Friday, February 9, 2018

Between Breaths

This falls toward the end of the series finale,
'Til Death Do Us Part, as a young couple
faces the crossroads between hope for the
future and another heart-wrenching loss.
Breathe in.  Breathe out.  She tried to reduce all life to that one, simple, basic action.

The soft silkiness of the water lapped rhythmically at the edges of her consciousness as she slipped lower into its welcoming warmth.  It had lost the biting heat of earlier but still provided a comforting retreat from the crisp autumn air the fireplace couldn’t quite hold back, despite the roaring fire she’d built in the primitive stone hearth.  

She imagined it was the same sort of soft warmth that kept a babe sleepy in its mother’s womb, and left that infant screaming in defiance months later when pushed out into the cold, often cruel world.

Her breath sounded harsh to her ears as she sucked the air in through her mouth and blew it back out through her nose.

Despite her best efforts to completely blank her mind, it insisted on rambling frantically from one possible disastrous loss to another.  Things had been going too well in her life lately.  Something bad was coming soon.  She could feel it in her bones.  It left her cold in a way no fire or hot bath could completely thaw.

The rise and fall of her chest as she deliberately slowed each breath to half the pace her body wanted kept the water moving in gentle waves around her. It was the only movement as she lay there, thinking.

There’d been so much loss in her life.  It had started with her mother… her father… then, as she’d built a new family, she’d lost those members, too, one by one, to violence and tragedy.  Ike’s loss had hit her particularly hard.  Though her new husband had already agreed they’d name this babe after him.  Her hand moved crept across her belly to gently cup the slightly rounded mound that had been a flat plane just a few scant weeks ago.  The curvature held the promise of a brighter future to blot out the dark past.

The thought of her husband brought a smile to her face.  He was off at his new job.  She wasn’t fond of the hours it kept him away from her, but they were still better than his old job.  She didn’t fear for his life every second he was out of her sight anymore.  She still missed him.  She didn’t know if she could take anymore losses.  But life just seemed to keep handing them out.

She’d spent the day mucking around in the dirt outside their new home.  He’d suggested planting flowers, even offered to buy her a rose bush from some travelers heading west on a nearby wagon train.  But her mind had turned to things more practical.  With a new job in a new town and a new home, they needed food.  She’d been planting onions, turnips, collard greens in her new winter garden to feed them through the hard, cold months quickly closing in on them.

The thought had her reaching over the edge of the tub to check the temperature in the bucket of what had been boiling water that she’d left near to hand.  It was that perfect level of warm, not too much, not too little.

Deep breath in.  Slow release.  She steeled herself to move. 

Sitting up she grabbed the bucket and dumped its contents over her head, rinsing away the soap she’d used to scrub her hair.  The split second of heat that drenched her body was welcome. The bone deep shiver that followed in its wake, as cooling air hit overheated skin, was not.

She heard familiar steps come crunching up the porch and the door begin to creak open.  Her husband was home.  It was still strange to think of him as that, despite how long they’d been close before and how they’d both twisted and turned through their difficult courtship. 

Husband.  Such a simple word to hold so many feelings. It was strength. It was support.  It was love.  It was also freedom in a way she’d never really expected.  She felt the edges of her lips turn up in a half smile as she reached for the toweling cloth she’d left sitting over a chair by the fire.  It, at least, was still warm. 

Perhaps her fears were unfounded.  Maybe this time things would be good.  With the Express ending the boys were no longer risking their lives to get the mail through.  They were beginning to find other, often safer, jobs.  Teaspoon was doing his best to keep them out of the war, despite the youthful stubbornness of Jimmy and Billy.  Cassie was sure to convince Noah to stay home, she thought, maybe even move on further West.  Despite the looming war she felt sure her family would sit the fighting out.

Stepping the rest of the way out of the tub, she wrapped the toweling cloth around herself bringing the sunshine saturated cloth to her nose, inhaling the comforting scent deeply.  Maybe, just maybe, she could relax now and enjoy the good things in her life, assured her loved ones were safe.

********

He stopped dead at the sight of her.  No matter how long they were together he didn’t think she would ever stop taking his breath away.  She was so beautiful.  He thought of the poem she’d read him the other night as they’d lain in bed, entwined beneath the warm quilts, talking about everything and nothing.

She walks in beauty… yeah.  That was her, alright.  His wife.  She was so slight, you’d think a slight breeze would send her flying across the plains like a tumbleweed.  But she was sturdy and strong, as deeply rooted in the western soil as the prairie grass outside their window. She was his Prairie Rose. 

He couldn’t imagine his life without her.  Best friend.  Wife.  Soon to be mother.  Home. 

He hated to break the news to her.  Breathing in all that she was to him, he could hear the harshness of his lungs filling to capacity as loudly as a scream in the silent room.  He stepped closer, pushing his hat back off his head and wrapping his arms around her waist, pulling her tight against his chest, offering the only comfort the could.

“Emma,” he said quietly, his rough voice scratchier than ever as he whispered into her ear, “Teaspoon just wired.  It’s not good.”


Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Sacrifice*

This is an A/U version of the season 3 episode The Sacrifice.  From the first time I saw it, I marveled at the similarities in character between Adrian Dawkins and The Kid.  I wondered, is that what would have happened to The Kid if he hadn't joined the Pony Express, for whatever reason?  So, what if Adrian really was The Kid?  This is my re-envisioning of that episode if the answer were yes.

He nervously shifted from one foot to the other, the hand holding the horses’ reins clenching and unclenching, the shadows of the alley hiding his eyes more effectively than the brim of his white hat.  The quiet was getting to him. All he could hear was the chirping of birds, a dog barking in the distance, a lone rooster crowing.  The way his heart was racing the streets should be full of people yelling for help already.

He didn’t like this plan.  Not a bit.  But he was the youngest member of the group and didn’t feel like he could change Bart’s mind, let alone everyone else’s.  He owed them, too, so he couldn’t exactly walk away from the gang, the only family he’d had since heading west two years ago.  He just prayed no one got hurt today.

He felt the explosion before he heard it, the rumble shivering up his bones and into his heart. Tugging his hat down lower over his eyes, he pulled on the reins, clucking at the horses to get them moving.

“Yah!” 

By the time they reached the entrance to the alley they were moving at what was for him a full run. Head down he doggedly headed toward the bank where Rufus and Harvey stood guard, rifles at the ready.  Bart and Angus came running out of the building with bulging bags gripped tightly in one hand, guns in the other.

That’s when the gunshots started.  He slouched further down into the saddle he’d just climbed into, his shoulders practically reaching his ears under the brim of his hat as he turned his horse in the opposite direction of the gunfire and spurred his horse forward.  He hoped…. nope.  His companions were returning fire.  He just hoped no one got hurt.

Suddenly, he realized the rest of the gang was headed in the opposite direction. HE stared off toward the end of the street for a split second in longing, then sighed, and tried to force the horse to turn around.  It reared, neighing in distress at the harsh tug of the bit and the noise of the gunfight. 

“Git goin’!” he grouched under his breath at the recalcitrant equine.

As the animal’s front hooves pounded back down into the dust of the street, a sudden, sharp pain blossomed in his shoulder.

“Ahhh!” 

The force of the bullet propelled him sideways, off his horse.  The hard landing left himgasping for breath for a moment.  AS he slowly managed to refill his lungs, he heard steps crunching across the dirt road toward him.  Rolling over, he saw a young man about his own age, standing in trousers and long johns, staring down the barrel of a six shooter at him.

“Alright, you got me,” he grunted in acknowledgement, wondering where the Marshal was.  “Now what’re ya goin’ to do with me?”
*********

“Jimmy!”  The old Texas Ranger’s growly voice pierced the rain drenched morning, slicing through the young man’s slumber.  “Jimmy,” he repeated again, a touch more quietly this time, walking over to prod the younger man with the toe of his boot. “Come on, son, it ain’t like we’ve been ridin’ all night.”

The younger man pulled the oiled canvas down from where it sheltered his face, peering out from under his black hat and scowled.

“It was dark when we left Rock Creek,” he grumbled.

“It was a cloudy mornin’, yes,” the older man sighed, clasping his hands in front of his ample belly. “You know, if you had your way you’d sleep through the best years of your life.”

“No, I wouldn’t,” came the reluctant answer, as the younger man began to push himself to a full sitting position. “But I would on my days off, which is what today is supposed to be!”

