Minas Piedras (Stone Mines), Juanes
Breaking the Law, Doro
Lou groaned as she painfully rolled over and dropped out of her bunk. Every muscle in her body, and a few she’d never known she had, ached from Teaspoon’s relentless ‘training.’ And she’d thought she already knew how to ride. She was grateful though for all the tricks he was teaching her.
“Thanks,” she muttered to the Kid as she immediately starting pulling on her clothes over her longjohns. Ever since that first morning, he’d made it his job to make sure she woke up on time.
Though he never again tried poking or tickling her to get the job done. Now, he just pulled the blanket off, from a safe position at her feet.
“Yer welcome,” he grunted as he too rushed into his clothes. This early in the year the mornings were still quite chilly. “Wonder what Teaspoon’s got in store for us today?”
“Probably more of his fool trick ridin’,” muttered Jimmy. He was having the most trouble of the six riders with all the special horsemanship skills Teaspoon wanted and resented it mightily.
James Butler Hickok was the crazy-eyed fool who would rather pull his gun than string five words together. Lou had gotten comfortable around most of the others, but Jimmy’s volatile temper had her keeping a safe distance between them. Even now, Lou inched closer to the Kid and further from Jimmy.
“You won’t think it’s so foolish once yer out on a run,” Buck said. “You’ve never ridden across the unsettled prairie like I have. You’ll be glad of every trick in his bag. Heck, you’ll probably come up with a few of yer own in a few weeks.”
Jimmy grunted non-committally even as he began strapping on his precious 1851 Navy Colt Revolver. Within moments, the exodus to the barn was on. There were chores to do before they could sit down to breakfast.
In the barn, Lou struggled to lift the bag full of oats she was supposed to dole out to the horses. With a grunt, she finally got the bag up onto her shoulder and started to walk across the aisle to the first stall. Halfway there she stumbled over a pitchfork left lying out and staggered into the wall of the nearest stall, setting the horses in it into nervous motion.
“Here,” Kid said. “Let me help you with that.”
He reached out and picked up the 50 pound bag of oats with one arm and walked it over to a nearby bucket. Opening the bag, he poured the oats into the bucket and handed that to Lou. “It’d be easier if you used this, ‘stead of tryin’ ta lug the whole bag around the barn.”
Lou grunted, not wanting to be unappreciative but annoyed she hadn’t been able to do her assigned job on her own. Jerking the pail out of Kid’s hands, she headed to the first stall.
“You’re welcome,” he called after her. She lifted one hand and waved at him without turning to look back in his direction.
“That one’ll never last,” she heard Cody, the blonde headed jokester, say quietly to Kid. “I’m surprised he can even manage ta catch the practice mochila. He’ll never be able ta handle the full ones!”
“Don’t be so sure,” Buck said, coming to her defense. “He’s gettin’ stronger every day. And the ridin’s the most important part of the job. We all know he can ride the lot of us inta the ground.”
Even as she doled out the oats to the horses, Lou grinned at that comment. She’d definitely proved herself on that account. None of the others, even gentle Ike, had been able to keep up with her on a horse. Ike was the bald-headed kid who hung out with the Indian, Buck. He was real gentle and had a special touch with the animals.
A sudden ringing signaled breakfast time and the six young riders quickly wrapped up their morning chores and headed back to the bunkhouse.
“Ahhh,” Teaspoon sighed as he pushed back from the table. “That was a great meal, as always, Emma.”
“Why, thank you, Mr. Spoon.”
“Got anymore of them pancakes, Ms Shannon?”
Emma smiled and ruffled Cody’s hair, nodding yes as she headed back over to the stove to grab the plate of pancakes and bring them over.
“I’ve got some good news for you boys,” Teaspoon said, pausing to take a sip of his coffee. Immediately he had everyone’s attention. “I’ve gotta head over ta St. Joe for a stationmaster’s meeting. I’ll be gone for a few days. So, Mrs. Shannon’s gonna take over. You’ll have today off, but she’s got stuff planned fer ya after that.”
“I expect all of you boys to take a bath this afternoon,” Emma said, coming to stand behind Teaspoon’s shoulder. “We’ll be heading into town tomorrow and I expect you to make a good impression.”
A series of groans could be heard circling the table. Lou shifted uncomfortably in her spot. Now, how was she going to avoid this?
Lou stared at the pond trying to work up the nerve to get in. The sun was almost directly overhead and felt good on her head and shoulders. But she knew, knew!, the water in that pond wasn’t going to be anywhere near as warm. It was probably still frigid. But, this was the only way she could think of to avoid undressing in Mrs. Shannon's house where the others might catch a glimpse of her very un-male body.
