The Heart Survives, REO Speedwagon
What a Feeling, Flashdance Sndtrk
Love Me Back To Life, Bon Jovi
“You ‘bout done in there, Lou?” Buck called.
“Yep,” she smiled. “Just lemme put this gear away and I’ll be right out.”
She was excited. It was time for her fighting lesson with Buck. She knew she’d be sore for the next few days, but the skills she was picking up were sure worth any muscle pain. Hanging up the bridles in the tack room, she wiped her hands on her pants and headed out to the area behind the bunkhouse where the riders usually practiced their shooting. She and Buck had taken it over for their once a week matches.
Looking around, Lou quickly stripped off her vest and rolled up her sleeves. She’d learned the first week that excess clothing could be used against her in these matches. Of course, sometimes that came out to her advantage, too.
“Ready,” she said, stepping into the circle Buck had outlined with rocks.
“Alright. Let’s start with a review of what you’ve learned so far. Attack.”
Lou walked casually up to Buck, reached one arm up to circle it around his neck, then lifted a knee and placed it where it would hurt the most if he hadn’t already protected himself. At the same time, she pulled down on his neck to slam his face toward her still rising knee.
As he fell, she jumped back to stay clear of his swinging legs. Once the kick was past, she stepped in again and jumped on his back, startling an ‘oof’ out of him. Grabbing one hand, she pulled it up as high against his back as she could, even as she leaned against the knee she’d pressed against the back of his neck.
Unable to speak, he pounded his free fist against the dirt. Lou quickly jumped away, freeing him and getting out of his reach, at the same time.
Standing up, Buck shook his head and spat out some dirt. His eyes twinkling at her he said, “I think it’s safe to say you’ve got the idea of the sneak attack down. Let’s move on to self-defense.”
Lou nodded agreeably.
“Now, I know you ride armed. But there’s gonna be times when you won’t have yer gun on ya and someone will think they can take ya just ‘cause yer small, even if they don’t know… the other.”
“So, what do I do about it?”
Walking up to her, Buck grabbed her shoulders and spun her around so she had her back to him. “This first time, I’m gonna talk ya through it. Then, the second time you’ll try it on yer own. See what ya can remember and carry out.”
Lou nodded without looking back at him. Buck wrapped his arms around her, one around her waist, the other around her neck.
“Alright, now, someone sneaks up behind you and grabs you, the first thing you do is take a deep breath and don’t panic!”
“I think I can handle that,” she smiled.
“Then, reach up and grab my arm with both hands.”
She reached up and latched onto the arm he had wrapped around her neck with both hands.
“Good. Now, brace yourself using my arm and use all your weight to stomp down on the inside of my foot.”
Again, she followed his directions, walking through the move.
“Finally, take one hand, put up the first two fingers in a V shape.” He paused to wait to make sure she did as he said. “Then, swing back with those fingers, aiming for my eyes. Bad luck, you miss and I pull back to avoid, loosening my hold on you. Good luck, you hit your target and I’m blinded, if not permanently at least temporarily.”
She nodded and flung her hand back, fingers rigid and pointing straight at his eyes. He pulled back to avoid the hit and lost his grip on her. She quickly danced out of range. But, he followed her, grasping both wrists in his larger, stronger hands.
“Rule number one about self-defense. The best defense is a good offense. Don’t just slip free and try to run for it. Your attacker might be faster than you. Once free, keep attacking until he’s down and staying down.”
“When someone grabs you like this and you want free, it’s easy. Just twist your hands in the directions of my thumbs. That’s the weakest part of anyone’s hands. No matter how strong your attacker, I guarantee your wrists are stronger than his thumbs.”
Looking down to figure out where his thumbs were, Lou studied the situation a moment, then rolled both wrists inward toward Buck’s thumbs. She really didn’t expect the move to work, but it did. Suddenly, she was free of his grasp.
Thinking of what he’d said about not quitting until her attacker was down, she drew on some of the things she’d learned from him in previous weeks and moved in. Her freshly freed hand formed a tight fist and swung straight into his solar plexus, forcing all the air out of his lungs. Then, as he leaned forward to catch his breath, she punched out with her other fist, catching him in the eye. He flung his head backward, one hand coming up to cover his eye even as he continued gasping. She move forward and swung a leg behind him, sweeping his feet out from under him. Buck toppled to the ground, landing hard on his back. Suddenly, he found himself looking up at a grinning Lou, with her knee digging painfully into his throat.
“Uncle,” he squeaked.
As she jumped clear of him, making sure to be well out of his reach as he’d already taught her, he leaned up on one elbow. Rubbing his hand alternately against his throat and his eye he laughed. “I think it’s safe to say you get the idea.”
Walking over to him she reached down and offered him a hand up. A hand he readily took. On his feet again, he smiled down at Lou. “Once more?”
She nodded eagerly.
An hour later, she stood up, panting now and sweating from their exertions.
“I think it’s time to call it,” Buck said. “We keep going and yer gonna get sloppy. Ya don’t wanna practice fightin’ sloppy ‘cause then you’ll fight sloppy in a real situation. And ye’ll lose.”
Lou nodded. As they walked back around the bunkhouse and collapsed on the front porch, she looked at Buck curiously.
“How come it don’t bother ya ta teach me ta fight?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Why should it? Ya need ta know how ta do it and I kin teach ya.”
“But, well… I’m a… you know.”
“Oh, that.” He laughed. “Amongst my people that doesn’t mean anything. Most, you know, don’t care ta learn ta hunt and fight. But those that do, can. And those that are good at it, like you, are honored for their skills.”
“Hey, Buck, what happened ta yer eye?” Cody asked, walking up to the porch. “That’s quite a shiner yer developin’ there.”
Reaching up to finger his aching eye, Buck grinned. “Lou got the drop on me durin’ today’s fightin’ lesson.”
“Oh, man, I don’t believe it. You got beat up by ah…” Cody’s comment came to a sudden stop as he found himself flying through the air, off the porch and into the dirt. “Ouch!”
Sitting up he looked at Lou, bewildered. “What’d ya do that fer?”
"Ta shut yer trap fer ya,” she glared, then looked pointedly at Emma, who was crossing the yard toward the bunkhouse carrying a basket of biscuits in one hand.
“Sorry, Lou,” Cody muttered as he stood up. “I wasn’t thinkin’…”
“Well that’s pretty much every day fer ya, ain’t it,” Lou laughed, turning to go into the bunkhouse.
“Looks like ya ain’t got no room ta speak, anyway,” Buck said. “He took you out faster than he ever did me.” He disappeared into the bunkhouse after Lou, laughing heartily at his own joke.
From keeping up with her chores and runs and practicing her new fighting shooting skills, Lou’d been quite busy the last few weeks. The stretch of time without hijinks had been a welcome release. But this morning it felt like she could smell trouble blowing in with the prairie winds. Looking out from the porch, Lou wondered what the world had in store and how they’d get through it. But, she’d gained enough confidence to feel that, as long as they were all together, they would get through it.
*Lou, come help me break the new ponies?* Ike asked.
“Sure,” she smiled, hopping down off the bunkhouse porch to follow the silent rider to the corrals. She loved working with the new horses, teaching them how to accept the bridle, saddle and a rider.
The morning passed peacefully enough, probably because the two biggest trouble makers, Jimmy and Cody had headed into town for the day. Kid was off on a run. He wasn’t due back until around lunch.
“Whoa, girl,” Lou whispered to the mare she was training to the saddle. Unlike the boys, her style of training was less about ‘breaking’ the horse and more about tempting it into wanting to do what she wanted it to do. Grandpa McCloud had called it horse whispering. Said it was an old Irish tradition. She just knew it worked.
*I wish you’d teach me how to do that,* Ike commented from his spot, leaning against a fence post. *I hate breaking the horses. It just don’t seem right, somehow.*
“It’s easy Ike, ya just trick ‘em inta wantin’ ta do what you want ‘em ta do,” she smiled, leaning over to pat the mare’s neck, still shivering every once in awhile with nerves. After another half hour, Lou decided the mare was ready for a break and dismounted.
"You boys seen the Kid yet?” Emma asked, walking toward the corrals from her house.
“No,” Buck said, joining them from the barn. “I’ve been ready ta take the next run fer an hour now, but he ain’t come in yet.”
“Well, let me know when he gets here,” Emma said. “I need ta talk ta him.”
“Alright,” Lou promised. “We’ll tell ‘im.”
But Kid didn’t come. Another hour passed. Then two. Still no Kid.
“Rider comin’!” Buck cried from the lookout post he’d taken in the hayloft.
Everyone quickly scrambled out to the station yard, breathing sighs of relief until they realized it was two horses, not one. And neither of the horses was Katy.
"It’s Jimmy and Cody,” Lou muttered, climbing up on the corral fence to take a seat.
"The Kid back yet?” were the first words out of Hickok’s mouth as he and Cody came skidding to a halt near the group of waiting riders.