“I know that. I told you I’m sorry,” ,” his grey haired elder apologized again.  He turned and walked back toward his horse, still talking. “Lou and Noah are out on a special run. The rest of the boys are out, too.”

Standing, Jimmy wrapped up his slicker and tied it to behind the saddle of his own horse.

“You could’ve waited for Lou and Noah to come back, you know.”

“No, I couldn’t,” the older man said, the ‘no’ coming out as an explosion of air as he heaved himself into the saddle. “For one thing, they had some time off, too.”

Jimmy paused to look up at his boss, “Now wait a minute!”

The older man didn’t give him a chance to continue. “And for another, although I’m hoping against it,” he sighed, “well, I may just need your gun.”

“You really think so, hunh?”

Watching Jimmy mount, Teaspoon continued explaining. “Davenport’s a small town in the middle of a big nowhere.”

Jimmy mounted up and they turned their horses back toward the trail they’d left behind an hour earlier when stopping to give the animals a rest.

Teaspoon continued his explanation.

“And with a gang that’s already killed a marshal and a prisoner this gang might want to spring and a deputy wet behind the ears between ‘em, what we got is.. “
Jimmy finished for him. “A lot of trouble.”

Teaspoon cleared his throat.  “Maybe. But seein’ as it’s three days away, I figured ridin’ made more sense than waitin’.”

Jimmy resigned himself to his fate, while mentally throwing few curse words Lou’s way. “I just hope Lou’s havin’ a grand ol’ time.”

*********

“So, Lou, what are you thinkin’ ‘bout doin’ with your time off when we get back to Rock Creek,” Noah asked as he and the female rider tied their bedrolls onto the backs of their saddles.

“Actually, I’m plannin’ on doin’ somethin’ with it before I get back,” she smiled, fondly patting the saddlebag with one hand and grabbing the reins with her other.

“Like what?”

“Gonna go visit Theresa and Jeremiah,” she smiled, leaping nimbly into the saddle.  “Feels like I haven’t seen them in a coon’s age. Certainly not since we moved to Rock Creek, despite it bein’ closer to St. Joe.”

“That’s an awful long way for just a three day vacation,” Noah said, looking back over the site of Fort Kearny as he mimicked Lou’s motions, mounting his own horse.  “You’ll get, what, an afternoon with ‘em, before you have to head back?”

“If I ride hard, I can swing a whole day there,” she said.  “Besides, family’s worth it.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Noah smiled, a sadness he rarely spoke about tinging his eyes and the edges of his lips. 

“See ya back in Rock Creek,” she smiled over her shoulder at him.  “I got a date with a couple of hooligans.”

“Hope you’ve got a dress in that saddlebag,” Noah laughed.  “Cause restaurants in St. Joe are goin’ ta expect you ta take that hat off.  No passin’ fer a man, then!”

“No pretendin’, this week,” she grinned back at him, tipping her hat to him. 

“So I take it yer not goin’ to wait fer me to keep up?”

“Sorry, Noah,” she said, turning her grin into a mischievous snort, “but not this time.”

With a whoop she dug her heels into Lightning’s sides, urging the gelding into a flat out run.

**********
“Wouldn’t ya figure?” she muttered to herself a few hours later, looking down at the shoe Lightning had thrown a few yards back.  Luckily she’d noticed the change in his stride right away.  So the horse hadn’t suffered any permanent injury.  But now… now there was no way she’d make it to St. Joe.  It was going to take her the rest of the day just to make it to the nearest town, some place in the middle of nowhere called Davenport, if she remembered the sign she’d seen about a mile back right. 

Pulling the saddle off the horse’s back, she threw it over one shoulder, grabbing his reins with the other and settled in for a long hike.

“Come on, boy,” she urged.  “We gotta get goin’ if we’re goin’ ta find a comfy place ta rest tonight.”

The horse neighed at her, bobbing his head up and down as if in agreement, then skittering sideways a few steps as thunder rumbled in the distance.

“Oh, joy,” she groaned.

**********

The walk, hike more like, had been just as long and painful as she’d expected.   Not only did her feet hurt from the unaccustomed action, but she had blisters, a lot of them.  First her boots, meant for riding not walking, had rubbed her heels raw, then the saddle had dug into her shoulder.  She’d tried switching it to the other shoulder, but that had meant leading Lightning from the off side and the horse, already skittish from the short downburst they’d walked through, wasn’t having any of that. 

But now they were almost there, the church’s steeple from its spot anchoring one end of main street, so common in these small territorial towns, a welcome sight. 

As the pair, woman and horse, drew nearer, the equine raised his nose, sniffing almost delicately, then whinnying in greeting to the horses standing outside the fenced cemetery on the edge of town.  The crowd gathered there a silent testimony to someone’s recent loss.

Lou grimaced.  She’d been to far too many funerals in her young life already, starting with her mother’s.  But, reaching the edge of the cemetery, she paused out of respect.  The preacher’s words reaching out to her as she waited.

“If love can be measured by what one is willing to sacrifice, Marshal Oakley is the best friend this town ever had.  But as our Lord gave Himself to be taken, that we might live, Marshal Oakley, too, gave his life for us. We should reflect on those aspects of our lives that we so often take for granted.”

Lou nodded, trying not to get emotional as the preacher’s words transported her back to those days not too long ago fresh with the pain of Ike’s loss.  She knew any of her brothers from the Pony Express would die for her, and vice versa.  And she’d spent a lot of time thinking about the importance of family since Ike’s loss. 

“Aspects Marshal Oakley realized were worth dying for.” The preacher paused for a moment to let his words sink in.  Then wrapped up the service. “Let us pray.”

Lou waited until the funeral had broken up, and only the preacher and the grave digger remained. 

Clearing her throat, she asked, “Can either of you point me in the direction of the blacksmith?  My horse threw a shew a few miles back.”

“I’m sorry, young lady,” the preacher said gently.  Lou started, surprised he’d sussed out her gender so easily.  Most men were fooled by the boy’s clothing she wore.  “But he’s out of town this week.  Went to visit his daughter over by Fairbury way.  She just had a baby, his first grandchild. A boy, I hear.” A soft smile crossed his weathered face. “At any rate, he won’t be back for a couple of days.  You might could trade your mount in for another at the livery or,” he quickly added seeing her look of negation, “you could spend a couple of days at the hotel, there.”

He pointed with his chin to the only two-story building in the small town, a sign out front advertising rooms to rent.

“Thank you kindly,” she said.  “And,” she paused a moment before adding, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

**********

Lou opened her eyes and sighed.  As exhausted as she was, she couldn’t sleep, her muscles seemingly jumping around of their own will beneath her skin.  The preacher had helped her find the livery where she’d arranged to stable Lightning until the blacksmith could get back to town.

She almost laughed out loud as she remembered her encounter with the clerk at the hotel.  She’d walked in alone, trail dirty and weary to the bone, barely dragging her feet through the door.

“Good afternoon,” the pleasantly plump clerk had smiled at her in welcome.

“Afternoon,” Lou said with a sigh.  It had been hard to believe it was only afternoon. It felt more like midnight.  She could ride for days on end without feeling this exhausted.  “I’d like to get a room.”

“Sure.  Mr. and Mrs… “

Lou hid a smile behind her hand.  “Uh, it’s just me.”

“Oh,” sudden disapproval dripped from the woman’s lips as they turned downward. “I’m afraid I’ll have to give you the attic chamber.  It’s the only one we have safe for,” a slight change in her tone indicated her doubt about the next word, “ladies travelling alone.”
Lou ducked her head this time, trying hard not to laugh.  The woman’s reaction was so predictable once she’d figured out Lou was female. Though how she’d done so so quickly niggled at the back of Lou’s brain.  What was it about this town that everyone seemed to see through her disguise? Maybe it was time to cut her hair again, despite what Rachel had said.

“It’s on a separate floor,” the clerk said warningly.  “Separate from everyone but me!”

“That’ll be fine.”

“Supper’s at six.  Sharp.”

“No thanks,” Lou said. “I’ve had a long day. Doubt I could stay awake that late.”

That had been three hours ago.  She’d napped for a while, but her body’s complaints about the abuse she’d subjected it to today had woken her up a half hour ago and, despite her best efforts, it wasn’t letting her return to her slumber.

She sighed and rolled over.  Might as well take advantage of the enforced rest to do some window shopping.  Maybe she’d find something for Buck’s birthday.  It was coming up soon and she still had no idea what to give him.

