“Jesse, I’m so glad you’re back!” Lily threw her arms around the lanky young man’s shoulders, pulling him downwards and releasing a cloud of brown dust from his clothing. The red fabric of her brother's shirt was dingy with the stuff. The swirling motes danced in the bright sunlight streaming in through the kitchen windows, but Lily didn’t care. She was just relieved to have her older brother back safely. The job was dangerous, and none of his disclaimers or sugarcoatings would change her mind about that. “You’re back kinda early.” She said. “I’m glad.”
Jesse hugged her hard, pulling her up onto the tips of her toes as he straightened up. “Well.” he replied sheepishly in his honeyed drawl. “I kinda...got sent back as soon as I got there. I would normally have stayed a bit to rest up.” He swept dirty hands back over the shoulder-length strands of equally dirty yellow hair that had escaped the braid behind his head. “Gosh, Lily, I’m gettin’ ya all dirty...”
She grinned at him. “You know I don’t care anything about that. Why’d you get sent back?”
She guided him to the bench at the long kitchen table and pushed him down onto it. Fiona stopped peeling carrots long enough to pour him a tall glass of water and set it in front of him.
“Thanks, Miss Fiona.” He took a long, thirsty draught, then set the glass down. “Well... they said there was maybe some trouble along the route ahead. They wanted me to bring word down the line to Mr. Lynch. I’m sure it’s nothing.”
Lily watched his blue eyes shift to the tabletop. He had always been an inept liar. And he’d done a poor job of convincing her his job as an express rider wasn’t dangerous, that all the stories were a bunch of exaggeration. “Jesse...what happened?"
Jesse fidgeted with his hands. "Well...look, it's not like we know exactly when the riders will arrive. The fellow I was to switch off with didn't show up, so...uh...I just had to relay that there was a delay, is all."
Fiona interrupted, coming back to stand in front of the table with a half-skinned carrot in one hand and a paring knife in the other. “What happened?” Her face was tight with concern. “Don’t tell me Storm rode off into a bad spot this morning.”
Jesse looked from his sister to Fiona and his sweet face softened into a gentle smile. “Nothing to worry about, Miss Fiona, really. He went northeast. I was riding southwest. Some of the relay stations further out on my route were closed, that’s all, so they sent me back so I could pass the news down. I’m sure Storm’s fine.”
“Why were they closed?” Fiona pressed, obviously unconvinced. “What about the mailbags?” She sat down at the table besides him, the carrot dangling forgotten in her white-knuckled hand.
“Well, they told me to leave the mochilla at Weber and they’d just have them picked up when the trail re-opened….”
" What's a mochilla?" Lilyfrowned.
“The mailbag. The...uh....” Jesse glanced at his sister and squirmed. “there was a...well... fire down the trail and a relay station burned...so....”
Fiona’s green eyes widened in shock. “Burned?” She looked helplessly at Lily, her face a mask of worry. Jesse, what on earth...”
“Ah, I’m sure it’s nothing, Miss Fiona. An accident.” Jesse seemed to be troubled that he’d worried Fiona. “You know Storm as well as I do, Miss Fiona. Even if there is trouble, he’ll be fine. Don't worry. But you know,” He perked up, happy to change the subject, and turned back towards Lily. “I got to talk to Harris while I was in Fort Bridger. He’s the postmaster, you know. He said he’d try to find out about the stake. He said as far as he knew the land was pretty much worthless. But he’d ask around for me.”
Lily raised an eyebrow. “Well, somebody sure got a lawyer out here pretty quick. One was out here this morning" And, she thought ruefully, your buddy Saint made a fool of himself in front of him, but we won’t talk about that.
Jesse frowned. “Really? That was fast. He beat me back here.”
“I know. He said someone wanted to buy it.”
“Well, heck. I told Harris I’d just as soon sell it for whatever we could get, if you agreed.”
Lily shrugged apologetically. “Well, Jesse, I think we ought to at least find out what we have, first. I told the lawyer that.”
Jesse’s teeth showed in his tanned face. “Hey, the final decision is up to you, of course. The deed’s yours.”
Lily reached across the table and squeezed Jesse’s grimy hand. “No, it’s ours. We’ll both decide what to do with it.”
He gave her a smile and a nod, then turned his attention to back Fiona, who was nervously picking at the carrot in her hand. “Miss Fiona, Storm went off in the complete opposite direction, all right? You know them boys northeast a’ here got it pretty soft. He’s prob’ly got his feet up, drinking coffee with way too much sugar in it at Three Crossings right this very minute.”
Fiona gave him a feeble smile and stood up. “You’re probably right, Jesse. I know I worry too much.”
“Sometimes.” Jesse grinned at her. He quaffed off the remaining gulp of water in the glass and set it back down. “Lily, we need to talk to Lynch about taking a few days to go on out there and find out what this deed is for. I’d like to see what we’ve got ourselves into.”
© 2008 Regina Shelley