Complicated, Bon Jovi
I Know A Wall When I See One,
I'll Be Holding On, Doro
All You Wanted, Sounds Under Radio
Real World, Richard Marx
Lou laughed out loud as she raced headlong across the prairie. She could hear another set of hoofbeats close on her tail, but this time the sound was comforting not scary. Teaspoon had decided he wanted two riders to escort the government dispatch to the territorial capitol. Lou was ecstatic he’d chosen Kid to go with her. That way she could relax and enjoy the ride, no need to pretend anything.
“Wait up, would ya?” she heard Kid complaining from behind her. Looking over her shoulder she saw that he’d started to fall quite a ways behind and obligingly slowed down. Sitting upright, she shook her head, knocking her hat off and enjoying the wind in her hair.
Noticing a creek up ahead, she decided now was as good a time as any to take a break. Pulling her horse to a stop, she hopped off and led it to the water for a drink. When Kid caught up with her he was laughing.
“I thought I’d lost ya fer good when ya took that turn on me.”
“Sorry,” she smiled. “Just noticed this here creek and decided to water the horses.”
“Oh, is that what you thought?” he asked with a suddenly playfully menacing tone, even as he began to stalk her.
She started to back off, but not quickly enough. The next thing she knew, she was flying through the air and splashing down in the cool creek water, which actually felt fairly nice in the spring warmth.
“You’re gonna pay fer that, mister!” she exclaimed, standing up dripping wet and stomping out of the water laughing. “I don’t know when or where or how, but you’ll pay!”
“Oooh! I’m shakin’ in my boots,” he teased.
“You’d better be!”
“You weren’t kidding when you said I’d regret that,” Kid announced that night, after tasting the beans she’d cooked up, or more accurately burned to a crisp, while he’d cared for their horses. “I shoulda known better than ta accept when ya offered ta cook supper!”
Lou’s eyes sparkled at him from her place on the other side of the fire. “It’s yer own danged fault fer assuming that just ‘cause I’m a girl I kin cook. You know what they say about assuming things.”
“No, I don’t.”
Lou tilted her head questioningly before filling him in. “When you assume somethin’, ya make an ass outta you and me.”
“Eee-aw! Eee-aw!” Kid brayed, tossing his plate of burned beans over his shoulder and leaping over the small campfire to pounce on her.
She landed on her back, staring up into his smiling crystal blue eyes.
“And just what do ya plan ta do with me now, Mr. Ass? Ain’t any handy creeks fer ya ta throw me into tonight,” she taunted.
“Oh, I’ve got somethin’ better in mind,” he whispered as he leaned in to press his lips to hers. Pulling back, he began to viciously tickle her sides. She wiggled and squirmed and laughed until she was breathless. And it felt soooo good. Finally though, she pushed Kid back and sat up.
“I, ah, think it’s time ta get some shuteye,” she said quietly, not quite meeting his eyes. He nodded and stood to quickly move back over to his side of the fire.
As he laid out his bedroll he asked, “Ya told me once you planned ta save enough money ta buy yer own place. What kinda place do you want?”
“It doesn’t need ta be anything big or special. Just mine,” she said, leaning back on her saddle and staring up at the stars. She turned her head to look at him across the fire. “Know what I mean?”
Kid nodded. “But, do ya want a farm? A dairy? A… horse ranch?”
“Oh, a horse ranch. Definitely. I know everythin’ I need ta do. It was all Grandpa McCloud could talk about from as early as I can remember,” she smiled. “I know everythin’ there is ta know ‘bout pickin’ and trainin’ the horses, breedin’,” she was thankful for the dark as she stumbled over that word blushing, “finding buyers, even keepin’ the books.”
She turned back to Kid. “What ‘bout you? What do you want ta do with yer life? I can’t see ya ridin’ fer the Express forever.”
“No,” he chuckled. “Don’t get me wrong, I love this job. But yer right. I want somethin’ more. I fell in love with horses and ridin’ when I came West. After I won Katy, I started tryin’ ta learn everything I could ‘bout ‘em. I’ve still got a long way ta go, but I’m hopin’ by the time I’ve got the money saved up, I’ll have learned enough ta start a horse ranch, too.”
“You mean you didn’t grow up with horses?” she asked curiously. The way he was with Katy she’d just assumed he’d always been around horses. Almost immediately, she regretted the question as she watched Kid stiffen up.
“No,” he said softly. “I didn’t.”
Turning his head to look her direction he added, “We’d better get ta sleep, Lou. We’ve still got a long ways ta go tomorrow ta make the capitol.”
