By Beth Goodman
The raindrops glistened like tiny diamonds in sharp contrast against the black night sky as they sparkled on the windowpane, illuminated by the glowing yellow-orange light of the kerosene lamp. The constant rapping on the ceiling of the bunkhouse only ceased to be heard when the clamorous, menacing claps of thunder overpowered the more quiet, steady tempo kept by the rain. All the riders of the Sweetwater Pony Express family were warm and dry inside the bunkhouse, thank goodness, and they pitied anybody that was so unfortunate as to be out on a night like this.
"Pass the potatoes, Jimmy?" Cody asked, between devouring mouth-fulls of Rachel's delicious cornbread.
"Sorry, Cody. Ain't none left. You musta already ate the last of 'em," Jimmy replied, feigning regret.
It was a widely known fact that William F. Cody had a voracious appetite, so Jimmy felt somewhat satisfied that, maybe for once, Cody would have to go to bed with his belly not quite as full as it usually was.
Cody sighed and looked disappointed for a moment. That is, until he spotted Lou sitting across from him at the table and the ample portion of mashed potatoes that was still left on her plate. A crooked, devilish smirk crossed Cody's lips.
"Uh, Lou," he began, in his sweet, 'I-want-something-that-you-have' voice, "are you gonna finish all those mashed potatoes?"
Lou raised her eyes, looking over the tops of the wire-frame spectacles only to meet Cody's eyes which were shining full of mischievous intent.
"I don't know, Cody. But I was thinkin' if I didn't, I'd give 'em to Lightning," Lou stated in a tone that made her frustration with Cody's gluttonous behavior apparent.
Cody's grin faded as the other riders at the supper table broke out in laughter. The raucous only ceased when Teaspoon came storming through the bunkhouse door at the same instant as a bolt of lightning came crashing down from the sky behind him. His black hat was dripping wet, and the rain was running off of his mustard slicker into a huge puddle on the wooden floor below.
Everyone at the table immediately stopped eating, and all conversation was put on hold. They knew even without noticing the solemn, worried look on Teaspoon's face that there was only one reason that he would be caught out on a night such as this. There was something wrong. Trouble, in whatever form it would manifest itself in this time, was just around the corner.
II. The Mission
"What it is, Teaspoon?" Kid asked for everyone.
Teaspoon closed the bunkhouse door, removed his soaking wet hat and slicker to hang a hook on the wall, and sat down on a chair at the head of the table.
He looked downward and was completely silent for a few moments before finally speaking. "Boys, it looks like trouble's gonna be headed our way."
No one at the table stirred, for they had already come to that same conclusion when Teaspoon first came into the bunkhouse like a bat out of Hell. Their focus was entirely concentrated on Teaspoon as his lips moved to speak.
"It seems that three riders from the Plum Creek station were bushwhacked yesterday durin' a special delivery to Fort Kearny for the army. They were robbed and two of 'em were killed." Teaspoon paused when he saw the downcast expressions on the faces of the riders in front of him.
Then he continued, "One rider saw the whole thing and was lucky enough to get away. He was hurt pretty bad, shot once in the arm and once in the side. Somehow he managed to find his way out here just a couple of hours ago. Says his name's Michael. Says these men who did this were waitin' for him and the other two to ride through and 'fore they knew what was happenin', they were surrounded and bein' shot at. He musta used the last of his strength to tell me what he's told me so far 'fore he passed out, and now he's over at Doc Barnes'. He's lost a lot of blood but the Doc thinks he'll pull through with a couple days rest."
Rachel, who had been standing in the background speechless through all of this, finally spoke, upset and disgusted, "Oh, those poor boys. Killed over some damn army papers."
"So what do you want us to do, Teaspoon?" Buck asked with a great deal of concern and sincerity in his voice.
"Well, we've gotta get a message over to Fort Kearny tellin' the army that their dispatch was intercepted. Plus, we've gotta get them to tell us exactly what it was that the riders were carryin' so's we can figure out where the men who killed 'em are headed."
"Damn this rain!" Noah threw his napkin onto the table, extremely agitated. "Those men'll be days ahead of us by that time and we can't even track 'em since any traces of 'em will be long gone."
"Calm down, Noah. We just gotta hope we can catch up with 'em 'fore it's too late," Teaspoon responded, the uncertainty apparent in his tone.
"But what about Michael? Won't those men be lookin' for him now that he knows who they are?" Lou questioned.
"That's what I been afraid of. So, we'll keep him here and keep an eye on him 'til he gets well enough to ride. Hopefully, when he wakes up he'll be able to tell us more 'bout what happened. And by then, some of you should've informed the army over at Fort Kearny of the situation and have a idea as to where these men might be goin'. Then, we'll ride out with Michael and bring the men who did this to justice. But I want you to know that this mission is strictly voluntary. 'Course, I'd like all of ya to come. Lord knows, we don't know yet how many men we'll be up against. I could use all the help I can get..."
"But who will take over our runs if we go?" Ike signed, his hands moving frantically.
"I'll take care of that. I'll ask some of the boys at the Blue Creek station to take over our runs. 'Sides, they owe us anyways." Teaspoon sat silently for a few moment, studying the faces of the riders before asking, "Well, are we in on this one, boys?"
The riders looked around the table at each other, waiting for some sort of unspoken communication that would indicate their decision. Then, Kid spoke up, "We're in...all of us."
On to Part Two