Futurama

Fan Fiction

Prairie RoseBy Ramon_51

INTRODUCTION
by Red_Line

“You have to do what?” Leela asked.

“Write an introduction.” I replied.

“An introduction?” Fry asked. “You mean like 'How do you do, Lady Fusmucker, may I present Her Grace, Leela, 3rd Baroness of Turanga'?”

“Very funny Fry. He means an introduction to a story.”

“I don't get it.” Fry said, puzzled.

Leela sighed and, in a tone that one might use with a child, explained “It's that first page or two of a book that everyone skips over to get to the story where some other author tries to explain what the story is supposed to be about or why it was written and nonsense like that."

She turned to me.

“Why do they want an introduction anyway? No one's ever done that to us before.”

“I don't know. When an author like Ramon asked me to write an intro I jumped at the opportunity and didn't ask questions.”

“Oh, it's Ramon again.” Leela said, rolling her eye. “I suppose he wants me to do another shower scene with Fry. Please tell me I don't have to.”

“But I like showering with you.” Fry muttered.

“No, you don't have to in this one.” I said.

“That's a relief. At least Ramon won't have me making out with Amy like that Heltner guy did.”

Her eye narrowed. “Or do I?”

“No, no, nothing like that. This one's completely different.”

“Whew.” Amy said, the quickly added “No offense Leela” as the latter glared at her.

“I don't see why we have to keep doing this nonsense.” Leela complained, turning to Hermes. “Our contract with the network has been renewed and we're flying again. We don't need to do this crap anymore, can't you get us out of it? It's eating into my evenings.”

“Spluh.” Amy said, “Having trouble finding time to freeze a months worth of dinners?”

“Yes I am as a matter of fact.” Leela said, hands on her hips.

“Look mon,” Hermes interjected. “When we got canceled by the Box Network we needed somethin' to pay the bills. That contract with the Fansite syndicate was the best deal I could get. It pays good and we weren't makin' enough just posin' for those comics. How was I to know that Box would renew our contract after a couple of years? Plus, since they did, demand is higher den ever. We got more script offers than Jamaica got snakes.”

Leela sighed and turned back to me. “All right, let's get this over with. What's the story?”

I picked up a script for no real reason except to buy a few seconds to get my thoughts in order.

“Well it's like this, it's called Prairie Rose and it's sort of a western. It's ... uh .. based on some work you did a couple of months ago.”

“All right, a western.” Bender said, sitting up and taking an interest. He extracted a tin star from this compartment. “Dibs on the sheriff part.”

“Umm, there isn't a sheriff part.”

“No sheriff? What kind of western doesn't have a sheriff in it. Cheap lousy ...” Bender grumbled as he sat back and resumed puffing on his cigar.

“Wait a second.” Leela said, “We haven't done anything that's a western. What is this prior art?”

“Uh, well, do you remember A Different View by Graham Dawson?”

“Oh, yeah.” Leela smiled. “Yeah I do. I finally got to play opposite a decent romantic lead for a change.”

“Hey!” Fry said, scowling. Then realization dawned. “Wait! That was one where I had to be a girl. Oh man, I don't have to do that again do I?”

I nodded.

“Aww, crud.” Fry said.

Bender laughed. “You get to play dress up again, meatbag.” He opened his chest compartment and pulled out a wig. “I got your hair right here. You wanna borrow my pink tu-tu?”

Fry snarled as Bender laughed some more. He turned to me. “Why do I have to be a girl again? I hate doing that.”

“Well first of all, you aren't playing a girl, you're playing a woman; big difference. Second of all, like it or not, you guys got the space ship thing going so you've been type cast as Sci-Fi. And like it or not, Sci-Fi is the genre that asks what if? It's about infinite possibilities. It's the realm where nothing is impossible, not if you can imagine it, and it stretches to the farthest reaches of the human imagination. And trust me on this Fry, you as a woman is just about the farthest reach the human imagination can go without requiring a proctologist in attendance. It's fan site dynamite. Dawson took some heat on it and Ramon probably will too, but these guys are some of the big guns in this space; they like pushing the envelope and they've got asbestos underwear. If anyone can pull it off, they can.”

“Rah, Rah.” Bender said, circling a finger above his head.

"Wait one mon." Hermes said as he flipped through a file. "This is Dawson's turf. Has Ramon filed the proper release forms? I don't want us gettin' sued."

"Got it right here." I said, extracting a sheet of paper and handing it to Hermes. "Dawson's cool with it. He did some art work and even coined a name for it, calls it metafiction."

"Meata what?" Fry asked, a confused look on his face.

"Metafiction." Bender said in a bored, mechanical monotone, "Noun, means 'fiction that discusses, describes, or analyzes a work of fiction or the conventions of fiction'."

"Yes, thank you Bender." I said, "In this case he's extended the definition to mean derivative works of a canon based fiction. You see, there's been a lot of interest in exploring the Philippa character. Ramon was really intrigued by it and had some great ideas, and as Dawson's off catastrophising some other universe at the moment he agreed to let Ramon kick it up a notch and take a stab at it."

“I think it sounds like fun.” Amy said, batting her eyes in my direction. “Are you going to be in this one?”

“No,” I replied, “I'm not. I not into self inserts.”

“Well I don't care what they call it," Fry fumed. "I still don't like ... Wait! Oh No! Am I going to have to kiss any guys?”

"Not in any of the drafts I've read." I said as I scratched an itch on the back of my neck with crossed fingers. “But maybe we can hire a stunt double if he adds any tongue scenes.”

“You're payin' for that.” Hermes told Fry.

I rose and started handing out copies of the script. "Why don't we all give it a read and see how it goes? It's really a terrific story and I think you'll like it."


Chapter 1 – Cowboy Coffee

Philippa sat in her favorite chair in Maxine’s. It was a hulking green overstuffed monstrosity that she wouldn’t have had in the apartment, but it seemed to fit the café. Its position allowed her to watch both the café patrons as well as the people flowing by on the street. Besides, she liked the deep cushions and the way the warm sunlight bathed it every afternoon.

Relaxed, her mind drifted. So much had happened over the past few weeks. Philippa smiled as she remembered how Leela had asked her to be maid of honor at their wedding.

"Why pick me? Why not Amy?" she had asked.

Leela had shrugged, “To be a maid of honor you should really be a maid... you know... a virgin.” With a mischievous grin Leela added, “Heck Philippa, you are the only thousand year old virgin that I know.

It’s funny, but I am a thousand year old virgin.” The thought clattered around in her mind, “Wow. I wonder what it will be like to…no I’d rather not go there.” She was still getting used to feeling attracted to men, after all.

The clock on the wall chimed, stirring her from her thoughts. She looked at it to make sure it really was six o’clock already. Sure enough, it was, “Darn it, why is Amy always late?”

Glancing around at the café crowd, she noticed one man in particular. He was an older man, dressed in a white shirt, jeans and a jeans jacket yet apparently fit and darkly handsome. Philippa had noticed him in the café before but had never paid him any particular attention. He and Samuel were apparently debating something, because both of their faces were animated as they reinforced their points with hand gestures.

The last few times she visited the café he had been seated in the same seat, usually reading a book. She had thought that maybe he had been looking at her but she had quickly dismissed the thought because she had too many other things to think about.

But at the moment she had nothing else to occupy her mind, “Hmmm, he’s tall but not too tall, he has nice broad shoulders and a head full of curly black hair. I wonder what color his eyes are? How could I…

Amy plopped down loudly onto the couch nearby interrupting Philippa’s reverie, “Ready for a killer shopping trip?”

Surprised Philippa almost shouted, “Amy!” Then she lowered her voice, smiled and said levelly, “Let’s have a cup of coffee first, OK?”

“Sure!”

Samuel noticed Amy’s entrance. He broke off his conversation, walking over to where they were seated. “Good evening,” he smiled broadly, “What would you two lovely ladies care to have?”

Amy smiled back, “Evening, Samuel. I think I’d like a Latte, please?”

“The usual?”

Amy nodded.

Samuel glanced at Philippa, “Would you like me to freshen yours up?”

“Yes.” She said with a trace of nervousness, “Would you mind if I asked you a question?”

“I believe you just did.”

“Umm…who is that you’re talking to?” She paused, “I just think I might know him.”

Samuel peered intently at Philippa, “His name is Frank Wright. He’s a fellow Science Fiction aficionado.”

Philippa frowned, unsure of what an aficionado was, “I guess I don’t know him.”

“Would you like to?”

Philippa’s face flushed briefly, “Oh, I just couldn’t…”

Ignoring her protests, Samuel gestured at Frank, “Frank come over here. I’d like you to meet Leela’s two best friends.”

Philippa looked down, brushed some imaginary wrinkles and clasped her hands nervously in her lap as she thought “Oh God, I wish I could just disappear.”

When she looked up, Frank was standing in front of her.

He smiled, revealing a perfect set of teeth, “Good evening ladies, I’m Frank Wright.”

Amy spoke first, “Hi, I’m Amy.”

“Hello Amy.”

Frank looked expectantly at Philippa. She looked up and their eyes met…blue green meeting grey. It seemed an eternity before she realized he was waiting for a reply. Her voice cracked, “H..Hi, I’m Philippa.”

“Hello Philippa.” He flashed his smile again, “What a lovely name.”

Blushing furiously, a flustered Philippa replied in a near whisper, “Thank you.”

Neither Amy nor Samuel could avoid noticing the interplay. Amy reacted first, “Frank, would you please sit with us? Girl talk can be so boring.”

Frank nodded. “Why it would be an honor to sit with such a lovely pair of ladies. Thank you.” He turned and settled into an armchair that faced Philippa; an action noticed by all, “Sam, could you bring me some of my usual?”

“One Cowboy Coffee, coming up.”

“Cowboy Coffee,” Amy sounded puzzled, “what is that?”

“It’s a different way of making coffee.” Frank laughed, “You see, I grew up on Rodeo 5.”

“That’s a cowboy planet, isn’t it?” Amy asked.

“Yes ma’am.” His voice lapsed into a cowboy accent, “I grew up there drinking Cowboy Coffee from the time I was a kid. Kind of developed a taste for it, you might say. Old Sam knows how to make it and is kind enough to brew some up when I stop in.”

As Amy and Frank talked, a battle was going on in Philippa’s mind. She desperately wanted to get into the conversation with Frank, but she didn’t want to say anything dumb. “Oh God,” she thought, “I don’t want to blow this…what can I say?

Suddenly, Philippa’s tongue seemed to take on a life of it’s own, “So, Frank, how do you make Cowboy Coffee?”

His eyes briefly met hers again. Philippa felt as though her bones were turning to water. “It’s not much.” Frank smiled, “You just boil water. Then you throw the coffee grounds on top. You let the whole mess boil until the water looks like coffee. Then you pour cold water on top…kinda easy like…and most of the grounds settle to the bottom.”

In spite of herself, Philippa grimaced and breathed, “Yuck.” Frank caught the look and the comment, smiled and said, “Well, it’s definitely an acquired taste.”

Oh, good going idiot!” Philippa raged inwardly, “Why can’t you learn to be smooth like Amy?

Sensing Philippa’s distress, Amy stepped in, “Samuel says you are a SciFi aficionado. What is that?”

“Aficionado is just a ten cent word that means that I like Science Fiction.”

Science Fiction!” Philippa’ heart leapt as she realized, “Now that is something that I know a little bit about!

“Phi…I mean Philippa is a SciFi aficionado,” Amy said with a sideways glance at Philippa, “Aren’t you?”

Nodding vigorously, Philippa almost gushed, “Yes, I just love it!”

“Well, I have a lot of video. What are you interested in seeing first?”

“Do you have any” her voice lowered to a conspiratorial whisper, “Star Trek?”

“Yes, I have the original series, all of the movies, Voyager, Enterprise, The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine.”

“Oh my God!” Philippa said excitedly, “I can’t believe it!” Then her face set in a puzzled look, “What is Enterprise?”

“It premiered in 2001. It ran for four seasons and told the story of the original Enterprise.”

“Oh.”

“Would you like to come by my place tomorrow evening and watch a few episodes?”

Philippa paused for a second before answering. She was unsure until she looked him in the eyes. Then she smiled, “Yes, I’d love to.”

“So, is it a date?”

“Yes.”

“Where can I pick you up?”

She thought for a moment, “Oh Lord, I don’t want him to know I live at the Robot Arms…what would Bender say to him?” She blurted out, “Meet here at six?”

“Sure,” Frank smiled broadly, “I’ll be here with bells on.”


Chapter 2 – A Shoppin’ We Will Go!

Amy and Philippa stood at the curb in front of Maxine’s. Amy waved her arm, “Taxi!”

In response to her hail, a taxi left the stream of traffic and pulled to a stop in front of Maxine’s. The cabbie leaned over to the passenger side as the window slid down and asked in a heavy Bronx accent, “Where’s to ladies?”

“Alien Overlord and Taylor,” Amy replied. Normally, Philippa would have taken the tube. It was free. But Amy insisted on paying for a taxi saying, “We can’t take the tube to the most expensive store in New-New York!”

“I guess not” Philippa had said with a shrug. Then the cab had pulled up.

It was a short ride, taken mostly in silence. Amy hated talking in front of cab drivers for some reason. The taxi slid to a halt in front of their destination.

“That will be sixteen-fifty,” the cabbie said.

Amy handed him a twenty and said, “Keep the change.”

The cabbie relied, “Thanks Miss,” as he rolled up the window.

When the cab pulled away, Philippa turned to Amy, “Thanks for the ride. I have to admit that ever since my change, I’ve found the tube a lot less inviting.” She gave a nervous laugh, “I mean…I’ve been groped a couple of times.”

Amy laughed mischeviously, “That’s the only fun part of tube travel!”

Philippa voice mirrored the disgust in her voice, “Ew!”

Amy laughed even harder, “Phi, I’m just kidding! Okay?” She linked arms with Philippa, “Come on, let’s go inside.”

They paused as they entered the store. Amy asked, “So where do you want to start?”

“I don’t know,” Philippa replied uncertainly.

“How about we start in lingerie?”

“Ummm…okay.”

They took the elevator to the second floor. During their short ride, Amy noticed that Philippa was fidgeting nervously. As they exited the elevator, Amy turned to Philippa and said teasingly, “So are you finally going to get some hot lingerie to celebrate your new boyfriend?”

Philippa stopped dead in her tracks, “I don’t have a boyfriend.”

Amy smiled, “I saw how you were looking at Frank today,” Amy made an exaggerated slack jawed face to reinforce her words. She smiled slyly, “If I weren’t with Kif, I might have arm wrestled you for him.”

“Frank…is…not…my…boyfriend!” Philippa said through her teeth.

“Then why did you agree to go to his place on the first date? “ Amy crossed her arms across her chest, “It sounds like an appointment to snu-snu.”

“Amy Wong,” Philippa’s face mottled, “Frank is not my boyfriend and I am definitely not going to snu-snu with him on the first date.”

Amy enjoyed teasing Philippa…it was so easy! She held up her right hand, “Okay, I believe you.”

Philippa exhaled in relief, “Okay.”

Unable to resist, Amy added, “So what date are you going to snu-snu on?”

“Oooh…I’m never going to snu-snu!” Her voice climbed an octave as it rose several decibels, “I’m going to remain a virgin all my life…okay? Is that all right with you?”

An elderly lady dressed in a conservative gray suit commented as she passed, “It’s fine with me, honey.”

That broke the tension. Both Amy and Philippa began to giggle. Amy reached out to touch Fry on her shoulder, “I’m sorry Phi. I just never had a sister to torment.”

“Well, you really had me going there for a minute.”

They walked over to the shelves of lingerie. Philippa felt the same panic she felt the first time she had faced the task of picking lingerie. She turned to Amy, “I just don’t want to get anything that makes me look skanky.”

Amy resisted the urge to ask Philippa, “Who is going to see you in your underwear?” Instead she reached into two bins in quick succession. She held her selections up for Philippa to examine.

Philippa took them. They were white silk with lace trim. “Wow!” Philippa thought, “I’ll bet these are really comfortable.”

As if reading her mind, Amy said, “I just love silk, it’s so comfortable.”

“I’m sold.”

Amy smiled, “This is a lot more fun than shopping with Leela.” She giggled, “Bulk underpants outlet really suits her.”

They both laughed.

For the next two hours they wandered through the store, debating, arguing, and selecting only the “right” look. In particular, Philippa grew to like a long green dress with a plunging neckline and a slit up the side. On the rack, she hadn’t liked it. But when she tried it on, she was sold.

As they left the store, both with an armful of packages, Amy couldn’t resist, “Boy, Frank is really going to get an eye full.”

Philippa glared, “Amy!”

“Sorry.” She paused, “All kidding aside, Phi, I can tell that Frank really likes you.” Amy looked thoughtful, “He seems like a decent guy.”

“Thanks Amy. I…I felt he was a decent man, too.” She paused briefly, “Still, I don’t know why I accepted his offer to go to his place for a first date.” A wave of panic swept over her, “Do you think it made me seem cheap?”

“No.”Amy shook her head, “Just innocent.”

“That’s a relief.”

They stood quietly for a moment. New emotions swirled through Philippa, strange uncertain things. Philippa broke the silence, “I have to be honest. I really like Frank, but I don’t know why.”

“Philippa, do you want my advice?”

She thought for a moment before answering, “I guess.”

“Just stop worrying about it. Worrying won’t make anything any better. Just go with the flow.”

“Just go with the flow?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll give it a try.”

“Good. Now let’s get a taxi home.”

Just then a taxi pulled up in front of them. By odd coincidence, it was the same taxi that had dropped them off, “Where to ladies?”

“The Robot Arms on East 123rd Street, then to the College Arms Apartments.”

“You got it.” He got out and opened the trunk.

As soon as they filled the trunk with their purchases, they got into the cab and sped off.


Chapter 3 – Second Thoughts

Samuel smiled as Leela entered the café. She had taken to coming over at closing time to help. Then they would walk to dinner or go home to their apartment. It was a routine Samuel enjoyed.

Leela walked up, leaned across the counter and gave Samuel an affectionate kiss on the cheek, “So how was business?”

He shrugged, “Eh…not too bad.” He thought for a second, “Amy and Phi were here earlier.”

Leela’s eyebrow raised, “Oh, another monster shopping trip?”

Samuel nodded absently as he began to count out the change drawer. Leela stepped behind the counter. Grabbing a cleaning sponge, she began to wipe down the counter. They worked in silence, following a routine they had settled into over the past few weeks. Within a very few minutes, the café was clean, orderly, and ready for lights out.

“Thanks Leela,” Samuel said as he closed the door behind them, “you really are a life saver.” He emerged from behind the counter, “It used to take me at least a half hour to close up.”

Leela grinned, “Just you remember that, mister.” She hooked her arm in his, “So where to?”

“I thought tonight would be ladies choice…after all, I chose last night.”

“Hmmm…we probably couldn’t get a table at Elzar’s.” Leela laughed, “So how about we have some pasta at home?”

“Sure.”

They walked arm-in-arm down the quiet street toward their apartment. Leela asked, “Anything interesting happen today?”

Samuel’s brow knitted in thought, “Let’s see…” After a short pause he said, “Well, Phi made a date with one of our regulars.”

Leela stopped in her tracks, “What!”

Samuel looked perplexed, “I said Phi…”

“I heard you,” Leela’s voice was tinged with anxiety, “but who did she make a date with, where are they going, and do we know anything about this guy?”

“Leela, his name is Frank Wright.” He said quietly, “He’s a regular at the café. I’ve known him for years.” He smiled, “No need for concern, he’s a really nice fellow.”

“Do you know where they are going?”

“I believe they are going to his apartment to view some old SciFi movies.”

“His apartment?!” Leela almost shouted in alarm, “What sort of girl does he think she is?”

“Leela I hardly…”

“Samuel, if you had a sister, would you want her to go to someone’s apartment on a first date?”

He thought about it for a moment, “Well…no.”

“I’m going to talk to her about it.”

“Don’t you think that Philippa might take offense?”

“No,” she said firmly, “Besides, she is so inexperienced and innocent that this…this…Frank might take advantage of her.”

“You are quite right, my dear.” Samuel re-linked arms with Leela, “Is there anything you want me to do?”

She shook her head, “No. This is a girl-to-girl talk.” She hugged him and kissed his cheek, “You really are a wonderful guy. Did you know that?”

“I do now.”

They both laughed as they resumed their walk to the apartment.

Later the next day, the Planet Express Ship was cruising toward Earth on autopilot. They had completed another pillow delivery to Stumbos 4. This time there had been neither a broken hover dolly nor a mutiny, even Bender had behaved himself.

Alone on the bridge with Fry now that Bender had gone below to take a snooze, Leela wondered how to broach the subject of Philippa’s upcoming date. “Well, I might as well be direct,” Leela thought. She cleared her throat, “So Phi, got any plans for tonight?”

Philippa gave Leela a brief “deer in the headlights” look before she responded, “Ummm…yes. Why do you ask?”

Leela shrugged, “I heard you met somebody at the café yesterday.”

An annoyed look flitted briefly across Philippa’s face as she said between clenched teeth, “That stupid Amy, she can’t keep her mouth shut.”

“It wasn’t Amy who told me. It was my Samuel.”

“Oh.” her annoyance faded.

“Well?”

“Well, if you must know…His name is Frank Wright, he likes SciFi, and I’m going to his apartment to watch some of his videos tonight.”

“Phi,” Leela said gently, “do you think going to his apartment on a first date is a wise idea?”

“I…I don’t know.” Her lip quivered, “Leela…I really like him.” Phi began to wring her hands, “I don’t want to seem like a slut, but I really want to get to know him better. I thought that if I said ‘no’ when he asked me out, he might not ask again.”

“You really have forgotten what it was like to be a man, haven’t you?” Leela smiled, “Don’t you remember how persistent you were with me? Weren’t you the one who told me men had a gene that allowed them to tolerate rejection?”

Philippa’s mood changed instantly, “Now that you mention it, I guess I did forget.” She looked pensive, “What do you think I should do?”

“Well…since you asked...I think you should meet him and be honest. Tell him that you like him, but that you feel that going to his apartment on a first date just doesn’t seem right.”

Philippa knew that Leela was right. She also knew that Leela hadn’t gone far enough. Philippa realized that if she wanted a long term relationship with anyone, she would have to be honest about…the change.

Leela watched Philippa’s face. The pained look let her know that Phi was thinking about something. It didn’t take much of Leela’s brain power to figure out what, either. “So she’s worried about the change,” Leela thought, “I don’t blame her.

“Leela?” Philippa asked anxiously.

“Yes, Phi?”

“I want to be honest with Frank.” Her voice quavered, “I want to tell him about…about…the change.”

“Couldn’t you wait?”

Philippa’s brow knitted in thought, “No.” She shook her head, “I feel like I could have a relationship with him, but I don’t want…I don’t want to get close with him and have him pushed away by…by…what I was.”

“I can see what you mean.”

Philippa began to cry quietly, “Oh Snap! This is so damn hard!” Tears rolled down her cheeks, “I don’t know if I can do it.” She looked at Leela, “Could you help me?”

Me?” Her voice registered genuine surprise, “What could I do?”

“You could tell him what you know, that I’m really a woman…not…not just some…some freak.” She sobbed, “Oh, I feel so miserable.”

Leela touched Philippa’s shoulder, “Don’t worry, I’ll help you.”

Philippa’s face lit up. “Thanks Leela,” a freshet of tears coursed down her cheeks. But these were tears of happiness, “Thank you.”

“I’m glad to do it.” Leela hugged her, “Don’t cry, it will be okay.”

“Do you really think so?”

“I know so.”

At roughly the same time Leela and Philippa were having their tête a tête, Frank was seeking the counsel of his live-in housekeeper, Mrs. Lilliana Panelli.

Mrs. Panelli had known Frank all of his life. When she came to Rodeo 5 from Cygnus 5 with her husband Pietro over sixty years ago, they had gone to work on the Wright Ranch. Pietro had eventually turned into a cowboy while she worked in the Ranch House. They had three sons together before Pietro was killed during a stampede.

She had remained with the family, a fiercely loyal supporter. As well as her three boys, she helped raise all five of the Wright boys. Her favorite had always been Frank. When Frank left Rodeo 5 for Earth, Mrs. Wright sent Mrs. Panelli to “look after” him. She had done so faithfully, consoling him when his Mother died of sonic diarrhea in 3001. In every way, Mrs. Panelli was family…in spite of her Cygnoid exterior.

So Frank couldn’t wait to tell Mrs. Panelli about Philippa. He came into the apartment with an ear-to-ear grin, “Mrs. Panelli, I have some great news!”

Mrs. Panelli looked up from the batch of spaghetti sauce she had been preparing. Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. Frank had a way of ‘sugar coating’ bad news sometimes, so she had learned to be cautious. “So whats-a this good-a news?”

“I believe I’ve found the future Mrs. Wright!”

“Really?” Mrs. Panelli’s reaction was one of amusement, “And where did-a you find-a this wonderful woman?”

Frank could sense he was not being taken seriously, “Well, I met her at Maxine’s.” His expression softened, “She has the prettiest green eyes.”

“But who is-a she?”

“Her name is Philippa Fry. She’s a friend of Sam’s wife, Leela.” He smiled, “You remember Sam, don’t you?”

She nodded, “Nice-a man.” Mrs. Panelli looked serious, “So where-a you gonna go on-a you first date?”

“I’m bringing her here tonight to watch Star Trek.”

Mrs. Panelli rolled her eyes, “Franklin L. Wright, what’s-a matta with you?” Frank winced when she used his given name. That meant she had shifted into the “mother” mode.

“What do you mean?”

“If this-a girl is a nice-a girl like-a you say, she gonna think-a you some kinda cheapskate or something.” She shook her head, “I mean, what kinda man take a girl to his apartment on a first-a date?” Her eyes narrowed, “You not thinking of a little boom-boom on the first date are you?”

“Mrs. Panelli!” Frank actually blushed, “No, she…I…I mean I…oh heck, I don’t think of her that way.”

“Then how you think of her?”

“I told you, I believe she could be my life companion.”

“Well, if that’s-a so you need to change-a you plans.”

“Okay, Mrs. Panelli, you win.” He held his hands up in a gesture of surrender. “What do you suggest?”

She smiled knowingly, “Well first, you need-a to bring-a her flowers. Then-a you need some-a kinda present she would-a like.”

“She really loves SciFi,” Frank scratched his head, “Maybe I could make her some tapes?”

Mrs. Panelli thought for a moment before nodding, “Shoo..that’s-a fine. Then, you need-a to take-a her to the movies…or dancing…or something-a nice.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Mrs. Panelli leaned across the table and patted Frank’s hand affectionately, “After three, maybe four dates you bring-a her here for-a dinner.” She smiled, “After I serve-a you dinner, maybe I go visit my sister in Manhattan for a while.”

“Thanks Mrs. Panelli, you are the best.”

“No Frank, you Momma was-a the best. I just doing what I think she would-a want.” She looked thoughtful, “Now where the heck is that oregano?”


Chapter 4 – True Confessions

“Hold still, darn it,” Leela growled as she held Philippa’s face with one hand while holding a ‘Reffson No-run Mascara’ brush in the other, “You know I haven’t got much depth perception. Once I get this stuff on, it’s tough to get off. It’s guaranteed not to run.”

“Sorry,” Philippa replied meekly, “I really appreciate you helping me put my make-up on.”

“I don’t understand why you didn’t ask Amy to help you.” Leela said evenly, “She really understands make-up.”

“That’s true,” Philippa said thoughtfully, “but she tends to go overboard. I don’t want to look…well…cheap.”

Leela snickered, “Cheap is a look that Amy has down pat.”

Philippa giggled, “She can look a little loose sometimes.”

Leela released Philippa’s face with a smile of satisfaction, “You look really nice, Phi.”

“Thanks.”

“Well, it’s almost five thirty. We ought to get going to Maxine’s.”

“Okay.” Philippa smiled, “Thanks Leela, I really appreciate it.”

“Don’t mention it.”

They walked the five blocks to Maxine’s in near-silence. Philippa was engrossed with her thoughts and anxieties. Leela was mentally rehearsing what she was going to tell Frank.

When they arrived, Samuel waved in greeting, “Hello ladies!”

Leela walked over to give Samuel a quick kiss, while Philippa took a seat in her favorite chair while glancing at the clock. “Five forty-five…only fifteen minutes…oh I hope this goes well,” she thought. Looking around the café, she could see a scattering of regular patrons. Fortunately, no one was seated nearby, no one to eavesdrop. She looked down at her hands, folding them in her lap.

The door opened and Frank stepped through, thirteen minutes early. In his hands were a dozen red roses. Philippa looked up at the sound of the door opening. Their eyes met. “Oh my God,” Philippa thought in sudden panic, “how can I tell him?”

Frank spoke softly, “Hello, Philippa.” He saw the troubled look in her eyes, and it puzzled him.

“Hello, Frank.”

He held out the roses, “I brought these for you.”

She reached out, took them and said softly, “Thank you, they’re beautiful.”

Before he could have a seat, Leela bustled up, “Hello Frank, mind if I join you for a moment?”

He smiled, “Hello Leela. Sure, it would be a pleasure.”

They all sat down. Leela and Philippa were side-by-side across the coffee table from Frank. He settled into his seat, sensing that something was up.

For a moment, no one spoke. Leela broke the silence, “Would you care for a cup of cowboy coffee?”

“I’d just love one,” he smiled, “if you ladies are joining me.”

Philippa managed a nervous smile, “We’d love to.”

Leela rose, “I’ll be right back.” Before she walked away, she turned to Philippa and extended her hand, “Do you want me to put those roses in some water?”

Philippa nodded and handed them to Leela with a nearly inaudible, “Thanks.”

Frank watched Leela as she went behind the counter. When he was satisfied she was out of earshot, he cleared his throat, “So Philippa…ummm…I was wondering if…ummm…you would mind a little…ummm…a little change of plans?”

Her palms became sweaty and her stomach did a flip-flop as she thought, “He’s going to dump me already!” She replied in a whisper, “What kind of change?”

Frank rubbed his neck nervously. His voice took on a slight cowboy accent, a sure sign of nervousness, “Well...I got to thinkin’…it…it weren’t…I mean it wasn’t proper for me to ask you up to my apartment on a first date.” He felt his palms begin to sweat. However, he had made his mind up so he ploughed ahead, “I just wanted to spend time with you, is all.” He wiped his hands on his trousers self-consciously, “Would you like to go to dinner and dancing instead?”

Philippa felt weak with relief, “Sure, I’d love to.”

Frank grinned, “Now that suits me down to the ground.”

“Huh?”

“Sorry, that’s cowboy slang for, ‘that makes me very happy’.”

“Oh.”

Leela returned, setting the coffee carefully in front of Frank. Then she placed a mocha latte in front of Philippa. Once she sat down, Leela decided to plunge right in, “Frank, have you traveled much?”

“A fair bit,” he replied, wondering where Leela was going.

“Have you ever been around Amphibosians?”

“Sure, I had one work with me at the Central Bureaucracy. Name was Arak…good fella.”

“Good…that’s good.” Leela shifted slightly, “Did you know that they can change their sex under stress?”

“No, I can’t say that I did.”

“Well, did you know I used to work over at Applied Cryogenics?”

“Really?” Frank was absolutely mystified at the disjointed nature of Leela’s conversation. “I guess I just don’t understand women,” he thought ruefully.

“Yes, that’s where I met Philippa.”

“Oh, did you work there too, Philippa?”

Before Philippa could respond Leela cut in, “No, she was a Cryonaut from the year 2000.”

Frank’s eyes gleamed as he looked at Philippa, “Wow!” He smiled sweetly, “You certainly hold your age well.”

“She certainly does. After she arrived, we got jobs together at Planet Express for several years before she had an accident.”

“What kind of accident?”

Leela paused, “There was an explosion…the Professor was doing some sort of crazy experiment. Phi was right there when it happened and well…it changed her.”

Frank looked puzzled, “In what way?”

Once again, Leela hesitated. Philippa had listened to the exchange between Frank and Leela with an increasing sense of desperation. She felt sick to her stomach and her ears began to ring. She just wanted it to be over! Under the terrible emotional strain, Philippa’s tongue took on a life of it’s own, “Frank, what Leela is trying to tell you is that I used to be a man but the accident changed me into a woman.” Then she buried her face in her hands and burst into tears.

Frank jaw dropped, “You used to be a man?”

Leela put her arm around Philippa. She said emphatically, “Used to be is the key phrase. I can assure you that the change was complete. Philippa is a woman in every way, mentally, physically, and emotionally.”

Frank rubbed his jaw, “Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!”

“I’m sorry,” Philippa sobbed, “I just didn’t want to lie to you.” Leela handed her a hanky, into which she quietly blew her nose. Then she continued, “I understand if you don’t want to go out with me.” Her voice took on a pleading tone, “Just please don’t hate me.”

Frank smiled gently, “I couldn’t hate someone as honest and as pretty as you.”

Philippa felt her heart skip with hope, “You must think I’m a freak.”

After a moment’s consideration Frank replied, “No, you are not a freak…but you are unique.”

Philippa looked into Frank’s eyes. She felt the sincerity in his voice and of his look, but she had to be sure, “So you don’t mind going out with me?”

He laughed good-naturedly, “Lord no! The past is the past.” His voice took on a country twang, “As my granny used to say about the past, ‘I won’t hold yours agin’ you if you don’t hold mine agin’ me.’ Philippa J. Fry, I think you are prettier than a speckled pup under a red wagon. Plus you’re truly honest…that goes a long way with me.”

Philippa’s tears stopped, replaced by a bright smile.

Leela turned to Philippa, “You going to be okay?”

“Yes,” she said steadily, “I’m going to be just fine.”

Leela stood, “If you will excuse me, I think I’ll help Samuel behind the counter.”

As she walked away, Philippa called out to her back, “Thanks Leela.”

“Don’t mention it.”

After a moment of silence Frank asked, “Are you ready for a night of dining and dancing?”

“I’d love to.”

Frank stood and extended his hand, “Well then let’s go.”

Philippa took his hand and stood. They left Maxine’s arm-in-arm. Leela turned to Samuel, “Can you believe that?”

Samuel nodded, “I have to…I just saw it.”

Leela gave him a playful punch in the shoulder, “You men are all alike!”


Chapter 5 – A Night on the Town

Philippa left Maxine’s holding onto Frank’s arm. It was muscular, solid and somehow reassuring. As they walked down the street, she found herself wondering, “Does he work out?” Right on the heels of that thought came another, “He certainly looks good in his jeans, cowboy boots, white shirt and jeans jacket.” Philippa panicked a bit when she wondered about her own outfit of red jacket, blue skirt and white blouse, “Does this outfit make me look fat? Oh Lord, please don’t let it make me look fat.”

Frank noticed that Philippa seemed disturbed. He stopped walking, bringing them both to a halt, “Philippa, are you okay?”

His words startled her out of her thoughts, “Yes, Frank.” She smiled, “I’m fine…just…I was daydreaming a little.”

He laughed, showing his perfect teeth, “I have to admit, I was daydreaming a bit myself.”

“What were you daydreaming about?”

After a brief pause he said softly, “You.”

Philippa blushed from head to toe. “Oh no, he’s already thinking about doing it,” flashed through her mind. She looked down at the pavement, “Oh.”

Instantly sorry for embarrassing her, Frank said softly, “I’m sorry to have embarrassed you Philippa.” He smiled as he hugged her arm closer, “I can assure you my intentions are honorable.” He shook his head, “We ought to get a move on or we’ll never make it to the car.”

She exhaled in relief. Her curiosity piqued, she asked, “You have a car?”

“Sure do.” He pointed down the street, “It’s that blue one over yonder.”

Philippa looked in the direction Frank pointed. She knew it was a sports car…it even looked kind of familiar, “It’s pretty.”

“Not half as pretty as you.”

Philippa felt her cheeks burn, “Thank you…but I’m…I’m not that pretty.”

Frank laughed merrily, “Well, why don’t you let me be the judge of that?”

His laugh caused her to relax, “Okay,” she smiled, “I guess I will.”

They resumed walking and were soon aside the car. Philippa knew she had seen a car like it somewhere before so she asked, “What kind of car is it?”

“It’s a Thundercougarfalconbird,” Frank said with pride.

“Wow!” Philippa remembered where she had seen that kind of car before, back when Amy had bought her Beta Romeo. She grinned impishly, “With a macho car like this, no one is going to question your sexual orientation.”

Frank looked surprised, “That’s what the salesman said.” His eyes narrowed as he said in mock seriousness, “You aren’t a salesperson are you?”

Philippa laughed, “No. I’ve never even ridden in one.”

Frank opened the passenger side door, “Well hop in, pretty lady. We’ll go for a spin.”

Philippa got in as Frank held the door for her. Then Frank walked around, got in, and fired up the engine. It roared into life and Frank guided the car expertly into the traffic. In moments, they pulled up in front of the Longhorn Restaurant. Frank pulled into the valet parking spot.

The valet, a gangly teenager dressed as a cowboy, came up, “Good evening, sir! Valet parking?”

Frank popped out the door and tossed him the keys, “Take good care of her, son.” Then he hurried around the side to get Philippa’s door. She was already halfway out when he reached her. Still, she smiled and took his offered hand.

They went into the restaurant arm-in-arm. When they entered, Philippa found herself looking the place over. It had a wooden floor, paneled walls and lots of cowboy décor. The booths and tables were covered with white and red checkered tablecloths. The staff, she noticed, was all dressed in cowboy costume.

The maitre-de came up, “Mr. Wright, so good to see you. Will you want your usual table?”

“Absolutely.”

Without further conversation, they moved to a table by the window. It had a view of the East River which was crowded with the running lights of small boats as evening fell. Frank held Philippa’s chair for her, then took his place across the table. He smiled, “What do you think?”

“It’s a really nice restaurant.” She returned his smile, “The view is really pretty, too.”

“I’m glad you like it. This is my favorite restaurant on the planet.” He looked into her eyes, “They have real beef here.”

Philippa looked surprised, “I thought cows were extinct?”

“On Earth they are, but this beef comes from Rodeo 5.”

“You have cows on your home planet?”

“Sure enough,” he laughed, “when the Omicronians came to Earth the first time, they sure liked beef. They liked it so much that they ate every cow on the planet.” He shook his head, “If it hadn’t been for the first settlers on Rodeo 5 bringing a few cows just before the Omicronians went on an eating spree, beef really would have been extinct.”

Philippa leaned forward with her chin cupped in her palms, “That is so interesting.” Then she thought, “Oh snap, I must sound like Amy.”

A young blonde waitress interrupted their conversation, “Howdy Mr. Wright, Ma’am, can I take your drink order?”

Frank looked at Philippa, “What would you like?”

“Umm…What would you recommend?”

“Do you like sweet drinks?”

“Sure.”

“Then I’d recommend a sweet tea, it’s a house specialty.”

“Okay.”

“Two sweet teas, Missy.”

Missy flashed a grin, “Coming right up!” She hustled off toward the bar.

Philippa studied the menu. It seemed like beef was the only thing on the menu. What puzzled her was that none of the items had prices. Each item simply had a notation to the side that said, “Market Price.” Feeling vaguely uneasy about what the market price might be, she looked up from the menu. Frank was gazing at her…he hadn’t even opened the menu.

“Frank?”

“Yes, Philippa?”

“Umm…I don’t want to sound ignorant, but what is the market price for beef?”

He shook his head, “You don’t sound ignorant, just considerate.” He lowered his voice dramatically, “Don’t worry, my wallet can bear it.” His left eyebrow rose almost to his hair line, “We won’t be washing dishes.”

Something in the way he said it made Philippa giggle. She covered her mouth in an attempt to stifle it, but the attempt just made her giggle even more. He joined her in laughter, slapping his knee as he flashed his perfect smile.

When Missy arrived with their iced tea, they brought their merriment under control. Frank ordered a “Texas Rancher” while Philippa ordered a petite sirloin. Once Missy left for the kitchen, Philippa said, “Frank, you know a lot about me. I’m curious. How does a cowboy from Rodeo 5 come to settle on Earth?” She was surprised as how uncomfortable Frank looked before he spoke, “Well, you were honest with me, so I’ll be honest with you.”

Over dinner, Philippa learned that he was the second oldest of five sons. At sixteen, he had been the only man home on their ranch when the owner of a nearby spread and two of his cowboys had tried to rape his mother. He had killed all three men with a pistol. Fearing the eruption of a blood feud that would involve his whole family, he had fled the territory.

For a few years he tried to be just another cowboy, but trouble always seemed to seek him out. He gained a reputation as a gun hand, so it seemed like anyone wanting to make a name had sought him out. By the age of nineteen, he had killed five more men and wounded three others in gunfights.

Then he had drifted into the town of Tombstone-on-the-Brazos, looking for work. His arrival coincided with the murder of the sheriff by a vicious gunman who was still terrorizing the community. One thing led to another, the gunman died “of lead poisoning” and Frank became the sheriff. As one of the main stops on the cattle trail up from Nueva Mexico, Tombstone-on-the-Brazos was a wild town. Frank claimed to have lost count of his gunfights. As he said sorrowfully, “None of them ever gave me any joy.”

Philippa reached out and touched his hand, “I’m sorry…I didn’t know.”

Frank smiled, “Well, after five years as a lawman, I decided that if I didn’t want to make my living with a gun, I’d have to try something else. So, I came to Earth. Took the dullest job I could find, too.”

“The Central Bureaucracy?”

“Yup. I was a paper pusher.” He thumped his chest in a mock gesture of pride, “That was when I discovered my love for SciFi and old media.” He shook his head, “I had to do something to relieve the boredom. Besides, having a little side business allowed me to retire early.” He snapped his fingers, “Oh, by the way, don’t let me forget. I have a couple of tapes for you in the car…it’s the first season of Enterprise.”

“Thank you!” Philippa was touched, “I know I’ll just love it.”

“I hope you do.”

Missy brought them the check. Philippa tried to read it discreetly, but since it was upside down all she could be sure of was that is was three figures…at least a hundred bucks!

Frank caught her glancing, “Don’t worry, you’re worth every penny.”

“Thanks.” Philippa could feel herself reddening, “Oh brilliant reply…why can’t I ever think of something clever to say? He’ll never want to go out with me again. I’m such a…such an airhead!

As Missy left with the check Frank looked into Philippa’s eyes, “Would you care to go dancing?”

“Would I?!” she replied.

“I don’t know.” He laughed, “Would you?”

“Oh yes, yes I would.”

“We don’t have far to go.” He pointed behind himself, “Billy’s dance hall is right next door.”

Once Missy returned Frank’s credit card, they went next door. When they entered, Philippa instantly felt out of place. “My goodness,” she thought, “they are all dressed like cowboys…and cowgirls. I look so out of place.”

Frank noticed the look that crossed Philippa’s face. He leaned over and whispered in her ear, “I sure am lucky. I’ve got the prettiest gal in the dance hall on my arm.”

Philippa blushed and murmured, “Thanks.”

For the next three hours, they danced…and danced…and danced. When they weren’t dancing, they sampled the wide variety of beer. Philippa was impressed with Frank’s dancing skills. Frank was impressed by how quickly Philippa picked up square dancing, line dancing and the two-step.

She stepped on his feet a few times, but he always made light of it by saying, “That’s all right darlin’. I only walk on the bottoms. You can walk on the tops.”

Instead of being embarrassed, Philippa found herself giggling. Soon she no longer made any missteps.

“You are a natural,” Frank said while they were slow dancing.

In an unguarded moment Philippa said, “My brother Yancy and I won a few dance contests when I was a kid.” She closed her eyes as soon as she uttered the words and said a silent prayer, “Oh Lord, please don’t let him ask about Yancy.”

“So you had a brother?”

“Yes, he was two years older than me.” Desperate to keep Frank from asking more questions, Philippa decided to ask a few of her own. “Frank, how much older is your brother George?”

His brow furrowed in thought for a moment, “Let’s see…George is two and a half years older than me.”

“How about your youngest brother…what was his name…Ted?”

It dawned on Frank that Philippa might be uncomfortable discussing her past. So he contented himself with answering her questions. They left the dance hall in high spirits. On their way to the car Frank asked, “Where do you live Philippa?”

Panic gripped her, “Wh…why d..do you axe?”

“I need to know so I can take you home.” He lowered his voice dramatically, “After all, a gentleman always makes sure a lady gets home safely.”

Oh no, how can I tell him?” Philippa looked into his eyes, her lower lip trembling. Suddenly, the absurdity of her fear hit home. “If he went out with me knowing I had been a man, why would knowing about Bender bother him?”

So, the story of how she had come to live with Bender tumbled out. Frank listened without comment or question. When Philippa finished he merely said, “Dang, it’s only a five minute drive. Too bad, because I wanted to spend more time with you.”

Philippa found herself saying, “I’d love to spend more time with you, but I have to work tomorrow.”

“Well, that settles it, then.”

In five minutes they pulled up in front of the Robot Arms. Frank got out and opened the door for Philippa. She realized, “He’s going to walk me to the door.” Panic set in, “Oh no! What if he wants to kiss me? I’m not sure I’m ready for a kiss.”

Sure enough, Frank walked her to the door, to the elevator and right up to the apartment door. All the while, Philippa had been in a state of indecision. When she reached the apartment door, Philippa turned and extended her hand, “Thank you for a lovely evening.”

Frank took her hand, bent over and lightly kissed the back of it, “Thank you. I’ve never enjoyed myself more.”

Philippa’s knees almost buckled from an unexpected surge of emotion. She mastered it enough to softly say, “Good night Frank.”

“Good night Philippa. May I call you tomorrow?”

“Of course.”

“Tomorrow, then.” He smiled as she stepped through the door. Once the door closed, he turned and headed for the elevator, whistling “Streets of Laredo”.


Chapter 6 – Girl’s Flight Out

The Planet Express Lounge was empty when Philippa entered, followed closely be Bender. Bender was hectoring her, “Come on, meatbag! What would a few action photos hurt?”

Philippa spun around. At the end of her patience she spat, “Damn it Bender! You are supposed to be my friend! How can you ask me to pose for a skin magazine?”

“You’re the Galaxy’s oldest virgin, lots of men would pay for a peek.” Bender rubbed his chin thoughtfully, “Come to think of it, we could do a webcast.”

“Grrr…get this through your thick head.” Philippa shook her finger in Bender’s face, “I will never, ever, ever consent to ‘showing some skin’ as you put it.”

“What has gotten into you?” Bender replied with some heat, “You used to be up for anything! Why have you gotten so concerned about your precious reputation? I could make you a star!”

“I don’t want to be a porn star!’ Philippa rolled her eyes, “Oh, you are just impossible.”

“I’m impossible?!” Bender poked Philippa in the chest with his finger, “Who redecorated the place? Who quit smoking cigars in the apartment? Huh? Haven’t I made sacrifices for you?”

Philippa softened, “Bender, I appreciate what you’ve done.” She reached out to touch his shoulder, “But the thought of exposing my body for men to leer at is…just…well, creepy.” Her tone became pleading, “Please, don’t be mad with me.”

Bender stood silently for a moment. Then he smiled a metallic smile, “Well okay.

“Thanks Bender.”

“But if you should ever change your mind…”

“Bender!”

Leela entered the lounge, “Good morning!”

“Good morning,” Philippa replied. Bender merely grunted.

“So how was your date?” Leela asked.

Philippa’s face softened, “It was wonderful.” As she spoke, she touched her left cheek with the back of her right hand – the hand Frank had kissed.

Leela waited for elaboration but none was forthcoming. She was about to ask some more questions when Amy sauntered in, with a breezy, “Hey everyone!” Before anyone could reply, Amy made a bee line for Philippa, “Tell me all about your date.”

Philippa repeated, “It was wonderful” accompanied by the same hand gesture.

Leela noticed the gesture and wondered, “What in the world…?”

Amy followed up her first question with, “So what did you do?”

Following a deep sigh Philippa replied, “We had a wonderful time.”

“Guh!” Amy replied, “You already said that! What did you do?”

“We went on a wonderful date.”

“Spleesh!” Amy said in obvious disgust, “It’s like talking to a stupid wall.” Amy turned to Leela, “Did she tell you anything at all?”

Leela grinned, “Not a thing.” She put her arm around Amy’s shoulders and lowered her voice, “But maybe we can get it out of her over the next couple of days.”

“How?”

“I have an idea.” Leela saw Hermes enter the room, “Just follow my lead, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Hermes,” Leela called out, “isn’t our delivery to Fango Four today?”

“Dat’s right,” Hermes said with a nod.

“Well, it’s a three day round trip and Robomadan starts tomorrow.”

“Oh great,” Hermes slapped his forehead in frustration, “I know that lazy Bender will refuse to work. Dat will leave you shorthanded for de delivery.”

“Why don’t I just take Amy and leave Bender here?”

“Great idea,” Hermes grinned, “Den I can get that lazy beer keg to do some cleanup in the landing bay today.”

“Perfect,” Leela said with satisfaction. She turned to Amy, who gave her a sly wink of congratulation.

Bender heard the entire exchange, but wasn’t about to screw up a few days off. “See you later, Big Boots,” he said as he headed out of the lounge to loaf in the launch bay.

It only took a few moments to load the ship. Bender busied himself with looking busy while doing nothing. Amy, Leela, and Philippa each took one of the three crates sitting beside the ship. All three of the crates were on hover dollies because of their extremely high density. The Professor told them they were filled with Osmium for a research project. The stream of technobabble he poured out as further explanation fell on deaf ears. Both Amy and Leela were concentrating on how they were going to get Philippa to talk while Philippa was lost in thought about her date.

The takeoff was routine. Once the ship left the solar system, Leela handed things over to the autopilot as soon as she verified that his twelve step programming was working properly. Philippa was sitting in the center of the couch, while Amy was at the engineering console “No time like the present,” Leela thought.

Sitting down on Philippa’s right, Leela stretched out a bit. Philippa was gazing out the windscreen, a faint smile on her face. “Ahem,” Leela cleared her throat, “So tell me Phi, how was your date last night?”

“It was so wonderful.”

Amy snickered. With more than a touch of sarcasm she said, “Really?”

Totally oblivious to the sarcasm Philippa breathed, “Oh yes, I had such a wonderful time.”

Leela touched Philippa’s arm, “Phi, I want you to focus. Let’s start at the beginning. When you left Maxine’s, where did you go?”

“Ummm…we walked to his car.”

Silence.

After waiting a moment Amy cut in, “And?”

“We had a wonderful time.”

Leela’s eye rolled back as her tone registered her frustration, “Phi! Will you please stop saying that!”

Startled, Philippa stammered, “I…I’m…I’m s…sorry Leela.”

The confused look on Philippa’s face made Leela feel sorry as well. Her tone softened, “I’m sorry for being so harsh but you are driving Amy and me crazy. We’re your best friends. Best friends tell each other about their dates…and stuff.”

Amy walked over to the couch, where she took a seat on Philippa’s other side, “Yeah, Phi. Leela and I just want to be there for you.”

“Thanks,” Philippa shrugged her shoulders, “I’ll try, but I’ve never experienced anything like it before.” After a short pause she continued, “Before the change none of my dates were anything to write home about.” Her brow creased in thought, “To tell the truth, I barely remember it. It’s almost like I watched a movie or something.” Suddenly a brilliant smile filled her face, “But this date was…”

Leela and Amy replied simultaneously, “We know, wonderful.”

All three began to giggle. It took a few moments for the hilarity to die away. Then Philippa began, “Well, first we walked to his car. He offered me his arm and I took it. Oooh, he has such strong, muscular arms. When we danced later, I felt so safe with them around me.” Her face took on a dreamy look.

Leela and Amy exchanged knowing looks. Amy silently mouthed, “She’s in love,” while Leela nodded in agreement.

After a moment of silence Philippa continued, “Frank was so nice to me.” She began to blush, “He kept telling me I was pretty.”

“Well,” Leela observed, “you are pretty.”

“Yeah,” Amy added, “it just shows he has good eyesight.”

“Thanks.” Her face resumed a dreamy look, “When he looked in my eyes I felt like…I don’t know…like the center of the whole universe.” She looked first at Leela, then at Amy, “Is it normal to feel that way?”

Both Amy then Leela replied, “Yes.”

Things became quiet for a moment. After waiting patiently for Philippa to resume her story, Leela decided to break the silence, “What kind of car does he drive?”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Philippa sounded chagrined, “My mind wandered a bit. Ummm…he has a blue sports car. It’s a Thundercougarfalconbird!”

Amy was impressed, “Really? That is one expensive boy toy.”

“Yeah,” Leela added, “you know what they say. The only difference between men and boys is the price of their toys.”

All three women laughed. Then Philippa resumed her story, “Frank really has a pretty car. The interior was tan leather and it had that new car smell. He even used valet parking when we got to the restaurant.”

“Which restaurant?” Leela asked.

“Frank took me to the Longhorn Restaurant in Upper Manhattan.”

Amy sounded impressed, “That’s one of the most expensive restaurants in New-New York! That’s where I had cow a few times with my parents.” She sounded envious, “None of my dates ever took me there!”

Philippa smiled inwardly, knowing that she had one up on Amy.

Leela glanced at Amy, “Go ahead, Phi we’re sorry we interrupted you.”

“That’s okay,” Philippa smiled, “Let’s see…I had a petite sirloin for dinner. I’d forgotten how much I liked beef.” A thoughtful look crossed her face, “Did you know that almost all the beef in the universe comes from Rodeo 5?”

Both Leela and Amy shook their heads.

“Frank told me all about how the Omicronians drove the beef of Earth to extinction. He also told me about his past.” She frowned, “He had a lot of trouble in his life.” Her voice lowered dramatically, “He was a gunfighter and a Sheriff.”

“A gunfighter?” Leela was shocked, “So how does that make you feel?”

“He didn’t enjoy it!” Philippa’s voice became hard, “He only drew his gun in self-defense!”

“Sorry,” Leela replied sincerely, “I’m sure he didn’t enjoy it. So what else do you know about Frank? It sounds like he really lived an interesting life.”

Mollified, Philippa resumed, “Yes, he really has lived a fascinating life. Let’s see…he has four brothers, can you imagine that?” When no one had a comment, Philippa plowed on, “They were all named after Presidents.” She giggled, “Please don’t tell him or he’d be really mad, but Frank’s real name is Franklin.”

Leela smiled while Amy merely looked puzzled, “There was a President named Franklin?”

“Frank said there were two Presidents named Franklin, so it must be true.” Philippa smiled, “He’s so smart. Did you know he managed to become a Grade 12 in the Central Bureaucracy in only eleven years?”

“Wow,” Leela said knowing that it was an impressive feat. “What else do you know about his family?”

“Let’s see….he has four brothers….oh, I already said that. Their names are George…he’s the oldest…Abraham, Thomas and Theodore. His mother died back in 3001, but his father is still living. They have a ranch on the Northern Continent of Rodeo 5 near a town called Sweetwater.” She paused to think, “Oh, besides being a gunfighter, he was the Sheriff of a town called Tombstone-on-the-Brazos.”

“Really?” Amy asked.

“Yes,” she smiled, “It was a wonderful date.”

For the next hour, they dissected every nuance and aspect of “the wonderful date.” As they were winding up, the conversation wandered into the territory of dating protocol. In particular, they discussed the “fourth date rule”.

Leela was holding forth, “Amy, I don’t care what you say. You should never snu-snu before the fourth date.”

“Why?”

Leela shook her head, “Well, it just isn’t right.”

“But I’ve done it pl…a few times.”

“Really?”

Amy clenched her teeth, “What do you mean by that?”

“I mean that your sense of timing is a little off,” Leela replied in a voice dripping with sarcasm.

“Are you saying I’m a slut?!” Amy’s voice rose considerably.

By now Philippa felt extremely uncomfortable with the conversation’s direction. She sprang to her feet and said in a pleading tone, “Please, can we talk about something else?”

For a brief moment, Amy and Leela glared silently at each other. Amy looked away first. Then Leela said slowly, “Sorry, Phi. I didn’t mean to make a scene.” After a short pause Leela looked at Amy, “Sorry Amy.”

Amy shrugged silently.

Philippa sat back down. “Why do they pick at each other so much?” she wondered. She cleared her throat, “Leela, when do we get to Fango Four?”

Leela glanced at her Wristamajigy, “About nine hours at our present course and speed.”

Philippa stretched and yawned, “Well, I’m going to get some sleep. For some reason I feel worn out.”

Amy stood, “I’ll take the first watch if you want, Leela. I’m not at all tired.”

“That’s fine, Amy. Just wake me in about four hours.”

“Fine.”

Leela stood as Amy took her place in the Captain’s chair. Philippa stood as well. She lingered a moment as Leela left the bridge, “Amy, if you need any help, just let me know.”

Amy waved her away with a smile, “Nah. Everything’s okay.”

“Okay. Good night.”

“Good night Phi, pleasant dreams.”

And pleasant dreams they were. When Leela’s voice came over the intercom, Philippa was dreaming of Frank kissing her hand. “Philippa, we’re arriving at Fango Four in about ten minutes. You need to turn to.”

Philippa swung her feet out of her hammock. Still groggy, she woke up when her feet struck the cold deck plating. “Brrr,” she exclaimed, “I’m on the way, Leela!”

Quickly, she staggered to the wash basin and splashed some cold water on her face. Looking in the mirror she made a face, then quickly brushed her teeth and combed out her hair. Slipping into her clothes, she made her way to the bridge. As the door slid open, she looked around. Leela sat in the Captain’s chair and Amy was at the Engineering console as usual.

Nearly filling the windscreen was a large blue and brown planet. “Is that it?” Philippa asked no one in particular.

Amy looked up from her console, “Yup, that’s it. Ugly isn’t it?”

Philippa grimaced, “Well…I’ve seen uglier.”

Leela pointed to the communications console seat, “Buckle in, Philippa. This planet has some unpredictable wind shears. It’s liable to get really bumpy.”

It was. Philippa was a lovely shade of light green when they finally touched down. Amy looked over, “Spleesh, Phi! You look terrible.”

“Thanks, I feel that way.” Philippa fought desperately to avoid vomiting. She closed her eyes and thought happy thoughts. After a few moments, she could feel her stomach calming down. Opening her eyes, she saw Leela standing in front of her.

“Are you going to be okay, Phi?”

“I’m fine now. You know I’ve never had a strong stomach.”

“That’s okay. Let’s get cracking.”

Philippa stood headed for the cargo hold. She was surprised when both Leela and Amy followed, “What’s up? Why are you coming? I know how to do a delivery.”

“We just thought it would go quicker,” Amy said with a smile.

“Thanks!”

Without further discussion they continued to the cargo hold.


Chapter 7 Muddy Waters

Once in the cargo hold, all three women took control of a loaded hover dolly. Amy lowered the cargo elevator until it came to rest on the planet’s muddy surface. Philippa surveyed the surrounding area. She crinkled her nose at the pungent, earthy smell, “Phew! This place really stinks.”

Leela nodded, “Yeah, it stinks alright. It’s slippery as well. Fodor’s Guidebook says the entire surface of the planet is either water or mud. The Fangonians have laid a semi-solid pathway to their lab,” she pointed at a series of small triangular yellow flags that led to a mound of mud about 200 meters away. “We need to stay on the path.”

That being said, they set off for the lab. Leela was in the lead, followed by Amy, with Philippa bringing up the rear. They advanced slowly through the deep, viscous mud. At first Philippa maintained a death grip on her dolly, worried that she would fall. After a short distance, she relaxed a bit.

Amy was not so alert, however. The first sign either Leela or Philippa had that Amy lost her balance was an exclamation in Cantonese. It was followed by her dolly slamming into Leela’s legs from behind – right at the knees. This caused Leela to lose her balance and flop – face forward – into the mud.

Although Amy’s dolly shot forward, Amy toppled over backwards. When she fell into the mud, she grabbed at Philippa’s dolly. The sudden imbalance caused Philippa to lose her balance and flop into the mud as well.

Getting to their feet proved to be a comedy of errors, all three women fell at least twice before regaining their footing. Amy had the least amount of mud on her – her face and hair were almost completely free of it. Both Leela and Philippa were thoroughly coated.

Amy kept saying, “I feel like a zidiot! I’m so sorry.” Philippa found the sight of her companions so funny that she doubled over laughing. Leela was not amused, “Damn it Amy! I told you it was slippery.” Amy replied contritely, “I’m sorry, Leela.”

Leela glared at Philippa, “Will you stop laughing?”

“Sorry,” Philippa replied, “But we all look so ridiculous!”

“We do, don’t we?” In spite of herself Leela began to laugh, “Let’s get these stupid crates delivered so we can get cleaned up.”