**********

Lou stood, transfixed, outside the big picture window of the dressmaker’s shop.  She had the blue party dress Rachel had made for her stowed in her saddlebags back at the hotel.  But something about this brown on cream ensemble just called to her.  She lifted her hat off the top of her head, nervously running a hand over her short locks before carefully placing the hat back down.  What could it hurt, she asked herself?  Everyone else in town already seemed to have figured out she wasn’t the boy she pretended to be.  And the town was too far from Rock Creek for anyone here to somehow connect her to a Pony Express rider there.  It should be safe enough.  Should.

Aw, what the hell, she thought.  You only live once, right? 

Besides, even if caught, what difference would it make?  Teaspoon had already told them the Express would only last another couple of months.

Making her decision, she squared her shoulders and turned to the door a few feet away.  The tinkling of the bell as she went through it sending a shiver of delight deep into the recesses of her soul she usually neglected.

**********

Lou nervously smoothed the soft satiny fabric of her new dress with one hand as she clutched the package with her boy’s clothes in the other.  Stepping carefully out onto the boardwalk, she took a deep breath and pulled her shoulders back, chin up.  The dressmaker had even helped her put her up into an up do, the brown curls pulled gracefully back into what she’d called a French twist.  Lou had never felt so grown-up, polished, feminine.  Despite her care, she still tripped over her own feet, or maybe it was the long skirts of her new dress as she crossed the street. 

She dropped her work clothes in her room and headed back out.  Her shopping trip had cost her a chance to eat supper at the hotel, but she had no regrets.  Lou stopped in front of the hotel’s big picture window to double check her appearance, carefully tucking a few strands of hair that had come loose back into the dressmaker’s carefully crafted chignon.

As she turned, she ran straight into the preacher.

“Sorry, miss, I couldn’t help but watch you,” he laughed.

“I guess I was puttin’ on quite a show,” Lou murmured, embarrassed.

“No, no, no, no. Don’t be embarrassed.  This town could use a whole lot more people with pretty smiles on their faces like yours.”

Lou blushed at the compliment, ducking her head in sudden shyness.  She wasn’t used to male attention like this and didn’t quite know how to respond.  In an effort to change the topic, she blurted out, “I heard it was your Marshal you were burying this afternoon.”

The dressmaker had talked of little else while she’d performed Lou’s transformation.

“I guess it hit people pretty hard, hunh?”

The preacher’s smile dimmed.  “Yeah, I keep trying to tell them something good can come from a man’s death. But I see they’re having their doubts.”

“I guess you can’t blame ‘em.”

“No, I guess not.” The preacher shook his head cynically. “Faith is in such short supply these days.”

The distinguished looking man of God started to turn away.  Lou reached out to grab the edge of his coat sleeve gently.

“Uh, someone said Teaspoon Hunter’s coming to get your prisoner.  He’ll make things right again,” she reassured him. “He’s a good man.”

“So was Marshal Oakley.”

With a nod, the preacher returned to his ramble down the boardwalk, shoulders hunched.

Lou shook her head and turned back to the window for one last check of her appearance before heading to the restaurant at the other end of town the dressmaker had told her about.
“My, my, my,” a familiar voice drawled out.  “If I’d known this town had such pretty ladies I might’ve visited earlier.”

“Noah?!” Lou gasped, whirling in place to find the tall black man standing a few feet away, at the end of this section of boardwalk.  “What are you doin’ here?!  I thought you were headed straight back to Rock Creek.”

“I could ask the same thing of you,” he said, climbing the steps up onto the boardwalk and coming to a stop next to her.  “Why aren’t you halfway to St. Joe by now?”

“Lightning threw a shoe,” she said.  “I’m stuck here ‘til the blacksmith gets back in town day after tomorrow.”

“That’s a mighty fine spell of bad luck.” Noah shook his head mournfully, despite the bright grin splitting his lips.  “I decided to follow your idea of taking my days off before going back to Rock Creek.  Didn’t have any place to be so just started wanderin’.  Ended up here.  Heard there’s a good restaurant in town, run by a freed man who don’t care who eats there.  Thought I’d check it out.”

“I was headed there, myself.  Care to join me?”

Noah stepped back, taking another long look at her from head to toe.   

Lou looked down at her outfit nervously.  “What are you lookin’ at?”

Noah laughed. “You. You’re beautiful.”

“Hah!  No need to act so surprised!  You’ve seen me in a dress before.”

Noah shrugged, almost bashfully.  “Never… quite like this.”

“I headed out this afternoon and went to some shops.” Lou stepped up next to the taller man and slipped her hand into the crook of his arm, which he’d presented automatically to her.  “Now, what would Cassie think of you talkin’ to me like that?” she teased.

He laughed as he led her down the walk toward the restaurant. 

“Cassie ain’t here, now is she?  Besides, why’d she object to me callin’ my little sister beautiful?”

“Little sister?!” she squealed in mock outrage, reaching into his side with her friend hand to pinch him. He skittered away while at the same time keeping her hand wrapped around his upper arm.

She giggled and looked up into his dear face.  “Looks like you may’ve been right. This could turn out to be a special vacation after all.”
**********

Lou and Noah walked away from the restaurant, though waddled might be a more accurate description Lou giggled to herself.  The owner, who was also the cook, had laid out a spread to rival Rachel’s or Emma’s at Thanksgiving.  And they’d eaten every damned, delicious bite of it.

“I feel like a pig being fattened up for the butcher,” Noah said.  Then a belch made a run for it, escaping like a man fleeing the hangman’s noose.

Lou and Noah both burst into insane laughter at the sound.  They’d had a glass of fine wine each with dinner, just enough to take the edge off, not to cause the stupidity Jimmy was capable of when he dove into a bottle of whiskey.

“That was one of the best meals I ever had,” Lou agreed.

Silence surrounded the two as they smiled and enjoyed the peaceful evening, something neither was completely used to.

“Awful pretty out, ain’t it,” Lou said, smiling as she stared up at the night sky, the Milky Way sparkling and twinkling above them.

“Yeah, you are,” said a voice coming from the shadows.

Lou ground to a halt, her hand reaching to her side where her gun normally rested, the fingers closing on air.  She’d left her piece in the hotel room.

“Who are you?  Come out of them shadows and say what you got to say!” she demanded.

Noah, stood silent at her side.  But she knew by the tenseness in his arm that he was ready to jump into action if needed. If she guessed right, his other hand was already resting on his gun even if she didn’t have hers.

A tall, slender man a few years older than even Noah, the oldest of the riders, stepped out of the shadows.  A black hat cast a shadow over his face for a moment longer, then he stepped fully into the light cast from a nearby window.  Sharp, masculine lines defined his face.  Brilliant blue eyes sparkled at her.  A mobile mouth topped by one of the most luxurious mustaches she’d ever seen tensed as he took in the man at her side, her hand twined about Noah’s arm.

“What you doin’ with that nigra?” he demanded belligerently. 

“That ain’t none of your business,” Noah began.

“What’s it to you,” Lou said at the same time, even as the stranger continued.

“I’d heard there was a new, pretty young lady in town, travellin’ alone,” he added.  “Wanted ta invite ya to dinner, maybe offer ta marry you.  But I won’t have a woman what’s defiled herself with a nigra.”

Lou laughed derisively before he could finish.  “What makes you think I’d want to marry you? We ain’t even been properly introduced!”

“Yer travellin’ alone, ain’t ya?” the man snorted.  He turned and spat a wad of tobacco juice out onto the street.  “I’ve got a farm three miles down the road.  Own it free and clear. I’m a good hand with a gun and kin give ya all the  youngun’s ya want.  I’ve already got three at home from my first wife.”

Lou looked at the stranger, handsome in his own way, dressed in what she now guessed must be his Sunday best.  Her mouth hung open as she fought to come up with some sort of response.

Gunshots rang out through the clear night air.  Lou looked across the street toward the sound and reached for her gun again.  Just as she remembered she didn’t have it, Noah grabbed her arm and dragged her toward a nearby wagon for cover.  The stranger followed them.

“Ahhh!”  A young man wearing a deputy marshal’s badge cried out from his hiding spot across the street.  His gun fell from his hand as he dropped it to grab at his knee, blood already blooming through the trouser leg.

“Dang it!” Noah muttered, reaching out to grab at Lou a moment too late.  He watched with a helpless feeling, firing occasionally to cover her, as she raced to the young man’s aide. 