Sighing, Lou dismounted and tied Lightning to a nearby tree. Glancing around nervously, she started to unbutton her shirt. Once started, she began to move faster and faster. The sooner she was in, the sooner she’d be clean and back out again.
“Argh!” she choked back the scream that wanted to wiggle its way out of her throat when she surfaced from diving into the water. After several moments of contemplation she’d decided to go for the all or nothing method of entry.
Shivering, teeth chattering as she gasped for breath, Lou grabbed the bar of soap she’d laid on a rock that jutted out into the pond and began to, quickly, scrub down. It was only a matter of moments before she was scrambling back out of the ice-cold water and toweling off.
“Hope summer comes early this year,” she muttered to herself, knowing all along that she’d need to find a better method of cleaning up if she was going to keep this charade going.
Still shivering slightly despite the clean, dry clothes and warm coat and hat she’d put on after her bath, Lou ambled into the home station on Lightning. She couldn’t help but notice Jimmy setting up to shoot at targets along the fence. She jumped with each shot, but was surprised at just how accurate the hotheaded young man was. The others had also noted his proficiency with the fancy gun he wore strapped to his thigh in a gunfighter’s rig.
Lou started to dismount as she watched Jimmy head over to where the Kid was apparently napping, oblivious to the sound of the gunshots. Jimmy stood over the Kid for a moment.
“Hey Kid,” Jimmy said. When Kid didn’t respond, he kneed the other young man in the side. “Kid!”
Lou watched as Kid slowly reached up to remove his hat and glance up at Jimmy, who was looming over him.
“I just hit three for three. Can you do that?”
The Kid didn’t say anything, but after a moment slowly nodded an assent.
“Let’s see,” Jimmy demanded.
“Lead costs money,” the Kid said.
Jimmy laughed deprecatingly and dug in his pocket to pull out a handful of coins. He dropped a few into Kid’s hat, still sitting upside down in Kid’s lap.
Lou looked around the yard for Teaspoon while hooking her glasses around her ears. She really wanted to put a stop to this. Somehow it felt dangerous. But, she wasn’t sure what to do.
Even as she was looking for Teaspoon, the Kid nodded and stood up, putting his hat on. A moment later he took a square stance in front of the fence, pulled his pistol and began shooting. When the smoke cleared, he’d not only hit all three cans like Jimmy, he’d shot each of them twice!
A murmur of approval moved through the other riders seated around the yard. All except Jimmy appreciated the show of marksmanship. Kid waited until his gun stopped smoking then reholstered it and started to move back to his position leaning against the barn wall.
Lou stiffened as she saw Jimmy take a rooted position in front of Kid, coat pulled clear of his holstered pistol in an obvious threat. She reached slowly for her own gun, irrationally ready to jump in and defend the Kid. She didn’t know why but couldn’t stay out of the brewing fight.
Even as she reached for her gun though, Kid simply looked at Jimmy and moved on past him. Jimmy, and everyone else in the yard, relaxed.
How had he done that? Lou wondered, even as Jimmy began questioning Kid about his actions. How had he had the courage to face down an obviously determined marksman and simply walk away? She hoped she’d be able to have that much courage someday. Soon.
Over the last couple weeks she’d had plenty of opportunity to observe all the boys. It was obvious Kid had as much of a temper as the rest, even gentle Ike. But, he also apparently knew how to control it when he wanted.
Suddenly, she felt a lot better about sharing her bunk with him. Shaking her head, she led Lightning into the barn to put him away. She wasn’t sure she liked how Kid was becoming a lodestone for her she mused as she entered the dark depths of the barn. Every time she entered a room the first thing she did was look for Kid. Even just thinking about him, especially the way his eyes crinkled when he smiled, made her heart speed up. She didn’t understand these feelings and didn’t have time to figure them out.
“Go on!” she said, slapping Lightning’s hindquarters to get him moving. “Go make friends.”
She watched for a moment as he capered out of the barn into the corral with the other horses. She followed him, smiling at his antics as he sidled up to Kid’s paint, Katy.
Lou turned sharply at the call from Emma’s porch.
“It’s bathtime. You’re up first,” Emma said, standing on the porch, wiping her wet hands dry on her apron.
“That’s alright, Ma’am,” Lou said. “I already bathed down at the pond.”
Emma tilted her head slightly, then grinned at Lou before turning to the others. “Kid, looks like you lucked out and get first dibs on the bathwater. Hurry, while it’s still hot!”
“Be right there,” Kid yelled, loping toward the bunkhouse for clean clothes.
Lou slipped back into the barn, not noticing the quizzical looks the others cast her way. She was just glad Emma’d accepted her excuse without any further questions.
