed his head ruthlessly against the wall. Immediately Jimmy let go of him, not even pausing to watch as he slid bonelessly to the floor, out cold. Jimmy was already turning to grab the second man, only to chuckle as Ike wrestled him to the floor, pinning him in place.
Looking about, Jimmy could tell the fight had spread to several other tables by now and was well on its way to getting out of control. Stepping back, he pulled his gun and fired a shot into the air. Everyone in the saloon instantly froze, then peered in his direction.
"I'd suggest y'all drop the theatrics 'fore the Marshall gets back," Jimmy said nonchalantly, holstering his Colt. "I ain't sure how, but I am sure he'll find room for all o' y'all in his jail iffen he has ta."
"If y'all just take a seat and go back ta enjoyin' the evening," the bartender added, "the next round's on the house."
A rousing round of cheers greeted this announcement, followed quickly by the scraping sound of tables being righted and chairs scooted back into place.
Trimble watched as the slender, muscular gunslinger hefted the unconscious cowboy over his shoulder and headed for the door. He nodded to his slight friend who was just returning as he pushed his way outside.
The laughter had returned to the room, with a renewed, almost forced intensity. Trimble's eyes roved the room searching for a head of blonde curls, bobbing through the sea of men.
A hand reached out and pinched her behind, getting only a smile and a mild slap in response.
He could feel the anger boiling up and over in his stomach, almost making him vomit. But he kept a lid on it, knowing sooner or later she would come his direction. Then, he'd teach her to ignore her husband!
Ike sank into a chair near the rear of the room, pressing the heel of his hand against his throbbing eye. By morning he'd have a nice shiner. He could tell already. But there wasn't anything he could do about it.
He looked around, ready to head home now, thinking the trip had been a waste of his time. She hadn't wanted to talk to him again, after all. He was about to get up when he heard her.
He turned around and there she was. She was about one of the prettiest ladies he'd ever seen. She was his height, maybe a little taller, with piles of thick, curly blonde hair resting gently on top of her head. Her curves perfectly filled out the low-cut bodice of her outfit.
Suddenly shy, he nodded his head in greeting even as he began to inspect the toes of his boots. He should've waited and come tomorrow night, after he'd had time to clean up a bit more. His boots sure could use a good shining, he thought inanely.
The feel of her hand under his chin forced his head up. His eyes met hers.
"Oh, that's turning in to a nasty shiner," she murmured, concernedly echoing his sentiments of a moment before.
He shrugged self-deprecatingly. It wasn't like there was anything he could do about it, after all.
She pushed him back into his chair and curled his fingers around a glass of sarsaparilla. He started to shake his head, 'no', but she stopped him.
"Don't worry 'bout it, Ike," she smiled. "The sarsaparilla's on the house. Thanks to you and your friends for helpin' keep the peace tonight. Now, you just sit there while Angel goes and gets you somethin' ta put on that eye."
Her hand tenderly swept across his bald head as she turned hurriedly back toward the bar. Ike didn't move, simply sitting there watching every move she made. Within minutes she was back with a raw steak.
She sat down on his lap and carefully placed the steak over his tender eye. He smiled happily up into her face.
"So," she murmured, leaning forward to whisper in his ear. "I've missed you. You haven't been around much lately."
With one hand, Ike imitated a horse running, one of the simplest signs he'd learned and understood by almost everyone. She smiled teasingly.
"You've been too busy riding for the Express ta come see me?"
He nodded, matching his grin to hers.
She leaned forward and whispered into his ear, "You still got my little present?"
He blushed almost as red as the boa she'd given him even as he nodded a yes.
"So what do I have ta do ta get ya ta give it back?" she asked slyly.
Trimble sat there, fuming as she made up to that big dummy. He'd seen how the man, boy really, struggled to communicate with gestures, unable to use his own voice. What could she possibly see in that half-man?
He'd show her, he'd show them both, who was the better man!
Lou sighed. Ever since she'd come back from dropping off that drunk at the Marshal's office she'd drawn nothing but crap hands.
She looked up into the blue eyes of the barmaid.
"The owner's offering free sarsaparillas to you and yer friends, over there by Ike. His thanks fer your help tonight."
Lou nodded. Turning back to the table she tossed down her cards. "Sounds good ta me. My luck here's 'bout played out anyway."
Soon, she was sinking down into a chair next to Ike.
"Nice shiner," she commented drily.
Ike shrugged, not really looking at Lou. His one free eye remained glued to the moving form of the saloon girl, the other hidden under a piece of raw steak. Lou laughed.
"What's her name, Ike?"