Lou shook her head.
“Damn!” Cody muttered.
“What’s wrong?” Emma asked.
“There was talk of Indian trouble out near Shaughnessy’s waystation,” Jimmy said quietly. “Ain’t Kid headed through there?”
Lou, Buck and Ike all nodded yes.
“When’s he due back?” Cody asked.
“I knew somethin’ was wrong,” Emma said. “Kid shoulda been back hours ago.”
Cody rubbed his hand across his chin in worry. “I say we ride out after ‘im.”
“Now hold yer horses boys,” Emma demanded. “You ain’t goin’ nowhere ‘til we talk it over with Mr. Spoon.”
Lou shook her head. That would take too long. Teaspoon had headed over to Harper’s Ridge that morning to check in with the stationmaster there.
“We got to,” Lou said. Emma turned and met her own worried gaze. “The Kid could be in trouble.”
“Yeah, and he might be avoidin’ it. Ya ever think of that?” This time Emma’s gaze met that of an inscrutable Buck.
“Somebody’s gotta warn ‘im Emma,” Cody said adamantly.
“Kid can take care of himself.”
No! Lou felt like screaming. He was out there, by himself. How could he take care of himself without his family there to back him up?
“Not if the Sioux got ahold of him,” Jimmy said, speaking Lou’s worst fears out loud.
“And what’s yer big plan, Jimmy? Ya gonna go ridin’ inta the war camp with yer guns ablazin’?”
By the way he ducked his head and started fiddling with his coat sleeves, Lou could tell that was exactly what Jimmy’d been thinking.
“Might as well scalp yerself and send it to him on a lodge pole,” Emma continued, scathingly.
“I ain’t gonna sit here and do nothin’, Emma,” Jimmy remained stubborn. Lou felt like cheering him on. “We gotta do somethin’!”
“Me too!” Lou said, climbing down off the corral fence. There was no way she was leaving the Kid out there alone with trouble brewing.
“Well, if they’re goin’, best have somebody along who knows what they’re doin’,” she heard Cody announce as she was rushing toward the barn to saddle Lightning.
Soon, she was leading the way out of the station yard, Hickok and Cody riding hard to keep up with her.
“Lou, slow down,” Jimmy called. “I know yer worried, we all are. But yer gonna hurt Lightning you keep riding like that.”
With a small sigh to herself, Lou acknowledged Jimmy was right and slowed Lightning to a canter. Cody and Jimmy caught up and flanked her. It took a good three hours to reach the Shaughnessy waystation. As they neared the waystation, Cody pulled up and pointed over the hilltop.
“Aw, shit!” Jimmy cursed as they all noted the tendrils of smoke wafting skyward. There was way too much for it to be coming from a single chimney. And there was only one chimney in the area. They all three spurred their horses to a gallop. Within moments, they pulled into the wrecked waystation.
Again, it was Cody who saw the worst first. He leaped off his horse and raced into the midst of the burned out station bunkhouse. He squatted down by the body. Lou found herself holding her breath. Don’t let it be Kid. Don’t let it be Kid. Don’t let it be Kid. The mantra ran through her mind over and over again as she waited to hear who it was.
“It’s Matt O’Connell,” Cody finally said, lifting his head from its bowed position.
“God Almighty,” Jimmy nearly whispered as he dismounted. They all knew Matt. He rode through their station on a regular basis. Lou was sad to see him dead. But she was so relieved it wasn’t Kid she couldn’t properly mourn the other rider. He just wasn’t family.
As she followed Jimmy toward Matt’s body, she scanned the area, looking for any clues as to whether Kid had ever even made it through here. Something on the ground near the corral fence caught her attention and she moved toward it, away from the others. Squatting down, she picked up the strand of buckskin fringe, just like the ones that lined the seams of Kid’s buckskin outfit. Her heart nearly stopped. Had he been here? Was he in trouble? Had he been taken captive, like the Kiowa had done to Ike? Was he being tortured?
She bit back a near sob as she brought the fringe to her face, trying to see if it smelled like Kid. Nothing. In a near prayer, she whispered, “Kid. What kinda trouble are you in?”
There was no answer.
When they were done searching the area for any clues as to what had happened, they buried Matt’s body and headed back to Emma’s. Lou was quiet the entire time. Her body was on autopilot, doing whatever she needed to do without conscious direction from her mind. Her mind was busy trying to figure out where Kid could be and how she could help him.
Somehow, she didn’t know how, she was back at the station. They’d had supper and were out on the porch, keeping vigil for Kid’s hoped for return. She could hear the others discussing the situation with Emma and Teaspoon. But she wasn’t taking part. She sat alone, eyes fixed on the horizon with one thought on her mind. Kid.
“He’ll be alright.”
Lou jerked her gaze to the concerned face in front of hers. “I don’t know, Buck. I’m scared.”
Only to Buck, who completely accepted her for herself, could she have admitted that. To any of the others it would have been an admission of weakness. But he knew, and applauded, her strengths.
“What if the Sioux did get him?” she continued, turning her eyes back to their unending search of the horizon for Kid’s form on Katy. “What if he’s…”
Buck interrupted her. “He’s fine, Lou.” Lou returned her gaze to Buck’s for a moment. “I know it.”
His confidence was starting to piss her off. She narrowed her eyes at him. Didn’t he realize just how bad things were? Matt was dead. Kid missing. It was about as bad as things could get. How could he be so confident? “How can you be so sure? You didn’t see what they did to the Shaughnessys! They’re savages.”
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Lou realized what she’d said. Even as she saw the flash of pain cross Buck’s face, she wanted to recall her thoughtless comment.
“Because they’re murderers?” he asked her accusingly. “Or because they’re Indians?” He stalked off, unwilling to continue talking to her.
She sat there, mouth opening and closing, wanting to say something, to call him back and apologize. But, she didn’t know what to say. With a disgusted sigh, she finally lowered her gaze to the ground. She’d just hurt the one man who could truly understand what she was going through right now.
That night, Lou couldn’t sleep. She spent several hours tossing and turning in her bunk. Eventually, she got down and climbed into Kid’s bunk, burying her nose in his pillow. There, inhaling the unique scent that was him, she finally fell into an exhausted slumber. But it didn’t last long.
She was up with the first signs of dawn. Looking around at the others, she saw they were still asleep. She rubbed a weary hand over her face, then decided to go ahead and get started on the day’s chores. She didn’t have a run that day. None of them did. But she didn’t want to just sit around the bunkhouse, an object of pity for them as she waited anxiously for news of Kid.
A couple hours later, Cody found her in the barn, mucking out his horse’s stall. She’d already fed and watered all the stock, repaired two bridles and even milked the cow and churned the butter for Emma.
“Don’t hear ya complainin’,” she muttered. He just shrugged. Cody might be all jokes and braggadocio, but inside he had a big heart. He knew how much she was hurting right now. Besides, if that meant he got out of chores, who was he to complain?
“Thought I’d head inta town,” he finally said. “See if Sam’s heard anythin’.”
Lou just nodded as she loaded the manure into a wheelbarrow.
“Wanta come along?”
“No,” she said quietly. “I’ll stay here. At least here I can stay busy. There I’d have nothin’ ta do but keep watch and worry.”
Billy nodded in understanding and moved into the stall to begin saddling his horse.
Lou watched him mount up and leave, then went back to her self-imposed marathon of chores. She gathered eggs from the henhouse for Emma, repaired a hole Lightning had kicked in the corral fence and chopped wood. She’d just watered all the stock when Emma had asked her to gather all the dirty linens from the bunkhouse and bring them over for washing.
Lou wrinkled her nose at the smell as she pulled the sheets off the boys’ bunks and stuffed them in a burlap bag. Tying the bag closed, she flung it over her shoulder and stepped out onto the porch. The pounding sound of approaching horse hooves had her looking up sharply. Her sharp eyes quickly picked out the welcome sight of Katy, with Kid on her back, coming over the horizon.
With a shout of joy, Lou dropped the bag of laundry and took off running to greet the returning rider. “Kid!”
He rode straight up to her, pulling Katy to a stop.
“Oh, Lord, am I happy to see you!” She smiled up at him for all she was worth. He was alright. He was alive and healthy and smiling down at her. Then he was sliding off the saddle to the ground next to her.
“Me, too,” he said softly, never taking his eyes from hers. She was so lost in those blue orbs she didn’t even notice Cody, still on his horse.
“What about me?” the blonde rider asked sarcastically. He half laughed to himself as Kid and Lou turned to simultaneously give him a ‘look’. “I’ll tell the others yer back. Scalp and all.”
Kid turned back to Lou and smiled down at her again. She broke contact for a moment to look at the ground, then brought her eyes back up to his. She sighed. “You alright?”
Kid nodded. She looked him over and reaching out to pat some of the dust out of his buckskins, half laughted. “You look terrible.”