“You’d have to be able to outshoot and out ride her, before she’d even consider you,” Noah grinned, fiercely to the befuddled man at his side.  “My little sister’s picky that way.”

“Yer sister?  She’s a nigra, too?”

“You’d have to ask her, that,” Noah grunted, firing again.

**********

Lou skidded to a halt next to the deputy, almost going head over heels as one foot got caught in the tail end of her skirt.

He turned to her, desperation in his face and voice as he said, “They come fer Dawkins. The… the prisoner. They robbed the bank and killed the marshal.  He’s one of them.”

The deputy picked his gun back up and held it out as if to start shooting. But it was shaking so hard he couldn’t pull the trigger.

“Let me see that,” she demanded, already reaching for the gun.  She stepped to the side a few feet and took careful aim, toppling one of the gunmen in the street with a single shot.  Another shot from Noah winged the second mounted gang member.  The injured man managed to jump up behind the last mounted invader and they rode away, firing wildly behind them as they went.

Noah burst out from his shelter on the other side of the street, yelling for her.  “Lou!!!”

Lou turned to say something to the deputy and realized he was on his back, staring at the sky.

“Lou!  Are you alright?”

She set the borrowed pistol down on a nearby barrel and looked at the fallen deputy.

“I’m better than he is.”

The preacher and several other townsfolk slowly filtered out onto the street, surrounding the small group on the boardwalk.

“They’ll be back,” the preacher warned.

“There any other law in town?” Lou asked.

“No,” the preacher shook his head.

Lou straightened to a full stand, her head not even reaching the preacher’s shoulder, and shook her head, her mouth set in a grim, determined line.

Noah, from where he now stood behind the preacher, started cursing as he holstered his own gun.  He knew exactly what she was about to do, stick both their necks in a damned noose.

**********

Lou paced back and forth in front of the window in the Marshal’s office looking out onto Davenport’s main street.  The first golden rays of sunshine poured over the horizon as a cock crowed at the other end of the block, behind the restaurant.

“The sun’s comin’ up,” she said unnecessarily.  She caressed the holt of the dead deputy’s gun, still grasped tightly in one fist. “Do you think they’ll come back?”

Noah turned to the prisoner who was pretending to sleep in the single cell.

“What do you think?” he asked, taking a step closer to the bars separating them.  “Huh?” he goaded, “Do your friends want you bad enough?”

For the first time, the young man, taller than Lou, but not as tall as Noah, long and lithe, opened his crystal blue eyes and stared straight at Lou as he stood up.  She could see him pulling on a coat of bravado.

“Course they will,” he bragged.  Something about his intense eye contact with her raised an unfamiliar fluttering in her lower belly. Finally he pulled his distracting gaze away from her and met Noah’s eyes. He clenched his jaw, sticking out his chin in stubbornness. “We stick together.”

Noah’s eyes narrowed as he noted the interested gleam glowing from the man behind the jail cell bars.

“How old are you?” he demanded.  Lou was just 17, the youngest of the riders, if you didn’t count Jesse, which he didn’t.  This man child looked too old for her, in his view.  “Nineteen?” he guessed.  “Twenty?”

“Seventeen,” the prisoner muttered, turning away from the two others in the room as if to hide his shame.  Then he turned back to add defiantly, “Almost 18!”

Noah raised an eyebrow and glanced at Lou, who still hadn’t taken her eyes off the other man.

“How could you ride with men like that?” Noah demanded.  He wasn’t sure what Lou’s interest in this guy was, it could be purely academic, trying to figure out how to use him to get out of this situation and protect the town.  But a sinking sensation in his gut said otherwise.  “Didn’t your family teach you better?”

“They are my family.”

The two men stared at each other, neither willing to be the one to break eye contact first.

“How long do you think it’ll take Teaspoon to get here,” Lou asked.

“At least tomorrow.  Next day at the latest.” Noah’s shoulders relaxed minutely as he turned to look at Lou.  “It’s too long.  They’ll be back before then.”

“Why don’t you just let me go?” the prisoner, Dawkins the deputy had called him, said with an insouciant twinkle.

“Do I look like I was born yesterday?” Noah grumped, not bothering to look back at Dawkins.

The prisoner pulled himself higher up on the bars to look over the back of Noah’s head.

“What about you, miss?” he called. “Ain’t this a little dangerous for a lady like you?”

Lou shrugged. He wasn’t saying anything she hadn’t heard before.

“That’s assuming you are the lady you’re dressed like,” he added with a nasty twist to his mouth.  “I ain’t never seen a lady could handle a gun like you, let alone one that talks to a nigra like he’s family.”

“You gonna shut yer mouth or am I gonna shut it for you?!” Noah exploded, stomping back toward the jail cell.  Dawkins dropped from his perch on the bars and stepped backward, out of reach.

“Whooo!” Dawkins laughed.  “Tell me somethin’. Why do you care what happens here anyway?”  He’d never admit it to these two, the woman who he couldn’t keep  his eyes off and this strange black man who talked like an educated white plantation owner, rather than the slave he should’ve been, but they confused him.  Their actions outside his experience.  Why stick up for a bunch of strangers, risk their lives? What was in it for them?

“We just wanna do what’s right,” Lou said quietly from where she sat at the Marshal’s desk. The man in the jail cell was too distracting, so she refused to look at him, instead digging through the wanted posters on the desk, looking for she knew not what.

“Well that’s a big job for someone who ain’t even wearin’ a badge.”

Lou nodded. He had a point there.

“Maybe yer right,” she murmured, reaching over to pick up the dead deputy’s badge, rubbing the letters engraved into the star absent mindedly.

Noah leaned back against the wall, looking back and forth between the other two with growing concern.

**********

“There’s a crowd of the townsfolk growing outside, Lou,” Noah warned under his breath, uncomfortable with the backs turned to the Marshal’s office and the occasional looks thrown their way.

“Guess I’d better go find out what they’re talkin’ ‘bout,” Lou said quietly, reaching up to pin the deputy marshal’s badge to the front of her new dress.

Standing, she silently glided out the door and down the boardwalk into the street.

Dawkin, who hadn’t taken his eyes off Lou in the last hour or two watched her every move like she was the only thing in the world that existed for him.  His reaction to her confused him.  He didn’t have much experience with women, at least not since he’d left Doritha back in Virginia.  And, to be honest, she’d always been more of a child than a woman, even once she’d reached her teens.  He shook his head as if to get Lou, Doritha, and all womankind out of his brain as the door closed and turned to take in the nigra. 

The tall… man confused him even more than the woman who handled herself like a man did.  He didn’t have anything against Noah personally, like some folks he knew might have.   He just didn’t know what to make of him.  He’d never really met any blacks back in Virginia.  They either stayed out on their plantations or followed their masters too closely to have time to stop and chat with a poor farmboy like him.  And, though he’d seen a few freed blacks and some slaves since coming West, he’d almost immediately fallen in with Bart and his gang.  They didn’t have anything to do with nigras, so neither did he.  Bart had saved his life when a cougar had attacked him one night and he’d been loyal ever since.

But, Noah?  He just didn’t act like any black he’d ever seen.  He acted like… well, like a free white man.  And he hovered over Lou like any protective older brother would.  Even if they didn’t look much alike.

His mind worried and fretted over the conundrum these two raised, unable to make sense of it all, until noise from outside distracted him.

Noah could see the wheels turning in the teen’s head as he looked from Lou to him, then out the window, and wondered what he was thinking on so hard.  But then the sounds from outside caught his attention, too.  After checking to make sure the prisoner was safely secured and his gun was primed and loaded, he stepped outside, closing the door behind him.

**********

“Here she comes,” a voice said from the crowd.

Lou sighed as she saw the looks on their faces.  They’d be getting no help from these folks.  She could feel Noah stepping out the door at her back, staying there by the entrance, one hand on his gun as she moved closer to the crowd.

The crowd stopped talking at the sound of the door closing and just stared at her, then began breaking up as she stepped off the boardwalk.  One man, an older gentleman in a suit and bowler hat walked in her direction, obviously intent on going right on past her.  She reached out a hand and grabbed the edge of his coat sleeve.

“Just a minute,” she said as politely as she could. “I could use some help.”

The man shook his head.  “Ya ain’t gonna find none here. We don’t want any trouble.  ‘Specially not raised by a reckless girl who ought ta stay home where she belongs an’ stop meddlin’ in mens’ affairs.”