With that he rolled up in his bedroll, with his back to the fire, and her.
“Sure, Kid,” she said quietly, wondering what she’d said wrong.
“We’ve got a package here for the territorial marshal,” Lou announced as soon as they walked up to the main desk in the entryway of the territorial government’s office building. Even as she spoke, both she and Kid were looking around in awe. Although temporary, the office was the largest, fanciest building either had ever been in. The entrance way was a large echoing hall with a ceiling that reached up three whole stories. The main desk, as well as the floors, walls and ceiling were coated with a heavy, dark wood, polished to a high sheen. Candles in glass globes provided light at all hours of the day and night.
"From whom may I say it came?” the very proper clerk asked, looking down at a list in front of him.
“Don’t know,” Kid said, a touch sarcastically. “We were just told ta deliver it. Might be from Marshal Sam Cain, in Sweetwater. Might not.”
“From Sweetwater, then,” the clerk muttered, writing something in his book.
“So,” Lou prompted. “Where do we deliver it? We’d kinda like ta get this job finished so’s we can go get cleaned up and rested from our ride.”
Without looking up, the clerk pointed to a set of double doors behind him. The doors were exquisitely decorated with fantastical carvings along the posts and lintel. “Through those doors, down the hall, take the first turn to the left. It’ll lead you straight to the Marshal’s office.”
Nodding, the two headed in the indicated direction. Pushing through the entrance, they looked around curiously.
“I almost expect ta find Sam behind those doors,” Lou said, pointing to the office the directions had led them to, with the words Territorial Marshal carefully detailed on the frosted glass.
“I can’t. Too fancy fer him,” Kid laughed. “Let’s get this done. I’m hungry.”
“Kid, let’s just get somethin’ from the general store,” Lou complained. “This is too expensive.”
She looked apprehensively through the windows of the fancy restaurant Kid had picked for their supper. She was regretting leaving the choice up to him. She didn’t have a suit, and though she had cleaned off the dirt and grime of the trail and had her hair neatly slicked back, she didn’t feel clean enough for a place like this.
“Lou,” Kid said, smiling, “don’t worry ‘bout it. My treat. Come on. I’m in the mood for some good food I didn’t cook. This is supposed ta have the best steaks in town.”
With that, he pushed his way through the door, glancing over his shoulder to see if she would follow. Shrugging, she stepped across the threshold.
“Can I help you gents?” a pretty young woman in a ruffly green dress asked, smiling.
“Ah, we’d like ta get somethin ta eat,” Lou said, when she realized Kid was suddenly too flummoxed to answer.
“Then you’ve come to the right place,” she said. Grabbing a pad of paper, she added, “If you’ll just follow me?”
Soon, they were seated at a table for two near the kitchen and she was reading off the day’s specials. “Fried catfish with mushrooms, lamb stew with cornbread and, of course, our world famous steak and potatoes. So, what’ll it be.”
Looking at Lou, Kid raised an eyebrow in question. She nodded slightly and he turned back to the hostess, having finally regained his equilibrium, and said, “We’ll take two of the steaks.”
“Would you like a couple small beers with those steaks?” she asked.
Smiling, Kid and Lou both shook their heads.
“But, I’d like some sarsasparilla, if ya’ve got it,” Lou said.
The hostess nodded and turned to Kid who added, “Make it two.”
“Coming right up,” she smiled straight into Kid’s eyes.
As she walked away, Lou muttered, “Maybe if ya flirt with her a bit more she’ll give ya a discount on the meal.”
Looking at Lou, startled, Kid said, “I wasn’t flirtin’, I was just bein’ friendly, like my ma taught me.”
Deciding to change the topic, Kid said, “I ain’t never been in a restaurant this nice. What ‘bout you?”
“Never ate in one,” she said. “But I used ta help clean one. My ma worked in a hotel and restaurant like this, as a cleanin’ lady. ‘Fore she got sick.”
“Really? Where ‘bouts?”
“Back in St. Joe,” Lou elaborated. “She was learnin’ ta cook from the lady chef, but got sick before she got any good. That’s why I’m so bad.”
“That’s an understatement,” Kid smiled. “I’d swear ya could burn water, if ya wanted to.”
They both grimaced in memory of the coffee she’d ruined that morning.
“From now on, you can take over all the cookin’ when we’re on the trail and I’ll look after the horses and gather the firewood,” she offered with a grin. “Deal?”
He held out his hand for hers. “Deal!”
And they shook on it.