He grinned. “I’m fine, really.”
Afraid to meet his gaze as she admitted this, Lou ducked her head. “I was kinda worried. Thought I’d never see ya again.”
He said nothing for a moment and she was about to move away when, “Lou.”
She looked up at him to see he was leaning toward her, slowly. He stared deeply into her eyes. She felt her breath catch in her throat. A heavy sense of expectation filled the air. She was afraid to move. She was afraid not to move. She wanted.
The sound of the bunkhouse door slamming open broke her from the trance and she jerked away from Kid at the same time he pulled away from her. The both turned to face their family.
Lou watched Kid and Buck rush out of the bunkhouse, headed for the Shaughnessy’s. She supported their desire to figure out what was going on. She just wished she could go with them. She felt better, knowing Kid was alright. But he was headed back out into danger and here she was, stuck back at the station again. Looking from the door to Jimmy, she saw the same need for action lurking behind his eyes. A plan sprang into her mind.
“Emma, I know I said I’d reshoe Lightnin’ today, but…”
Emma paused in her motions to clear the table of the dishes she’d set out for Kid to look at Lou questioningly. “Yeah?”
“Well, I’d kinda like ta go in town and tell Curly that the Kid’s tryin’ ta help him.”
Jimmy paused in his munching of the biscuit he’d just nabbed from the table, waiting to see what Emma had to say about this idea.
“Well, alright,” Emma finally said. “But that horse has gotta be shod this week.”
Lou nodded eagerly as she jumped out of her seat at the table. “I promise.”
Jimmy followed her out the bunkhouse door. “I’ll go with ya Lou. I wanta see this lighthaired Indian for myself.”
“Here,” Jimmy said, handing over Lightning’s saddle. “Hurry up. I wanna get goin’.”
“I know what ya mean,” Lou agreed. “Now that there’s somethin’ ta really do, I feel like I gotta do it now!”
Soon they were swinging into the saddle and racing out of the station yard. In their relief at knowing everyone was safe, for the moment, they soon found themselves racing each other. Lou won, most of the time. But Jimmy took a couple of the races.
They were relaxed, laughing and chattering as they rode into town. But the oppressive feeling on the street soon had them quieting down.
“What the hell happened here?” Jimmy muttered.
“Indian trouble,” Lou answered quietly. “Makes folks act strange. Remember back when the Kiowa were actin’ up?”
Jimmy nodded silently. They moved straight to the Marshal’s office, tied up their horses and headed inside. Neither could help overhearing the ongoing conversation as they rode up.
“There was over a hundred Apaches in that one. And they butchered ‘em all and scalped ‘em, everyone.”
“You think the Apaches are bad? Do you know what Sioux do to white women?” The last speaker inexplicably made eye contact with Lou as he said the last. She looked at Jimmy in confusion as they pushed past the speakers toward the jail.
“That’s what I love about Sweetwater,” Jimmy said, trying to be reassuring. “Folks are so sweet.”
Lou didn’t respond, busy putting her glasses back on. Did that man think she wasn’t a boy? she wondered distractedly. Then she determinedly returned her mind to the task at hand as they entered the jail.
Jimmy nodded at Sam and moved straight toward the cell in which Curly sat, crosslegged, on the floor. Lou paused to say, “Kid wanted us ta come talk ta Curly. Make sure he was alright.”
Sam nodded. “That’s fine. Stick close while yer here. Things have been real tense and I’m worried about them tryin’ ta lynch him.”
Lou nodded and moved over to join Jimmy by the cell. Looking in she saw a handsome young man with long, curly dark brown hair with reddish highlights, high cheek bones and full lips. Lips that were downturned in an unhappy expression.
Lou cleared her throat. “We’re friends of the Kid’s. I’m Lou and this is Jimmy.”
He turned his head to look at them, but still said nothing.
“He wanted us ta look in on ya. See if you was alright.”
“Well, are ya?” Jimmy asked. Lou’d have thought he was impatient, but could tell by his relaxed body and chin resting on his chin he was mostly curious. With Jimmy so close to her shoulder she could feel the change in his body tension when he decided to needle the prisoner. “Thought the Kid said ya were white?”
This got a response. “Hunkpapa.”
A small smile turned Jimmy’s face from stern to welcoming. “So, ya do talk.”
Now it was Curly’s turn to visibly calm himself down. He knew he’d been played. “When a wolverine is caught in a white man’s trap, he chews off his leg to get free. He does not talk about it.”
This man was so much like Kid it was uncanny, Lou thought. So tied in to doing what was right. “The Kid’s tryin’ ta find somethin’ that will clear ya.”
Curly nodded and gave her a small smile, as if understanding what she wasn’t saying. “He should have looked in his heart.”
“Is there anythin’ we can do fer ya ‘til he gets back?” Jimmy asked.
Curly shook his head, but Sam spoke up. “Stay in town. I may need ya, the way things are goin’.”
Lou and Jimmy nodded. Sam walked back out onto the boardwalk and Jimmy and Lou turned back to Curly.
“We’ll be back,” Jimmy said. “I’m gonna go check out the saloon. If anythin’ starts, it’ll probably be there.”
Lou nodded. As she started to follow him out, Curly said to her, “Does he know?”
Turning back, she asked, “Does who know what?”
“Does Kid know that yer a girl?”
“How’d you know that?” she hissed rushing back over to the jail cell. “And keep yer voice down! It ain’t exactly public knowledge.”
“Among my people a woman with a warrior’s spirit is honored. And, we are not so easily fooled by the way a person dresses. We see the spirit not the clothes.” In deference to her wishes, he’d whispered the entire thing.
Lou smiled in appreciation. “Yes, Kid knows. Him and the other boys. But the Marshal, Teaspoon, Emma… the town. They don’t know.”
Curly leaned back, satisfied. “Who would I tell?”
Lou nodded. “We’ll be back. I gotta go make sure Jimmy doesn’t get inta any trouble. Him and saloons don’t always mix well.”
Curly laughed quietly. “I know many like him. He reminds me much of my older brother, Thatanka Iatanka. Go. Quickly.”
Walking down the boardwalk to the saloon, Lou listened into the various conversations. Things were tense in town. All anyone was talking about was the Indian troubles and what had happened out at the Shaughnessys. Sam was right to be worried about a lynching attempt.
She pushed her way through the swinging saloon doors and wandered into the room. In one room an old mountain man was holding court, talking about how he’d handle the ‘Indian problem’. Looking around she saw Jimmy in a corner watching a poker game. She walked up to him, opening her mouth to tell him it was time to go.
“Just one minute,” he said, holding up a finger. She shook her head ‘no’. “One minute.”
She sighed and accepted defeat. When Jimmy got caught up in a poker game, there was no distracting him. She walked away to watch the other goings on. The mountain man had decided to take over the arm wrestling contest going on at the bar. He rolled up his sleeve and plopped his elbow down on the bar. That’s when she saw it, a snake tattoo on the man’s forearm. Snakeman, she thought to herself. The man Kid had said Curly thought was really behind the massacre at the Shaughnesseys.
She moved quickly over to Jimmy. “Game’s over.”
“Let me just finish this one…”
“I think I just saw Snakeman,” she whispered. Snakeman had been the only description Kid had gotten out of Matt O'Connell about his attackers, before he'd died. Lou's announcement, finally, distracted Jimmy from the poker game.
“Where?” he asked, straightening up. Lou pointed to the mountain man. “Are you sure?”
Lou nodded. The next moment, they were walking out of the saloon and hurrying back to their horses at the jail. When the mountain man left the saloon, a pile of furs tossed over his shoulder, they were mounted up and ready to follow him. He led them to a deserted cabin outside of town.
Lou and Jimmy watched cautiously as he dismounted and headed inside. Sneaking up to the window, Lou pulled out her glasses, feeling the need for their protection, and slipped them on even as they peeked inside. The sight that greeted them confirmed her suspicions.
“The rifles from the Shaughnessys,” she muttered quietly. The click of a gun being cocked behind them had her stiffening. They both turned to see the Indian agent, Walker, standing there with a six gun pointed at them.
“You lost?” he asked. “Or just unlucky?”
Why did this keep happening to her? Lou wondered idly, even as she glanced at Jimmy. He gave her an almost imperceptible nod and together they tried rushing Walker. Unfortunately, they hadn’t seen Snakeman or the other henchman coming up behind them.
The next thing they knew they were well and truly trussed up. So much for all those fighting lessons she’d been taking, Lou fumed as the men dragged her and Jimmy into the cabin and dumped them into a couple of chairs.
As Walker started questioning them, Lou let Jimmy handle the answers or lack of them. She was busy trying to figure a way out of this mess. She kept going over all the different fighting tricks she’d picked up from Buck, trying to figure out which ones might work best here. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t aware when Walker wacked Jimmy in the chin with the water dipper. She winced in sympathy.