Lou grimaced internally at his words.  She shouldn’t be surprised by them, but she’d gotten used to being treated as just another one of the riders while at the Express so when she found herself face to face with this sort of attitude it always rubbed her the wrong way. Calling him on it wouldn’t help the situation though.

“You’ve already got trouble,” she said instead. “I’m just tryin’ ta keep it from gettin’ any worse.”

He looked down with disapproval at the badge pinned to the front of her dress.

“Wearin’ that badge probably ain’t the best way to go about it,” he said. “Why don’t ya take yer nigra back there and get on home.  Ain’t ya got chores that need doin’? A husband waitin’ fer ya?”

Not waiting for any answers to his questions, he brushed past her brusquely to disappear into the nearby mercantile.  She watched after him for a moment, then looked back at where the crowd had been gathered to see the rest of the townsfolk had taken the opportunity of her distraction to disappear, as well.

She sighed before heading down the boardwalk toward the hotel.  She’d at least take advantage of this chance to get her own kit.  She’d feel more comfortable in her boy’s clothes and wearing her own gun on her hip. 

A strange tapping echo followed her down the boardwalk.  As she passed one store’s window she took a quick glimpse out of the corner of one eye and caught the shadow of someone following her.

At the next alley she stepped quickly into it and waited.  The preacher caught up to her and she reached out to pull him into the shadows of the alley with her.

“Wha?!” the startled man gasped.  Then he relaxed as he saw who’d grabbed him. “You’re right,” he said, “to be on your guard.  They’re watching us.  The men who want Dawkins. Said they’d give you until sundown, then they’re going to come and get ya.”

“Is that really all they said?” she asked acerbically.  He shrugged.  They both knew the threat had been much worse.

“No one’s gonna help ya,” the preacher warned flatly.

“No one?” she asked quietly.  He looked away from her, refusing to meet her eyes. “You could ride out towards Rock Creek, meet up with Marshal Hunter, let him know that he’s headed for a lot worse trouble than he expects!”

Still not looking at her, the preacher shook his head, a soft, “No,” slipping past his lips.  “Please.”

She shook her head in disgust, pushing him away from her.  “I guess you were right,” she spat. “Faith really is in short supply!”

She turned and started walking away, already mulling over other ideas.

“Alright.”

The sound of the man’s voice, strengthened with sudden resolve stopped her in her tracks.  She turned to look back at the black clad preacher.  He nodded to her.

“Alright,” he said again, a little softer, but more certain. 

She nodded back, shoulders relaxing in relief, then turned and headed back to the Marshal’s office.

**********

Dawkin’s couldn’t take it anymore. He’d spent too long sitting her, uncertain as to what was going to happen next, not to mention worrying about what the gang had planned.  The confusion this pair raised in him wasn’t helping his discomfort.

“You keepin ‘ me here, yer goin’ against some real outlaws!” The sudden outburst caught him by surprise as much as the tall blackman watching through the shuttered window for his sister.

Noah turned and looked at him, raising on eyebrow and crossing his arms over his chest, while leaning back against the wall lazily.

“If they’re such a mean bunch,” Noah asked in his educated diction, “what do they want with you?”

“I can ride and shoot with the best of ‘em,” the teen bragged.

Noah’s eyebrow raised even higher, if that were possible.  Then he nodded, as if answering his own question and stepped closer to the jail cell’s bars. 

“What’s your name?” he asked.

The question caught the teen by surprise.  Yet again, this man wasn’t acting the way he expected.  He wasn’t rising to the bait.  Instead he was asking strange questions no black man he’d ever met would have dared.  They already knew his name.  At least the name he’d been using since he came West.  He didn’t really have a real name.  His dad had been a no account drunk who’d never bothered to properly name him.  His mother, too beaten down to go against his father had just accepted it when the man started calling him the kid.

“Dawkins,” he muttered.

“I know that, boy,” Noah drawled.  “Your first name?”

“Ain’t important.”  No way was he sharing his personal shame with this impertinent nigra.  He turned away, unable to hold the man’s gaze, though.  “That other one… she really yer sister?”

Noah chuckled as he walked back toward the door.  “In every way that matters.  Yeah.”

“What’s her first name?”

Noah looked back at the man, kid really, and did not like the spark of interest he saw in the boy’s eyes.  “Not important.”

“I ain’t never had a sister.”

The sudden outburst surprised Noah.  But he quickly forgot the exchange as Lou burst back through the door.

She ripped the badge off her dress and threw it on the desk with enough force to send it skittering across the wooden top and clattering off onto the floor.

“Askin’ fer help around here is like sendin’ a bucket down a dry well!” she exclaimed in exasperated anger.  She paused and looked over at the man behind the bars.  He grinned at her, a slow, teasing smile that made the corners of his eyes crinkle appealingly.  Sensing the devil inside him and knowing Noah’s own occasionally short temper, she asked, “How’d the two of you get along?”

Noah flashed his own grin at her.  “Oh, he’s alright.  As long as you don’t listen to anything he says.”  Looking from one to the other, he asked, “He’s right about one thing, this isn’t your fight, Lou.”

“Noah!”

“I’m just saying, you don’t owe these folks nothin’.  Neither of us does.  And it ain’t like they’re lining up to thank us for trying anyway.”

“There’s no way I’m leavin’ Teaspoon to stumble on this mess without back-up.”

“He’d want you to get out safe, too,” Noah persisted.  “You know he thinks of you as a daughter.”

Lou smiled gently.  “And I love him for it.  And I love you, too, brother.  But that ain’t goin’ ta change my mind.  I can’t cut and run.  If you want to leave, you could probably still get out of town before the gang comes back, though.  I wouldn’t hold it against you. This is even less your fight than mine.”

“We’re family.  I’m staying.”

Lou nodded, knowing that’s what he’d say before the words came out.

“Hope you two are prayin’,” Dawkins warned from the cell.  “Cause the Lord’s the only one’s gonna get you out of this mess.”

“He don’t know how right he is,” Lou chortled.


**********

Lou paced back and forth across the small room of the Marshal’s office.  The walls seemed to be just that little bit closer with each turn, closing in on her.  The hours of daylight had passed slowly, with nothing to interrupt them, the town preternaturally quiet.

She envied Noah his ability to stand so still and silent, a sentinel on duty at the boarded up front window.  Folks had stayed off the streets all day so it wasn’t like there was much for him to see, either.

The sound of horses pounding down the main street caught her attention.  Her had snapped around to Noah as he turned to look back at her.

“Two riders,” he said quietly.  “Looks like they’ve got someone.”

Her heart dropped.  Even before she got outside, she knew what she’d find.  She had to push her way through a growing crowd, the only evidence of people in town all day, to reach the man left gasping for breath in the middle of the main street. 

“You’ve done enough,” one man spat at Lou as she knelt in the dirt.  “This is their way of telling us what’ll happen to us if they catch us with you!”

Lou ignored him, quickly checking over the prone figure of the black clad preacher for serious injuries.  He’d obviously been beaten up, but didn’t appear to be seriously hurt.

“He’ll be alright,” she breathed in relief, stepping back out of the way as two men from town helped the preacher to his feet and supported him as he hobbled away.

**********

“I told ya how important I am,” bragged Dawkins as Lou and Noah retreated back inside the Marshal’s Office, barring the door behind them.  “How bad they want me….”

He sniggered at the pair of Pony Express Riders.

Noah reached for his whip, pulling it out and flashing it just millimeters in front of Dawkins’, the snap of the leathers causing the blood to drain from the younger man’s face.  To his credit, Lou thought, he didn’t flinch or step back.

Lou collapsed into the chair at the Marshal’s desk, tears slipping out of her eyes and down her cheeks.  Noah hunkered down beside her, wrapping one arm around her shoulders.

“What happened to the preacher isn’t your fault, Lou,” he comforted.

“Are you sure?” she asked, her voice strangled in her throat.  “Is what we’re doin’ wrong here?  Should I just back off, like everyone wants?”

Noah sighed and hugged her tighter to his side, resting his cheek on the top of her head as tears slipped down her cheeks.

“That isn’t the Louise I know asking that kind of question,” he said soberly.  “Where’s the woman who’s full of fire to protect everyone around her?”

She shoved the deputy’s six shooter across the top of the Marshal’s desk, sending it skittering into the nearby shotgun.