Slipping and sliding, they made the delivery without further incident. When they got back aboard the cargo elevator, Leela began to strip off her clothes, as did Amy. By the time the elevator retracted into the cargo bay, both women were down to the bare essentials. The sight of her nude friends prompted Philippa to look down at the deck plating in a panic, “Oh my God! I don’t want to strip in front of Amy and Leela. What do I do?” She was frozen, incapable of movement.

Sensing Philippa’s embarrassment, Leela walked over to the fire hose on the starboard bulkhead. She pointed the nozzle at Philippa and said, “Brace yourself for some quick cleaning.” Philippa turned her back to Leela. Then Leela directed a low-pressure stream at Philippa, working her over from head-to-toe. The jet of water washed most of the mud away, leaving Philippa soaking wet but reasonably clean. Then Leela turned the water off.

When the stream slackened, Philippa turned around to face Leela. The sight of her naked and mud-smeared friend – a sight that would have aroused her before the change –caused her to shyly avert her gaze. Philippa glanced around with her peripheral vision and realized that Amy had already left the cargo bay.

“I’ll see you after I get cleaned up,” Leela said.

“Thanks Leela.”

With that, Leela left Philippa alone in the cargo bay.

Water dripping from her clothes, Philippa followed Leela at a discreet distance. After a short walk, Philippa arrived in her quarters. She stripped off her wet clothes, piling them in a corner. Then she stepped into the shower. The jet of hot water began to rinse away the fine layer of grit that the fire hose had missed. “Gosh,” she thought as she scrubbed her body thoroughly, “I sure have a lot of places where mud can hide.” After fifteen minutes, she was satisfied with her cleanliness.

Stepping out of the shower, Philippa toweled herself off. Finished, she looked at herself in the mirror. She turned in profile, examining herself critically. It was then that she wondered, “Do I look fat?” Twisting and turning, she went from being sure she looked fat to thinking, “I’m just imagining it.” This went on for at least five minutes before she thought to get on the bathroom scale.

“Oh no!” she wailed, “I’ve gained half a pound!” Tears formed in her eyes. Her thoughts raced, “Just when I find somebody I like, I turn into a walrus!” She was absolutely panic stricken, “What can I do?” Then it struck her – Leela! She would know what to do!

Philippa dressed in a hurry. She was determined not to waste a moment. Hustling toward the bridge, she almost ran into Leela in the companionway near the galley.

“Leela!” Philippa exclaimed, “I’m so glad to see you!”

With a quizzical look on her face Leela replied, “Okay.”

“Can we talk?”

“Sure, I’m on my way to get a cup of coffee. Do you want to join me?”

“Sure…sure that would be great.”

They went into the empty galley. Philippa sat at the mess table, while Leela went over to the cupboard. She rummaged around, pulled out her coffee cup and stuck it under the coffee maker. “Leela…the usual.” The coffee maker responded to the voice command and dispensed a cup full of coffee.

“Want a cup of coffee?”

“Sure Leela thanks.” Philippa thought for a moment, “Could you put Splendour © in it instead of sugar?”

Leela’s eye widened, “Splendour © instead of sugar? I thought you said it tastes like crap?”

“Well, Amy said that sugar isn’t good for your figure.”

She’s worried about her figure!” Leela thought. She set the coffee in front of Philippa, “She’s right, Phi.” Sitting down across the table from Philippa she asked, “So what’s on your mind?”

“Oh, nothing in particular.”

“Okay,” Leela took a long drink of coffee.

Suddenly Philippa leaned forward, “Leela, could you recommend a workout routine?”

Leela hacked, sputtered and coughed. When she was able to draw a breath she spat, “Damn it, Fry!”

“What?”

“I wish you would have waited till I swallowed the stupid coffee.”

“I’m sorry, Leela.”

Leela wiped her face, “Well, would you repeat the question?”

Looking down at her coffee cup, Philippa said in a low voice, “I just wanted to set up a workout routine that will keep me from – you know – getting fat.”

“To begin with, just working out won’t keep you slim,” Leela said in a professorial tone, “you have to watch what you eat.”

“I was hoping you could help me with that as well,” Philippa responded,

“I’d be happy to help.” Leela smiled. She almost made a remark about how having a man in your life really changes your perspective but decided against it. Knowing how sensitive Philippa was about relationships, Leela decided to just let Philippa reveal what she wanted to reveal in her own good time.

“Thanks, Leela.”

“You’re welcome.” Leela took another swig of coffee.

“Leela…?”

“Ummm?” she replied with her mouth still full of coffee.

“What was your first snu-snu like?”

The question surprised Leela so badly it caused her to shoot twin jets of coffee from her nostrils. The coffee caromed off the table, striking Philippa squarely in the chest. Philippa reacted to the impact by falling over backwards. Her head banged against the bulkhead, “Ouch!”

Leela hacked and snorted in an attempt to clear the coffee from her nose. Philippa shook her head trying to clear the stars from her head. It took a moment for both women to regain their senses.

When she could see clearly again, Philippa clawed her way back into her seat, “Leela are you okay? I’m so sorry.” She could see the scowl on Leela’s face, “Please don’t be mad at me.”

“I’ll live.” She growled, “Honestly Philippa, you can ask some very direct, personal questions without the least bit of lead in.” Her voice became tinged with anger, “Can’t you learn to be a little more subtle?”

“Ummm…” Philippa’s lip began to tremble, “I…I…” Tears began to flow down her cheeks, “I’ll try.” Her voice became pleading, “Please don’t be mad at me.”

Leela’s look and voice softened. “Okay, Phi. It’s okay.” Her face mirrored her curiosity, “What on earth possessed you to ask me about snu-snu? Why didn’t you ask Amy?”

“Well,” Philippa sniffled, “I’m not sure Amy remembers her first snu-snu.”

Leela snickered and nodded.

“Besides,” Philippa added, “Amy didn’t even understand the fourth date rule!”

Both women laughed, for different reasons. When they ceased, Leela reached out and took Philippa’s hand, “Now that I understand why you are asking, I’ll discuss it with you. You know, you are like a little sister.”

“Thanks Leela,” she blushed. “So, what was it like?”

“It happened during my sophomore year at college. I had been at a party with a guy named…” she paused, “well it doesn’t matter what his name was. I was pretty drunk. This boy had always been really nice to me, even though he was one of the craziest acting guys on campus. I was kind of unsteady on my feet so he walked me to my dorm. Well, one thing led to another. We wound up in bed.”

“Oh.”

“If I hadn’t been drunk, I’m not sure that I would have done it.” She shook her head, “But I did.”

“Were you scared?”

“Hmmm…” Leela looked thoughtful, “Yeah, I was scared and excited. I mean, I’d been groped a few times but had never done anything even close to this. Well, the actual physical act was very pleasurable…or maybe it’s just that I was so drunk it seemed pleasurable. Anyway, after it was over I passed out and so did he. In the morning I woke up next to a boy I hardly knew with the knowledge that I had given something away that I could never get back.”

“What happened afterwards?”

“It’s funny, but he said he wanted to continue the relationship. I didn’t.” She shrugged, “I just didn’t feel secure with him. He was just too crazy acting.” Leela frowned, “Philippa are you thinking about doing something with Frank?”

“No…ummm…well, I don’t know…maybe…”

“That’s a good solid answer.” Leela smiled, “Just remember that you need to take steps to be sure that you don’t wind up pregnant or with some sort of disease.” Leela paused as her Wristamajigy began to beep.

“Steps?” Philippa said in alarm.

Leela rolled her eye, “Can we discuss this later? I need to get to the bridge. We should be nearing an asteroid field soon.” As if on cue, an alarm began to sound. Leela sprang to her feet, “We’ll finish this later!” Then she dashed out of the galley.

It took six hours longer to return to Earth than they had anticipated. The Ship had been struck by a meteor that had damaged some control surfaces needed for a stable atmospheric reentry. As a result, Amy and Leela had been forced to make EVA repairs. So, instead of arriving at five o’clock, the arrived close to midnight.

Once they completed all of the shut-down procedures, the three women trooped down the landing gear into the Hangar Bay. Amy turned to face Philippa and Leela, “I’m outta here!” Without another word, she hit the side door and was gone.

Philippa asked Leela nervously, “Can we walk together to the tube station?”

Leela nodded, “Sure. Just let me check the lounge.” Philippa gave Leela a curious look. Leela smiled, “My Samuel comes to walk me home when I get in late. Last week I walked all the way home without realizing he was asleep on the couch in the lounge! Then I had to walk all the way back to wake him up.”

Philippa followed Leela up the stairway. Sure enough, Samuel was stretched out on the couch, eyes closed, breathing slowly and regularly. Leela bent over and kissed him lightly on the cheek. His eyes fluttered open, “Hello love, how was your trip?”

“Routine,” she replied, “how about your day?”

“Oh, it was so-so” he grinned, “but it is looking up now.”

Philippa felt slightly embarrassed, like she was eavesdropping. It made her think back to the time she had accidentally overheard Leela and Philippa at their first lovemaking. She was almost ready to slip out quietly when Samuel saw her, “Hi, Philippa!”

“Hello Samuel.”

Samuel glanced at the clock on the wall and asked Leela, “Are we going to walk Philippa to the tube station? It’s awfully late.”

“Great minds think alike,” Leela replied with a grin, “I already made the offer.”

“Great,” Samuel rose and shook himself fully awake. “Let’s go.”

It was a short walk along deserted streets to the tube station. When they arrived, Philippa hugged Leela, then Samuel. “Thanks for walking me here. I’ll see you tomorrow Leela.” Philippa stepped beneath the intake and said, “Robot Arms Apartments.” There was a loud “whoosh” and she disappeared up the tube.

Once Philippa was on her way home, Samuel turned to Leela, “Well, darling do you want to go straight home or do you want to go to O’Zorgnax’s?”

“Let’s go home,” she entwined her arm with his, “I have to pull some maintenance tomorrow morning.”

“Fair enough,” he leaned over and kissed her cheek. “I’ve got a few cold ones in the fridge.”

“I’m in the mood for something a bit warmer,” Leela said with a smile.

Samuel laughed, “You’re in charge.” Without a further exchange of words, they walked quickly to their apartment.


Chapter 8 – Dinner at Frank’s

Philippa went to the window and looked out at the street.  It was still twenty minutes until Frank was due, but Philippa reflected that he had a habit of arriving early.  Bender sat watching the TV, not paying any apparent attention to Philippa as she paced up and down on her silent vigil.  She had been ready for thirty minutes, disregarding Amy’s advice to “make him wait.” It was probably good advice, but Amy didn’t have a robot roommate who would…heaven knows what he would do if left alone with Frank.

This was going to be the mystical fourth date.  In the past ten days they had two dates.  One had been a conventional trip to the movies.  Frank had behaved himself, no groping or pawing. She smiled inwardly, “He even asked permission to put his arm around me.” At that moment, she had experienced a thrilling realization, “With a gentleman, a lady has options.” So, she had paused, smiled and said, “Yes.” The feel of his muscular arm gently resting across her shoulders made her feel safe somehow. Experimentally, she leaned her head on his shoulder.  His sudden intake of breath in response told her that Franklin L. Wright really…really…liked her.

She floated through the next four days.  Of course, Amy and Leela had gotten the full details out of her at work.  Philippa smiled…well, they were like sisters after all.  Both of them found it hard to believe that Frank had only kissed her hand when he dropped her at the apartment.  “Well,” she reflected, “it doesn’t matter what they believe.  I know the truth.”

The second date had been very different.  Frank had taken her to a cowboy action shoot. When he made the date, Frank explained that everyone – even the spectators – would be dressed up in cowboy outfits to watch or compete in target shooting. When Philippa protested she had nothing to wear, Frank had only smiled, “I’ll take care of that.” In spite of being forewarned, when Frank showed up at the apartment in full cowboy outfit, Philippa had barely been able to suppress her amusement. Then he had held out a long white dress covered with a pattern of tiny red flowers. 

“I brung ya a purty cowgirl dress, missy” he said in an exaggerated cowboy accent.

“It’s lovely,” she had replied sincerely. 

She quickly tried it on. It was a perfect fit. “How did he know my size?” she wondered.  Then it hit her, “Amy.  She must have told him!  Or maybe it was Leela?” Regardless of how Frank found out, it pleased her that he had gone through the trouble.

The shoot had been a combination of dress-up and shopping. Frank insisted on taking her through a series of tents that were full of cowboy paraphernalia. By the time they finished, she had a bonnet, a parasol, gloves, a handbag, shoes, and a beautiful gold locket.  She protested each time he bought another accessory, but he had always replied, “Please allow me the pleasure of doing this for you.”  In the end, she had given in.

As they strolled arm-in-arm along the line of tents that led toward the firing line, she noticed that most of the men were very deferential to Frank. Frank escorted Philippa to her seat.  Then he stepped up to his position.  The loudspeaker announced, “Now ladies and gentlemen, the next contestant to fire will be Frank “Lightning” Wright.” Applause rippled through the crowd.  Once it was silent, a buzzer sounded.

In the next few seconds, Philippa understood the deference the other men had shown Frank. He moved so fast it was almost impossible to follow him as he drew his pistols. The multiple discharges from his revolvers produced an unbroken roar.  As that sound died away, the roar of the crowd replaced it.  Every shot hit the target! Although Philippa didn’t understand it at the time, Frank had received a perfect score. On the ride home, Frank said, “You are my lucky charm, Philippa…better than a four leaf clover.”

Movement on the street brought her back to the present.  A blue Thundercougarfalconbird was pulling up in front of the apartment building.  Philippa felt her heart begin to beat faster.  She nervously adjusted her skirt and jacket.  It was her usual red jacket, white blouse and blue skirt pattern.  As an added touch, she was wearing tiny gold earrings and the locket that Frank had bought at the shoot. She darted into the bathroom to do one last check.  Everything was in order.

The door buzzer sounded. Before Bender could do more than turn his head, Philippa shot past the couch, “I’ll get it.” The door opened to reveal a smiling Frank clad in his best jeans outfit.  In his left hand were a dozen red roses, “Good evening Philippa.” He extended the flowers, “I brought these for you.”

“Frank!” her tone was warm and sincere, “How good to see you! Thank you for the flowers. They are so pretty!”

“Not near as pretty as you.”

Philippa blushed…but only briefly…as she was getting used to the idea that Frank really thought she was pretty. “I’ll put these in water and then we’ll go.” She shot a warning look at Bender before going into the kitchen to draw some water.

Frank cleared his throat, “Evening, Bender.  What are you watching?”

Without looking in Frank’s direction Bender replied laconically, “Ape fight.”

“You an ape fighting fan?”

“Yup.”

“I’ve got some tickets to the Gorgonzo versus Megachimp match next Friday. Wanna go?”

That got Bender’s attention, “Sure thing skin sack! That fight has been sold out for weeks. How’d you get tickets?”

“I know Megachimp’s owner.”

Philippa hurriedly reentered the room. She took Frank’s arm, “Okay. We can go now.”

Frank nodded at Bender, “I’ll give the tickets to Philippa, okay?”

“You bet.”

Philippa waited until they were heading down the elevator before asking, “What tickets were you talking about?”

Frank laughed, “Some tickets to an ape fight this coming Friday.” He shook his head, “I’ve never been much of a fan but when I saw Bender watching an ape fight on TV, I figured he might enjoy going.”

“That is so thoughtful,” then she felt alarmed, “Umm…are you…are you going with him?”

“Nope, I plan on spending every evening that I can with you.”

Thank goodness,” Philippa thought, “there’s no telling what Bender would say or do to Frank at an ape fight.”

A short drive brought them to Frank’s condo. Philippa waited as Frank came around and opened the door for her.  She took the helping hand he offered to get out of the car.  It was a purely practical matter, as Philippa had yet to master the art of getting out of a car while wearing a skirt and high heels.

The elevator ride to the condo was of short duration. However, it felt like an eternity to Philippa.  All sorts of things went through her mind, “Oh my Lord, this is our fourth dateDo I have to snu-snu on the fourth date?  We haven’t even kissed yet!” Philippa calmed a bit when she reflected, “No, Frank is a gentleman.  He won’t push me.”   

Frank could sense that Philippa was tense.  He wasn’t sure of the cause, so he simply smiled and said, “I can’t believe I’m this lucky.”

Slightly surprised, Philippa stammered, “Wh…why would you say that?”

“Because I didn’t believe I could ever find anyone as honest, sweet and pretty as you.”

The sincerity in his manner caused Philippa to blush.  She also felt a sudden urge to throw her arms around his neck and kiss him.  Instead, she said softly, “I think I’m lucky too. You are a perfect gentleman and very handsome.”

The sight of Frank’s reddening face made Philippa realize, “Oh-ho! I’m not the only one who is affected by a little flattery.”

At that second, the elevator door swooshed open. They stepped out into the hallway and walked to the condo door.  The door read Frank’s career chip and slid open silently. 

The cooking aromas that wafted through the open doorway were wonderful, Philippa thought. 

Frank said, “Pardon me, I’ll just be a minute.” He crossed the living room into the adjacent dining room where she lost sight of him.

Alone, Philippa glanced around the apartment.  The living room was spacious, with a giant screen TV against the wall to the right. Facing the TV were two large tan armchairs flanking a very comfortable looking brown leather couch.  The floor was carpeted in a thick beige pile.  Western relics and art hung on the walls.

Just like a man,” Philippa thought, “everything is done in earth tones.”

She noticed that a hall near the joint between the living and dining rooms ran to at least two bedrooms.  “That’s right,” she breathed softly, “Mrs. Panelli lives here.”

Frank appeared in the dining room, “Philippa, I don’t mean to rush you…but are you hungry?”

Philippa smiled her best smile, “I wasn’t until I got here, but the smell of food made me really hungry all of a sudden.”

“Well then, come on into the dining room.  Mrs. Panelli will serve us right away.”

“Won’t she join us?” Philippa sounded disappointed.

“Oh, she’ll join us.  But she always serves the guests first.” He grinned, “She’s been that way ever since I can remember.”

Frank took Philippa by the arm and led her into the dining room.  “Earth tones,” she thought.  Everything was made of dark wood…tables, chairs, and sideboard.  The floor was wood as well.

He sat Philippa in what Mrs. Panelli called, “The best-a seat inna house.” It was at the foot of the table, but closest to the kitchen door.  That way, the guest was always served first. As she sat down, Philippa noticed that the china, flatware, and table settings really seemed out of place.  The china was delicate, chased in gold with a floral pattern.  Philippa squinted at the flower…it was the same one that was on her cowgirl dress.  It looked like a rose but was somehow different.

A sound from the kitchen caused Philippa to look up. Mrs. Panelli bustled through the door, carrying a tray with a huge bowl of spaghetti and a steaming pot of meat sauce.  Philippa had expected to see a typical, swarthy Cygnoid. She was surprised by Mrs. Panelli’s shock of blonde hair and eyebrows. Her skin was a shade fairer as well. But it was Mrs. Panelli’s deep blue eyes that riveted Philippa’s attention.

Mrs. Panelli was used to stares – often hostile – from humans, “Good-a evening Miss Fry, I hope-a you like-a spaghetti.”

“Oh yes ma’am. I like it a lot.”

Mrs. Panelli gave a deep throated chuckle, “Atsa good.” She smiled broadly, “Just between us-a girls, you can-a call me Lilly, hokay?”

“Yes ma’am…I mean Lilly.” Philippa smiled, “My friends call me Philippa or sometimes they call me Phi.”

“Hokay Phi,” Mrs. Panelli began to dish out spaghetti, “You just-a say when.”

Philippa took a respectable portion.  She remembered from before the change that Cygnoids were offended by a refusal to eat.  Then her stomach did a flip-flop as she remembered some of the cooking ingredients the Cygnoids she knew liked to use. “Oh crap!” she thought, “I hope this doesn’t make me blast puke and hallucinate like the first Cygnoid pizza I had!”

Almost as though Mrs. Panelli had read Philippa’s mind she said, “You gonna like-a this sauce.  It made-a with all authentic Italian ingredients.”

Philippa relaxed, “I’m sure I will.” And she did. 

Dinner was delicious.  The spaghetti was perfectly al dente; the sauce was hearty, the bread light and flaky.  Once Philippa had eaten a few mouthfuls, she asked, “Frank, I’ve noticed this pretty little red flower on your china and on the dress you got me.  What kind of flower is it?”

Frank dabbed at his lips with his napkin, “Well, it’s the rarest flower in the Galaxy.  It’s called the Prairie Rose.”

“Really?”

“Yup. It only grows on the Northern Prairie of Rodeo 5.  It’s so rare that you might spend your whole life on the Prairie without ever seeing one. We have a saying, ‘The Prairie Rose is for lookin’, not for pickin’ and I believe it.”

“Can’t you grow them?”

Frank shook his head, “Nope.  They only grow in the wild.” He leaned back in his chair, “With all our science, we still haven’t been able to domesticate the Prairie Rose.”

Philippa smiled, “Have you ever seen a Prairie Rose?”

Frank smiled back, “Twice.”

“Wow!” Philippa leaned forward, “Tell me about it.”

“Well,” he drawled, “the first one I saw I was riding lead on a cattle drive between Tombstone-on-the-Brazos and New San Antonio.  It was near a ford of the Nueces River.  By God, it was so beautiful it stole my breath away.” He paused, “We detoured the whole herd three miles to a lower ford to avoid it.”

“Why?”

“Cows are pretty dumb and they're always hungry. They might have trampled it or eaten it.” He became solemn, “It’s powerful bad luck to hurt a Prairie Rose.”

Philippa laughed, “Do you really believe that?”

He nodded, “Yup.”

There was a moment of silence at the table.  Frank seemed to be lost in thought.  Philippa waited until her curiosity got the best of her, “So Frank, where did you see the next one?”

His smile returned, “A few weeks ago I saw one in Maxine’s.”

“Huh?” Philippa was confused, “But…but I thought they only grew wild on Rodeo 5?”

“I thought the same thing, until I met you.  As I stood there with my dang palms sweating, I knew that you were a Prairie Rose in human form.”

In spite of herself, Philippa blushed crimson.  She struggled to reply, but nothing came out.  Frank continued, “I’m sorry if I embarrassed you, but I had to tell you. In my eyes, you are unique…a once in a lifetime treasure.”

Philippa found her voice, “Frank, you say the nicest things.” She paused briefly, “I think you are very special too.”

Mrs. Panelli cleared her throat, “You kids need-a to eat.  The food, she’s gonna get-a cold.”

In response, they both burst into laughter. 

They ate quietly for the rest of the dinner. Just exchanging small talk.  But each time their eyes met, Philippa felt as though she was melting inside.  Then the thought that this was the fourth date intruded on her thoughts.  It froze her insides like a blast of liquid helium.

Oh my gosh!” Philippa thought in a panic, “Do I have to snu-snu on the fourth date? I can’t remember. What can I do?” Then she felt a surge of relief, “I know! I’ll call Leela.” She looked at Mrs. Panelli, “Mrs…I mean Lily, is there somewhere I can make a phone call?”

“Shoo,” Mrs. Panelli pointed down the hall, “The second door onna right. Atsa my room.”

Philippa stood, “I’ll just be a minute.  I forgot to check on something.” She walked quickly down the hall and into Mrs. Panelli’s room.  She punched up Leela’s number.  After five rings, Leela appeared on the video screen.  Her hair was down and she was wrapped in a towel.  Leela squinted, “Philippa, what’s up?”

“Umm…there’s something I have to ask you.  Do I have to snu-snu tonight?”

Leela was alarmed, “Has he done something to you? Do I need to come over there to get you?”

“No…no…he’s a perfect gentleman.  It’s just that this is the fourth date…”

“Philippa, you don’t have to snu-snu on the fourth date,” Leela shook her head in amusement, “It’s more of a guideline anyway that tells you not to snu-snu before the fourth date.”

“Oh.”

From off the video screen Philippa heard Samuel’s voice, “The water’s getting cold.  I’m going to refill it and add some more bath oil beads, okay?”

Leela looked over her shoulder, “That’s great honey.”

Realizing that she had intruded on Leela and Samuel made Philippa felt like a voyeur.  Her face mottled in embarrassment. She stammered, “I…I…h..have...t…to g…go now.” She gulped, “Bye Leela!”

Leela was grinning impishly, “Bye Philippa!”

The screen went blank.

Philippa stood quietly for a moment to recover her composure and allow the burning feeling on her cheeks to fade. She breathed, “Smile, Philippa!” just before she opened the door to step into the hallway.  Once back at the table she smiled and nodded at Mrs. Panelli, “Thank you for letting me use your phone.”

Mrs. Panelli smiled back, “Shoo, atsa fine.”

Philippa resumed eating, hoping that Frank wouldn’t ask about the phone call.  He didn’t. He only smiled at her occasionally as he busily tucked away an impressive amount of spaghetti.

When they finished their dinners including the dessert, Mrs. Panelli rose and began to clear the table.  She waved dismissively at both Frank and Philippa, “You both go and-a watch-a the TV. Frank, you get-a the vino for you and Miss Philippa.” She bustled off for the kitchen, leaving them to their own devices.

Frank stood, “Well, guess I’ll get the wine.  Do you have a preference?”

Philippa was stumped by the question.  The only types of wines she knew about were the cheap wines that Bender drank when they went out to dinner. Somehow Thunderschevitz or Hobo’s Delight didn’t seem appropriate.  So she shook her head, “I really don’t know much about wines.” Remembering how Amy had told her that men liked to be the experts she smiled and said softly, “Please.  You pick.”

“My favorite is a red wine called a Shiraz.  Have you ever had it?”

“No, but I’m sure it tastes great.”

He gestured toward the couch, “Make yourself comfortable and I’ll fetch you a glass.”

Philippa sank into the couch, enjoying its comfortable feel.  It certainly was a lot nicer than the one at the Planet Express, she reflected.  Frank appeared, holding out a wine glass that was half-filled with a dark red wine.  Philippa took it, “Thanks.”

Frank bowed slightly, “You are most welcome.” Then he chuckled at his own formality. He gestured at the rack full of tapes next to the television, “What do you want to watch first?”

Philippa scanned the rack.   “My goodness,” she exclaimed, “You really do have everything!” She shook her head, “I can’t make up my mind.” Then she smiled radiantly, “What’s your favorite?  You know, you’ve never told me.”

Rubbing his chin Frank paused before answering, “I think that the original series is my favorite.” He returned her smile, “Want to start at the beginning?”

“Sure.”

“We’ll watch them in the order that they aired, if that’s okay.”

Philippa nodded.

Frank popped the tape into the player and sat down next to Philippa.  He put his arm gently around her.  To his surprise, she snuggled closer. 

Philippa sat sipping the wine, enjoying it’s aroma and flavor.  By the end of the first episode, she was on her second glass.  She was also becoming sleepy.  Only a few moments into “Charlie X”, she started to doze.  She awoke with a start as she spilled most of the glass of wine all over her blouse and dress.

The shock of the spill brought her to her feet. “Oh damn!” she said, “I can’t believe I did this!”

Frank was on his feet, “Don’t worry,” he said in a soothing voice, “Mrs. Panelli will take care of it.”

Philippa felt like crying.  Not only had she ruined her clothes, but she had ruined the date. “He must think I’m a klutz like Amy!” ran through her mind. Her lip started to tremble as she fought back tears.  Just when Philippa was at the point of losing it and bawling, Mrs. Panelli sailed into the room.

“Now, now,” she clucked, “itsa no problem.”  She took Philippa by the arm, “Omonin to my room.  I fix-a you up.”

Frank smiled, “Don’t worry, darlin’.  Mrs. Panelli is a wizard.”

Once in Mrs. Panelli’s room, Philippa found her composure returning.  Mrs. Panelli gestured toward her bathroom, “You go ona in there and you take-a all you clothes off. I gonna bring-a you a nice-a bathrobe. Then I wash everything.  It all clean-a up, I promise.”

Philippa went into the bathroom and disrobed.  The only thing that wasn’t stained was her panties.  She was beginning to get a bit chilly when Mrs. Panelli’s cracked the door slightly and thrust her arm into the bathroom, a fluffy white terry cloth bathrobe in her hand. “Here-a you go,” Mrs. Panelli’s voice sounded from the other side of the door.

“Thanks,” Philippa took the bathrobe and slipped into it.  It was soft and very comfortable.  Philippa looked at herself in a full-length mirror hung on the back of the door. “This has to be Frank’s robe,” she thought, “it almost touches my ankles.” She looked at her reflection again and giggled, “I’m still wearing high heels!” 

Kicking her shoes off, she picked up her stained garments.  She opened the door to see Mrs. Panelli standing there patiently, “Thank you, Mrs. Panelli.  I’m so sorry to put you through this…I’m such a klutz.”

Mrs. Panelli patted Philippa’s cheek affectionately, “You no klutz…itsa the vino.” Her blue eyes took on a mischievous look, “Now you go inna there with Frank and have-a good-a time. I fix everything.” As Philippa went to leave, Mrs. Panelli pointed to the closet, “Get you some slippers. The floor, she’s a cold.”

Philippa selected a set of pink fluffy slippers. To her surprise, they were only a size or so too large. She padded quietly into the living room where Frank was waiting patiently. As soon as he saw her he smiled broadly, “Phi, you’re as pretty as the morning.”

Philippa laughed as she sat down, “Thank you Frank.  You certainly make me feel pretty.”

“Would you like some more wine?”

Philippa shook her head, “No. I can barely keep my eyes open now.  I hope it won’t take Mrs. Panelli too long to clean everything up.”

“She’s pretty quick.” He placed his arm around her, “Want to watch a little more of ‘Charlie X’?”

“Yes,” Philippa snuggled closer, “I’d like that a lot.”

Ten minutes later, Frank knew that Philippa was out like a light.  Mrs. Panelli came into the room and sized up the situation. She whispered, “She’s a fast asleep, eh?”

Frank nodded. 

“Itsa late. She’s a tired, poor thing.” She smiled, “Why you no let-a her sleep here?”

Frank shrugged, “I’ll put her in my bed and bunk here on the couch.”

“I’ll fix-a it up for you.”

Frank lifted Philippa effortlessly from the couch.  She was sleeping so soundly that her deep regular breathing didn’t even alter as he carried her into his room.  When he placed her on the bed, the bathrobe fell open slightly to reveal the gold locket he had bought her resting in the gentle swell of her breast. 

Frank averted his gaze while adjusting her robe.  Then he draped a light blanket over her.  He backed out of the room, smiling as he turned off the light. 


Chapter 9 – Frankly my dear

Philippa awoke with a start, sitting up straight in the bed. “Where am I?” she thought in near panic. Her mind raced. It took a few seconds before she realized, “I’m in Frank’s condo.” That calmed her a bit.

She looked around the room, “Oh no! I’m in Frank’s bedroom!” She wondered, “What did Frank and I do last night?” The last thing she remembered was watching “Charlie X.” “I only had two glasses of wine” she said to the empty room, “I wasn’t that drunk.” After a few more moments of mental and physical self-examination, Philippa decided that nothing bad had happened.

Swinging her feet out onto the floor, Philippa saw that there was one pink slipper on the floor by the bed. It took a moment, but she finally found the other one buried in the blanket. Slipping it onto her foot, she stood up determined to find out what happened last night.

Halfway to the door, the aroma of coffee and the smell of bacon wafted past her nose. Philippa opened the door slowly, feeling suddenly and unaccountably timid. Her timidity vanished when she heard Mrs. Panelli singing. It was a cheerful tune although Philippa couldn’t understand the words.

As she passed through the living room, Philippa noticed that the couch was awash in pillows and blankets. “So he slept out here,” Philippa realized. Still smiling at that thought, Philippa stepped into the kitchen. Mrs. Panelli stopped singing as she turned to face Philippa, “Good-a morning Philippa,” she chuckled, “I hope-a my singing not awake you.”

“No, I didn’t hear it until I was out in the hall.”

“Atsa good. You wanna breakfast?”

“Please.”

Mrs. Panelli gestured toward a small table with two chairs that sat in a corner of the kitchen, “Ava seat.”

Philippa sat down facing Mrs. Panelli. For a moment, she watched Mrs. Panelli bustle around the kitchen humming softly. Then Philippa spoke, “Lilly, I wanted to thank you for being so nice to me.”

Mrs. Panelli looked over her shoulder, “Shoo. You nice-a girl…and Frank, he really like-a you.”

“Really?”

“Shoo. Frank, he leave you a note.” She fished around in her apron pocket, “Ah…here she is.” Mrs. Panelli turned briefly from her work and held the note out. Philippa took it and opened it. Her eyes eagerly scanned the spidery scrawl.

Dear Philippa,

You will never know how much I enjoyed our time together last night. Each time we go out, it just gets better and better. You are a genuine Prairie Rose.”

Philippa smiled, feeling good inside. She continued reading.

I’m really sorry that I left before you got up. It would have been great to see you to start the day. But there is just so much to do today.”

Philippa nodded in silent agreement.

Please keep this evening open. If you can stand seeing me two nights in a row, there’s a little restaurant that I’d like you to experience. Dress is casual. Let Mrs. P. know if you can meet me and I’ll pick you up at your place around six.”

Love,

Frank

Her heart leaped in her chest…Frank had ended his note with “Love”! Without realizing, Philippa clutched the note to her chest. Mrs. Panelli noticed the action as she placed a plate piled high with food in front of Philippa.

“Philippa, here-a you go. Bono Apetito!”

“Thanks Mrs. Pan…I mean Lilly.” Philippa glanced at the plate. It was loaded with scrambled eggs, bacon, and hashed browns. Before she dug in, Philippa smiled at Mrs. Panelli, “Lilly, would you please tell Frank that I’ll be waiting for him at six tonight?”

Mrs. Panelli returned a knowing smile, “Shoo.” She clucked, “Now you eat-a you food before she’s cold.”

Philippa went to work with a will. In a very short time she emptied the plate. Looking up, Philippa realized that Lilly was watching her, “I’m sorry to eat so fast. It’s just that the food is so good.”

Mrs. Panelli laughed, “Itsa hokay! You gotta good appetite…atsa nice…atsa nice.”

Something in the way that Mrs. Panelli said it made Philippa laugh as well. She looked at the clock on the wall. It was time to head to work. Rising, Philippa cleared her throat, “Well, breakfast was really great. I’d like to stay longer, but I have to get to work.”

“You clothes, they in-a my bathroom onna hanger.”

“Thanks.”

Within a few short moments, Philippa was dressed and ready to head to work. She stopped by the kitchen to thank Mrs. Panelli once more. To Philippa’s surprise, Mrs. Panelli hugged her, “You come here any time-a you like. You very nice-a girl.”

Philippa patted Mrs. Panelli on the back, “I will.” She thought for a moment, “Lilly can you teach me to cook?”

“Shoo. I teach-a you alla the dishes Franklin likes.”

Philippa blushed slightly, “Thanks. Would this weekend be alright to start learning?”

“Shoo. Atsa fine.”

That said Philippa headed out of the apartment. At the door, she turned and waived goodbye, “See you this weekend Lilly!”

“Ciao, Phi!”

As soon as Philippa arrived at the Planet Express, she went straight to the locker room without speaking to anyone. As she entered, she flipped the sign on the door to read “Ladies”. She had just hung her skirt on the hangar when she heard the door open. Looking up, she saw Leela striding toward her with a determined look on her face. Amy was right behind her.

“Hi Leela. Hi Amy”

Amy murmured, “Hi.” Leela didn’t even return the greeting. Instead she launched into a lecture, “Philippa, Bender told me that you didn’t come home last night.”

“Umm…no, I didn’t,” Philippa replied almost absently as she pulled on her slacks.

Arms crossed, Leela’s eye narrowed, “Did you take precautions?”

“Huh? Precautions?” Confusion turned to anger, “No, we…I didn’t do anything!”

“Do you expect me to believe that?” Leela tapped her toe, “Especially after the questions you asked me on the trip to Fango Four?”

“Who are you, my mother?” Tears of anger formed in Philippa’s eyes, “Damn it! I fell asleep watching TV. Frank was an absolute gentleman.” She struggled to keep from crying as her voice rose, “And when I choose to sleep with him, it will be none of your or anyone else’s business!”

Amy interjected, “If you get pregnant it will be our business. Who else is going to listen to your complaints?”

“Just shut up, Amy!” Philippa’s face began to turn crimson, “You guys are my friends but that doesn’t mean you can control my life.”

Leela got almost nose to nose with Philippa, “Look me in the eye and tell me you didn’t do anything wrong.”

Hot tears began to splash down her cheeks but nevertheless Philippa spoke clearly, “I did not do anything that was wrong.”

It was at that moment that Hermes stuck his head through the doorway, “Da meetin’ starts in five minutes, ladies.” Like a pack of lionesses on the hunt, all three women focused their attention on Hermes. The feral look on their faces made Hermes regret his intrusion instantly.

Leela growled, “Shove a squirrel in it, Conrad.”

“But…but…” he sputtered.

Amy spat, “Yeah, beat it Hermes.”

“Now listen…”

Philippa hissed, “Listen? No! Read! Are you too stupid to read the ‘Ladies’ sign on the door?”

Knowing he was heavily outclassed, Hermes beat a hasty retreat.

His intrusion served a good purpose. It defused the situation. Faced with a still weeping Philippa, Leela spoke first, “Philippa, I’m sorry I came on so strong. It’s just that…it’s just that you really are like my sister. I worry about you. When I worry…well…sometimes I can be a little overbearing.”

Philippa’s skin was losing the flush of anger as she put her right hand on Leela’s shoulder, “It’s okay, Leela.” The tears began to slow as Philippa squeezed Leela’s shoulder, “I guess all friends fight.”

Amy stepped up and put her arms around both Leela and Philippa, “Group hug!” The warmth of their friendship dried the last of Philippa’s tears. When they released and stepped apart, Philippa sat down and pulled on her shoes.

“You know, Amy I don’t think I’ll ever get used to high heels.” She wiggled her toes in her sneakers, “Do either of you like high heels?”

Amy shook her head while Leela said emphatically, “No!”

“Then why do we wear them?”

“Spluh! We wear them because they make our legs look shapelier and our butts juggle.”

Philippa looked like she had just tasted something bad, “Yuck!”

Both Leela and Amy laughed.

“Come on honey,” Leela said with a smile, “you know that you’d do a lot more to get…and keep…Frank’s attention.”

Philippa stood up, “I guess you’re right. So where are we going today?”

“We’re headed for Priapus Six with some gardening tools.”

“Cool.”

Later that day, Frank sat drinking a cup of Cowboy Coffee in the kitchen of his condo. Across the table was Mrs. Panelli. Her face wore a concerned expression, “Franklin, don’t-a you feel maybe you being just a little-a bit hasty?”

He shook his head, “No, I want Philippa as my wife.”

“She’s a very nice-a girl, but what do you-a know about her?”

Frank sat back in his chair, “I know enough. She’s honest to a fault, a faithful friend, and beautiful as the morning.”

“Franklin, I gotta be,” She scratched her head, “What’s the word?” She remembered, “Oh yes, I gonna be direct with-a you.”

“Philippa…she was a man, no?”

“The key word is ‘was’ Mrs. Panelli.”

“It not bother-a you?”

Frank leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. His face was a mask of determination, “Nope. Look, Mrs. P., I talked to Sam about the whole thing. He told me about Philippa’s life before what he called ‘the change’. Philippa told me about it too. Hell, she hardly even remembers that part of her life.” He smiled, “What was it she said? That it was, ‘like watching a movie’.” He shook his head, “No, I haven’t got any problem with it…none at all.”

“Hokay, you gotta me convinced.” Mrs. Panelli smiled, “She must like-a you a little. She wants-a me to teach her to cook.”

“Atsa good!” Frank said in a mock Cygnoid accent.

In response they both laughed heartily.

At roughly the same time as Frank and Mrs. Panelli were having their discussion, Leela and Amy were on the bridge of the Planet Express Ship as it rested on the lush green surface of Priapus Six. Sitting on the couch, they watched Philippa and Bender each push a hover dolly piled high with crates of gardening tools down a path into the foliage.

Leela sighed, “Well, that should keep them busy for a while. It’s a mile to the delivery point.”

Amy turned to face Leela, “So do you think Philippa has found” Amy clasped her hands next to her own cheek, fluttered her eyelids and let her jaw slacken in an exaggerated moonstruck look, “the man of her dreams?”

Leela frowned, “I don’t know. After all, she is so emotionally immature.”

Amy shook her head, “I don’t think Philippa is immature.”

“Maybe immature is the wrong word.” Leela looked thoughtful, “Maybe inexperienced is a better word.”

Amy nodded in silent agreement.

“I mean, Philippa knows so little about Frank.” She shook her head, “Did you hear what she said earlier today?”

Amy shook her head, “I don’t know. What do you mean?”

“When I asked her about taking precautions Philippa said, ‘And when I choose to sleep with him, it will be none of your or anyone else’s business’! To me, that means that our dear little Phi has already made up her mind about a certain Mr. Franklin Wright.”

“You’re right Leela!” Amy’s eyes widened. Then she grinned, “I wonder when their going to finally get together?”

“Amy! We need to figure out how to talk Philippa out of it.”

“Why?”

“It’s for her own good.”

“Spleesh! You sound like my mother!”

Leela looked surprised, “Don’t you agree?”

“No! What Philippa does with Frank is her own business as long as she doesn’t get pregnant.”

“I’m not worried about pregnancy really. I’m worried that he might break Philippa’s heart.” Leela paused, “You know, I broke Philippa’s heart over and over again when she was Philip. I…I just don’t want to see her heart broken as a woman because I know how that feels.” To Amy’s surprise, Leela began to sob. “Oh God! Those guilty memories are so terrible.”

Amy patted Leela on the shoulder, “Don’t worry Leela. It will be okay.”

“Darn it,” Leela wiped the tears away, “Maybe I’m worrying about nothing. My Samuel says that Frank is a good man. I guess I should trust his judgment.”

Amy grinned, “He picked you, didn’t he?”

Leela grinned back, “That he did.”

The ship’s communicator chirped to indicate an incoming transmission. Amy rose and went to the communications console, “It’s Bender…audio only.”

Bender’s panting voice came over the speakers, “We’re…we’re…on our…way…back. Start up…the…engines!”

Spurred on by the tone of Bender’s voice, Leela vaulted from the couch into the captain’s chair almost in a single motion. She turned the ignition key and the engines roared into life. Without any delay, Leela brought the ship into a hover, retracting the landing gear while leaving the cargo elevator resting on the ground. That way, she could shave several seconds from their lift off.

Leela’s actions probably saved all of their lives. Before she could ask Bender what was going on, both Bender and Philippa burst from the tree line running at breakneck speed while pushing their hover dollies. Right behind them was a howling mob of spear wielding Priapans…and they did not look happy.

Leela turned to Amy, “Grab a pistol and get down to the cargo elevator. I don’t want any uninvited guests on board.”

Amy vanished from the bridge like lightning.

The sight of the ship apparently caused the Priapans to slow for a second, while Bender and Philippa put on a final burst of speed. Some of the Priapans cast their spears. Only one found it’s target, denting Bender’s posterior.

With a final burst of speed, Bender and Philippa vanished under the nose of the ship. Amy’s voice came over the intercom, “They’re aboard…let’s get the hell out of here!”

Leela looked at the command console. She could see that Amy was retracting the cargo elevator. “WILCO!” Leela shouted as she shoved the throttle forward. The ship leaped into the air and was soon out of danger.

The ship had just cleared the upper atmosphere when Bender, Philippa and Amy trooped onto the bridge.

Leela heard them enter, turned and shouted, “Bender, what the hell happened?”

“Oh! So you assume it’s always the robot’s fault!” He crossed his arms across his chest, “My shiny metal ass gets dented and all you can say is ‘what the hell happened?’ That is so typical…”

“Shut up Bender or so help me I’ll dismantle you and put you in a storage locker until we get home.” Leela turned her attention to Philippa, “So what happened?”

“Well…” Philippa looked down at her feet, “Umm…we just didn’t know…” She fell silent.

After a few seconds Leela asked gently, “Didn’t know what, Phi?”

“That flowers are sacred on Priapus Six.” Silence again.

“And somebody picked a flower?”

“Well…no…somebody accidentally set a whole field of flowers on fire.”

Leela shook her head slowly, “Let me guess…was it Bender?”

Philippa stood silently, looking at the tops of her shoes.

“I feel like a kindergarten teacher,” Leela said quietly, “Well, you are both safe. That’s what counts.” After a short pause Leela asked, “Did they sign for the delivery?”

Philippa looked up, “Oh yes, the fire got started after we made the delivery.”

Amy said something softly in Cantonese. Everyone turned and looked at her in anticipation. Realizing they had heard her, Amy said, “Sorry, it’s an old Chinese proverb.”

“What does it mean in English?” Philippa asked.

Amy frowned in concentration, “Well, my Dad always used to say it. It literally means ‘ten fingers of different lengths’. What that means is that there is good and bad in every situation.”

“I heard that!” Bender said emphatically.

Leela glared at Bender, who turned to Philippa, “Well organ sack, I’m going below to look at controversial art. Want to come?”

Philippa smiled, “I think I’ll hang out on the bridge for a while if that’s okay.”

Bender shrugged, “Suit yourself flesh wad.” Bender stomped off the bridge without further ado.

Philippa went over and sat down in the center of the couch. Amy joined her, sitting to her right. For a few moments, neither woman spoke. Finally, Amy cleared her throat, “Phi…so tell me…how was your last date with Frank?”

Philippa rolled her eyes, “Listen Amy, I’m a big girl now. I don’t need to justify my actions.” Her voice became hard, “I thought this was over.”

Amy held out her hands in a ‘hold on’ gesture, “I’m not starting on you, I just wanted to make some conversation. Spleesh!”

“Sorry, Amy.” Philippa’s voice softened, “He has a really nice condo. It has two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, dining room, and a full kitchen.”

“Nice.”

“He has a lot of western art and stuff on his walls. It kind of makes you feel like you’re in a ranch house or something.”

“Let me guess,” Amy grinned, “earth tones?”

Philippa laughed, “Everything but Mrs. Panelli’s room.”

“Mrs. Panelli…what is she like?”

“Wonderful! She is going to teach me to cook!”

Amy’s thoughts went back to her first taste of Cygnoid Pizza, “Uh…are you sure that is a good idea?”

Philippa laughed again, “I know what you’re thinking. But Mrs. Panelli…her name is Lilly…can really cook. Her spaghetti and meat sauce were to die for!”

“So did Frank have breakfast with you?”

Philippa shook her head, “No. He had to take care of some business. He left me the nicest note, though.”

“Wow, that’s thoughtful!”

Fishing the note from her pocket Philippa asked, “Would you like to hear it?”

“Sure.”

When Philippa finished, Amy asked, “So are you going out with him tonight?”

Philippa grinned impishly, “Of course! Why do you think I ran back to the ship so fast?”


Chapter 10 – Hey Good Lookin'

Samuel had just finished serving a mocha latte to one of his regulars when he saw Philippa come though the front door. She was dressed in blue jeans, white blouse and red jacket.

“Hi Samuel!” she said with a friendly wave.

“Good evening, Philippa,” he called, “the usual?”

Philippa glanced at the clock on the wall. It was five forty…Frank was due any moment. She shook her head, “No thank you. Frank should be here any minute.” That said, she turned her attention to the street outside.

“Okay.” He turned back to his work. “Philippa really has it bad,” he thought as he smiled quietly to himself.

At five forty five on the dot Frank came through the door. Dressed in his usual jeans outfit with a white embroidered cowboy shirt, he smiled broadly when he saw Philippa, “Hey there girl.” He held out his hand to help her up from her favorite armchair, “I believe you get prettier every day.”

Philippa took Frank’s hand and returned his smile. In spite of herself, she still blushed a little at the compliment. “Thank you Frank, I think the same of you.” “Oooh that sounded dumb,” Flashed through her mind, “He’s handsome, not pretty.” So she corrected herself, “I…I meant to say that you look handsome.”

Frank blushed a bit without ever losing his smile, “Well, I promised you a treat tonight and I mean to provide it.”

Something in the way Frank said it made Philippa curious, “Really? What kind of treat is it?”

“It’s a secret,” he replied with a laugh.

“Please tell me.” Unconsciously she draped herself on his arm. “Please.”

Frank’s grin spread across his face, “That would be cheating.”

“Ooh!” Philippa playfully slapped his arm, “You are so mean!”

The grin remained, “Yup, I’m just terrible…and I know it.”

“Well, since you are determined not to tell me, let’s get going.” She leaned her head on his shoulder, “I’m just dying of curiosity.”

Samuel, who couldn’t help hearing the whole conversation, found that he was dying of curiosity himself. He’d never seen Frank like this in all the years he’d known him. “He looks and acts like a schoolboy,” Samuel reflected, “Philippa has surely caught her man…if she wants him.”

Oh blast,” the thought suddenly dawned on Samuel, “Frank is old enough to want to settle down. But does Philippa want to?” Samuel racked his brain but found that the answer eluded him. He decided to ask Leela when she got in later. He looked up in time to see Philippa and Frank leaving, arm-in-arm. “Good luck Frank,” he said quietly.

Frank held the door for Philippa as she got into the car. Once he was behind the wheel, he guided the powerful sports car through the traffic and out of Manhattan. They drove for almost an hour until they came to an old-fashioned Roadhouse out in the country. In front a sign proudly proclaimed, “Pecos Bill’s Wild West Roadhouse.” The parking lot was jammed with vehicles of every description. They found a parking space, Frank helped Philippa out of the car, and then he popped the trunk. He reached into the trunk, pulling out an electric guitar case.

“You play guitar?” Philippa asked in surprise.

Frank shrugged, “A little bit.”

“Are you going to play tonight?”

He laughed, “Yes ma’am, I plan to play a little.”

“Is that the treat you were talking about?”

Grinning from ear-to-ear he shook his head, “Nope. I’d hardly call my playing a treat, anyway.”

They linked arms and went into the Roadhouse. It was jammed with people. The noise level was just below deafening. Philippa clung to Frank’s arm a little tighter as she shouted, “Will we be able to get a seat?”

Frank nodded and yelled in return, “We’ve got a table reserved over yonder.” He pointed at a table that was right next to the stage where a band was busily pounding out some classic rock music.

“Okay!”

They threaded their way through the crowd until the arrived at their table. Somewhere along the way the maitre de joined them.

“Hello, Willy!” Frank shouted.

“Good evening, Frank.” He smiled at Philippa, “Is this the lady?”

“Yup.”

Willy’s remark made Philippa curious, “What did he mean by ‘the lady’, I wonder?”

Willy held out the chair for Philippa. Once she was seated, Frank handed Willy the guitar. “Make sure it gets on stage.”

“Sure, Frank.”

The band on stage finished it’s set. The sudden contrast in noise level was a bit disorienting for Philippa. Frank waved at a tall young waiter who came over immediately, “Hey cousin Frank! How are you?”

“I’m fine as frog hair, cousin Enos.” He laughed, “I’d like you to meet my favorite lady friend, Miss Philippa J. Fry.”

Enos tipped his ten gallon hat to her, “Evening, ma’am. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.” He smiled broadly, “Frank has plumb wore my ears off bragging on you.”

Philippa blushed, “Thank you, Enos.” A curious look formed on her face, “Are you Frank’s cousin?”

“Yes ma’am, we’re first cousins on my momma’s side.”

Frank nodded in agreement, “Yup, I got young Enos here this job. He’s studying to be a doctor at NNYU.”

“Really?”

Enos smiled, “Yes ma’am, I’m planning to be a general practitioner back home on Rodeo 5.”

Philippa smiled sweetly. She liked Enos. His manner reminded her of Frank somehow.

Frank looked over at Philippa, “Would sweet iced tea be okay or would you rather have a beer?”

“Umm…sweet tea is good.”

“Two sweet teas, Enos.”

Enos nodded, tipped his hat to Philippa and headed back into the kitchen.

“I like your cousin,” Philippa said, “he reminds me of you.”

Frank looked Philippa in the eyes, “Well, I know you’ll be a big hit on Rodeo 5.”

“Pardon me?”

He grinned as he stood up, “I have to admit, I’ve brought you here for a purpose.”

“What purpose is that?”

“I’ll tell you after I sing a little song for you.” He smiled, “It’s an old Hank Williams tune that expresses my feelings for you.”

Philippa sat there looking at her hands in embarrassment. She was excited that Frank was going to sing for her but wondered how it connected with her ‘surprise’. She looked up to see Frank stride onto the stage, his steel guitar slung across his shoulder. He took the microphone, “Howdy everyone.”

Philippa jumped when nearly everyone in the Roadhouse shouted, “Howdy!” in response.

Frank waited for the noise to die down before resuming, “This song is for Miss Philippa J. Fry, the prettiest, sweetest and nicest gal this side of the Galaxy.”

The crowd erupted with a shout of, “Yee-Haw!” Philippa flinched slightly but managed a smile.

Without any further ado, Frank began to sing in a strong and melodious baritone,

Say hey, good lookin’. What ya got cookin’?

How’s about cooking somethin’ up with me?

Hey, sweet baby. Don’t you think maybe,

We can find us a brand new recipe?

I got a hot rod Ford, and a two dollar bill;

And I know a spot right over the hill.

There’s soda pop and the dancing’s free

So if you wanna have fun, come along with me.

Hey, good lookin’. What ya got cookin’?

How’s about cooking somethin’ up with me?”

Frank launched into an instrumental riff. Philippa admired his ability to play the guitar. She smiled, as a faint memory of trying to play the guitar as a teenager flitted ghost-like through her mind. Then Frank began to sing again.

I’m free and ready, so we can go steady.

How’s about saving all your time for me?

No more lookin’. I know I been cookin’.

How’s about keepin’ steady company?

I’m gonna throw my date book over the fence,

And buy me one for five or ten cents

Ill keep it till its covered with age

Cause I’m writin’ your name down on every page.

Say hey, good lookin’. what ya got cookin’?

How’s about cooking somethin’ up with me?”

Frank finished with a flourish. In response, the audience yelled and applauded thunderously. To Philippa’s surprise, Frank stepped directly off the stage while slinging his guitar over his back. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small velvet covered box.

Philippa’s eyes widened in realization, “Frank” she breathed.

Frank knelt down on one knee and took her right hand in his. His voice quavered slightly, “Philippa J. Fry, I just threw my date book over the fence. I want to spend the rest of my life with you.” He opened the box to reveal a pear shaped diamond ring, “I love you with all of my heart. Will you marry me?”

Philippa felt as though she were melting inside. Tears began to flow down her cheeks. She trembled with momentary indecision as she looked into his eyes, “Oh Lord, he wants to marry me! What should I do?” Then she realized, “He loves me!” Her heart cried out, “And I love him, too.” With tears still streaming down he cheeks she whispered, “Yes. Yes, I will.” Joy welled up in her, the overflow causing her to laugh, “I love you too.”

Frank grinned as he slid the ring onto Philippa’s finger. As he did so, everyone in the Roadhouse cheered.


Chapter 11 – Going Home

Philippa and Bender walked down the street toward the Planet Express. Bender had been out when Philippa returned to the apartment from her date. She had been asleep when he returned and this morning Bender hadn’t given Philippa a chance to get a word in edgewise. He kept raving about the great Ape Fight he had seen last night.

“I’ll tell you Fry, you ought to shack up with Frank!”

“Huh? What?” Her initial surprise turned to anger tinged curiosity, “Why would you say that?”

“He’s a keeper.” Bender grinned, “There’s no telling what I might score off of him if the two of you were doing that stuff that you organisms do. You know…maybe shoot a little DNA at each other.”

Philippa shook her head, glad that she had hidden the engagement ring. If Bender got his hands on it, he’d take it to the pawn shop for sure. Sadly, she shook her head, “Bender, I wish you wouldn’t talk like that.”

“What do you mean Skin Tube?”

Suddenly annoyed, Philippa just snapped, “Oh forget it, Bender!”

Bender sounded surprised, “You never want to do anything fun anymore! Between becoming a woman and meeting Frank you’ve become a regular stick in the mud.”

Fuming inside, Philippa decided to employ one of the best weapons in her arsenal – icy silence. For the next two blocks she walked on, ignoring everything Bender had to say. She even refused to glance in his direction.

Bender began to feel the effects. He thought, “This is worse than when Leela and Fry ignored me on Osiris 4!” He stepped in front of Philippa, forcing her to halt. He stretched out his hands in a pleading gesture, “Come on Fry, I’m sorry.”

Philippa toyed with the idea of maintaining her silence, of letting Bender twist in the wind a bit. But the pleading tone of Bender’s voice convinced her otherwise, “Okay Bender, let’s forget it.”

Bender immediately picked up his description of the ape fight where he had left off.

That is so like a man…or man-bot…they act like nothing happened as soon as we forgive them,” Philippa thought sadly. She was really learning to be a woman.

Bender was still rattling on about the fight, giving a blow-by-blow description as they entered the lounge. Philippa saw that both Amy and Leela were already there…coffee cups in hand. Samuel was there also, holding Nibbler on a leash. “He walks her to work almost every day,” Philippa thought, “I wonder if Leela knows how lucky she is to have Samuel?” She waved cheerily at them and turned to Bender, “I have to go change into my work clothes.” She smiled, “You can finish the fight story later.”

“Suit yourself, Meat Bag.”

Once inside the locker room, Philippa undressed quickly. She hung her jacket, skirt and blouse up neatly. Then she took off her high heels and set them in the locker as well. A fleeting memory of how nasty Philip Fry’s locker had been caused Philippa to smile. “Just like a man,” she murmured.

There was a knock at the door, “Phi, it’s Leela and Amy. Are you decent?”

“Come on in,” Philippa called as she was tying her shoes. Leela entered first, followed by Amy. Both women were smiling expectantly. Philippa, feeling mischievous, decided to make them ask.

Amy took the bait, “So what happened last night?”

Smiling inwardly, Philippa frowned and shrugged her shoulders, “It was a pretty standard date.”

Amy looked concerned, “Did he dump you?” Her face set in an angry look that was the usual prelude to a torrent of Cantonese profanity and abuse.

“Phi, honey” Leela asked softly, “did he do anything to upset you?”

Philippa turned to face her locker as if overcome by emotion. Stealthily, she took the engagement ring from her jacket pocket and put it on. When she heard Leela and Amy moving up behind her, she whirled around flashing her engagement ring. Philippa’s voice came out as a high pitched squeak, “Frank asked me to marry him! I said yes!”

Amy literally jumped up and down for joy, clapping her hands while repeatedly chanting, “Wonderful!” Then she backed up a bit too far, tripped over the bench and did a pratfall. Leela’s face was frozen in a look of shock…a look that Philippa found puzzling.

As she helped Amy up, Philippa looked at Leela, “What do you think, Leela? Aren’t you happy for me?”

Leela blurted out, “Happy for you? Happy for you?” She shook her head, “Are you crazy? You hardly know him!” Leela’s voice became hard, “Fry, this is by far the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen you do in all the time I’ve known you.”

Philippa stared at Leela in disbelief. She had thought that Leela would be happy or at least accept the news. Years of anger at unrequited love welled up in Philippa’s mind. She exploded, “Dumbest? Dumbest! The dumbest thing I ever did was believe you might care for me!” Tears began to course down her face as she shook with rage, “All those years I waited patiently for you, risked death for you and loved only you…those were the dumbest things I ever did.”

Amy tried to interrupt, afraid that things would turn violent “Phi, please calm down.”

“Butt out, Amy.” Philippa hissed, “You’ve found yourself a soul mate, Leela. You only knew him for a short time before you married him. Why can’t I have the same?”

“I didn’t say you couldn’t have the same…just that you are moving too fast.”

“I’m not moving too fast.” Philippa crossed her arms in a defiant stance.

“Phi, you are dealing with emotions you have never felt before. You are a woman now.”

“Really?” Philippa’s voice dripped sarcasm, “I hadn’t noticed.”

“Look, I know I treated you badly before the change. I’m sorry.” Leela’s voice softened, “You are my dearest friend. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“Frank won’t hurt me.”

“How can you know?”

In a final burst of anger Philippa shouted, “I KNOW!” then her voice dropped to a whisper, “My heart knows.” Her anger dispelled, Philippa seemed to sag, “Why can’t you be happy for me? Why?” She collapsed onto the bench, sobbing uncontrollably. Amy moved to console Philippa while Leela stood as though rooted to the ground.

Hearing the ruckus, Samuel had hurried down to the locker room and heard the tail end of Philippa’s emotional tirade. Stepping into the locker room he grasped the situation at a glance. He took Leela gently by the arm and led her – unresisting – into the corridor. Once the door shut he asked softly, “Leela, are you okay?”

To his surprise, Leela began to wail, “Samuel, I don’t know what to do. What can I do?” Tears began to drip off her nose, “I just want to protect Philippa.”

