“I’ll go in the morning,” Kit said. “The horse would be liable to turn a leg in the dark. I don’t want to risk that. We can’t afford a new horse.”
Judy slid a little closer to him, then said, “We should tie him up in the stable. We’ll watch him in shifts.”
Stud helped pull him to his feet and pushed him to the stable.
“You know Butch isn’t going to stand for this.”
“Butch?” Kit said.
“My partner. We’re out here to get our piece of land and riches.”
“Well we’ll be ready for him, too,” Kit said. He pushed the barrel of the shotgun and his chest and said, “The stable.”
Their little procession made their way into the stable and O’Keefe was tied to a pole in the center. His arms were around the pole, with rope around his wrists.
“I’ll take first watch,” Judy said.
A look like worry filled Steve’s eyes, but he was quiet. Kit nodded and handed her the shotgun.
“I can’t sleep with you guarding him,” Steve said.
“Just sit with me.”
O’Keefe made a grumbling, disgusted noise. “What will you do with me? What do you think you can do with me? I’m the nice one. And this is how you repay me?”
Steve shook his head. “You’re on my family’s land.”
“And who do you think you are?”
“A cousin. A Marlowe.”
O’Keefe snorted. “You don’t even know what you’ve got here. I’m sure you’re just going to get some cattle and try to live this quiet little life here. But you don’t even know what’s under your feet.”
“That’s no reason for you to try and take it.”
Judy put a calming hand on Steve’s arm. He looked back at her and was quiet.
“Are you hungry?” she asked.
“Don’t want your food,” he spat.
She shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
They were quiet for some time, then O’Keefe’s head began to bob. He settled himself against the pole a little more, then his head dropped to the side. He was asleep. Or at least he looked asleep enough to make her think he was.
At O’Keefe’s quiet, Steve spread out the blanket and put his head in her lap. She ran her fingers through his hair and played with the stubble on his face, her fingers tingling with the small scratches.
He smiled and she leaned down and kissed his lips. She would have his head in her lap, her thigh for his pillow. Together through the strangest thing she could think of.
They’d switch at midnight and she’d go sleep in the loft again.
“You should sleep,” she whispered.
He smiled again, then pulled another blanket over his shoulder. He settled against her thigh and she played with his brown hair. The lamp light caught the edges, caught the edge of his ear.
She smiled. He was happy there in her lap. He was happy like he’d never had exactly what he wanted before, like he wasn’t ever going to find what he wanted like this again.
She leaned over and kissed his forehead. He’d work to keep her happy. She’d work to keep him happy. Despite how different they may have seemed at first, their similarities were too near. Their lives were too perfect and close together.
He slept on her thigh. O’Keefe slept a fitful, terrible night, waking often and trying to stretch.
At midnight, his watch chimed and they traded places. She climbed up into the hayloft. The ground was too hard and his leg wasn’t nearly as soft, or the right height to support her head. In any case, she’d take the hayloft for now and he’d join her at four.
She scampered down from the hayloft and kissed his temple, then breathed, “I’ll be waiting for you,” into his ear. She was rewarded with an amazing case of gooseflesh covering his arm and neck. She kissed the temple again and was back up into the hayloft.
She pulled a blanket over her shoulder and was blissfully asleep, anticipation for Steve joining her in a few short hours.
Until his shout of, “Judy!” woke her. She sat bolt upright and scrambled out from the hayloft. Steve was running out the door and toward the cabin. Flames licked across the top of the roof.
“Oh god,” she whispered, then followed after Steve.
A wedge of wood was pushed into the door, jamming it shut.
She picked up the lantern to follow Steve, but realized it wasn’t going to make a difference because of how much fire was already coming off the smaller building.
Steve tried to pull the strap on the door, but it had been sliced and broke off in his hand.
He ran to the chopping log and took the ax, hacking at the door. Judy took a deep breath, trying to make a plan and ran around the back of the cabin where the windows were cut into the wood.
She picked up a stone and broke the glass window.