“We can’t defend this office with a couple borrowed guns and high hopes,” she said, mad at herself for not making it all the way back to her room at the hotel to get her own gear.  “At least not long enough for Teaspoon to get here.”

“So,” Noah drew the word out slowly, “what do we do instead?  If one plan don’t work, we come up with another.  Isn’t that what you’re so good at?”

She laughed ruefully, then looked back at the man sitting in a jail cell watching her with a curious tilt to his head.  She nodded to herself in sudden decision.

“We’re going to have to make a run for it.”

Noah nodded. He’d known that was coming. There really wasn’t much else they could do.

Dawkins watched the interplay between the two with rapt attention.  He didn’t understand what it was about them that they felt so duty bound to protect this town.  The town wasn’t theirs, they didn’t have family here, friends.  Why weren’t they giving up?  Anyone else he’d ever met would have split long before now! He had a feeling if he could just crack this mystery open he might find something he’d been searching for his whole life.

**********

Lou paced back and forth by the entry to the office, watching for Noah’s return.  She turned and told Dawkins for the umpteenth time, “When Noah shows up, do as I say or I’ll shoot ya dead.”

Dawkins wanted to laugh at her seriousness, but, to be honest, he was starting to find himself responding to the petite woman’s intensity.  He wanted to follow her lead.  More.  He wanted to understand her, how she ticked, what it was that made her so ready to fight instead of cut and run.

“I ain’t met the woman yet that’d want any part of this,” he found himself telling her with 100% honesty.

“Well,” she said, strapping on the deputy’s borrowed rig and tying her skirts up out of the way, “maybe you just ain’t met the right kind of woman.”

“You scared?” He knew he would be in this situation.  Hell, he was scared anyway. 

“Be a fool if I wasn’t.”

“You must really love him,” he said, unaware of the longing that had slipped into his voice.  He wasn’t even sure who the ‘him’ was he was talking about.  Was it the black man she claimed as brother?  Was it this mysterious Teaspoon she kept talking about? Whoever ‘he’ was, Dawkins found himself insanely jealous of him for a blinding instant.

She didn’t answer at first. She silently put on a borrowed overcoat, then grabbed the handcuffs and walked over to the cell, motioning for him to put his hands out.  He did as she asked without a thought of fighting or resisting.  Apparently she understood what he meant better than he did.

“Noah, Teaspoon, they’re family.  I’d die for them.  What’s the matter?” she asked, “Ain’t ya never done somethin’ cause ya loved someone?”

He didn’t know how to answer her.  He’d thought he loved Doritha, but he’d had no problem leaving her behind when he’d fled Virginia.  He’d loved his Ma, but she’d abandoned him, dying from a combination of drink and desperation.  He’d thought he loved his brother.  But Jed had taken off shortly after their Pa did and never looked back.  He didn’t know how he’d react if he ever saw the polecat again.  He’d only ever hated his Pa, who’d beat on him and Jed without a second thought when the drink got into him.  He didn’t think he’d be truly willing to die for any of them.  He’d never thought a love that strong actually existed. 

Lost in thought, he followed Lou’s directions as she opened the jail cell and motioned for him to follow her.

**********

He couldn’t see them, but he heard the horses arriving, the men walking around.  Lou was distracted, watching for the planned diversion from Noah.  Dawkins took the opportunity to slip out the door and start heading toward the gang.  His steps though were slow, unsure, as if his feet were no longer sure this was the direction they should be going.

“Dawkins!”

He heard her voice calling for him and had to fight not to turn around and go back to her.  Then a bullet whizzed past his elbow, missing by a scant inch.  He flinched away, stopped in his tracks.  The only people in that direction shooting were members of his own gang.  He stared at them, befuddled. 

“Come on!”  Her voice came from much closer this time and then he felt her hand tugging at his arm, wrenching him out of his stupor and pulling him toward their waiting horses in the alley.  He didn’t fight her, following her lead out of the sudden hail of bullets headed his way.

**********

“This should do,” Noah said a half hour later as he led the odd grouping into a copse of trees in a hidden valley not too far from town. 

The unexpected sound of his voice dragged Dawkins out of the stupor he’d fallen into since they’d fled the town.  He couldn’t believe the men he’d been so loyal to for most of the last two years, including Bart who’d saved his life!, had been shooting at him.  And they’d been shooting to kill!

Noah and Lou dismounted, beginning to care for their animals.

“Hey!” Dawkins called, as the other two seemed to be ignoring him.  “Give me a hand!”  He held up his shackled wrists to illustrate his need.

Noah paused what he was doing to look at Dawkins, then shook his head and went back to untying the cinch holding the saddle to his horse’s back.

“What’s wrong with you?!”

Lou finally came over and roughly grabbed his arm, pulling him off the horse’s back none too gently.

“For starters,” she said, “we’re lost in a territory you probably know like the back of your hand! And you ain’t openin’ your mouth to help us!”

“Why should I?”

“Maybe because we’re helping you,” Noah interjected.

Dawkins forced a chuckle he wasn’t really feeling, unwilling to let these two in on his personal confusion. “You’re crazy.”

“Did you notice anythin’ strange about yer friends back there?” Lou demanded. 

“Like what?”

Noah straightened from setting his saddle down on the ground and met Dawkins eyes.  But Lou spoke.

“Like they were shootin’ at you.”  She didn’t shout, or make a big production out of it.  The words came out calmly, quietly, with little inflection, a simple statement of facts. Her lack of accusation making the statement all the more damning.  “Not us.”

“Been missin’ a little too much sleep lately?” Dawkins derided her.

“Got nothing to do with sleep,” Noah said.  “She’s right and you know it.  You don’t have much to say for yourself now, do you?”

It wasn’t Noah’s words that struck him so hard, though, it was the look of pity in Lou’s eyes.

“That’s some family you got,” she said quietly.

He looked down, breaking her gaze.  Her pity would destroy him.  And if that happened, he didn’t know who he’d be, what would be left of him.

**********

The fire’s flames flickered merrily, creating a happy dance of light and shadow across the faces of the two self-appointed deputies. Dawkins watched them from where Noah’d sat him down, hands still handcuffed in front of him, on the other side of the campsite.

The petite woman who continually drew his eyes and made his heart beat faster for no discernible reason leaned comfortably against the tall black man.  They murmured quietly to each other, talking randomly about those back home.

When Lou asked Noah about someone named Cassie, Dawkins could’ve sworn the man’s dark skin flushed a hot red, despite the cool overnight temperatures.  They spoke of future plans, concerns about what would happen to their improvised family in the coming months as the Pony Express, which he finally leaned was where they both worked, came to an end.  He’d thought about applying for a job as a rider with the Express when he’d first seen advertisements for it shortly after he came West.  But first he’d been convinced they wouldn’t take him, between not having his own horse and not being able to read.  Then, it’d been too late. He’d owed his life, his loyalty, to Bart and his gang.

But mostly, they spoke of their worry for Marshal Teaspoon Hunter, who was headed into the mess back in town.

“Do you think he brought any back-up?” Lou asked, idly tossing stray leaves into the flames, making them flare up in a variety of colors.

“Well, Cody and Buck are off on runs.  But Jimmy should’ve been around,” Noah mused.  His mobile mouth flashed a bright-toothed grin at a passing thought.  “Can you imagine his joy at Teaspoon dragging him out of bed in this weather?”

Lou laughed.  “He’ll be on his way, too, then.  Jimmy might gripe, but he’ll never tell Teaspoon ‘No.’”

“I dunno,” Noah sobered.  “I dunno anymore.  They’ve been arguing an awful lot lately about the War.”

Lou shook her head, grimacing.  “I just don’t understand Teaspoon on that one.  I mean, even more than normal.  He’s always talking about how we’re all the same and all deservin’ of respect.  Then he says he’ll go back South to fight if there’s a War.  It just don’t make sense.”

It was a sentiment Dawkins understood well. He’d thought about going back to Virginia to fight whenever he heard the latest gossip about the War.  But that was assuming he was even welcome back there.  It wasn’t like he had any family left.

“You really think he’d go against the rest of the family, like that?” Lou asked.

“I got a bad feelin’ about this War, Lou,” Noah said mournfully.  “It’s like ta tear many a family apart ‘fore it’s done.”

“Not ours,” Lou declared adamantly.  “‘Company’s company, family’s family.’  That’s what Teaspoon always says and no War’s gonna change that.”