Then Snakeman walked in and Jimmy had to go and be his own smartassed self. Damn you, Jimmy! she thought as she frantically tried to figure out a way to keep him from using that pig sticker on Jimmy. When you can’t fight, try distracting your enemy, it may buy you enough time, Buck had said. Distraction? How could she distract them?
“Wait!” she called out urgently. “Gallagher killed the Shaughnessys.”
For a minute she thought all she’d done was put her own tongue in place of Jimmy’s to be cut out. Then Snakeman looked at Walker defensively.
“I don’t know what he’s talkin’ about.”
Lou breathed again in relief, even as Walker spoke again. “Me neither. From what I hear, the Sioux are responsible for that unfortunate incident. In fact, one of them is in jail now, even as we speak.”
Things started to click in Lou’s mind. Now she thought she knew what was really going on. Indian problem her foot!
“Who knows yer here?” Walker asked.
Thinking quickly, Lou started spouting as many names as she could think of. The more people she could name the safer they might be. It worked. It bought a delay in action, though not threats. She couldn’t’ help herself. She had to confirm her theory.
“Why are you stirrin’ up trouble fer the Indians?”
Walker obliged her with a complete explanation. “See the Indians don’t appreciate the real value of things. Like land, fer instance. You’ll find that throughout history people that don’t appreciate what they’ve got usually lose it. If the Sioux were to break the treaty because say… the chief’s half brother were to die unjustly at the white man’s hands… it’s terms would no longer apply. And then those of us who do appreciate the real value of things stand to benefit.”
Pretty much what she’d figured, she thought as she watched Walker head out of the cabin with Gallagher. She’d thought they were alone until the third man came up and complicated matters further by tying the two of them together, back to back. As soon as he left, she lit into Jimmy.
“What the hell were you thinkin’, Jimmy?” she growled. “Were ya tryin’ ta get us both killed?”
She could feel Jimmy behind her just shrug in answer. “Sorry, Lou. Guess I ain’t got yer way with words.”
She huffed in response. “Then next time why don’tcha just let me do the talkin’!”
“You didn’t seem ta be much in the mood fer gabbin’,” he answered, leaning his head back to rest against hers. She shook her head to push him away.
“Damn it, Jimmy! We can’t just sit here.”
“What do ya expect me ta do?” he asked. “I cain’t exactly shoot these ropes off.”
Lou grimaced and started trying to twist her wrists free of their bindings. The sinew they’d tied her hands with was brand new and still flexible so she thought she might have a chance to free herself. After a couple of minutes she could feel the ties coming loose.
“Jimmy!” she called out. “I almost got my hands free. See what you can do with the ropes.”
She felt him nod in agreement even as his hands started twisting and turning behind her back. Suddenly, she felt a palm sliding underneath a portion of her anatomy it shouldn’t have been anywhere near. She nearly leapt out of the seat, even as the ropes kept her tied to the back of the chair.
“The ropes, Jimmy! The ropes!” she said, exasperated. This was no time for games!
“Sorry, Lou,” he said over his shoulder to her. “But when it comes ta women, my hands just got a mind of their own.”
She couldn’t help smiling at that. He’d called her a woman. It felt good. Even as she was thinking, she felt a last jerk as Jimmy said, “There.”
Just in time, she thought as the door opened and the third man came back into the cabin. Here goes nothing, she mentally grimaced. She forced a series of coughs.
“Kin I have some water?” she asked, as the man walked past her. He brought a dipper full of water over and she leaned forward to take a drink. Except he decided to dump the water in her lap, instead. She barely managed to hide her own smile. He was obligingly standing spread legged right in front of her. Once she had the grin under control, she looked back up at his grinning, laughing face and let fly with her foot, straight into his crotch. That sure took the smile off his face, she thought, even as she was pushing the last of the ropes off over her shoulders. As the man stumbled away from her in pain, she stood up, grabbed the chair she’d been tied to and slammed it down over his back, knocking him out.
She turned back to Jimmy and started untying his hands.
“Good goin’, Lou,” he smiled up at her. “Shows ya what team work’ll do.”
She smiled at him for the compliment, even though the teamwork had been along the lines of 90% her and only 10% him, she still couldn’t have done it without his 10%. They quickly ran for it, grabbing their horses and booking it out of there.
Once they were certain they were clear of pursuit, Lou leaned over and grabbed the reins of Jimmy’s horse down near the bit, forcing it to slow down. He turned to look at her questioningly as she sat back up.
She reached over and slapped him in the face.
“What was that fer?” he asked, confused.
“Since yer ‘hands got a mind of their own’,” she hissed, “you can just pass that on ta them. And while yer at it, add this. No one and nothin’ touches me without my permission! That happens again and yer six shooters won’t be enough protection. You read me?”
He nodded slowly.
“I was just teasin’ ya, Lou,” he said in a conciliatory tone.
She deflated a bit. “I know. And I appreciate the compliment. Really I do. But learn ta do it without grabbing at me like I was some two bit whore.”
Jimmy winced at her scathing tone and harsh words. “Yes, ma’am. Now, can we get back ta the station and warn the others?”
Lou sighed as she watched Sam lock the last of Walker’s men in the jail. She wasn’t looking forward to having to testify against them, but felt good that she’d helped bring them to justice. She was just sorry the real punishment would come for what they’d done to the Shaughnessys, not what they’d tried to do to Curly’s people.
Speaking of which… she looked around for Buck. She needed to talk to him. But he was already outside mounting up and pounding out of town. This whole thing had hit way to close to home for him. She started to move out of the Marshal’s office, intent on following Buck, when someone grabbed her arm. Looking up, she saw Kid staring a question at her.
“I need ta talk ta Buck,” she said quietly. He nodded and let her go. “I’ll see ya back at the station.”
Moments later she was pounding out of town after Buck. It took her only a few minutes to catch up with him. But he wouldn’t slow down. She wondered what demons were riding his back. Maybe she could get a few of them off.
“Hey, Buck! Wait up!”
Reluctantly he slowed his horse and she brought Lightning up to match paces.
“I’m sorry,” she said simply. “I didn’t mean things the way they sounded.”
“I.. I wasn’t thinking,” she added. “I was just so worried ‘bout the Kid.”
“I know, Lou,” he sighed. “I don’t blame you. Not really. It’s the way you were raised.”
“Doesn’t mean I can’t do better,” she said. “And I will. Yer my friend, Buck. My brother. I need ta think ‘bout you, too.”
A slow smile spread across his face. “You think of me as a brother?”
“Course I do. I think of all of you as my brothers.”
“Even the Kid?” he teased.
“Well, maybe not him,” she admitted, laughing. He joined her. It was a relief to have things getting back to normal.
“Race ya back ta the station,” he shouted even as he was spurring his horse into motion.
Oh no you don’t! she thought, slapping her reins against Lightning’s neck. The race was on.
Lou looked around the table that night. Everyone was present for dinner for a change. She liked it that way, though it didn’t happen often. In the morning she had a run East and Buck was headed West. But now that the ‘Indian Problem’ had been solved that didn’t worry her.
She was tucked snugly between Kid and Jimmy at the table. After this afternoon, she knew she could have her choice of the two of them. But, while she loved Jimmy it was more like a brother, even if he was capable of making her pulse race as fast as Kid could. The difference was, she knew which one she couldn’t live without.
She snuck a covert glance to her left as Kid pushed her foot with his, as Cody made another silly comment. Her eyes met his and they both smiled for a split second, before looking away. She looked away just in time to catch Jimmy trying to filch a strip of bacon off her plate. She slammed her fork down, tines into the table, just in front of his hand.
“Mine,” she said quietly and distinctly.
“But,” he started to protest.
“Mine,” she repeated.
“I’d quit while the quittin’s good, son,” Teaspoon smiled their way. “You know he’s been trainin’ with Buck, not just you.”
“Yeah, Jimmy,” Kid threw in for good measure. “You don’t want ta end up with a shiner ta match the one Buck was sportin’ a couple weeks ago.”
This set them all to laughing while Jimmy subsided, grumping. Emma took pity on him and stood up to get more bacon from the stove. Turning his back to Teaspoon, Ike signed, *Maybe I ought to take her along on my next run, instead of my gun.*
Everyone laughed harder.
“Alright, you boys wanna let me in on the joke?” Teaspoon asked, a bit aggrieved at being left out.
“Na huh,” Lou said smiling. “No, Sir. No way.”
She looked around at her adopted family. She wished she could freeze this moment, keep things the same, forever.
Lou headed out to reshoe Lightning, like she’d promised Emma she’d do. She’d left the job longer than she should’ve, but shoeing horses was her least favorite job at the station. It was the one time she hadn’t figured out how to compensate for her small size and lack of overall strength. Which meant that it was more work for her, took her twice as long and left her aching for days afterward.
“Alright, Lightning,” she muttered as she entered his stall. “Like it or not, we gotta get this done.”