Samuel embraced Leela tenderly, patted her back, and whispered in her ear, “Darling, all you can do is to be her friend. Friends are so rare. Philippa is a grown woman…and a good one at that. If she falls, be there for her. When she rejoices, rejoice with her.” He kissed her gently on the cheek, “That’s all you or anyone can do.”

Leela pulled back enough to look Samuel in the face. She sniffled; then smiled, “I knew there was a reason that I married you.” She kissed him gently, “I need to apologize, don’t I?”

“That’s what friends do.” He smiled, “I once heard that ‘love keeps no record of wrongs’ and I like to believe it.” He released his embrace. Leela wiped the tears from her eye and stepped back into the locker room. Philippa was still sitting on the bench, sobbing brokenheartedly. Amy looked up when Leela entered, “Leela…”

She cut her off, “Amy, I’m sorry you had to witness our argument. Please forgive me”

Amy blinked in surprise, “Umm…okay.”

Leela sat next to Philippa, “Phi, I wanted to apologize for all the mean things I said.” Philippa looked up. Her eyes were red and her makeup had run. Leela fished a handkerchief out of her pocket, “Here, use this.”

Philippa took it wordlessly, wiped her eyes and then blew her nose into it. Leela continued, “You really are entitled to run your own life. I…I guess I’m just over protective. You and Amy are the only real friends that I have,” Leela exhaled, “It’s a lame excuse, but it’s the best one I have.”

Philippa smiled weakly, “It’s okay. I accept your apology.” She blew her nose again, “If you weren’t that way, you wouldn’t be Leela.”

Leela draped her arm around Philippa’s shoulder, “Thanks.” She gave a slight squeeze, “Now can I see that ring again?”

Philippa held her hand out.

“Wow! That is some rock!” Leela grinned, “Tell me all about the proposal. Give me every detail…no holding back.”

For the next fifteen minutes, Philippa regaled Leela and Amy with ‘every detail’ without holding back. Philippa’s face shone with excitement as she recounted the story. Her voice quivered with emotion, “I don’t know how I even managed to speak when Frank popped the question. It was all so confusing and exciting at the same time.” Philippa grinned, “I felt sure Frank was going to kiss me, but he didn’t.”

“What?” Amy artlessly blurted out, “Are you sure he’s not gay?”

Philippa looked confused, “Gay? Frank?” Then she started laughing, “No Amy, he’s just a gentleman. Cowboys live by a different code.”

Amy looked dubious, “If you say so.” She paused, “But he hasn’t even kissed you?”

“No,” Philippa shook her head vigorously, “Frank said that he hasn’t earned that right yet.”

There was a moment of silence as both Amy and Leela digested the idea of a man earning the right to kiss a woman. It sunk in with Leela first, since she had Samuel as a standard. Amy made the connection a few seconds later when she remembered how shy Kif had been. She smiled as she thought, “Heck, if I hadn’t kissed Kif first he might never have gotten up the nerve.”

Leela stood up, “Well, in about sixty seconds Hermes is going to be down here scratching at the door like a dog wanting to be let out. We’ve got a delivery to make.”

Amy looked at Philippa, “You want me to help you with your makeup?” When Philippa hesitated, Amy continued, “It will be a lot faster and I promise not to put it on too heavy.”

Philippa nodded, “Okay.”

Leela was already heading out the door, “I’ll go placate Hermes. Don’t be too long.”

Samuel was still out in the hallway, “So is everything okay?”

“Yes, everything is fine.” She gave him a quick peck on the cheek, “Now you need to go open the shop. I’ve delayed you long enough.” Smiling, Samuel turned and walked toward the exit. Leela called out, “Samuel?”

He turned, “Yes?”

“Thanks. I love you.”

He waved cheerfully as he went through the door, “I love you too. See you tonight.” Then he was gone.

Leela returned his wave. Then she headed for the conference area where she knew Hermes and the others would be waiting.

Once everyone assembled, Hermes began his briefing, “We’ve got a delivery to Halo 3 in the Multarra System.” He rubbed his hands together gleefully, “The client is paying top dollar to have this delivered to his private orbital station.”

“Top dollar?” Leela looked skeptical, “Is this another of those near-death experiences that you try to pass off as a routine delivery?”

Hermes smirked, “I’ve got no idea what you’re talkin’ about.” He held up some papers, “Here’s the manifest…not a t’ing you’ll find on an embargo list.”

“Aw crap.” Bender cut in, “If I was one of you fleshwads, I’d be having Goosebumps right about now.”

Leela took the manifest and ran her eye over it, “Hmm…this is all pretty innocent looking.” She looked up suddenly, making eye contact and catching Hermes off guard, “So what’s really in these cargo containers?”

Hermes stammered, “Just…just what’s on de manifest.”

Leela made a derisive sound with her lips, “Hermes, if your greed gets us in trouble I swear that I’ll come back here and kick you flabby behind all over the building.”

“Dere’s nothing illegal about what you’re doing.”

Leela turned to Philippa, “May as well get the heavy-duty hover dolly for this delivery, Phi.” She looked at Bender, “Give Phi a hand.”

“Aww..that thing is heavy.” Bender whined.

Philippa laughed, “Come on, Bender, let’s get it over with. Take it like a manbot.” They left together, with Bender mumbling complaints under his breath.

The trip to Halo 3 had been uneventful. Leela had used a circuitous route through an asteroid field to approach the orbital station. Once she set the Planet Express Ship on the landing pad designated by the contract, an atmosphere containment force field popped into place. Heavily armed and armored soldiers swarmed onto the short causeway that ran from the landing pad into the station, a sight which only made Leela uneasy. Both Philippa and Bender were on the bridge, so she turned to them and said, “Let’s get this crap off here as fast as we can.”

Philippa gave a thumbs-up sign, “I already moved everything onto the cargo elevator. If we don’t have far to go, we can get it off in two quick lifts.”

Leela’s eye widened in surprise at Philippa’s foresight, “Good thinking, Phi. I’ve been itchy since we entered the system. Let’s get go.”

“I’m anxious to get out of here too.” Philippa smiled, “Frank is taking me to a down home Texas barbeque tonight.”

All three trooped to the cargo bay. Leela lowered the cargo elevator, remaining with the ship in case they had to depart in a hurry. Philippa hopped into the driver’s seat of the heavy-duty hover dolly. Unlike the regular dollies, it had an engine and could handle up to ten tons. In addition to the driver’s seat it had a U-shaped steering wheel.

Bender called out, “No fair! It’s my turn to drive.”

Philippa responded by sticking her tongue out and flooring it. Bender barely had time to jump on board, “Fry, you are getting to be a real pain in my shiny metal ass.”

“Good,” she replied as she applied the brakes to avoid running into a heavily armed soldier in powered armor who had leaped in front of them using jump-jets. They came to a halt only inches from his legs. He seemed unconcerned as he held out his hand, “Papers.”

Philippa held out the clipboard with the delivery order, “Umm…is this what you want?”

The soldier scanned the papers. “Acceptable,” was his laconic reply. He pointed into the station, “Deposit the cargo on the yellow pad inside the door. When all is completed, report back to me. I will sign your papers then.” He stepped out of the way.

“Okay.” Philippa turned to Bender, “Hang on.” Then she floored it again. They zipped into the station to the appropriate pad, with Bender grimly hanging on. Bender unloaded the containers without complaining. The sight of so many heavily armed soldiers had made him nervous as well.

As soon as Bender clambered aboard the hover dolly, Philippa roared back to the ship. Once they were back on the cargo elevator Bender said, “I need to take a break.”

Leela shook her head, “Bender, there’s a bottle of Old Whizbang in my cabin. If you get this stuff unloaded now…it’s yours.”

Bender perked up, “Now we’re talking!” He immediately began to load the containers onto the hover dolly. Soon they were roaring down the causeway, repeating their action of a few moments before. As they left the station, the soldier stepped in front of them again, “Papers.”

He was busy signing when a klaxon began to sound. Philippa jumped, “What’s going on?”

“Enemy attack,” the soldier replied and used his jump jet to get into the station, whose massive doors were closing fast.

“Fry, I suggest we get the hell out of here!” Bender shouted.

Philippa hit the turbo-boost and was on the cargo elevator in seconds. Leela shouted down to them, “Hoist yourselves up, I’m going to get us out of here.”

“Never a dull moment,” Philippa said as the elevator rose into the ship. As soon as there was hull integrity, the ship took off at a steep angle of attack. Bender and Philippa both clung to the hover dolly, waiting for the artificial gravity to kick in. When it did, they raced to the bridge.

“Leela,” Philippa asked, “what’s happening?”

“There are four…no five…Romulus Class destroyers headed this way. I’m heading for the asteroid field. If we get in there, they won’t follow.” She smiled, “They handle like garbage scows.”

One of the destroyers peeled off of the formation. It fired a single shot across their bow. Their video console crackled with a voice-only message, “This is the Arcturan Federation Ship Goldorp. You are in a restricted zone. Heave to and prepare to be boarded.”

Leela snapped out orders, “Phi, man the turret but don’t fire at their ship. It will just piss them off. If they use missiles, target them. Bender, get below and pour the dark matter on. We’re going to show these jerks what this old girl can do.”

A repetition of the earlier message spurred Philippa and Bender to their stations. The Goldorp fired a second warning shot, “This is your last warning. Heave to and prepare to be boarded.”

The intercom crackled, “Turret ready,” followed by, “Engine room ready.” Leela smiled as she keyed the microphone, “Sorry, No speaka de eenglish!” Then she shoved the throttle all the way forward.

The ship leaped forward, causing the salvo fired by the Goldorp to miss. Angry at missing, the Goldorp’s captain (a dead ringer for F’nog) shouted, “Fire a full spread of missiles! Then take us back to the formation. We don’t have time to chase this insect.”

Obediently, the weapons officer launched four missiles while the helmsman took them on a course back to the fight around the station.

Philippa saw the launch first, “Leela, we’ve got three…no four…incoming missiles.” She flipped toggle switches to get the maximum power for each shot. “Do some of that pilot stuff and get us out of here.”

Philippa toasted the closest missile with one shot. The explosion caused one of the other missiles to diverge briefly, but they came right back on course. She laid the crosshairs on the next missile, “Come on…there!” An energy beam arced out and sliced the second missile cleanly down the middle. It didn’t explode, it just flew apart. “Crud,” Philippa breathed, “I still like explosions.”

The two remaining missiles were closing fast. Philippa realized that she only had time to shoot one, “Leela, I can only” she fired, “get one of them.” The third missile exploded.

Leela shouted, “Hang on!” They had reached the edge of the asteroid field. She wrenched the ship in a tight turn around a 1200 meter wide irregular mass of rock. The missile lost track and impacted on the asteroid’s surface and exploded. Leela rolled the ship into the field and cut to low impulse speed. She called out, “Phi, are they following us?”

“Nope. They are all back there shooting at the station.”

“Great. Now let’s get back home.”

Four hours later they set down in the landing bay. As they filed down the front landing gear, they were laughing and joking. What surprised Leela and Philippa was that both Samuel and Frank were there waiting for them. Philippa cheerful greeting died on her lips when she noticed the grim look on Frank’s face, “Frank, what’s wrong?”

“I’m afraid we can’t go out tonight darling.” Tears glittered in his eyes, “Mrs. Panelli and I have to head home. My father is dying.”


Chapter 12 – Summons to Sweetwater

Philippa rushed to Frank’s side, “Frank, please tell me what is going on.”

He held out a letter, “This came by Interplanetary Mail. It’s five days old.” Philippa hesitated taking it for an instant. Frank looked her in the eyes, “Go ahead and read it darling, it just hurts too much to talk about right now.”

Philippa took the letter and began to read. “Whoever wrote this has worse penmanship than Frank,” she thought as she unraveled the words.

Dear Brother,

I am glad to hear that you have found yore true love. Maybe she will come and live here with us if you get married. Dawn would surely be glad of the feminine society after the past few years.

Let me get to the point. Pa is dying of the cancer. He is eaten up with it, pretty much. Doc Swenson don’t give him more than a month before he goes under. Pa won’t take the medicine or the treatments. He says he just wants to go be with Mother.

I wisht I had better news, but I don’t. Let me know when you are coming. The passes over the divide are still blocked so you will have to come by way of Nuevo Laredo. Painted Eagle is camped north of the Nueces. He will ride with you to the Picketwire.

Please do not wait long if you want to see Pa this side of Heaven.

Everyone here says howdy.

Your Brother,

George Washington Wright

P.S. If you can bring some spider silk for Dawn I would be much obliged. She wants to make her a dress. She says that the color don’t matter none. She deserves it after all these years of tending to us.”

Philippa raised her eyes from the paper to look into Frank’s eyes. His deep inner pain radiated from them. She reached up and touched his face gently, “Frank, I’m so sorry.”

“I’m sorry too darling. Mrs. Panelli and I are going back home tomorrow morning.” He hesitated, “I’d…I’d love to take you out tonight because I won’t be back for a month or two.”

Philippa felt as though someone had just punched her in the stomach. “Gone for a month or two!” she thought, “I can’t stand the idea of him being gone that long!” Her heart raced as she found the courage for her next words, “Frank, I’m coming with you.”

“What?”

“I said, I’m coming with you.” She smiled, “I’m not about to let you get around some cowgirl who’ll steal you away.”

Frank’s eyebrows rose in surprise, “But darling, I don’t want anyone but you.”

“Prove it to me,” Philippa moved closer, “take me with you.”

Leela opened her mouth to speak, but Samuel took her by the arm and whispered in her ear, “Leela, remember what friends do for each other.” Leela nodded and remained silent.

Frank’s tone of voice showed his resolve was weakening, “Well…I don’t know. It can mighty dangerous.”

Philippa laid her head on Frank’s chest, “Frank, I’ve been on loads of dangerous missions with Planet Express.”

“But your job.”

“My job owes me almost six months of vacation.” She looked into his eyes again and stroked his cheek, “Besides, I’ll pay my own way.”

Frank burst in laughter, “Darling, I give up.” He shook his head, “But by God, I’ll not have you pay your own way. It wouldn’t be right.”

What happened next surprised everyone. Philippa stood on her toes, kissed Frank gently on the cheek and said, “I love you.”

Frank blushed crimson, looked down at the floor and stammered, “I…I love...I love you too.” At his response, Philippa blushed as well.

“They definitely look the pair, don’t they?” Samuel whispered to Leela. She nodded and then spoke, “Phi, I’ll go tell Hermes to start filling out your leave paperwork.”

Philippa blinked in surprise, “Thanks Leela. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone.”

By now Frank had recovered his composure, “We’ll probably need two months to do everything.”

“I’ll put you in for three.” Leela blinked back tears, “Please take care of yourself Phi, okay?”

“I will Leela, I promise.”

Samuel walked with Leela as she wept silently on the way to Hermes’ office. He spoke softly, “That was well done Leela.”

She sniffled, “My best friend is going away.” She wiped her nose with a handkerchief, “I’m just worried that I’ll never see her again.”

“Well, Rodeo 5 is only a day and a half away.”

Leela smiled, “Leave it to you to look on the bright side when I just feel like having a good cry.” She rested her head briefly on Samuel’s shoulder, “I love you dearly but you are such a man.”

“Guilty as charged,” he replied with a smile.

Once at Hermes’ office door, Samuel knocked.

“Go away,” came Hermes voice from the other side of the door, “I’m busy!”

Leela smiled at Samuel, “He’s always cranky this time of the month.” Ignoring Hermes demand for solitude, Leela opened the door. They stepped into Hermes’ office and were treated to the sight of the very picture of a harassed bureaucrat seated behind a mound of forms. Hermes didn’t even look up, “What in Great Jah’s dreadlocks do you want? I’m way behind on dis paperwork.”

Leela laughed, “You’re always so snappy this time of the month.” Leela became all efficiency when she saw that her joke was unappreciated, “Philippa is putting in for three months of leave, so start making out the paperwork.” Leela paused for effect, “She’s leaving tomorrow morning.”

“Dat’s just not possible.” He shook his head vigorously, “Dere’s just too much I have to do before I can get to it.”

Leela smiled broadly, “Come on, Hermes. Friends do each other favors! Like the favor I did for you last week with those items from Marley 8…”

Hermes held up his hand, “Hold it right dere!” He muttered, “I have no idea what you’re talking about…but since we are such good friends…I’ll do it.”

“Thank you Hermes, I knew you’d be reasonable. Should we say ten minutes?”

“Dat’s fine.”

Leela took Samuel’s arm, “Come on dear, Let’s go remind Philippa to stop by and get her leave papers.”

Meanwhile, Frank and Philippa stood alone in the landing bay. Philippa’s sudden surge of boldness had vanished, “Frank, I’m sorry if I embarrassed you.” She smiled nervously, her hands fluttering like a pair of white birds, “I just don’t know what came over me.”

Frank looked down at the floor, “Shucks, I didn’t mind all that much.” He looked at her and smiled, “As a matter of fact, I liked it right well.” Then he looked down again, his cheeks reddening at his own boldness.

Philippa laughed merrily, “Well, I liked it too…but I am sorry that I embarrassed you.”

“Okay.” He joined in her laughter, “We need to make our plans for the trip.”

Philippa looked thoughtful, “What do I need to pack?”

“Well, to begin with, you ought to bring all of the clothing I got you at the Shoot.” Frank rubbed his chin, “I guess some of the clothes you wear on delivery will be okay.” He smiled, “Once we get home, Mrs. Panelli will help you to get outfitted. A lot of the clothes from Earth either aren’t practical or would look out of place.”

Philippa laughed, “I’ve looked out of place before.”

Frank smiled and said with mock gravity, “Not when I take home to meet all of your future in-laws, woman! I guess you’ll dress good and properly!” Then he laughed, unable to sustain his serious demeanor, “But seriously darling, I just want everyone to see that I’ve brought home a Prairie Rose in the flesh.”

“That is so sweet.” Philippa touched his cheek, “I think that is one of the things I love the most about you.”

Philippa’s touch emboldened Frank. Even so, he reddened and his voice trembled slightly as he blurted out, “Philippa, may I please kiss you?”

Philippa blinked in surprise. In fractions of a second a torrent of thoughts cascaded through her mind, “Oh! He wants to kiss me! What should I do? Am I really ready for a kiss? Why am I scared and excited all at the same time? Why am I even hesitating? I love him!”

Without further mental debate, she tilted her head back slightly, closed her eyes and whispered, “Yes.” She felt his body touch lightly against hers, his arms embracing her gently. She trembled slightly at his touch, feeling a strange mixture of fear, excitement and arousal.

Frank’s lips touched hers, gently…sweetly…respectfully. He didn’t press too hard or slobber over her like she had feared. After a few brief seconds Frank drew back, still holding Philippa in his arms. She opened her eyes, looking deeply into luminous grey eyes aglow with love, “Oh Frank, I…”

Frank gently placed his fingertip on Philippa’s lips, “I just want you to know that when we get married, I’m going to give you thousands of these every day.”

Philippa threw her head back and laughed joyfully, “That suits me fine.”

While the kiss was going on, Leela and Samuel had come down the hallway. Leela found herself feeling inexplicably saddened by the sight. It wasn’t that she was jealous. Really, she was glad that Philippa’s first kiss was truly special. No, it was that she knew somehow…even better than Philippa knew…that her friend had crossed over a barrier. For better or for worse, Philippa was taking the final steps into womanhood.

Samuel cleared his throat, no longer able to bear standing quietly while their friends showed their love for one another.

Philippa and Frank sprang apart, both grinning sheepishly. Philippa found her voice first, “Oh. Hi guys. Umm…Frank and I were just discussing our trip.”

Instead of replying Leela walked up and hugged Philippa, “Hermes is filling out your paperwork. You can pick it up on your way out.”

“Thanks Leela.” Philippa returned her hug, “Would you mind come and helping me pack?” She smiled, “I’m just afraid I’ll pack too much stuff or pack the wrong things.”

Samuel spoke up, “I’ll head to our apartment. When you want me to come and walk you home, give me a call.”

Before Leela could acknowledge Samuels’ words, Frank chimed in, “You know, Sam…I would surely appreciate it if you would take charge of my car and apartment while I’m gone.”

“Sure.”

“Would you mind strolling over there with me directly? I’ll program everything to recognize your career chip.”

“Not a problem,” Samuel looked at Leela, “I’ll be on my Wristamajigy, oaky?”

Leela nodded, “Sure, I’ll call you as soon as Philippa and I are done.”

With that said, both pairs headed for their destinations. Frank and Samuel walked in silence absorbed in their thoughts. Leela and Philippa kept up a steady stream of conversation from the moment they left the Planet Express.

Almost the first words out of Philippa’s mouth were, “Leela! He kissed me!”

Leela couldn’t help smiling at the sheer joy in Philippa’s voice and on her face, “That must have been some kiss.”

“Oh, Leela it was! It was!” Philippa’s face took on a dreamy look, “He was so gentle.” She giggled, “My knees felt weak when he said, ‘Philippa may I please kiss you?’ Oh, when he put his arms around me I felt so safe! And after we kissed…after we kissed I looked into his eyes. Did you ever notice how they sparkle?”

“Umm…no,” Leela added, “but then I only see the sparkle in my Samuel’s eyes.”

Philippa nodded, “I feel like I’m going to jump out of my skin! I’ve never been so excited.”

“Really?” Leela said dryly, “I couldn’t tell.”

“His lips are so soft!” she giggled again, “I wish we could have kissed some more.”

Leela shook her head, “You certainly have it bad.” Then she emitted a short laugh, “I’m sorry Samuel and I interrupted your necking session.”

“Oh my gosh!” Philippa blushed, “Did Samuel and you see us kissing?”

“We caught the tail end of it.”

“Oh, please don’t mention it to Frank.” She sounded concerned, “He’d be so embarrassed.”

“Mum’s the word.”

Philippa gave Leela a quick hug, “Thanks.”

They arrived at the Robot Arms after a short tube ride. Leela took charge of the packing and in less than ten minutes all was done.

Philippa felt a sudden surge of sadness. This would be the longest she had ever been away from Leela. Leela could see the sad look come over Philippa’s face like a cloud passing over the moon. She touched her friend’s shoulder, “Philippa, can I tell you something?”

Fighting back tears, Philippa replied in a low voice, “Sure.”

“I am very sorry to see you go. You are the best friend that I have ever had. Before the change, we never could have what I’d call a stable relationship.” She sighed, “But you were always a faithful, true friend. You risked your life for me more than once.” She paused, “I know you love me and always have. Well…I want you to know that I love you.”

Philippa sobbed, “I love you too Leela.” Then she wiped her tears, “But as a sister.”

Leela laughed, remembering that night Philippa had shown up at her apartment, soaked and confused. Leela hugged Philippa, “That’s how I feel too.”

Over in Frank’s apartment, Mrs. Panelli was almost finished with packing. Samuel had already departed. Frank was at the dining room table, scratching a pen across paper. He was writing the text for a telegram.

To: George W. Wright, Rodeo 5, Montana Territory, Sweetwater Township

From: Frank L. Wright, Earth, New-New York

Arriving Rodeo 5 day after tomorrow. Bringing Mrs. Panelli, Miss Philippa Fry and myself. Have Dawn fix up a guest room for Miss Fry. Tell Pa to hold on.”

That accomplished, Frank took up another piece of paper. He set to the task of writing a letter to follow his telegram.

Dear George,

I hope this letter finds you and the whole family well.

I will arrive home not long after this letter, as we are leaving tomorrow. My fiancée, Miss Philippa J. Fry will be accompanying Mrs. Panelli and me. Please make sure that Dawn fixes her a nice room in the ranch house. If I need to, I’ll bunk with the boys.

Philippa is the finest woman I have ever met. She puts me in the mind of Ma at times, but she is her own self. I call her my Prairie Rose. You’ll all love her, she is so kind and sweet.

I do not know where we will live once we are married. It really won’t matter as long as she is happy, I’ll be happy.

I’ve picked up a bolt of green silk for Dawn’s dress and then some. She is a fine woman. In a way, we both latched onto ladies far above our station, didn’t we?

Please tell Pa to hold on. I’ll see him soon.

Your Brother,

Franklin L. Wright”


Chapter 13 On the Road to Rodeo 5

Bright and early the next morning Frank stood outside the entrance to Bender’s apartment. From the other side of the door, Philippa’s voice sounded, “Just a minute!” He smiled as the sound of her voice, “Take your time, darling. I know I’m early.”

The door slid open to reveal Philippa clad in her usual red, white and blue work outfit. Frank could see a small pile of bags that were stacked in the center of the floor. “Leela’s been here,” he thought.

Almost as if on cue, Philippa said, “I’m so glad Leela helped me pack.” A broad smile formed on her face, “She had everything packed in ten minutes.”

Philippa gave Frank a quick hug, then stepped back into the apartment, “Come on in. I think the two of us can get this in one trip.”

“Isn’t Bender here?”

“No, he went to work early.”

“Is he well?”

Philippa laughed, “He’s fine, except that he’s a little put out that I’m going.”

“Sam told me you Bender was your first friend when you got here.”

Philippa nodded, “Yes. Even though he picked my pockets and sold my blood, he’s been a good friend.” The realization that she was on a path that was taking her away from her former best buddy saddened Philippa. Her face darkened. Frank sensed her mood shift, “Well, we may as well get going.” He stepped up to the stack of luggage and picked up as much as he could. Only two small bags were left. Philippa protested, “You’ve hardly left anything for me to carry.”

“I wanted you to have a hand free so you can get the doors.” Frank smiled, “Besides, it isn’t right for a lady to have to struggle with heavy stuff when there’s a man around.”

Philippa led the way as they made their way downstairs. Once out of the elevator, they went out onto the street. Philippa was curious to see a large trailer hooked to the rear of Frank’s Thundercougarfalconbird. Even more curious was the sight of Mrs. Panelli stuffed into the car’s back seat.

“Hi, Mrs. Panelli!” Philippa waved.

“Good-a morning Philippa, how you doin’?”

“I’m fine.”

“Atsa nice.”

“Are you looking forward to the trip?”

“Shoo, I can’t wait-a to see my boys.”

While Philippa and Mrs. Panelli chatted, Frank was busy piling Philippa’s luggage in the trailer. Once he finished with the bags he was carrying, Frank came up to Philippa, “Let me have those, darling. I’ll load them into the trailer.”

Philippa handed them off. Then her curiosity about the trailer returned, “Frank, what’s in the trailer?”

“In the trailer? Mostly my horse, tack and shooting irons.”

“You have a horse?”

“I sure do. His name is Old Paint.” Philippa could sense pride in his voice as he asked, “Would you like to see him?”

“I’d love to.”

Frank took Philippa’s hand, walked up to the side of trailer, opened a door and led her in. The smell of horse and hay hit Philippa as soon as she entered. To her surprise, she liked it. When her eyes adjusted to the lower light level, she saw a tall, well muscled brown and white horse with large expressive eyes. Philippa breathed, “Wow! He’s beautiful!”

Frank thought for a moment, “Do you ride?”

“Umm…well, a little.” Philippa thought about how most of her experiences with horses hadn’t really been all that positive, “But I’m really not that good. I mean, I mostly rode horses on trail rides.” She paused to think, “I did ride a spider on Mars once.”

Frank grimaced. He hated spiders…of any sort. “Well, I reckon I’d be glad to teach you to ride a horse once we get home.”

“Sure, I’d love to learn.”

“Great.” He glanced at his watch, “Well, we’d best get going to the Planet Express.”

Philippa blinked in surprise, “What?”

“Didn’t Leela tell you?”

Philippa shook her head.

“I hired the Planet Express Ship to take us to Rodeo 5. It’s faster and cheaper than booking a commercial liner.” He patted Old Paint’s flank affectionately, “Besides, I don’t want to have to put Old Paint down in some cargo hold where someone else takes care of him.”

Philippa had mixed emotions about using the PE Ship to travel to Rodeo 5. She was glad to be traveling with Leela and Bender one more time but was a little concerned about how Bender would behave. However, she reflected as she left the trailer and got into the car, Bender would probably behave. For some reason, Bender seemed to respect Frank.

Frank…he was such a good man. How could anyone not like him? Her thoughts drifted aimlessly for a few moments until a momentary wave of panic sweep over her. Where was Frank going to sleep? It gnawed at her briefly. Then she relaxed. Frank would sleep in the Professor’s suite, like every paying passenger.

But what about Mrs. Panelli? Would she mind sharing Amy’s quarters? Oh Lord, this was going to be awkward. Then she relaxed again. Leela would work something out…she always did.

Leela…she really was going to miss Leela.

The sound of the car decelerating brought her out of her thoughts as they arrived at the Planet Express building. “We’re here, darling.” Frank smiled, “You haven’t said a word in five minutes. Are you okay?”

“Yes Frank, I’m fine.” Philippa shrugged, “It’s nothing.”

“Okay, then let’s get this show on the road.”

It took less than twenty minutes to get everything aboard. Mrs. Panelli handled most of the luggage, while Frank moved his tack and guns. Philippa led Old Paint onto the Cargo Elevator. Frank had coached her, praising her handling, building her confidence. As they finished, Leela came into the cargo hold, “We’re ready for takeoff as soon as you’re finished here.”

Frank nodded, “We’re about done.” He looked around, “Should we come up on the bridge?”

“Sure,” she smiled at Frank, “Phi can take her old station. Mrs. Panelli and you can use the couch.”

“The couch?” Frank laughed, “On a starship bridge?”

“This isn’t your ordinary starship,” Leela shook her head. “See you on the bridge,” she turned on her heel, “Phi knows the way.”

When Philippa, Frank and Mrs. Panelli arrived on the bridge, Leela was in the pilot’s chair and Bender was at the engineering console. They took their seats and Leela announced, “Fasten your safety belts.”

The hangar doors ground open revealing a clear blue sky. Leela engaged the thrusters and the Planet Express Ship began a slow vertical ascent. Once clear of the hangar, Leela engaged the primary engines and the ship leaped forward. Soon they were clear of the atmosphere.

“Nice takeoff,” Frank said in a tone of sincere admiration…a tone that caused a twinge of jealousy to briefly course through Philippa.

“Thanks,” Leela replied, “I think I’m getting the hang of it.”

Bender stood up, “Please feel free to move about the cabin.” Then he pulled out a cigar, lit it, and began to puff industriously. “You meatbags can enjoy yourselves. I’m going below to cook dinner.”

Both Leela and Phi began to think of reasons not to eat dinner. Phi was also burdened with trying to think of a way to warn Frank and Mrs. Panelli.

Much to Leela and Philippa’s relief, Mrs. Panelli stood up, “I’m-a come with you if you no mind.” She grinned, “I like-a to cook.”

Bender shrugged, “Suit yourself, but don’t mess up my kitchen.”

“Shoo, no problem.”

When Bender and Mrs. Panelli left the bridge, both Philippa and Leela breathed a sigh of relief. Both knew that Bender was so lazy that he would undoubtedly let Mrs. Panelli do all of the work.

Frank stood up and stretched, “Where will we be bunking for the night?”

Leela flipped the autopilot on before standing, “Frank, you’ll use the Professor’s suite. Mrs. Panelli will stay in Amy’s quarters.” She looked at Philippa, “You are going to use my quarters. I’ll sleep here on the bridge.”

“Leela” Philippa protested, “I can’t let you sleep on the couch. I’ll sleep up here.”

Leela shook her head, “You’re a paying customer.” She grinned, “Besides, you know how Bender is about photographing people sleeping on the couch.”

“Okay.” Philippa nodded, “Thanks Leela.”

“It’s only for one night anyway.”

The first half of the trip was singularly uneventful. The dinner Mrs. Panelli prepared was tasty. They even passed through the Beta Trianguli System – known for it’s electro-magnetic storms - without much ado.

Everyone had turned in when Leela set the autopilot. For some reason that she couldn’t put her finger on, Leela decided to sleep in the pilot’s chair.

She had barely nodded off to sleep when a proximity alarm began to sound. Her eye flew open to see a single starship less than 100 meters off their starboard side. She was alarmed to see that it was extending a docking tube!

Her first instinct was to firewall the throttle. The ship didn’t respond. “Damn!” Leela swore, “they’ve got us with some kind of suck ray.”

Leela’s hand slammed on an alarm button causing the alarm Klaxon to blare, “Aoogah…Aoogah…Aoogah!” Then she toggled the ship wide intercom, “Someone is trying to board on our starboard side. They’ll be coming in at the airlock. Stand by to repel boarders.”

Leaping to her feet, Leela raced for the weapons locker just aft of the bridge. She jerked the locker open and pulled out a pair of pistols. Then she entered the passageway that led aft between the cabins.

As she hurtled down the passageway, she saw Frank emerge from the Professor’s quarters. He was in boots, jeans, and a tee shirt. He had both of his pistols on his hips and a wicked looking double barreled shotgun.

“Come on Frank,” Leela shouted. Frank followed with his shotgun at the ready. They halted opposite her quarters. Philippa poked her head out of the door, her eyes wide with fear, “What’s going on?”

Leela stepped over to Philippa, “We’ve got trouble. Get in the cabin and lock the door.” Before Leela could turn back to face the airlock, she could see a look of fear and amazement cross Philippa’s face. There was a loud whack! Leela whirled around with her pistol at the ready.

What met her eye astonished her. One man, very obviously a Space Bandito by his dress, lay sprawled unconscious on the deck plates. A second stood before Frank, who was swinging his shotgun like a club. The second bandito went down like a felled tree. Three other banditos were crowded in the passageway, unable to effectively use their laser pistols…and they knew it.

In a flash, Frank lowered his shotgun. The sound of both hammers clicking back into the firing position rang through the passageways. In a steely voice Frank commanded, “Throw down your iron and manos arriba boys!

Obediently, the banditos dropped their pistols and stuck up their hands. Looking down the twin barrels of the menacing gringo’s shotgun convinced them that resistance was futile. “Consígansen contra la pared!” Frank barked. The three turned to face the wall.

Leela stepped up next to Frank, “Nice work.”

He shrugged without taking his eyes off the banditos, “Leela, would you mind covering me while I search these fellas and hog tie them?”

“It would be a pleasure.”

Frank took two steps back and handed the shotgun to Philippa, “Darlin’ these two on the floor are right dangerous men. I know them. If they try to get up…shoot ‘em.”

Pale and shaking, Philippa took the shotgun and stammered, “Oh…okay Frank.” Philippa wasn’t really sure if she could shoot them or not.

Frank moved in behind the banditos, careful not to cross in Leela’s line of fire. One bandito began to speak, “You can’t…” and tried to turn.

Frank cut him off by whipping out his left holstered pistol and whacking the bandito behind the right ear. The bandito toppled over like a bag of wet cement.

No se mueven!” Frank growled, “If you two want to join your compadre for a siesta, just give me an excuse.” Both of the banditos remained silent and cooperative.

Once all five were trussed up, Frank said to Leela, “I’m going over to their ship. There’s probably at least one or two more aboard.”

Philippa found her voice, “Frank you can’t! It’s…it’s too dangerous.”

He threw a serape over his shoulders and put on one of the bandito’s sombreros, “They won’t know what’s up until I’m on them.” Then he took one of their pistols and examined it closely, “This will do.”

Leela asked, “Don’t you want me to go with you?” Philippa chimed in, “There might be a lot more of them.”

Frank chuckled, “This is Pedro Flores outfit. He’s never had more than six other pistoleros in his gang…too dang stingy to share the loot.” He shook his head, “No, there won’t be more than one or two of them. I’ll be back in a few minutes. Just make sure that you watch the airlock.”

Leela nodded. Frank stepped down the passageway and vanished from view.

Leela turned to Philippa, “Phi, go get Bender. We’ll put these banditos in the laundry room until we can figure out what to do with them.”

Philippa looked dubious, “But Frank said to watch the airlock.”

With a trace of anger Leela said, “I’m still the Captain, Fry. Give me the shotgun and move your butt.”

None too happy, Philippa went off to get Bender. When she arrived at Bender’s quarters she found him still fast asleep. It took some shaking to finally awaken him. When his eye shade opened Bender asked, “What’s the problem Skin Tube?”

Shaking her head, Philippa said in as matter of fact voice as she could muster, “Oh, not much. We were only just attacked by space banditos.”

“Space Banditos,” Bender swung his foot cups onto the floor, “but I didn’t hear any Maracas.”

“Well, we’ve got five of them tied up and Leela wants you to come and help us get them into the laundry room.”

“Oh great, I’ll bet they’re all fat guys.” Bender grumbled, “Stupid humans, let the robot do all the work!”

“Bender! You didn’t do any of the work!” She put her hands on her hips, “Honestly, Frank and Leela took all of the risk while you slept the whole time.” Without bothering to see if Bender was following, Philippa turned on her heel and stormed out.

Alone in his cabin, Bender shook his head and muttered, “Women!” Then he headed down the passageway toward the laundry.

When he arrived, Bender found a total of seven banditos either stretched out unconscious or sitting on the deck plates. Leela was holding a shotgun on those who were awake, while Frank was methodically stripping out the power cells from the banditos weapons. Mrs. Panelli was there as well, holding a ray pistol at the ready. Philippa was standing next to Frank, positively beaming at him.

As he strolled up Bender looked at Philippa, “Hey, I thought you said there were only five of them!”

No longer angry, Philippa smiled at her old friend. “Don’t worry Bender, I’ll help you get them into the laundry.”

“It’s about time somebody else did some work around here other than me.”

Leela spoke up, “Let’s get it done. Then come up to the bridge.” She turned to Mrs. Panelli, “Would you mind watching the prisoners?”

“Shoo. Itsa no problem.”

Working together, Bender and Philippa got all seven banditos safely tucked away in the laundry. When they got to the bridge, Frank was perched on the back of the couch, sipping on a cup of coffee. Leela was in the Captain’s chair, rubbing her forehead with her hand. Frank saw them first, “Well, the gang’s all here Captain Leela. What do you have in mind?”

Leela smiled, “We did really well today.” She paused, “I say we should turn these banditos in to the authorities…the same with their ship.” Then she turned to Frank, “What do you think?”

Frank nodded, “Yup. Pedro Flores and his gang have been wanted in the Rodeo System for a long time.” He chuckled, “That old bandit didn’t know what he was getting into.”

Philippa blurted out, “He sure didn’t know you’d be here!”

“We all took part in the capture,” Frank said quietly, “now we need to get home.”

Leela looked at the console, “Only six more hours and we’ll be there.” She looked at Phi and Bender, “Bender, you relieve Mrs. Panelli right now. Phi will relieve you in four hours. Keep a close watch on those bastards.”

Bender opened his mouth to protest but the look on Leela’s face made him realize that she was in no mood to discuss anything. Instead, he said sarcastically, “Yes Miss Leela!”

“Good,” Leela said with satisfaction, “Now let’s try relax a bit. We’ve earned it.”

“That we have,” Frank replied, “that we have.”


Chapter 14 – We’re in the Money

Philippa walked up to Bender as he sat in a chair facing the laundry door. To Philippa’s surprise, Bender was still awake. His head revolved slightly in her direction, “It’s about time, meatbag! You’re late.”

“Bender, I’m five minutes early.”

“Well, your clock must be off.”

Shaking her head in resignation, Philippa said softly, “Well, I’m here now, so give me the pistol.” She stuck out her hand, “We’re only two hours from Rodeo 5 now, so get some rest.”

Bender handed off the pistol, “See you later, skin tube.” He turned and walked down the passageway toward his cabin. Philippa sat down in the chair Bender had occupied. She had barely settled in before hearing footfalls in the passageway. She looked over to see Frank rounding the corner. He was fully dressed and wore both of his pistols.

“Mind if I stand watch with you?” Frank smiled.

Philippa stood, “I’m glad you’re here Frank.” She smiled nervously, “I’m a little nervous guarding these banditos.”

Frank motioned for her to sit as he sat down on the deck plates opposite her chair. “Frank, you are so brave.” Philippa looked at him intently, “The way you handled those banditos was amazing.”

Frank looked down at the deck briefly before raising his eyes to meet hers, “Darlin’, I only did what had to be done.” He gave a sharp laugh, “I don’t like getting rough, but I sure as heck don’t like the alternative. I’ve seen what murdering skunks like Pedro Flores can do.” He paused, “You have to stand up to evil or by letting it pass you take part in it. Besides, I could never let anything happen to you. I love you Philippa and I’d willingly lay down my life for you.”

Philippa felt tears come to her eyes but she blinked them back. She refused to cry – even out of happiness – instead she responded cheerfully, “I love you too. But I’d rather you stick around.”

Smiling, Frank nodded his head, “That would be my ‘druthers as well.” The smile faded, “Still, sometimes your options run out.”

“Have you ever tried talking first?”

“Whether I was a gun hand or a sheriff, I never gave the bad men the upper hand by trying to be affable.” He locked eyes with Philippa, “Rodeo 5 is a wonderful place, but it can be hard. There are lots of evil men who don’t care about the law or about who gets hurt. To stay alive when dealing with those evil hombres, you have to strike hard and strike first. Talking just earns you a bullet and a spot on boot hill.”

“It must be awful.” Philippa said quietly.

Frank sighed, “Yes it can be awful.” He smiled, “I had planned to come here and sweet talk you into another kiss. Instead I wind up talking philosophy.”

Philippa smiled, rose from her chair, and leaned over to gently kiss Frank’s left cheek. She straightened up, “Frank, if I give you more of a kiss than that, I’m afraid I would forget about the prisoners.” She grinned, “They might escape and Leela would get really mad.”

“We wouldn’t want that. She seems like she could be a real fireball.” Frank was surprised to see a look of – jealousy? – flash across Philippa’s face. He was puzzled. Why would Philippa be jealous of Leela?

Philippa’s bitter response provided Frank with a clue, “Yeah, she is a lot prettier, smarter, and braver than me.”

“Now hold on there Phi,” Frank held up his right hand, “Leela is a married woman. Besides, she doesn’t come up to your shoe tops in my eyes.” Seeing Philippa smile warmed him to his subject, “Darlin’, I’ve never loved any other woman before I met you. I told you that you were my Prairie Rose and I still mean it. So don’t you ever be jealous of any other woman, because the universe doesn’t hold the gal who can take me away from you.”

Frank stood and took Philippa’s hand. She rose to her feet. He looked into her eyes, “May I kiss you?”

Her voice trembled slightly, “Yes.”

Their second kiss was even better than the first, since it was uninterrupted. When they parted Frank spoke first, “I love you with all of my heart. Don’t ever doubt that…ever.”

“I won’t Frank,” She rested her head on his shoulder, “I promise.”

Two hours later they landed at the Fort Worth Spaceport. Leela had managed to bring both ships in without incident. The remote control link she rigged had functioned perfectly. The only tricky part had been to dodge the unpredictable electro-magnetic wave fronts that swept across the planet.

Rodeo 5 had an unstable double nickel-iron core whose erratic rotation generated unpredictable electro-magnetic wave fronts that swept across almost the entire planet. The only places where the wave fronts were both mild and predictable were at the Fort Worth and Wichita LaGrange Points. These were also the only areas where electronics or anything using a computer chip would function. The wave fronts were what kept the Omicronians and any other potential invader from raiding the planet in search of beef. That…and the heavy orbital and surface defenses clustered around Fort Worth and Wichita.

During their descent, Philippa sat on the couch with Frank and Mrs. Panelli, looking at the landscape while Bender was guarding the prisoners. Fort Worth was a fairly large city, with a huge rail yard on its Northern edge. As they got lower, Philippa could see long freight trains full of cattle cars puffing along the tracks. Enormous cattle pens stretched almost to the horizon. The city itself was laid out on a regular grid of broad dirt streets. Outside of the spaceport, most of the buildings appeared to be made of brick or wood.

After they disembarked, Frank turned to Leela, “We need to get these banditos over to the Marshal’s office. There’s bound to be paper on them.”

“Paper?” Leela asked.

“Warrants and maybe a bounty or two,” Frank laughed. “We can sell the ship too and split the money.”

“What?”

“That’s the law around here. Hell, they’re pirates. We caught ‘em, so we get to sell their traps and such. Of course, the court gets a cut but we’ll keep most of it.”

Leela’s brain boggled at the thought of how much money a starship…even a small one…would sell for. She stammered, “W…w..well, that is good news.”

It was a short walk to the Marshal’s office. The two-story building was of brick and wood construction. A sign at the front door proclaimed, “James W. McIntyre, Town Marshal.”

Frank entered first, followed by the prisoners. Right after the prisoners walked Leela and Philippa. Both were armed, Leela with a rifle and Philippa with a shotgun.

As Frank entered, the Marshal was seated at his desk, reading a newspaper. He was a tall dark-haired man with a handlebar moustache, dark eyes and a rather large nose. The Marshal looked up from his paper and a smile creased his face, “Well I’ll be hornswoggled!” He rose from his seat and came from behind the desk, “If it isn’t old Lightin’ Wright. Where you been all these years?”

“Earth mostly,” Frank pointed over his shoulder with his thumb, “I’m bringing in Pedro Flores and his gang. And I’m laying claim to the bounty.”

“Bounty? What bounty?”

“Jim, you always were a squirrel-headed bastard,” Frank frowned. “I’m in no mood for funnin’. My Pa is dying and I need to wrap this up. Don’t mess with me or you’ll think a thousand of brick had fallen on you.”

Marshal McIntyre threw his head back and laughed – a big, booming laugh. When he finished, he wiped his eyes, “By God Frank, you ain’t changed a hair.” He sat down and began to ruffle through the drawers. Finally, he found what he was looking for, “Well…here’s the bounty notice on Pedro.” He gave a low whistle, “You just earned five thousand gold semolians by bringing in that old bandit.”

Philippa spoke up, “What’s a semolian?”

Frank smiled, “It’s our local currency. The gold semolian is worth about two-and-a-half Earth dollars.”

Leela exclaimed, “That’s over twelve thousand bucks!”

“Twelve thousand and five hundred if my math is right,” Frank said quietly. “And half of it is yours, Leela.”

“But what about Phi?”

Frank grinned, “Well…she gets my entire share. It should be enough for a whacking good trousseau.”

Both Leela and Phi looked puzzled. Phi blurted, “What…what is a true…trousseau?”

“Oh, it means your bridal gown and all your clothes, linen and such.”

“But Frank, I didn’t do that much to help.”

“Now, I wouldn’t say that.” He rubbed his chin, “If I hadn’t met you, I never would have chosen the Planet Express to fly me home. So, I never would have had the pleasure of corralling that old blackguard.”

While the exchange had been going on, Marshal McIntyre had produced a stack of bounty notices from his desk. He began to leaf through them, comparing the faces of the banditos with the photos and drawings on the notices. He cleared his throat, “Seems like you have a few more semolians coming.”

All three simultaneously exclaimed, “Really?”

“Yup,” Marshal McIntyre nodded, “If I’m ciphering correctly, seems like the other six are worth a total of four thousand.”

Leela looked ready to faint and so did Phi. Both were thinking how much 300 big boys had meant to them. Now they were both getting forty times as much!

“Well Jim, let’s get these rascals in your nice comfortable cells so we can mosey on over to the Courthouse and get all the papers signed,” Frank said quietly. “I’ve got a long way to go. I’d hate to have my Pa pass on while I was lollygagging around waiting on your slow behind.”

“You carry on like an old woman.” McIntyre chuckled, “Keep your shirt on granny, this won’t take long.”

True to his word, Marshal McIntyre put each bandit into a cell as quickly as possible. When the last cell door had clanged shut McIntyre turned to Frank, “Who are those two lovely ladies you brung with ya’?”

“Dismount there, Jim.” Frank shook his head, “The purple haired one’s called Leela. She’s happily married.” He smiled, “The red head is my fiancée. Her name is Philippa.”

“Well, I wouldn’t have had to ask if you’d just been polite and introduced them.”

“Jim, you never had a lick of sense. We were a trifle busy for formalities, seeing as how we were bringing in seven criminals.”

“Oh right…right.” McIntyre smiled, “Well, let’s get back to the office. Time’s a wastin’”

They walked down the cell block corridor to the door where a dark haired, slender deputy was sitting with a loaded shotgun. McIntyre touched the man’s shoulder lightly, “Cletus, those men we brought in know they are going to dance a hempen jig soon. They are desperate so don’t give them a chance.” He paused, “If anything happens that even looks like a breakout…kill them.”

“Sure enough Marshal.”

They stepped into the office, where Leela and Philippa were talking excitedly. Frank smiled. It gave him so much pleasure to see Philippa happy.

Leela noticed Frank and McIntyre first, “Are they all tucked away safely?”

McIntyre chuckled, “I don’t expect they’ll be leaving except for their necktie party.”

Leela blanched. The thought that the men they captured would be executed had never occurred to her. She stammered, “Are you…are you sure they are going to hang?”

The Marshal nodded, “Yup. Every single one of them has murdered several people. Then there’s the…” he blushed, “the outrages against ladies.” He looked grim, “Those polecats deserve it, believe me.”

Frank shook his head, “Leela…do you know something? We forgot about their ship.”

“What?”

“Their ship…we get to bring it before a prize court. The government gets 10% of the assessed value and we get the rest.”

Leela stepped over to a chair and sat down, “Oh my Lord!”

“Now here’s the thing, I can’t wait around for court. You know that.” He stroked his chin, “But if you can stay for a day or so, then you can collect the money. We’ll split her down the middle…fifty-fifty. Just leave Philippa’s half at the Farmers and Merchants Bank in her name. Then send us a wire. We’ll get it.”

“Okay.”

Unable to contain her curiosity, Philippa asked, “So how much do you think the ship will be worth…gold semolian-wise?”

“Well, I did a bit of checking on our way home.” He grinned, “The last ship of that model sold at a prize court went for a little less than fifty…”

“That cheap?” Philippa asked.

Frank continued, “…thousand gold semolians.”

Leela slumped forward and would have fallen out of the chair if McIntyre hadn’t caught her.

Rushing to her friend’s side, Philippa said gently, “Leela….Leela are you okay?”

Leela smiled weakly, “I’m sorry. It’s just that I’ve always had to scrimp and save. This is like a dream.”

“It sure seems that way.”

“Sorry for being such a wimp.” She sat up straight, “Do you realize that Samuel and I can pay off the mortgage on Maxine’s?” She smiled, “We’ll even have enough for a nice down payment on a condo.”

Impulsively Philippa ran up to Frank. Her words tumbled out in rapid sequence, “I can hardly believe it! Did you hear that? Leela has enough to pay off the mortgage on Maxine’s!” Her face became flushed with excitement, “And I can get everything I need without worrying about the cost! Oh, Frank thank you for being so generous!” To Frank’s delighted amazement Philippa flung her arms around his neck and kissed him passionately.

McIntyre hooted, “Well I’ll be! I’m going to have to go to Earth to find me a bride.”

As Philippa released her hold Frank could feel his cheeks and ears flush, “Oh cram a squirrel in it you old peckerwood.”

Leela began to laugh, followed by McIntyre and then Philippa. Finally Frank joined in. He motioned toward the door, “Let’s get going. We’ve got a lot to do and a train to catch.”


Chapter 15 – Leavin’ on a Steam Train

The railway station was crammed with people. The air was heavy with the smell of oil and coal smoke. Tendrils of steam wafted across the platform, swirling around and through the hurrying throng. The noise of hundreds of conversations and the chuff-chuff-chuff of arriving trains filled the air with sound. Philippa found the jumble of people, sights, sounds and smells bewildering. The only place that she could remember as busier was Grand Central Station at rush hour. Yet unlike New York or New-New York, the people were unfailingly polite. What was it Frank had said, “An armed society is a polite society?”

She was tired after her frantic afternoon round of paper shuffling, banking and shopping. Her feet ached as well. Frank had carried all of her packages until his arms became full. Then he hired a couple of young boys to help. Soon their progress through Forth Worth looked like a caravan, with half-a-dozen stout young boys staggering under a mountain of boxes and bags.

Mrs. Panelli was relatively unencumbered, as she had brought most of what she needed in her luggage. She watched in mild amusement as Frank doted on Philippa throughout the afternoon. Real love was so rare, she reflected. It was such a privilege to be able to be a part of it, even as a spectator.

From his perspective, Frank was having the time of his life. Philippa’s look of delight as she tried on new clothes and basked in his compliments brought him a thrill he had never known. What had surprised him was how much joy Philippa showed as she bought clothes for Mrs. Panelli and for Dawn…a person she had never met. Mrs. Panelli knew Dawn’s sizes (she kept up on all the family doings) and had accepted Philippa’s gifts graciously.

What kept Leela busy that afternoon was her pilgrimage from office to office in search of the final stamps she needed to make their seizure of the bandit’s ship legal. “Damned bureaucrats,” she muttered, “they’re the same everywhere.” Still, she had persisted and by the time she went by the ship, picked up Bender and headed for the railroad station all of the paperwork was done. She was deeply satisfied that when the prize court met in two days, all would go well.

Bender had remained with the ship. He had been warned that robots were unusual on Rodeo 5 and that thieves were often shot on sight. Since he could calculate that the odds of any successful thievery were very low, he opted to stay behind. However, he willingly went with Leela to see his old friend off.

Now they were all waiting on the platform together. Philippa dug through her pile of bags to find the camera she had bought during their triumphal shopping march. It was a plain reflex camera without any electronic components. She had once owned one much like it in another life, in another time. Once she had it in hand, Philippa waved at everyone, “Everybody stand together! I want to get a picture.”

Obediently, everyone crowded together from left to right stood Bender, Leela, Mrs. Panelli and Frank. Once Philippa had snapped her first couple of photos everyone took turns snapping photos until everyone had take at least half a dozen shots. A few passersby were even roped into snapping a few pictures. Philippa smiled in satisfaction as she tucked the two rolls of film away.

During the entire time on the platform, Bender had been unusually quiet. In fact, he hadn’t made a sound. Even when he had snapped photos, he simply waved to everyone to get them to move or stand still. Struck by this fact, Philippa finally asked, “Bender, you haven’t said a word. Are you okay?”

He nodded and shrugged.

Leela laughed, “Just a couple of blocks from here Bender started singing. Apparently we’re near the edge of the stable electromagnetic field.” She shook her head, “So he reached into his chest cavity and turned his speech functions off. Too bad, because he was doing a pretty good job on ‘Streets of Laredo’.”

Bender glared at Leela and made a rude gesture. In response, Leela began to laugh. Philippa touched her old friend on the shoulder, “I’m sorry you can’t say anything but I’m glad you came to see me off.”

Before she could say anything more, a conductor stepped off of the train. He looked up and down the platform before announcing in a stentorian voice, “Train leaving for Nuevo Laredo and points west in five minutes…five minutes.” He set off down the length of the train announcing its imminent departure.

Panicky thoughts ran through Philippa’s mind. In five more minutes she was going into the great unknown! “When will I see Leela and my other friends again? Am I even ready to get married? Will Frank’s family like me? Do I look fat?” The look on Philippa’s face mirrored her sudden panic.

Mrs. Panelli was the first to notice. In response, she put her arm around Philippa, gave her a gentle hug and whispered reassuringly, “Itsa gonna be fine Phi. You no worry.”

A smile replaced the panicked look on Philippa’s face. She whispered to Mrs. Panelli, “Thanks Lilly.”

“Shoo.”

Many of the emotions that had coursed through Philippa were running through Leela as well. Seeing Philippa standing next to Frank and Mrs. Panelli, she began to feel the ache of loss…an ache she knew would remain for a long time. None the less Leela reached deep down into her spirit, “I refuse to cry.”

The conductor was back, “Train leaving for Nuevo Laredo and points west in three minutes…all aboard…three minutes.”

Mrs. Panelli spoke up, “I’m-a gonna find our state-a room.” She motioned to the retinue of luggage and package carriers, “Come on boys. Follow-a me.” The long line of boys and porters snaked off with Mrs. Panelli in the lead. To some on the platform, it looked like a freight train in miniature.

Frank extended his hand as he stepped up to Leela, “Leela, thank you for everything.” He smiled, “We’ll see you soon.” Leela took his hand, “It was my pleasure,” she grinned, “Besides, I made out pretty well on the deal.”

Frank shook Bender’s hand as well, “By the way, Bender I got you box seat season tickets to the ape fights at Madison Cube Garden. I hope you enjoy them.” Bender smiled as he nodded silently.

With tears trickling down her cheeks, Philippa wordlessly hugged Leela, then Bender. She was struggling with her emotions, but was determined not to break down and upset Leela. Still, she couldn’t completely stop the tears.

Frank put his arm around Philippa’s shoulders, “Darlin’ it’s time to board. Are you okay?”

She sniffled before answering, “Y..yes…I’m ready.” Philippa dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief, “I’ll just miss…I’ll just miss my friends.”

“Don’t worry darlin’, I’ll make sure you can visit them any time you want to.” He smiled, “Besides, you’re a rich woman in your own rights.” He teased, “That’s just one more reason to hold onto you.”

In spite of her sadness, Philippa smiled. He was joking to cheer her up! In response she hugged Frank, loving him for his caring heart. He returned her hug, reveling in the smell of her hair and the feel of her body.

“ALL ABOARD!” The conductor was back, “ALL ABOARD!”

Frank whispered in Philippa’s ear, “We have to go now Phi. Give Leela another hug and then let’s go.”

As soon as Frank released his embrace, Philippa flew to Leela’s arms and hugged her. Phi could barely speak, but she still refused to break down and cry. Instead, she kissed Leela on the cheek and whispered, “Whether I go to the ends of the universe or to the end of time I will always love you. Your light will always live in my heart.” She paused to regain composure, “You are my closest friend. Please take care of yourself and come to see me. Promise.”

Leela was surprised at how thick her voice sounded when she responded, “I will, Phi. I promise you.”

Philippa stepped back smiling, “Good. Well, I have to go for now.” She stepped back next to Frank and gave a little wave, “See you soon.”

“Goodbye Phi.”

Frank waved, “Adios, Leela. We’ll see you soon.” Then he put his arm gently around Philippa’s shoulder, kissed her gently on the cheek and guided her onto the train. Once onboard, Philippa turned to wave at Leela and Bender who were still standing on the platform.

Both smiled and waved back.

The train gave a slight jerk, then it began to move forward. Slowly at first, it picked up speed.

At first, Leela and Bender kept pace walking down the platform, waving at Phi. The train jolted again, so Leela had to break into a jog to keep up. Bender refused to run.

Leela could see that she was almost at the end of the platform. She could see Philippa still waving. Surprising herself Leela shouted, “Phi…I love you! You are my best friend! I’m sorry I was so mean to you! Take care of yourself!”

From the look on Philippa’s face she could see that Phi had heard. Leela came to the end of the platform and skidded to a halt. As the caboose passed by, Leela sat down and began to sob. The train continued on its way, chuffing into the distance.

It took Leela a full five minutes to master her emotions. The train had already diminished to a small speck in the distance. She stood and walked back down the platform to where Bender was standing, “Well Bender, we’ve got a few days of waiting before we get really rich. Want to go have a drink?

Bender’s eyes bugged out, then resumed their normal look. He nodded vigorously.

“Great, I need a little something to help me sleep tonight.”


Chapter 16 – The Iron Horse

Philippa’s resolve failed her once they were clear of the station. She buried her face in Frank’s shoulder and began to keen, “Oh Frank! I may never see my friends again!” She sobbed, “I miss them already!” Her voice trailed off but her sobbing continued. Frank held her, patting her on the back and reflecting that Philippa was crying like an innocent child.

It took a while, but Philippa finally stopped crying. She wiped her nose with her handkerchief before looking searchingly into Frank’s eyes, “Frank, tell me everything is going to be okay…tell me that I’m not crazy for coming here.”

“Everything is going to be just fine.” He smiled, “Phi, I love you more than words can express.” His eyes twinkled, “I’ll have to admit that at first I thought you were plumb loco for wanting to come but now I can’t imagine why I thought that way.” He gently touched her cheek, “You have made every step of this trip a joy…”

“Except the banditos…”

“Even the banditos! After all, it allowed me to do something for you.” He made a muscle, “I got to show my girl what a rough, tough hombre I am.”

Phi giggled.

“That’s better.” Frank hugged her, “Darlin’, I want you to know that you are going to pick where we live after we get hitched.” He released his hug to look Phi in the eyes, “That’s a promise. It makes no nevermind to me one way or the other. As long as I’m with you and you’re happy, I’ll be happy.”

Moved by Frank’s sincerity, Philippa put her arms around Frank’s neck and kissed him gently. It took Frank by surprise but he returned her kiss. Frank felt a bit of his self-control slipping away as he was almost overcome by the feel of her body pressed against his, the warmth of her kiss and the smell of her hair. He only kept his hands from exploring Philippa’s body by an act of sheer will. His palms began to sweat and he could feel his body tremble slightly, like it always did before a shooting match…with excitement.

