“Cookie McGee! If you dip your grimy finger in my biscuit batter one more time I’ll lop it off and wear it around my neck!” Arlene Tewksbury poised the gleaming cleaver high above her head as if she could not wait to drive it downward, batter or no, and make good on her frightening promise.

That stayed the old trail hound’s knobby hand, a curled finger dripping golden biscuit batter from the generous dollop he’d scooped for himself.

“Oh,” he said, his Adam’s apple bobbing in his reedy neck. “Miss Tewksbury, didn’t see you there….”

“I’m here, all right, Cookie. I’m always in the kitchen, fixing up a meal for you and the rest. Don’t think I don’t see everything that happens in here. Besides,” she said, turning back to her work, “you eat raw dough, it’ll give you pin worms.”

“Pin worms!”

“Oh, yes.” Arlene tried to hide a smirk. “I’d be surprised if you aren’t already afflicted.”

“Pin worms!” Cookie’s knuckled hands trembled and he shook his head in denial. “Can’t be such a thing as that.” His voice dwindled to a whisper as he made for the door. “Can’t be.” He rubbed his belly as he walked, and with each step grew convinced she was right. He had been feeling a mite queasy since he woke.

Course, it could have been the whiskey of the night before. But then again, a splash or six of tanglefoot had never bothered him all that much. But worms, now they were a different matter. He leaned against the corral, a hand lightly massaging his gut.

“Cookie.” Sue Pendleton, lugging an armload of firewood, nodded at the bedraggled old man. “Are you okay? You look a little rough this morning.”

“I do?” Cookie raised a trembling hand to his throat, gently pressed one cheek with his fingertips. “Oh …” He kept walking toward the pole barn they’d hastily constructed on settling in at the Barr-McGee ranch months before.

Sue shrugged and walked on toward the kitchen. “What’s wrong with Cookie, Arlene? He looks like he bumped into a phantom.”

Arlene turned to her, tears slipping down her cheeks. She caught her breath. “He thinks he has … worms!” She barely uttered the word before a fresh round of giggles burst from her.

Sue had no idea what Arlene was talking about, but the jolly older woman’s cheer was catching. She found herself laughing along. Minutes later, when Arlene had control of herself once more and stood stirring spices into the beef stew, Arlene told Sue what she’d said to Cookie.

“Oh, that’s terrible. Poor Cookie.”

“Poor Cookie, my foot! I have had enough of that rascal sticking his grimy paws into whatever it is I’m trying to cook in this kitchen. It’s a wonder we aren’t all afflicted with something he brought in.”

“Well, you’ll be shed of him for a while. Rafe says they have to round up strays and it might take two days.”

Arlene’s expression grew stern. “And that one,” she said, driving the big blade through a particularly large potato. “Here,” she handed Sue a paring knife and nodded toward a bowl of apples. “You can peel those while we gab.”

“What’s wrong with Rafe?” said Sue, setting to work on an apple. She preferred outside work, checking the herd with Jack Smith or fetching lumber for Rafe. Or even listening to Cookie rant and ramble.

“You can’t be that blinded by love, girl.” Arlene rapped the wooden spoon hard twice on the rim of the Dutch oven.

Sue turned, unable to quell a blush. “I … I don’t know what you mean.”

“Oh, come now.” Arlene chuckled. “We all know you’re sweet on Rafe. No call to hide your light for him. But he’s … well, don’t you think he’s changed? And not for the better, either. I have never seen a man angrier all the time, though about what I can only guess.”

“Arlene, do you think it’s me?” Sue paused, a peel dangling from her knife. “I mean, do you think he’s angry all the time because of me?”

“You? No, it’s not you, girl. I think he’s angry with himself, with the people who wronged him here at this ranch all those years ago. The ones who killed his wife and son. That’s who he’s angry with. Not any of us, that’s for certain.”

They worked quietly for a time, then Sue said, “Arlene? Do you think he regrets rescuing me from Al Swearengen up in Deadwood? I know I wasn’t the most pleasant person to be around. Maybe I’m still not, but I’m trying. Really trying to be what he wants me to be, Arlene. He can be so difficult.”

Arlene wiped her red, work-hard hands on her apron and hugged the young girl tight about the shoulders. “I don’t think he regrets a single thing he’s done for you, Sue. Rafe is a good man, but he’s a man. And like most of them, he’s both complicated and simple. Though in his case, I’d say he has more of the former and less of the latter. He has packed a pile of living into his years, more than most people get up to. It’s the way he’s made.” She scooped up a pile of rough-chopped potato chunks and dropped them into a stewpot. “Cookie has told me some things about Rafe, the things he did on behalf of his country. Why, it makes me ashamed to think of how little I have done in comparison.”

“You think he’ll ever …” But Sue could not finish the thought.

“Come around to appreciating you? He might, Sue. But a man like Rafe, if I have any right to judge him at all, he’s different than most folks. One thing I know for certain: He will make the decision he thinks is best for everyone around him, then he might, mind you, think about himself. You can take that to the bank.”

“Why, Arlene, you are beginning to sound not a little like Cookie McGee.”

The older woman nudged a fly-away strand of chestnut-streaked white hair from her forehead and turned back to the stove. “I have no idea what that means, Sue. You best get back to whatever it is you were doing before you came in here to pester me. Shoo!” She waved the wooden spoon in the air, but didn’t turn.

Sue was fairly certain it wasn’t the stove’s heat that had reddened the woman’s face. As she headed out the door, smiling, she heard Arlene say, “Cookie McGee? Honestly. That man….”

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