The horse snorted at her, nose still buried in his feed trough. She snapped a leadline onto his halter and pulled him toward the stall door.
“Come on, ya big baby.”
Leading him out to the work area behind the barn, Lou checked on the horseshoes she’d put on the fire to heat up. Seeing they were almost ready, she tied Lightning to the specially placed ring in the barn wall and checked each of his hooves. Using a special ??? she quickly pried the old shoes off and tossed them in a bucket to be remade into new shoes later.
Soon, she was bent almost double, banging a hammer as hard as she could to pound the nails into the new horseshoe to hold it on. One last double tap and she moved to stand up straight.
Suddenly, she found herself in the air, feet dangling a foot off the ground. Strong fingers were running up and down her ribs causing her to squirm and laugh uncontrollably. Kicking back, she finally hit her tormentor in the kneecap, causing him to drop her. She landed on her butt, but kept rolling like Buck had taught her, quickly coming to her feet facing… Jimmy.
“Jimmy!” she blurted out, surprised at her attacker’s identity.
“Sorry, Lou,” he said, obviously not sorry at all to judge by the playful grin on his face. “I just couldn’t resist, not with ya all bent over like that, not payin’ the least attention ta the rest of the world. Least I kept my hands all respectful like!”
“Why you!” she sputtered. Half hidden by Lightning, she grabbed the bucket of water she’d been using to cool the hot horseshoes in and tossed it at Jimmy over the horse’s back. He looked up at her, water dripping down from the sides of his hat, his soaked shirt plastered to his chest.
“What’d ya do that fer?” he asked, bewildered.
This time, she was the one laughing at his expression. “Tit fer tat, Jimmy. Tit fer tat!”
Unable to resist, he joined her in her laughter. Soon, he was helping her finish the shoeing process, the two of them laughing and chattering the entire time.
"So, you and the Kid,” he said with a smile. “How’s that working out fer ya?”
Lou blushed and swung around to the other side of Lightning to grab a hoof and hide her burning face.
“Fine,” she muttered.
“He seemed awful glad ta see ya when he got back,” Jimmy added.
“So, did he act on that glint I saw in his eyes? Cause if he didn’t, I’ll talk ta him fer ya.”
“Jimmy, you just stay outta our business,” Lou warned, narrowing her eyes at him. What was with him today, she wondered.
“I’m just sayin’, you two belong tagether, that’s all,” he started. At Lou’s disbelieving glance he blurted out, “I met someone.”
“Well, why didn’t ya just say so?” Lou asked. “Is she pretty?”
“’Bout the prettiest thing I ever saw,” he said as he started putting the blacksmithing tools away.
“Did ya at least get her name?”
“Uh huh,” he answered as they turned to walk back toward the bunkhouse.
“So, when ‘re ya gonna see her again?”
“See who?” Cody asked, coming up beside them.
“Sarah,” Jimmy breathed the name.
The teasing started then and continued right through supper. Even Ike got in on the fun.
*Most of the time women got to get a whiff of you before you scare them off that fast,* he signed. Buck translated, since not all the boys had learned his signs as well as Lou. Teaspoon particularly liked that zinger.
“That’s right, Jimmy,” he said.
“All I know is I just wanna see ‘er again,” Jimmy sighed. Lou hoped things would work out for him. Jimmy’d been real quiet, not quite himself ever since that trip to Fort Reunion with Emma. He wouldn’t talk about what had happened, but Lou knew it had hit him close to the heart.
“Well, fast as she was travelin’,” Cody put in, “you might try… ah… California.”
Lou’d finally had enough. Why couldn’t they just leave Jimmy alone?
“I don’t see what you guys are so jealous of.”
“What do you mean, ‘jealous’,” Kid asked. This kind of got her hackles up.
“I mean it doesn’t hurt ta see one of ya takin’ a fancy ta someone besides yerselves,” she said. She was a bit miffed at Kid. After all that with Curly, the near kiss and everything, he hadn’t been spending any time with her. It was just so frustrating.
“Takin’ a fancy?” Jimmy asked, confused. “What are you talkin’ about?”
“What I’m talkin’ about, is you got feelin’s stirrin’ up inside,” she paused for a breath and moved her eyes from Jimmy to Kid to make sure he was paying attention before returning to Jimmy. “and yer tryin’ ta do somethin’ about it.”
“There’s nothin’ wrong with takin’ it slow and bein’ careful,” Kid said. Lou rolled her eyes at this. Sure, take it slow. He’d been the one to first kiss her! Take it slow! “He doesn’t even know that much about her.”
Suddenly, this conversation had become about so much more than keeping the others from teasing Jimmy too much.
“Wait too long and sometimes the right time passes you by,” she warned. She could tell Jimmy had finally figured out the change in topic when he rolled his eyes and looked away from the conversation, mentally checking out. Kid just stared at her, trying to process what she was saying. Men! She mentally huffed. No, boys!
Walking toward the barn with a last bucket of water, Lou could hear raised voices. What was going on? she wondered.
“Maybe if you did more listenin’, you wouldn’t need so much tellin’,” she heard Kid say as she approached.
Were they fighting? She wondered. She hoped not. She hated when Kid and Jimmy went at it. It was always too real when they fought. Not like with the others. They’d fight and then it’d be over. Every time Kid and Jimmy went at it she felt like someone was trying to rip her family apart.
“What’s goin’ on?” she asked, coming to a stop next to the two boys, who were standing nearly toe to toe.
“Nothin’,” Kid tossed over his shoulder.
“No, she wasn’t talkin’ ‘bout you and her,” Jimmy said, waving a hand in her direction. “She was talkin’ about you and me.”
Lou watched as Jimmy walked off. Why couldn’t they just leave him alone to work his way through this. Couldn’t they see he was struggling? She turned her anger at all the boys on Kid.
“Why do you keep doggin’ him?”
“Me?” Kid asked, confused. “Whatta ya keep gettin’ on me for?”
The words of advice from that prostitute at the Silver Spurs rang in her ears as she looked at Kid. Next thing she knew, they came spilling out of her mouth. “Nobody ever died of a broken heart, Kid!”
Not sure if she was talking about Jimmy and Sarah or her and Kid, Lou walked off disgusted with herself and the whole situation, completely forgetting the bucket of water in her hand.
Lou sat on her horse, pushing Lightning as hard as she dared, trying to outrun her demons. Her and her stupid mouth, urging Jimmy to keep courting Sarah. She might’ve gotten him killed! Even now he sat in jail, waiting to go on trial for murder.
She could hear Kid on Katy behind her, hooves pounding into the hard dirt of the early summer prairie. It didn’t help she might’ve ruined things with Kid trying to help Jimmy out. She moved to urge Lightning to a faster pace, but noticed his labored breathing and realized it was time to slow down to a trot and give him a rest.
“Lou,” Kid finally spoke into the silence. “I’m sorry I acted that way. It ain’t that I don’t care for ya.”
“Then what’s the matter, Kid,” she asked, almost afraid to hear the answer. Maybe he didn’t want her. Maybe she wasn’t pretty enough, feminine enough. She picked at the hem of her frayed jacket, considering spurring Lightning back into a run rather than hear what Kid had to say.
“It’s just that, well, things are complicated.”
“Don’t seem so complicated ta me,” she said defensively. “Either ya like me and wanna spend time with me, or ya don’t.”
“I do, Lou,” he sighed. “But that’s the problem. I’m wantin’ ta spend more and more time with ya, everyday. And I’m constantly afraid I’m gonna do or say somethin’ that’ll give ya away.”
“That ain’t all, though,” she said.
“No. I saw ya with Jimmy the other day,” he added. “You two were laughing and havin’ so much fun. I wanted ta punch him inta next week and lock you up so no one could ever have fun with ya again, ‘cept me.”
“You were jealous?” Lou asked, completely astounded. “Jealous of Jimmy?”
Kid nodded glumly.
Suddenly Lou was feeling a lot better about things. “What’s so wrong with that?”
“You don’t understand,” he started.
“Then explain things to me. Make me understand.”
“You know I don’t like ta drink much,” he started. She nodded. She’d noticed, even when the other riders let loose he never really did. “My Pa was a drunk. A jealous drunk. When things went bad, he started gettin’ real jealous, of anybody, everybody. And he’d take it out on her. Beat her up. At least ‘til I was old enough ta stand up ta him. He took off that night. I never saw him again. Good riddance!”
“But?” Lou asked, somehow knowing that wasn’t the end of the story.
“But it was already too late. He’d hurt Ma too much. She died a short time later.”
“What’s that got ta do with you and me? And Jimmy?”
“When I got so jealous, I got ta wonderin’ if I was like my Pa? I’d die before I hurt ya, Lou. Maybe ya’d be better off with Jimmy.”