He broke the kiss, “Darlin’ thank you for that kiss.” He thought for a moment and his voice became serious, “I just want you to know that I respect you and I will never do anything to dishonor you.”

Philippa laid her head on his chest, “I know that.” After a moment of silence she gazed into his eyes, “That’s why I love you…you silly man.”

Before Frank could respond a wizened old conductor rounded the corner, “Tickets please, may I see your tickets please?”

Both Frank and Philippa blushed. Frank reached into his jacket and produced the tickets. The conductor examined them, punched them and handed them back without comment. He winked at Frank before heading down the corridor.

“I guess we ought to find our compartment,” Frank said quietly.

“Do you know where it is?” Philippa peered down the corridor, “I have to admit that I’m absolutely lost.”

Frank chuckled, “That’s the nice thing about a train, if you go that way, you end up at the engine and if you go that-a-way you wind up at the caboose. Everything you need is somewhere in between.”

“Oh.”

“Our compartment is this way.” He took her arm and began to lead her down the corridor. “We got a private compartment to Nuevo Laredo. I’ll bunk in the sleeping car and you and Mrs. Panelli can sleep in the compartment.”

“How does that work?”

“Oh, I forgot you aren’t used to trains.” He smiled, “We have a private compartment that has two nice comfortable benches that convert to beds. There’s even a private bathroom attached.”

“Wow.”

“Now there’s a dining car just back of our car. Beyond that is a lounge car. The sleeping car is just on the other side of the lounge.”

“Where’s our baggage and stuff?”

“Do you need anything, darlin’?”

“Oh no, I was just curious.”

“Well, the baggage car, the express car and the horse car are up near the engine. Normally, we aren’t allowed in the baggage car. I can go up to the horse car to check on Old Paint, which I will do before we have supper.”

Frank stopped and pointed at a door, “Here’s our compartment. Maybe you’d like to freshen up and I’ll go check on Old Paint.” He pulled a pocket watch from his vest, “They’ll start serving supper in about an hour.”

“Thanks,” Philippa patted her hair self consciously, “It would be kind of nice to freshen up before dinner…I mean supper.”

“I’ll see you in about an hour then.” Frank patted her shoulder affectionately before setting off for the horse car.

Philippa went into the compartment and was pleasantly surprised. It made her think of a stupid ages movie…she couldn’t remember which one…but it had a compartment that looked just like this. Well…almost…there was a blonde involved, but she wasn’t a Cygnoid.

“Hi Lilly!” Philippa said cheerfully.

“Oh, hello Phi!” She smiled, patting the seat next to her, “Why you no sit-a down?”

“Thanks,” Philippa returned the smile, “But I’d like to do my hair and freshen up before supper.”

“I can-a do you hair,” Mrs. Panelli patted the seat, “Just sit down and relax.”

Somewhat uncertainly, Philippa sat down. To her surprise, Mrs. Panelli turned out to be very handy with a brush and comb. Within a few short minutes, Mrs. Panelli did Philippa’s hair.

“You should-a grow you hair longer inna back.” Mrs. Panelli commented, “It much easier to keep offa you face that way.”

Philippa frowned, “I don’t know…do you think Frank would like it?”

Mrs. Panelli laughed heartily, “Oh Phi, I think he love-a you even if you was-a bald!”

For the next hour Philippa and Mrs. Panelli chatted about what was ahead. Philippa learned that they had a fifteen hour trip ahead of them. Once they reached Nuevo Laredo, they would take another train north for eight hours to Tombstone-on-the-Brazos. Then they would head north overland for sixty miles to the Nueces River.

Just across the Nueces lay the town of Green Castle. From there, it was another seventy miles to the next river, the Purgatoire. From there it was only thirty miles to Sweetwater. The Wright Ranch was ten miles further north along the Milk River.

“So how long will it take us to get to the ranch?” Philippa had tried to calculate the time needed, but had only ended up thoroughly confused.

“It gonna take about ten days,” Mrs. Panelli smiled. “Itsa easy if the weather is hokay. This time-a year, itsa usually good.”

The opening of the compartment door interrupted their conversation. Frank stepped through, smiled and said, “Well, I’m hungry enough to eat the southbound end of a northbound skunk.”

Mrs. Panelli gave a throaty laugh. Philippa thought for a second, then began to giggle. She sputtered, “Oh Frank!”

Frank grinned like an impish schoolboy, “I’m sorry, Phi. Sometimes I exaggerate a little…but I sure am hungry.”

Philippa stood, followed by Mrs. Panelli. Philippa hooked her arm into Frank’s, “I’d hate to think I kissed a man who really ate a skunk.” She giggled, “Come on, let’s go.”

They left the compartment and headed for the dining car.

Back in Fort Worth, Leela and Bender found the least disreputable saloon near the train station and ducked into it. The dark wood paneled interior seemed even darker in contrast to the bright afternoon sunlight. Along the wall opposite the entrance was a long mahogany bar with a brass foot rail. Behind the bar was an enormous mirror that stretched almost the full length of the wall.

Behind the bar stood a dark haired barkeeper of medium height who was wearing a fresh white shirt and dark trousers. When Leela and Bender approached the bar, he looked at them briefly. Then he very deliberately turned his back on them.

Leela spoke sharply, “We’d like a drink.”

The barkeep turned around, “We don’t care for you aliens around here.”

An icy tone crept into Leela’s voice, “What did you say?”

“I just wanted you to know that I’ll serve you, but only one drink. Then you have to go.”

“That’s so nice,” Leela’s voice took on a honeyed tone that made Bender suspicious.

“What’ll it be?” the barkeep said abruptly.

“Rye for my friend and me.”

The barkeep poured two shot glasses with an amber liquid from a bottle labeled ‘Old Lighting’ before grunting, “That’ll be one gold semolian.”

Leela reached into her pocket and extracted a coin, which she plopped onto the bar at the edge nearest her. Without thinking, the barkeep leaned over to retrieve the coin. Once he had leaned over, Leela’s arm shot out. Grabbing a hand full of his hair, Leela slammed the barkeep’s head into the bar top.

The crunching sound accompanied by a spurt of blood confirmed that Leela had broken the barkeep’s nose. Before he could do anything other than yelp in pain, Leela had pulled her ray gun and shoved it into his cheek. Her voice came out with a crack like a pistol shot, “Now what my friend and I would like is a little friendly service.” She shoved his head slightly, “And I don’t want to hear any more about ‘my kind’…am I getting through to you?”

She holstered her pistol, took the shot glass and downed it with a single gulp.

The barkeep held his hand to his bleeding nose, “You stupid bitch…you broke my nose!”

In a lightning fast move, Leela pulled her pistol and slammed the barrel into the barkeep’s temple. He collapsed like a bag of wet cement. Without a word, Leela holstered her pistol, poured both Bender and herself another drink and tossed it down. After a quick look around the barroom at the stunned clientele, Leela turned to Bender and said, “Come on, let’s find another place to relax. I think this place could turn hostile real quickly.”

Bender reached into his chest cavity and turned his speech center back on, “Sure thing, Big Boots! I’m with you.”

They left the saloon and headed down the street. Less than a block away, they found a billiard parlor with only a few patrons. Since there was a sign hung out front that proclaimed ‘Tourists Welcome’ they decided to enter.

Bender laughed, “Care to try a game of pool, Big Boots?”

“Sure, why not?”

Leela racked up the billiard balls. As she placed the triangle aside a man came through the door. She recognized him as one of the customers from the saloon. The man turned his head and shouted, “She’s in here. Come on boys!”

“Let’s get out of here,” Bender said in a panicked tone. He turned to the bartender, “Is there a back way out of here?”

“Too late,” Leela shouted. Bender turned and saw a half-dozen burly men pile through the door. The leader, a small rat-like man snarled, “Get ‘em boys.”

Leela considered pulling her pistol but the sight of the triangle of cue balls gave her an idea. She snatched one up and muttered, “All right…low and away.” With unerring accuracy, Leela served up half a dozen bean balls. In less time than it takes to tell it, all of her would be assailants were sprawled unconscious on the wooden floor.

The bartender doubled over in laughter, “By God that was worth the price of admission!”

Bender responded by running up and looting the unconscious men’s pockets. Leela shook her head, “Some things never change. When you’re done Bender, I’m going to stop by and see Marshal McIntyre.”

“You do that Leela. I’m going to head right back to the ship to…uh…drop off a few things.”

“That’s fine, but you know they hang bandits here.”

“Looks like I’ll be hiding…I mean hanging out on the ship.”

It was a short walk to the Marshal’s office. When Leela entered, McIntyre was leaned back in a chair with his feet on the desk. He stood up, “Howdy, Miss Leela. What can I do for you?”

In the fewest words possible, Leela related the story of the barkeep and the billiard parlor.

McIntyre began to chuckle when she told him about the barkeep, “Not much of a crime, whacking a surly bartender.”

When Leela related the story of how she beaned six men with billiard balls, McIntyre bellowed with laughter. Wiping a tear from his eye he asked, “Any of ‘em dead?”

“No.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he had an ear-to-ear grin. “I don’t expect that six rough, tough hombres are gonna come in here to complain about being whupped by a single woman.” He slapped his knee, “By God, this is one for the record books.”

“So I’m not in trouble?”

“Heck no!” He shook his head vigorously, “Just watch your back when you’re in town.”

“Oh I will,” Leela said emphatically, “I sure will.”


Chapter 17 – Night Passage

Philippa was having a tough time sleeping. It wasn’t Mrs. Panelli’s soft breathing that kept her awake, nor was it the gentle clack-clack, clack-clack of the train as it rolled down the rails. No, she couldn’t stop thinking about the changes in her life.

My life…it’s funny, but the memories of life before the change are so distant,” she thought. Sitting up, she looked out the compartment window. Both of the moons were up. One was a sliver while the other was nearly full. Together they illuminated the darkened terrain rushing by like a ghostly strobe light.

Philippa couldn’t stop thinking of Frank’s grey eyes. They were so…well…sexy. But they were more than just sexy; they were gentle and thoughtful as well. What was it some poet said about the eyes being ‘windows on the soul?’ Philippa couldn’t have agreed more.

Then she thought of how soft his lips had felt in each of their kisses. As she thought about kissing him, she felt a thrill go through her body. It was a thrill both of passion and of fear…the passion of love and the fear of abandonment. What Philippa wondered was, “Am I the only one who has felt like this?” She was sure Frank loved her but…but…what if he fell out of love with her? How could she make sure he would be true to her?

She lay back down and closed her eyes, going through an age-old dilemma. “Should I make love to Frank to bind him to me, or should I wait until after the wedding?” She turned over and faced the wall, wondering what Leela would say. It didn’t take her long to reason out that Leela would say, “Wait until after the wedding.” She was certain that Amy would just say, “Be careful.”

A smile flickered across Philippa’s lips as it struck her that a few weeks ago, the thought of intimacy with any man would have revolted her. Now it wasn’t a question of whether, it was a question of when. When? She felt a sudden wave of panic at the thought, “What if Frank wants to snu-snu before we get married?”

That thought caused her to sit up again. She had vague memories of her few sexual experiences before the change…but they were no more real than the porno films she had watched back then either. Fully awake, she swung her feet onto the floor as the reality hit her, “All I know of making love as a woman comes from Cosmo!”

Philippa stood up and began to pace the floor, “What if Frank loses interest in me? What if I get pregnant?” She sat down on the edge of the bed, “I wish I’d taken Amy’s advice and gone on the pill.”

After a moment she realized, “There’s nothing I can do now, so why worry?” On the heels of that thought came another, “Frank would never hurt me...I know it.”

Feeling better, Philippa stretched out on the bed and relaxed, “Too much thinking makes my head hurt.” Within seconds, the rhythmic music of the rails began to lull her to sleep.

Philippa’s last thought before sleep finally came was, “I think I’ll follow Leela’s advice…

In the sleeper car further down the train, Frank was still awake. The rhythmic clackety-clack of the rails led him to think back to the time fourteen years ago when he left Rodeo 5 for Earth…and why he had left. As he had said to his brother George as they stood on the platform at Nuevo Laredo, “George, I feel like a fugitive from the law of averages.”

George had laughed, “Hell Frank, none of us makes it out of this world alive.”

Frank had shook his head, “Maybe so, but I’m so sick of having to draw down on every saddle bum and peckerwood gun hand who wants to make a name for himself.” His voice became thick with emotion, “The last one I shot was sixteen years old.”

“Frank, you didn’t have a choice.” He rubbed his neck, “When they’re totin’ a gun, it doesn’t matter how old they are…they can kill you deader than a beaver hat.”

“Be that as it may, I’m sick of killing. I want to find me a good woman and settle down.”

“There are plenty of good women here, Frank.”

“Maybe so, but I want someone unique. I’m looking for a Prairie Rose and I just don’t think she’s here.”

“I hope you’re right Frank.”

Frank smiled at the thought that he had been right. Now he was going home with his Prairie Rose in tow. That Philippa was unique was without a doubt. He still found it hard to believe she had been a man.

He remembered the first time he had seen her sitting in that ugly armchair at Maxine’s. The light falling on her face had made her look like an angel. He had fallen in love with her at that very moment.

So he had asked around discreetly about her. Before they ever met, he knew the whole story…the change…everything. It hadn’t made a bit of difference. In fact, it had made Philippa all the more exotic. She was unique, a singular being in the universe.

What had surprised and pleased him was how little guile Philippa displayed about her past, telling him the full truth so soon! Even though Philippa was obviously afraid of losing him, she had made a clean breast of it. No half-truths, no beating around the bush. It had made him love her even more. She had sand.

As he thought back to that meeting at Maxine’s, he laughed at himself for not realizing what Leela was gently trying to lead into with her talk about Amphibians and other seemingly unrelated subjects. He just hadn’t expected the subject to come up so soon.

He put his hands behind his head. Philippa’s insistence on coming along had been a welcomed surprise. He couldn’t wait to show her off to everyone. They’d all love her as much as he did…well maybe not quite as much. Mrs. Panelli certainly had taken to her, which meant a great deal.

He wondered for a moment what his Mother would have thought. After careful consideration, Frank decided that she would have approved.

Closing his eyes, Frank thought about every kiss they had exchanged. The memory of those four kisses stimulated him more than anything he had ever experienced. Not that he was completely inexperienced. As a young cowboy he had succumbed to peer pressure and visited a few painted ladies. It hadn’t become a habit because there had been a dimension missing in a purely physical relationship.

So he had found his outlet in hard work…until now.

Just one kiss had broken through a wall holding back years of repressed emotions. Now he dreamed about Philippa every night…and daydreamed about her as well. It had taken an iron will to keep him from making some of his waking dreams a reality. That…plus his very real love and respect for Philippa.

He knew that she would yield if he pressed hard enough. But that would destroy something in her; it would bruise her spirit.

“No,” he said aloud, “I will never, ever hurt her.” With that settled in his mind, Frank rolled onto his side. He was soon fast asleep.


Chapter 18 – The Streets of Nuevo Laredo

Frank opened the door of the compartment causing Philippa to turn from watching the passing landscape to look him over. She thought he looked like a real cowboy, in his black frock coat, white shirt, dark pants and a pearl grey vest. His pair of six guns, wide-brimmed grey Stetson and cowboy boots completed the look.

Returning her admiring looks, Frank took in her long green walking dress with white lace trim around the collar and cuffs. There was a fringed ivory shawl draped over her shoulders that would help ward off the still chilly late winter breezes. The gold locket that Frank had bought her on Earth hung around her neck.

“I do declare Philippa; you’re prettier than the morning!”

“You look very handsome yourself!” Philippa patted the seat next to her, “Is everything okay with Old Paint?”

Frank nodded as he sat down, “He’s just fine.”

Philippa smiled, “Did you sleep well last night?”

“Yes ma’am,” his eyes twinkled, “I slept right sweetly dreaming of you.”

Philippa blushed, “Thank you Frank.” She whispered, “I…I dreamed about you too.” She leaned her head on his shoulder for a while. After a few moments Philippa glanced out the window, “We’re slowing down, aren’t we?”

Mrs. Panelli spoke up, “Atsa shoo. We almost-a inna Nuevo Laredo.”

It was just before noon as the train pulled into the Nuevo Laredo station – a long, low brick building with a shingled roof. A timber and shingled awning covered the wide boardwalk platform that ran the length of the station building. Several wooden warehouses clustered nearby, with narrow boardwalks leading to their entrances.

The platform was thronged with people of all descriptions. Men, women and children of all ages milled about, waiting for the train. Swearing and sweating porters manhandled outbound luggage into position as well as pushing empty luggage wagons into position. The street in front of the station was crowded with horses and wagons. Clouds of dust from the streets blew through the station propelled by the chilly breeze. Many of the women in the crowd covered their faces with handkerchiefs to ward off the dust.

Philippa had her face pressed to the window. She turned to Frank, her eyes wide with excitement, “It looks just like a cowboy movie I saw when I was a kid!” Pleased by her excitement Frank chuckled, “Which one?”

“Umm…I’m not sure.” Her hands fluttered like two white birds, “But it was really cool.” She paused, “There was like this awesome shoot out and the good guy wound up marrying his sweetheart.”

Frank thought for a second. He realized that Philippa had described an entire genre of film. Still, he was enjoying the conversation, “Did the movie have any Indians in it?”

Her brow furrowed with concentration, “Umm…no…not that I remember.”

The wheels squealed loudly as the train finally came to a stop. Mrs. Panelli stood up, “Itsa time for us to change-a trains, no?”

Frank and Philippa stood up at the same time. Frank shook his head, “We’ve go until this afternoon before we catch the train north to Tombstone-on-the-Brazos.” He pulled his pocket watch from his vest, “It’s about time for lunch. I used to know a pretty good cantina not far from the station.” He turned to Philippa, “Do you like Mexican food, darlin’?”

Philippa nodded, “Sure.”

They disembarked from the train. Frank hailed a porter and arranged for their luggage to be stowed away properly. He flipped the man a gold semolian.

With a smile, the porter doffed his cap, “Don’t you worry sir. I’ll take care of everything.” He replaced his cap, “Here’s your ticket.” He smiled, “In case you need anything just ask for me, Moses Muldoon.”

Frank nodded, “Thanks, I will.”

It was a short stroll down the wooden sidewalk to the cantina. Philippa was surprised at how earthlike everything was…even the trees that lined the streets looked familiar. She was reflecting on that thought when Frank paused in the middle of the block, “This is it ladies.”

Philippa looked up at the wooden sign that hung out over the sidewalk. It proudly proclaimed in red block lettering on a green background ‘Cantina Morales’. Frank held the door open, “Old Man Morales and his wife usually served up a pretty good feed. I hope they still run the place.”

As she entered Philippa looked around. The interior was well lit by brass gas lamps that hung on white plaster walls festooned with paintings. The roof was held up by massive dark wooden beams. The furniture was a dozen round tables covered with green tablecloths. They were about two thirds full. Against the far wall there was a long wooden bar with a brass foot rail.

Philippa was surprised that a tall Neptunian man with an impressive handlebar moustache and dressed in traditional Mexican garb stood behind the bar. As Frank entered, the man behind the bar peered closely at him and then began to shout, “¡Don Francisco esta aquí…Señor Relámpago! ¡María…Lolita…vengan rápido!”

In response to the commotion two Neptunian women clad in white Puebla dresses emerged from a door just off of the bar. Obviously mother and daughter, mother was short and somewhat stout while the daughter was tall and willowy. When the daughter caught sight of Frank, she emitted a high pitched squeak and rushed to him.

Frank looked pleased to see her, “Lolita!”

Lolita threw her upper arms around Frank’s neck and hugged him, “¡Don Francisco!” Then she saw Philippa’s eyes boring holes into her. She released her hold, stepped back and began to speak in lightly accented English, “Señor Wright, it is so good to see you. How long has it been?”

“You were only six years old when I left.” Frank laughed, “I didn’t think you’d remember me.”

Lolita smiled radiantly, “You gave me my first ride on horseback and my first chocolate! How could I ever forget you?”

Philippa looked fit to be tied, her face turned red. In spite of herself, Philippa could feel the jealousy boiling up in her. “I’ll slap that four armed slut silly!” shot through her mind. Philippa began to inch toward where Frank and Lolita stood.

Fortunately Mrs. Panelli staved off a fight by putting a gentle restraining hand on Philippa’s arm and whispering in her ear, “She’s a no problem for you. Frank…he no go inna for the blue skins.”

As quickly as the jealousy had begun to rise, it receded. Philippa stepped next to Frank and intertwined her arm with his. He looked toward her, “Darlin’ this is Lolita Morales, daughter” he gestured toward the bar, “of my old friends Sancho and Maria Morales.” He put his arm around Philippa, “Lolita, let me introduce you to my fiancée, Miss Philippa Fry.”

Lolita curtsied as she replied with sincerity, “Encantada…I mean…I am honored to meet you.” Philippa nodded, finding that she was beginning to like Lolita, “It’s my pleasure.”

Maria bustled up and scolded Lolita, “Why you no have them sit down you seely girl? I bet Don Francisco es muy hambre.” She smiled at Philippa, “¡Qué linda!” When Maria saw that Philippa didn’t understand Spanish, she added, “You are so preety Señorita.” She led Philippa to a seat, “Your Don Francisco he is a good man. He save us from the banditos when he was sheriff.”

Sancho came over to the table and helped get everyone seated. He shook Frank’s hand, “Don Francisco, are you in town for long?”

Frank shook his head, “We’re taking the 3:10 to Tombstone-on-the-Brazos.”

Sancho shrugged. Then he turned to Mrs. Panelli, “Lilliana, it is good to see you.”

Mrs. Panelli smiled back, “The pleasure is mine, Sancho.”

Turning back to Frank, Sancho asked, “When are you going to introduce me to this charming lady friend of yours?”

Frank looked embarrassed, “I’m sorry, Sancho. This is my fiancée, Miss Philippa J. Fry.”

Sancho bowed, “I am very honored to meet you, Señorita Fry.” Then he straightened up, “But you didn’t come here to talk…you are hungry!”

He gave Lolita a hug, “Take their order now, mi hija.” He turned to Frank, “Perhaps we can talk a little after you eat.” He bowed to Philippa and Mrs. Panelli in turn, “Señorita…Señora, a pleasure.” He turned and headed back to his station behind the bar while Maria sailed back into the kitchen.

Lolita took their orders. As soon as Lolita departed for the kitchen, Frank remarked, “It sure is good to be home.”

Home,” Philippa thought, “is Rodeo 5 going to be my home?” Then she gave voice to a thought that had been rattling around in her mind since they had gotten off the train, “Frank, how did Rodeo 5 get to look so much like Earth?”

Frank leaned back slightly in his chair, “Well darlin’, I’m no scientist…”

Philippa laughed, “Neither am I.”

“But I know a little bit.” He paused for effect, “Rodeo 5 was an early terra-forming project. Do you know what terra-forming is?”

“Sure,” Philippa smiled, “I learned that on Star Trek.”

“OK then, when they got to Rodeo 5 it was nearly perfect for terra-forming. It had a native ecosystem that wasn’t too complex, the right atmosphere, the right amount of water, so it looked like a fairly simple job.”

Lolita arrived, silently set down their drinks and hurried back to the kitchen.

“It wasn’t like our terra-forming in our solar system. Heck, we terra-formed every planet to where people could live on them…or at least visit them.” Frank shook his head, “No, this planet was so earthlike that there was little to do. That is, except about the rotational period of the planet.”

Philippa looked puzzled, “Rotational period?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. That’s just a fancy way of saying how long it takes the planet to rotate once.” Frank smiled, “Anyway, the day used to last 33 hours. The terra-formers thought they could slow the planet down to a 24 hour day.” He laughed, “Yup, things were gonna be perfect. But they forgot about the effect of a slowdown on the planet’s dual core. It caused it to break free and gives us these lovely electromagnetic wave fronts that sweep across the planet.”

Frank paused to take a sip of his coffee before continuing, “Unintended consequences…that’s what they called it. Of course, it gave us the life we now enjoy so I guess I shouldn’t complain.” His brow furrowed in thought, “Of course, there are a few local animals and plants you won’t see until we get north of the Brazos.”

Philippa leaned forward, “What are they?”

“The Prairie Rose for one…if we are very, very lucky. Then there’s the Kingaroo and the Rodeo Wolf.”

“Kingaroo?”

“They are the biggest plant eaters on the planet. They look like giant Kangaroos from Earth. They travel in herds of 20 – 30 and when they are in a hurry, it sounds like thunder.”

“Wow,” Philippa put her chin in the palms of her hands, “That is so interesting.”

“What you don’t want to meet is the Rodeo Wolf. They look like a cross between an Earth wolf, a lion, and a jackal. They can’t run far but they don’t need to. They hunt from ambush.”

Philippa’s eyes widened, “Are there a lot of them?”

“Fortunately no,” he laughed, “They mostly live in the far north or in the mountains. They don’t do well on the prairie…no place to hide.”

Philippa relaxed visibly, “That’s a relief.”

Frank nodded. Before he could continue, Lolita arrived with their lunch. Philippa smiled, “This smells so good! I’d forgotten how hungry I was.” Without much ceremony, they began to eat.

It didn’t take long before Lolita was clearing away their plates. Frank ordered some coffee and Philippa decided to join him for a cup. Frank reached out and took Philippa’s hand. They sat there silently, enjoying the contact.

Philippa was daydreaming about the future when she felt Frank tense up and then release her hand. The sound of Frank’s chair scraping the floor as he stood up focused her attention. A tall young man in a long linen duster and dusty clothes stood several feet from the table. He wore a left hip holster that was set for a cross-draw.

He spoke, “I heard you were back in town, Mr. Wright.”

Frank spoke quietly, “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

“No, we haven’t. My name is Johnny Greenbaugh…does that mean anything to you?”

“Hmmm…Greenbaugh…I knew a cattle rustler by that name once.”

“He was my uncle.” His voice became venomous, “You shot him down like a dog in Tombstone.”

Customers began to move out of the line of fire. Behind Frank, Sancho reached under the bar for a double barreled ten gauge shotgun. He slid it onto the bar top quietly.

“You ride with outlaws…you die with outlaws,” Frank’s eyes stayed on Johnny’s hands, “That’s the code son, you know it.”

“To hell with your code…I aim to kill you old man.” Johnny’s hand began to reach for his pistol. When he got there, he was surprised to find it was gone. Frank has seen his hand begin to move, stepped closer and had jerked Johnny’s pistol from the holster.

Greenbaugh’s eyes widened in amazement just as Frank clubbed him alongside the head with the pistol. Philippa emitted a muffled cry as Johnny collapsed to the floor, “Frank!”

He turned to Philippa and smiled, “Don’t worry darlin’. I may be getting old, but it’ll take more than some greenstick little peckerwood to put me in the shade.”

Sancho strode up laughing, “Should I go get the Sheriff, Don Francisco?”

Frank shook his head, “No.” He held out the pistol, “Just give him this after we’ve gone.”

Still laughing, Sancho took the pistol, “Si, that is no problem.”

Frank pulled out his pocket watch, “Well ladies,” He held out his hand to Philippa, “I guess we need to get on back to the station.”

With Philippa on his left arm, Frank shook hands with Sancho, “I’ll be back this way after we see to my Pa.” He smiled, “Maybe we’ll stay a day or two. For sure we’ll invite you to our wedding.”

Sancho laughed, “Felicitaciones mi amigo.” Then he switched to English, “Please make sure to see my cousin Pedro in Tombstone.”

“Sure.”

Before they could leave, they did the obligatory round of farewells with Maria and Lolita as well. After five minutes of hugs, handshakes and parting wishes. With the leave taking over, Frank, Philippa and Mrs. Panelli left for the train station and the next leg of their journey.


Chapter 19 – Heading North

The train chugged north across the rolling prairie toward Tombstone-on-the-Brazos. The further north they went, the fewer trees dotted the landscape.

Once, the train had to stop for a buffalo herd. Philippa was astounded at what looked like a river of living creatures flowing across the single track.

Frank had enjoyed her alternating exclamations of wonder and delight as they waited for the torrent of Buffalo to subside. “Where are they all going, Frank?”

“Well, darlin’ they’re headed for what we call the Buffalo Plains. They’re following the grass.”

Philippa looked puzzled, “Following the grass? I don’t get it.”

“During the winter, the Buffalo migrate south for warmer climates where the grass is still green. At the end of winter, they move north again.” He smiled, “They sort of munch their way along.”

“Where are the Buffalo Plains? Will we cross them?”

“They’re kind of west of where we’re going to travel. But it is where the Lakota and other tribes live.” Frank paused, “Painted Eagle’s tribe lives not far west of Tombstone-on-the-Brazos where the Brazos and Colorado Rivers join.”

“Painted Eagle?” Philippa’s face lit up, “Oh…he’s going to ride with us to Sweetwater isn’t he?”

Frank nodded, “Yup.”

“Why is he going to ride with us?” She looked concerned, “Is it dangerous to travel alone?”

“Not particularly,” Frank shrugged, “But Painted Eagle wants to pay his respects to my Pa before he passes on.”

“Why? Is he a friend of your father?”

“Yes, he’s also a relative.”

“A relative? But I thought you said he was a Lakota?”

“Well…my great grandmother was Lakota.” He smiled, “Her name was Ehawee. It means ‘she laughs’ in their language.” He paused for a moment, obviously thinking, “Painted Eagle is my third cousin.”

“So you are part Lakota?’ Philippa seemed excited by the idea, “That is so cool.”

He laughed, “So you don’t mind marrying a red man?”

Philippa looked scandalized, “No!”

The look on her face made Frank roar with laughter. Philippa frowned and said angrily, “What is so funny?”

Frank immediately stopped laughing, “I’m sorry darlin’” He reached out and gently touched her hand, “You just looked so shocked.”

At his touch Philippa’s anger left her, “I’m sorry Frank.” She brushed her hair nervously, “It’s just that I’m…I’m a bit sensitive about people thinking I’m dumb.”

Frank lifted her hand and kissed it affectionately, “I’d never think you were dumb, Philippa.” He grinned, “After all, you chose me as your beau.” He pointed at his chest with his free thumb and chuckled, “That seems like pure genius to me.”

Philippa giggled. Mrs. Panelli looked up from the book she was reading, “Amore,” she said softly. Then she went back to her reading.

Almost an hour later, the buffalo herd was still crossing the tracks. The initial fascination had worn off for Philippa. Frank sensed it, “Philippa, would you like to go help me with Old Paint? It’s about time for me to feed him.”

Philippa stood up, “Sure!” She turned to Mrs. Panelli, “You don’t mind me leaving you alone, do you Lilly?”

Mrs. Panelli chuckled, “Itsa no problem.”

Frank slid the door to the compartment open for Philippa. She stepped into the corridor and came face-to-face with something right out of the “Lion King.” Standing on two legs, it stood about three feet tall. It was tawny colored, with a black mask around it’s two large eyes. It’s feet and hands were dark colored as well. The only clothes it wore was a dark colored baggy vest.

Philippa eyes widened in surprise, “Timon!”

Philippa’s surprise increased when the creature smiled at her, “No ma’am, I’m not Timon. My name is Fred.”

Frank poked his head into the corridor, saw what was going on and decided to enjoy the show.

“Oh…um…uh…Fred.” She chewed her lip, “I’m kinda new here…I…I don’t mean to be rude but…what are you?”

“I am a Pa’Kot’ah.”

“Oh.” Philippa smiled, “Well, my name is Philippa Fry.”

Fred nodded, “I’m pleased to meet you Ma’am.” He reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a gold pocket watch, “I don’t mean to be rude, but I am late for an appointment.” He smiled at her, nodded to Frank and hurried down the corridor.

Philippa found she was unable to take her eyes off of Fred as he sped down the corridor. When he left the car, Philippa turned to Frank, “Did you see that?”

Not wanting to seem patronizing, Frank stifled a grin. With all the gravity he could muster he replied, “Yes darlin’, I think I may have even met him before…but I have to admit to a little trouble telling one Pa’Kot’ah from another.”

“Where do they come from?” Philippa’s eyes were lit up with excitement, “I mean…I’ve seen lots of aliens but I’ve never seen anything quite like Fred.”

“It’s kind of an interesting tale,” Frank motioned toward the front of the train, “why don’t I spin it out while we go feed Old Paint?”

“Oh, right.”

As they walked to the horse car, Frank explained how the Pa’Kot’ah had come to Rodeo 5. “I don’t know where the Pa’Kot’ah originally came from, but neither do they. The ones that came here were escapees from an Omicronian invasion fleet that came to grief here on Rodeo 5.”

“Huh? What were the Omicronians doing here?”

“Well, they thought they could invade and just take all the beef they wanted. It was back before our planetary defenses were as strong as they are now. As it turns out, it didn’t matter because the Omicronian tried to sneak in over a thousand miles north of the Fort Worth LaGrange point.” He laughed, “Their warships are still rusting on the prairie. They ran into the Shoshone and tried to behave like Omicronians. The Shoshone wiped them out.”

“Who are the Shoshone?”

“Oh, they are another tribe that lives up in the Wind River Range.” At that point in the narrative, they reached the horse car. The pungent odor of horse manure caused Philippa’s nose to wrinkle. Frank noticed but chose not to laugh. He was determined never to make Philippa feel dumb again. Instead, he continued with the story as he took off his coat and hung it on a nail by the stall, “Now where was I?”

“The Shoshone killed all of the Omicronians.” Philippa sat down on a stool that was stationed in a corner near Old Paint’s stall.

Frank picked up an oat bag and fixed it on Old Paint’s muzzle, “Yes…well after the Shoshone took care of that problem, they were the first on Rodeo 5 to encounter the Pa’Kot’ah. They hit it off pretty well.” As Old Paint began to munch oats, Frank began to brush him thoroughly, “It seems that the Pa’Kot’ah were the slaves of the Omicronians. Those big oafs never were able to build anything very intricate. But, they didn’t need to. Somewhere in the distant past, they encountered the Pa’Kot’ah and made slaves of them. It was the Pa’Kot’ah that made all of the technology that built the Omicronian Empire.”

Philippa looked puzzled, “How come we’ve never seen them before? I mean, when the Omicronians invaded Earth or Leela and I flew to their planet, we never saw a single Pa’Kot’ah.”

Frank shrugged, “They learned a lesson from their failed invasion of Rodeo 5. They no longer take them on their ships to do small repairs…or as emergency rations.”

“Yuck,” Philippa put her hand to her mouth, “the Omicronians eat them?”

Frank shook his head in disgust, “It’s awful, but that’s what the Pa’Kot’ah say.”

“That is so disgusting.” Philippa thought for a moment, “Of course, they eat their own parents…so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”

“I agree.” Frank smiled at Philippa, “Anyway, the Pa’Kot’ah live among us now, free to live as they please.” Frank paused briefly, “You know, I never heard of a Pa’Kot’ah committing a violent crime?” He resumed brushing, “They live to themselves mostly, usually in burrows. Nearly every town has a Pa’Kot’ah community nearby. They are watchmakers, tinkers, and gunsmiths mostly.”

“Are there any near Sweetwater?”

“Sure, there’s a fair sized community between the town and the ranch.” Frank’s face brightened, “That’s where I know Fred from.” He started to laugh, “Heck, I know his family – the Softfeet…they are a fine bunch of folks.” Frank wiped his hands on his trousers after he finished brushing Old Paint. “I thought he looked familiar. It sure is a small world.”

The train jolted slightly and began to move. “I guess the Buffalo have finally managed to cross the tracks,” Philippa observed.

“I reckon so, darlin’.” Frank replied as he removed the empty oat bag from Old Paint’s muzzle, “Well, now that we’ve taken care of Old Paint here, what say we get a little something to eat for ourselves?”

Philippa stood, “I’d like that a lot.”

Frank slid on his coat. Then he took her arm, “Well, then let’s go.”


Chapter 20 – The Hanging Tree

While Philippa and Frank were heading north, Leela was sitting in Courtroom 12 of the Fort Worth Courthouse. It was a pretty standard courtroom with bench seating, a raised stand for the judges, the jury box and witness stand. Unlike many of the courtrooms on earth, a long line of windows ran down the right side as you entered.

The three-judge panel was out of the courtroom at the moment. They were deliberating the exact amount of the prize award. A very bored Leela was looking out the window, watching the clouds go by. The past few days she had found that she was unable to concentrate on anything for long. At the heart of her newfound ADD was that she really missed Philippa. When Leela wasn’t busy missing her, she worried about her.

Leela didn’t worry about Philippa’s emotional well being. She had seen enough of Frank to believe that he wouldn’t hurt her. No, she worried about all of the dangers this new planet posed. “How many times have I rescued Fry?” she found herself wondering. Her brow furrowed as she chewed on that thought. The nearest she could tell, she had saved Fry’s life at least two dozen times.

Now her closest friend was out from under her protection. Leela sighed involuntarily, causing her lawyer – a tall sunburned man named Wilson McCrea to lean over and ask, “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.”

“Oh,” Leela started slightly, “I was just daydreaming.”

Wilson smiled, “Already spending the prize money?”

“No,” she shook her head vigorously, “I’m just worried about my friend Philippa.”

Wilson nodded, “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing…just a little Shakespeare to try and make myself seem smarter than I am.” He glanced at his pocket watch, “The judges should be back soon. This is a pretty open and shut case.” Wilson leaned back in his chair, “I almost feel bad about collecting a fee…but I expect I’ll get over it.”

Something in the way he said it made Leela laugh. Her laughter had scarcely died away when the bailiff entered and announced in stentorian tones, “All rise!”

Chairs scraped as Wilson and Leela stood. The three judges entered and took their seats. The presiding judge spoke without any fanfare, “This court has made it’s finding in the case of Turanga and Wright vs. Flores et al.” He put on a set of gold rimmed reading glasses, “We find that the ship in question, registry 37R462A to be a lawful prize under Intergalactic Law and that the proceeds belong to Turanga Leela, a citizen of Earth and to Franklin L. Wright, a citizen of Rodeo 5.” The presiding judge paused briefly, “McKnight Enterprises has provided the winning bid on said vessel in the amount of one hundred and thirty five thousand gold semolians.”

Leela began to do the math in her head, almost missing what the judge said next as he droned on, “After deduction of thirteen thousand five hundred gold semolians for the government, this leaves a residual value of one hundred twenty one thousand five hundred gold semolians. This court hereby orders that following the sale of the condemned property each of the aforementioned parties be paid from the proceeds the amount of sixty thousand seven hundred and fifty gold semolians.”

My Lord,” Leela thought giddily, “Samuel and I are set for life!” Her face flushed as a sheen of perspiration covered her face.

Wilson leaned over and whispered, “You ok, Miss Leela?”

She nodded in reply, afraid to try her voice.

The presiding judge stood up, followed quickly by the other two. The bailiff called out, “All rise!” Wilson helped Leela to her feet.

As the judges began to file out the bailiff announced, “This court stands adjourned.”

Thirty minutes later, Leela left the Farmers and Merchants Bank still in a bit of a fog. Wilson had guided her through the process of signing the forms necessary to obtain the money awarded by the court. They had emerged from the courthouse into the bright afternoon sun and headed down the street to the Bank. Nervous about keeping too much cash on hand, Leela had established an account there when Philippa had established one. Now she had a total of 64,750 gold semolians on deposit. Just thinking about that much money made her feel dizzy.

Wilson’s voice penetrated her consciousness, “Well, Miss Leela where to next?”

She thought for a moment, “I need to send a telegram. Where can I do that?”

Wilson grinned, “I expect you could send it from the telegraph office just down the street.”

Within minutes she had sent the following wire:

To: Philippa J. Fry, Montana Territory, Sweetwater Township

From: Turanga Leela, Fort Worth

Deposited GS 59,750 Farmers and Merchants Bank. Paid GS 1,000 to Lawyer Wilson McCrea. Miss you already. Please stay safe. See you soon.”

While Leela had sat in court, Bender had become bored with sitting on the ship. Besides, he was out of beer…an intolerable situation. So he had cracked the combination to the safe in Leela’s cabin, removed all of the money, and headed out on the town.

Puffing on a cigar as he strode down the main street, Bender grumbled continually, “Stupid lousy stinkin’ flesh wads…all they think about is themselves. They never think about poor Bender.” A wave of self-pity surged through his emotional circuits, “I’ll bet if I ran away they’d be sorry.” Before he could wallow in that thought, Bender recalled when he had run away before. “They weren’t that upset I was gone,” he mumbled to himself.

So engrossed in his own thoughts was he that Bender didn’t notice that he had wandered into the very same saloon area where Leela and he had their little fracas. Belatedly he noticed when someone shouted, “There’s that thieving robot skunk! Let’s get him!”

Bender looked up to see three of the men he had robbed two nights before standing with pistols in their hands. He rotated his head and could see that he was surrounded by at least a dozen tough-looking armed men. Someone growled, “Hands up you varmint!” Bender complied and sighed, “I’m boned.”

The leader was the same, small rat-like looking man they had encountered the night before, “So tin man, you aren’t so cocky without that purple-haired slattern are you?”

“Actually, she’s a Cyclops.”

“Shut the hell up!” Rat-face turned to his companions, “What do you say boys? Shall we give him a necktie party?”

“Uh…I prefer scarves, they’re more stylish.”

One of the men to his right struck Bender viciously in the head with the butt of his shotgun and shouted “Shut up!”

Bender fell to the ground. Before he could unscramble his circuits, the mob dragged him to his feet and bound his arms behind his back. They hung a cardboard placard around his neck that read, “Theef”.

Rat-face shouted, “To the hanging tree, boys!” Amid loud shouts of “Get him!” and “Hang him!” the crowd headed for the edge of town. All the while they beat and abused a vainly resisting Bender.

Not far away, Leela was hurrying toward the Planet Express Ship. The events of the day had pushed Bender from her mind, but she wanted to take him for a drink or two to celebrate. As she emerged onto the street leading to the spaceport, she stopped at a liquor store to get Bender some liquor for the ride home.

Carrying several bottles of Rye, Leela went through the ship. Unable to find Bender, she began to worry. She left the whiskey in the Galley before setting off to find Bender before he got himself in trouble.

Things were not looking good for Bender. The closer they got to the edge of town, the more he had to fight the urge to sing folk songs. When they got within sight of the hanging tree – a huge and ancient oak tree – the electromagnetic fluctuations became too strong. Bender burst forth with an obscure Irish ballad,

Oh ‘twas there I learned readin' and writin',

At Bill Bracket's where I went to school,

And ‘twas there I learned howlin' and fightin'

From my schoolmaster Mr. O'Toole.

Him and me, we had many-a scrimmage,

And the devil a copy I wrote.

There was ne'er a garson in the village

Dared tread on the tail of me

Mush, Mush, Mush tural-i-addy

Singin' Mush, Mush, Mush tural-i-ay.

There was ne'er a garson in the village

Dared tread on the tail of me coat.”

Bender’s outburst astounded the mob, temporarily bringing everything to a standstill. They might even have let him go if it wasn’t for Rat-face who shouted, “What the hell is wrong with you boys? We came here for a hanging, not a sideshow!” He pointed at the hanging tree, “Let’s string this buzzard up!”

Someone in the crowd threw a grain sack over Bender’s head while another threw a rope around his neck. From beneath the sack, the sound of Bender’s singing could still be heard – although considerably muted.

Oh ‘twas there I learned all of my courtin' --

Many lessons I took up in the art --

Till Cupid, the blackguard, in sportin',

An arrow drove straight through me heart.

Molly Connor she lived right forinst me,

And tender lines to her I wrote.

If you dare say one hard word against her,

I'll tread on the tail of your

Mush, Mush, Mush tural-i-addy

Singin' Mush, Mush, Mush tural-i-ay.

If you dare say one hard word against her,

I'll tread on the tail of your coat.”

Rat-face tossed the free end of the rope over a thick, low-lying branch. He called out, “Bill, Bob, Tex, come help me hoist this thief up where he belongs.” The three stepped forward and together they began to hoist Bender up. To their surprise and dismay, the sound of singing still issued forth from beneath the sack,

But a blackguard called Mickey Maloney

Came and stole her affections away.

He had money and I hadn't any,

So I sent him a challenge next day.

That evenin' we met by the woodbine.

The Shannon we crossed in a boat,

And I lathered him with me shillelagh

For he trod on the tail of me

Mush, Mush, Mush tural-i-addy

Singin' Mush, Mush, Mush tural-i-ay.

And I lathered him with me shillelagh

For he trod on the tail of me coat.”

Bill shouted, “Hell, this hangin’ ain’t doin’ a bit o’ good. That thieving skunk could hang there all day.”

Tex hooted with laughter, “He shore is entertainin’ for a dang thief, ain’t he?”

This just seemed to make Rat-face angry. His face turned purple as he reached for his pistol, “Let’s fill him full of lead. That’ll shut him up!” Unholstering his pistol, Rat-face drew a bead on Bender. Before he could fire, another pistol cracked and the gun flew from his hand. The mob turned to see Marshal McIntyre astride his horse with his pistol drawn. Next to him sat his Deputy Cletus and Leela. Both Cletus and Leela leveled wicked looking 10 Gauge double barreled shotguns at the mob.

McIntyre called out, “You boys need to let that robot down. He ain’t your property. If you have a problem, come lodge it at the courthouse. But if you all don’t back off, you’re going to have to deal with me.”

Rat-face was furious, “Are you takin’ an off-worlder’s side?”

“Nope, I’m taking the law’s side. So you all just head on back to town.”

“And what if we don’t?”

In response McIntyre cocked his revolver and pointed it at Rat-face’s head, “Then you’ll be the first to go. After that, it won’t matter much to you…will it?”

Several members of the mob started to mutter. However, when Cletus and Leela drew back the hammers on their shotguns, things became very quiet. For a moment, it was touch-and-go. Then Rat-face seemed to deflate, “Looks like this one’s more trouble than he’s worth.” Within a few moments the crowd dispersed.

Once they were gone, Cletus cut Bender down. He collapsed in a heap as he landed. Leela dismounted and rushed to Bender’s side. She took Cletus’ knife and freed Bender’s arms. Then she took the rope and the sack off. With a tear in her eye, Leela said softly, “Bender, are you okay?”

Bender opened his mouth to speak. But instead of speaking, he finished the song,

There are several good reasons for drinkin',

And another one enters me head:

If a fellow can't drink when he's livin'

How the hell can he drink when he's dead?

Mush, Mush, Mush tural-i-addy

Singin' Mush, Mush, Mush tural-i-ay.

If a fellow can't drink when he's livin',

How the hell can he drink when he's dead?”

McIntyre, Cletus and Leela all burst into laughter. As their laughter died away, Leela helped Bender to his feet. She turned to McIntyre, “Thanks for the help. It’s the electromagnetic effect of this planet that’s making him sing. Let’s get him out of here.”

McIntyre nodded, “I reckon we should. But if I were you I believe I’d keep him aboard your ship.”

“Oh I will Marshal…I will.”


Chapter 21 – The Great Train Robbery

The sun was nearing the horizon when the train pulled into the water stop at Huevos Rancheros. Once a bustling silver mining town, Huevos Rancheros had dwindled to a simple water stop on the way to Tombstone-on-the-Brazos. The train station had burned down years ago, leaving only the windmill-fed water tower and a coal pile.

Philippa and Mrs. Panelli had gone to the lounge car after dinner. They were playing card to pass the time. Frank was up in the horse car, caring for Old Paint. At that time of day, most of the passengers were either in the dining car or the lounge car, giving both a lively atmosphere.

Mrs. Panelli spread her cards out on the table with a triumphant flourish, “Full house.” Philippa shook her head, “Oh snap! I never can win at cards.” Mrs. Panelli chuckled, “Unlucky at cards, lucky in amore…in love.”

Philippa nodded, “I can agree with that.”

Up in the engine, the engineer set the brake before clambering down with his oil can to perform his checks. The fireman climbed up on the tender deck to accomplish the vital task of watering the thirsty engine. At the same time, the two brakemen from the caboose dismounted to check for anything loose.

In a nearby gulch, not far from where the train was halted, the Ike Walton and his gang were mounting their horses. Ike turned to his brother Bill, “You and Joe take care of the engine. Clyde, Popeye and Slim come with me to the express car. Zeke and Charley head for the end of the train and work your way forward.” He drew his pistol, a gleaming .45 caliber revolver. “Remember, Popeye and Slim will cover the far side of the train. This should be easy pickin’s boys but don’t get cocky.” He pulled his bandana across his lower face as he spurred his horse forward. The others followed, drawing their pistols as they went.

In the horse car, Frank was mopping his forehead with his bandana. Mucking out Old Paint’s stall had caused him to break out in a sweat. He picked up the hoof pick and slid his hand down Old Paint’s left foreleg. Squeezing the back of Old Paint’s leg along the tendons just above the pastern, Frank said, ‘Up’. Old Paint responded obediently.

Frank steadied the hoof and began use the pick to pry out any dirt and manure lodged in the frog or sole of the foot. His practiced eye was also checking for any injury and signs of thrush, grease heel, or other problems. After a few deft motions, Frank gently placed the hoof down on the ground. Then he went on to continue until all four hooves were done.

Up on the tender deck, the fireman reached up and pulled a chain hanging down from the end of the water tower spout. It came down easily. Then he opened the manhole to the tender with a loud bang. The fireman positioned the spout over the manhole, pulled another chain to start the flow of water, and stood up to await the inevitable gurgling sound as the tender filled with water.

He was startled to find himself looking down the barrel of a pistol held by Bill, “Just tend to your work and keep quiet, old timer.” The fireman nodded silently, his eyes wide with fear. Down on the ground, Joe was holding the engineer in his sights. Ike had already cracked the door to the express car and was inside with Clyde. Zeke and Charley had already cleared the sleeping car. Everything was going according to plan.

Things began to go wrong for the gang when Zeke and Charley entered the lounge car brandishing their revolvers. Zeke shouted, “This is a stick-up!”

One woman, a tall blonde in a brown dress fainted. Her companion, an even taller man in a dark frock coat managed to catch her before she could hit the floor. One man went for his pistol. Before he could clear leather, Charley’s pistol barked. The man fell backwards, shot through the chest. As he fell, his pistol discharged into the ceiling.

Up in the horse car, Frank heard the twin reports. Immediately recognizing them for what they were, he stopped brushing Old Paint. Frank had dealt with train robbers before. If they were any good, he knew they’d be watching the sides of the train. So he decided to go through the ventilation hatch directly above Old Paint’s stall. Quickly donning his coat, he checked his pistols. Then he began his climb out onto the roof of the car.

Back in the lounge car, Zeke and Charley had lined the passengers in the center of the car. While Charley held his gun on the passengers, Zeke went down the row. He took watches, money or jewelry from each person. When he came to Philippa, she quietly emptied her handbag of cash. Zeke whistled, “You must be one rich gal.” Then he motioned, “Hand over the locket.”

Philippa stiffened, “No. Not my locket.”

“The hell you say,” Zeke sneered. He reached out, “Hand it over!”

Her hands came up to protect it from Zeke’s grasp, “No!” Philippa tripped as she backed away. Her head struck the wall, temporarily stunning her. Zeke chuckled as he leaned over, grabbing the locket. Little did he know that when Philippa fell, her hand had come to rest on a heavy brass spittoon. Enraged by Zeke’s attempt to steal her precious locket, Philippa swung the spittoon with all of her might. It smacked into Zeke’s temple, knocking him out.

Charley stepped forward to help his partner in crime, a sad mistake. It brought him within punching distance of an enraged Mrs. Panelli. He never saw the uppercut that knocked him flat. Before he hit the floor, several men leaped forward and relieved both of the bandits of their pistols.

Mrs. Panelli pulled a stunned Philippa to her feet. “Atssa matta? You hokay Phi?” Wordlessly, Philippa began to weep as she held out her locket in response. Mrs. Panelli could see that the bandit had broken the chain to the locket as he tried to take it by force. Taking careful aim, she delivered a solid crotch kick to Zeke’s prostrate form while growling, “Bastardo!” Several of the men in the car headed forward to retrieve their guns from other cars as shots began to ring out from the front of the train.

Frank had successfully crawled out onto the roof of the horse car. Moving at a stealthy crouch, he made it to the tender. During his approach, he managed to size up the situation. There were eight horses tethered at various points and three bandits patrolling on foot beside the train. He peered over the lip of the tender deck into the engine. Frank could see that Bill was standing with his back to him, keeping his pistol trained on the engineer and the fireman.

Bill never knew what hit him. Frank whacked him behind the right ear with the butt of his pistol. The bandit pitched forward, unconscious. Frank jumped down into the cab. He said in a low voice, “Get his gun. If he looks to be coming to, whack him again.” The engineer took the bandit’s pistol without a word and nodded silently.

“Hey Bill,” a voice sounded from outside, “everything okay?” Joe’s face appeared in the entrance to the cab, “What the hell?”

Frank leveled his revolver in Joe’s face. “Come up nice and easy like,” Frank said in a quiet, authoritative voice he had used on many an outlaw. The smarter ones usually surrendered. Joe wasn’t that smart. He backed up, trying to draw his revolver while shouting, “It’s the law, boys!”

Before he could clear leather, Frank’s .45 caliber revolver roared twice. Both shots struck Joe squarely in the chest killing him instantly. The bullet holes were so close to each other that the mortician said later, “You could cover them with a quarter.”

Frank paused to quickly pull the two spent cases from his cylinder. Then with both pistols fully loaded, he climbed up onto the tender deck. “I’ll need all the edge I can get,” he muttered. Not knowing that two more bandits were down, Frank figured he would have to deal with six badmen.

When Frank looked over the edge of the tender, he saw Popeye trying to sneak up to the cab entrance. Not wanting to shoot him in the back, Frank whistled. Popeye turned around and began to raise his pistols. Two shots from Frank’s .45’s ended Popeye’s career forever.

Frank heard a sound from behind. He turned to see Slim trying to climb onto the tender deck. “Adios,” Frank said as his pistols barked twice. Slim disappeared from sight. As Slim’s lifeless body struck the ground Frank thought, “Four down…four to go.”

Back on the other side of the tender, Frank could see two of the bandits trying to mount their horses. Each man had full saddle bags over their shoulders, making mounting difficult. Frank holstered one pistol. Then he drew a careful bead on the bandit who was furthest away - Clyde. The first shot struck Clyde in the upper abdomen, causing him to lose his grip on the pommel of the saddle. The startled horse took off, dragging the bandit face down across the rocky soil.

The last bandit – Ike – managed to draw his pistol and fire at Frank. He missed. Frank didn’t. The bullet caught Ike in the throat, throwing him to the ground. His horse bolted, leaving Ike bucking and gasping as his lifeblood soaked into the ground. Unwilling to expose himself to possibly being shot while checking the wounded bandit, Frank took careful aim and fired. Ike stopped moving…forever.

Frank began to work his way toward the rear of the train, still on the alert for the remaining two bandits. Then he saw several of his fellow passengers coming down the train on the outside. They were all armed and had their guns at the ready. Frank called down, “Don’t shoot boys!” He holstered his pistol, “It’s me, Frank Wright.”

One of the passengers recognized him, “It’s okay boys, it’s the fella travelin’ with the locket lady.” He paused, “We got two of the skunks in the back all trussed up like turkeys, did you leave any for us?”

Frank sighed with relief, “There’s one up in the engine that still alive. One got dragged off by his horse with a bullet in him. There’s four more that I’m pretty sure are ready for boot hill…so that should be it.”

“Well come on down to the lounge car then, your lady companion is crying and we can’t get her to stop.”

Frank took off for the lounge car, running from car top to car top. When he reached the lounge car he swung down like a monkey, not even bothering with the ladder. He burst through the door, sizing the situation up quickly. One male passenger was stretched out on a couch. He looked badly wounded, but could make it.

A tall blonde woman was also on another couch, a man who Frank remembered as her husband was kneeling beside the couch, holding her hand. Two rough looking men – obviously the bandits – were trussed up face-down on the floor.

Philippa was sitting on another of the couches with Mrs. Panelli at her side. Face red from weeping, Philippa was crying disconsolately. Mrs. Panelli had her arm around Philippa, obviously trying in vain to comfort her.

Frank rushed up and knelt in front of Philippa, “Darlin’ what’s wrong?”

Tears streaming down her face, Philippa held out the locket. “He…he…he b..broke it.” She sobbed, “He broke the locket you gave me.”

“We’ll get it fixed darlin’,” he said gently. “Are you okay?”

She nodded but continued to weep heartbrokenly.

Frank was a bit perplexed. He knew how to mend a lot of things, but he didn’t know how to fix a broken locket. Then it hit him…Fred!

“Just wait here darlin’. I know who can fix your locket just like new.” Frank went from car to car until he found the Pa’Kot’ah Fred Softfoot. Fred readily agreed to fix the locket. Within a very short time Fred retrieved his tool bag.

When they arrived at Philippa’s side, Fred felt very sorry for Philippa. He touched her shoulder, “Don’t worry pretty lady, this is easy to fix.” Fred laid the locket out and with a few deft movements, inserted a new link to replace the broken one.

He held it up for Philippa to see, “Look pretty lady…all fixed!”

Philippa dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief, “Thank you so much Fred.”

Frank reached into his pocket, “What do we owe you?”

“No charge.” He smiled, “It’s the least I could do. The pretty lady swings a mean spittoon.”

“Huh?”

Mrs. Panelli responded, “Phi really give-a that bandit the headache! She clock-a him inna the head with a spittoon!” She gave a deep throated laugh, “Mamma mia! Phi give-a alla her money but she fight-a for dat-a locket.”

Frank was surprised, “Why didn’t you just give it to him darlin’?”

Philippa had stopped crying, “Because you gave it to me.”

As if to punctuate Philippa’s comment, the train jerked slightly as it began to move forward. Frank pulled out his watch. It was nearly 7 o’clock. With four hours to go, they wouldn’t reach Tombstone-on-the-Brazos until well after dark.

“Well, I’m flattered that you would value a keepsake so highly,” Frank said softly. He reached out and took the locket from Fred’s hand. Gently, he hung it around Philippa’s neck, “May it never leave your neck but by your own hand.”

Philippa put her arms around Frank’s neck and gave him a hug, “It never will…it never will.”


Chapter 22 – Tombstone-on-the Brazos

A single moon illuminated the platform as the train ground to a halt in Tombstone-on-the-Brazos. The flickering gas lamps made the shadows seem to move, lending an air of hurry to the otherwise still night. Frank pulled his pocket watch from his vest, glanced at it and announced, “Well, it’s just five past eleven. We ought to be able to find a room without too much trouble if the old Imperial Hotel is still owned by old Bill Rodney.”

Philippa stifled a yawn as she stood, “Does that mean we might have to sleep outside?”

Frank shook his head, “No darlin’, as long as we have the semolians…Bill will find us a couple of rooms.” He scratched his chin, “But we might have to scratch around a bit.”

Mrs. Panelli patted Philippa reassuringly on the back, “Don’t-a you worry. Everything gonna be fine.”

They gathered their belongings and left the compartment. As stepped onto the platform, Frank swept it with his eyes. His face broke into a wide smile, “Well, I’ll be.” He pointed at a curly haired young man sitting on a spring wagon, “Unless my eyes deceive me, that’s my brother Thomas!” He called out, “Tom! Tom Wright!”

Tom jumped down from the wagon at the sound of his name. The brothers strode quickly toward each other. They embraced, slapping each other on the back. Tom spoke first, “By God Frank, but you’re a sight for sore eyes.”

“How in the name of Lucky Ned Pepper did you find us?”

“Well, it was partly just dumb luck.” Tom flashed a smile that reminded Philippa of Frank, “I came to town to pick up some supplies from the depot. While I was here, your wire came. So George just sent me a wire told me to sit tight and wait on you.”

Mrs. Panelli came up and hugged Tom, “Tomas, itsa so good to see you.” She stepped back to admire him, “You so big now! How longa itsa been?”

Tom grinned, “Three years and two months if I recall correctly.”

Frank nodded silently. Philippa edged up to the group. Tom looked at her and removed his hat, “Frank are you going to introduce me to this lovely lady?”

Frank seemed startled, “Uh…Tom, this is my fiancée Miss Philippa J. Fry.”

Tom bowed, “I’m very pleased to meet you Miss.” He flashed a grin, “What’s the ‘J’ stand for?”

Philippa was momentarily stumped. Then she had an inspiration, “Janeway…the ‘J’ stands for Janeway.”

Frank grinned knowingly at Philippa’s response. He paused before asking, “Tom, you wouldn’t happen to have some place for us to rest our weary bodies…do you?”

“Sure do.” He laughed, “Heck, when I told old Bill Rodney you were due he reserved a whole floor for us.”