“Where did yer family come from, if ya didn’t have no horses and ya never went ta restaurants,” Lou asked curiously as she dug into the meal the hostess had just delivered.
“We were dirt farmers from Virginia,” Kid said, a bit curtly. “But I headed West when I was 15 and never looked back.”
“Didn’t you say you ‘won’ Katy?” she asked, curiously. “How’d ya do that?”
Kid relaxed at the change in topic, she noticed, as he launched into the story of how he’d lasted three minutes in a ring with a professional prize fighter to win the money to buy Katy.
“Wow!” she marveled. “Judgin’ from what I’ve seen when ya get into fights with Jimmy and the others, ya’ve learned a lot since then.”
Kid smiled and began to tell her about his adventures before joining the Express.
An hour later, well stuffed from the good food and enjoyable conversation, the two ambled slowly down the sidewalk toward the boarding house where they’d taken a room for the night.
“Lou,” Kid asked, “have ya ever thought ‘bout tryin’ ta visit yer brother and sister?”
“Whatta ya mean, Kid?”
“Well, St. Joe is the end of the Express, ya could trade out rides, use some time off, and go visit ‘em,” he suggested.
“I don’t know, Kid,” she hedged, pushing open the door of the boarding house. “I’d hate ta get their hopes up before I’ve got the money ta get them outta there.”
“But don’tcha think they’d like ta hear from ya, see ya?”
“Probably,” she muttered, looking at her feet guiltily as she climbed the stairs.. How could she go back to the orphanage, where she’d have to dress as a girl just to see Jeremiah and Teresa, when it was so close to him and his brothel. She didn’t know if she could do it. “Maybe I’ll write them a letter when we get back.”
Kid nodded, leading the way into the room they’d rented and dropping down onto the bedroll he’d already laid out on the floor by the bed. He sighed in apparent contentment.
“Cain’t be that comfortable, down there on the hard floor,” she commented with a laugh, glad for the change of topic. Kid just shrugged and smiled up at her, his arms behind his head. Wagging her finger at him, she added, “I’m takin’ the floor next time, and I ain’t listenin’ ta any arguments from you.”
Lou sat at dinner in the bunkhouse, just picking at her food.
“Whatsa matter, Lou?” Buck asked. It was just the two of them, Ike, Emma and Teaspoon that night. Kid was off on an overnight run. Cody and Jimmy were on another double run, this time for the Army.
“Just tryin’ ta decide somethin’,” she said quietly, looking up with a small smile for the dark haired young man sitting next to her.
“Mebbe we can help ya,” Teaspoon offered expansively.
Lou sighed. Now that Teaspoon had grabbed ahold, there was no way she was going to get out of sharing her dilemma, at least part of it, with the rest of her Express family.
“By now y’all know I’ve got a brother and sister in an orphanage in St. Joe,” she began.
*Jeremiah and Teresa?* Ike signed as the others nodded in remembrance.
“Yes,” Lou smiled, pleased they’d paid so much attention to the little about her personal life she’d let slip. “Anyway, I haven’t had any contact with them since I… left….the orphanage. And Kid suggested I stop by for a visit the next time I have a run out that way.”
“Sounds like a good idea,” Emma said cheerfully, as she brought out an apple pie she’d made for dessert.
*Hey, we don’t havta fight over who gets the extra piece tonight* Ike signed.
Buck and Lou laughed.
“Yep, with Cody gone there’ll be plenty ta go around,” Buck added, holding out his plate for a slice. “So, what’s the problem with going for a visit?”
“Ya’ve got the time off coming ta ya,” Teaspoon added.
“It ain’t that,” Lou sighed, shaking her head ‘no’ as Emma turned to see if she wanted any pie. “It’s just… it’s been so long, I’m not sure if a visit first is the best idea. Maybe I should write first. Or, maybe that’ll seem too cold and I should visit. I just don’t know.”
“Well, whatever you decide, I’m puttin’ ya down fer the next run that direction,” Teaspoon said decisively.
Lou sat at the table the next afternoon, busily scratching away on a piece of paper. Occasionally, she’d pause to nibble the end of the pencil she was using, before adding another line. The table top and floor all around her were littered with discarded sheets, wadded into little balls. She was so engrossed in her work she didn’t hear the door open as Jimmy and Cody walked in.
“I tell ya, Jimmy,” Cody said expansively, obviously continuing a conversation they’d begun some time ago, “I was made ta wear the Union blue. Can’t ya just see me in it now?”
Jimmy shoved Cody good naturedly on the shoulder as he moved past him to hang up his gun on the nail Emma’d provided next to his bunk.