Lou pulled Lightning to a stop in front of Katy, forcing her to halt too. Looking Kid in the eye she said, “Kid, if I can trust ya never ta hurt me, ya can trust yerself. Trust me. Ya ain’t no woman beater. I know that much. 'Sides, I ain't interested in Jimmy.”
Kid looked at her, searching deep in her eyes, and seemed to relax a bit in relief at what he found there.
“Now, enough of this. We ain’t got no more time fer us right now,” she added. “We gotta get to Fort Laramie and find some evidence ta clear Jimmy.”
Kid nodded and they both spurred their horses into a canter, eating up the ground beneath them.
Lou poured over the marriage and death records looking for anything that might support what that old drunk back in Sweetwater had had to say about Sarah. Her eyes lit on the next entry and she felt a catch in her breath.
“This might be somethin’,” she said. Kid leaned over the book he was searching to see the entry she was pointing at. “Sarah R. McKittrick, age 19, married to… ah.. .looks like… ah…Carter T. Hale, age 61, in September of ’59.”
“He died last March,” one of the clerks in the office put in. “A terrible thing, lifelong fisherman drownin’ in his own lake.” She walked over to the table Lou and Kid were seated at, a pile of papers in her hands. “Hired hand said he couldn’t swim out to save him. I didn’t believe that for a minute.”
Kid and Lou looked at each other. Could this be it? The information they needed that would save Jimmy?
“Are these the two yer lookin’ for?” the clerk asked, holding out one of the papers in her hand. Kid took it, glance at it and passed it to Lou. Bingo! They had what they needed. It was a wanted poster for Sarah and Richard Gentry.
“Jimmy’s not gonna like this,” Kid sighed.
“Beats hangin’,” Lou responded, ever practical. She wanted her family happy. But they had to be alive and healthy first! “Let’s go.”
Looking up at the sun as they galloped across the prairie, Kid sighed. “We’re cuttin’ it close, Lou.”
“I know,” she said grimly. “But we can’t push the horses anymore or they’ll collapse and we’ll never make it.”
Leaning over her mounts neck she closed her eyes and prayed. Prayed they’d make it in time to save Jimmy. Tears of fear coursed down her face, drying almost instantly in the wind raised by their racing speed.
“There’s Sweetwater,” she said suddenly, pointing to the buildings rising out of the horizon.
“And the scaffold,” Kid added grimly, indicating the platform they could now see in the middle of main street.
Looking at each other, they reached nearly simultaneously for the guns on their hips, pulling them and firing into the air as they rounded the last corner into town. Both were praying that they’d be in time to keep Jimmy from hanging.
They rode straight up to and through the crowd gathered around the scaffold. Kid handed Sam the wanted poster before daring to glance up at the platform, looking for Jimmy. Lou looked around and saw the other riders and Teaspoon all had their weapons drawn. Buck had hold of the noose. Lou was pretty sure he’d been taking it off Jimmy, not putting it on.
Everyone waited with baited breath while Sam read the paper Kid had handed him. Looking up, a smile lurking underneath his tight expression, he said, “Put yer guns away, boys. There ain’t gonna be no hangin’ taday.”
Lou relaxed, able to breathe again. They’d done it. Jimmy was safe, even if his heart was about to get broken.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
The riders in the bunkhouse found themselves jumping with every shot.
“Ain’t he run outta lead, yet?” Cody whined. “I’ll never get ta sleep he keeps this up and I’ve got a run in the mornin’.”
*Someone should go talk to him,* Ike signed.
“Yer right, Ike,” Lou said, moving to get up from Kid’s bunk, where they’d been playing checkers. “I’ll do it.”
“Lou?” Kid asked, looking up at her.
“He’s less likely ta snap at me, Kid,” she smiled. “You know that. ‘Sides, I’ve got stuff I gotta say ta him.”
Kid nodded and started putting away the checker pieces as she grabbed her gunbelt and headed for the door. On the porch, Lou took a deep, fortifying breath and strapped on her gun. Rounding the corner of the bunkhouse, she paused to watch as Jimmy shot out bottle after bottle. When he stopped to reload, she walked up beside him.
“Is it helpin’?” she asked.
"Is all this destruction helpin’?”
He shrugged as he slammed the drum into place and chambered a round. Turning back to the targets, he fired off several more rounds. Lou waited patiently until he was once again out of lead.
“Jimmy,” she started. “I’m sorry.”
He ignored her, busy reloading his Colt again.
“I shouldn’t have pushed ya like that. I…. I just wanted ya ta be happy.”
“I know,” he finally sighed. “But it wasn’t supposed ta be this time. Maybe not ever. We’ll just have ta wait and see. Thing is, no one can go through this but me.”
“Maybe,” she said, placing a hand on his forearm. “But that don’t mean yer friends can’t be there with ya. I won’t talk, if ya don’t want me to. But I’d like ta stay.”
Again he shrugged, pretending he didn’t care. But, there was a slight easing of the tension in his shoulders as she pulled out her own revolver, checked the drum then snapped it back in place. Soon, she was helping Jimmy destroy every bit and piece of glass bottle on the station.
Lou was freezing as she walked back toward the bunkhouse with Jimmy, Ike, Cody and Teaspoon in the gathering dusk. Thanks to the stationmaster’s presence she also found herself walking with arms out, trying to keep her soaked shirt from sticking to her. It had been a long, exhausting day digging that well, though striking water had been kinda fun. If only Ike hadn’t felt it necessary to drag her into the well when the water started shooting up out of the ground. As soon as she got back to the bunkhouse, she was going to clean up and get some dry, warm clothes on.
Looking up she saw Teaspoon stop walking to watch as a strange buckboard left a beautiful young woman, hair perfectly coifed, clothes clean and in the latest fashions standing in front of Emma’s place. Teaspoon walked up to greet her. Suddenly, Lou couldn’t swallow she was so jealous. There was the woman she wanted to be but didn’t know how. She felt like a mudhen next to this stranger’s peacock.
A sudden change in Teaspoon’s voice brought her attention back to the conversation going on in front of her. Who was Beatrice? Why did mention of her have Teaspoon so… somber? Apparently he wasn’t going to tell them just yet though. Instead, he stepped up and helped this… Elizabeth?... up the steps to Emma’s porch.
Looking at the three boys around her, all still standing there with their mouths agape, Lou suddenly found herself getting upset. What the hell? she thought She didn’t want ta be a helpless little doll. What was she thinking, envying that woman? She just needed ta get cleaned up.
“I’m headed ta the shower, boys,” she said softly. “Keep Teaspoon and Emma away, would ya?”
They nodded agreeably, though she wondered if they’d even heard her. They were all drooling over that china doll lady. Lou snorted once in contempt and turned to gather her towel and clean clothes from the bunkhouse.
That night over supper, Teaspoon introduced them all to his… daughter… Elizabeth. Lou snorted. She just couldn’t see the relationship. They looked nothing, acted nothing alike. She was so sweet and accommodating it was sickening, almost as if she had no personality of her own. But, looking around the table, Lou could tell all her brothers seemed to appreciate her attributes, even Kid. Narrowing her eyes slightly at him, she kicked his shin. He jerked his eyes off Elizabeth to glance at Lou. Seeing her fuming expression, he lowered his gaze to her plate.
Lou sighed. She was glad she had the run the next day. Maybe by the time she returned the oh-so-proper Miss Elizabeth would have had enough of the rough ways at the station and hightailed it back to the big city. One could only hope.
Suddenly, she’d had enough. With a muttered, ‘excuse me,’ Lou left the table and headed for the barn. No one really took note of her departure. Lou spent the next couple of hours puttering around the barn, checking on the horses, topping off feed and water troughs, polishing stray bits of tack. Finally, she sat down on a haybale in Lightning’s stall and just started tearing a piece of straw into bits. That’s how Kid found her.
“Hey there,” he said, smiling at her. “I was wondering if maybe you’d decided ta leave on yer run tonight, ‘sted of waitin’ fer the mochila.”
She couldn’t stifle a chuckle. When he saw the smile flit across her features, he ventured into the stall and took a seat next to her, handing her the single wildflower he’d picked on his way across the yard. She looked at the small flower in surprise, then up into Kid’s blue eyes, the corners crinkling with his smile.
“Wanna tell me ‘bout it?” he asked quietly.
She shrugged. “Ain’t much ta say. Sometimes it’s hard, ya know? I like my job, wouldn’t give it up fer nothin’ and nobody! But…”
"But?” he urged.
“But it would be nice ta be looked at the way y’all were lookin’ at her, just every once in awhile,” she admitted in a small voice. “But I can’t be pretty and do my job.”
Kid reached down and put a hand beneath her chin, lifting her eyes to meet his. “You’ve got yer own kinda pretty, Lou. It shines through every time ya smile, laugh, when ya say my name. Heck, now that I ‘know’ I don’t see how anyone can look at ya and not see what a pretty lady ye are. Elizabeth ain’t got nothin’ that can compete with you.”