“That old skinflint?” Frank looked puzzled, “Heck, he never gave anything away in his whole life.”

“Good news travels fast, Frank.” Tom shrugged, “The word is out that your fiancée is loaded.” He looked embarrassed and ducked his head toward Philippa, “No offense Miss.”

Philippa smiled, “No offense taken, Tom.” She touched Tom lightly on the shoulder, “Please call me Philippa.”

“Okay, Miss…I mean Philippa.”

Frank cleared his throat, “Tom, could you please take the ladies to the hotel and get them settled in?” He pointed at a knot of men who were disembarking the train, “I need to make sure that the hombres who tried to rob the train make it to the Sheriff’s office. I also have to get Old Paint off that train and down to the livery.”

“Sure, Frank.” He nodded, “Mrs. Panelli, Miss Philippa just point out your traps and I’ll get ‘em loaded on the wagon.”

It was just shy of one in the morning when Frank arrived at the hotel. To his surprise, Tom was seated in the foyer. When Tom noticed Frank, he stood and smiled brightly, “Did you get everything done?”

“Yup.” He nodded, “The crooks are in the calaboose and Old Paint is in a comfortable stall.” He chuckled, “Now all I need is a beer, a bath, and a bed.”

Tom gestured toward the bar, “We’ve got the run of the bar. It appears old Bill still trusts you.”

They walked toward the bar. Frank put his arm around Tom’s shoulder, “Well little brother, how is Pa doin’?”

Tom reflected for a moment, “He’s doin’ a lot better than he was. Hearing you were on the way was quite a tonic to him. The doctor says he could last another month.”

Frank exhaled in relief, “I’m mighty relieved to hear that, Tom. I thought all of these delays might keep me from seeing him before he crosses over.”

They entered the dimly lit barroom. Frank went behind it the bar. He smiled to himself as he realized that it hadn’t changed a bit for as long as he could remember. He laughed, “Old Bill isn’t one for change, is he?”

“Nope.”

‘I’m glad Pa is holdin’ out.” Frank handed a bottle of beer to Tom, “Today is…Saturday.” He thought for a moment, “No it’s Sunday. I have to give a deposition tomorrow which means we most likely won’t get out of here until Tuesday.” He took a swig of beer from his bottle, “If we make 20 miles a day, we should be home in eight days and a bit.”

Tom drained his bottle, “Frank, do you fancy Neptunian Flamenco?”

Frank thought it an odd question but he replied, “Sure do. Why do you ask?”

“The Cantina Morales here has a Neptunian Flamenco duo – Rosalinda and Gabriel. Sancho Morales’ cousin Pedro owns the place.” He paused briefly before continuing, “I…I thought that since we were going to be here until Tuesday, we could catch a Sunday afternoon show.”

“Are they any good?”

Tom nodded his head vigorously, “I’ve taken in the show every afternoon that I’ve been here.”

Frank grinned, “Sure, I’ll bet Philippa would love it. It’ll be a long time before we’ll have a chance to see a show like that.” He drained his bottle, “Well, it’s time we were getting to bed. I don’t want Mrs. Panelli to accuse us of being lazy layabouts.”

The next afternoon they were all seated in the Cantina Morales. It was a larger version of the one in Nuevo Laredo. The difference was the stage where they staged Neptunian Flamenco every afternoon.

Philippa was wearing a light blue walking dress with an ivory shawl. Mrs. Panelli had put Philippa’s hair up in a bun but had been limited in what she could do by Phi’s hair horns. Mrs. Panelli was wearing her usual brown dress, her blonde hair pulled back and tied with a blue ribbon. Frank and Tom were dressed like twins in black frock coats, white shirt, grey vests and black trousers. Their boots were slightly different, Frank having a more ornate pair.

Philippa leaned over to Frank and said softly, “What exactly is Neptunian Flamenco, anyway?”

“Well, it’s a kind of dance based on the old Spanish Flamenco. There is a lot of foot stomping, clicking of castanets, and waving of fans. Since Neptunians have four arms, they kind of have an advantage.”

Philippa nodded, “Do you like watching it?”

“Sure Darlin’, but it’s not just the watching. Good Neptunian Flamenco is usually done to the tune of a double-necked guitar. Only a Neptunian can play one and it surely had a sound of it’s own.” Frank paused, “From what I hear, this Gabriel is one of the best.”

Tom, who had been listening chimed in, “He really is one of the best. And his sister, Rosalinda is the most amazing dancer!” His cheeks flushed slightly, “She has an absolutely perfect sense of rhythm and timing.”

Frank leaned back slightly in his chair, “Become a Flamenco critic, have you Tom?”

Tom grinned, “Nope…but I do fancy it.”

With an amused smile, Frank continued, “Tonight we should see a pretty good show. Normally, the dancer performs a set of three songs called a ronda.” He picked up a program from the table, “I can see that Rosalinda is going to perform to three traditional songs.” Frank pursed his lips briefly, “Hmmm…Tamacun, Diablo Rojo and Vikingman. Those are three of the hardest but most beautiful if done correctly.” The program went back on the table, “This should be a real treat.”

Dinner passed unremarkably. Philippa found that the more she saw of Tom, the better she liked him. There was a certain…sweetness…to his character. She could see that Tom worshipped Frank. She also detected a bit of nervousness in Tom’s manner. What he had to be nervous about, she couldn’t fathom.

While she mulled that thought over, the lights flickered briefly, and then Pedro Morales stepped onto the stage. Smiling, he announced in lightly accented English, “Ladies and Gentlemen welcome to the Cantina Morales. Tonight, we have two of the finest performers of Neptunian Flamenco here with us tonight. Please join me in welcoming Rosalinda and Gabriel Marquez.”

The first to emerge onto the stage was Gabriel, carrying his Neptunian Guitar. He was a strapping six footer with deep purple skin and long dark hair that was pulled back in a ponytail. Clad in a loose fitting white shirt and dark pants, he moved with a muscular grace that caused more than a few women in the audience to take notice. With a bow to the audience, he took his place on a stool at the edge of the stage.

Then Rosalinda stepped onto the stage. Only sixteen, she had a beautiful figure. Her skin was lighter colored than her brother, but her hair was just as jet black. Pulled up in a tight bun, it was wound with a white ribbon.

Rosalinda wore a dazzling white Flamenco sleeveless dress with a v-shape neckline in front and a lower cut in the back. The flared skirt reached almost to the floor. Her dark Flamenco shoes were barely visible as she moved to center stage. In her upper right hand she had a castanet and her upper left and lower right hands held folded fans. She curtsied to the audience and flashed them a brilliant smile.

Then the music began and Rosalinda began to dance. Everyone in the place was mesmerized by the combination of music and movement. Philippa thought it was one of the most beautiful things she had ever seen. Castanets and heels clicking in perfect accompaniment to the music, Rosalinda also managed to swirl her two fans in flawless unison as well.

As Rosalinda whirled across the stage, Philippa’s eyes followed her. At one point, Tom came into Philippa’s field of vision. His face bore a look that startled Philippa…Tom was in love with Rosalinda! Philippa was certain of it. But did Rosalinda return Tom’s feelings? It only took a glance for Philippa to realize that Rosalinda did return Tom’s feelings. No matter where Rosalinda was on the floor, her eyes seemed to remain fixed on Tom.

Philippa turned to say something to Frank and the words froze on her lips. Frank’s face had a look that she had only seen before he took violent action. Confused, she turned her attention back to the dancing, but found she was unable to enjoy it. When the first dance ended, Rosalinda curtsied and went backstage.

Tom excused himself and left the table before anyone could say anything. Frank frowned as his eyes bore into Tom’s receding back. Philippa found she was unable to remain silent, “Frank, what is wrong?”

Frank started like someone awakened from a deep sleep, “Oh…Nothing darlin’.”

Philippa reached out and touched Frank’s hand lightly, “Frank…please tell me. Did I do something?”

He shook his head vigorously, “No darlin’, it’s just that…well…I think Tom may have feelings for that dancer.”

Philippa laughed, “Is that all?”

Frank looked grim, “Neptunians and humans should never mix.”

“Why?”

Color crept into Frank’s cheeks, “Well…they can’t…um…have any children for one thing.”

“Never?”

“Nope, never.”

Philippa thought for a moment, “Does that mean you wouldn’t marry me if I couldn’t have any children?”

His face took on an expression of horror, “No! I mean…that wouldn’t matter. I love you!”

Philippa said softly, “Then why should it be any different for Tom and Rosalinda? As long as they love each other…what does it matter?”

Mrs. Panelli broke her silence and chimed in, “You listen to her. She’s-a right.”

A smile slowly spread across Frank’s face. He realized that Philippa was right. After all, who was he to criticize his brother? What was it his mother had always said? He could hear her voice, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” He looked Philippa in the eyes, “Darlin’, you’re right. I’ll keep my trap shut and my nose out of his business.”

“Thank you Frank.”

He lifted her hand and kissed it gently, “No…thank you.”


Chapter 23 – Family Quarrels

When Rosalinda finished her final dance, instead of going back stage she came over to the table. She approached with a shy smile on her face, her cheeks blushing slightly. Thomas stood, pulling a chair out. Frank got to his feet as well.

When Rosalinda sat down, both Thomas and Frank remained standing. He cleared his throat, “Rosalinda…I’d like to introduce you to my Brother Frank.”

Frank bowed, “Encantado.”

Rosalinda smiled while fiddling nervously with her hair, “Mucho gusto, señor.”

Frank cracked a smile as he sat down, “Just call me Frank.”

“Okay…Frank.”

Thomas continued with the introductions, “This is Mrs. Panelli, she helped raise me.”

“Itsa pleasure Signorina,” Mrs. Panelli said softly.

“The pleasure is mine.”

Thomas gestured in Philippa’s direction, “This is Miss Philippa Janeway Fry, my brother Frank’s fiancée. She’s from Earth.”

“I think that your dancing is so beautiful!” Philippa smiled warmly, “Thomas is so lucky to know you.”

Rosalinda returned the smile, her eyes sparkling, “Thank you Miss Fry, but I am the lucky one.”

Thomas broke out in an ear-to-ear grin, “I guess you could say that we’re both lucky.” He took a deep breath, “I asked her to marry me tonight…and she said yes.”

Frank’s face briefly took on a grim cast. Philippa caught the look. To forestall an explosion she stood quickly, and hugged first Thomas, then Rosalinda. Mrs. Panelli joined in as well. Frank stood last of all. Philippa felt a brief moment of apprehension until Frank offered Thomas his hand, “Congratulations brother.” Then he turned to Rosalinda, “If you can learn to put up with his snoring, he’s not half bad most of the time.”

After a pleasant end to the evening they parted company. Rosalinda and Gabriel returned home while Frank, Thomas, Philippa and Mrs. Panelli returned to the hotel. Thomas and Frank shared a room on the ground floor while Mrs. Panelli and Philippa had separate rooms on the second floor.

Frank and Thomas had just fallen off to sleep when there was a rapping on the door. Frank was out of his bed in a flash. Thomas’ feet hit the floor a few seconds later. Frank’s voice rang out as he put his hand on one of his pistols, “Who is it?”

Muffled by the door Gabriel’s voice replied, “It is Gabriel and Rosalinda, señor. We need your help.”

Thomas flew to the door and jerked it open. Frank was right on his heels. Both men were shocked to see Gabriel and Rosalinda’s disheveled state. Gabriel’s left eye was swollen and his shirt was stained with blood. His lip was split on the left side as well. Rosalinda’s dress was torn and her left cheek bore the obvious marks of a vicious blow.

Rushing into Thomas’ arms Rosalinda began to sob with relief. Thomas embraced her and began to murmur, “It’s okay. It’s okay.”

Frank looked at Gabriel, “What happened?”

The story tumbled out. When they had reached their rooms, their Stepfather was there – drunk. Somehow he had heard of Thomas’ proposal and Rosalinda’s acceptance. He was not pleased. He had shown his displeasure by slapping Rosalinda hard enough to knock her down. Gabriel had rushed to her defense. In a furious exchange of blows, Gabriel had beaten his stepfather senseless while taking a few hits himself.

Gabriel ended his story by flexing his right hand, “I’m just glad I did no break any bones in my hand.”

Frank nodded, “I’ll get you some ice for it.” He pointed at Thomas, “Tom, you stay here. I’m going to take Gabriel to find some ice, get them rooms for the night, and see the sheriff.” He turned back to Gabriel, “I’m gonna get dressed right quick. Then we’ll head out. I’d like to get some shut-eye tonight.”

Frank grabbed his clothes and gunbelts and stepped behind a screen. He emerged quickly, “Vámonos Gabriel.”

“Si, señor.”

Just before they left the room, Frank turned to Thomas, “Tom, I’ll send the clerk with some ice for Miss Rosalinda’s cheek.” Frank looked at Rosalinda and touched his hat, “Que tenga un buen noche.”

“Gracias.”

As they strode down the hall to the lobby Gabriel asked, “Señor Frank, where did you learn such good Spanish? You have no accent at all.”

“Well, my mother taught it to me.” He laughed, “She was a school marm. Made me learn Lakota too.”

Gabriel nodded in silent response.

They arrived at the desk. The night clerk, a small dark-haired young man with a pale complexion, looked up from book he was reading, “Yes sir, may I help you?”

“Yes.” Frank spoke briskly, “First, I want a room for Miss Rosalinda Marquez and one for her brother, Mr. Gabriel Marquez. Second, I want some ice for his hand. Third, I want some ice taken to my room as soon as you get the first two items done. Any questions?”

“Umm…no sir.” He pointed to a pile of luggage near the door, “Is that their luggage?”

“Yes,” Gabriel replied.

“I’ll get it to their rooms immediately.”

“Good. Oh, take the keys to my room as well. I’ll stand the gaff, so don’t worry about it. We need to get over to the Sheriff’s office.”

“Yes sir.” The night clerk got to his feet, “I’ll go get that ice.” He quickly vanished into the back room.

Nodding approvingly, Frank turned to Gabriel, “I didn’t want to say this in front of your sister but we’re going to go sort your stepfather out.” His face darkened, “Men who hit women stick in my craw.”

Gabriel took one look at Frank’s face and reflected that he wouldn’t ever want to stick in Frank’s craw. Still Gabriel felt compelled to observe, “Señor Frank, I already…uh…took care of him. There is no need for you to trouble yourself.”

“Don’t worry,” Frank’s voice was hard, “I just want him to understand that since Thomas and your sister are engaged that he’ll have to deal with me from here on out.”

Before Gabriel could reply, the night clerk bustled up with a towel full of ice. He handed it wordlessly to Gabriel. In deferential tones he said to Frank, “Mr. Wright, I’ll get the rest taken care of right away.”

Gabriel nodded to the night clerk, “Thank you.”

Frank reached into his pocket, pulled out a five semolian gold piece and plopped it down on the desk, “Good.” He pointed at the door, “Come on Gabriel, let’s go see the Sheriff.”

They went out into the night. It was cold enough that the both men could see their breath. They walked the two blocks to the Sheriff’s office in silence, each man wrapped in his own thoughts. When they arrived at the door Frank knocked before entering. There was no sense in surprising some sleepy deputy and winding up catching a bullet.

When they entered, the deputy was on his feet with his hand on the butt of his revolver. He recognized Frank instantly. The deputy, a grizzled older man grinned…flashing two gold front teeth, “Well hell’s bells! It’s Frank Wright or I’m a hornswoggler!”

Frank laughed, “Roscoe Bookbinder! It’s been a while!”

They stepped forward, shaking each other’s hands firmly. Gabriel could see there was a strong bond between the two. Frank turned and gestured toward Gabriel, “Roscoe, this here is Mr. Gabriel Marquez. He pounded the pure daylights out of his stepfather but only after that skunk slapped his sister Rosalinda so hard he knocked her down.”

Roscoe chuckled, “Heck Frank, I know Gabe and his sister Rosalinda too. I seen ‘em over at the cantina twice’t. Dang fine show too.” His brow furrowed, “What brings you into this, compadre?”

“Well, the reason for the slapping was that my brother Thomas…you remember Thomas…proposed to Miss Rosalinda and she accepted. I guess her stepfather didn’t cotton to the idea much.”

Roscoe shook his head, “Hittin’ a lady is a jail offense. Gabe, do you want to press charges?”

“No sir. He got what was coming to him.”

“I’ll take a statement from you then, just in case he comes wanderin’ in.”

While Roscoe was busy taking the statement, Frank’s mind wandered back to the times when he and Roscoe rode together as lawmen. Roscoe had been his strong right hand, always cheerful and ready for anything. They had jailed more bad men then he could count without Roscoe ever showing the slightest hesitation or fear. During the gunfight with the Nelson Gang, Roscoe had flung himself in the way of a bandit’s bullet with Frank’s name on it. Fortunately, Roscoe only sustained a flesh wound but as someone observed, “It’s the thought that counts.”

“Well,” Roscoe drawled, “that’s about it.” He looked at Frank, “Are you all plannin’ to pay” he looked at the complaint, “Mr. Federico Pena a visit?”

“Yup,” Frank nodded, “He needs to understand that I’ll not tolerate such foolishness.”

“Need me to come along?”

“Hell no, Roscoe.” He grinned, “No sense in making this official.”

Both men laughed. Frank stuck out his hand, “I’ll drop by and chew the fat today after I give my deposition.”

Roscoe clasped Frank’s hand and shook it, “Adios compadre, I’ll see you this afternoon.” Then he laughed, “Let me know how it goes.”

With that, Frank and Gabriel headed out into the night. The wind had picked up slightly, blowing dust down the streets. Frank buttoned his frock coat up, “Gabriel, you lead the way.”

“Si Señor.”

“Just call me Frank. We’re gonna be brothers-in-law soon.”

“Okay Sen…I mean Frank.” He dumped the ice from the towel wrapped around his hand, “I think my hand is much better now.”

“Good.”

It was just over a block when Gabriel turned into an alley. Just a few feet down the alley on the right had side was a staircase. Gabriel pointed, “The first landing is…was…our apartment.”

Frank scrutinized the scene for a moment, “You follow me up.”

“Okay.”

They ascended the steps quietly. The door was ajar, so Frank eased into the dimly lit apartment. He looked around. They were in the kitchen. There were two doors that led into the apartment. Frank turned to Gabriel and said quietly, “So where to next?”

Gabriel pointed wordlessly to the door on the right. Frank walked quietly to the door, opened it and entered the room. Sprawled on the threadbare couch was the stepfather, a short, fat Neptunian man wearing only a pair of dark trousers. He had an ice bag on both of his eyes.

Frank cleared his throat. Pena sat up. Both eyes were swollen nearly shut while his face was a mass of bruises and cuts. When he saw Frank and Gabriel he began to swear in Spanish. He stood up, saw Frank’s right hand resting lightly on the butt of his pistol, and sat down again.

“Señor Pena, I’m Frank Wright. I’m here on behalf of my soon-to-be sister-in-law. I’m not here to bandy words with you.” His eyes narrowed, “Do you know of me?”

Pena nodded, his throat dry with fear, “Si, you are El Relámpago.” He knew exactly who Frank was and what he could do.

“Do you believe I’ll do as I say?”

Pena nodded again.

“Good.” Frank’s voice grew colder and more menacing with each word, “If you ever come around my Rosalinda or any of my family again without my permission you’ll be pushin’ up daisies.” He paused to make sure it sunk in, “Second, if you try and stir up problems through somebody else…I’ll find out. When I do, your next home will be a pine box. Am I getting through to you, you squirrel headed bastard?”

Pena had begun to sweat profusely. As he nodded in reply, droplets fell from his nose and chin.

“Do you have anything you want to say, Gabriel?” Frank asked.

“No Frank.”

“Then let’s go.” He paused, “It smells like a skunk’s den in here.”

Ignoring the sweating, shivering Pena, Frank turned on his heel and left the apartment. They strode quickly through the streets. Snow was beginning to fall. Gabriel finally spoke as they were ascending the steps to the Hotel, “Thank you Frank. I do not think he will bother us again.”

“If he does, it’ll be the last time he does. I can’t abide a man with the bad manners to hit a woman.”

The crossed the lobby. The clerk stood as they entered, “Mr. Wright, your brother has the keys.”

Without breaking stride Frank replied, “Thanks. I’ll be sure to let Mr. Rodney know what a good job you’ve done.”

“Thank you sir.”

Frank knocked lightly on the door, “Tom, are you awake?” Tom’s voice issued from the other side of the door, “Sure enough.”

When they entered Thomas was sitting up in an armchair. Rosalinda was nowhere to be seen. Thomas smiled, “She’s in her room…right next to Mrs. Panelli. I told Mrs. Panelli all about it.” He stood and stretched, “Gabriel has a room across the hall. I got all your traps in your room. You didn’t bring much did you?”

Gabriel shrugged, “We don’t have much.”

Frank yawned, “Well, I hate to do this, but we all need some shut-eye.” He took off his gun belts, hung them on the headboard, kicked off his boots, and sat on the bed. “Good night boys!” He lay back on the bed, put his hat over his face and went to sleep.

Thomas clapped Gabriel on the back, “Here’s your key. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Gabriel took the key, “Good night Tomas, I will see you in the morning.”


Chapter 24 – Crossing the Plains

Monday flew by. Frank spent most of the day at the court house or with his old friend Roscoe. Thomas and Gabriel bought an additional wagon, four horses and two mules. Thomas was impressed by Gabriel’s natural ability as a horse trader. Once they had the wagon, they loaded it partially with additional supplies. The sun had long set when they finished.

Philippa took Rosalinda on a shopping spree. When Rosalinda protested she had but little money, Philippa had replied, “Please let me buy a few things for you…kind of an advanced wedding present.”

When Rosalinda looked dubious, Philippa added, “It’s an old earth custom.”

“Thank you so much.” Rosalinda smiled, “You are so…how do you say it…kind.”

“Don’t mention it.”

It was nearly dark when they got back to the hotel. Much like Philippa’s Fort Worth shopping trip, they led a train of porters into the lobby.

As Tuesday morning dawned, both wagons were loaded and ready to move north. Both were crammed with supplies and luggage. As Frank finished inspecting the wagons he reflected, “I don’t think we could get another thing into them.”

“Frank!” Philippa’s voice sounded from the other side of the wagon, “Look at this!”

Smiling, he went around the rear of the last wagon. Philippa was standing there with a scruffy looking dog in her arms. “Look at this! He looks just like my old dog Seymour!”

Frank groaned inwardly, “Philippa, I don’t know if we have room to take him.”

Philippa’s eyes misted up, “Please? He’s just so cute!” A tear rolled down her cheek, “Can’t he come along?”

Looking at the two wagons with Mrs. Panelli driving the first and Gabriel driving the second as Rosalinda sat next to him, Frank reflected on how a simple trip home was turning into an epic journey. With a sigh of resignation he shrugged his shoulders helplessly, “Sure darlin’ the dog can come along.” He paused, “Hell, everybody else is.”

His reward was a hug and a kiss on the cheek. In his estimation, that was more than enough. He returned Philippa’s hug, “Well, time to go.”

“Can you help me up onto the wagon?” She smiled, “I’m afraid I’ll trip in this dress.”

“With pleasure.”

Philippa sat the dog – still unnamed – next to Mrs. Panelli. Frank lifted her up by the waist until her feet reached the footboard. When she was firmly in her seat, Frank strode over to Old Paint, mounting effortlessly. Thomas rode up, “Well, brother. I guess it’s time we moved out.”

Frank nodded, “I reckon so. Tom, you ride drag.” He rose slightly in his stirrups and turned, “Follow me Mrs. Panelli.”

“Hokay.”

“Gabriel, you keep closed up on Mrs. Panelli.”

“Okay Frank.”

Satisfied that everything was ready, Frank nudged Old Paint down the road. Soon the mini-wagon train clattered across the Brazos River Bridge and entered the wide prairie.

Once they rode a few miles to the north of town Philippa couldn’t stop marveling at the endless sea of grass stretching in all directions. Only when they hit a creek bed were there any trees. The sky was a peculiar shade of blue…she couldn’t put her finger on it exactly…but it seemed to have a bit more green in it than on Earth.

The constant wind also impressed her. “What was it Frank called it?” she thought, “Oh, yes! He called it the song of the prairie.”

It was just past noon when in the distance they spotted a band of mounted Indians coming their way at a trot. Philippa pointed and said excitedly to Mrs. Panelli, “Look Lilliana! They look just like the cowboy movies!” All wore feathered headdresses, were clad in fringed buckskin and were carrying either a bow or a rifle. Their horses were elaborately adorned as well.

Mrs. Panelli pointed to the man in the lead, “Atsa Painted Eagle.” Philippa examined him closely. What she saw was a man in the prime of life with dark hair, dark eyes, and bronzed skin. His face was broad and was adorned with an impressive, broad nose. He sat very straight on the back of his chestnut colored horse. It had a black mane and tail and four white stockings. In his right hand he held a repeating rifle, propping it on his right thigh.

Frank, who had been riding about 100 yards ahead, turned his horse around and trotted back to a position alongside Philippa, “Halt the wagon Mrs. P. You know the deal.”

Mrs. Panelli pulled back on the reins, “Hokay.” Within a few moments, Painted Eagle trotted forward, flanked by two warriors armed with repeating rifles. Philippa regarded them with great interest. Turning to Mrs. Panelli she said softly, “They look just like the cowboy movies!”

Mrs. Panelli smiled, “You justa watch. This is-a always a good.” Tom rode up quietly, reining up next to the wagon.

Painted Eagle raised his right hand, “Hinhana was'te Shappa.”

Frank responded with the same gesture, “Hinhana was'te Wambleeska.”

Painted Eagle dismounted and Frank followed suit. Deftly Painted Eagle pulled his saddle blanket from his horse and spread it on the ground. He gestured to the blanket, “Iyotanka.”

Frank sat down, cross legged and replied, “Pidamaya.”

Painted Eagle reached into a small sack he had slung over his shoulder. He withdrew a small bag filled with a white, grainy substance and offered it to Frank. Frank took a small pinch of the substance and put it in his mouth. Painted Eagle did the same.

Philippa turned to Mrs. Panelli, “What are they doing?”

“Sharing salt…it’s an old custom when friends come together.”

“Ugh!” Philippa made a face as she remembered eating a spoonful of salt in another life, “Just salt?”

Mrs. Panelli laughed, “Itsa their way.”

For the next fifteen minutes, the two men communicated with hand gestures. Philippa first found it interesting, then it became boring. Painted Eagle stopped using sign language and reached into his pouch again. This time he pulled out a pipe bowl and several segments of stem which he carefully pieced together.

Once more he reached into the pouch and pulled out a brownish material and stuffed it into the pipe. He gave the pipe to Frank, who struck a match, lit the pipe and began to puff industriously on it. He then passed it to Painted Eagle, who puffed away contentedly.

Once they finished, Painted Eagle carefully knocked out the ashes and tucked the pipe away. Finally, both men stood together. Painted Eagle carefully placed his blanket on his horse. Then they remounted.

Painted Eagle and his braves trotted off to the north, waving cheerfully as they went.

Frank trotted Old Paint over to the wagon. Philippa couldn’t restrain her curiosity, “Frank, doesn’t Painted Eagle speak English?”

“No darlin’, he speaks it just fine.” He rubbed his temples, “The son-of-a-bitch just likes to make me use sign language.”

Shocked by his swearing, Philippa said, “Frank!”

Tom laughed, “My how pretty you’ve learned to talk brother.”

Frank shot a baleful glance at Thomas. Then Frank’s visage softened, “Sorry darlin’.” He shook his head, “Like most family Painted Eagle can be a royal pain.”

“He seems nice,” Philippa ventured, “but maybe it’s just that I don’t know him.” A sudden shift in the wind brought an odor from Frank’s clothes wafting past Philippa’s nose causing it to crinkle, “What is that smell?”

“Oh” Frank chuckled, “That would be the Nik-Nik.”

“Nik-Nik?”

“We were smoking Nik-Nik.”

“Is that their word for tobacco?”

“No.” Frank laughed, “Nik-Nik is dried buffalo dung.”

“Ew!” Philippa’s jaw dropped, “Buffalo poop?”

“Yep.” Frank shook his head, “They prize it…if it is the right type. If the buffalo have been eating certain bushes, grasses and mushrooms it is slightly hallucinogenic.” He rubbed his temples, “It always gives me a headache.”

“I thought we were going to ride together?”

“Oh we are.” Frank stroked his chin, “He’s camped about ten miles from here. We should reach it in time to settle in before it gets dark.”

Four hours later, they reached Painted Eagle’s camp of around thirty tepees. The smoke from numerous cooking fires rose into the air, casting a bluish haze over the camp. Children and dogs ran back and forth among the tepees, while women and men sat in groups by the fires.

As the wagons approached, the men and women got to their feet. Philippa craned her neck, but couldn’t see Painted Eagle anywhere. Frank pointed at a hillock upwind of the cluster of tepees, “We’ll camp there.” He coughed, “If you don’t like the smell of Nik-Nik darlin’, you’ll hate the smell of their cooking fires.”

Mrs. Panelli guided the wagon to the hillock. As they came to a stop, she surprised Philippa with her un-Cygnoid agility as she hopped down to unhitch the horses. Philippa rose, feeling very stiff and sore. Ten hours on a wagon bench – even a padded one – had left her bone weary and bottom sore. Then as she climbed down, her dress snagged on the footboard. “Damn!” she struggled to free herself without tearing the dress or falling face first onto the ground.

Seeing her predicament, Thomas rode up. “Let me give you a hand,” he said quietly. He held his arm out for Philippa to lean on. With Thomas’ aid she managed to free herself.

Once her feet touched the ground she sighed with relief, “Thanks Tom.”

“Don’t mention it.”

Oh my butt hurts,” she though while unconsciously rubbing her sore backside with both hands.

Mrs. Panelli noticed Philippa’s discomfort, “Don’t-a you worry Phi, I’ma gonna fix you up. I’ve gotta the cure for sore bottoms.”

Philippa blushed, “Umm…okay…thanks.”

It took about thirty minutes to make camp. During that time several warriors had come to watch the proceedings. One in particular impressed Philippa. She was so impressed that she decided to take a picture of him. She climbed into the wagon, rummaged around, and found her camera.

Carefully, she climbed back down. She moved around to what she figured was a good position. Then she raised her camera.

The warrior crossed his arms and looked straight at Philippa. In a low rumbling voice he said, “You can’t take my picture.”

Philippa lowered the camera, “Oh, I’m sorry.” She looked embarrassed, “You’re afraid it will steal your soul.”

He laughed, “Nah…you still got-um lens cap on.”


Chapter 25 – Back Home Again

“Planet Express Ship, you are cleared for takeoff.”

“Roger Fort Worth Control,” Leela crisply replied.

“Follow beacon two niner until clear of atmosphere, then shape course at own discretion.”

“Roger.” Leela applied thrust gently, causing the ship to ascend smoothly. She rode the beacon all the way into space without deviation. The knowledge of what the electromagnetic wave fronts would do if she deviated from her course made her unusually cautious.

Bender rose from his seat behind the engineering console, “Well, Big Boots, I’m glad we are finally out of that hell hole.” He shook his head, “I can’t believe that I didn’t manage to steal a single thing while I was there! I must be slowing down.”

“I’m sure you’ll make up for lost time when we get home,” Leela said cheerfully. Home…Samuel…both thoughts helped dispel the sadness she still felt at parting from Philippa.

Bender merely grunted in reply.

“Come on, Bender. What’s wrong?”

“It just seems wrong to be going home without Fry.”

“I know,” Leela nodded, “I miss her too. But who knows? She may decide to live in New-New York after she marries Frank.” She paused, “Heck, she may not even marry Frank.”

“Yeah!” Bender perked up at the thought, “I wonder what we could do to bust up the romance?”

“Bender!” Leela frowned, “I wasn’t suggesting anything of the kind. You need to respect Philippa’s choices whether you like them or not.”

“Respect her choices?!” Bender snorted derisively, “That’s really interesting coming from the biggest busybody in the Galaxy.”

“Me? A busybody?” Leela quickly set the autopilot and rose from her seat. Her voice mirrored the angry look on her face, “Damn it, Bender! Anything I’ve ever done has been to help Fry!”

“If you hadn’t always pushed Fry away before the change, maybe I’d still have my old buddy instead of …” His voice trailed off. Leela had closed the distance between them as she clenched and unclenched her hands. The sheer menace of an obviously angry Leela caused Bender to back up sputtering, “Well…if you say so.”

“Damn straight I do.” She shook her finger in Bender’s face, “Don’t you forget it either.” Turning on her heel, Leela stormed from the bridge.

The sound of Leela entering her quarters caused Nibbler to sit up on the bed. He uttered a few mewing noises before bounding into Leela’s arms. Her love of Nibbler drove her angry feelings away. She hugged him, “That’s my baby. How are you? Are you hungry?”

Nibbler emitted a series of squeals that caused Leela to smile, “Okay baby, I’ll get you some Kibbles and Snouts. Would you like that?” Without waiting for his response, Leela set Nibbler down. She went to a storage locker, hauled out a can of Kibbles and Snouts and opened it. No matter how many times she saw it, Nibbler’s dance of anticipation made Leela smile. As always, he gobbled down the pink goop in a gargantuan few bites.

Still smiling, Leela chucked the can into the recycler. Then she sat down at the desk to write a few lines in her diary. Nibbler climbed up into her lap, purring contentedly. Leela stroked his fur for a few moments before she began to write.

Dear Diary,

I’m finally on my way back home to Earth. It certainly will be good to see my Samuel again. I can picture him, waiting for me when I get off the ship. Oh…it will be so good to be held.

I can’t wait to tell him about the money! We have over sixty four thousand gold semolians…that’s over one hundred sixty thousand dollars. It’s like a dream. Rather than risk Bender stealing it, I left it in the Fort Worth account. It will be easy enough to transfer into a bank back on Earth.

Speaking of Bender, that jerk just had the nerve to call me a busybody! He actually blamed me for Fry turning into a woman. He said that if I hadn’t always turned Fry away maybe he wouldn’t have changed. That is pure weapons grade balonium.

Anyway, I miss Philippa as much as Bender does…even more. Over the past few months she became my best friend. Even better than that, she has become a sister. I have to confess, I’m glad she chose to remain a woman.

It’s not that I didn’t care about Philip. He was always a good friend, but he wanted more from me than I was able to give him. He also lacked stability…the one thing I so desperately needed. Then Samuel came along and I finally got what I was looking for in a man.

As a woman, Philippa is so different. She isn’t as goofy as he used to be. I can’t explain it, but she is so much more…well…stable. I’m glad that she has Frank. I just know that they are going to marry. Wherever they decide to live, I know that Philippa will be safe and happy. That’s what important.

Well, Dear Diary, I guess it’s time to go back on duty. I’ll see you soon.”

Leela laid down the pen. She stroked Nibbler affectionately; then set him on the floor. She smiled, “Good boy. I’ll see you a little later.” She rose to her feet and headed back to the bridge.

Twenty hours later, the Planet Express Ship settled though the open hangar bay doors at Planet Express. It was already dark outside. Leela could see two figures moving around in the brightly illuminated hangar but at first she couldn’t distinguish faces. Then she made out Hermes and Samuel. The sight of Samuel made her heart leap for joy.

The ship set down gently, right on the landing markers. Leela raced through the shut down sequence, so eager was she to see Samuel again. Within less than five minutes she was hurrying down the landing gear ladder. When she reached the bottom, she was a bit surprised to see Hermes and not Samuel standing there. Samuel was standing near the side entrance about ten meters away.

“So Leela,” Hermes asked, “How was da trip?”

“Fine,” she eyed him suspiciously. Something in his tone made her wary.

“I hear you made a whole lotta money,” he said with a smile.

“Where did you hear that?” Leela’s hackles rose…Bender!

“Just say a little birdie told me.”

“So what’s your point?” Leela frowned menacingly, “Or is there one?”

“All dat cash belongs to Planet Express.” Hermes smiled nervously. “So you need to hand it over.”

Leela’s anger simply exploded. Her fist lashed out, catching the flabby bureaucrat right in the gut. He doubled over with an “Ooof!” before collapsing to the floor. Before she could begin kicking his prostrate form, Samuel’s voice and gentle touch brought her back to sanity. He spoke calmly but authoritatively, “Leela, please calm down.”

Her shoulders sagged as the immediate anger left her. Hermes rose on all fours, shaking his head. Samuel came over and lifted him to his feet. The sight of Hermes on his feet caused Leela’s anger to begin to rise again. Her eye narrowed, “Hermes, I want you to listen to me closely. First, I don’t have the cash with me. Second, I will never, never turn it over to you. It’s mine by Rodeo 5 law.” Her voice became hard, “I don’t give a rat’s ass what you say. If you mention it again, I will beat you within an inch of your life.”

Hermes nodded.

“Come on Samuel, let’s go home.” Leela turned and left the hangar.

Outside in the cool night air, Leela felt her anger boiling away. Samuel linked arms with her, “Leela, you were pretty rough on Hermes back there.”

She stopped, “Damn it, Samuel! He deserved it.” Then she resumed walking while reining in her anger, “I wanted to surprise you with the news. We have over one hundred sixty thousand dollars waiting for us on Rodeo 5.”

Samuel’s jaw dropped, “One hundred sixty thousand?”

“Yup,” Leela couldn’t help smile at his reaction, “That’s what made me so angry.” She shook her head, “That’s enough to set us up for life. I didn’t bring the cash with me because I was worried Bender might steal it. Now I’ll simply transfer it into our account.”

“Maybe so,” Samuel sounded hesitant, “But Hermes has already gotten a court order. If that money comes into an Earth bank, it will probably be seized.”

Leela broke free of Samuel’s arm and headed back toward the Planet Express building. Samuel caught up with her, “Leela…this won’t solve anything.”

“No, but it sure will feel good kicking his flabby ass all the way to Titan.”

Samuel’s face brightened, “Wait…I have a better idea.”

“A better idea?” She slowed down.

“Just hear me out.” He smiled, “What if we never bring the money back to Earth?”

Leela’s eye widened in surprise as she stopped in her tracks, “What?”

Samuel went on, “What if we use that money to buy a small cargo ship? You could set up your own company…run it out of Fort Worth…and I could sell out. Maybe even set up a coffee shop on Rodeo 5.”

Leela laughed, “Samuel, you are a genius!”

“I’m glad you noticed,” he linked arms with her again. “Now let’s go home and talk this over some more. I just wanted you to know that there are alternatives to violence.”

“I love you, Samuel.”

“I love you too, Leela.”


Chapter 26 – Dinner with Family

Mrs. Panelli, Rosalinda and Philippa sat on camp stools around the fire that Thomas was busy fanning into life. The night was chilly, but the wind had died down considerably. Still, Philippa was glad for the heavy coat she had bought on Mrs. Panelli’s advice. The cold didn’t seem to bother Rosalinda or Gabriel. But then, Philippa realized, they were Neptunians after all. She smiled at the memory of her adventure in the comic book store. “Now that was cold,” she reflected.

As Thomas put the finishing touches on their fire, she realized why they had crammed firewood into every nook and cranny of the wagons. They had even slung it from the sides in bundles. “Good thing,” Philippa thought, “Somehow I just don’t feel like sitting around a fire fueled by Buffalo poop.”

Frank strode into the circle of light thrown by the fire, “Well, Tom I’ve got the horses fed and hobbled. Are you about done?”

Thomas nodded vigorously, “Yup.” He squinted as he peered into the darkness, “Looks like Gabe is about done as well.”

Gabriel’s voice issued from the darkness, “Just finishing up.”

Frank squatted down next to Philippa, “Are you ready for a social call?”

Philippa was puzzled, “A social call?”

“Sure,” Frank smiled, “Painted Eagle wants to throw us a feast.”

“Do they eat anything gross?” Philippa looked concerned, “I…I just don’t want to do anything dumb or to embarrass you.”

Frank thought for a moment, trying to gauge what Philippa might find gross. His brow still knit in thought he replied slowly, “No…nothing gross. By late winter they mostly eat buffalo meat and some berries mixed together in a dried meat they call pemmican.”

“Pemmican?” Philippa’s face brightened, “Oh…jerky! I’ve had that before!”

Gabriel came into the light, followed by the still unnamed dog. It had taken to following Gabriel around…probably due to Gabriel’s habit of slipping him treats.

Philippa held her arms out, “Come here boy, come on!”

The dog yipped and bounded into her lap. Of course, Philippa gave him a treat as well. Mrs. Panelli shook her head, “Phi…you ever gonna give-a that dog a name. Or you just gonna call-a him dog?”

Philippa thought for a moment. Then she smiled, “I think we’ll call him Scruffy.”

Frank laughed, “I do believe that fits him like a glove.” He offered his hand to Philippa, “Well, darlin’ let’s go enjoy some time with Painted Eagle.”

Taking his hand, Philippa stood. She looked down the hill at the cluster of tepees, noticing that a large fire was now burning brightly in their center. People were clustered around the fire and the sound of singing wafted up the hill on the night air. Curious she asked, “What are they singing about, Frank?”

Frank listened for a moment, “It’s a song about Chan Gleska…the Tree of Life.” His brow knitted in thought, “The Lakota really revere trees as symbols of what they call the hoop of life. That’s one reason they only burn deadwood.”

“Really?”

Nodding, Frank continued, “They believe that trees are beings in prayer and that they serve as a link between heaven and earth. That’s why they bury their dead in trees.”

“What?”

“They wrap them carefully and place them in trees. I know it sounds strange to us…but our practice of burying in the ground seems equally odd to them.” Frank smiled, “But I don’t want to bore you with a lot of talk,” He began to lead her down the hill. “Let’s just go enjoy ourselves.”

They linked arms. Philippa leaned her head to touch Frank’s shoulder lightly, enjoying the feel of his muscular shoulder. “I love you, darlin’” Frank said in response.

“I love you, too.”

As they cleared the light from the fire, Philippa looked up at the stars and gasped. Unlike the heavily light polluted skies of Earth, the skies of Rodeo 5 were ablaze with starlight. Although they were in another part of the Galaxy, they could still see the Milky Way. Neither of the two moons had risen but the stars provided sufficient illumination to navigate across the prairie.

They walked slowly, picking their way down the hill through the brush and tall stands of grass. Thomas and Rosalinda were a short distance behind, also arm-in-arm. Mrs. Panelli and Gabriel stayed behind to watch the camp and the livestock. The threat of trouble was small, but there were predators around which could make short work of a hobbled horse.

As they got closer to the encampment, Philippa found herself clinging more tightly to Frank’s arm. She wasn’t frightened exactly. It was just that being close to Frank made her feel secure.

They entered the circle of light thrown by the bonfire at the center of the cluster of tepees. Painted Eagle rose and extended his arms in greeting, “Welcome my cousin, please come and join our meal.”

“Many thanks for your hospitality, my cousin. I bring a guest,” Frank indicated Philippa with his free hand, “she who is to be my wife…Miss Philippa J. Fry.”

“She is welcome.” Painted Eagle looked over Frank’s shoulder, “I see that two more are coming.”

Frank turned to glance briefly into the darkness. Then he faced Painted Eagle, “It is Thomas and his wife-to-be, Rosalinda.”

“They are welcome as well,” Painted Eagle pointed to four blankets spread out to his right, “Come and sit. We have much to talk about.” Then without further ceremony Painted Eagle sat down.

Frank sat down cross-legged next to Painted Eagle. Philippa sat next to Frank, tucking her legs under her. Thomas sat next to Philippa, with Rosalinda on his right. Many of the tribe cast curious looks both at Philippa and Rosalinda. Rosalinda appeared not to notice, but Philippa certainly did.

Smiling nervously, Philippa asked Thomas, “Why are they looking at me?”

Thomas smiled, “Well it’s not often they see a white woman, much less one with red hair. Neptunians aren’t exactly common either.” He thought for a moment, “ Heck, many Lakota women never even enter a town in their entire life.”

“Really?”

“Yup.”

“It’s no wonder they are curious.”

Philippa was digesting that thought when Painted Eagle said something to Frank that focused her attention. He said, “Will you take ten horses, five blankets, and two rifles for Miss Fry?” Painted Eagle paused, “I would very much like to add her to my wives.”

Her jaw dropped when Frank replied, “She is worth more than that, my cousin.”

The color drained from Philippa’s face. She broke into a cold sweat as she thought, “Frank is going to sell me to Painted Eagle! I can’t believe it!” In a near panic, she temporarily lost the power of speech.

Fortunately, Thomas noticed the look on her face. He touched her arm as he spoke quietly and reassuringly, “Philippa, don’t get upset. This is just a ceremony.”

“Wh..what?”

“Old Painted Eagle is just paying Frank and you a compliment.” He grinned, “The higher the price, the bigger the compliment.”

Philippa’s could feel some color returning to her cheeks, “Oh. I’m…I’m relieved to hear that.” She resumed listening to the conversation.

Frank shook his head, “A generous offer, but I cannot consider it.”

“Then how about thirty horses, twenty blankets, and four rifles?”

“Again, it is most generous, but I cannot consider it.”

Painted Eagle stretched out his hands, “My final offer is forty horses, twenty five blankets and five rifles.”

With a smile, Frank replied, “My cousin, you could offer me your entire remuda and I would not take it.” He put his arm around Philippa’s shoulder, “She is beyond price. Our souls are one.”

“It is good!” Painted Eagle gestured into the darkness, “Tomorrow, I will allow her…Philippa...to pick a horse from my herd as a wedding present.”

Philippa smiled, “Thank you Painted Eagle.”

“It is nothing.” Painted Eagle nodded, “Enjoy your life and bear many children.”

The thought of bearing children made Philippa blush. While she was trying to think of a response Frank spoke up, “I thank you as well, my cousin.” He paused, “Let us eat together now. Tomorrow you will be our guest.”

Four young girls came from outside the circle and began to serve everyone, beginning with Frank and working to his right. In deference to their non-Lakota guests, they served the food on wooden plates. Once everyone was served Painted Eagle turned to Frank, “Please begin the meal, my cousin.”

“I am honored.”

As soon as Frank bit into a piece of pemmican, everyone else attacked their food with gusto. The meal passed quietly. Once everyone was done, Painted Eagle clapped his hands loudly. All of the women save Philippa and Rosalinda rose.

Frank turned to Philippa, “It’s customary for the ladies to leave when the men smoke Nik-Nik.” He shrugged, “I need to smoke at least one pipe with Painted Eagle, then we can head back to the wagons. Is that okay darlin’?”

Philippa smiled, “Umm…okay.” Her face took on a worried look, “What should I do while I’m waiting?”

“You and Rosalinda can join us in my tepee,” a woman’s voice came from behind them. Philippa turned to see a smiling young Lakota woman dressed in beaded buckskins. “I am Wynona Sa’ the first wife of Painted Eagle and I bid you welcome.”


Chapter 27 – Decisions, decisions!

Samuel and Leela lay entwined together on their bed, the warm afterglow of love still suffusing their bodies and souls. Leela’s head rested lightly on Samuel’s chest. Her rich purple hair was so inviting, Samuel couldn’t help but run his fingers through it.

Leela move slightly in response to his touch. Her eye opened and her lips parted in a smile, “Again?”

Samuel considered for a moment before answering, “Well…the spirit is willing… but the flesh is weak.”

Leela laughed, “We certainly are turning into a dull married couple, aren’t we?”

Laughing at the thought, Samuel responded by gently kissing the top of Leela’s head. He shook his head, “Nothing about you will ever be dull.”

Rising up onto one elbow to bring her eye level with Samuel’s, Leela purred, “You wouldn’t be referring to my penchant for violence, would you?”

Samuel hesitated before answering. This was a question he put in the category of “does this dress make me look fat?” He didn’t want to make her think her violent behavior was a turn-on. It wasn’t. “Face it,” he thought, “It’s a part of the whole Leela.”

He looked her squarely in the eye, “No, I’m referring to the spirited way you tackle life.”

“Liar,” she planted a quick kiss on his lips, “I know my violent nature makes me hard to live with.”

“No it doesn’t.” He winced as the words came out of his mouth, “Damn! She outmaneuvered me.

Laughing, Leela pulled herself into a sitting position. Her hair had fallen across her face and she brushed it back with her fingertips, “You’ll never be a good liar, Samuel.” Still smiling, she continued quietly, “That is just one of the many things I love about you.” She reached out and touched his face gently, “Would you mind talking a little?”

“Of course not,” he replied earnestly. “What’s on your mind?”

“I’ve been thinking what to do about the situation with Planet Express, Hermes and all that money.”

Samuel eased himself up into a sitting position where he could make eye contact with Leela, “Did you come to any conclusions?”

“I won’t give in…that’s certain.” Her jaw set in a classic ‘Leela’ look, “I don’t care what Hermes says; that money is ours.” She shook her head slowly, “I just can’t believe he didn’t try to bargain.”

Samuel couldn’t control a sharp laugh, “He didn’t have much of a chance.” Leela’s frown caused him to continue quickly, “But…he certainly didn’t leave any room for negotiation.”

She shrugged, “I know I won’t have a job at Planet Express after pounding Hermes, so I have to do something.”

He ran his hand through his hair in order to gain a moment to think. After a moment he asked, “Are you sure that all is lost with Planet Express?”

“What do you mean?”

“I just mean that they need you.” He smiled, “After all, County Certified Starship Pilots don’t grow on trees…especially great ones.”

“Flattery will get you somewhere,” Leela smiled. The smile faded as she shook her head, “But I won’t go crawling back there just for a job.”

“But you haven’t lost your job. Hermes hasn’t sent you a pink slip, has he?” Samuel laughed, “Why not show up at work and see how it goes?”

“I don’t know,” deep in thought, Leela began to fiddle with her hair. Samuel sat patiently, awaiting her decision. After a few moments she stopped playing with her hair, “I’ll go but if Hermes presses me about the money, I am so out of there.”

“I think that is a wise decision. Who knows? He may decide to negotiate.”

Leela smiled, “If I give him a chance?”

Oooh…I am so burned,” Samuel thought. “I’m sure you’ll exercise admirable restraint.”

Both burst into laughter at the same moment. When their laughter died away, Leela lay back on the bed. Patting the bed next to her, Leela said softly “It’s late. We both need our rest.”

Samuel faced Leela as his lay his head his pillow. She smiled as her eye closed, “Good night Samuel.”

“Good night, Leela.”

The next morning Leela stood at the entrance to the Planet Express building. She took a deep breath before pushing the door open, her jaw set at a determined angle. She crossed the lobby, entered the lounge and looked around. Hermes was there, sitting on the couch. When he caught sight of Leela, he stood up.

“Morning, Hermes” Leela said quietly.

“Uh, Morning Leela.” His right hand rubbed his stomach unconsciously as he mentally debated bringing up the subject of maybe splitting the money. Prudence won out. Convinced that it was a losing proposition he simply said, “We got a short haul to Centauri station.”

Mentally relaxing a bit, Leela asked, “What’s the cargo?”

“Plastic packing peanuts.”

Leela shook her head. She couldn’t get over how people hardly ever seemed to ship anything practical via Planet Express. “Oh well,” she thought, “it’s a living.” With a chuckle she asked, “Is the cargo here?”

“It’s in da’ hangar bay.”

“Great.” She looked at her Wristamajigy. There was just enough time to get a coffee before the daily staff meeting. While Leela was fixing a cup, Bender and Amy arrived.

Leela shot Bender a look that caused him to exclaim, “What?”

“You know what, Bender” Leela said quietly.

Bender grumbled, “Lousy stinkin’ skin tubes…always blame the robot.”

Leela decided to let it go. Instead she smiled at Amy, “Good morning.”

“Hey Leela!” Amy returned the smile, “Can I come on the delivery today?”

“Sure, I’d be glad for the company.”

Bender mimicked Leela in a mocking nasal tone, “Sure, I’d be glad for the company.”

“Bender, just shut up!” Leela glared, “I’m in no mood to listen to you today.”

Before Bender could reply, Hermes went and stood behind his chair at the conference table, “People, it’s time for da’ daily meetin’.”

Without a word, everyone took their seats. As if on cue, the Professor shuffled into the room. Adjusting his glasses he called out, “Good news everyone! You have a delivery of plastic packing peanuts to Centauri Station!”

Bender looked suspicious, “What’s the catch?”

“Eh…what?” The Professor looked and sounded confused, “The catch? Whatever do you mean?”

“It’s just that every delivery we go on is a near death experience.” He shifted in his seat, “Is there anything you’ve forgotten to tell us?”

“Forgotten? Why no. I’m sure I told you about the Omicronian occupying forces on Centauri Prime…oh my yes.”

Leela stood up, her eye narrowing, “Omicronians on Centauri Prime? Are they occupying the station?”

“Oh my, no.” He shook his head, “Just blockading it.”

Leela exclaimed, “Blockading it?!”

“Oh my, yes.” The Professor waved dismissively, “Off you go.”

“Professor!” She slapped her hand on the table causing everyone to jump, “Why are we hauling plastic packing peanuts into a war zone?”

The Professor blinked owlishly before stuttering, “Wha…what?”

Leela rolled her eye, “I said…”

“I heard you.” The Professor replied peevishly, “You’re doing it for the money.” That said, he rose and shuffled out of the room while mumbling unintelligibly.

Amy was the first to speak, “Uh Leela, about the trip.”

“You’re not going to back out on me,” Leela said firmly. “I’m going to need you to run the engineering console and maybe the turret.”

“Spleesh!” Amy frowned, “I wasn’t trying to back out. I just wanted us to make a plan before rushing off.”

“Sorry, Amy. It’s just that the Professor is so infuriating.”

Grinning, Amy replied, “He can be a real pain.”

Hermes cleared his throat as he stood, “I guess ‘dis ends da’ meetin’.”

Bender and Amy both stood. Without further discussion Bender, Amy and Leela headed for the ship.

When they finally lifted off six hours later, they had a plan. In order to make it work, Amy and Leela had reconfigured two torpedoes to mimic the Nimbus’ electronic signature well enough to spoof Omicronian long range sensors. Also, Amy had reinforced structural integrity as well as boosting the shields by over 50 Yarnell. They had thoroughly tuned the engines, purging each of the dark matter injectors and adjusting the containment field to allow for maximum load. The final touch had been to run a level 3 diagnostic on the computer. They were ready.

Two hours after lift-off they were keeping station near an asteroid just outside Omicronian sensor range. Leela turned to Amy, “Okay Amy, launch the first torpedo.”

Amy nodded and pressed a button on the engineering console. The ship shuddered slightly as the torpedo left the launcher. Amy tracked it as it headed away from Centauri Station. As it passed by a large asteroid, Amy hit a second button.

On the bridge of the L’aar the sensor operator jumped at the sight of a contact emerging from behind an asteroid right at the edge of sensor range. He sang out, “Captain L’arz! I have a sensor contact at maximum range. Bearing 010, minus 20 relative.”

The captain turned in his chair, “Identification?”

The sensor operator hesitated, “It…it looks like the Nimbus.”

“Brannigan?”

“Yes Captain.”

Everyone on the bridge winced as the captain ground his teeth. His hatred of Zapp Brannigan was legendary. He rose from his chair, “Move the fleet in a position to intercept. If that Zarz’nik tries to break the quarantine line, we’ll cut him to pieces.”

The Executive Officer asked, “Sir, should we keep a detachment watching the station?”

“Two cruisers should be sufficient. Deploy everything else in a Tholian Matrix formation. Also, send two of our fastest fighters to shadow the Nimbus with orders to keep out of visual range.”

“Yes Captain.”

While the Omicronian fleet was redeploying the Planet Express Ship was dodging from asteroid to asteroid, getting close to Centauri Station.

Leela watched the movement of the ships carefully. She realized that the two Omicronian ships on guard had a large gap in their coverage. Smiling, she turned to Amy, “Looks like we got the opportunity we wanted. Let’s take advantage of it.”

Within a few minutes, the Planet Express Ship settled down on Centauri Station landing pad 33. Bender lowered the cargo elevator to the deck with the crates of cargo piled in the middle. Leela had impressed on him the need to unload quickly. Fresh in his memory circuits were her last words, “Bender, if you screw this up you could end up as an Omicronian ash tray.”

The crates tumbled onto the landing pad deck in rapid succession. Four burly men in environmental suits hustled out of the station. Bender approached the leader with his pad, “Sign here.”

Without a word, the leader took the pad. He checked the manifest quickly, signed, and turned to help his comrades move the cargo inside.

Bender wasted no time in raising the cargo elevator. As soon as it locked into place, he got onto the intercom, “We’re ready to go, Big Boots.”

“Come up to the bridge, I may need you.”

“Okay Big Boots, don’t get your panties in a wad.”

“Move it, damn you.”

Convinced by the tone of her voice, Bender replied “On the way,” before scurrying for the bridge.

As Bender made his way to the bridge, Leela lifted the ship off and took station alongside the station. Then she prepared her next move, “Amy, you know what to do.”

Amy set the torpedo to run at high speed to the edge of the asteroid field and then turn on its sensor spoofing electronics. Once the electronics were on, the torpedo would run through the field for five minutes. Then it would detonate against an asteroid.

Five minutes,” Leela thought. “That’s plenty of time to get beyond the reach of any Omicronian ship.”

“Ready Amy?”

“Ready.”

“Fire.”

Once again, Amy pushed the button. The ship shuddered slightly as the torpedo headed on its way. Without a word, Leela maneuvered the ship toward the asteroid field.

On board the L’aar the sensor operator shouted, “Sir! The Nimbus is behind us!”

“What?”

“Sir, she just appeared in the asteroid field. She seems to be trying to get to the Station.”

Captain L’arz shouted, “After that Zarz’nik at full speed! We will not let this Earthican make a mockery of the mighty Omicronian Empire.”

Within a few seconds, the entire fleet was in pursuit of the torpedo. Before it exploded, Leela had already reached the asteroid field. Leela conned the ship so close to some asteroids that Amy felt like she could reach out and touch them.

Bender came onto the bridge and sat behind the communications console. He quietly reached into his chest cavity, pulled out the staple gun and stapled himself to the seat.

With an abruptness that took Amy’s breath away, they were in open space. Leela turned to her with a grin, “Now let’s show them what this old girl can do.” The ship shuddered as they jumped to high warp. In less than thirty seconds, they were well beyond Omicronian sensor range.


Chapter 28 – A night in a tepee

After all the women rose to leave the fireside, Rosalinda turned to Philippa, “I am very tired and I need to help Mrs. Panelli get ready for tomorrow when we will entertain Painted Eagle. Do you mind if I go back to the camp?”

Startled by being asked permission, Philippa stuttered as she replied, “N…No.”

Thomas rose to his feet, “Frank, I’ll just walk Rosalinda back to the wagons. Then I’ll be back directly.”

Frank eyes twinkled, “That’s just fine, Tom. Don’t tarry too long or I’ll worry that the coyotes got you.”

“I reckon I won’t take too long,” Tom flashed a smile.

Taking Rosalinda’s arm, Tom stepped out of the circle of light in the direction of the wagons. Within seconds they were swallowed up by the darkness.

With a smile cast in Frank’s direction, Philippa followed Wynona Sa’ and the three other women towards Wynona’s tepee at the far end of the village. They passed through the cluster of tepees slowly, as one or the other of Painted Eagle’s wives frequently paused to say a word to the women sitting outside the entrances to their tepees. Philippa was struck by how many children were playing throughout the village. The sound of their laughter and high pitched chatter somehow made her feel at home.

One by one, the women entered the tepee until only Philippa was left standing outside. She took a deep breath like a swimmer ready to enter an icy pool, then she plunged through the tepee flap.

The interior of the tepee was dimly illuminated by a low fire in it’s center. Philippa poked her head gingerly inside, expecting to encounter the powerful smell of buffalo dung. She found the smell was not as bad as she had imagined. “It must be the bunches of dried flowers hanging on the sides of the lodge,” she thought.

All four of Painted Eagle’s wives were seated on blankets around the fire. They had left an obvious space on the blanket next to Wynona Sa’. Behind the spot was a pillow, richly embroidered in a floral pattern. Along the sides of the tepee at roughly eye level ran a rope line over which hung a variety of buckskins and other clothing. The interior of the tepee had a liner which was decorated with scenes of a buffalo hunt. All in all, Philippa found it very cozy.

Taking her seat next to Wynona Sa’, Philippa said, “This is very nice.”

Wynona Sa’ smiled, “Thank you Philippa. Let me introduce my fellow wives.” She gestured to her left, “This is Wynona Ehawee.”

Philippa looked at Wynona Ehawee closely before responding. She was the shortest of the women and slightly on the chubby side. However Philippa remembered that during dinner Wynona Ehawee had smiled and laughed a great deal. “That’s right!” Philippa exclaimed, “Ehawee means ‘she laughs’ in your language…doesn’t it?”

