Disclaimer: Still not mine :(

Notes: It's been a long time... I'm sorry to have kept you waiting. Without further ado, here's the next chapter.

Chapter 32

Sure hope Mac and Stell are all right out there. Even if it was a boiling hot summer's day, I'd still be concerned about them going to look at the state of the saloon. The fact that it's almost cold enough to freeze the blood in your veins makes what they're doing even more foolhardy. But, try telling them that you think what they're doing is foolhardy and you'll waste your breath. So, I'll be heading out after them in a little while, to make sure they don't get themselves into any more danger. Deputy's duty and all that. And I consider it a friend's duty, too. Specially as simply walking up Main Street seems to prove dangerous for them these days.

In the meantime, Miss Jessica is giving me a signal that we oughtta be offering Martha some help in the kitchen. Just the thing to pass the time; washing dishes. Geez. Oh well, guess that's sort of a Deputy's duty as well. Though it's gotta be said, I did do my duty earlier washing up for Miss Jessica.

'Don?' the lady herself asks pointedly.

'I'm comin',' I sigh. Duty calls...

'What can we help you with, Mrs Hammerback?' Miss Jessica asks Martha just as I've trailed after her into the kitchen. Martha's got her back to us and her hands plunged in a sink full of soapy water and is kinda' surprised to see us.

'Oh, no, my loves, you're guests. Guests aren't expected to wash up. You go and sit yourselves back down by the fire,' she orders, making shooing gestures with her hands, and flicking soap suds all over the place.

I'm all for doing as she says; after all, who am I to argue with the mistress of a kitchen, but Miss Jessica grabs my arm before I can get very far.

'Stay here,' she hisses, much to my disappointment, before continuing in a gentler voice, 'Mrs Hammerback, I reckon me and Don have been visiting you for long enough, Don especially, to be considered friends rather than guests. And besides,' she adds, giving me a sidelong glance, 'He's surely eaten enough breakfasts here to be considered almost an honorary lodger, with more than a few washing-up obligations to fulfil.'

Well, I ain't sure that's entirely fair, seeing as it's Martha who always invites me to breakfast. Would be rude to turn her down...

Martha's shaking her head. 'Mr Flack, you've no such obligations to fulfil.'

I'm about to agree whole-heartedly, but Miss Jessica gives me a look so full of meaning, and a nudge to my side, also full of meaning, that I got to erase the words I was about to say.

'You know how much of a gentleman Don is, Mrs Hammerback,' Miss Jessica says, striking something of a low blow, which she knows given how she's smiling so sweetly at me.

Clearing my throat, I shoot her a look and compose a different speech. 'Maybe I ain't obliged in your eyes, Martha, but it'd sure be real un-gentlemanly of me to sit idle while you're washin' dishes.'

Martha frowns. 'Begging your pardon, my love, but a kitchen isn't the place for gentlemen. Even my dear Sidney isn't allowed in here unless it's for purposes of eating, or chores under my strict supervision.'

I'm aware of Miss Jessica coughing and clearing her throat, no doubt hiding her amusement at the image of Hammerback being supervised to do chores. I'm kinda' struggling myself to stay serious...

'But Don's real good at washin' dishes,' Miss Jessica manages to say after a moment, crushing the hope that I might have been able to escape.

'Thanks for the compliment. It weren't necessary at all,' I mutter, which Miss Jessica pretends not to hear as Martha tuts.

'That's as maybe, but in my kitchen, my rules apply, even if they do seem old-fashioned to you young folk.' Though there's sternness in her voice, there's still a twinkle in her eye.

'Hear that, Miss Jessica?' It ain't possible to stop the look of triumph I give her. 'Martha's kitchen, Martha's rules. And you know there ain't anyone more respectin' of rules than me... 'cept maybe Mac.'

The nudge Miss Jessica gives me almost winds me and leaves me unable to interrupt as she addresses Martha again. 'Then how about a compromise, Mrs Hammerback? I can help you with dryin' the dishes and Don can do the puttin' away, if you tell him where everythin' goes. And I promise we won't drop anythin'.'

Hands on her hips, Martha purses her lips and looks between the two of us. I grin, sorta' weakly at her, and she sighs.