“Boys,” Teaspoon shouted. “Get over here.”
All six riders rushed over to cluster around Teaspoon on the bunkhouse porch.
“What’s up, Teaspoon?” Buck asked.
“Well, y’all know the first ride’s scheduled for next week.”
“Tell us somethin’ we don’t know,” Jimmy muttered under his breath.
“How’s about who’s gonna make the first ride,” Teaspoon asked with a twinkle in his eye, letting Jimmy know he’d heard the surly comment just fine.
His announcement caused a stir to run through the young riders. They’d each been after him, lobbying to be the one chosen to make that first run, almost since the very first day of training.
Cody straightened to his full height, throwing his shoulders back and grabbing the lapels of his fancily beaded buckskin jacket with both hands. He was just opening his mouth when Teaspoon added, “I’ve narrowed it down to three: Lou, Buck and the Kid.”
He paused for a moment to let the groans of disappointment and shouts of excitement to die down.
“Lou’s the best on a horse,” he picked up where he’d left off. “Kid’s the most level headed of the lot of ya. Buck knows the territory best. I just couldn’t decide amongst you three. So, yer gonna draw straws, nice and fair like.”
“Who’s gonna draw first?” Kid asked.
“No one. Ye’ll all draw at the same time,” Teaspoon said, taking his hand from behind his back with three straws already arranged in it.
Lou looked at the three straws for a long moment, trying with all her might to figure out which one was the shortest.
“Ready?” Teaspoon asked. Looking at each other, the three nodded. “On three. One. Two. Three.”
Lou used her smaller size to move in under Kid’s arm and pluck her chosen straw out of Teaspoon’s hand. Buck jovially slapped her shoulder as he leaned in to grab his straw.
“Sneak!” he whispered. Lou flashed him a quick grin before ducking her head to hide her face again.
Each of the three was looking down, examining his or her straw.
“Well?” Jimmy demanded impatiently. “Who’s it gonna be?”
“Yeah,” Cody added. “Let’s see ‘em!”
Lou, Kid and Buck each raised a hand to show a different length of straw. Cody scratched his head in confusion.
“I don’t get it!”
*What else is new?* Ike signed.
“Shortest straw gets the first ride,” Teaspoon said, perusing the upheld pieces of hay. “Kid, that’s you. Lou, yer second since ya got the middle straw. Buck, you got the long straw, so you’ve got the third run.”
“Congratulations, Kid,” Lou said in her gruffest ‘boy’ voice, holding out her hand to shake his. The others quickly followed her lead.
Lou sat on Lightning, leaning slightly forward, waiting for the eastbound rider to come into sight. By all accounts Kid’s first run had gone well. He’d be off on his next run before she got back, but depending on timing, they might cross paths at one of the waystations. A slight frown flitted across her face as she contemplated how… happy... that thought made her.
“Rider comin’!” Emma shouted from where she stood by the clothesline.
Once again Lou leaned forward as she nudged Lightning into motion. By the time the incoming rider pulled abreast, Lou and Lightning were already at a full gallop. For the first time, Lou caught a filled mochila, one handed. ‘Thank you, very much, Mr. Cody!’ she thought sarcastically.
“Ride safe!” she heard Teaspoon call after her.
A half hour later, Lou slowed Lightning to a trot as they approached the first way station. Lou began tensing her body to make a rapid transition from Lightning to the next horse. But, as she pulled into the yard, there was no one there. No horse, no station master, no rider, nothing.
Lowering her voice, she called out, “Harley?”
Getting no response, she tried again.
“You got my mount?” Still nothing. “Harley?”
Carefully scanning the station she tried to figure out what was going on. That’s when she saw Harley’s legs sticking out from behind the woodpile.
“Harley?” she breathed.
A door clattering open jerked her attention to a shed behind her.
“Hello, sonny,” said a dirty blonde man holding a gun on her. Three more rode out from behind the stationhouse as a fifth man, dressed in black, stepped out of the station house door.
“What’s in them bags?” the scarred man in black asked.
Staring at him, Lou recognized the man in black as the gunfighter Sam had backed down in Sweetwater. Making her decision she pulled on Lightning’s reins, intending to make a run for it. She knew there was no way those men could catch her on a horse. She hadn’t counted on them shooting at her though.
Lou groaned as something caused her side to burn in pain.
“Hang on, Lou!” she heard faintly as she felt herself being picked up. Then, more pain as she was folded over something hard that hit right where the burning ache was.
A moment later, relief as she was laid flat on a bunk. She sighed in appreciation of the sudden lack of pain. Then stiffened at the next words to meet her ears.