Tears gathered in the corners of Lou’s eyes as she read the truth in his. He could be so sweet sometimes.
“’Sides, she could never survive out here, not even like Emma. She’s too citified. And what would I talk ta her ‘bout? I doubt she’d wanna talk horse breedin’, accountin’ and fishin’ with me, like you do.”
Lou let loose with a full throated laugh. She most certainly could not imagine Teaspoon’s newly discovered daughter spending a contented afternoon sitting on the bank of the pond with a fishing pole, baiting hooks and gutting fish.
"I ‘spose yer right,” she said, standing up and brushing the straw off her pants, noticing for the first time how Kid’s gaze followed her hand’s motion and blushing at the heat that brought to her belly. “But I still say she’s trouble. I’ve just got this feelin’ in my gut that things ain’t quite what they seem with her.”
Lou held out a hand to Kid, who took it as he came to his feet. Using that hand to reel Lou into his embrace, he leaned down and slowly sipped a kiss from her lips. He pulled back for a moment to whisper, “Then I’ll keep an eye on her for ya while yer gone. Just ta make sure she doesn’t ‘cause any troubles, not ‘cause I think she’s pretty. Alright?”
Lou laughed and nodded in agreement before pulling Kid’s head back down for a deeper kiss.
With a sigh of pleasure, Lou passed the mochila off to Jimmy, shouting a pleasant “Ride safe!” after him. Her ride had been fairly routine and she’d managed to shave enough time off the run to make it back in time for lunch. It was always so much better to eat lunch when it was served, than the cold plate Emma would set aside for riders who arrived between meals.
She hurried through the process of caring for Lightning and practically skipped her way into the bunkhouse. The ensuing conversation killed both her appetite and her good mood.
“When are they leavin’ fer St. Louis?” Kid asked quietly.
“Well,” Emma sighed, getting up from the table. “Mr. Spoon hadn’t decided yet.”
Lou could feel the sigh blowing through Cody’s entire body as sat leaning against her back.
“I know one thing,” Cody said. “He goes, he ain’t comin’ back.”
“Sure he will,” she said, trying to cheer both of them up.
“I don’t think so, Lou.”
“Why not?” she demanded, a hard tone entering her voice.
“Would you if you had $10,000 waitin’ for you?”
Lou stiffened, because if she had that kind of money she might not come back herself. Not unless she could figure out a way to bring Jeremiah and Teresa to the home station with her. But that didn’t mean she could handle Teaspoon leaving. It made her want to throw things. It made her want to… cry.
“That don’t mean he’s stayin’ there,” she spat out, trying to hide the catch in her voice.
“He’s got Elizabeth to look after now,” Kid said somberly, as if he felt the weight of that responsibility on his own shoulders.
“And a lady like that ain’t gonna be content livin’ in Sweetwater,” Cody added. Lou shot a fuming glance at Kid. He’d told her almost the same thing just a couple days ago. It had sounded a lot better the way he’d phrased it.
“But he’s got a job here. We need him. He can’t just walk out,” Lou insisted, trying to come up with reasons why Teaspoon couldn’t, wouldn’t desert this family they’d formed.
“Whatta ya think, Emma?” Kid asked, looking to the red-head who treated them all as her own children.
Emma looked at the three of them sadly, understanding their pain. In the few months they’d been here, they’d formed a tightknit family. Something none of them had really experienced before. They all treated Teaspoon Hunter as a beloved father or grandfather. It would hurt them horribly for him to leave, but they needed to accept that it was his decision and it could well happen.
“Well, Mr. Spoon’s worked hard all his life,” she gently explained to them. “Now he has a chance Well, Mr. Spoon’s worked hard all his life,” she gently explained to them. “Now he has a chance for some comfort.” She paused a moment, as if gathering herself against the pain of the next idea. Crossing her arms in front of her, she continued. “And if he doesn’t come back, I’ll miss him terrible. But I will understand.”
This was too much for Lou. How could they all be taking this so calmly?
“Well I won’t!” she exclaimed, jumping up from the table and disappearing out the door before she burst into tears. She’d just lost one Pa and was only starting to come to terms with that loss. She couldn’t handle losing this one, who’d been so much better at the job.
As she fled on foot, she could hear someone following her, but never turned to see who it was. After a good twenty minutes of running as fast and hard as she could, she stumbled over a tangle of prairie grass and fell to her knees. As she looked up, she saw a hand in front of her face. Reaching out to take it, she let her fellow rider pull her to her feet and against his chest. She was past the point of sobbing her heart out, but tears continued to seep down her cheeks.
“I don’t think I can handle it,” she murmured.
“You can handle anythin’, Lou,” Cody smiled down at her. “Better than the rest of us, I’d wager.”
“But, I’ll miss him,” she almost wailed, barely holding her voice in check.
“We all will,” he agreed, resting his chin on her head. “But he’ll still be there. We have runs that direction all the time. We’d be able to visit. It ain’t like he’s dyin’ or nothin’. It ain’t the end of the world.”
Stepping back from him, she ruefully wiped her face dry on her shirtsleeves. “I made a fool of myself, didn’t I?”
“Well…” the blonde jokester started. But seeing the look on her face, he quickly forestalled whatever he’d been about to say and got serious. “No, Lou. You just said what we all were thinkin’.”
"I didn’t give myself away, did I?”
“Naw. All you gave away is the fact you love Teaspoon, which ain’t much of a secret. We all love ‘im.”
That night at supper, Teaspoon made a big announcement.
“Found out in town today there’s a dance comin’ up. I checked the schedule and all of ya should be here. I want y’all ta go. It’ll be good for relations with town and I want ya there when I officially present Elizabeth as my daughter.”
The boys started talking excitedly about the coming event, which girls would be there, what they would wear. All except Lou and Ike. They sat across from each other at the end of the table in almost identical postures, staring down at their plates, moving the food around but not eating. The only difference was a palpable sadness hanging around Lou and an air of anger floating around Ike. Both excused themselves from the table as soon as was polite and left the bunkhouse.
As they walked side by side over to the corrals to check on Samson, the new baby donkey, Lou asked, “So, what’s eatin’ you, Ike?”
*Cody,* was his one sign response.
“What’d he do this time?” she sighed.
In a flurry of curt motions, Ike told her all about what had happened in the afternoon as they’d been breaking in one of the new horses. He’d successfully used one of the techniques she’d taught him and ‘broke’ a horse the others had all failed with. Then, just as he’d been relaxing and enjoying Elizabeth’s approval, Cody’d whistled, scaring the horse into an unexpected jump that dumped Ike on the ground.
“That was pretty rotten of him,” she agreed. “What are ya gonna do about it?”
*Can I beat him to a pulp?*
“Might not look so good, if yer really tryin’ ta impress Miss Elizabeth.”
Ike’s shoulders slumped.
“Have ya talked ta him since?”
Ike shook his head ‘no’.
He tilted his head in question.
“Give him the silent treatment,” Lou smiled at Ike. “Works every time. Simply ignore him until he apologizes for real.”
A slow smile broke out across the bald rider’s face as he thought about the idea. Soon, he was nodding his agreement. Lou reached over and grabbed a carrot from a bucket of scraps they kept hanging near the barn door. Reaching out with the carrot laid across her flattened palm, she waited for Samson to come accept the treat.
*What’s botherin’ you?* Ike asked.
Lou shrugged her shoulders. “The same thing’s that turned Cody into such an ass. I don’t want Teaspoon to leave.”
“Cause if he goes he probably won’t come back,” she sighed. “Just as I start ta get comfortable with someone, they up and leave on me. Or I have ta leave them. It’s enough ta make a person give up on family and love entirely.”
*Don’t do that,* Ike pleaded.
“Why shouldn’t I? If I don’t expect nothin’ from nobody then I cain’t ever be disappointed.”
*But you’ll also never be truly happy,* Ike responded. *It’s something my Ma taught me, before she and Pa got killed. I’d just lost my voice and hair ta the scarlet fever and was moping. All the kids at school had started treating me like I had leprosy when I went back.*
“What did she say?”
*She told me, you can’t cut yourself off from other folks, no matter how they act. The good Lord made us to be around people. Yeah, others may be mean sometimes. They might even hurt you bad. But, if you cut yourself off from the possible bad, you’re also cutting yourself off from all the good the world has to offer. She believed in the old adage, it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.*
“And, has that worked for you?” Lou asked curiously. “Are you happy, Ike?”
*It helped me find first Buck, then the rest of you,* he answered. *I haven’t been this happy since those outlaws murdered my family. If Teaspoon leaves, I’ll miss him. But, I’ll have had the privilege of knowing, and loving, him.*
Lou looked around at the school house, desks cleared from the floor to make room for all the townsfolk. Her eyes covetously followed all the ladies in their pretty dresses. There were Teaspoon and Elizabeth, cutting a rug. Where had he learned to dance like that? She idly wondered if she’d ever get the chance to learn how to dance properly. These were the times she most regretted some of her choices.