'Well, maybe I could allow that... but just this once,' she says and Miss Jessica grins at her.

'Reckon we'll be finished in no time between the three of us. Ain't that right, Don?'

What can I do but agree? 'Right, Miss Jessica.'

Martha shakes her head, giving me a knowing sorta' look at the same time. 'You're a sweet-talker, Miss Jessica, and no mistake.' Yep, she's sure got that right. Although it's been to my disadvantage, I've gotta admire how she's been able to talk Martha round. Still, guess I ain't gonna complain too much. Least I'm spending time with Miss Jessica, even if it weren't exactly in the way I was hoping. And maybe Martha'll take things easy with us, seeing as we've volunteered...

Well, one of us volunteered; the other one of us was near-enough press-ganged into it.

It don't take long for my hopes to evaporate. There's barely time to breathe as we're kept busy washing, drying and putting away what seems like a mountain of dishes. With the two of us helping her, Martha takes the opportunity to do a grand clean up and even Miss Jessica starts looking like she regrets her offer. Though I wouldn't exactly call Martha a slave-driver, it ain't far off the mark.

By the time the last plate's been put away on the dresser, both of us are ready for a sit-down, and something to drink...

'You'll no doubt be needing a mug of coffee after all that hard work, my loves,' Martha says with another knowing smile on her face.

Miss Jessica catches my eye and smirks as I nod real enthusiastically.

'I sure won't say no to a cup of your fine coffee, Martha, then I'll head out into town to check up on Mac and Stella.'

Martha looks approving at that and escorts us through to the living room, making sure we're sitting down before she scurries back into the kitchen. Soon as she's outta sight, I flop back on the couch with a sigh and close my eyes, before I hear Miss Jessica chuckling. Cracking an eye open, I give her a jaundiced look.

'So you're findin' it funny that I've been worked to the bone for no more reward than a cup of coffee, as good as that coffee might be?' I say, faking hurt and indignance. Miss Jessica ain't taken in by it one cent though. Laughing out loud, she pats my arm.

'Oh, Don, you are comical.' She grins, which I ain't sure how to take.

'Comical? Well, guess there are worse things to be,' I mumble, putting as much dignity into my voice as I can.

'Far worse,' Miss Jessica says with such a sweet smile that there ain't no more grumbling that I can reasonably do, 'specially not when she leans closer and dabs a kiss on my cheek, giving me a shy kinda' grin when Martha comes bustling in with coffee.

'Apologies for creatin' more washin' up for you,' I say, accepting my cup.

She waves her hand dismissively. 'Never you mind about that, Mr Flack, and don't worry, I'm not going to make you dry or put away anything else,' she adds with a twinkle in her eye. Reckon I must have looked kinda' embarrassed about that as she's quick to continue. 'Now, what about lunch, my loves? Are you going to go and bring Miss Stella and Mr Taylor back here for something to eat?' She looks real anxious at the thought of Mac and Stell possibly missing a meal, so I reassure her quickly.

'That's our intention,' I say and she looks relieved. Me and Miss Jessica don't take long over our coffee and Martha's soon standing at the door with us, making sure we got enough warm clothing on before we venture back outside. Luckily, we're allowed to leave without being quite as smothered as poor Stell was.

'Make sure you bring the two of them back!' Martha calls after us, and we both promise that we will.

It ain't hard to find Mac and Stell; they're right where we expected them to be, standing at the edge of the wreckage from the saloon. Well, not exactly standing: the two of them are wandering round, hand in hand, with Mac poking his cane into the rubble at the edges, while Stella points at various things.

Miss Jessica and I exchange a glance. Surely there ain't a chance that any of Stella's possessions survived that kind of inferno? Guess she wants to be certain of that though. Just hope she ain't gone and built her hopes up of finding something and then they're dashed...

'Wait, Don,' Miss Jessica tugs me back. 'Maybe we should leave them a bit longer? Seems insensitive of us to interrupt them when they look kinda' involved with each other.'

'Involved? What d'you mean?' I ask, staring over at Mac and Stella, who don't look all that different from usual. Sure, maybe it ain't so usual to see them holding hands, but it ain't nothing to cause more than a passing glance. Guess it's just Mac's way of giving Stella some support.