Surprised, Wynona Ehawee replied, “Yes it does. Where did you learn that?”

Her brow knitted in thought for a second, then she replied, “Oh…Frank told me that his Grandmother’s name was Ehawee.”

Wynona Sa’ nodded, “Let me continue with the introductions. She pointed to the woman sitting next to the left, “That is Wynona Wichapi…her name means ‘Star’.” Tall and willowy, Wynona Wichapi most noticeable feature was an animated face topped by a pair of remarkably mobile eyebrows which seemed to wig-wag as she spoke. Philippa nodded pleasantly, “Pleased to meet you.” She hesitated for a moment and asked, “Are all of you named ‘Wynona’?”

Wynona Sa’ shook her head, “No. Wynona means ‘Eldest Daughter’ in our language. Only three of us are eldest daughters…so we are all Wynona.” She leaned in Philippa’s direction, “How many sisters have you?”

It took a moment for Philippa’s brain to wrap around the question and formulate an answer, “Uh…I…I don’t have any sisters…just a brother.”

“Then you are Wynona too! No wonder Painted Eagle likes you…he loves Wynona’s” the woman to Philippa’s right exclaimed before bursting into merry laughter.

“Philippa let me introduce you to the mischief maker of our group.” Wynona Sa’ grinned, “Her name is Wihakayda Wachiwi, it means ‘Youngest Daughter Dancing Girl’.” Wihakayda had a broad face, large dark eyes, a snub nose and a winning smile. Philippa liked her instantly.

“I’m very pleased to meet you.”

Wihakayda grinned, “And I you.”

Wynona Sa’ touched Philippa’s shoulder, “I think we should all drop the Wynona from our names when we are having a chat. Is that okay with you, Philippa?”

“Um…sure.”

“We attach importance to the meaning of names. What does your name mean in your language?”

Philippa thought for a second, then remembered. He…well she…had looked it up during high school. “It means ‘Friend of Horses’.”

“A powerful name!” Her eyebrows wig-wagged energetically as Wichapi exclaimed, “Do you like horses?”

Like horses?” Philippa thought, “Heck, I’ve only ridden a horse a few times. They kind of scare me.” Blushing, Philippa replied, “Sure…I guess.”

Sa’ spoke up, wishing to spare her guest any further embarrassment, “Would you like to know how we got our second names?”

“Sure.”

“We each went on the spirit road to seek out our future. We also sought our totem…our guiding spirit…while on the spirit road.” Sa’ thought for a second, “I sense that you have already traveled the spirit road…yet you are still seeking. Is that true?”

Nodding in agreement, Philippa remembered her encounter in the Professor’s lab with the silvery being from her…subconscious? “Well…I guess I did…sort of.”

“Did you get your name at that time?”

Philippa shook her head.

Sa’ went on, “The men will sit smoking Nik-Nik from the sacred pipe for the rest of the night. If you wish, you could walk the spirit road again.”

Clearing her throat, Philippa answered, “I think I would like to. But how do I do it?”

“Are you with child?” Wichapi asked.

Surprised by the question, Philippa replied stiffly, “No…I am a…well…no, I am not.”

“Good.” Sa’ replied, “The drink we use to help us walk the spirit road would harm a child within you.”

“You get drunk to walk the spirit road?”

“No,” Sa’ shook her head, “the drink is made from herbs, berries and mushrooms. After you drink it, you fall into a sleep and travel the spirit road. There you should meet your totem…or your spirit guide…somewhere on your journey. They will tell you about your destiny.” She smiled, “As you sleep, we will remain awake to watch over you.”

Philippa was silent for a moment, wondering if she would meet the being of light again. In truth, she desperately wanted to see the way into the future. This seemed to be her chance, “Okay, let’s do it.”

“I’ll fix the potion,” Sa’ said as she stood. She fished a beaded bag from within a bundle of blankets. Wichapi stood and dipped water from an olla suspended near the entrance to the tepee into a clay bowl. Sa’ took the bowl from Wichapi and mixed a small amount of powder from the beaded bag into it.

Murmuring an incantation in Lakota, Sa’ mixed the potion. Then she lifted it above her head to the four winds. Then she handed it to Philippa, “Drink it all my sister. May you travel the spirit road in peace.”

Within a few moments after drinking the potion, Philippa felt very drowsy. She murmured, “I feel sleepy…I’m just…” Then darkness enveloped her. She slumped over without completing her sentence. Wihakayda caught her, tenderly lowering her head onto the pillow.

Philippa awoke to the sound of many hoof beats. She sat up, rubbed her eyes and looked out on a vast prairie that was carpeted with buffalo. Standing up, she could see that she was at the foot of a high hill. “I’d like to see more of the herd,” she said out loud, “Maybe my…my spirit thingy is in the herd.”

So Philippa decided to climb it in order to look over the whole country. Halfway up, she saw something coming toward her from far off, but the figure seemed to float instead of walk. The herd of buffalo parted for the figure as it approached.

At first Philippa could make out only a small moving speck and had to squint to see that it was a human form. But as it came nearer, she realized that it was a beautiful young woman, more beautiful than any they had ever seen, with two round, red dots of face paint on her cheeks. The woman wore a beautifully tanned white buckskin outfit that shone in the sun. The dress was embroidered with intricate designs of radiantly colored quills. In her hands she carried a large bundle and a fan of sage leaves.

She wore her blue-black hair loose except for a strand at the left side, which was tied up with buffalo fur. Her eyes shone dark and sparkling, with great power in them. As the woman approached within speaking distance, Philippa knew that the woman was her guide.

“Greetings, Fry. I am called PtensaWi – the White Buffalo Woman. I am your spirit guide.”

“Oh snap!” Philippa blurted out, “I’ve never seen anyone so beautiful!”

PtensaWi smiled, “What do you seek?”

Philippa thought for a second, “Do you know me?”

“Yes, Philippa…who was Philip…who is Fry.”

“Are you the same being I met in the Professor’s lab?”

“No.” PtensaWi shook her head.

“Should I marry Frank?”

“What does your heart say?”

Philippa bit her lip, “Um…it says yes.”

“What else would you know?”

“Can you tell me about the future?” She added hastily, “I mean Frank and my future together.”

“You will see much danger but I see an unbroken path.” She placed her hand on Philippa’s shoulder, “You will be gathered to your ancestors full of years having borne many children.”

“Many children?” Philippa was startled, “How many…wait…I really don’t want to know that.”

“Then know your name. It is Ptaysanwee, for you are true of heart and pure of spirit.”

“It sounds like your name. What does it mean?”

“It is a form of my name.”

Philippa suddenly began to feel groggy. She sank to her knees, “I have so much I still want to ask you.”

PtensaWi laughed merrily, “You will see me again, Philippa. Farewell Ptaysanwee.”

The darkness came again.

It was light outside when Philippa sat up. All four of Painted Eagle’s wives were staring at her intently. Her initial reaction was to ask, “What? Did I say something crazy while I was asleep?”

Sa’ replied, “No, you were very still.” She coughed, “Will you share your travels with us?”

Philippa related the entire story…just as it happened. Well, almost as it happened. She left out the part about Philip. The other women listened intently without interrupting her. When Philippa finished the story, Sa’ said excitedly, “We must send for Cetanwakuwa (Charging Hawk), the medicine man. This is the biggest medicine that has ever happened in our tribe. Ehawee, go get him at once.” With astonishing speed, Ehawee vanished out the tepee door.

“What’s going on?” Philippa asked.

“I do not know how to explain.” Sa’ thought for a moment, “PtensaWi is wakan…holy…to our people. She brought sacred buffalo calf pipe to the Lakota. Before she came, people didn't know how to live. They knew nothing. The White Buffalo Woman put her sacred mind into our minds. "

Before she could continue, an elderly but distinguished looking man entered the tepee. He was clad in a buckskin loincloth with a necklace of bear claws around his neck. He stared at Philippa with his large, dark eyes until she felt uncomfortable. He seemed to go into a trance for a few seconds before speaking, “You have been touched by the spirits, Ptaysanwee.” He paused, “Tomorrow we will have a sun dance in your honor.”

Philippa felt somewhat embarrassed by the attention, “Thank you.”

Charging Hawk bowed his head reverently and backed out of the tepee.

“What’s next?” Philippa asked softly.

The answer came from outside the tepee, “We need to pick your horse so we can go home.” It was Frank’s voice, “I’ve got a splitting headache.”


Chapter 29 - A horse of a different color

Philippa emerged from the tepee, blinking in the light of the late winter sun. Frank was nearby, looking more unkempt than she had ever seen him. He had a definite ‘five-o’clock shadow’, his eyes were red and his hair was sticking up. Concerned, Philippa couldn’t resist asking, “Frank, are you okay?”

“About as well as I’ll ever feel after a night of smoking that danged Nik-Nik.” He grimaced, “All I ever get from that stuff is a headache.”

Feeling sorry for him, Philippa touched his cheek lightly with her fingertips. Standing on tiptoes, she gently kissed his forehead. Impulsively, she hugged him while placing her head on his shoulder.

Frank broke into a grin, “Careful, darlin’. If you keep treating my headaches with kisses, I’ll surely get a whole lot more headaches.”

She raised her head to whisper in his ear, “After we’re married, I’ll do better than that.” Frank’s jaw dropped open in a look of pure astonishment.

Surprised by her own boldness, Philippa blushed crimson. She released the hug and stepped back. “Umm…I…I…” she stammered.

Before Philippa could say anything else, Painted Eagle strode up accompanied by the medicine man Cetanwakuwa (Charging Hawk). He gestured in the direction of a herd of horses grazing near a creek bed, “We need to pick you horse now, Ptaysanwee.”

Frank looked confused, “White Buffalo Woman…is that what you just called Philippa?”

Painted Eagle nodded, “Yes cousin. While we smoked the pipe, she travelled the spirit road and met the PtensaWi. It was PtensaWi who gave Philippa her name.”

Frank gave a low whistle, “Darlin’ that is some big medicine. You couldn’t have had a better experience.

Frank’s words made her feel…special. She entwined her arm with his, “Will you help me pick out a horse?”

“Sure darlin’” Frank intertwined his arm with Philippa’s. Accompanied by Painted Eagle, Charging Hawk and a few braves they walked down the gentle slope toward the horse herd, which was being minded by a half-dozen young boys.

The boys noticed the group approaching. The tallest of the boys came running up, a big grin on his face. He was well built, alert looking and had the same broad nose as Painted Eagle. He stopped short and raised his right hand, palm outward, before addressing Painted Eagle in rapid-fire Lakota. Painted Eagle listened attentively before responding with a simple, “Pidamaya” and patting the boy on the back.

The boy ran back to the herd shouting directions to the other boys. Painted Eagle turned to Philippa, “My son Mankato (Blue Earth) is getting everything ready. You point to the horse you want to see and they will bring it to you.”

“Thank you, Painted Eagle.” Philippa scanned the herd. One horse instantly caught her eye. It was a mustang mare with a perfect sky blue-grey coat and with lots of wild horse stripes on her legs down to her knees. She had a dark blue stripe down her back and horizontal stripes on her whithers with a lovely white and black striped mane. Philippa thought, “She looks kind of like a zebra.”

Philippa ran her eyes quickly over the herd once more before pointing at the mustang mare, “Painted Eagle, I think I’d like to look at that one.”

Painted Eagle gestured to Blue Earth as he rapped out orders in Lakota. In a few moments Blue Earth slipped a hackamore onto the mustang mare and led her to Philippa. Smiling, Blue Earth said in perfect English, “This is a very gentle mare, White Buffalo Woman.”

Philippa looked at Frank, “What do I do now?”

“Take it easy,” Frank said evenly. “Just move up slowly. Stand face-to-face with her. Look her in the eye but don’t stare. Don’t make any sudden moves. When you get close, breathe in her nostrils gently.”

“What?”

“It’s kind of an introduction. Do it real gentle like.” Frank rubbed his chin, “Speak to her. Let her get used to your voice.”

Feeling her palms begin to sweat, Philippa said hesitantly, “Okay.” Slowly, she walked up to the mare, reaching out to gently touch her muzzle as she looked into the mare’s eyes. “Here goes,” she thought as she gently breathed into the mare’s nostrils.

Much to Philippa’s surprise, the mare stepped forward slightly, gently nuzzling her face. “You sure are friendly,” Philippa said quietly. She stroked the mare’s muzzle, “I think we’re going to be friends.” Turning slightly to look over her shoulder, Philippa called out quietly to Painted Eagle, “I’ll take this one, if that’s okay.”

Painted Eagle smiled, “She’s all yours.”

Blue Earth handed her the hackamore, “She will follow you, no problem. You have the touch.”

“Thank you, Painted Eagle!” Philippa called out.

He nodded in reply.

Taking the lead in her hand Philippa gently led the horse towards the hilltop where the wagons were parked. Frank fell in beside her, “So have you thought of a name?”

Philippa thought for a moment, “I think I’ll call her Misty.”

Frank nodded, “That’s a nice name.”

“Thanks, I think it fits.”

Later that afternoon, Frank finished his horse care 101 class for Philippa, “…and that’s all you need to know to take care of your horse.”

“That was a lot to learn,” Philippa said quietly as she rubbed her temples, a pained expression on her face. Absorbing all that information had given her a headache.

Frank looked concerned, “You all right, darlin’?”

She nodded, “I’m okay. It’s just a little headache.”

“Do you need to lie down or anything?” He stepped closer.

Philippa thought for a moment before she replied, “No…I’ll just sit here and watch the sunset.” She smiled as she patted the ground next to her, “Want to watch with me?”

Frank sat down next to her, “Painted Eagle and his wives will be here for a feast not long after sunset. Are you up to having company?”

Philippa nodded, “I should be helping Mrs. Panelli.”

Mrs. Panelli caught the comment and said, “Atsa no problem…you needa to rest a bit.” She grinned, “Besides, Rosalinda she’s a helpin’ me.”

“Thanks, Lilliana.” Philippa said hesitantly, “but I couldn’t let Rosalinda do my work.”

Rosalinda chimed in, “You look a little pale. Why don’t you rest? I don’t mind.”

“Thanks Rosalinda.” Philippa replied with sincerity. Sitting down had helped her headache to begin to subside. Closing her eyes briefly, Philippa let her mind wander for a few moments. She wondered how Leela, Bender and all of her friends from Planet Express were doing. Most especially, she wondered about Leela.

She thought, “I sure do miss Leela.” She smiled, “Isn’t it my luck? Just when we begin to have a good relationship, a whole Galaxy comes between us.” Mentally, she shrugged her shoulders, “Well, at least she promised to come and visit. I know she keeps her promises.” Satisfied with that thought, Philippa opened her eyes.

What met her eyes were two Lakota women accompanied by a young boy who she recognized as Painted Eagle’s son, Blue Earth. The group was making their way slowly up the hill. Her curiosity awakened Philippa watched them in silence as they approached.

As they came closer, she could see that both women were carrying babies on their backs. One woman was clearly taller than the other and had fairer skin. Both had the dark hair and eyes common to the Lakota.

They halted about 20 feet away. Blue Earth called out, “Good afternoon White Buffalo Woman, my father sends his greetings. May I introduce two women from the tribe to you?”

Philippa thought it was odd to ask permission to introduce someone. But she replied, “Sure. I’d love to meet them.”

Blue Earth turned to the women and spoke in Lakota. The group came forward. Blue Earth cleared his throat, “I’d like to introduce Mapiya, whose name means Sky and Zitkala whose name means Bird in English.” He looked serious, “They do not speak English well, so I am to translate for them. They are the wives of the medicine man – Charging Hawk.”

“Okay.”

Sky – the taller of the two women – spoke first. Frank was impressed with how quickly Blue Earth translated, “Sky says that she is very honored to be in your presence. She asks that you hold her baby and suggest a name for him.”

Frank leaned over to speak softly in Philippa’s ear, “They believe that names have great power. This is a real honor.” He grinned, “I told you that you were big medicine.”

Philippa nodded, “Please tell Sky that I will be glad to help her name her son.”

“Sky says thank you, White Buffalo Woman.”

Stretching out her arms, Philippa took the baby. It was sound asleep. She held him close. She could only remember one famous Indian…Crazy Horse…and she wasn’t even sure he was a Lakota. “Well, here goes” she thought.

“I think you should name him Crazy Horse.” Philippa said with a smile.

Sky’s face lit up when Blue Earth translated Philippa’s words. Sky kept saying “Pidamaya” over and over.

Blue Earth smiled, “Sky says ‘thank you’.”

“Tell her I was glad to do it.”

Bird stepped forward. Speaking rapidly, she handed the child to Philippa. Blue Earth translated, “Bird says that she would like for you to name her daughter. She says that you are a blessing to the tribe. She says she hopes that you have a wonderful life and many children.”

Philippa took the baby in her arms. As she held her close, the little girl giggled. Her giggle triggered a memory. Smiling, Philippa said, “I think you should name her Ehawee.”

Bird thanked her, took her baby and withdrew to a respectful distance. Blue Earth bowed slightly, “Thank you White Buffalo Woman. You show us much honor.”

“You’re welcome.” She rose to her feet. Frank stood with her and spoke in rapid fire Lakota. Blue Earth replied, “I will tell my Father.” Then he spoke to the women, who followed him down the hill toward the encampment.

“What did you tell him?” Philippa asked.

“I told him that we were eager to see him this evening but that we wouldn’t be smoking Nik-Nik tonight. I have some good Earthican tobacco instead.”

Philippa sighed with relief, “I’m sure glad to hear that,” she screwed up her face, “…that Nik-Nik stinks.”

Frank laughed, “You should try smoking it.”

“Oh snap!” Philippa started to laugh as well, “I’ll pass...I’ll pass.”

The feast that evening went very well indeed. After the food had been served, Rosalinda and Gabriel performed a Flamenco Ronda. As the dancing was in progress, Philippa happened to look at Thomas. The slack jawed look of love on his face made her giggle. She nudged Frank, “Look at Thomas.”

Frank chuckled when he looked over. He whispered, “Thomas looks positively addled.” Then his brow knit in thought, “I wonder if I’ve ever looked that way when looking at you?”

Philippa whispered, “I don’t know.” She grinned impishly, “Maybe it runs in the family?”

Eyebrows raised Frank feigned shock, “Why I do declare…”

The applause at the end of the ronda drowned out the rest of the Frank’s sentence. For no other reason than love, Philippa leaned over and gave him a quick hug.

He returned it and whispered, “Lord, I do love you.”

“I love you too.”

When they released their embrace, both became aware that everyone’s attention was focused on them. Philippa blushed slightly while Frank grinned broadly. He raised his cup and said, “A toast to love.”

A chorus of “To love…” sounded before everyone emptied their cups.

The rest of the evening passed without incident. Frank presented Painted Eagle with a satchel of Earthican tobacco as a parting gift.

After his Lakota cousins departed, Frank turned to Thomas. “Thomas, we’ll be moving out smartly tomorrow. I know Pa’s holding out pretty well but I don’t want to take any chances on him getting worse. It would be hell to travel all this way and not see him before he crosses over.”

Thomas nodded, “Before we hit the hay, I’ll have everything ready to go.”

Frank patted his brother on the shoulder, “We’ll all pitch in. You know what Pa always says.”

“There’s no time to rest when there’s work to be done.” Thomas started laughing.

“You forgot the rest,” Frank added, “Eat on the run, forget about sleep and change horses often.”

“Well, we’ll never get this all done standing around jaw jacking.” Thomas said with a smile.

Without any further ado, they set to work preparing to move out in the morning.


Chapter 30 – Leela’s Choice

Maxine’s was crowded for a Saturday. Nearly every seat was filled with paying customers. As a result, Samuel had to hustle to keep everyone’s orders straight and their coffee cups refreshed. At the same time, he kept one eye on the clock.

“I hope Leela gets back from her delivery on time,” he said softly. “Leela is an indispensable part of Maxine’s.” Samuel mused, “She has a way with customers…and her own clientele that show up when she’s here. Morbo the News Monster, Mayor Poopenmayer, and the Magician often show up to get their coffee from her hands.

Almost as if on cue, Leela stepped through the door. She flashed a smile at Samuel, “Sorry I’m late.” She took her serving apron off it’s hook, “I’ll just be a second.”

“No worries, I’m glad to see you!” He went behind the counter to wait on a customer. After getting the man a tall black coffee, Samuel looked around for Leela. She was rounding the counter, fully prepared for work. She came up and gave Samuel a quick kiss, “Why don’t you take five?” She eyed him closely, “You look tired.”

Weighing his answer, Samuel decided to take a quick break. He smiled, “You sure can read me like a book. I’ll just pull a stool up near the register. If you don’t mind waiting on the customers for a bit, my feet could use a rest.”

She smiled, “That’s fine with me.” Then she set off through the shop, talking to each customer briefly to find out what they needed. Samuel smiled as he watched her. She never wrote anything down but she rarely ever got an order wrong. “Actually,” he mused, “I don’t remember her ever getting an order wrong.”

By later that evening, the crowd had thinned out considerably. Morbo entered about a half hour prior to closing time, taking his usual chair at the back of the coffee house. Leela went over to greet him, “Good evening, Morbo. What’ll it be…the usual?”

Morbo nodded. Then he began to massage his massive forehead, “Will you put some cinnamon in it, please? It helps with my headache.”

Leela sounded and looked sympathetic, “Tough day?”

“Oh…you have no idea,” He shook his gargantuan head. “Keeping up the façade for the public while dealing with that giggling idiot Linda is almost more than I can bear.”

In the time Leela had come to know Morbo as a customer, she realized that his TV personality was far different from his real one. Once out from in front of a camera, he was soft spoken and easygoing. She smiled, “So how are Dawn and the kids?”

Morbo smiled a ferocious smile, “Fine. Dawn said to thank you for taking Morgo for his first spaceship ride.” He laughed, “Now all the boy wants to be is a starship captain.”

“It was my pleasure.” Leela gave him a light pat on the shoulder, “I’ll get your coffee…extra cinnamon.” She hurried off.

Morbo was the last patron to leave. He gave a ferociously toothsome grin as he waved goodbye, his headache a thing of the past.

Once Morbo was out, Samuel went over and locked the door. When he turned, he saw that Leela was already wiping down the tables and stacking the chairs. Wordlessly, Samuel began cleaning down the counter. In just under five minutes, they were done.

“Samuel,” Leela said hesitantly, “Can we talk a little before we leave?”

Her tone made him curious, “Sure. What’s up?”

“I’ve been thinking about starting a delivery business on Rodeo 5.” She looked Samuel in the eyes, “I’m not much at snap decisions.” She paused, “Oh, I’ll react to a threat…but I’m not good at being impulsive.”

Samuel nodded in silent agreement.

“Anyway, I’ve been doing some research. With the money we have on deposit on Rodeo 5, I could buy a pretty nice ship.” She tapped her Wristamajigy and peered at it, “It looks like we could get something for a down payment of around twenty five thousand.”

“That little?”

She nodded before continuing, “Also, the rates for line haul of beef to Earth and Omicron Persei 8 are very high.” She grinned, “I guess lots of pilots are afraid of the electromagnetic wave fronts.”

“Shouldn’t they be?”

“You have to be careful,” Leela shrugged her shoulders, “but a good pilot can handle it.”

Samuel put his hand on top of hers gently, “You would know.”

“You’re sweet.” She paused, “I believe in about a year or so, we should be able to get all the licenses, buy the ship, and move to Fort Worth.” Her voice suddenly thickened with emotion, “I hate leaving Planet Express…especially Amy and Bender…but why should I take all the risks while that old skinflint Farnsworth makes all of the money?”

“I thought he was always on the verge of bankruptcy?”

“I thought so too.” Her face became grim, “But I got an old acquaintance of mine to look the books over. Farnsworth has been skimming money for his experiments. The past year alone he’s pocketed close to a million.”

“A million?”

“Yes.” Her face set in a determined look, “If I can’t do at least as well, then I miss my guess. Besides,” she smiled, “I’ll have you as my business manager.”

Samuel rubbed his chin, “I don’t know…we haven’t had salary negotiations yet.”

Leela stepped forward and embraced Samuel while kissing him passionately. When they parted she grinned, “How about the fringe benefits?”

“Sign me up!” was Samuel’s enthusiastic reply.


Chapter 31 – The End of the Beginning

Over the next few days, Philippa and Misty formed a strong bond between them. Following Frank’s advice, Philippa began the first day of the rest of their life by walking alongside Misty, talking to her, blowing into her nostrils occasionally and giving her treats.

Philippa enjoyed walking across the Prairie. The constant late winter breeze kept her cool, while the appearance of the first wildflowers gave the newly green prairie an inviting appearance. Flights of what looked – and sounded – like geese were winging their way north as the winter receded. Only a few high clouds scudded across the green – blue sky. It was the perfect day for a walk.

Rosalinda joined her as the sun began to descend and cast long shadows across the prairie. Philippa smiled as Rosalinda came within speaking range, “Hey Rosalinda, how are you?”

“Pretty good,” she said, “Do you mind if I walk with you for a while?”

“Snap, I’d be glad for the company.”

“How do you enjoy walking your horse?” Rosalinda sounded curious, “Are you going to ride her soon?”

“Frank says I can ride her in a day or two if she takes to the saddle well.”

“Do you think Frank will let me ride one of the horses when you start riding your horse?”

Philippa appeared surprised, “Umm…I’m sure Frank will let you ride. And my horse’s name is Misty.”

“She certainly is a horse of a different color…or colors.” Rosalinda laughed, “Somehow she suits you well.”

“You have no idea,” Philippa laughingly returned while thinking, “If she only knew.”

They walked along silently for a few moments before Rosalinda broke the silence, “Tomas and I have set a to date marry.”

Philippa halted, “Congratulations! When is it?”

“We’ve picked the first day of May.”

“That’s just a little more than a month away!”

Rosalinda nodded, “Yes. I told Tomas we should wait until we know what is going to happen with his Papa, but he said, ‘No, I cannot bear to be without you as my wife’.” She looked down and fiddled nervously with her dress, brushing away imaginary dirt. Then she looked into Philippa’s eyes, “I just don’t want Tomas’ family to think I talked him into it. I really don’t want Frank to think I am…how do you say it…pushy.”

Linking her left arm with Rosalinda’s upper right arm, Philippa began walking again. “Don’t worry, Rosalinda. I’ll be sure to let Frank know it wasn’t your doing.”

“Thank you so much.” Rosalinda replied earnestly, “I had hoped you would.”

“No problem.”

At that moment Thomas rode up. He dismounted before speaking, “Ladies, we’re going to stop at that little hill just yonder.” He pointed at a low hill just a short distance away. “I look forward to passing the evening in your company.” With a tip of his hat, he mounted and galloped away.

“Isn’t he wonderful?” Rosalinda asked with a dreamy look on her face.

Philippa smiled, “It runs in the family.”

They both laughed. Then they walked swiftly toward the hill in the gathering dusk.

The night passed peacefully, with only the occasional song of a night bird or the muffled sound of the horses moving about. When the sun rose, Philippa emerged from the wagon which she shared with Mrs. Panelli. No longer wearing a dress, Philippa had shed it for a more practical cowgirl outfit. It consisted of jeans, a white shirt and a blue jeans cloth jacket. On her feet were a pair of brogans…which Mrs Panelli had assured her were well suited for walking. The crowning touch was a broad brimmed white felt hat.

When he looked up from tending the cook fire Frank whistled in admiration, “My goodness, but aren’t you the purtyest cowgirl on the Prairie!”

Philippa blushed, “Thanks. Can you show me how to saddle Misty?”

“Sure darlin’.” He called out, “Tom, get your lazy carcass out of your bedroll and mind this fire. I’m going to help Philippa saddle her horse.”

Still somewhat sleepy, Thomas sat up. He yawned mightily, stretched, stood up and shed his blankets. Carefully, he shook out his boots. Then he pulled them on and ambled over to the fire, “You can go ahead Frank, I’m awake.”

They went over to the picket line where Misty was tethered and hobbled, as were the horses to both sides of her. Curious, Philippa asked, “Frank, why did you tie Misty’s feet together?”

Frank smiled, “I did it by way of introduction. Horses are herd animals darlin’. They’re social critters. So they like to get to know each other before makin’ friends. That’s why you need to let our horses get used to her.”

“But why tie her feet?...I mean tie her hooves.”

“I was getting to that, darlin’. It keeps horses from running off. It also stops ‘em from fighting.” He began removing the hobbles. “I put her between the two top mares in our remuda. I wanted them all to get used to each other without being able to fight.”

“Horses fight?” She didn’t like the sound of that.

“They aren’t partial to it. But they’ll fight to establish who’s boss. Most times when they’re threatened, their first response is to run.” He paused to heft the saddle onto Misty’s back who started slightly at the sudden pressure. Philippa helped by distracting her with a lump of sugar. Frank continued, “Sometimes they stand their ground to defend themselves or their young when there’s no place to go or when a foal is threatened.”

“Okay.”

Frank cinched the saddle in place. Then he handed Philippa the hackamore reins, “She’s all yours darlin’.”

“Thanks, Frank.” She impulsively planted a quick kiss on his cheek.

“Any time, darlin’…any time.” He reached out to gently touch Philippa’s cheek, “By the Almighty but I surely do love you.” Then, mustering all of his willpower, Frank turned to walk back to the wagons. He looked over his shoulder, “I’ll see you at breakfast.”

After breakfast Philippa helped pack the wagons. Then she untied Misty from the wagon. Keeping what Frank had said about letting the horses get to know each other in mind, Philippa led Misty among the other horses all morning. She wanted them keep them from fighting. Frank rode up and pointed North, “See that stand of trees yonder?”

Philippa nodded.

“That’s the town of Greencastle. We’re about four or five days from home once we cross the Nueces river that runs just south of the town.”

“Will we have to swim across the river like in the cowboy movies?”

Frank shook his head, “Nope. Two years ago they built a bridge across the river. Since we aren’t driving cattle, we can cross the river and keep our feet dry.”

In less than an hour they had passed through Greencastle without even stopping. Philippa thought it was a pretty little town, with whitewashed buildings, board sidewalks, and trees along the main street. She counted at least six saloons before she got bored and stopped counting.

They moved north for another four hours before they stopped for a quick lunch. As they resumed their trek, Rosalinda joined Philippa. They chatted about a wide variety of things, most of which centered on life on Rodeo 5. Philippa learned that Rodeo 5 could be a dangerous place and that not all Indian tribes were peaceful. Rosalinda told how she had been abducted by Comanches when she was five. For four years she lived with the tribe before being rescued by Montana Rangers. Philippa listened to the story with interest.

Rosalinda finished with, “I was very lucky. If I had been much older, I would have become someone’s wife.”

“Oh snap!”

It was late afternoon when Thomas trotted up. He tipped his hat, “Ladies, Frank is sending me ahead to find a good campsite.” He pointed skyward, “Looks like a storm is rolling in. We don’t need to be making camp in the rain.” He spurred his horse and galloped off, his receding form watched adoringly by Rosalinda.

Ay dios mío!” Rosalinda exclaimed as he vanished from her sight. “I love him so much…it gives me the goose bumps.”

“I couldn’t tell,” Philippa said with a smile.

The storm struck just as they had set up camp. Philippa had never seen it rain so hard. The thunder, howling wind and lighting made a display that Philippa found both scary and thrilling at the same time. Tired from the day’s walk, she fell asleep as soon as the storm began to die down.

After the usual morning chores and breakfast, Philippa walked Misty for half of the day. Then, with Frank standing anxiously by, she mounted. Both Frank and Philippa were relieved when Misty behaved as though she had been ridden all her life. As Philippa rode her for the rest of the day, she took care to follow Frank’s advice and dismount to walk every hour or so. While walking alongside Philippa spoke to Misty, gave her treats, and breathed into her nostrils.

When they stopped for the night, Philippa dismounted and took lessons from Frank in caring for her horse. Frank was impressed by Philippa’s rapport with Misty. Even Painted Eagle, who had ridden by earlier in the day for a chat commented on it. As Philippa’s head hit the pillow that night she thought, “Traveling sure can make you tired.”

The next day was mostly a repeat of the day before. Following Frank’s advice not to tire her, Philippa only rode Misty in the afternoon. However, during the midmorning Philippa heard a sound like thunder. She looked skyward but saw only a few high clouds drifting across the green blue sky. “What is that noise, Misty?”

Misty whinnied in response, her ears flicking nervously. Philippa scanned the horizon looking for the source of the noise. Then, off to the south she saw them. A herd of what looked like huge kangaroos was bounding along perpendicular to their line of travel. They were muscular, tawny colored and the largest stood over 20 feet tall. They moved in unison with the largest individual in the lead.

“What are they called?” Philippa wondered out loud, “I know this…I know this…” Then she remembered, “Kingaroos! That’s what they call them…I think.”

While she was marveling at the sight, Frank rode up. He dismounted and walked to Philippa’s side, “It surely is a sight, isn’t it darlin’?”

Without taking her eyes off the herd Philippa replied, “They are so cool! I never liked watching nature shows…but this…this is different.”

They stood in silence as the herd crossed to the rear of the wagons and then slowly receded into the distance.

Frank broke the silence, “We don’t hunt them, you know.”

“Huh?”

“I just wanted you to know that we don’t hunt them.” Frank paused for a moment, “Nobody hunts them. They’re Wakan to the Lakota so you’d earn some enemies if you killed one.”

“That’s good. I just couldn’t see killing something so beautiful.”

Frank pulled his pocket watch out, “We’ll be stopping in a few hours. Mind if I ride with you?”

Philippa laughed, “I’d be glad of the company.”

They rode together for the rest of the day across the rolling plains. Frank spent much of the time telling Philippa about his life as a cowboy and a lawman. He continued to talk even through making camp, having supper and bedding down. It was as though a dam had burst.

Philippa listened intently, not knowing why Frank had chosen to unburden but glad that he had done so.

As Philippa lay in the wagon that night, she looked up at the star studded sky illuminated by the light of the twin moons…one rising, one setting. Lulled by the soft night breeze and the sounds of the camp, she fell asleep.

The next day was the first day of spring by the calendar. The weather agreed as the morning dawned bright and clear. The breeze from the south blew softly, carrying the warm scents of the prairie.

After only a few hours of travel, they reached the Picketwire, a swift flowing blue river with a gravel bottom. Tall cottonwood trees lined the steeply sloping banks, except at the spot where they forded. There the banks had been worn down by the passage of countless wagons, cattle, horses and bison.

Frank rode with Philippa as they forded. The cold clear water reached up to their stirrups, rushing by as it headed toward the Colorado and then the sea. Philippa could even see fish swimming by as they crossed without difficulty. Once across Frank dismounted and checked both Old Paint and Misty’s saddle girths. He said excitedly to Philippa, “By nightfall we should be in Sweetwater. We can push on and be home shortly after dark.” A few checks of the wagons and they moved on.

Soon the river was lost from sight. It was nearly dusk, with the shadows lengthening across the prairie when Philippa saw the whitewashed Sweetwater Church steeple in the distance. Frank, Thomas and Rosalinda rode up. Thomas pointed at the steeple, “Yonder’s the church! We’re almost home!”


Chapter 32 - The final stretch

The shadows were lengthening across the nearly deserted streets of Sweetwater as the wagon train rolled into town. First they passed the livery and the corral arrayed on opposite sides of the road. Philippa was riding next to Frank, who was eagerly pointing out the various buildings.

“That’s the café, and that’s the general store….over yonder’s the jailhouse and there’s the saloon and that’s the farrier.” He paused for a moment, “There’s the telegraph office. We ought to stop and see if we’ve heard from Leela yet, darlin’.”

“Okay.” The mention of Leela’s name startled Philippa. She realized that she hadn’t thought of Leela at all in the past few days. It was a realization that filled her with a strange sadness. Philippa pulled the brim of her hat low over her face as she fought back tears, “How could I forget my best friend?”

The few people on the streets paid them scant attention. As the last rays of sunlight vanished, Frank and the rest of the crew looked like some cow outfit moving through town.

Frank turned in his saddle and called out, “Thomas. You take the wagons on. We’ll catch up.”

“Okay Frank. See you down the trail.”

As the wagons clattered on past Frank and Philippa reined up in front of the telegraph office, a whitewashed one story board building with a door squarely in the center flanked by square windows illuminated by gaslights from within. A tall, wiry cowboy emerged who Frank recognized, “Willie Gray! What’s new?”

The man peered into the gathering darkness, his eyes still adjusting. He shaded his eyes, “Frank Wright? Is that you?”

Frank dismounted, strode up the steps and stuck out his hand, “It’s me Willie. Long time, no see.”

“You home to see your Pa, Frank?”

“Yep. Is he still alive?”

“He was just a few hours ago when I was talkin’ to your brother George.”

Philippa dismounted and began to brush some of the trail dust off her clothes. She was still struggling with her emotions, so she didn’t come into the light.

Willie smiled, “George told me you were getting’ hitched.”

Frank nodded, “Yup. Prettiest gal in the galaxy.”

Willie’s face cracked with a sly grin, “You had a poke with her yet?”

“What?” came Frank’s incredulous response.

“You ain’t deaf are you?” Willie laughed, “I wanted to know if you’ve wiggled your bean yet.”

Infuriated by Willie’s remarks, Frank’s temper exploded. The uppercut he threw caught Willie squarely on the chin.

Philippa was puzzled by the exchange and horrified by Frank’s explosive response. Willie hit the board sidewalk like a ton of bricks. After a moment, he sat up rubbing his chin, “By God Frank, you’re ill tempered.”

Frank stood over him, alternately clenching and unclenching his fists. His voice came out like steam escaping from a ruptured boiler, “You squirrel headed peckerwood,” Frank pointed at Philippa, “that lady right there is my fiancée…Miss Philippa J. Fry”

Still seated, Willie removed his hat. He spoke directly to Philippa, “Miss, I am terribly sorry. It was dark and I didn’t realize you were a lady.” Willie rose to his feet, hat still in hand. He stuck his right hand out, “Frank, I’m truly sorry. Please accept my apology.”

Frank took the offered hand, “Sorry Willie. I hope you didn’t lose any teeth.”

Willie felt his front teeth gingerly. Once he was satisfied all was well he shook his head, “Nope. They’re all there.”

“Well, I owe you a drink when I’m next in town.”

“I’ll take you up on it.” Willie pulled out his pocket watch, “Well Frank, I’ll be late for dinner if I don’t scoot.” Willie nodded to Philippa before heading down the sidewalk, “It was a pleasure to meet you Ma’am.”

Philippa came up onto the board sidewalk, “Frank, why did you hit him? He seems like a nice guy.”

Even in the dim light cast by the telegraph office gaslights, Philippa could see Frank turn beet red. He mumbled an answer which Philippa didn’t catch, “Huh?”

Frank cleared his throat, “He wanted to know if you and I had…you know…relations.”

“Relations?” Philippa thought for a moment. Then it hit her, “Oh! Do you mean Snu-Snu?”

“Yes.” He looked around quickly in embarrassment, “But let’s not talk about it in public.”

For a brief second Philippa felt like teasing Frank, but she let it go. Instead she simply replied, “Okay, let’s go see if there is a telegram from Leela.”

Philippa followed Frank into the telegraph office. It was a small room with a counter across the middle. Behind the counter were two small desks and a large set of pigeonhole shelves. One of the desks had a telegraph and was fairly clean. The other was cluttered with piles of paper.

A short, dark haired man was standing on the other side of the counter as they entered. He had long tapered fingers that he used to punctuate his speech. He smiled as he recognized Frank, “Howdy Mr. Wright. You back home for good?”

Frank shrugged his shoulders, “I couldn’t say, Mose. But I’m here with my fiancée,” he pointed at Philippa, “Miss Philippa J. Fry to see if there’s a telegram for her.”

Moses’ hands fluttered nervously, “Pleased to meet you Ma’am. I’m Moses Warren. People call me Mose.” He turned to pigeonholes, “I believe we have a telegram for you.” He searched for a moment, “Yes…here it is.” He extracted a piece of paper and handed it to Philippa with a flourish.

“Thank you.” Philippa said quietly. She passed her eyes over the paper to read,

To: Philippa J. Fry, Montana Territory, Sweetwater Township

From: Turanga Leela, Fort Worth

Deposited GS 59,750 Farmers and Merchants Bank. Paid GS 1,000 to Lawyer Wilson McCrea. Miss you already. Please stay safe. See you soon.”

As she read the words, an overwhelming sense of loss hit her like a tidal wave. She read the telegram twice before bursting into tears. Frank was temporarily rendered speechless by the surprising burst of emotion.

Moses was confused, “Ma’am, did I hand you the wrong telegram?”

Shaking her head, Philippa turned to Frank. She threw her arms around him, resting her head on his chest. She continued to sob quietly. Frank responded by embracing her gently and murmuring, “Hey…it’s okay darlin’.”

After a few moments, Philippa got control of her emotions. She stopped sobbing and said, “Frank, I’m sorry. It’s just that I miss Leela.” She held the telegram up, “And she misses me, too.” She pulled away to look into Frank’s face, “I hope we can see each other soon.”

Frank smiled, “Don’t worry darlin’. We’ll go back to Earth as soon as we see how my Pa is doing.”

“I’m sorry Frank.” Philippa laid her head back on his shoulder, “You have enough on your mind without me making things worse.”

Frank gently took Philippa’s chin in his hand, lifting her eyes to meet his. In the gentlest of tones he said, “You are never a bother.” He smiled, “You’re my Prairie Rose.” He was about to ask for a kiss when Moses cleared his throat, “Umm…if you all want, I’ll step out for a moment.”

Startled, Frank replied, “No Mose, that won’t be necessary. We’ve kept you long enough.”

“No problem, I don’t get much business this time of night.”

Both Frank and Philippa laughed nervously before Frank said, “Thanks Mose, We’ll see you in the next few days.”

“Good night.”

Frank opened the door, ushered Philippa through it and they mounted their horses.

“We need to catch up with the others. Are you ready darlin’?”

“Sure, let’s go.”

They rode off down the dark street at a trot. Frank said, “In less than an hour, we’ll be at the Ranch.”


Chapter 33 – Home

It took only a few minutes at the trot for Frank and Philippa to catch up with the wagons. The single moon still up shed enough light to see the way easily. Gabriel was driving the trail wagon down the dark dusty road, with Rosalinda sitting beside him. Scruffy was sprawled in her lap, very content at being rubbed and scratched by no less than three hands.

As they drew abreast of the trail wagon, Gabriel called out, “Frank, your brother Tomas has gone ahead to let the family know we are coming. He said he didn’t want to surprise anyone too much.”

Frank nodded, “That’s wise, I reckon.”

“He said we are only an hour or so away from your hacienda…I mean your ranch.”

“Yup. We’re an hour or a bit less.”

The conversation caused Philippa to remember a promise she had made to Rosalinda. Leaning over, she whispered to Frank, “Can we ride on a little? I need to ask you something.”

Frank nodded, “I’m going to scout at the creek ahead to make sure the ford is clear. Darlin’ do you want to go with me?”

“Sure.”

They rode forward, greeting Mrs. Panelli in the lead wagon as they passed. Once out of earshot, Frank turned in his saddle, “What do you need to know darlin’?”

“Umm…” Philippa hesitated, “Do you…do you think Rosalinda pressured Tom into proposing to her?”

“What?” Frank nearly fell from his saddle, “Blame her? Lord no! I didn’t give it any mind whatsoever.” He removed his hat, scratching his head in utter bewilderment, “What in tarnation gave you that idea?”

“Rosalinda was worried that you or the family might think she was pushy. I promised to talk to you about it.” Philippa couldn’t suppress a giggle. “You are so cute when you’re confused.”

“Well you can tell her to stop worrying. I’m sure she’ll be a big hit with everyone.” He paused, “But she won’t be as big a hit as you’re gonna be.”

Philippa blushed, “Oh, I don’t know.”

“Well I do, darlin’. You can take that to the bank.” Frank pointed ahead, “And just yonder is the bank of the creek.”

They found the ford in fine shape. Even in the darkness, the break in the trees lining the creek was clearly visible. In a few moments the wagons caught up with them and crossed without incident. The rest of the ride to the ranch was uneventful. They crested a hill about a quarter of a mile from the ranch house and caught sight of its lighted windows, staring like gleaming eyes across the prairie. Frank said in a voice tense with conflicting emotions, “There it is darlin’. I sure hope Pa is still alive.”

“He will be Frank.”

Afraid to trust his voice Frank only grunted in reply.

As they approached the ranch house, a knot of a half-dozen men stood at the foot of the front porch steps, while three men stood on the porch itself. Philippa could tell that Tom was one of them. She guessed the others were two of Frank’s other brothers.

The one to Tom’s left must be George,” she thought. “He looks a lot like Frank, except he looks a little bit taller and his nose is bigger.” She examined the much younger man standing to Tom’s right and found herself thinking, “He’s too young to be Abraham. Oh! What is his name? It starts with a ‘T’.” Then she remembered.

“Theodore!” Philippa exclaimed.

“Yup,” Frank nodded. “That’s Theodore. And that’s my older brother George.”

As they reined up in front of the house, Thomas bounded down from the porch and made a bee line for Gabriel and Rosalinda’s wagon.

As soon as the wagons rolled to a stop, the knot of men went to work unhitching the horses. One of the men – who turned out to be a lanky, red haired, freckle faced teenager, approached Philippa. He removed his hat before he spoke, “Miss, I’ll take your horse and bed her down for the night so you can go into the house directly.”

“Thank you.” She dismounted and handed him the reins. Before he led Misty off, Philippa fed her a sugar cube while patting her gently. “I’ll be over to say good night girl.” Philippa looked at the boy, “Take good care of her.”

“Yes, Miss. I surely will.”

When she turned she nearly collided with Frank. “Oh, I’m sorry Frank. I just wanted to make sure that Misty was okay.”

“No problem.” He took her arm, “Come on darlin’. I want you to meet the rest of my family.”

They headed for the steps. In the half light cast by the moon and from the windows Philippa saw Mrs. Panelli embracing three big Cygnoid men who she guessed were Mrs. Panelli’s sons. Philippa smiled with pleasure at the sight for she had grown very fond of Lilliana.

Three steps up and Philippa found herself standing in front of Frank’s two brothers. They both removed their hats. George spoke first, “Welcome to the Wright Ranch, Miss Fry. I’m George…the oldest and best looking brother.”

Philippa laughed, “Thank you, George.”

“Well, I see Tom weren’t lyin’.” George continued, “You surely are gonna be an adornment to our family.” He extended his hand to Frank, “You seem to have refined your taste in ladies.”

Frank stiffened; worried that George might spill the beans about his youthful indiscretions. Still, he took his hand, “George, you always were a smoothed tongued cuss.”

Philippa caught the slight edge in George’s voice. “I wonder what has Frank upset?” Her eyes narrowed as she wondered, “Is it me? Is he jealous of George?”

She was brought out of her reverie when Theodore spoke, “Welcome to the ranch, Miss Fry. I’m Theodore, but everyone calls me Ted.” His voice was gentle but strong. Philippa appraised the youngest of the Wright brothers. His dark blue eyes had a dreamy look. Nearly six feet tall, he had a muscular frame. “He seems very nice,” Philippa decided.

“I’m pleased to meet you, Ted.”

The initial pleasantries over, Frank asked, “So how is Pa?”

“About as well as he could be, I expect. He sleeps a lot.” George shrugged his shoulders, “The doc says he could go any day. Still, he’s still got his wits and can get out of bed when he’s of a mind to.”

Frank exhaled with relief, “Is he awake?”

“Yup.” George nodded, “He’s sittin’ in his bed, waitin’ on you.”

Frank turned to Philippa, “Darlin’, do you mind if I go in and see my Pa first before I introduce you to him?”

“No,” she shook her head, “I don’t mind at all.”

“Miss Fry,” Ted spoke up, “I’ll be glad to take you in to meet the rest of the family…if you’ve a mind to.”

“I’d like that, Ted.” Philippa reflexively took his arm.

Ted became so nervous he dropped his hat, which he retrieved with a murmured, “Excuse me.” Blushing nervously, he escorted Philippa into the ranch house. As soon as they came through the front door, they were met by a blonde haired, blue eyed woman in her late thirties. Dressed in a plain blue cotton dress, she was as tall as Philippa but was more buxom.

“Miss Fry, this is George’s wife Dawn Marie.”

“I’m so glad to finally meet you,” Philippa said as she extended her hand. “Frank has told me so much about you.”

“Did he?” Dawn’s eyebrows went up, “Did he tell you how he used to dip my pigtails in ink at school?”

“What?” Philippa laughed.

“Oh, Frank was a scamp when he was younger.” She smiled warmly, “I suspect he passed it on to my son Johnny somehow.” She called out, “Children, come in here and meet our guest.”

The first to bound into the front room was a short, blonde haired boy with twinkling blue eyes. He had what most would call an impish grin on his face, “I’m here Momma!”

“This is my son Johnny,” Dawn said with obvious pride.

Philippa could see what Dawn had meant. Johnny had an aura of mischief about him, “Hello Johnny, I’m Philippa.”

“Oh hello,” his smile broadened, “You’re Uncle Frank’s sweetheart!” He paused, “You’re every bit as pretty as Uncle Tom said.”

“Well, thank you Johnny.”

“Sure,” he noticed his mother giving him ‘the look’. “I mean…you’re welcome, Miss Philippa.”

Next to enter was a willowy young girl just budding into womanhood. She had raven black hair, blue eyes and fair skin. She wore a simple light blue cotton dress and a white apron. “You must be Miss Fry.” Wiping flour from her hands she extended her right hand, “I’m Amy Jane and I’m very pleased to meet you.”

Taking the offered hand, Philippa replied, “It’s good to meet you as well.” Curious she asked, “Are you cooking?”

“Momma lets me help her,” she said proudly, “I’ve made biscuits and gravy. I thought you all might be hungry.”

Last to enter was a brown haired, grey eyed boy teen aged boy. He stood almost six feet tall but had not yet begun to fill out. Like most of the Wright men, his hair was curly and his smile was perfect.

Dawn smiled with pleasure, “Miss Fry, this is my oldest boy, Walter James.”

Walter nodded, “I’m very pleased to meet you Miss Fry. Most folks call me Walt.”

“Pleased to meet you too, Walt.”

Amy Jane spoke up, “Are you hungry, Miss Fry?”

“Yes…yes I am.”

“Then please come and try some of my biscuits and gravy.”

“I’d be glad to.”

Both Walter and Johnny chimed in unison, “Can we have some too?”

“I made plenty.”

Led by Amy Jane, they all filed into the kitchen.

While Philippa was busy meeting George’s family, Frank was seeing his father for the first time in two years. He walked down the long hallway to what had been his parent’s bedroom. Standing at the door for a moment, he was overwhelmed with memories, many happy, some sad.

He knocked on the door, “Pa?”

“Come on in son.”

What met Frank’s eyes when he opened the door shocked him. His father was propped up in his bed with a large quilt covering most of his body. The smell of disinfectant interlaced with the smell of decay assailed Frank’s nose. As his eyes adjusted to the gas light he could see that his father’s skin had the grey pallor of a man on his last legs.

“Well don’t stand there in the door like you ain’t got good sense.” His father said dryly, “Come closer so I can see you. My eyes ain’t what they used to be.”

“Sure, Pa.” He strode up to the bedside. The closer he got, the more he could see that he had gotten home none too soon. No stranger to death, Frank could see it’s mark on a man. And it’s mark was on his father. He sat down slowly in a rocking chair beside the bed.

“It’s good to see you, Pa.”

“You’re a sight for sore eyes.” His voice was weary, “I wanted to see you this side of the divide.”

“Me too, Pa.” Frank felt a knot in his chest. “How long does the doc give you?”

“The doc gives me a few days…maybe a week. But it isn’t the doc who gives me time, son.” He smiled, “It’s the Lord.” He closed his eyes, “It sure will be good to see your mother again.”

Frank nodded silently. He gently took his father’s hand. Tears filled his eyes as he thought of times past. They sat there in silence for some time before his father broke the silence, “I hear you’ve got a right pretty fiancée, son.”

Frank cleared his throat, “She’s my Prairie Rose, Pa. I love her more than anything…she makes my heart go pitter pat.”

“Your mother did that for me.” He smiled, “A Prairie Rose you say? I’ll sure be glad to meet her.”

“I’ll go fetch her, if you’d like.”

“That suits me down to the ground.”

Without a further word, Frank rose and walked to the kitchen. Philippa was seated at the kitchen table with Dawn and Amy Jane. They were all laughing at a story Dawn had told about Frank as a boy. When Philippa saw Frank, the laughter died on her lips. His face was pale and lined with worry. She stood, “Frank…are you okay?”

“My Pa would like to meet you, darlin’…if you don’t mind a sick room.”

“Mind?” Philippa rushed to his side, “No.” She took his arm, “How could I mind?”

“Thank you, darlin’,” He quickly led her down the hallway. When they reached the door Frank knocked lightly. His father’s voice sounded immediately, “Come on in.”

Frank ushered Philippa into the room. “Well!” His father exclaimed, “So you’re my son’s Prairie Rose!” He beckoned, “Come up closer so I can see you.”

Philippa approached the bedside, holding Frank’s hand. She could tell by looking that the old man was very sick. Determined to be brave for Frank, she extended her hand as she smiled her best smile, “I’m very pleased to meet you Mr. Wright.”

“Please call me Pa.” He shook her hand, “I’ll surely be glad to call you daughter.”

“Okay, Pa.”

“You got yourself a fine lady there, son.” He smiled wanly, “I’d love to chat with her a spell, but I’m wore out.” He patted Philippa’s hand, “Maybe we can talk over breakfast?”

Philippa nodded, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“I think I’ll rest now.” He closed his eyes.

Frank led Philippa quietly from the room. As soon as the door closed, Frank sagged against the wall. His voice was hoarse with emotion, “I’ve seen more men die than I’d care to remember but it sure is rough seeing the hand of death on your father’s throat.”

“I’m so sorry,” Philippa hugged him fiercely, “I’m here for you.” Then she released her hold enough to kiss him gently, “It will be okay.”

He looked her in the eyes, “I surely do love you darlin’.”

She laid her head softly on his chest, “I love you too.”


Chapter 34 – Ashes to Ashes

Frank stayed in his father’s room night and day, even taking his meals there. Philippa was his most constant companion, remaining within touching distance the whole time she was in the room. The rest of the family – as well as Mrs. Panelli, Rosalinda and Gabriel – visited at various times throughout the day.

Philippa would have slept on the floor or in a chair if Frank had let her. But he put his foot down, “Darlin’ you know that Dawn Marie went through a lot of trouble fixin’ up the guest room. She’ll be mighty disappointed if you didn’t use it.” He smiled, “Besides, it’s just down the hall.”

So Philippa slept in a very comfortable feather bed each night. It was still chilly, so she was grateful for the down comforter Dawn brought in. It came as a bit of a surprise to her that the house had indoor plumbing. “I thought I’d have to use an outhouse and take a baths in a tub,” she said to Dawn.

Dawn found that idea funny, “Well, we’re rustic…but not that rustic.” She pointed out the window, “See that windmill yonder?”

Philippa nodded.

“It pumps the water into our water tower, so we have everything we need for indoor plumbing.” Dawn smiled, “My George had it all installed five years ago.”

As promised, the next morning Philippa ate breakfast with Frank and his father. Dawn brought in a tray heaped with bread, scrambled eggs, bacon and home fries and set it on a sideboard. Next to the tray she put a steaming pot of coffee with all of the fixings.

Feeling somewhat awkward, Philippa hopped up from her seat, “Mr. Wright, what would you like for breakfast?” He smiled, “Please call me Pa or G.W. The only time people call me Mr. Wright is if they want money, if they already owe me money or we ain’t on good terms.”

“Okay, Pa.” Philippa giggled, “What would you like?”

“Just a dab of eggs and some black coffee.” He winced as pain shot through him, “My stomach is feelin’ kind of poorly.”

“Ok,” she carefully prepared the food and placed it on his night stand.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

Frank fixed himself a plate while Philippa served G.W. Philippa prepared a small plate for herself; then sat down in the rocker closest to G.W.’s bed.

G.W. ate little, spending much of the time simply smiling at an increasingly self-conscious Philippa.

They made small talk for about an hour. Then Dawn came in carrying a tray piled with several medicine bottles. “It’s time for your medicine, Pa.”

Shortly after taking the medicine, G.W. drifted off to sleep.

Philippa stood, walked over to Frank’s side and gently touched his face. He took her hand and held it against his cheek, “Thank you Philippa. It surely is nice to have someone to lean on.”

“You can always lean on me,” Philippa said sincerely. “Why don’t you take a nap? I believe you were up most of the night.”

“Will you stay here to keep an eye on things?”

“Of course.”

The rest of the day passed quietly. Philippa finally retired around midnight after tucking Frank into his chair and G.W. in his bed.

The next morning Painted Eagle rode in with his tribe. They encamped in a valley one mile north of the ranch house. While the tribe set up their tepees, Painted Eagle accompanied by the medicine man Charging Hawk arrived at the ranch house.

Within a few seconds of entering the sick room, Charging Hawk spoke to Painted Eagle in rapid-fire Lakota. Philippa looked at Frank with an unspoken question on her face. Frank looked grim as he translated, “Charging Hawk said that Pa hasn’t long to live. He thinks Pa has two…maybe three days at the most.” Then he smiled, “He said that Pa is lucky that you are here to ease his passing on to the Great Spirit.”

“Huh?”

“Darlin’, they all think you are a holy woman…kinda like a saint.” He touched her hand, “Why do you think every woman in the tribe has brought her children to you to hold? You are big medicine.”

Philippa blinked, “I don’t feel like big medicine.”

“Well, there’s a whole tribe that believes differently.” He smiled, “And I think you’re pretty big medicine too.”

The following day, Abraham showed up with his wife and two children. Philippa’s first impression when they met was that Abraham (or Abe as everyone called him) looked more like Painted Eagle than Frank. He had jet black hair, dark brown eyes and olive skin. He was a shade shorter than Frank but more stocky and muscular - toughened by his years as a Montana Ranger and as an Indian Agent.

His wife, Wachiwi, was a full-blooded Lakota from Painted Eagle’s tribe. She was short and wiry with a ready smile and an even disposition. Her six year old daughter Zitkala and thirty month old son Joseph Chaska both had dark hair, but where Zitkala was grey eyed with light skin Joseph had his parent’s deep brown eyes, jet black hair and olive complexion.

Philippa had been amused by how Joseph followed Zitkala around. He obviously adored his older sister. It was equally obvious that she returned his affection.

Abraham apologized to Frank, “I’m sorry I didn’t make it here earlier, I was doing a bit of Rangering.”

“I thought you gave that up?”

“You know what they say, ‘once a Ranger always a Ranger’.” He shrugged, “Besides, Two Dogs and his band are raiding again.”

Frank sat bolt upright, “I thought that murdering half-breed would be dead by now!”

“Nope,” Abraham shook his head, “he burned out the Geary spread two weeks ago. Killed old man Geary and took his wife and three daughters captive. We chased him to the Llano before we turned back.”

“Did you get any of his band?”

“We got the bulge on ‘em near Council Rock.” Abraham gave a short laugh, “We left five of ‘em to rot on the Prairie. And we got all four of the captives back.” Abraham grunted, “But we missed Two Dogs. That devil will be back.”

“Damn.”

“We didn’t come here to talk about Rangering,” Wachiwi admonished. “How is G.W. doing?”

“He’s not long for this world,” Frank said quietly.

“Is he awake much?”

“Not today.” Philippa said quietly, “He’s been sleeping mostly.”

Wachiwi shrugged, “Then I guess we just need to wait.”

It was late that evening before Abraham and his family left, having finally been able to pay their respects.

When they were gone, Philippa whispered to Frank, “I’m going to leave you with your father for a while.” She rose, kissed him lightly on the cheek and left quietly.

“That’s some woman you’ve got there,” G.W. rasped. “Don’t let her go boy.”

“I won’t Pa.” Frank paused for a moment, “You know Pa, I wanted to tell you something…something I’ve left unsaid for a long time.”

“What’s that son?”

“That…” Frank’s voice became thick with emotion, “that I love you Pa. You’ve always been a far better father than I deserved.”

“Heck son, I know that.” He smiled, “And I love you too.” He began to cough. Once the coughing fit was over, he continued, “I’ve always been proud of you because you’ve always held to the code.” He nodded, “Yep. I’m damned proud of you.”

“Thank you, Pa.”

“And you marry that gal…you hear? The sooner the better!” He coughed. “Don’t let my crossing over keep you back. Promise me you’ll marry her soon.”