“You ok, Lou? Let me just see how bad…”
Opening her eyes, Lou saw Kid leaning over her. Felt him tugging at her shirt, trying to reach her burning side. Panicking, she startled to struggle against him, trying weakly to push his hands away. To protect her secret.
“No. Don’t,” she groaned. But it was too little, too late. She could feel a breeze touching flesh that shouldn’t be bared to anyone’s sight.
Squinting up at the young man who could now ruin everything for her, Lou tried for humor, counting on it keeping Kid from losing control at the sight of her.
“Whatsa matter, Kid? Never seen a girl before?”
Lou watched as Kid paced the small cabin. He was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, she thought. Well, at least that put them on equal footing. Finally, she could wait no longer for him to bring up the subject they’d both been avoiding.
“You wanna cut the small talk?”
“What are you doin’ here?” Kid responded after a moment, almost angrily. “Doncha know what those men would’ve done to ya if they’da found out you were a girl?”
Lou smiled at the implication that he would’ve cared. “They didn’t. Nobody knows but you.”
She watched him turn away and feared she was losing him. She couldn’t. She had to get him to agree to keep her secret. She needed this job, and somehow, already knew she needed these people in her life. She decided to tell him everything. Well, almost everything.
“Listen, Kid. I run away from an orphanage… in St. Joe, Missourah. I’ve got a little brother and sister still back there. A girl with no ma, no pa, no kin. What’s left for me? Scrubbin’ floors or worse?” She could hear the echoes of that worse in her own voice and just hoped he didn’t.
“Well, ain’t there somethin’ else you can do?”
This made her mad. “Why should I? I already showed I’m as good as you. Hickok, Cody, any of ya.”
Unable to argue that, Kid changed the topic. “What’s yer real name?”
It had been so long since she’d even thought it, Lou wasn’t sure how to respond. She blushed slightly as she said, “Louise. Louise McCloud.”
“Pleased ta meet ya... Louise,” Kid said, moving forward to shake her hand. Lou slapped his hand away. She was the same person he’d been sharing a bunk with for the last several weeks. How dare he think that knowing she was girl changed anything?
“You met me already.”
“You won’t fool people forever,” he warned sternly.
“I don’t have to,” Lou said, admitting he was right. “I’m gonna save all my money, find a place of my own, get my brother and sister out of there. Kid, don’t’ say nothin’. They’d get rid of me for sure.”
She stiffened as they both heard a horse neighing in the distance and hoofbeats approaching the station. In desperation to get his agreement, she begged, “Kid, you can’t tell.”
“Lou, you just heal up and we’ll see,” Kid said, making no promises. Lou sighed as he left the station to wait for the rest of the boys. It would have to do, for now. She’d just have to trust him. As much as it went against the grain to leave something like this in someone else’s hands, she had no choice.
Lying on the bunk, she heard Kid explaining about the robbery to the other boys and discussing their options for retrieving the lost mail pouch and horses. It didn’t take a genius to realize he was planning on leaving her behind.
Ignoring the pain in her side, she quickly sat up and began to shrug back into her vest. Standing up, she grabbed her gun and headed to the station door. She was still buttoning the vest, her holster hanging over her shoulder, as she exited.
“Nobody’s ever lost a pouch before,” she heard Cody say.
Her pride made her put in, “And I ain’t gonna be the first.”
Kid whirled around and angrily spat at her, “Lou, you should be restin’!”
Equally determined, Lou found she’d grown to trust these boys enough to defy them. “I’m goin’.”
“You can’t Lou, yer hurt,” she could hear Kid’s silent plea that she stay behind, let them protect her. But she found herself incapable of being so passive about her own safety anymore.
Jimmy jumped into the discussion. “Lou’s got a right. He thinks he’s fit, why can’t he?”
Lou found herself suddenly warming to Jimmy as he defended her right to defend herself. Maybe he wasn’t so bad after all, even if he was crazy.
“Because,” Kid remained adamant.
“Because what?” Cody asked, confused.
Lou was strapping on her gun when Kid suddenly looked at her at Cody’s question. She could see him trying to decide whether to spill his guts and silently begged him to keep quiet. Please, she thought, don’t do it. Please! He must’ve read her thoughts on her face because she could see him make up his mind to keep quiet.
“Because he’ll slow us down.” His blue eyes seemed to drill a hole into her chest as he tried to stare her down. But she wouldn’t let him. Not now. Not ever again.
“You said yourself I’m not hurt that bad,” she said defiantly. “I’m goin’.”
Kid clenched his jaw even as Jimmy shrugged in acceptance of her decision. “I guess Lou’s goin’.”