“Sure,” he said. “I kin see ya in it. Six feet under, in a casket.”
Looking down, Jimmy realized he was stepping on something and bent over to pick up the wad of crumpled paper.
“Hey, Lou? This yours?” he asked, moving over to sit down at the table across from her. This caught Cody’s attention, who also came over to investigate.
“Whatcha writin’, Lou?” he asked, picking up one of the wads and starting to unfold it.
“Give me that!” she exclaimed, jumping to her feet and snatching the paper out of his hands, while shoving him back with her shoulder. She ignored his plaintive, “Lou!” as he fell back over the end of Buck’s bunk, arms pinwheeling as he tried to keep his balance.
Bustling around she quickly gathered the other wads up and hurried to shove them into the fire in the stove Emma kept burning throughout the day to make cooking easier.
Sitting up on the bed he’d fallen into, Cody asked, bewildered, “What’s with you, Lou? I was just bein’ polite.”
“No,” she said, as she sat back down. “Jimmy was bein’ polite. You were bein’ nosy, like always.”
“Lou,” Jimmy said, reaching out a hand to her shoulder in a calming motion. “If ya don’t wanna tell us what ya were writin’ that’s yer right.”
He paused to give Cody a warning glare. “But seems like whatever it is has ya awful het up. Maybe we could help.”
Lou slumped forward over the table, putting her head in her hands. “I can’t do it. I just can’t do it.”
“Can’t do what?” Cody asked.
“I’ve been tryin’ ta write my brother and sister. Let ‘em know what happened, but there’s just too much ta tell.”
Jimmy and Cody nodded understandingly. Jimmy sat down next to Lou, as Cody began rummaging in the cupboards for something to eat.
“I know how ya feel. I wouldn’t have the faintest idea where ta start if I decided ta write my sisters,” Jimmy said ruefully. “Especially after the way I left.”
“How’d ya leave?” Cody asked, munching on a lone carrot he’d found in the back of a cupboard.
“That ain’t none of yer business,” Jimmy muttered.
“I say just start at the beginnin’,” Cody suggested. “Or at least the part where ya left. That’s what I always do when I write my family.”
Lou nodded, unhappily. She’d already tried that, and a dozen other ways, to start her letter. But it never came out right.
“Come on, Hickok,” Cody said, turning toward the door. “We gotta go check in with Teaspoon. Maybe Emma’ll have some better snacks over there.”
“Lou?” Teaspoon called out the next morning as she began to leap off the porch headed for her the barn and morning chores.
“Yes, sir?” she asked, grabbing hold of the porch railing to stall her forward momentum before turning to face his direction.
“I’ve got a special run ta Palmetto City,” he said, tugging slightly at his suspenders in self-satisfaction. “It’s only a day or two’s ride out of St. Joe. I want ya ta take it.”
“But,” Lou started to protest, but Teaspoon held up a hand to forestall her.
“I know ya ain’t made up yer mind yet, but this might help. ‘Sides, I need two riders ta deliver some horses to the home station there and I’m sendin’ you and Jimmy.”
Lou nodded unhappily. With Jimmy along there was no way she’d be able to split off long enough to buy a dress and visit the orphanage. Seems her decision had been made for her.
“Sir, could I go?” Kid asked, having just come out the bunkhouse door behind Teaspoon and over hearing their conversation. “I’ve got some business out that way and this way I wouldn’t haveta take time off ta do it.”
Lou looked up hopefully. If Kid were going with her, at least she could still make the choice for herself.
“What kinda business ya got in Palmetto City?” Teaspoon asked curiously.
Looking directly at Lou, Kid answered with a straight face, “Just some family business, Sir.”
Teaspoon nodded and Kid turned to Lou. Pushing her shoulder, he said, “Come on, slowpoke. Let’s get our chores done so’s we can get ready ta mount up and ride out.”
Teaspoon stared after the pair as they took off for the barn, rubbing his chin in thought.
“Here, let me check yer stirrups,” Jimmy said as Lou mounted up. “One o’ ‘em looks a touch long.”
Lou looked down curiously, kicking her foot free of the stirrup Jimmy had indicated even as he reached for it.
“Thanks, Jimmy,” she said. “That woulda been a real pain after awhile in the saddle.”
Jimmy shrugged, not looking up to meet her eyes. She wondered briefly what was bothering him but quickly moved on when Kid rode up beside her.
“You ‘bout ready?”
“Sure, soon’s Jimmy gets this stirrup fixed,” she said.