Tears filled Frank’s eyes, “I will, Pa. I will.”

In the half light of early morning on the next day, Frank’s father’s breathing became labored and ragged. Frank, who had been dozing in a rocking chair, awakened instantly. He reached out and touched his father, “Pa?”

His father’s eyes fluttered; then opened. They focused at the foot of the bed. A smile creased his face as he croaked, “Josie! It’s you!”

Reflexively, Frank looked toward the foot of the bed.

His father spoke again, “I love you too, Josie.” A tear slid down his cheek, “I missed you so much.” A fit of coughing wracked his body. “What? Yes, I’m ready to go.” He sat up straight in the bed, “It’s so beautiful…” Then his body fell back onto the pillows.

“Pa?” Frank’s voice was charged with emotion. “PA?” His voice rang out, bringing many in the house – including Philippa tumbling out of their beds. His hand trembled as he gently closed his father’s eyes.

The sound catapulted Philippa into the hallway. Barefoot and clad only in a white cotton nightgown, she flew to Frank’s side. When she rushed into the room, Frank was kneeling by the bedside in tearful prayer, holding his father’s lifeless hand. She knelt next to Frank, gently placing her arm around his shoulders.

In a voice choked with emotion Frank said, “He’s gone darlin’…he’s gone.”

She kissed him on the cheek, “I’m sorry Frank.” A tear slid down her cheek, “I’m sorry.”

George entered next. He surveyed the situation and stood in respectful silence. Dawn Marie entered next, standing next to George weeping softly with her head bowed.

The next two days were a blur as everyone prepared for the funeral. Three days later, the entire family, most of the townspeople, and Painted Eagle’s tribe were gathered at the graveside. The family occupied a row of chairs adjacent to the gravesite. Low dark clouds scudded overhead, threatening rain.

The people of Painted Eagles’ tribe passed by the still open coffin. Each placed a small object in the coffin…flowers, beaded necklaces and other personal items.

“What are they doing?” Philippa asked.

“It’s called ‘giving away.’” Frank replied, “It’s an act of love, respect and compassion. The more personal the item the greater the act is held to be.”

Philippa stood up and walked to the graveside. She took reached around her neck and undid her gold locket. She held it up, looked at it briefly and then gently laid it in the coffin. Turning quietly, she went back to her seat.

“I know how much that locket meant to you,” Frank reached out and took her hand. “I’ll get you an even prettier one darlin’.”

Before Philippa could respond the pastor, Reverend Eisenberg intoned solemnly, “Ladies and Gentlemen let us begin the service.”

He adjusted his pince nez glasses before commencing, “Let us begin with the Hundred Twenty First Psalm.”

Opening his Bible, the Reverend began to read in a deep voice that resounded across the prairie,

“I lift up my eyes to the hills—

where does my help come from?

My help comes from the LORD,

the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip—

he who watches over you will not slumber;

indeed, he who watches over Israel

will neither slumber nor sleep.

The LORD watches over you—

the LORD is your shade at your right hand;

the sun will not harm you by day,

nor the moon by night.

The LORD will keep you from all harm—

he will watch over your life;

the LORD will watch over your coming and going

both now and forevermore.”

He closed the Bible and looked out at the crowd, “George Wright has gone on to be with the Lord after a long bout with cancer. He died with his family around him in fullness of years. Now let us consider what he believed. He asked that this portion for the First Book of Corinthians, Chapter One, Verse Fifty and following.” He opened his Bible again,

“I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’

‘Where, O death, is your victory?

 Where, O death, is your sting?’

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”

Closing his Bible again, the Reverend looked into the crowd,

“I’ve known George all of my life. He was one of the most decent men I ever knew. He was the embodiment of the Cowboy Code.

He lived in this community all of his life except for the four years he served in the ‘Late Unpleasantness.’ No one who knew him would ever doubt his grit, determination or courage. His love for the land was only exceeded by his love for his wife Josephine.

George was proud of his family – and rightly so. Each of his five boys has grown into fine men. They are all here today as living testaments to that fact.

There are many here who were recipients of his kindness. Is there anyone here who ever knew G.W. to refuse a man a loan. How many times did he help a struggling rancher get started? How many of his Indian brothers did he feed with cattle during the winter of ’98?

We come here to honor a man who will be sorely missed. Let us take a moment to reflect upon that.”

Philippa looked around at the bowed heads of the entire assemblage. She bowed her head as well, “I only knew him for a short while, but I’ll miss him. He must have been a truly good man for Frank to love him so.”

The Reverend broke the silence, "Grant, O Lord, rest to your servant George Walker Wright in a place where there is neither sorrow nor sighing nor pain." He paused, “The service now is ended. Please file by to offer your condolences to the family.”

As people began to file by, the gravediggers lowered the coffin into the grave. Everyone filing by added a handful of earth to the grave. By the time they had all left there was barely a handful left for each of the boys to perform their duty.

As the family left the cemetery, the sun broke through the clouds bathing the hillside in bright sunlight.

“It’s going to be okay,” Philippa said to Frank.

“I know darlin’” he smiled, “I have you.”


Chapter 35 – Setting the Day

During breakfast the morning after the funeral, Frank leaned over toward Philippa, “Darlin’ would you favor me with a ride after breakfast?”

“Sure.” She smiled, “I really miss riding Misty. She’s been all alone these past few days.”

“Umm…” Frank hesitated in answering as he swallowed a mouth full of eggs. He held a napkin over his mouth, “I expect Old Paint feels the same.”

Sipping his second cup of coffee, George looked Frank and Philippa over, “By golly, my brother surely did pick well. They suit each other down to the ground.” He smiled inwardly, “I wonder if Philippa has a sense of humor?” He rolled that thought around for a moment, “I’m pretty sure she does. But I aim to find out.”

Dawn leaned over, laid her hand gently on George’s forearm and whispered, “George Walker Wright…I know what you’re thinkin’. I’ll have none of your pranks. She’s sweet and she’s innocent and I like her. You be nice to Philippa.”

George nodded, marveling at how Dawn could seemingly read his thoughts. In truth, anyone who’d been around George for a year or two could read him tolerably well. That’s why he was always on the prowl for victims for his practical jokes.

After a quiet breakfast, Frank went out to the horse barn to ready the horses while Philippa went to dress for riding. Amy Jane went along with her to help with her hair. In the few days Philippa was at the ranch, she had grown very fond of Amy Jane. Earlier that morning she had watched Amy Jane bring order to a chaotic kitchen and produce a wonderful breakfast. Impressed she had said, “You ought to run a restaurant.”

Amy Jane had laughed at the idea but responded with, “You’re very kind Miss Fry.”

“Amy Jane, please call me Philippa…or Phi…all my friends do.”

“Oh no Miss Fry…I’m sorry…but my Momma would wear me out if I did that.”

No amount of persuasion could cause Amy Jane to change her mind.

Once in the guest room Philippa went behind a screen to change from her dress into riding boots, tan trousers, a green shirt with a matching scarf, chaps and a fringed buckskin vest. When she emerged Amy Jane smiled, “You surely do look like a cowgirl, Miss Philippa.” She moved over to the small vanity near the window, “Will you come sit down and I’ll tend to your hair? I expect Uncle Frank won’t take long to get the horses ready.”

“Thank you, Amy Jane.” She took a seat and Amy Jane went to work. In only a few moments, she wound Philippa’s hair in a tight bun. As she was working, Amy Jane kept up a steady stream of conversation, “Miss Philippa, I think you have the prettiest hair. I wish my hair was pretty like yours instead of just plain old black.”

“Amy Jane! You have beautiful hair.”

“Momma says so.” She paused for a second, “I hope when I’m grown up my skin is as pretty as yours. I heard Uncle Theodore say your skin was like alabaster.”

“Really?” Philippa wasn’t sure whether that was a compliment or not. After a moment’s reflection, she decided to ask Frank what alabaster meant.

“Yes, Ma’am.” Amy Jane applied the finishing touch, “Done. Now you can go riding with Uncle Frank and not a hair will get out of place.”

After examining herself in the mirror, Philippa stood and gave Amy Jane a quick hug, “Thank you so much.”

“You’re welcome.” Her face lit up with pleasure, “Don’t keep Uncle Frank waiting.”

Some advice Amy once gave her flashed though her mind, “Oh…It’s always good to let them wait just a little.”

Carefully adjusting her hat, Philippa strode out of the house smiling. Emerging onto the porch, she heard Frank’s voice before she saw him, “Thanks for packing the grub, Mrs. Panelli. We’ll be back for supper.”

“Shoo…itsa no problem.”

Besides Mrs. Panelli and Frank, one of her sons was on the porch. It took a second before Philippa could remember his name, “Hi Tony! Hi Lilliana! Hi Frank!”

“Hey, darlin’.” Frank gestured toward the two horses which were tethered at the base of the steps, “We’re all ready to go.”

Pausing only to give Mrs. Panelli a hug, Philippa descended the steps, fed a sugar lump to Misty and then swung into the saddle. Frank stood by until Philippa was securely mounted before following suit. “Follow me darlin’, I’ve got something to show you.”

“What is it?”

“A surprise.” And that was all that Philippa could coax out of him.

They rode south on the road toward town until the struck the creek that marked the southern boundary of the ranch. Then they turned east, wending their way through stands of oak trees that lined the creek. It was almost an hour before they came to a bend in the creek with a different kind of tree than she had seen before.

Frank halted Old Paint, dismounted and tied Old Paint to a tree. His eyes twinkled as he took Misty’s reins, “Here we are darlin’.” He pointed a grassy plot by the bank, “I thought we’d have a picnic.”

“I’d love to.” Philippa dismounted. As she did, she thought she noticed someone on a hill overlooking the creek. “Frank,” she said quietly, “I think we’re being watched.”

“Oh, I know you’re being watched.”

“Huh?”

“Painted Eagle has assigned a small group of braves to keep an eye on you.” He laughed, “They are called Wakan Guardians and they are pledged to protect you no matter what the cost.”

“Why would they do that?”

“Darlin’, ever since you picked up the White Buffalo Woman as your spirit guide you represent the tribe’s…I don’t know…luck or maybe their future good fortune. You’re big medicine.”

“But I’m not a Lakota.”

“It doesn’t matter, because you were in their village when you took your spirit walk. As they see it, when the White Buffalo Woman chose you that makes you Lakota enough.”

Philippa sat quietly for a moment digesting that thought before she asked, “Was that the surprise?”

Temporarily confused by the question, Frank scratched his head. “Umm…no…that isn’t it.” He smiled, “Let’s set up our picnic first.”

“Frank,” she stepped up, pressed her body against his and cooed, “Come on…tell me.” She batted her eyes, “Please?”

“Now darlin’” He stammered, “Y…You’re n…not b…being fair!”

“What’s not fair?’ She put her arms around him, “Come on…will you please tell me?”

Shaking with laughter Frank stuck up his hands, “Okay darlin’, you win.” He put his arms around her waist, “This is a very special place. This Pecan grove is where my Pa and my Momma set their wedding date.” He took a deep breath, “My Pa made me promise not to wait to get married, so would you please marry me in June?”

“June?” Philippa did some mental calculations, “This June?”

“Yes.”

“This is what? The end of March? That only gives us two months!”

“Well, I’d have asked you to marry me tomorrow but I know you’ll want for everybody from Planet Express and from my family to be there.”

Philippa began to cry, “Oh Frank, you are so sweet. I just…well…I’m not good at making decisions like this.” She dabbed her eyes, “Most of the time when I make snap decisions they’re wrong.”

“Don’t doubt yourself darlin’. Just listen to your heart.” He hugged her more closely, “It won’t lead you wrong. It’s the purest I’ve ever known.”

“Then the answer is…yes!” She took Frank totally by surprise by kissing him passionately. It only took a second before he was returning her kiss with equal passion. His hands slid up her back as she pressed closer to him.

For the first time, Philippa felt the true heat of a woman’s passion blazing in her body. She could tell that Frank was affected too. Their kisses became more and more fevered as they slid to the ground.

“Oh Frank, I love you.”

Her voice awakened his reason, “I love you too, darlin’.” He fought to control himself, “Darlin’, I love you so much but…we don’t want to do anything that would…well…you know.”

“Yes,” she said with just a hint of sadness. “I do.” She pressed her cheek against his, “Let’s make our wedding day the First of June. I don’t want to wait another day for us to be together.”

Frank stood up, helping Philippa to her feet, “That suits me down to the ground.”

It only took a few moments for Frank to lay out the picnic. First he spread a brightly colored blanket beneath the largest tree in the grove. Then he set out the basket packed earlier by Mrs. Panelli. He gestured dramatically and adopted a British accent, “Madame, the picnic is served.”

Philippa giggled as she sat down on the blanket, “You are so silly.”

Frank sat next to her, taking her hand. “Philippa, “I’m sorry about losing control.” Frank’s voice was serious, “please forgive me.”

“It wasn’t just you, Frank.” She shook her head, “I wanted you too.” She gave his hand a squeeze, “If you forgive me….I forgive you.”

“Okay,” he smiled, “It’s a deal.”

They ate the picnic quietly, enjoying the sound of the wind in the trees and the dancing sunlight patterns created by their moving leaves.

“Darlin’,” Frank cleared his throat. “Where do you want to have the wedding?”

Philippa thought for a moment, “Can we have it in Fort Worth?”

“We can have it anywhere you want…including on Earth.” He smiled, “Why’d you ask about Fort Worth?”

“If we have it at Fort Worth everyone from Rodeo 5 can be there and so can all of my friends from Planet Express.” She smiled, “I’d have it here at the ranch but Bender couldn’t come.”

“Then Fort Worth it is.”

Once they finished eating Philippa asked, “Can we ride home soon?”

“Is there something wrong, darlin’?”

“Oh no! No!” She looked into his eyes, “I just wanted to write some letters and let my friends at Planet Express know we’ve set a date.” She thought for a second, “How long will it take for a letter to get to Earth?”

Frank scratched his head, “Well…If we catch the southbound mail stage tomorrow…It’ll take about 12 hours to reach Tombstone on the Brazos. “ He rubbed his chin, “Then it’ll take two days for the mail to get to Fort Worth and another two days to get to Earth. At the most, it will take a week.”

“A week?”

“Do you want to send a telegram…that will only take a day.”

“No,” Philippa shook her head. “I want her…I mean them…to see it in my own handwriting. I don’t know why,” She shrugged, “I guess it’s just more personal that way.”

“Well, let’s pack up.”

Once back at the ranch, they cared for the horses. Philippa enjoyed every bit of it…well…almost every bit of it. She didn’t like mucking out the stall. As the shovel dove into the muck, the odors it released made Philippa gag. When Frank offered to do it for her she surprised herself by saying, “No. Misty is my horse. I’ll do it.”

Proud of Philippa, Frank took her arm as they left the barn. As they entered the ranch house he gave her a quick hug, “I’ll take your letter to town as soon as you’re done.”

“Thanks,” she returned his hug.

Seated at the guest room table Philippa put pen to paper,

Dear Leela,

You know I’m not much of a letter writer. Frank’s father passed away four days ago. Even though I only knew him for a short time, I became close to him. He was a good man.

Do you know something funny? Just before he died Frank’s father told him to marry me quickly! Frank said his father didn’t want him to wait just because of his passing away.

So I just had to let you be the first to know. Frank and I have set a date! We’re going to be married on the First of June.

We set the date on a picnic in a Pecan grove by a creek. Frank is so romantic! He wanted to make me wait for the surprise until we finished our picnic, but I got it out of him. Sometimes, being a woman is a real advantage.

I have to share something that happened with you but please don’t tell anyone. Today Frank and I almost snu-snu’ed! Now before you get angry and want to kick Frank’s butt, let me tell you that I started it.

He won’t even kiss me without asking permission. No, I was so happy when we set the date that I really laid one on him. He was really surprised by my reaction. I kind of surprised myself.

Leela, I would have done anything Frank wanted, but he kept control. And you know what? I know he kept control because he loves me!

A part of me really wanted to do it! But mostly I’m relieved that we didn’t. What if I got pregnant? Since I plan to live here with Frank, I don’t want to set tongues wagging. Frank would have to ‘protect my honor’ and that could end up in a gunfight. He’s good with a gun but I know it hurts him when he’s forced to use it.

He’s so simple on the surface, but so complicated underneath. I guess that’s one of the reasons I love him so much.

Please write me soon and let me know that you’re coming! And please let Amy and everyone else know, too. I’ll be sending out invitations soon.

Oh, we’re getting married in Fort Worth so Bender can come too.

Well, that’s all for now. I miss you Leela. Say hello to everyone for me.

Love,

Philippa”


Chapter 36 – A PH Balanced Decision

Leela sat at the conference table slowly drinking a cup of coffee. The rays of the morning sun streamed through the windows, illuminating the interior of the otherwise darkened building. Hermes was on another of his economy kicks, so he had installed computer controlled timers on all the lights.

It wasn’t too bad in the morning, but if Hermes didn’t program them correctly the hangar would be pitch black when the ship arrived from a delivery in the evening. Fortunately, Leela’s large single eye was an excellent collector of ambient light.

“I might not have great depth perception,” she had remarked to Amy the day before, “but night vision? Forget about it!”

A banging noise followed by a stream of Cantonese invective brought Leela out of her thoughts. It was Amy who – lacking superior night vision – had just collided with a table in the lounge. Leela laughed before breathing quietly to herself, “The original Martian Klutz!”

Amy limped up to the conference table and sat down next to Leela. Once seated, Amy rubbed her sore left leg, “Spleesh! You think that tightwad Hermes would turn the lights on a little before we’re supposed to be at work.”

“I’m not sure he’s mastered the technology yet,” Leela’s lip curled in derision. “He’s such a…such a…”

Amy finished the sentence, “such a man!”

Both women laughed at Amy’s sally of wit. Once they finished laughing, Leela asked, “So speaking of men how’s Kif?”

“Well, the Nimbus is getting an upgrade and overhaul at the Syria Planitia Yards on Mars in two weeks. They’ll be in space dock for six months. While the ship’s in space dock, Kif will be attending a course at the DOOP Academy in San Francisco. He’s also going to have lots of time for leave.” Amy sighed, “I’ll have lots of time to spend with my Kiffie!”

“The Nimbus is going to be in the area for six months?” Leela felt slightly nauseated, “That means that gross, disgusting pervert Zapp is going to be around.”

“Why should you care?” Amy shrugged, “I mean, you’re a happily married woman.”

“I don’t know,” Leela frowned. “It’s just that he’s a reminder of one of the worst mistakes I ever made in my life.” She rolled her eye, “Why did I ever have pity sex with that loser?”

“I dunno.”

As if to punctuate Amy’s statement, the lights came on. At almost the same instant, they could hear Bender’s voice singing one of his favorite tunes, “Bender is great…oh Bender is great…Bender, Bender, Bender, Bender, Bender is great!”

As he sauntered into the conference area Bender bellowed out, “Hey everybody! Fry sent a letter!” He flourished it above his head, “She’s getting married on the First of June at Forth Worth on Rodeo 5 and we’re all invited.”

“So Phi sent you a letter.” Leela sounded curious, “Is there a letter for me also?”

“This is your letter, Big Boots. I saw it was from Fry so I figured it might contain something about me…which it did.”

“Wait,” Leela’s face clouded with anger, “did you say you opened my letter?”

“Yeah, I did.” He shrugged, “So what?”

Leela sprang like a panther. Before Bender could react, Leela had slammed her fist down on his antenna, forcing it almost all of the way into his head. Bender’s legs buckled as he clapped his hands to his head, “Oh the pain! OW! OW! OW!”

“You want pain?” Leela snarled, “I’ll give you pain!” She grabbed his antenna – which had sprung back out of his head, “Bender, if you ever read my mail or touch my stuff, you’ll find out,” she roared, “I’M…NOT…FRY!” She gave his antenna a ferocious yank, “Do you understand?”

“OW!” Bender replied, “Yes!”

“Good!” She released her hold, “Now give me my letter.”

Bender handed it over, “Geez Leela, you don’t need to be such a sorehead. Little Bender is very sensitive.”

Ignoring him, Leela sat at the table and read the letter slowly. She looked up, shooting Bender a fierce look, “Bender, you will erase this letter from your memory or so help me I’ll do it for you.”

With a resigned sigh, Bender reached into his chest cavity and pressed a button, “There…it’s gone. Satisfied?”

Leela nodded.

Amy asked cautiously, “So what’s the news?”

“As big mouth here just said Phi is getting married in just two months in Forth Worth on Rodeo 5. Hmm…she’s also planning on living there apparently. Frank’s dad passed away.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“Apparently she really liked him. Listen to this, ‘Frank’s father passed away four days ago. Even though I only knew him for a short time, I became close to him. He was a good man.

Do you know something funny? Just before he died Frank’s father told him to marry me quickly! Frank said his father didn’t want him to wait just because of his passing away.’”

“That is so nice,” Amy gushed. “No wonder she liked him.”

“Here’s another tidbit, ‘We set the date on a picnic in a Pecan grove by a creek. Frank is so romantic! He wanted to make me wait for the surprise until we finished our picnic, but I got it out of him. Sometimes, being a woman is a real advantage.’”

“Oh! That sounds like something my Kiffie would do!” Amy leaned forward. “What else does Phi have to say?”

“Oh…nothing much…she’ll be sending out invitations soon.” She scanned the rest of the letter. “The rest isn’t very interesting.”

She’ll never be a good liar,” Amy thought. With a bright smile Amy said, “I know! Let’s go shopping for some cowgirl clothes.”

“What?”

“You know…clothes to wear on Rodeo 5.”

“I figured we’d be wearing whatever Philippa has in mind.” Leela smiled, “After all, it is her wedding.”

“Come on Leela, we don’t want to go all the way to Rodeo 5 and not take some time to be tourists.” She smiled, “Besides, I’m celebrating.”

“Maybe not tourists…” Leela thought for a moment, “Amy let’s go shopping after the delivery today if we get back in time. Otherwise we can go tomorrow.” She paused for a moment, “I’ll need your help on another matter as well.”

Flattered by Leela’s seeking her help, Amy replied, “Sure. Anything you need Leela.”

“What are we celebrating?”

“DOOP just approved my new Porpoise Hork injection system for Cetacean Extract Fuel systems.”

Whale oil?”

“Yup.” She smiled, “Remember the theoretical paper that the Professor and I co-authored? The one we got the Lunar Imperial Seal of Approval (LISA) for?”

“Sure.” Leela lied convincingly.

“Well, I made the theory work.” Amy’s pride crept into her voice, “The DOOP is putting my Porpoise Hork system on the Nimbus.” She became increasingly animated, “And that’s just the beginning! Oh Leela! I’m finally going to be independent of my parents.”

“That’s great Amy.” Leela smiled warmly, “How does it work?”

“It’s really simple.” She paused for a second, “The system takes the Gravioli that we used to vent with the Buntium Diobnoxide in the exhaust and turns them into High-Energy Gravitons which we cycle to the C2 Converters. That gives us a 100% increase in fuel efficiency and a 66% increase in peak power.”

“Really?” Leela became genuinely interested, “How is that possible?”

“Remember Dr. Linda Peluda-Jass’ Gravioli lens?”

“Yes.” Leela thought and grinned, “Actually, no.”

“She’s Dr. Hugh Jass’ wife.”

“Oh…the discoverer of the Jass Cycle.” Leela knew of Dr. Jass’ pioneering work that made Spatial and Temporal Extrusion and Expansion (STEXX) travel possible. By compressing space time in front of a ship and expanding it behind, the ship rode a gravimetric wave through space at greater than the speed of light.

“Exactly.” Amy smiled, “She developed it to focus a Gravioli stream. Well I married it to ‘L-Unit’ so I could bleed the Gravioli off the reactor feed. Then I put them through the Marrilinn Chambers where the Porpoise Hork (PH) Balancing Unit injects and combines them with the Porpoise Hork catalyst. The catalytic action strips the Gravioli of its crunchy outer shell, leaving only the chewy inner high energy Graviton.”

“So the Porpoise Hork is only a catalyst?”

“Yes.” Amy nodded her head vigorously, “The Flow Line Asymmetric Unipolar Laminar Uniphasic Sensor (FLATUS) senses the PH content of the stream and communicates with the PH Adjustment and Rectification Transmitter (PHART). In turn, the PHART functions as a SCADA Device for the PH Centrifugal Separators. The Porpoise Hork Pump then draws the 99 44/100% PH balanced stream off into the PH Balancing unit to begin the cycle over again.”

Leela sat back and said sincerely, “I’m impressed.”

Amy laid her hand on Leela’s arm. Tears formed in her eyes, “Thanks Leela.” She dabbed at her eyes, “That means a lot to me.”

“So what about me?” Bender, who had begun to recover from Leela’s mistreatment of his tender tingly parts, asked plaintively, “Am I invited to the wedding?”

Surprised by the off-topic intrusion Leela replied, “Yes she invited you. As a matter of fact, she’s having it at Fort Worth just to be sure you can come.”

“Good old Fry.” Bender became emotional, “He…She was the best buddy I ever had.” The robot’s body was racked with sobs. “OH FRY! I MISS YOU!”

Both women stood and embraced Bender. Both of them burst into tears, “We miss her too!”

They were almost cried out when Hermes came into the conference room, “Great Jah’s dreadlocks!” He shook his head, “What is going on?” The basilisk glare that Leela threw him in response made Hermes prudently lapse into silence.

Everyone silently took their seats after a few more moments. Five more minutes elapsed before the Professor meandered into the room, “Good news, everyone!”

“Here we go,” Bender said quietly.

“You’ll be going to Emporia 6 to deliver a load of rubber baby buggy bumpers.”

“That has to be the silliest delivery yet,” Leela burst into laughter.

“Well they’re out so they’re paying a nice premium for fast delivery.” The Professor’s voice warbled in its usual style.

Leela stiffened. “Define the word fast Professor.”

He looked at his watch, “You should have left two minutes ago.” He smiled a senescent smile, “But I imagine you’ll make it up when you use the Ficus wormhole to get there.”

“What?!” Leela stood up. “You must be joking. That wormhole is unstable! It’s always clenching shut.”

“Oh my no, that’s an exaggeration.”

“Just last week they lost a cargo carrier without any warning.” Leela crossed her arms defiantly over her chest, “I’m not going.”

“Did I mention that I’ve installed a Quantospeculometer that will keep the wormhole open?”

“No.”

“I’m almost sure I did.” He smiled vacantly. “Amy will go along to operate it.”

Amy chimed in, “But you didn’t tell me, Professor!”

“Women!” the Professor snorted before he stood up and wandered off while waving dismissively, “Off you go!”

“Will that thing work?” Leela asked dubiously.

“Oh yes, it’ll work fine as long as we aren’t in the middle of the wormhole when something bad happens.”

“Thank you and good night!” Bender’s words dripped with sarcasm, “Another near death experience masquerading as a delivery!”

“Let’s not get stuck, then.” Leela said firmly as she headed for the ship.

They made the delivery on time. The wormhole was on its best behavior during their transit. For the return Leela decide to take the more conventional route through the Shelyak Wormhole. It took three hours more, but was a darned sight more stable.

Leela had spent the three extra hours going over ship specifications with Amy. They pored over Klang’s List where all of the best ship deals could be had. They were careful to pull up a Shipmaxx Report on each prospect. Leela found a growing sense of respect for Amy as she held forth on the advantages and disadvantages of each ship.

Two hours into the exercise they narrowed the field to two ships. Leela was inclined toward a fairly new Spitfire commercial cargo hauler. She liked the way it looked. Amy favored a recently decommissioned military cargo ship called an LCD.

“I like her lines,” Leela said quietly. “The Spitfire’s also got excellent capacity…I could haul a lot of beef without having to add cargo pods like the LCD.”

“There’s no getting around that the Spitfire has it’s advantages.” Amy nodded her head. “But the LCD has some advantages that make it ideal for Rodeo 5.” She began to tick them off on her fingers, “First, it can take a crapload of gravimetric punishment and still hold together. Second, since it’s military all of its systems are Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) hardened. Third, it’s already pre-wired for four autocannons. Fourth and last, it has more than enough room in the engineering spaces for me to install a Porpoise Hork system.” Amy grinned, “I can think of other advantages…as I am sure you can.”

“I can see the sense of what you’re saying Amy.” Leela nodded her head, “But it’s just so damned ugly.”

“It’ll grow on you Leela.”

“I’ll think about it.” Leela said uncertainly. The rest of the flight was taken up in the usual navigation of the Oort Cloud, passing the Kuiper Belt and the final approach to Earth.

Conning the ship into the dimly lit Planet Express Hangar Bay, Leela made a decision. She smiled broadly as she thought, “I can’t wait to tell Samuel.”


Chapter 37 – A day in the life

“Here Scruffy!” Philippa called from the front porch. It was getting towards evening and she hadn’t seen him since the late morning. “Where is that dog?” she muttered quietly. Getting ready to call again, she heard Gabriel’s voice coming from the other side of the barn, “He’s coming Miss Phi, he’s been fishing with me.”

“Fishing?” Philippa sounded puzzled, “How does a dog go fishing?”

Gabriel emerged from behind the barn. His upper right hand carried a fishing pole, while the other held a tackle box. Tucked under Gabriel’s right lower arm, Scruffy barked a joyous greeting to Philippa. “Oh, he don’t fish…he just keeps me company.”

Gabriel bent over to let Scruffy down. As soon as his paws touched the ground, Scruffy bounded up to Philippa. She bent down and ruffled his fur, “Did you have a good time today, boy?”

Scruffy’s response was to roll over on his back, inviting Philippa to scratch his belly. She knelt down and accommodated him for a few moments. Gabriel walked up to the porch, “Sorry if I caused any problem, he’s just such a friendly dog.”

Philippa looked up, “Yeah. He reminds me of a dog I owned…well, I didn’t exactly own Seymour…let’s just say we were friends.”

Gabriel sat down, reached out with his lower left arm and began to scratch Scruffy behind the ears. Scruffy closed his eyes before emitting a contented growling sound. Philippa laughed, “You have a way with dogs.”

“I guess it’s the extra hands.” Gabriel smiled shyly, “I’m hardly ever without a hand to give a good belly rub or ear scratch.”

“How’s your sister doing?”

“Oh…Rosalinda is doing fine.” He pointed to the cabin where the two had taken up residence, “She’s busy making dinner for Tomas, her and me.”

“It’s only a month until they get married.”

“Si…I mean Yes.”

“Well, speaking of dinner, I need to get to the kitchen.” Philippa stood, “Amy Jane is going to teach me to make Frank’s favorite dessert and Mrs. Panelli is going to show me how to really grill a steak.”

“Do you mind if Scruffy comes to the cabin for dinner?” Gabriel asked.”He kind of takes care of the leftovers.”

“No,” Philippa smiled. “He can even sleep over if he wants.”

“Thanks.” Gabriel rose, “Come on boy, vámonos a comer!”

Earlier that day, Frank mounted Old Paint and cantered south. After about a two hour ride he reached his destination – the Pa’Kotah village. As he rode up several Pa’Kotah popped from their burrows. Frank recognized Fred Proudfoot as one of them.

Frank stood in his stirrups and called out, “Hello there Fred! I need to have you do a bit of work for me.”

Fred brushed his whiskers – he had been eating – before replying in his high pitched voice, “Sure Mr. Wright. What’s the job?”

Frank reined up next to Fred’s burrow before dismounting. As his boot touched the ground Frank spoke, “Do you remember the locket you repaired for my fiancée on the train?”

“Nice locket,” Fred nodded, “Sure…I remember it.” He gave a laugh – which came out sounding like a bark – as he remembered Philippa’s actions on the train, “She must have lost it. I can’t imagine anyone taking it away.”

“She put it in my Pa’s coffin,” Frank said in a voice strained by emotion. “I want to get her another to replace it.”

Fred nodded, “If you give me a half-hour, I’ll have it ready.”

“That quickly?” Frank smiled, “Sure.”

“I’ve got one a lot like it.” Fred turned to enter his burrow but paused, “Do you want me to engrave anything on it?”

“Hmm,” Frank rubbed his chin, “Can you fit ‘From Frank to Philippa with Love’ on the inside?”

“No problem.”

Fred was halfway into the burrow when Frank called out, “One more thing. Can you engrave a Prairie Rose on the front?”

“Sure.” He grinned, “But it’s going to take me about two hours to get it all done. Don’t you know what it’s going to cost?”

“How much?”

“Two semolians should cover the engraving and the locket and chain are another two…so…let’s just call it four semolians.”

“Done.”

Two hours later, Frank was riding north with the locket safely tucked in his vest pocket. Darkness had fallen by the time he reached the ranch. Taking Old Paint to the barn Frank removed the saddle, brushed Old Paint down, and fed him. Once that was done, he strolled to the ranch house.

As Frank walked up he saw Philippa, Amy Jane and Mrs. Panelli sitting in rocking chairs out on the porch. During the week that has passed since the funeral, the three had become closer with each passing day, Frank reflected. He waved cheerfully, “Evening Ladies!”

Amy Jane responded first, “Hey Uncle Frank!” Philippa and Mrs. Panelli responded in unison a second later with. “Good evening!”

Frank removed his hat and stopped short of coming onto the porch, “Forgive me ladies if I’ve held dinner up.”

“It will be ready in twenty minutes,” Philippa answered with a smile as she patted the empty rocking chair next to her. “It’s a nice night to relax on the porch.”

Frank settled into the chair and began to rock, “Sure is a nice night.”

“Sure is,” Philippa responded. “So where did you go this afternoon?”

“Me?” He feigned surprise, “I went somewhere?”

“Yes,” she nodded her head, “I saw you ride off without a word.”

“Are you sure that was me, darlin’?”

At first Philippa sounded puzzled, “Well I’m pretty sure…” Then the light came on, “Franklin Wright! Where did you go?”

Amy Jane giggled.

“Why darlin’!” He couldn’t help smiling, “Whatever do you mean?”

“Frank!” Philippa began to feel hurt, “Do you think I’m dumb?”

Frank got to his feet and knelt before Philippa. Her eyes widened in surprise…why was he doing this?

“Darlin’, I want you to close your eyes and hold out your hand.”

“What?”

“Please?”

Bursting with curiosity, Philippa did as he asked. After a moment, she felt something small and cold drop into her hand.

“Go ahead and open your eyes, darlin’.”

The sight of the small gold locket resting in her palm caused tears to spring to her eyes. “Oh Frank! It’s beautiful!”

“It’s what you deserve, darlin’.” Frank paused for a moment, “May I put it around your neck?”

Unwilling to trust her voice, Philippa merely nodded. She was determined not to cry – even out of happiness. Frank took the locket and with a few easy movements hung it around Philippa’s neck. He stepped around to face her, “It looks right pretty around your neck, darlin’.”

Philippa stood and hugged Frank around the neck. She whispered in his ear, “I love you so much! If it wasn’t for Amy Jane and Lilliana, I’d give you the world’s biggest smooch.”

Frank laughed but said nothing, simply reveling in the feel of her body pressed against his own. They were interrupted by the sound of the front door opening, followed by Dawn’s voice, “Time for dinner!”

The two stepped apart but clasped hands as they went onto the house, followed closely by Amy Jane and Mrs. Panelli.

After dinner was cleared away, the ladies cleaned up while George and Frank went off to the barn to bed the horses down for the night. They took separate sides of the barn; working from stall to stall until they were satisfied everything was as it should be.

Walking back to the house, George turned to Frank, “So brother, can you take two of the new hands and go out to cottonwood meadow? I’ll be taking everyone else up to the north valley to start bringing cattle down for a drive to Harmonyville.”

“Sure.” Frank nodded,” Might as well earn my keep.”

George stepped up onto the porch, followed by Frank. George plopped into a rocking chair, “Have a seat Frank. Let’s wait for the ladies.”

“Sounds good to me.”

After a short silence, George chuckled. He turned to Frank, “I’ve got a story to tell you. It’s right funny.” He looked around conspiratorially before lowering his voice, “But it ain’t quite fit for mixed company.”

“Let’s hear it then,” Frank said with a smile.

George grinned, “Well, it seems this old prospector came into town one day leading a mule. Both of them were dusty and dry. He'd been out in the desert for about six months without a drop of anything but alkali tainted water. So, naturally he goes straight for the first he sees. He lashes his old mule up to the hitching rail and begins to dust himself off.”

George coughed, then resumed his story, “This young gunslinger walked out of the saloon with a gun in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other.

The young gunslinger looked at the old prospector and laughed, saying, 'Hey

old man, have you ever danced?'

The old man looked up at the gunslinger and said, 'No, I never did dance. I just never wanted to.'

A crowd had gathered by then and the gunslinger said, 'Well, you old fool, you're gonna' dance now,' and started shooting at the old man's feet.

Well a crowd came runnin’ at the sound of the first shot. The old prospector was hopping around and they was all laughing.

When the gunslinger fired his last bullet, he holstered his gun and turned around to go back into the saloon.

The old man reached up on the mule, pulled out his shotgun, and yanked back both hammers…click!...click! The gunslinger heard that sound and everything got quiet.”

Frank chuckled.

George ploughed on, “Anyways, the crowd watched as the gunslinger slowly turned around and found himself looking down both barrels of the shotgun.

The old prospector asked, 'Young Fella, Did you ever kiss a mule's ass?'

The gunslinger swallowed hard and said, 'No Sir. But I've always wanted to.'”

Both men were still laughing when Philippa and Dawn came onto the porch. Philippa asked, “What’s so funny?”

Both men stood up at the sound of Philippa’s voice.

Frank blushed crimson, “Er…uh…oh nothing darlin’.”

Dawn smiled as she shook her head, “You look like my Johnny caught with his hand in the cookie jar.”

“I was just spinnin’ a yarn,” George grinned. “You know how that is.”

“I certainly do, George Washington Wright.” She put her hands on her hips in mock anger, “You were telling dirty jokes…weren’t you?”

“Oh no,” Frank interjected, “They were just a bit rough…that’s all.”

Dawn’s shoulders shook with laughter. Philippa joined in the laughter, even though she wasn’t exactly sure why.

Frank gestured to rocking chair to his right, “Do you want to have a seat, darlin’?”

“Thank you, Frank.” Philippa sat down at his left. Dawn took George’s arm, “Come on George, we need to leave these two to have a few moments of their own.” George rose, “Good night y’all.”

“Good night.”

Once the screen door banged shut, Frank sat down. Philippa linked her arm with Frank’s. They all sat quietly rocking for a few moments, just enjoying the night breeze.

“Frank?” Philippa broke the silence.

“Yes, darlin’”

“Was the story that rough?”

“Umm…er…it…it wasn’t very rough.”

“Can you tell it to me?” She giggled.

“Please darlin’…I…I’m just not comfortable…”

“Oh all right.” Philippa laid her head on his shoulder, “I’ll stop teasing you.”

Frank exhaled in relief while enjoying the feel of her head resting on his shoulder. They rocked quietly for a few minutes. Off in the distance an owl hooted.

“Was that an owl?” Philippa asked.

“Sure was darlin’”

“Ugh.” Philippa made an ‘icky’ face, “They are so gross.”

“Huh?” Frank was puzzled, “They eat varmints but I never thought of them as gross.”

“They were all over Planet Express.” She shook her head, “I used to get stuck cleaning up after them. Boy, can they poop!”

“I’ll bet,” Frank chuckled. “I guess if I’d had to clean up after them, I’d think they were gross too.”

“Thanks, Frank.” Philippa hugged his arm, “Can we go for a picnic tomorrow?”

“I’m sorry, darlin’.” Frank cleared his throat, “I’m helping George bring some cattle in tomorrow. I’ll be back late in the afternoon.”

“Oh.” Philippa thought for a moment. “Can I ride with you and watch you be a cowboy?”

“Sure darlin’.”

“Thanks.” Philippa kissed him on the cheek, “I can’t wait.”


Chapter 38 – Two Letters

Philippa sat at an ornate wooden writing table in the ranch house guest room. Pen in hand, she regarded the sheets of paper in front of her with a smile. The idea of writing to Leela filled her with pleasure, but not many ideas. She had been at it for over an hour. On the table were several balled up sheets of paper…evidence of her earlier efforts.

What to write about? Perplexed, she tapped her teeth with the end of the pen. The sheet in front of her merely read,

Dear Leela,”

Not bad for a start” she thought. So much had happened since she last written Leela. In a spirit of determination Philippa put pen to paper and scratched out the following words,

Lots has happened since my last letter. Most of it isn’t very exciting, but I wanted to keep you up to date on what’s going on here. The truth is, I miss you Leela. It isn’t that Frank isn’t great…he is…but there is a spot in my heart that only you can fill.

No. I’m not coming on to you.”

Philippa drew a smiley face after the sentence to emphasize she was trying to be funny.

Remember right after the change, when I showed up at your apartment all wet, tired and confused? Oh Lord, I was so dumb. I really didn’t understand anything. Now I’m beginning to understand how complicated emotions can be.”

She paused for a moment before continuing to write,

Speaking of emotions, I love Frank so much! He is so kind, so strong and so handsome. And he loves me! He tells me so all the time but he shows it in a hundred little ways. And he is so sexy! I can hardly keep from seducing him. Every night I find myself imagining what our wedding night will be like.

Do I sound like a slut? I don’t mean to. It’s just that I find that he fills my mind all day. Is it that way for you with your Samuel? I know this may sound crazy, but I need to change the subject. My hands have started sweating and it’s getting hard to hold the pen.”

Philippa lay down the pen for a moment, took a deep breath, and took up the pen again.

Frank took me to bring some cattle in from a place called cottonwood meadow. It’s not that far of a ride, maybe an hour at most. The countryside is beautiful, lots of tall grass and rolling hills. There were two new cowboys with us, neither of them could have been more than sixteen. One of the boys was a tall, skinny redhead with freckles named Jim and the other was short, dark haired boy with the most beautiful blue eyes. His name was Tim. Tim and Jim…that rhymes!

Oh, I know you worry about my safety but did you know I have bodyguards? It’s a long story, but a tribe of Lakota – that’s a kind of Indian - think that I’m some sort of holy woman. So they have four warriors follow me around all the time. Frank told me they think I carry the good luck of the tribe. So they don’t want anything bad to happen to me.

Anyway, it was so cool to watch Frank show those two boys how to ‘move them doggies along’. (They call cattle ‘doggies’.) He also showed them how to use the lariat. I don’t think there is anything about being a cowboy that Frank doesn’t know. It took no time at all for us to gather the cattle up and move them back to a big corral at the ranch.

Frank looked so handsome riding Old Paint. (That’s his horse.) I could hardly keep my eyes off him…Frank, not the horse. I keep imagining what Frank will look like on at our wedding. But I’d better not go there.

Did I tell you that I have a horse, too? I named her Misty. Painted Eagle, the Lakota Chief – he’s Frank’s cousin – gave her to me. She is a mustang. It’s kind of hard to describe her coloring exactly but she’s kind of striped like a Zebra. Her coat is the color the sky gets when it’s kind of hazy and she has lots of wild looking stripes on her legs down to her knees. She has a dark blue stripe down her back. Oh, and her…what do they call the back end of a horse? Anyway, whatever they call it has horizontal stripes all over it. Her mane has white and black stripes. She looks so cool.

But that’s enough about my horse. I just remembered how much you dislike horses.

Oddly enough, the Blacksmith here is Mrs. Panelli’s son, Antonio. Everyone calls him ‘Tony’ or ‘Fat Tony’, which I think is mean. He isn’t fat, he’s just big boned. Besides, he is the sweetest, nicest Cygnoid you’d ever want to meet. He also takes extra good care of Misty.

I may as well tell you about Frank’s family living here at the Ranch. Frank’s oldest brother, George lives here with his wife Dawn Marie, his daughter Amy Jane and two sons Walter and Johnny. George likes to play jokes on me. Everybody else here knows him too well, so he can’t fool them. I’m a different story.

Last week George told me that there was a thing called a Jackalope around the ranch. He even had a stuffed one to show me. It looked like a rabbit with horns! I didn’t know that it was a fake. George told me that they hid in the bushes sometimes and would charge you from behind. So for two days I walked around paranoid that a Jackalope was going to spring out and stick me in the butt.

I must have looked like a real idiot, constantly spinning around when I passed a bush. It was Amy Jane who finally axed what I was doing. When I told her, she kept a straight face and said, ‘My Pa is playing a joke on you, Miss Philippa.”

Oooh! I was so angry, but it didn’t last long. I started to laugh and said to Amy Jane, “I guess the joke is on me.” But I decided not to fall for any more of his tricks.

Amy Jane is one of the very nicest people I have met anywhere. She’s only twelve, but she is a really good cook. I think only Mrs. Panelli cooks better. Amy Jane even taught me how to cook Frank’s favorite dessert – apple pie. Now Leela, you have to promise not to tell Bender what happened.

The first apple pie I cooked didn’t turn out so well. I worked hard to make sure that everything was just right. It smelled pretty good, too. When I showed it to Frank at supper time, he grinned and said, ‘I’m gonna eat this all by myself.’ When the time came he only ate one bite.

Oh Leela! I was so confused when he took that single bite. He made the worst face I’ve ever seen as he choked it down. Then he said in a raspy voice, ‘Darlin’, how much salt do you put in an apple pie?’ I told him just a pinch. He took a big drink of water, gave me a half-smile and said quietly, ‘I think there’s a tad bit more than a pinch in this here pie.’

Then it hit me! I had used salt instead of sugar! I don’t think I’ve ever been so embarrassed in all my life. George roared with laughter until Dawn kicked him under the table. I fought to keep from crying, but I couldn’t help it. Amy Jane came over and hugged me while Frank kept saying, ‘It’s okay, Darlin’.’

The next night I made another apple pie and everyone who tried it said it was good.”

The sound of the clock chiming in the hall startled Philippa. It was already nine o’clock! “Time to finish this letter,” she said to herself. “Morning comes early around her.” She bent forward and drove her pen across the paper.

Well, it’s getting late, so I have to wrap this up. Please write to me when you can. I miss you very much. Say hello to everyone at the Planet Express for me. I can’t wait to see all of you again in June.

Love,

Philippa

Eight days later Leela received the letter at her apartment. It was on the floor, shoved through the mail slot by the mail carrier. Samuel noticed it first, “That must be a letter from Philippa.”

Leela bent over and picked the letter up. She smiled as she recognized Philippa’s spidery scrawl. Tearing open the envelope, Leela devoured the letter. She laughed at several points in Philippa’s missive. When she reached the end, Leela sighed. She looked up and realized that Samuel had gone into the kitchen and begun to cook dinner.

“Samuel, I’m sorry. I am supposed to cook dinner tonight.” She folded the letter, “I’ll whip something up.”

“Why don’t you answer the letter?” Samuel smiled, “I feel like cooking anyway.”

Leela kissed him lightly on the lips, “Thanks. It won’t take me long.” Then she turned and went into their bedroom. Taking a seat, Leela pulled paper and pen from the desk and began to write.

Unlike Philippa’s scrawl, Leela’s letters marched in disciplined ranks across the paper.

Dear Philippa,

I just got your letter and had to sit down and write a reply right away. I can’t tell you how much I miss you. I never had a sister…until the change. Now I do and I am so grateful.

I don’t think that you sound like a slut when you write about your feelings for Frank. They are natural and healthy. And to answer your question directly…I think about my Samuel all the time.

I’m glad that you have bodyguards. It does make me feel better. However, I can’t wait to hear the full story of how you became the good luck charm for an Indian tribe.

Your horse sounds very original looking. I’m sure you look splendid riding her. Of course, you know how I feel about horses. They don’t have any giant tarantulas to ride there…or do they?

Now for some big news, I bought a spaceship! ‘Why did she do that?’ I can hear you ask. Well, to make a long story short, Samuel and I have decided to move to Rodeo 5. I’m going to haul cattle out and goods back in. The best news is, I don’t have to leave Planet Express.

I won’t bore you with a lot of detail, but I bought everyone else’ stock…including Scruffy’s. Then I had enough ownership to elect myself to the board. Once on the board, I made a deal with the Professor that he could keep running things on Earth while I would operate under the P.E. licenses from Rodeo 5. What really clinched the deal was when I showed Hermes the projected profits from the Rodeo 5 to Omicron Persei 8 route alone.

The ship isn’t pretty. It’s an old converted military cargo hauler. But it’s tough as nails. Also, Amy has fitted the ship with a new engine so the ship is really…really fast. With four surplus auto cannons installed, she’s armed to the teeth as well.

I’ve decide to name her ‘Intrepid.’ I know it probably sounds corny, but I think it sounds better than LCD 801.

Amy has driven me crazy shopping for cowboy clothes. We’ve been out three times this week. Of course, I couldn’t really object because Amy worked her tail off during her off time to install the new engine and the auto cannons. Next to you, she’s the best friend that I have.”

Leela’s glanced up and saw that Samuel was setting the table. She went back to her writing.

I hate to wrap things up so quickly, but Samuel is setting the table for dinner. I will write more tomorrow. I miss you very much and can’t wait to see you. Stay safe.

Love,

Leela

P.S. I promise not to tell Bender about the apple pie.”


Chapter 39 - Kidnapped

Consciousness returned to Philippa slowly. The rhythmic movement of the horse helped bring her back. At first she was confused, “Why am I laying across the horse?” Confusion gave way to panic, “Why can’t I move my hands?” Panic gave way to terror as it all came flooding back into her mind.

Rosalinda and she had been out for a ride. It was such a beautiful spring day that they decided to have a picnic. Unfortunately all of the men were busy getting ready for a cattle drive, while the women were preparing for Tom and Rosalinda’s wedding. They were no more than two hours north of the ranch house when they found a stream fed pond to spread their blanket beside.

They had finished eating and were relaxing…counting clouds that rolled across the sky. Both women had sat up when they heard a war cry. Looking in the direction of the sound, Philippa saw Mankato – Painted Eagle’s son – leading three other young Wakan Guardians toward them at a full gallop. Rosalinda gave a muffled shriek, “Behind you!”

Philippa turned to see half a dozen rough looking men within arm’s length. The one closest to her was a tall, pigtailed half-breed in a black hat. Before Philippa could move the man grabbed her and held a knife to her throat. “If you try to resist, I’ll gut you like a rabbit,” the man growled.

Her legs threatened to give way but somehow Philippa managed to keep her feet. The sound of gunfire erupted as the rough-looking men opened fire on Mankato and his companions. At least two were hit before they drew off.

Out of the corner of her eye, Philippa could see that Rosalinda already had her arms tied. She could also sense that the man holding her relaxed his grip slightly. Pivoting quickly, Philippa punched the man in the groin with all of her might. He collapsed like a bag of wet cement. She broke free and began to run.

The last thing Philippa remembered was running toward Misty. Then she saw stars and everything went black.

Fully awakened now, Philippa became conscious of a splitting headache. Also, her stomach was sore from bouncing on the horse. She lifted her head in an attempt to see. When she did, someone shouted, “The red head is awake.” In a few seconds the horse she was slung across came to a stop. She could hear someone walk up, and then she felt a hand in her hair, yanking her head up.

Philippa cried out, “Ow! What is wrong with you?”

“Now listen you red-headed devil,” the man she had struck in the groin hissed, “I’d just as soon kill you slowly and leave your carcass for the buzzards. But Two Dogs says you are just what Iron Kettle wants, so you’ll live…as long as you ain’t too much trouble.” He paused, “Do you understand me, damn you?”

The smell of his breath made Philippa gag, but she nodded.

“I’m going to sit you on this nag.” He gave an evil smile full of missing and blackened teeth, “We’d let you walk behind the wagons, but Two Dogs wants you fresh for old Iron Kettle.” With a quick swipe of his knife, the man cut the rope passed under the belly of the horse – an elderly grey gelding. Roughly, he set Philippa on the horse. “I wouldn’t try runnin’. You might irritate Two Dogs. Do you know what he does to squaws what irritate him?”

Philippa shook her head mutely.

Clearly enjoying himself the man continued, “He stakes ‘em out spread eagle on the ground. Then he takes a knife and cuts their belly open…just a little.” He laughed, “Then he drags out about five or six feet of gut and stakes it to the ground. After that, he sits under a shady tree so he can see what the coyotes is havin’ for breakfast.”

Unable to contain herself, Philippa leaned over and vomited from fear.

The man laughed mirthlessly, “I should gag you. But I don’t think you’re stupid enough to cry out.” Without a further word, the man mounted his horse. Then he tied a rope to Philippa’s horse’s bridle, “This will keep you close.” Then they trotted off.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch all was confusion. Dawn was the first to see a lone Wakan Guardian gallop up on his pony. She could see his young torso was smeared with blood. Alarmed at the sight, she stood up.

The young brave spotted her and made a bee line for the porch, shouting in Lakota. Dawn knew only a few words of Lakota but his obvious agitation and his wounded condition only increased her alarm. Fortunately, Frank and Tom had been in a corral next to the barn, across from the ranch house, caring for some horses.

Frank recognized the young man. Leaping the rail fence in a single bound, Frank bellowed, “Chaska! What’s happed?” Tom followed suit.

As Chaska dismounted, his knees almost buckled. He poured forth a torrent of Lakota to which Frank responded half-a-dozen times with, “Ake eya yo.” Finally Frank held up his hand, “Whoa Chaska! Speak more slowly or speak English.”

“Ptaysanwee and the Blue Woman have been taken.”

“What!?”

“Comancheros took them.” He pointed north, “Mankato is tracking them and…and…leaving sign.” He grimaced in pain but continued speaking, “There were at least three hands of them.” His voice filled with anger, “They killed my two tipi brothers. They wore the sign of Two Dogs and his band.”

Chaska’s knees buckled. Dawn rushed to his side, helping him to his feet, “Frank, I need to get him inside and bind his wounds.”

“You do that,” Frank replied. He turned to Thomas, “Tom, get our horses saddled. Then lay on some grain, if Two Dogs is going where I think he’ll go, we won’t have time to graze the horses. I’ll get our gear from the house…including two good canteens a piece and extra cartridges.”

Thomas nodded and raced off to the barn.

Within less time than five minutes both Frank and Thomas were mounting their horses in front of the hose. They were both leading two spare horses to allow them to change horses every few hours. Frank had four pistols, two in hip holsters, one in a saddle holster and one in a cross-chest holster and a repeating rifle in a scabbard. Thomas had two pistols in hip holsters and a repeating rifle in a scabbard. Even at a distance, no one would mistake them for cowboys out on a ride.

Dawn, Amy Jane, her two sons Walter and Johnny, the two ranch hands Tim and Jim, Mrs. Panelli and Fat Tony were all gathered in a knot on the porch. Frank lifted his hat, “Ladies, Tom and I will be back in a few days with Philippa and Rosalinda. Make sure you keep close to the house…and don’t go anywhere unarmed. Tony, you and the boys keep close watch.”

Tony nodded.

“Send someone to tell Abraham what happened,” Frank added. “He’ll get some Rangers and follow us. We won’t be hard to track.”

Pointing their horses north, Frank and Thomas galloped off. In only a few moments they were out of sight of the ranch house.

Riding at a gallop, they reached the scene of where Philippa and Rosalinda had been abducted. The corpses of the two young Wakan Guardians were sprawled in the dirt where buzzards had already begun to feast on them.

Thomas pulled his rifle from the scabbard. Before he could take aim, Frank pulled up close, “Dang it Tom, we can’t risk firing. They might have left a stay behind.”

Reluctantly Thomas slid the rifle back into place, “Well at least we can bury these boys.”

Frank looked around, “We can pile some of the rocks over yonder on the bodies. We don’t have time to do more.”

The job done, they followed the trail northward. Later when retelling the story, Frank had to admit they would have lost the trail had it not been for the markings Mankato left behind. As darkness fell, they slowed but did not stop. The first moon was already up, shedding enough light for them to continue to follow the trail…thanks to Mankato.

Morning dawned and they began to pick up the pace. As they came over a rise, Tom and Frank were shocked to see the figure of a woman, staggering towards them. Her silhouette revealed her identity – it was Rosalinda!

Throwing the rope to his string of horses to Frank, Tom spurred forward, vaulting from his horse to alight next to Rosalinda. She was wounded in the upper right shoulder. Both sets of her arms were bound and she was cruelly gagged.

Frank rode up as Thomas was removing the gag. “Ay Tomas! Mi alma! Gracias a Dios que tu estas aquí para rescatarme!” Rosalinda gasped, “They shot me and left me behind. They did not want to kill me. They just want to slow you down.” She began to sob, “Ay Dios mío!”

Frank looked grim, “They are some clever bastards. Tom, as soon as we get her wounds dressed, turn back home. With any luck you’ll see Abraham and a troop of Rangers coming up the trail. I’ll hang onto these bastards like a tick. If they get too close to Comanche territory, then I’ll have to strike.”

“Damn it Frank, I hate to see you goin’ up against such long odds.”

“I don’t plan on takin’ too many chances.” Frank laughed, “I can’t rescue Philippa if I’m dead.”

“That’s a fact.”

“Tomas,” Rosalinda said quietly, “Just give me a horse. I can make it back alone. I…I do not want Frank to go alone.”

“Whoever gave you that wound gave you a bad one. They knew what they were doing. Unless someone stays with you, it’ll open up.” Frank shook his head, “No…Thomas will have to take you home.”

“He’s right Rosalinda.” Thomas shook his head, “Let’s get started.’ He looked at Frank, who was already mounting his horse. “I’ll see you up the trail.”

“Count on it, brother.” Frank raised his hat in salute. Then he headed off on the Comanchero’s trail.

Frank was rewarded with the sight of the Comanchero dust cloud after two days of hard riding and very little sleep. He slowed down to avoid kicking up dust himself. As he wended his way through a rocky outcrop, Frank felt the hair on the back of his neck rise. He drew his Colt Dragoon from his chest holster, holding it at the ready.

Less than 50 feet ahead, Mankato stepped from behind a boulder. When Frank approached close enough he said softly, “It is good to see you, Shappa.”

“Likewise, Mankato.” He dismounted, “What’s the word?”

“Two Dogs is up ahead. He has fifteen other Comancheros with him. There are three wagons loaded with whiskey, trade goods, and guns. Ptaysanwee is in the middle wagon. They keep her hands tied, but that is all.”

“Have they camped?”

“Not yet, but I think they will tonight.”

“Why?”

“Well,” Mankato rubbed his chin, “the oxen pulling the wagons are getting worn out. Some have died already.” He shook his head, “They must stop.”

Frank sat quietly for a moment. “We have a while before sunset. We’ll have to keep following them. If they don’t turn on us, then we’ll get ahead of them and hit them when the sun comes up.”

“You think they may turn on us?”

“Two Dogs ain’t stupid.” Frank looked grim, “He’s bound to know that anyone pursuing him has to be close. If I were him, I’d leave some men back to bushwhack whoever was following me.”

“So what do you do?”

“Keep my eyes open and mind my topknot.”

“That is wise, Shappa.”

“Well cousin, you do the same.” With that, Frank swung into the saddle and moved up trail.


Chapter 40 - To The Rescue

Hunched over making the final adjustments to the Intrepid’s engines based on their trial run to Alpha Centauri, Leela and Amy were oblivious to Hermes’ entry into the hangar bay. To avoid starling them, he cleared his throat noisily. Leela looked up, “Hey Hermes, what’s up?”

“You got a priority telegram from Rodeo 5,” Hermes held out the envelope. “I brought it as soon…” He never finished the sentence because Leela bounded over and snatched the manila colored envelope out of his hands.

“Thanks, Hermes.” She ripped the telegram out of the envelope, scanned it and turned pale.

“What’s wrong Leela?” Amy asked.

“It’s Philippa…she’s…she’s been kidnapped!” Leela’s face flushed with anger, “Damn it! If I’m not around Fry always gets in trouble.”

Amy considered saying something to the effect that Frank was a very capable guy and that Philippa was a grown woman but thought better of it when she heard the sound of Leela’s teeth grinding together. Instead she asked, “So what are we going to do.”

“Do? DO? We’re going to Rodeo 5 and help to get her back!”

Less than four hours later the Intrepid was slicing through space-time at flank speed. In spite of Amy’s constant worried protests, Leela refused to throttle back. The engines held for the sixteen hours it took to get to Rodeo 5.

The ship spiraled down through the atmosphere, shuddering as it fought the electromagnetic wave fronts. Leela wasn’t using her usual finesse at the helm but the ship responded anyway. With no ceremony, she set the ship down at the Fort Worth space port.

While Amy took care of shutdown, Leela headed for the Town Marshal’s office. Entering the office, she found Marshal McIntyre with his boots propped up on his desk. He got to his feet as soon as he saw her enter, “Morning, Miss Leela.” He doffed his hat, “What brings you to Fort Worth?”

“What’s the fastest way to get to the Wright Ranch?”