Lou patted Jimmy on the shoulder, thanking him for his support as she walked over and pulled her coat off Lightning’s back. He grinned and nodded at her.
Lou panted as she dismounted and ran quickly to hide behind the rocks with the other boys. With Buck’s tracking skills it hadn’t taken them long to find the outlaws’ hideout. But the ride had been more painful than she would ever admit. She just hoped it would be awhile before she had to ride again.
This time, she found herself quite comfortable next to Jimmy. His defense of her right to make her own decisions had made her take another look at many of his actions over the last few weeks. She still thought he was crazy, but she didn’t think he was a danger to her anymore.
After staring down at the camp for a moment, she said what the others were thinking. “Well, we found ‘em.”
“Buck was right,” Cody whispered. “Look at all them.”
Nobody said anything for a moment as they continued to appraise the camp.
“That’s the one we saw in town,” Jimmy said, pointing out the scarred man in black who’d shot Lou.
“Look at all those guns,” Buck marveled.
Lou was looking all right. She was scared out of her wits, unable to move. But then something Sam had said in town, when he’d gotten the scarred man to back down. “Figgered someone with that many guns must be scared of everything.” She started repeating the phrase, ‘scared of everything’ to herself, over and over again.
“Let’s rush ‘em!” Jimmy said.
This got all their attention and everyone turned to stare at Jimmy, except Lou.
“He’s even crazier than we thought,” Buck said, voicing their thoughts. Jimmy just stared at them. Lou kept her eyes on the outlaw camp.
“They got buffalo guns and fresh horses,” Cody began to lay out the reasons why Jimmy’s was a bad idea. "We got little fire power and not a lot of cover.”
“What’s all that talk, Cody?” Jimmy asked derisively. “You scared?”
Lou didn’t say anything, but she wanted to scream a resounding YES! The difference was she’d decided, no matter how scared she got, to never let her fear stop her from protecting herself and those she cared for ever again.
“Them ain’t cans on a fence down there, Jimmy,” Cody defended himself.
“So, ride out.”
Lou knew that would be the smart thing to do. Cody was right about the entire situation. She just no longer had it in her to do the smart thing. Maybe she was going as crazy as Jimmy had obviously already gone.
Somehow, it didn’t surprise her when Cody attacked. Soon, Jimmy and Cody were going at it. She surprised herself by reaching out and grabbing Jimmy’s arm to calm him, even as Buck pulled Cody away from the brewing fight.
“Ain’t the odds bad enough?” Buck asked with a quiet anger.
“So, what now, Kid?” Lou asked, trying to give everyone a moment to calm down.
She sighed as Jimmy pulled away from their hiding place.
“Let me know when yer all through talkin’!” he spat.
They watched Jimmy move away for a moment before turning their attention back to the outlaws’ camp.
“They’re startin’ ta break camp,” Kid said urgently. Lou could hear the fear in his voice and knew things were moving too fast for whatever plan he’d been plotting at. She cast about frantically for an idea, anything to help out, but came up dry.
“What would Teaspoon say?” she finally asked.
“Run like hell,” Cody said, half shaking his head.
“Too late for that,” Kid said in a voice that advertised his suddenly made up mind. He jumped to his feet in a move that had the others quickly scrambling to back him up.
“Kid!” Jimmy gasped. “What ‘re ya doin’?”
That’s when the outlaws’ leader, the scarred man in black, noticed them.
“You want somethin’, boy?” he yelled up at them.
Afterward, Lou couldn’t really recount much of what happened next. She knew there were insults shouted back and forth, then Ike had arrived with the Peckwith Volley guns. From there on out, all she remembered was the noise of the guns, Kid’s relentless voice calling out the order to FIRE! again and again and the pain of the gun’s kick each time she pulled the trigger, slamming the butt of the gun into her injured ribs.
She did remember what the others had had to say after the fight was over and the outlaws had given up.
“Ya did good, Lou,” Jimmy said as they began scrambling down the hillside to take custody of the surrendered outlaws. “I’d be proud ta have ya by my side in any firefight.”
“Who knew ya had it in ya,” Cody added, tipping his hat in her direction. “But ya can definitely hold yer own in a fight.”
“Even wounded,” Buck complimented. He continued admiringly, “Firing that gun with those ribs must’ve hurt like hell, but ya didn’t let that stop ya.”
Ike had also patted her on the shoulder, indicating his approval.
“Guess I was wrong,” Kid added. “Ya didn’t slow us down.” That and his smile were a silent apology for almost giving her secret away. Lou accepted with a quiet smile of her own.
She knew that she’d proven her mettle to this rough and tumble group of boys, and somehow gained a family, and maybe something more, along the way. It had been a good day’s work.