“Alex!” she yelled. “Pass me the baby.”
She could hear Kit and Sylvia yelling in the cabin, then the small bundle of baby was passed out the window.
“I’ve got him,” she yelled. “Steve is getting you out.”
She ran around the front of the building, back to Steve. He was hacking at the door as best he could. And his efforts were good. He was strong, the ripple of his muscles as he worked to save his family.
The baby was squalling in her ear. She tried to rock and shush him, but it was more than she could do now. It was more than anything could calm. The only thing that could calm him was his mother.
Steve broke through the door and yelled to his family. He hacked more to make the space bigger, enough space for them to climb through.
“Go, Sylv!” Kit yelled.
Sylvia slid out from under the door, into the night air. Judy helped her up, then put an arm around her and passed her the baby.
The hole in the door wasn’t big enough for Kit. Steve started hacking at the door again, making the space big enough for Kit to squeeze through.
Steve kept hacking with the wild energy of panic. Once the hole was big enough, nothing happened.
“Kit?” Sylvia screamed.
Steve looked back at Judy once, then wriggled under the door and into the inferno.
Judy’s soul shriveled. She had been holding Sylvia to keep her strong and standing, but now Judy needed the support.
Not that Sylvia could do anything but try to keep herself upright. Both women collapsed to their knees until Steve yelled, “Judy?”
There was a commotion at the hole in the door and Judy scrambled up to pull Kit from the door. Sylvia set Alex in a wheelbarrow and joined Judy to pull Kit from the burning building. Both of them took an arm and pulled him away.
Sylvia fell to her knees at his side and Judy yelled, “Steve?” into the inferno.
The fire was surprisingly loud and crackling. The smoke inside was suffocating and the heat was stifling.
“Jesus Christ, Steve?!” she cried out. She was trying to decide whether going in would help anything when Steve’s hand was visible through the doorway.
She gripped his hand and pulled as hard as she could. Her love made her strong. She pulled again and he moved forward. She pulled him from the burning building and fell over him, stroking his face and trying to rouse him.
“Steve, oh Jesus, Steve,” she ran her fingers over his face. Soot smudges were across his face. She leaned forward and kissed him, butterfly kisses across his face. A million tiny kisses. He was breathing, his heart was beating. It’s not like there was anything else she could do right now to help him.
Tears were rolling down her cheeks.
“Kit? Oh, Kit, oh Kit,” Sylvia was murmuring as Kit came to again. Alex was still crying from his wheelbarrow and she scooped him up, then sat at Kit’s side again. She opened her dress and gave the baby her breast in an effort to calm him now that they were safe. Or at least as safe as they could be for the situation.
The baby was too angry to suckle, and Sylvia was torn between trying to soothe the baby and fussing over her baby. Alex finally took her breast and was quiet.
Kit’s tired, gravelly voice broke the night. At least Kit was okay. At least Sylvia still had Kit. They had a huge rebuilding project ahead of them, but they were together.
“Steve,” she whispered. She was holding him to her chest with his eyes closed. “Steve come back.”
She ran a hand over his face, pulling the brown hair from the forehead, the brown scruff on his face almost a beard already.
He finally groaned and her tears wouldn’t stop. They rolled down her cheeks and splashed on his face. He wiped at the tear and it made a muddy smudge on his skin.
She held him as tightly as she could, the sobs racking her.
“Judy?” he whispered.
“I’m right here. I’m right here, Steve.”
She rocked now, holding him close and tight. She would give anything to keep this man safe. That she should feel this attachment to him, that they should be so close.
She nodded once, then said, “He’s awake.” She kissed his forehead and said, “They’ll be fine. We’ll rebuild.”
“I love you,” she whispered. If he could die at any time, he needed to know. She needed to tell him, because at the rate they were going, either of them could be dead before dawn.
He sat up with that and wrapped his arms around her, holding her closely, as tight as he could.
He kissed her shoulder and said, “Me, too.”
She kissed his temple and sighed. They had survived for now.