“Well…” He rubbed his chin, “I reckon the fastest way overland is about ten days…if you make all the right train connections and ride like the devil was after you.”

“Ten days!” Leela frowned, “My friend Philippa has been kidnapped. I can’t wait that long. Isn’t there any faster way?”

“I was just comin’ to that,” Marshal McIntyre said quietly, “There’s a fella name of Phineas Montgolfier who’s built himself a flying machine. I just seen it at the County Fair. Looks like a big silver sausage with a boat slung under it. He says it can fly at 70 mile an hour for over two days at a stretch. That’d get you there right quick, I reckon.”

Impulsively Leela hugged the Marshal, “That’s terrific! Where can I find him?”

“He’s still at the Fairgrounds as far as I know…” before McIntyre could finish his sentence, Leela had bolted out the door leaving it open. He reached up and scratched his head, “Well I’ll be hornswoggled.”

Leela’s head popped into view in the door frame, “Uh…where is the Fairgrounds?”

“It’s just about a mile southwest of the spaceport not far from the stockyards.”

“Terrific!” She waved farewell, “Oh…and thanks.”

It didn’t take her long to find the flying machine as it was visible from a good distance. It glinted so brightly in the sun. It was a dirigible and the gondola slung beneath it did look a bit like a boat…sort of like an old Mississippi stern wheeler. The two smokestacks were configured differently with one projecting from each side of the hull and sloping slightly downward.

Once she stood beneath the craft, Leela looked up and saw a bearded figure in a dark coat and a tall stovepipe hat leaning over the side of the gondola looking at her. He called out, “Are you here to solder the steam pipe?”

“No.” Leela shook her head, “I’m here to negotiate a ride.”

“I’ll be right down.” A rope ladder rolled down from above. The man clambered down it with impressive agility. When he stood before Leela she saw a dark man in his thirties – dark of eye, dark of hair, and dark complexioned – standing before her. He smiled broadly, revealing a row of well spaced teeth. He doffed his hat with a flourish and bowed forward at the waist, “Jean Luc Montgolfier at your service, Madame.”

“Turanga Leela, Captain of the Cargo Ship Intrepid,” she nodded her head, “I need to get to Sweetwater Township as soon as possible.” She pointed up at the dirigible, “Marshal McIntyre told me you might be willing to take a friend and me there. I’m willing to pay.”

Mois certain mont…I mean…but of course.” His smile widened, “I am always ready to help a lady fair.”

“Thank you.” Her eyebrow rose slightly, “How much?”

“It will cost one hundred Semolians for each of you to go there and back.” He paused, “but…only fifty each if it is one way.”

Leela bit back a tart reply…a hundred Semolians seemed a bit steep. Instead she asked evenly, “When can you leave?”

After a moment’s thought Jean Luc replied, “Two hours. I will have to take on coal as well as run a few checks on the machinery.”

“See you in two hours,” Leela spun on her heel and strode off for the Space Port, her mind abuzz with all she needed to do before take-off.

Two hours later she was there with Amy in tow. Both women were dressed for travel on the plains and were carrying backpacks. They were armed as well. Both carried revolvers on their right hips. Leela was clutching a late model lever action rifle in her right hand, while Amy had a double barreled shotgun tucked under her arm.

Jean Luc had brought the dirigible level with a wooden platform that Leela hadn’t noticed before. A short gangway led from the gondola to the platform. Grayish smoke was billowing from the smokestacks forming a nimbus around the gondola and the platform.

Jean Luc popped into view at the head of the gangway, waving cheerfully, “Welcome aboard ladies! We will be ready to go in few moments.”

He was as good as his word. Within five minutes the ladies had boarded, stowed their gear in their cabins and were standing on the bridge. The bridge was laid out much like an old fashioned steam boat pilothouse.

The bridge was square in shape. Dominated by a large wooden wheel, it was encased almost entirely from floor to ceiling in windows hung with bright blue curtains. Left of the wheel stood a very plush leather sofa which was bolted to the floor. On the right were two large overstuffed arm chairs. The deck was of a dark wood and most of the fittings and railings were of gleaming brass. A speaking tube ran from the deck to a face-high position on the right of the wheel.

Jean Luc turned when they entered, “Welcome, ladies!”

“Nice set up,” Leela commented quietly.

“Thank you. We will be lifting off now.” He turned to the speaking tube, “Cast off all lines.”

“Aye aye, sir!” came the tinny reply.

The ship gave a slight shudder, then began to rise into the air. Amy turned to Leela with a grin, “We’re off to the rescue!”

Meanwhile, Frank stood in an arroyo carefully tightening the Old Paint’s saddle girth. Since meeting with Mankato, Frank had been especially careful in tracking the Comancheros. As he read the signs, there was trouble up ahead.

Taking a swig of water, Frank peered over the arroyo lip. He couldn’t see any sign of danger…which is what set his alarm bells ringing.

He patted Old Paint’s neck, “What do you think old boy? If I was going to bushwhack someone, this would be the place. Past this arroyo, the ground is flat for at least two miles. There isn’t a bit of cover either.” He shrugged, “Well, I’ll never get to heaven if I don’t die.”

With that settled in his mind, Frank swung into the saddle. He rode down the arroyo, with his remuda of three backup horses following in line. Unlike normally, the trail line was in Frank’s right hand. He wanted to be able to let them loose at the first sign of trouble.

Emerging from the mouth of the arroyo, Frank went forward at a walk. After about a mile, his attention was drawn to a dense mesquite thicket in a shallow depression several hundred yards ahead. The trail he was following went within arms reach of the edge of the thicket.

Frank patted Old Paint, “They’re in there boy…I can sense it.” As he drew closer, he couldn’t help but wonder if they would charge straight at him, or try to hit him from behind. When he was less than a hundred yards away from the thicket, he got his answer.

One moment the plain in front of him had been sere and empty. Now it held six young warriors in war paint brandishing lances and shrilling war cries. Frank could see they were well mounted. He could also see that although they had firearms, they had elected to attack with lances only.

Dropping the lariat to his remuda, Frank drew both of his pistols, “Never bring a pig sticker to a gunfight boys!” He spurred Old Paint forward at a gallop.

His reactions had confused his opponents just enough to give Frank the edge. Two of their saddle blankets were emptied almost instantly, the bodies of the young warriors flung to the earth by the impact of .45 caliber slugs.

The sight of their first two comrades biting the dust caused the other four to compound their initial error. They reined up slightly which allowed Frank to down two more young warriors.

Finally, the last two threw their lances at Frank. One lance missed entirely but the other grazed Old Paint’s rump which caused him to rear, throwing off Frank’s shot.

As the last two fumbled to draw their rifles from their scabbards, Mankato emerged from the thicket astride his horse. He was armed with a bow and let an arrow fly. It hit one of the remaining two young warriors squarely in the chest. Mankato shouted, “Shappa! This one is mine!”

Frank steadied Old Paint down, “Go for it.”

Mankato cast aside his bow and couched his lance. Urging his horse to full speed, he struck the last young warrior in the neck with his spear. The impact nearly severed the young warrior’s head.

Almost as soon as the body hit the earth, Mankato alighted next to it. Flourishing his scalping knife, Mankato expertly “lifted his enemy’s hair.” Within seconds, he had scalped his other kill as well.

Frank watched the entire display without much emotion. He had seen plenty of scalped people…friends and enemies…he didn’t hold to the practice himself, but that was life. Mankato gestured, “Shappa, are you not going to scalp these dogs?”

“It ain’t my way, Mankato. But if you want ‘em, by all means take ‘em. Otherwise they’ll just go to waste. Even buzzards don’t eat hair.”

Mankato gave a short bark of laughter. In less than two minutes, the other bodies were given the same haircut.

After dragging the bodies beneath some dense mesquite, capturing the dead warrior’s horses and securing them in the arroyo, Frank and Mankato planned their next move.

“Mankato, how far ahead do you think the rest of them are?”

“I know where they are, Shappa.” Mankato grinned, “I followed them to their camping spot in a bowl shaped depression. They have their three wagons set in a triangle. They built a cook fire in the center. Their horses and oxen are tethered nearby. They seem very confident. I even followed the six over there” he gestured toward the bodies piled beneath the Mesquite bushes “to their ambush spot. They were very inexperienced. Not one of them even wore an eagle feather.”

“First war party. I suppose that’s why we got the bulge on ‘em so easy.” Frank rubbed his chin, “I reckon we can hit the rest just before sundown. We’ll approach from the West. That way we’ll have the sun at our backs.”

Mankato nodded.

“I’ll come in under a white flag to parley. Of course, that flag will be hangin’ from my Winchester. While they are all looking at me, your job is to find Philippa and keep her safe. Got that?”

“I understand.”

“Good. I’ll try to prolong the parley as long as I can. But the moment they make a move, I’ll start shooting. Just stay low and get Philippa.”

“Yes, Shappa.”

“Oh and if I don’t make it…”

“I will get her home safely.”

“Thanks Mankato. Now let’s move out.”


Chapter 41 - Payback

Philippa sat dozing in the back of one of the ox carts. It was shaded by an awning and allowed her to block out the unpleasant surrounding sights. Her wrists were bound together with rope but her feet were free.

As her dozing transitioned to deep sleep, Philippa began to dream. She was standing on the Prairie surrounded by a thin grey mist. Through the shifting veil Philippa could see Misty grazing nearby. A familiar figure stood at Misty’s side. Philippa called out, “Is that you PtensaWi?”

“It is I.” PtensaWi smiled, “Your deliverance is at hand, Ptaysanwee. Frank is coming for you. Do not lose heart.”

“Okay. Is he coming soon?”

“Look for him today as the sun sets.” PtensaWi touched Philippa’s wrists, “Do nothing until then.”

“Oh thank God, I’m so afraid.”

“Do not be afraid, Frank will rescue you and you will save him.”

“Huh? How can I save him?”

“Farewell my daughter.” PtensaWi’s image began to dissolve, “Do not lose heart!”

Philippa eyes opened wide as she sat bolt upright. She took in her surroundings. The sounds of the Comancheros and the smell of their unwashed bodies assailed her senses. “It was just a dream. Darn it!” Then she looked down at her wrists. Her bonds had been loosened to the point where she could easily wriggle out of them.

She looked around the cart to see if there was anything she could use as a weapon. Taking inventory she noted some cooking utensils…no knives…a large cauldron…several spits…a couple of skillets. Images of cartoon characters whacking each other with frying pans flashed through Philippa’s mind. Her fingers curled around the handle of one of the skillets. She hefted it experimentally. It felt just right. A wicked grin crossed her face…at least she wasn’t defenseless anymore.

Out in the campsite, Two Dogs was haranguing his nine lackeys. “I don’t know what is keeping those worthless chiggers! They should be back by now. You’d think six Comanchero warriors would be able to take care of one pinda likoyee.” He shook his head, “Not one of them is worth warm spit!”

The rat faced man who had tied Philippa spoke up, “Maybe he ain’t caught up with ‘em yet?”

“Didn’t you hear those shots a few hours ago? They weren’t on a hunting party! They should be back with his scalp!”

“Maybe they took him alive and are havin’ a little fun. You know how young bucks is Two Dogs.”

“Hmmm,” Two Dogs scratched his chin, “Maybe you are right. Still, I want half of you up tonight at all times. And one of you will be outside the ox cart. If there is a rescue attempt, cut her throat.”

A bald headed, extremely ugly Comanchero asked, “Can we have a poke first?” Everyone guffawed, even Two Dogs.

“I figured you’d be the one to ask that.” Two Dogs face became flint like, “You ain’t gonna have time to wiggle your bean. Just kill her…got that?”

Nine voices echoed, “Yes.”

“Now get back to your work.” Two Dogs hissed, “Tomorrow we meet with Iron Kettle and I don’t want any slip ups.”

All nine Comancheros scattered to at least look busy, so great was their fear of Two Dogs.

Less than half a mile away, Frank was approaching the Comanchero campsite to the west while Mankato approached the camp to the east. They had left their spare horses in the arroyo along with the six Comanchero horses.

Both men led their horses stealthily through the rocks, approaching to within a stone throw before mounting. Frank tied a white handkerchief on his Winchester and rode over the lip of the depression. His eye took in the details of the camp, including the ox cart holding Philippa. There was no mistaking her hair, flashing beneath the awning.

One of the Comancheros spotted Frank and shouted the alarm. Frank saw an ugly, squat, bald headed Comanchero armed with a shotgun leap up and take a position next to Philippa’s ox cart prison. Philippa, hearing the commotion, slipped the bonds from her wrists, grasped the skillet and prepared to defend herself.

Four Comancheros mounted their horses and rode at a walk in line abreast toward where Frank sat quietly on Old Paint. Rat Face was on the right of the line. Frank could see than he was the only one with a tied down gun. The others had holsters that would not lose a gun during a hard ride, but that would be slow on the draw. In his mind he assessed his opponents and decided what to do. As he had learned as a Marshal, being prepared was half the battle.

It took only a few moments for the four riders to reach the rim of the depression. Rat face called out, “What do you want?”

“Parley.” Frank said quietly.

“Parley?” Rat face laughed unpleasantly, “For what?”

“You’ve got my fiancé. I want her back.”

All four men laughed at once, “Not unless you can out bid old Iron Kettle…or do you plan to take us all on?”

“Not a bad idea,” Frank said as he lowered his Winchester level with Rat face’s nose. Before anyone could move, Frank fired. The bullet tore through Rat face’s skull, scrambling his brains on it’s way out.

As the other three groped for their pistols, Frank deftly rammed his rifle into the scabbard, drew the pistol in the holster on his chest and shot them all dead before they could respond.

Urging Old Paint forward, Frank holstered his chest pistol and drew his horse pistol, a reproduction of the Cavalry version First Model LeMat, a nine-shot, .44-caliber pistol with a rifled barrel. Beneath that barrel was a second, shorter barrel that fired a 20-gauge shotgun shell. He figured he had more than enough firepower for the six remaining Comancheros.

What he didn’t know was that one of the Comancheros was already out of action. Baldy had heard the shooting and decided to kill Philippa…after a quick poke. What Baldy hadn’t anticipated was Philippa’s ability to swing an iron frying pan. When his ugly leering face appeared over the edge of the ox cart, Philippa whacked him with all of her strength. There was a terrific crack and Baldy’s bloody face disappeared from her view as he collapsed in an unconscious heap.

When Frank opened fire, Mankato was nearly at Philippa’s ox cart. He had dismounted in a ring of boulders and worked his way almost to within touching distance. The loud “whang” mixed with bones crunching, followed by Baldy’s unconscious form collapsing to the ground, made Mankato decide to let Philippa know he was coming before joining her in the ox cart.

“Ptaysanwee!” He called out softly, “It’s Mankato! Please don’t hit me.”

Philippa’s heart leapt on recognizing Mankato’s voice, “Mankato!” His face peeked over the side of the cart, “Keep down. Frank and I have some work to do.”

In the short time of their conversation Frank rode into the midst of the remaining Comancheros, ignoring the crack of the Comanchero bullets whizzing past his head. Instead, he calmly shot four of them dead in rapid succession.

Two Dogs was crouched behind the ox cart furthest from Philippa. He was waiting for his chance to fire. Unfortunately for Two Dogs, the only weapon at hand when the lone rider had struck the camp like a thunderstorm was a muzzle loading rifle.

The last remaining Comanchero began running away from the camp toward where the horses were corralled. Looking over his shoulder at the terrifying lone rider, the fleeing Comanchero didn’t see the mustang rearing in front of him until it was too late. He could only throw up his hands in horror as Misty’s hooves dashed out his brains.

Frank saw Two Dogs rise from behind the ox cart. Two Dogs fired first, his shot grazing Frank’s head and knocking him from the saddle. Dazed, Frank thudded heavily on the ground. Two Dogs sprinted forward, shrieking a war cry.

Mankato moved around the ox cart to cover Frank. Mankato was surprised when Baldy came to life and grabbed him by the leg. Off balance, Mankato fell on top of Baldy. Both pulled knives from their scabbards and rolled around in a life-or-death grapple.

Two Dogs paused to snatch up a fallen pistol. His eyes aflame, Two Dogs stood over Frank. “You miserable pinda likoyee. Did you think you could beat me? Now I’m going to kill you and rape your woman. Then I’ll leave her for the buzzards to eat.” He gave a short laugh. Then he cocked the pistol, relishing the sound.

Before Two Dogs could pull the trigger, he heard twin clicks behind him. Then he heard Philippa’s voice, “Not so fast you son of a bitch.” The anger in her voice was untinged by fear, “Drop your pistol or I’ll cut you in half.”

Two Dogs made a mental calculation; then acted. He half-crouched and whirled around. His aim was to kill Philippa and then finish off the lone rider. As soon as Two Dogs began to turn, Philippa squeezed both of the triggers.

The simultaneous discharge of both twelve gauge barrels took both Two Dogs and Philippa by surprise. For Two Dogs the surprise feeling of two loads of buckshot catching him in the face and upper chest was the last feeling he ever had. For Philippa it was the surprise recoil that knocked her flat of her behind.

With her ears still ringing and her butt still stinging, Philippa scrambled to her feet. Baldy – bloody face and all – was close to victory over Mankato. He was on top, slowly edging his knife ever closer to Mankato’s chest. Unsure of how to reload the shotgun, Philippa gripped the warm barrels in both hands. She stepped forward and swung the shotgun like a club. It struck Baldy’s naked pate with a resounding “Crack!”

Not knowing why Baldy suddenly went limp, Mankato took advantage of the situation none the less. He shoved his knife deep into Baldy’s chest. Mankato pushed him off and stood up. Seeing Philippa standing there hefting the shotgun by the barrels, Mankato realized what had happened. “Thank you Ptaysanwee!”

Philippa didn’t even seem to hear. She rushed over to where Frank lay on the ground. “Frank! Frank! Are you okay?”

Frank sat up unsteadily. Blood coursed down his face from the scalp wound. “Can’t see straight.” He shook his head, “Double vision.”

“Mankato,” Philippa shouted, “Come and help me!”

Mankato came over and swiftly bandaged Frank’s head.

“Is he going to be okay?”

Mankato looked Frank over briefly, “He has a concussion. I don’t think he has a fracture, because there is no blood in his ears. Still, it will be hard for him to see straight for a day or two.”

“I’ll be okay.” Frank said thickly, “We’ve got to get moving. Old Iron Kettle won’t like us killing his compadres.”

Mankato nodded, “We should leave everything; they will wait to clean out the camp before following us.”

“Let’s not count on it. We need to skedaddle pronto.”

“Ptaysanwee, please stay with Frank, I need to take care of something.”

“Okay.” Philippa cradled Frank in her arms, “Oh my Lord! It sure is good to see you.”

“Sorry I got myself shot.”

“I’m sorry I got you shot.”

“Don’t worry about it. Just let me lay down here and find yourself a horse.”

“Okay.” Philippa stood, “I’ll be right back.” She glanced around and saw that Mankato was systematically making sure that every Comanchero was dead. Oddly enough, it didn’t faze her in the slightest.

Heading for the corralled horses Philippa walked calmly past where Mankato was slitting the throat of a recumbent Comanchero. Her eyes widened in surprise when she saw Misty approach. “Misty! Oh Misty! I thought they’d killed you!” She threw her arms around the mustang’s neck and began to weep. Misty whickered softly as if to say, “I’m glad to see you too.”

Drying her tears, Philippa headed back to Frank’s side. Misty followed on her heels. Within a few moments, the three were ready to go. Without a glance backward they rode back down the trail toward home.


Chapter 42 – A Night on the Plains

The late afternoon sun lanced through the tall windows of the pilot house, illuminating the interior with an orange glow. Jean Luc was piloting, while Amy sat relaxing on a large sofa to the left of the wheel. Leela was pacing the pilot house like a caged tiger.

“Can’t this thing go any faster?” Leela asked.

Jean Luc shrugged his shoulders, “It would be very unwise to stress the engines any further. If you do not believe me, ask Miss Amy.” He flashed Amy a smile, “She knows.”

In the day and a half they had been aboard, Amy had crawled throughout the engineering spaces of the dirigible. The drive system and the auxiliary coal-fired power plant fascinated her; they were a curious mix of cutting edge and ancient technologies that combined composites, transparent aluminum, copper, brass and cast iron.

“The induction coils are about maxed out, Leela.” Amy nodded in agreement with Jean Luc, “We can go just about anywhere other than the LaGrange Points just by harnessing the electromagnetic wave fronts, but our speed is pretty much a function of how strong the wave we are riding happens to be at the time.”

“Can’t we pour on some coal as well?”

Amy shook her head, “They are on separate drive trains. We have to disengage one to hook the other up.” She paused, “Besides, the coal is for maneuvering the ship when it’s near a LaGrange Point. We don’t really carry that much of it.”

Leela crossed her arms and glared out the window, “I will be royally pissed off if we get there too late to help.”

“Look, Miss Leela!” Jean Luc pointed into the far distance, “There is the town…what is the name…Greenville?”

“Sweetwater,” Leela stepped up, looked the chart over and nodded, “that most certainly is it.” She looked Jean Luc in the eyes, “Will we make it before nightfall?”

“Most certainly,” Jean Luc nodded, “as long as the current keeps flowing to the induction coils.”

“Once we get there, the ranch is a few miles to the north.” Leela chewed her lip briefly, “We’ll go there and find out which way the rescue party went.” She pulled at her pony tail, “I hope there is a rescue party…there had better be a rescue party…”

Jean Luc and Amy exchanged a ‘there she goes again’ glance. Leela had been venting her worries non-stop since they had lifted off from Fort Worth. Denied the opportunity to vent her anxiety in action, Leela the hunter became Leela the crab.

As the dirigible covered the last few miles to Sweetwater, Mankato, Philippa and Frank were wending their way through a series of arroyos. Mankato was in the lead. He had explained to Philippa that sticking to the arroyos was slower but that until they were well clear of Comanche territory, it was best to stay out of sight. “If we were moles, we would burrow our way out. Alas, we are humans and must use other ways to stay out of sight.”

Philippa led Old Paint because of Frank’s blurred, double vision. Also, Frank kept getting sick. Each time he vomited, he apologized and Philippa told him not to worry about it. Of course, she was worried…a lot. She had taken plenty of head traumas before the change but she had never gotten so sick. But then, she reflected, she’d never had her bell rung by a bullet either.

Trailing along, Frank felt rage, misery and pride at the same time, an odd emotional mixture to be sure. Inwardly he raged at himself for not seeing Two Dogs in time. He was miserable that he had to be led like some tenderfoot. However, he was proud that Philippa had shown presence of mind and courage during her ordeal. He was also grateful that she had dealt with Two Dog…although the thought that Philippa might suffer emotionally from killing someone, even someone as purely evil as Two Dogs, crossed his mind.

They rode on until the last bit of light from the setting sun was waning. Then they set up a cold camp on a rocky hill. The terrain surrounding the hill made a silent approach on horseback impossible. The ground was littered with shale-like rocks and dotted with chaparral. Both moons would be up most of the night, so they should see anyone approaching long before they got to the hill.

Mankato helped Frank from the saddle, “You should rest Shappa.” He peered into Frank’s eyes to see if the pupils were different sized…a sure sign of a skull fracture. Seeing nothing abnormal, he asked, “Can you see any better?”

“Some.”

“That is good.” Mankato turned to Philippa, “Ptaysanwee, please spread some blankets so Frank can rest. I will take a look around and care for the horses.” Without a further word, Mankato blended into the darkness.

Frank said, “I’ll help.”

“No, I don’t want you to get dizzy and fall.” She came to his side and took his arm, “Just sit here. You might hit your head again.”

“Okay,” Frank couldn’t help smiling at Philippa’s mothering tone, “I’ll just rest easy then.”

Philippa strained to remember what Frank had told her about camping under the stars. He was right there to answer questions, but she didn’t want him to think she had forgotten….or worse, that she was dumb. She looked around for a fairly flat spot, cleared it of rocks and then spread three blankets on the ground, one on top of each other. Even though it was early spring, a cold wind out of the east had sprung up at sundown. Shivering, Philippa asked Frank, “Could we make a small fire?”

“That wouldn’t be a good idea.” Frank shook his head, “You could see it for miles.”

“Do you think anyone is looking for us?”

“Well darlin’, when I left home my brother Abe was raising a troop of Rangers to follow our trail.” He smiled weakly, “Depending on how soon he got ‘em together, we might see a troop of Rangers coming across the plains as early as tomorrow morning.”

Philippa felt a flood of relief, “Thank goodness!”

Frank had it on the tip of his tongue to add that he just hoped the Comanches didn’t find them first, but he thought better of it. No sense in stressing her any further than he had to.

Mankato returned from scouting the area. Even in the dim moonlight Philippa could see that he was more relaxed. “Cousin, you must get your rest. Tomorrow we should ride hard down our trail to meet the Rangers.”

“Guess I’ll just crawl under the blankets and get comfortable.” Frank emitted a short laugh, “Just wake me if snore too loud.” He scooted over to the blankets and crawled under the top one. “But it would be a sight warmer if I had someone to spoon with.”

“Not me.” Mankato laughed, “I have to keep watch.” Still chuckling he stepped into the darkness to take up a position beside a rock where he could see the surrounding countryside yet not be silhouetted by the moonlight.

The question of exactly what spooning meant flitted about in Philippa’s mind like a sparrow trapped in a mall. She hesitated to ask, but her curiosity got the better of her. “Frank, what is spooning?”

“Well darlin’,” she could feel a smile in Frank’s tone, “have you ever seen the way spoons just naturally sort of fit next to one another in a drawer?”

“Yes.”

“Just imagine two people laying together the same way. Two or three bodies under a set of blankets are a darned sight warmer than one.” Frank laughed softly, “Of course, I understand if the idea doesn’t suit you. You do have a reputation after all.”

The chill wind picked up and ruffled Philippa’s hair. The idea of being warm felt pretty good to her. “Worried?” She said as she crawled in next to him, “I’m just worried I didn’t think of it myself.”

The both laughed softly for at least a minute; it was laughter such as only true intimacy could produce. Philippa snuggled close with her bosom pressing into Frank’s back, “This is a lot warmer.”

The feel of her body close to his affected Frank strongly. In a husky voice he replied, “Igod darlin’ it surely is.” He smiled to think that soon they would be together as man and wife…with no restraints. They both drifted off to sleep in close embrace.

The night passed peacefully. Trained to endure cold or heat while remaining watchful and immobile, Mankato had no trouble staying awake. He was a Lakota warrior and proud of the fact. He would keep watch to keep everyone safe from surprise.

While Frank, Philippa and Mankato had been setting up camp, the dirigible anchored at the Wright ranch. Amy was forced to use all her powers of persuasion to keep Leela from shinnying down the anchor cable. “Just a minute Leela and the rope ladder will be down. Spleesh! You could cut yourself to ribbons if there are any frayed parts of the cable.” She laughed, “Besides, Philippa isn’t there.”

Leela grumbled but bowed to the force of Amy’s logic.

Within a short few minutes Leela was on the ground, interrogating Tom who had just gotten back to the ranch hours before.

“So you’re sure about those Rangers?”

“Leela, Abraham has a full sixteen man troop with him. George is with him as well. They are the best trackers and shots in the territory.” He rubbed his chin, “Unless I miss my guess, they are probably right close to joinin’ up with Frank.”

“What about Philippa?” Leela’s anxiety showed on her face and in her voice, “She has a habit of getting into scrapes that only I can get her out of.”

“I don’t know for sure, but I expect Frank has already gotten clear with her.” Tom rubbed his neck, “It don’t do to underestimate my brother. Nor Philippa neither.”

Leela relaxed, “Look I’m sorry. Philippa is the closest thing I have to family. I…I just want to help.”

“The best way you can help is to get some rest and head out in the morning.” Tom stretched and sniffed the air, “It’s going to be a clear day tomorrow. I’ll bet from your balloon you can see the Ranger troop and head for them. They’ll be North by Northwest about sixty miles from here I reckon.”

“Couldn’t we start sooner?”

“Well…you could, but you might overshoot them or lose the trail. The Rangers will keep a cold camp so you won’t have a fire to guide you.”

Jean Luc spoke up, “It would be best to wait.”

Amy chimed in, “We should wait Leela.”

Temporarily defeated, Leela shrugged. “Let’s get some rest. I want to head out at first light.”

As the first rays of the rising sun broke over the horizon, Philippa wriggled out from under the blanket. Frank was still sound asleep, his rhythmic breathing confirming the fact. Although it was chilly, the wind had died down. She stretched and looked eastward to the rising sun. The sky was so clear that she felt that she could just reach out and touch the sun as easily as she touched Frank’s face.

Seeing that Philippa was admiring the sunrise Mankato approached with somewhat more noise than usual. He didn’t want to startle her. Philippa looked over her shoulder, “Good Morning Mankato.”

“Good Morning Ptaysanwee. How is Frank?”

“He’s still asleep.”

“We should wake him. There is a cloud of dust in the east. I think it must be the Rangers.”

Philippa looked to the east and could see a tiny cloud of dust billowing up from the plains. Excitedly she said, “Frank get up! The Rangers are coming!”

Frank threw the blanket off as he sprang to his feet. “It looks like a fair sized group of riders comin’ fast.” He shook his head, “I can see better than yesterday but my vision’s still a bit off.” His voice took on a puzzled tone, “There’s something else. It looks like a spaceship but it’s moving too slowly. It seems to be following the riders. Heck, it’s a blimp!” He turned to Mankato, “Let’s get our gear together and saddle up.”

“Are you ok?” Philippa sounded concerned, “I don’t want you to push yourself too hard.” She touched his bandage, “We ought to at least change this before we ride out.”

Frank responded to her touch by embracing her, “Okay, you can change my bandage.” He winked, “Spooning with you has tuned me up like a fine fiddle. Another day or two and I’ll be up to snuff.”

“It is the Rangers for sure!” Mankato laughed, “That has to be Abraham up front. He’s riding that big bay pacing horse.”

The news spurred them into packing up. Within a few moments they were in the saddle, moving toward the oncoming Rangers.


Chapter 43 – Safe at Last

Leela surveyed the landscape below through a long brass telescope looking for any sign of Philippa. She stiffened and pointed toward a hill to their front, “There they are!”

Amy held her hand out to Leela, “Let me see…let me see!” Taking the telescope from Leela’s hand Amy squinted through it, “You’re right!” She lowered the telescope, grinning at Leela, “That red hair is hard to miss!”

“I’m glad you agree,” Leela said dryly. Taking the telescope back, Leela swept back and forth because she had a feeling that this rescue was coming off a bit too easy. Sure enough, what she saw coming through an arroyo to the north confirmed her bad feelings.

She could see at least twenty mounted warriors wending their way down the arroyo. They were armed with a mixture of lances, bows and rifles. They all wore headdresses and war paint. “Jean Luc,” she said with a calm she did not feel, “I think we have trouble.”

“Trouble,” his head whipped around and his eyes seemed to pop out slightly, “what sort of trouble?”

“Indians…I think they may be Comanches. They are coming down that arroyo to the north…about twenty of them.”

Jean Luc motioned to Amy to take the wheel. Once she had control, Jean Luc took the telescope from Leela. He studied the group of warriors, “You are right, Leela. They are most certainly a Comanche war party.”

“Then we have to warn the Rangers and Philippa!” Leela thought for a moment, “Are there a lot of dirigibles on this planet?”

“As far as I know, this is the only one.”

Leela’s grin became wolfish, “Then I say we give our Comanche friends a new experience.”

“Oho!” Jean Luc returned her grin, “What do you have in mind?”

“Got any explosives on board?”

“Two cases of dynamite,” he laughed, “I was planning on doing a little prospecting in the Wind River Range.” He crossed his arms across his chest, “Seems like you have a plan.”

“I do.” Leela chewed her lip for a moment, “We need to get over them at about 1000 feet. Then we start dropping dynamite on them.”

Jean Luc bellowed with laughter, “If it don’t kill ‘em, it sure will play hob with their horses.”

“Exactly.” Leela nodded, “And the Rangers will be alerted as well.”

“Let’s do it.” Jean Luc rapped out orders into the speaking tube. He turned to Amy, “Will you handle her while Leela and I pitch the dynamite?”

Amy put on a pouty face, “You guys have all the fun.”

“Fine,” Jean Luc shrugged, “I’ll con the ship while Leela and you enjoy yourselves.”

In less than two minutes, a case of dynamite was on the forward deck. John Logan, a short burly crewman with curly dark hair and a grizzled beard began to take sticks out and lay a dozen of them on the deck. He turned to Leela, “How far up will we be throwing them from, Ma’am?”

“About a thousand feet.”

The man did some math in his head, “Six seconds to fall, six seconds for safety…” He looked at Amy, thought about a few of her displays of clumsiness he had witnessed in just the past 24 hours and said, “I’ll make it fifteen seconds for each fuze.” He turned back to his work, gently inserting blasting caps and carefully cut fuzes into each stick. Once the dozen were prepared he looked back to Leela, “I’ve got sixty more sticks in the case. How many more do you want me to prepare?”

“Make it an even two dozen, I think.” She smiled, “Hopefully that many explosions will scatter those Comanches.”

Logan laughed, “I expect so.”

As Jean Luc maneuvered the dirigible into place, Logan pulled out a cigar and lit it. Puffing industriously on his stogie, Logan reached into his pocket, pulled two others out and held them out to Amy and Leela, “You might want to have one of these to light your fuzes. The wind can make lighting a match dicey.”

Both Leela and Amy took a cigar, clamped it between their teeth and allowed Logan to light them. Leela looked over the railing, “There they are.” She pointed almost straight down, “I don’t understand it. They don’t even seem to see us.”

“We don’t fit into their idea of the world,” Logan said quietly, “folks outside Fort Worth don’t notice us much either.”

“They’re about to get a lesson in reality,” Amy said with a grin.

Leela looked down. They were right over the Comanches, “Let’s start dropping this stuff.”

In seconds, three lit pieces of dynamite went over the side. Leela held up her hand, “Let’s see what happens.”

Precisely fifteen seconds after they were lit, the explosives detonated like three terrestrial thunderclaps. Boom! Crash! Boom! Geysers of dirt shot into the air, casting a pall of dust over the pandemonium below. Through the dust Leela, Amy and Logan could see Comanche horses bucking and bolting, warriors being hurled to the ground while those not unhorsed looked around bewildered. The Rangers were surprised as well, but being further away they were able to control their animals.

“Three more,” Leela said. No sooner said than done! Three more sticks of dynamite flew, landed and exploded. More dust clouds rose while the horses below became even more unmanageable. At least half of the warriors were unhorsed by now. Having had enough, the Comanches began to flee up the arroyo in wild disorder.

“Once more as a goodbye present,” Leela said while picking up a stick of dynamite. Logan and Amy picked up their explosives as well. As they lit their fuzes, Amy bobbled her stick of dynamite. It stuck the deck and rolled next to the case of explosives where it lay sputtering. Leela responded by pitching her stick over the side, grabbing Amy’s and sending it sailing as well.

Amy face turned bright red with embarrassment, “Gloops!”

“Good catch,” Logan said dryly.

The trio of explosions which followed sped the already fleeing Comanches on their way. As they vanished from view into the arroyos and gullies, Logan grinned, “Well, they won’t be back for a while. I do believe we shaken their resolve just a tad.”

“I agree.” Leela nodded, “We need to get down there and see how Philippa is doing.”

As the dirigible maneuvered into place, Frank, Philippa and Mankato joined up with Abraham, George and the Ranger troop.

George spoke first, “Well hello Frank! Been campin’, have you?”

“Well, you know…it just gets so dang boring close to home.”

Abraham joined in their laughter, “Sure is good to see all of you all in one piece.”

Philippa was a bit puzzled by their casual tone but a small part of her understood it. So she joined in their laughter, beginning to feel far safer as she laughed.

The dirigible let go it’s anchors only a hundred yards away. The sound of it thudding into the earth drew everyone’s attention. The dirigible slowly cranked to within about twenty feet from the ground. Then a rope ladder lowered. No sooner did it strike the ground than Philippa’s heart leapt to see a familiar purple haired figure rapidly descend.

“Leela!” Philippa shouted and ran towards the ladder. When Leela reached bottom, Philippa was almost there. Leela had planned to chew Philippa out a bit for all the trouble she had been through. But all of those intentions vanished at the sight of Philippa’s joyous face, streaming tears.

“Oh Leela! Leela! It is so good to see you.”

The two women embraced. To Leela’s surprise, she began to cry as she hugged Philippa fiercely. Both women murmured apologies to the other, Philippa for being a bother and Leela for being too late to help. They might have stayed in that state for some time if Amy hadn’t descended the ladder and began to pat their backs sympathetically.

“Have a hanky,” Amy said as she handed one first to Philippa, then to Leela.

Both women dried their tears. Philippa blew her nose loudly as well. Leela grinned at the sound, “Same old Fry.”

Frank ambled up, “Well! Miss Leela and Miss Amy! This is an unexpected surprise.” He pointed north at the low dust haze kicked up by nine sticks of dynamite, “I guess you all had something to do with that.”

“You might say that,” Leela grinned. “There were about twenty Comanches coming down an arroyo. It seems they don’t care much for explosions.”

“Took off, did they?”

“Like a flock of geese,” Amy chimed in.

Frank laughed, “I’d have liked to have seen that!”

“Maybe you can,” Leela looked thoughtful. “Why don’t you two fly home with us? You could see the Comanches on the run. Besides, it will only take an hour or so to reach the ranch.” She pointed at the bloody bandage around Frank’s head, “It will take you at least two days on horseback and you shouldn’t leave that wound untended for that long.”

“Frank!” Philippa’s eyes widened, “She’s right.”

“Darlin’, I’ve gone for a week with far worse.”

“Please! I’d be worried for two days.” Philippa’s voice dropped to almost a whisper, “To tell the truth, I’m not sure my bottom could stand two days hard ride.”

“Okay darlin’ we’ll fly.” Frank shook with laughter, “I’ll go tell the boys. They’ll bring our horses and traps.”

The arrangements made, it was a short flight home. Mankato had reluctantly come along. Having failed as a Wakan Guardian once, he was not going to fail again. His white knuckled approach to flying as a passenger normally would have produced laughter and chiding from his flying companions. But knowing how much it would hurt his pride kept all of their smiles and laughter inside.

The next two weeks at the ranch were a time of healing. Jean Luc flew his dirigible off to prospect, promising to return. During its absence, Philippa spent a lot of time in conversations with Leela and Amy. Unfortunately, Leela and Amy had to return before they could take part in Thomas and Rosalinda’s wedding. As Leela said to Philippa, “If we miss this flight we might not get back in time for your wedding.”

Philippa understood. Their parting had been tear filled, but softened by the knowledge they would see each other soon. Soon after Thomas and Rosalinda tied the knot, Philippa sat down and scratched out a letter to Leela.

“Dear Leela,

I hope this letter finds you well. Thomas and Rosalinda had such a beautiful wedding. They held it right here on the ranch, within sight and sound of the Sweetwater Creek. There were a lot of flowers in bloom, including a little purple one that smelled like honeysuckle. Rosalinda still had one arm in a sling, but she smiled like the cat that ate the canary through the whole ceremony. Poor Thomas was so nervous! He stuttered through most of the vows.

They decided to take their honeymoon here on the ranch. They have their own cabin right across from the main ranch house. George says that except to eat, they haven’t come up for air in a week!

I don’t know how to tell you this, so I guess I’ll just do it. I am not going to use birth control with Frank. I know you disagree with me – as you mad very clear the last day you were here – but Rodeo 5 is not Earth. Besides, when I see all the youngsters in the family, I can’t help but want some of my own.

Let’s face it Leela, I am not you. I’m not as smart or as talented as you are…you know it’s true. As it is, I have a man who loves me, a supportive family – Amy Jane says she can’t wait to help with any babies – and I have a nice nest egg of golden semolians to fall back on.

Am I afraid of pregnancy and childbirth? Heck yes! I’m scared but not terrified. If I could survive being in the hands of those Comanchero butchers, I believe I can handle childbirth.

Now that that is settled, I promised to keep you up on how I’m handling the effects of my kidnapping. I still have occasional nightmares, but they are less frequent. My Lakota friend Sa’ has helped me walk the dream road and take control of my dreams. So, in the end I always shoot that bastard Two Dogs dead. It’s awful, but I’m glad I killed him and not somebody else. Talk about closure! So now my nightmares all end in a good way.

I got the Arcturan Spider Silk you sent. Mrs. Panelli is making it into a dress right now. She fusses over me all the time and to tell the truth, I really…really like it. As a matter of fact, everybody treats me with a lot of respect and affection…even people in town who I’ve never met before.

Frank said it’s because I killed Two Dogs and saved both his and Mankato’s lives. It makes me blush when Frank says that. When I asked him how the town found out he grinned and said, “Why I told ‘em, darlin’.”

They even ran a story in the town newspaper which got picked up in Fort Worth. You were mentioned too. So was Amy. I’ve saved copied of the articles for both of you if you want them.

Please thank Amy for the lingerie. She sent so much that I’m bewildered. Since you are all arriving two days early, maybe we can spend some time picking the right outfit. I so want my wedding night to be perfect.

Well, Amy Jane just came in and asked me to help with dinner. Would you believe I can cook now? I will see you in a few weeks. Safe travels!

Love,

Philippa”


Chapter 44 The Wedding

Philippa sat in her ornate room at the Palace Hotel in Fort Worth, gazing out at the busy street three stories below. The sidewalks were thronged with people as carriages clattered along, kicking up dust. The setting sun caused the dust laden air to take on a warm, orange cast. Relaxing in the overstuffed arm chair, her thoughts flitted over the events of the past few days.

The trip to back to Forth Worth had been uneventful compared to the journey out to Sweetwater. No train robbers or vengeful gunmen had dogged their path. Instead, they had ridden both trail and rail in peace.

Peace.

Philippa was glad for it. Last night she hadn’t had even a single nightmare. Two Dogs was dead…eaten by buzzards or coyotes…and she was safe.

“I’m getting married tomorrow,” she said quietly before taking a deep breath and stooding up. Walking over to a full-length mirror, she turned to view her profile. What she saw pleased her. Lots of walking and riding had firmed her body up.

Philippa felt a sudden surge of excitement. Eyes wide, she exclaimed to her image in the mirror, “I’m getting married tomorrow!” For some reason it sparked a random memory that caused her to laugh.

At breakfast with Frank that morning she had asked, “Frank, what is your middle name?”

Frank had shifted uncomfortably in his seat, “I’d rather not say.”

Startled by his response, Philippa had laughed. “Frank, come on. What is your middle name?”

“I never cared for it.”

“Please tell me!”

“Please don’t ask.”

For a moment Philippa was stumped. What name could be so terrible? It made her so curious that she became determined to find out.

“Frank. It can’t be that bad.”

“I had two gunfights over it.” He looked grim, “I lost count of the men and boys I whipped the tar out of growing up on account of it.”

Philippa blinked, “I promise I’ll never tell.”

“Well…”

She reached out and gently took his hand, “Don’t you love me?”

“Darlin’, I love you more than anything. So, okay.” He looked around to be sure no one was within earshot. Then he leaned across the table and breathed, “It’s Loving.”

“What?”

He quietly repeated, “Loving.”

She began to giggle, “Oh Frank, I think it’s cute.” She squeezed his hand lovingly.

“My mother thought so, too.” He frowned, “I’ve always despised it.”

The clock on the wall chimed seven bringing her out of her thoughts and into the present. Philippa remembered that Leela and Amy were coming to take her out for a bachelorette dinner.

Within a few seconds the ever prompt Leela knocked on the door. Philippa opened it with a cheery, “Hi!” She smiled at the sight of Leela and Amy in walking out dresses rather than their usual garb. Amy wore pink and Leela wore pale blue.

Amy peered at Philippa over Leela’s shoulder, “Ready to go?”

“Sure.”

They walked down the hallway, descended the stairs and entered the dining room. Philippa looked around, hoping she might see Frank. He was nowhere to be seen. However, Amy Jane, Dawn Marie and Mrs. Panelli were seated at a table which had three empty seats.

Leela seemed to have read Philippa’s mind, “All the men are over at the Savoy, having dinner. You know the tradition; it’s bad luck to see each other on your wedding day.”

“That’s not till tomorrow.”

“True enough, but I wish I could just the same.”

Philippa was glad that Amy Jane was present. It meant that Leela and Amy wouldn’t keep trying to convince her to go on the pill. Also, they wouldn’t talk about snu-snu too openly. “I guess I’m becoming a prune…or is it prude…I forget,” Philippa thought with a mental shrug of the shoulders. Regardless, she wasn’t going to worry about it. As Frank had said earlier, “Tonight is a time to enjoy the company of friends and family.”

Enjoy their company Philippa did. The conversation stayed pretty general until Amy Jane excused herself to go to bed. Then Leela got down to cases, “Phi, I know you don’t want to hear this, but I really think you ought to use some kind of birth control…if only for the first couple of months.”

“Please Leela,” Philippa sighed, “I know you want what is best for me. But I have to follow my heart.”

“Are you sure?” Amy asked.

“Yes.” She nodded, “I’ve never been surer of anything in my life.”

“Don’t-a you worry.” Mrs. Panelli gave a deep throated chuckle, “Phi, she’s-a gonna be hokay. Dawn an-a me, we gonna take-a good care of her, you bet.”

Dawn chimed in, “We’ve been havin’ babies here for a long time. She’ll be fine.”

Something else was bothering Leela, “Phi, are you really sure you want the Professor to give you away? George offered to do the honors.”

“No.” Philippa shook her head, “He may be an amoral old crackpot, but he is my closest relative. I won’t hurt his feelings.”

“Okay, but when he does something crazy, don’t say I didn’t tell you so.”

After that, the conversation drifted aimlessly. Finally, Philippa yawned and stretched, “I’m sorry. I’m just kind of tired. Do you mind if I call it a night?”

A chorus of no’s came from those at the table. Leela stood, “I’ll walk you to your room.”

“Okay.” Philippa stood and nodded to everyone, “Good night.”

As they ascended the stairs Leela cleared her throat, “Phi, I wanted to say this without anyone else around.” Her voice trembled, “I hope that you and Frank will be as happy as Samuel and I are now. I love you Fry. You are the sister I never had.”

“Thanks Leela. I love you too.”

They arrived at the door. Leela gave Philippa a hug and a peck on the cheek, “You are going to be so beautiful tomorrow.”

“Thanks Leela…I hope so.”

“Good night Phi, you will be.”

“Good night Leela.”

The following afternoon Philippa stood in the entryway of the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth with the Professor at her side. She wore a simple wedding dress of dazzlingly white Arcturan Spider Silk. Her hair was piled in a tightly woven bun with curls on the side and was topped with a sheer ribbon edged veil which extended halfway down her back. Around her neck she wore the locket Frank had given her after the train holdup.

That morning Leela had done Philippa’s makeup while Amy had given her a manicure and a pedicure. She thanked them both over and over. Both women laughed when Philippa said, “I’m so glad I have you both to help. If I did this myself I’d look like some kind of demented clown.”

The Professor was conventionally dressed in top hat and tails. His footwear was – to say the least – unorthodox. Claiming his feet were hurting, the Professor had insisted on wearing his fuzzy blue house slippers. So right there in the atrium he had pulled off his brogans and fished his slippers out of his pocket.

Rather than start a ruckus that would have resulted in Leela saying ‘I told you so,’ Philippa simply sighed in resignation.

Amy – who was rushing around taking photos before going taking her place on the altar – had no such problem. “Spleesh! Professor! You need to change your shoes.”

“Amy please, don’t say a word.” Philippa replied, “It will give me a funny story to tell my children.”

“Okay.”

Amy laid her camera aside as Kif entered the entryway. She smilingly took his arm and marched down the aisle to the stately strains of Bach’s ‘Wachet Auf’.

The music seemed to startle the Professor, “What am I doing here?”

“You are giving me away, Professor.”

“Are you certain?”

“Yes.” Philippa felt panic begin to arise, “You wanted to…remember?”

“Oh my yes.”

“Thank you, Lord!” Philippa breathed quietly.

“Eh? What was that?”

The doors opened and the first notes of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March sounded. Philippa gave the Professor’s arm a slight tug, “Let’s go.”

Concentrating as she was on keeping the Professor on track, Philippa forgot to be nervous. Before she knew it, they were at the altar. From behind her veil, she could see Frank as he stood next to the preacher. Frank had a smile that seemed to stretch from ear to ear. The sight calmed her for some reason.

When the preacher asked, “Who gives this woman in marriage to this man?” the Professor stood silent for an awful moment before suddenly saying, “Oh my, that would be me.”

However, instead of returning to his seat, the Professor stood at Philippa’s side as if he had no intention of ever leaving. Munda saved the day by stealthily grabbing the Professor’s coat tail and giving it a sharp tug. He jumped slightly but took his seat without further ado.

The exchange of vows went without a hitch. When the preacher said, “You may kiss the bride,” Frank lifted Philippa’s veil. He looked in her eyes and said, “May I kiss you?”

Philippa giggled, “That’s what the preacher said!”

When their lips touched Philippa felt as though her bones had just melted. She was glad that Frank’s strong arms were around her. When their lips parted she wondered if she would be able to make it down the aisle.

When the musicians began to play Clarke’s ‘Trumpet Voluntary’, Philippa knew she would be okay. As she went down the aisle, Philippa felt as though she were floating.

The wedding reception went quickly. Because of her excitement Philippa was barely able to eat. She did drink some champagne, but not enough to get more than a bit tipsy.

Amy Jane caught the bridal bouquet while Bender caught the garter. Because all of the trains had left by the time they left the reception, Frank and Philippa returned to the Palace Hotel. They took the antique wrought iron cage elevator up to the wedding suite.

Frank carried her across the threshold. Once the door was closed, Frank swept her into his arms. He growled, “May I kiss you, darlin’?”

The thought that Frank would still ask for kisses seemed silly. Philippa giggled, “As many as you want.”

Her second kiss as a married woman still made Philippa dizzy. “Oh Frank…I love you so much.”

“I love you too, darlin’.”

A few silent moments passed. Frank cleared his throat, “Well…I guess it’s time for bed.”

“B…bed.” Philippa felt suddenly very nervous, “I’ll go change. Don’t go anywhere!”

Frank smiled, “I’ll be right here.”

She bolted into the bathroom and closed the door.

Frank began whistling ‘Streets of Laredo’ as he stripped off his clothing. He got into the bed and stretched out to wait for his bride.

Philippa stood in the bathroom with three different sets of lingerie laid out in front of her. She nervously chewed her thumb as she strove to select the perfect one to wear for her big night. Because Leela and Amy wouldn’t get off the subject of birth control, they never had gotten around to helping her with picking the set which would best suit her.

One hour later, Philippa was still choosing.

A bit worried, Frank rose from the bed and tapped lightly on the bathroom door, “Darlin’ are you okay?”

Startled, Philippa jumped a foot, “D…Don’t come in! I’m fine. I’ll be out in just a few minutes.”

“Okay darlin’.” Frank went back and got under the sheets where he fell into a light doze.

Half an hour later, Philippa gently opened the door. She padded quietly to the foot of the bed. She was little surprised to see Frank sleeping. An impish smile crossed her face. Slowly, she began to gently tickle his feet.

Frank shifted around a bit before he woke up. When he opened his eyes, Philippa’s appearance stunned him. “I’god, darlin’ you are prettier than any Prairie Rose.” He rose up on his elbows as of to rise from the bed. In a husky voice she said quietly, “Don’t get up.”

Reaching up slowly, Philippa undid the halter tie to her dazzlingly white satin babydoll nightie. The nightie slid down her body to the floor, leaving her standing there clad only in a pair of lacy white silk panties. Carefully, she reached up and undid her hair, shaking it out before allowing it to fall loosely onto her shoulders. She looked Frank in the eyes and smiled.

Frank gasped, his body quivering in anticipation.

Philippa was shivering with emotion as well. She was still a bit frightened, but excited as well. Amy was right! The sight of Frank’s obvious arousal was a tremendous turn on.

She glided to his side of the bed, slipped under the covers next to him and whispered in his ear, “I love you Frank.” She stroked his chest, “Now you love me.”

He did. That evening was a continual round of sensual pleasure – a joyous exploration with fingertips, lips and tongues. It was in the grey hour before dawn before they were fully sated. As they were drifting off into a love drugged sleep, Philippa had a sudden thought, “Frank?”

He murmured, “Yes darlin’?”

“You don’t have to ask to kiss me anymore.”

He chuckled, “Okay darlin’.”

They fell into deep and contented sleep in each other’s arms.

The next morning Philippa relaxed in the hot bath Frank drew just for her. Scenes of their lovemaking the previous night danced through her head. She said in a dreamy voice, “I wonder if they have room service?”

Frank popped his head into the doorway, “Pardon me darlin’?”

“Oh,” she blinked in surprise, “I just wonder if they have room service.” She adopted what she felt was a sexy tone, “We might not leave the room for a few days.”

His smile made her giddy, “It’s crazy how it affects me.” But what Frank said next felt like a dash of cold water in the face, “We have to go to the wedding breakfast, that’s why I’m gettin’ dressed.”

“The what?!”

“The wedding breakfast, darlin’. It’s a tradition here on Rodeo 5.”

“Who are we eating with?”

“Mostly family but the Planet Express Crew will be there as well.”

“Frank…I just can’t!” Philippa eyes widened in sheer panic at the thought of facing everyone…particularly Leela.

Puzzlement showed on Frank’s face which was mirrored in his voice, “In heaven’s name, why?”

She could feel her face burning with embarrassment, “Because…because they know what we’ve been doing up here!”

“Why darlin’ that’s what married folks do!” Then he threw back his head and laughed until he cried.

Suddenly angry Philippa said in a frosty tone, “Franklin L. Wright, you stop it! It makes me feel dumb, you laughing so hard.”

He stopped laughing immediately, “I’m sorry darlin’. I never…ever…want to make you feel dumb.” He smiled a smile which melted her heart, “You are just so pure of heart it brings me joy.”

“Do we really have to go?”

“Not if you don’t want to, darlin’.” He scratched his head, “I suppose I could tell them you don’t feel up to it.”

She shook her head, “No, don’t do that. Hand me a towel, please.” Smiling she held out her hand, “I’ll go. But if I die of embarrassment, you’ll be sorry.” She stood up as she took the towel, acknowledging Frank’s appreciative intake of breath with another smile.

Frank would have liked to have stayed to watch Philippa towel off, but he realized that if he did that one thing might lead to another. Then they really wouldn’t make it to the wedding breakfast.

When they entered the dining room, Philippa was surprised when everyone there stood and began to applaud. She could feel her ears and cheeks began to burn in response to it.

Philippa gave a slight wave to all as she headed to the head table. As she sat down at the head table, Leela leaned over and said, “Now I know where they got the expression, ‘blushing bride.’”

“I think I’ll start callin’ you Rosie,” George chimed in, “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anyone blush so.”

“Rosie,” Amy Jane echoed, “It suits you.”

Philippa shrugged, “I’ve been called worse.”

Frank had the last word, “If you don’t mind darlin’, it suits you. After all, you are a Prairie Rose.”

Philippa smiled. The thought of being unique suited her very well…very well indeed.


Chapter 45 – Walkin’ on Sunshine

“So that is how I married your great-great grandfather,” Philippa finished the story with her usual flourish. Her voice had taken on a thin, reed-like quality that required a listener to be attentive. As a result, the crowd of twenty-three great-great grandchildren jamming the ranch house living room had clustered fairly close her rocking chair to hear the story.

Her eldest great-great grandchild, Rose Leela Maxine-Wright stood first. She was almost six feet tall, with a mass of curly red hair. Her deep set hazel eyes complemented her smooth fair skin. She looked to be perhaps 30 years old. Many said she was the closest thing to a perfect blend of Frank and Philippa both in looks and temperament.

Rose glanced at the others, “Okay everyone, let’s let Nana Rose rest.” Without a murmur, the others stood. Each kissed Philippa on the cheek and murmured something in parting. When they had all left, Rose sat down. She smiled, “Nana, is there anything I can get for you?”

Philippa smiled in return as she shook her head, “No Rosie, I have everything I need.”

Rose reached out and took Philippa’s hand, “You miss Paw-Paw Frank, don’t you?”

Philippa smiled, “I’ll see him soon. He’s only been away for three months. Why, I can remember back in ’26 he was gone for almost a year. That was when the early snows came. He was caught on the other side of the divide, you know.”

Rose said gently, “Nana, don’t you remember Paw-Paw Frank’s funeral?”

“Well of course I do my dear.” She smiled, “I haven’t lost my wits yet. I’ll go to Frank,” She shook her head, “He won’t come to me.” She exhaled, “I’m a bit tired, Rosie. I think I’ll take a nap.”

Rose stood and took a coverlet from the couch. She spread it over Philippa before bending over to kiss her cheek, “I love you Nana.”

“I love you too Rosie.”

The cold winter wind singing over the prairie soon lulled Philippa to sleep. She smiled as the sweet dreams came. She had been asleep for an hour when it happened.

A voice sweeter to her than any in the Universe spoke, “Philippa, it’s time to go.”

Philippa opened her eyes to see Frank standing before her outlined in brilliant golden light. She blinked, “Frank? Is that you?”

He held out his hand, “It’s me darling.” He smiled sweetly, “It’s time to go.”

She took his hand and stood up. “That’s odd,” she said aloud, “I didn’t even have to use my cane.” Looking more closely at Frank, she realized that he looked young and fit. She looked at her hands, the wrinkles and age spots were gone! Her face took on a look of wonder.

“Don’t worry darlin’, you’ve crossed over.” Frank laughed, “You’ll never be tired, sad, or lonely again.”

Philippa turned her head. The body she had grown used to for so many years was slumped forward slightly in her favorite chair, the coverlet still on its lap.

“I guess I’m gone.” She paused, “I should be upset but I just feel happy.”

Frank began to gently lead her by the hand, “Come on sweetheart, we’ve a long ride ahead of us.”

“I’d better get my coat. It’s cold as…” She paused because Frank had burst out laughing, “Franklin Loving Wright, what is wrong with you?”

“Just come. You’ll see.”

When they stepped onto the porch, Philippa was amazed to see a carpet of prairie flowers stretching into the distance. It was pleasantly warm and the ever present prairie wind was the barest zephyr. Tethered to the hitching post were two horses she recognized instantly. Frank’s favorite, Old Paint and her favorite – Misty. They were saddled and ready to go.

Frank helped her into the saddle, then he mounted. Philippa asked, “Which way do we go?”

“Follow me darling.” He spun his horse around, “Heaven awaits.”

They galloped across the fields until they left the farmhouse far behind.

Two years later, during springtime, Rose Leela Wright stood with a large crowd of townspeople, Lakota, family and tourists at the entrance to the old Oak Hill Cemetery. The mayor and some dignitaries were on a platform waiting for the arrival of the Territorial Governor, the Honorable William Knightly.

In due course, he arrived. Like many of his ilk, he had a mane of white hair and the ponderous manner of a walrus…out of water. After the appropriate greetings, he ascended to the podium and began to speak, “Ladies and Gentlemen, today I come to rename Oak Hill Cemetery. It is altogether fitting and proper that I should do this. Back in my younger days, I knew Frank and Philippa Wright well. They were fine and decent people…and they loved each other more than any couple I’ve ever known.” He gestured toward the crowd, “Many of you here today are descendants and family, so in a sense I’m preaching to the choir.”

A ripple of laughter ran through the crowd. The Governor waited until it subsided. Then he continued, “Their bodies have lain together in this cemetery for the past two years. Now there is nothing remarkable in that. However,” he gestured toward their graves, “that a Prairie Rose bush should sprout between their graves for the past two years…now that is truly remarkable.”

He paused to wipe a tear from his eye, “Yes…truly remarkable. I can’t help but feel that they are here right now and that their love lingers here, nourishing the Prairie Rose.” His voice rose, “That is why without further ado, I declare this to be the Rose Hill Cemetery in honor of Franklin and Philippa Wright!”

The crowd cheered and applauded for over five minutes. The Lakota began to chant. When the Lakota finished, the Governor motioned for quiet, “Now I invite you all to pass by the graveside and pay your respects. Enjoy this beautiful day and thank you all for coming.”

Rose remained by the graveside until dusk. Alone at last, she knelt by the graveside, “I miss you Nana.” A gust of wind gently brushed Rose’s cheek. She smiled, “I’ll keep this graveside neat…don’t you worry.” Rising, she took a moment to gaze at the Prairie Rose bush growing between the graves. Her heart suddenly lightened and she headed back down the hill in the gathering darkness, whistling an old tune Nana had taught her, “I’m walking on sunshine.”

Buddies