Noah huffed angrily.  “Don’t be stupid, Lou.  Men like him, they’re set in their ways.  Teaspoon may see me and Buck as family.  But he still obviously thinks it’s more important to protect them white folks down in Texas from a ‘Union invasion’ than worry about the rights and freedom of my people, or Buck’s!  When it comes down to it, white folk like you are still more important to him than anyone else!”

He jumped up and stomped away from the fire.

“Noah…” Lou started to say pleadingly, but he was gone before she could finish her thought.  “We love you!” she whispered to herself.  Dawkins swallowed at the look on her face. He didn’t think anyone’d ever looked at him like that.  And she was looking at a man she thought of as her brother.  His mind wondered what she’s look like if worried about a man she loved as a man. 

**********

Noah stood by his horse, checking to make sure it was securely cinched to the animal’s back.  He saw Lou stomping back into camp from where she’d disappeared to take care of her morning ablutions a half hour ago.  He sighed.  It was obvious she was still upset about last night. 

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly.  “I didn’t mean for things to come out like that.”

“Sounded like you knew what you was sayin’, to me,” she muttered, not looking at him as she tightened the cinch strap of her own saddle.

“Lou…”  Noah started, then stopped.  Starting again he said, “You know I love you, Lou.  Damn it! Teaspoon, too.”

“Yeah?” she asked, finally turning to look him in the face.  “Well, you sure got a strange way of showin’ it.  You really think Teaspoon cares more about some strangers down in Texas than you and Buck?!”

Noah sighed, shrugging slightly, unsure how to explain things to her.  Lou shook her head and walked away.  Within a couple steps she practically ran headlong into their prisoner.  She took a half step back, taking an aggravated sigh.

“What do you want?” she snapped.

“To help you,” he said, a slight hoarseness tightening his voice.  He looked back and forth between the two, finally fastening his gaze on Noah.  “Yer right.  I do know my way around here. Maybe we can give those fellas the slip.”

“Is there some reason we should believe you this time?” Noah barked.

Lou looked from the prisoner standing docilely next to her, to the angry man striding toward them.  “I do,” she said firmly, turning back toward her horse.  “Let’s get goin’.”

Dawkins looked back and forth between them again and sighed.  He’d hoped his offer would get them working together again.  He’d liked it when they’d been working as a team.  It had made him feel…. safe.  He didn’t like the hurt and anger pulsing between them right now.  It made him itchy, reminding him too much of memories he’d tried so hard to forget the last couple of years.

**********

The golden glow of the rising sun gave way to a dismal gray of another cold rain-filled day as the trio rode through the woods, trying to find the gang’s hideout. 

Dawkins worried he wouldn’t remember the way.  Bart had rarely let him out of camp.  Generally assigning him to care for the animals and cook the meals.  But he felt like he owed it to these two.  And, the longer he was with them, the more he felt drawn to them, bound to them.  Especially Lou.

“You know, seein’ as how we’re helpin’ each other out, it wouldn’t hurt you ta open up a bit.”

He heard her words as if his thoughts had brought her voice to life.  He loved the sound of it, the soft timber, the slight drawl.  He hoped she’d say more.  He wasn’t much of one for talking, but he could listen to her all day long.

“It ain’t as if I’m askin’ yer first name,” she added.

“Good,” he grunted, unwilling to go into that story with her right now.  Trying to get her onto another topic, he asked something he’d been increasingly curious about. “What were yer parents like?”

“Hmm?”

“Your parents,” he repeated.  “You were raised up good. You must’ve had good parents.”

“Me, Noah… all of us really, we’re orphans,” she said simply.  “Just like you.”

His eyes widened as he started deep into her coffee colored eyes, absorbing the truth of her words.

“Ain’t that somethin’,” he finally said softly, pulling away from the dive he was taking into her gaze.  “Ain’t that somethin’,” he repeated to himself.

“Why?” she asked. “We seem different to you?”

“Different than anyone I ever spent time with.”  He turned to look at her again, his voice lowering in sincerity to a quiet purr.  “You love each other.”

Lou sighed. “Sometimes I ain’t so sure.”

Dawkins looked ahead to where Noah rode.  “You like bein’ with him, don’t ya?” he asked.  “He feels the same way about you, don’t ya think?  He makes ya feel like ya belong?”

“I guess.”

“Do ya feel safe with him?”

“Well, yeah, but….”

Dawkins laughed.  “Ya love him.  I seen the way he watches out fer ya, follows ya even when he disagrees with what yer doin’, protects ya.  He loves you, too.”

Lou chuckled, shaking her head. “When’d you become such an expert on love?”

He looked away again.  “I just thought a lot about it, is all.”

Noah found himself smiling at their conversation, and softening his anger. Fact was, he did love Lou like the sister he’d never had.  He only got angry when she couldn’t see the things that were so obvious to him.  But, as Sally’d been prone to tell him, not everyone saw the same things cause not everyone lived the same life.  Lou, any of their Express family, would die for him.  Despite the frustrations of getting some of them to open their eyes to the way the world he lived in worked, it was worth it.

“What were you doin’ with that gang, anyway?” Lou asked even more quietly, hoping to keep Noah’s sharp ears from picking up on their conversation.  Something about the confidences they were sharing felt… intimate.

Dawkin’s face hardened.  “I told you!  I’m real--”

She interrupted him. “Important. I know.”  Her voice turned acerbic.  “I know.  You told me.”  Then it softened.  “Now tell me the truth.”

Dawkins slumped a bit in his saddle, defeated by the honesty in her eyes.  “It’s all they’d let me do,” he admitted, afraid to meet her eyes.  “They didn’t want no part of me.  I just kept doggin’ them.”

“Why?”  There was no judgement in her voice, just curiosity.  It was a salve to his wounded soul.

“Bart saved my life, shortly after I come out West.  Now… I’m not so sure he meant to, but he did, stepped right between me and a wagon ‘bout to run me down, knocked me out of the way. And.. I just wanted someplace to belong.  Ya know?”

He paused to meet her gaze for a moment before sighing and looking away again. “I wanted them to be my friends. Now they’re tryin’ ta kill me. Probably think I’m goin’ ta give you their names.  Hell!” he paused in growing frustration in anger.  “’Ceptin’ Bart, I don’t even know what they are.  And I don’t know what his last name is!”

After a moment of silence he turned to look at Lou again. With complete sincerity in his voice, he said, “I’d give anythin’ in the world to have somethin’ like what you two got.  You don’t know how lucky ya are.”

“Hmph,” she grunted.  “Guess I don’t.”  She looked back and forth between Dawkins at her side and Noah in front of them.

“He asked me if I’d ever done somethin’ cause I loved someone,” he said. “Well, I guess you know the answer to that.”  He paused.  “But I’ll tell ya… I could die happy if I did.”

Noah was the first to flinch when the report of a six shooter broke the morning quiet.  He felt the bullet whiz past his head.  Lou and Dawkins pulled back on their horses’ reins as they looked around frantically, trying to figure out where the shooting was coming from.

Noah circled his horse around behind them. Dismounting, he ran toward the other two, slicing through the bonds tying Dawkins to his saddle.

“What are ya doin’?” Lou asked.

“Ride,” Noah demanded.  “I’ll hold them off.  Now go on!  Get!”

As Lou took off, he grabbed at Dawkins’ lapel, pulling him in close.  “Stay with her,” he demanded. “Don’t let her turn back, ya hear?”

Dawkins’ eyes widened as he nodded, in both understanding and awe at the responsibility just handed him.

“Go on!” Noah shouted again, pushing Dawkins away from him.

Just as they topped the nearby hillock, with a chance to escape unscathed, they heard a pained shout come from behind them.

Lou looked back and shouted in fear and worry, “Noah!”

She tried to turn her horse back to help her brother as the members of Bart’s gang rode up and surrounded him where he’d fallen. Then, a bullet found her, too.

“Unh!”

Looking between the two, Dawkins made up his mind.  He’d keep Lou safe no matter what.  He reached over and grabbed her horse’s bridle, urging it forward again.

“Come on!”

**********

“Come on,” Dawkins found himself repeating a half hour later.  The gang hadn’t bothered to keep chasing them, letting them reach safety.  Now, he was trying to tend Lou’s wound. “Hold still so I can tie this off,” he grumbled.

“Leave me alone!  Noah could be dead out there.  I gotta go find out!”