"What?" Lou asked, turning to the drunk sitting slumped at a nearby table. "Were you talkin' ta us?"
"I see ya gotta game of dartsh goin'," the man slurred, stumbling to his feet. "Think ya can beat me? Come on!"
Something about his challenge raised Lou's brow, but Ike nodded genially and stood, pulling the darts out of his vest. Facing the dartboad, Ike took a steady stance and let fly with the first dart, hitting the bullseye with a satisfying , "thunk!"
Turning, Ike offered the next dart to his opponent with a smile. The man grabbed the dart out of Ike's hand and, pulling back his arm, let it fly with full force. The dart clipped the edge of Ike's hat, as it flew past him, pinning the brim to the board.
"Ike!" Angel exclaimed, walking up with Lou's sarsaparilla.
The cowboy turned, and grabbing the bottle of whiskey he'd been nursing all night, he slammed it against the edge of the table, breaking it into two sharp-edged pieces. Continuing his turn, he wrapped an arm around Angel's throat, pulling her tight in against his chest.
"I told you I wouldn't never let ya step out on me again like this, Lucretia," he hissed at her.
"What?!" Angel exclaimed.
"Yer imy/i wife and ya oughter show a little wifely loyalty, woman!"
Angel screamed as he slashed the broken bottle down her cheek, opening a pair of deep, parallel, bleeding scratches along the cheekbone.
"There," he muttered. "Now ya won't never forget who ya belong ta. Yer Mrs. Trimble and ye'll stay Mrs. Tri-"
He suddenly slumped forward, taking Angel to the floor with him, sarsaparilla dripping down into his eyes. Lou stood looking down at him, her mug held in the air ready for another swing, a spot of blood on the bottom of it from where she'd slammed it into the drunk's head.
Ike rushed forward to pull a sobbing Angel out from under her groggy, semi-conscious captor. Feeling her slipping away from his grasp, Trimble scrambled for his gun. Pulling it, he pointed it at Ike and Angel and cocked the hammer back.
"You give her back, ya vermin, or I'll do you like I did the last fella thought he could steal my wife!"
"I don't think so," Jimmy said matter of factly, bringing the butt of his Colt down with extreme force. "I think it's time ta put ya out of our misery."
"Thank you," Angel sobbed. "Oh, thank you."
"Ike, why don't ya take her to the doc's ta get them cuts seen to?" Lou suggested. Bending over she reached out to grab the drunk's arms. Looking up at Jimmy, she prompted, "Well? I cain't 'xactly carry him by myself."
Ike moved slowly down the boardwalk, half leading, half carrying the injured Angel.
"Oh, Ike, why?" she moaned. "Why?"
Ike shook his head, trying to indicate he didn't know, but she wasn't paying any attention. Keeping her hand pressed to her bleeding cheek, she kept muttering.
"I'll lose my job. No one's goin' ta want a scarred up has been servin' drinks."
Ike pulled her in against his chest, hugging her tight.
Leaning back, she looked up at him and smiled wanly. "Here I am complainin' when I should be celebratin'."
Ike frowned his question at her.
"I could be dead right now. I would be, if it weren't fer you and your friends. I don't know how I'll ever be able ta thank you."
"Just pass it on," Jimmy grunted, as he and Lou shouldered past the pair, lugging her unconscious attacker between them. "Someday, some time, somewhere, you'll get the chance ta do somethin' for someone else. Pass it on."
"Barnett, you got that new shipment of wanted posters over there?" Marshall Sam Cain asked. He'd had a long night. His jail cells were filled to overflowing with all the drunks and locos he, and those Express boys of Emma's, had picked up. They sure had been a wonder, not to mention a lot more help than his paid deputy! Now, he wanted to check the names and faces in his cells against the latest wanted lists.
"Right here," Barnett said, shuffling over with the stack of papers in his hand. "Just come in this mornin'."
"Thanks," Cain muttered, taking the posters. Looking up at the exhausted Barnett, his face softened. "Why don't you head on home. Saloons are closed for the night. I think we're done here."
"If you're sure," Barnett asked, already backing toward the door.
"Wouldn't have said it if I weren't sure."
Flipping through the pile of papers, Cain stopped at one from Harper's Ridge and read through it twice. Holding it up, he walked over to the cell and matched the drawing with the face of the last man Jimmy and Lou had brought in.
"Well dang," he muttered out loud to himself. "Look's like I owe them two a steak dinner. And $100."
The poster was for Matt Trimble, wanted dead or alive for the murders of Boyd Creese and his sweetheart Tabitha Beville.