Then, something brushed against her shoulder and she stiffened. The touch reminded her of the biggest reason she’d decided to don her disguise. Yeah she might be missing out on some things, but she was also safe from a lot of things those women out on the dance floor risked every day of their lives. She wondered fleetingly which took more courage, to live as she’d chosen to or to take the risks they took.
“Come on, Lou,” Kid said sotto voce from her side.
“Let’s get some fresh air,” he added, already moving toward the door. Glancing around one last time, she followed him. Near the door, Ike brushed past her on his way in and signed something covertly to her.
As they stepped out on the porch, Kid asked, “What was that all about? I didn’t catch what Ike said.”
“He said ‘it’s working,’” she told him.
“He’s givin’ Cody the silent treatment,” she giggled. “Until Cody apologizes for bein’ such an ass the other day.”
Kid laughed as he led her toward the corrals by the livery stable, well out of sight of the schoolhouse. “You really expect Cody to apologize fer bein’ himself?”
“I think it’ll do him some good,” she said softly. “Sometimes he goes too far.”
"What are we doin’ out here, Kid?” she asked curiously as they came to a standstill next to the corral fence.
Suddenly, Kid was looking down at his feet, shuffling his feet. Then, he reached up and took off her new hat. The one he’d gifted her with the afternoon before, so she’d have something special to wear to the dance. He looked around for a place to put it. Not finding anything, he finally just tossed it on the ground near their feet, though a safe distance from the horses in the corral.
She looked from the hat, skidding along in the dirt, back up to the Kid. He now stood before her uncertainly, hands in his pockets.
“Ahem,” he cleared his throat. “May I have the pleasure of this dance.”
She could feel the heat climbing up her neck. She didn’t know how to dance. Not really. Teaspoon had given them all a short course over the last few days, but that was how to be the guy. That’s not what Kid was asking. Still, there was nothing she wanted more. She looked around nervously, double checking that no one could see them. Then, turning back to Kid, she nodded her assent. “You may.”
He reached out to put one hand on her hip, the other reaching to grasp hers, just like Teaspoon had taught them. Unfortunately, she automatically did the same thing at the same time. They both tittered a moment in embarrassment as they fumbled their way into the correct position, one of her hands in his, the other on his shoulder.
Despite all the time they’d been spending together, and the kisses they’d stolen, it somehow felt different to touch him this way. More intimate somehow. As she started to place her hand on his shoulder, it felt almost as if he’d scorched her. She started to snatch her hand away, than chuckled nervously at her own sudden timidity.
Soon, they were gently swaying in a circle, repeating the one step Teaspoon had taught them over and over again. They could barely hear the music seeping out of the schoolhouse doors and windows. But it didn’t matter. They were in their own world, making their own music.
As the faint strains of the real music ended, Kid started to lean toward her, sweeping both arms around her waist to gather her close for a sweet kiss. Once again he stole her breath away. But, as much as she liked his kisses, this was just too public for her. The moment at the Silver Spurs saloon flitted through her mind and she started to push away. She couldn’t afford to be caught kissing Kid in public like this.
“Hm, ah… um,” she stuttered, trying to gather her thoughts. “I think I’d better go.”
Kid just smiled down at her and leaned in to press his lips more firmly against hers, this time not encircling her with his arms. Instead, he waited for her to move closer before wrapping her in his embrace. She thought about what the saloon girl at the Silver Spurs had told her. Stop running away or you'll lose him.
With a mental shrug, she gave in to the magical feelings swirling through her, reaching up to wrap her arms around his neck, entwining her fingers in the soft curls at the nape of his neck. She could feel his hands moving up and down her back in a soft caress that seemed to be pulling all the blood from her brain. She felt giddy, drunk. She loved every second of it.
“Kid! Lou! Where are you two?”
They pulled apart at Jimmy’s shout and turned in the direction of his voice. Lou quickly ran her hand through her short hair, trying to straighten the mess Kid had just made out of it.
“There you are!”
“What’s up, Jimmy?” Kid asked, slightly breathless. Lou didn’t dare look at him. Like a team hitched to the same wagon, they started moving toward the schoolhouse.
“Emma wants us all in the schoolhouse. Says it’s almost time for Teaspoon’s big announcement,” Jimmy said. Then he paused and looked at Lou more closely. “Uh, Lou, are you missin’ somethin’?”
"No,” she muttered trying to keep moving toward their destination. But Jimmy reached out and grabbed both their arms, pulling Lou and Kid to a halt. He turned them back toward where they’d been standing and pointed out a brand new hat, still sitting in the dirt.
“Don’t that belong on yer head, Lou?” he asked, stepping over to pick up the hat and dust it off. He held it out toward her. When she didn’t step forward to take it, frozen in embarrassment, he walked up and set it on her had gently, pulling the chin strap down around her ears and under her chin. Patting the top he said, “There. Much better. Can’t imagine how it ended up over there in the dirt without you noticin’, Lou. Yer usually so much more observant than that.”
She snuck a glance at Kid out of the corner of her eye and could see the red climbing his neck just as she felt it climbing up hers. Jimmy reached over, grabbed the two of them by their shoulders and pushed them toward the schoolhouse. “Come on, you two. Let’s get back in time ta make Emma an’ Teaspoon happy with us! That way he won’t go askin’ any embarrasin’ questions.”
Lou huffed a deep breath as the horse beneath her accepted her lead and stopped trying to avoid the saddle. Relaxing, she used her knees to urge the horse in a circle around the corral. Tomorrow, she thought, I’ll take her out on the prairie and run her through her paces. Then, she should be ready to hit the trails.
It felt good to concentrate just on her job. The last few days had been hectic and had left her with a lot to think about. Turned out her gut had been right, Elizabeth hadn’t been quite who she’d purported to be. It all came out while Lou was off on a run. She’d missed all the excitement. Turned out ‘Elizabeth’ was really Amanda O’Connell, a friend of Teaspoon’s daughter. The real Elizabeth had died. But, Amanda hadn’t been all that bad, despite her lies. She’d helped save Teaspoon’s life. And she’d kept Lou’s secret.
Lou shook her head at the memory. She’d been drawing water from the new well for the horses, trying to sort through everything Kid and Cody had told her when she got back from her run. Amanda had walked up beside her and started talking.
“So, what’s your real name, honey?”
“What?!” a startled Lou had almost screeched.
“Is Lou short for something or is it completely made up?”
“What are you talking about?” Lou asked, taking a deep breath to calm herself down.
“I seriously doubt your parents named their daughter Lou.”
“Crap!” Lou cussed. With a sigh she looked up at Amanda. “How’d you know?”
“The way you and the Kid act around each other,” she said with a smile. “It ain’t exactly subtle.”
“Shit!” Lou let fly with another cuss.
“Besides, it ain’t exactly like you’re the first woman I met that’s decided it’s a better option to dress like a man.”
“Well hell! If you know, who the hell else has figured it out?” Lou muttered. First Kid, then the boys and Curly, now Amanda. Some secret!
“Does it really matter?” Amanda asked, smiling. “If they haven’t blown the whistle by now they’re probably not going to. I’d say your secret’s safe enough for the moment.”
Making a quick decision, Lou said, “Louise.”
This time she’d caught Amanda by surprise. “What?”
“My name’s Louise. Louise McCloud.”
“That’s a pretty name. Would you escort me on a walk, Louise?”
Lou had laughed and held out her arm like a proper gentleman. Amanda had slipped her hand through Lou’s elbow and they’d set off for a long ramble across the prairie, far from prying ears. They’d shared many of their experiences and realized they had much more in common than one might guess from looking at them. As they’d meandered back toward the station, Amanda had imparted a little advice.
“You need to practice, Lou,” she’d said.
“Letting your feminine side show,” Amanda had smiled. “I’m assuming you don’t plan on living like a boy forever. Not the way you act around the Kid.”
Lou had blushed and shrugged non-committally. Truth be told, she really hadn’t thought about where things were going with Kid. She just knew it felt right when she was with him.
“You need to get comfortable being yourself as a woman, not just a boy,” Amanda had said. “You need to accept all of yourself, weaknesses as well as strengths. That’s something I’m just learning to do myself. It’s like Teaspoon told me, self-respect is about how you feel about yourself. Not about how others feel about you. And if you don’t have self-respect, you don’t have anything.”
Lou smiled at the memory. Amanda had stuck around for a couple more weeks before hitting the road. They’d had several more chats and Lou had come to like the woman, to a degree. There was still something about Amanda that didn’t quite set right with Lou, but maybe it was just the remnants of her own jealousy. And, Amanda had made some good points. Maybe it was time Lou started spreading her wings a little bit. Time to get to know the woman she’d grown into while in disguise. Lou found herself nodding her head decisively. Next chance she got, she was going to re-introduce Louise to the world.
Chapter 8: The Trial Run