“They’ll kill you,” Dawkins answered in a tight voice.  That was his chief fear at this point, that something worse than a hole in the shoulder would happen to this beautiful, ferocious spitfire before him.

“I don’t care,” she spat, finally pulling free from his grasp.  She immediately headed toward her horse, struggling to pull her coat back on over the lumpy bandage now tied to her shoulder.

Dawkins followed her.

“Then let me help you,” he offered.

“Like ya helped Noah?!” she spat, turning her back on him.  “It’s yer fault he got shot.  You’ve been about as much use to us as you were to that gang.”

He wanted to turn tail and run at her words.  But Noah’s plea to keep her safe and his own desires to see her happy kept his feet rooted in place.  He reached out to touch her arm.

“Listen!”

She whirled around, shoving the elbow of her injured arm into his diaphragm.  She gasped at the pain of the contact and started to fall, taking him with her.  He could barely breath for a moment from her hit.

“I can take ya to their hideout,” he said more quietly, once he managed to get a little air back into his lungs.  “If Noah’s alive, and ain’t pissed Bart off yet, they’ll be holdin’ him there.”

The hope that sprang into her eyes made his heart leap with joy that he’d put it there.

“What would they even want with him?”

“They want me,” Dawkins admitted.  “They might figure you’ll come after him and ring me along.”  He breathed in, wrapping her hand in his tightly, comfortingly.  “Come on,’ he said gently.  “We got no choice.”

She let him help her back to her feet, grimacing as the movement jostled her injured shoulder.

“Why are you willin’ ta do this?  They want ta kill you.”

His eyes caressed her face, but he said only, “I got my reasons.”

**********

Jimmy looked at the shuttered doors of the Marshal’s Office, jerking at the handle in frustration.  He turned and stepped off the boardwalk, meeting Teaspoon in the middle of the main, and only, street of Davenport.

“What the hell’s goin’ on?” Teaspoon grumbled.

“I don’t know,” Jimmy said, glaring at those along the boardwalk who were deliberately ignoring his presence. “But it don’t look like anybody’s too interested in talkin’ about it.”

“I will.”

The duo turned to see a tall man, dressed in black form head to toe, sporting several cuts and some pretty bad bruises on every inch of uncovered skin.

“What?” Jimmy asked. “You seen what happened?”

“They all did,” the man said, looking around. “But they lost their faith. And with it, their courage. Finding your friends might go a long way to returning both.”

**********

Lou lay next to Dawkins under some scrub at the top of a rise overlooking the gang’s camp. She could see Noah where he sat, tied to a tree, on the other side of the clearing.  She nodded. Alright. They could do this.  But first, she had something to say to Dawkins.

“What I said before,” she whispered, turning to meet his eyes, “about this bein’ yer fault?”

“You was right,” he answered.

“No.  I wasn’t. It’s mine.  Noah can be bullheaded.  Takes things real serious. Especially all this talk about the War.  I shoulda remembered that.  He also… well, he tends ta feel responsible for keeping me safe.  He’s been that way ever since his stepma, Miss Sally, died.”

“I think it’s proof how much he loves you,” he said gently, brushing one hand down the side of her cheek. Her skin was as smooth and soft as he’d thought it would be.  Already he wanted to touch her again.

She turned away from him to look back out over the camp. 

“You don’t have to be a part of this, ya know.”

“Yeah, I do,” he said.  She looked back at him, a question on her face. His mouth quirked into a half smile. “I’ve been waitin’ for this my whole life,”

He didn’t wait for her to say anything, crawling backward out of their hiding spot and down the hill, out of view of the gang’s camp.  By the time he reached his horse, Lou was at his side, her gun drawn, locked and loaded.

She took out the first guard easily, thumping him over the head with the butt of her pistol.  She confiscated his revolver and handed it to Dawkins, who quickly checked to make sure it was serviceable before following her on to the next guard.

Dawkins took out the next guard, clipping him sharply under the chin with a quick right upper cut to the jaw. 

They took two more unawares as they stood guard right next to where they had Noah tied up.

“I’ve got ‘em,” Dawkins said, motioning toward Noah.  He began to disarm them while Lou rushed over to her fellow rider.  Suddenly, Dawkins realized they were short one man. “Where’s Bart?!”

Lou stood and began to scan the camp, her gun at the ready.  But Dawkins saw him first, stepping out of the brush behind Lou, where she couldn’t see him.  There was no thought as he rushed Lou, pushing her out of the way as Bart’s gun barked out.

“Argh!” he shouted, falling to the ground as the bullet struck him. 

The two Dawkins had been disarming grabbed their guns and turned to fire at Lou, but she took them out before they could pull the triggers.  She turned toward the direction of the gunfire that had knocked Dawkins out of the fight, but before she could take aim, he fell.

Teaspoon and Jimmy stepped out from behind nearby trees, revolvers still out and ready.  But Lou relaxed, knowing they’d gotten the entire gang.

Jimmy came running toward Lou in a half panic.  “You alright?!”

She glanced quickly back at Noah.  “Yeah.”

“How’d you find me?” he asked.

She checked his wounded shoulder. “Dawkins helped.  Didn’t ya?”

When he didn’t answer, she turned to ask again.  But he was lying face down on the ground.

“Oh God!”  She rushed to his side and rolled him over.  He groaned at the movement, a blossom of blood on his chest showing where the bullet meant for her had caught him instead.

He panted in pain for a moment.  Then his crystal clear blue eyes opened and met hers. 

“Kid.”

“What?” she asked, confused.

“Kid.  That’s what my folks called me.  My first name.”  With each word his speech became clearer.  Then he stopped speaking to cough, a spot of blood appearing on his lip.

One hand came up to surround hers where it rested on his chest and his lips curled in a smile. He breathed through a pained laugh.

“I always wanted to do something, for someone I loved.”

His eyes met and held hers, not letting go this time.



Epilogue:

He opened his eyes slowly.  Her heartshaped face, eyes scrunched in worry, was the first thing he saw.  Then the rest of the room came slowly into focus behind her.  Several other faces peered over her shoulder.  There was Noah’s familiar dark skin with the bright smile.  A sharp faced man with long golden hair stood next to a hard-looking guy with matching pearl handled pistols strapped to his hips, long brown hair trailing his shoulders.  On her other side stood a tall Indian, dark eyes watching him suspiciously.  All of this he registered without breaking eye contact with her.

“So,” she smiled gently.  “You’re back with us.”

“Where?” His voice was so hoarse he barely recognized it, only able to push one word out.

“Yer back at the station,” she said, pushing a stray curl off his forehead.  “We brought ya back from Davenport with us.  Yer safe here.  Teaspoon’s a big one for second chances.  Said you’ve earned yours the hard way. You almost died savin’ my life.”

She turned back to the others.  “These are my brothers.  You know Noah.  That’s Cody, Jimmy’s next to him.  This is Buck.  Jesse’s out on a run right now.”

He tried to push himself up to a sitting position, but with a gentle hand placed on the middle of his chest, next to a sparkling white bandage, she kept him in place.

“Guys, this is the Kid.”  She grinned mischieviously at them all.  “Alright, ye’ve met him right and proper now.  So go on, get out of here ‘fore Rachel catches ya shirking your chores.  He’ll still be here come supper.”

“Kid’s an awful strange name,” Cody mumbled as he led the way out the door.

“Wonder if he’s any good with a gun,” Jimmy pondered.

Noah shook his head, following the two out the door.  Buck paused in the doorway to look back at them.

“Hey, Kid,” he said with a smile, “Welcome to the family.”

Kid’s eyes widened as he looked back at Lou.

“Thank you,” she whispered.  “Thank you for reminding me how blessed I am. We all are.  I think we started takin’ it fer granted.”

She leaned down to gently press her lips to his cheek in thanks. He turned his head to watch her approach moving his lips into position to catch hers.  She tasted just like he’d always thought she would.  Butterscotch.  His favorite.

Despite her start of surprise, she let the kiss continue for an eternal moment before sitting back up.  She laughed slightly in embarrassment.  Then ran one hand down the side of his cheek, copying his earlier caress.

“Promise me somethin’, Kid,” she smiled at him.  “Promise ta never ride on without me.  If there’s danger, I want ta face it with you at my side.  Like family.”

“I promise,” he said huskily. 

Only the future would tell what sort of family they’d make, but he was going to grab on with both hands and never let go.