Miss Jessica gives me a sort of squint. 'I just think we oughtta leave them for a little longer. They look like they still got a few things to talk about.'

Much as I respect Miss Jessica's views, I ain't convinced this time.

'They've been out here more than an hour,' I point out, 'which is plenty of time to talk about things. Besides, if we're out here much longer and don't return to the Hammerbacks' with them, then I don't rate our chances of survival too highly.'

Miss Jessica rolls her eyes and kinda' sighs resignedly. 'Whatever you think, Don.'

Maybe she's feeling bad now for making do all that washing-up. Either way, I ain't gonna hang around. Trudging forward, I call, 'You two ain't gettin' chilled out here are you?' hoping to lighten the mood a bit. Mac looks up at me, but Stell don't seem to have heard, seeing as she continues to poke the toe of her boot into the ashes.

'Everythin' all right?' Mac asks as I reach him and Stell, with Miss Jessica a little way behind.

'Yep. Nothin' that needs worryin' about. Nothin' except Martha, who's worryin' about you two missin' lunch.' I smirk, but Mac's face remains immobile. Darn it, the man would be one of the best poker players in the West if he ever took it up, but he ain't a gambling man. Not when it comes to card games anyhow.

'Lunch?' he asks, and glances at Stella, who seems to notice us for the first time. 'Hadn't realised it was that late in the day. Guess we lost track of time...' He glances again at Stella, and the two of them share one of those looks when they seem to have a whole secret conversation with their eyes only.

'Guess you did,' I say, folding my arms across my chest and narrowing my eyes at them, wondering suddenly if there ain't something in Miss Jessica's observation after all. 'What the two of you been doin'?'

There's another secretive glance between them, and this time Miss Jessica catches my eye, giving me a 'told you so' look.

Stella shrugs. 'Not so much, just lookin' through the – rubble.' Her gaze falls and Mac gives her hand a squeeze, and I feel kinda' mean for that.

'Did you find anythin'?' Miss Jessica asks gently and Stell shakes her head, managing a real small smile.

'Nothin' worth mentionin',' she says with another shrug and a sigh.

'Well, we're sorry for interruptin' you,' Miss Jessica adds, sending me a quick look as she does. 'Maybe you can search a bit more later when it's all cooled down?'

'Maybe so,' Stell says and then falls silent, her eyes downcast. Mac looks closely at her and then frowns at me.

'Don, I got a favour to ask,' he says.

'Go right ahead.'

'If you can spare me a few minutes before we go for lunch, I want to head over to the hardware store and check things out there. Make sure it's locked up and secure in case there's anyone tempted to help themselves to the goods in there, seein' as Brigham ain't here to do that himself.'

Stell's looking kinda' curiously at him as he says that, and Miss Jessica is doing the same. Women are so suspicious sometimes. So Mac wants to go take a look at the hardware store, don't see anything strange about that.

'Sure, Mac. But I gotta warn you, if we ain't back at the Hammerbacks' in half an hour or less, then I reckon Martha's gonna be sendin' out a search party consistin' of herself and haulin' us back to eat.' I congratulate myself on bringing half a smile to the Sheriff's face and even getting Stell to look up with a bit of amusement in her eyes.

'It won't take long,' Mac assures me before turning to Stell.

'Maybe you and Miss Angell might want to walk back to the Hammerbacks ahead of us',' he suggests, though kinda' tentatively, like he already knows what she's gonna say.

Sure enough, Stell shakes her head. 'I'll wait here for you,' she says, giving Mac a challenging look.

'If you like, Miss Stella, I could stay and help you take a look through things,' Miss Jessica offers and smiles kinda' shyly at Stell, who looks surprised, but pleased.

'If it ain't any trouble, that'd be real nice of you, Miss Angell.'

'No trouble at all.' Miss Jessica smiles. With Mac looking happier that Stella ain't gonna be on her own, he and I say our goodbyes to the ladies and make our way to the hardware store, leaving Miss Jessica and Stella staring after us.

Many thanks for reading. Please spare a moment to review and let me know if you'd like an extra scene :) Thank you to Ballettmaus for her help and also Smuffly for a read-through. Thanks also to Suallenparker for the cover art for the story! More soon! Lily x