“That should do it,” he grunted, as he pulled the stirrup back into place and grabbed her foot to shove it in. “Yep, perfect fit.”
“Great!” Kid smiled. “Let’s get goin’. I’d like ta make Nebraska Territory before nightfall.”
“Betcha cain’t catch me,” Lou smiled, slapping her reins against Lightning’s neck.
“Hey!” Kid protested. “Ya forgot the horses!”
“No I didn’t,” she yelled back over her shoulder. “They’re tied ta yer saddle fer the first leg, remember?”
Looking under her arm, she saw Kid say something to Jimmy before spurring Katy into action.
“So, what was so interesting there before we left?” Lou asked, dumping an armful of wood next to the fire Kid was preparing supper over.
“Hunh?” he asked, looking up startled at her comment.
“When I was riding off,” she explained. “Jimmy was saying somethin’ to ya. Yer face sure looked odd.”
“Oh,” Kid started blushing a bit. “He said somethin’ ‘bout ya bein’ awful flexible fer a boy. I just, ahem, reminded him ya were younger’n the rest of us.”
“You don’t think he suspects do ya?” Lou asked worriedly, as she sat down next to Kid and pulled out her tin cup to pour herself some coffee.
“Not really,” Kid sighed. “But he’s suspicious somethin’s up, that’s fer sure.”
“Oh,” Lou muttered, staring down into her coffee.
Kid reached out and tentatively put his hand over hers where it rested on her thigh. “It’ll be alright, Lou. We’ll figure it out.”
Pulling his hand away, he went on more briskly. “So, have ya decided what we’re gonna do once we get ta Palmetto City?”
“Depends on whether they’ve got a dress shop,” she said. “I’ll need a dress if I’m gonna go visit ‘em in person. And…. I’d like ta buy ‘em some gifts, too. It’s been soooo long since I’ve seen ‘em.”
“There’s yer dress shop, Lou,” Kid said, pointing out the business with the large words DRESSMAKER painted across the false front over the porch. Bending over to see through the windows under the porch roof he added, “Looks like she’s got some ready made dresses, too.”
Lou looked down at herself and sighed. “Probably won’t be much there that’ll fit me, ‘cept maybe a little girl’s dress.”
Pulling Lightning up to the nearest hitching post she slid off and began tying the reins around the post. “’Well, cain’t hurt ta ask.”
She was halfway to the door when she realized there was no tell tale thud of footsteps behind her. Turning back around she saw Kid still seated on Katy.
“Well, what are ya waitin’ fer?” she asked irritably. “This is all yer fault. Get off that horse and get in here!”
Inside she walked straight to the racks with the pre-made dresses hanging on them. As she’d suspected, there wasn’t a single adult dress in her size.
“This was a waste of time,” she grumped.
“Not necessarily,” Kid said, smiling. “Let’s ask her if she’s got anythin’ that’s not on the shelves.”
Lou looked up to watch the pretty, plump dress maker bustling their direction.
“How can I help you gentlemen?” she greeted them.
Lou gulped, looking up at Kid in sudden fear. She hadn’t realized. Hadn’t thought about the fact she’d have to reveal her disguise to the dressmaker.
“My, uh, friend was wonderin’ if ya might have any other dresses than what’s on the rack here,” Kid said, pointing to the ready made clothes. “Somethin’ a bit smaller.”
The dressmaker looked at Kid then Lou quizzically. Suddenly, comprehension dawned on her face and she began to grin gleefully.
“I’ve got just the dress for you, young lady,” she said. “Let me go get it. You come on into the back room with me and we’ll have you gussied up in no time.”
Grabbing Lou’s arm, she began ushering the suddenly overwhelmed girl toward a curtain behind the counter. Looking back over her shoulder, she said, “You young man can take a seat by the mirror. We’ll be right out.”
Within minutes Lou found herself stripped of her boots, trousers, shirt and coat. Standing uncertainly in only her longjohns, she waited as the dressmaker turned to a table with what seemed to be an assortment of scraps of material. After a moment of digging through the pieces, she came up with a beautiful blue dress made of a sprigged calico.
Moving back over to Lou, she suddenly paused. “Um, do you have any proper underthing’s with you?”
Looking down at her longjohns, slightly greyed from so many washings, Lou blushed. Keeping her head down she muttered, “No, ma’am. This is all I got.”
She wasn’t about to explain to this woman that the last pair of pantalets and chemise she’d owned had been left behind in a bloody pile on a brothel floor.
“Then you’re going to need these, too,” the dressmaker said briskly, pushing a pile of white frilly linen into Lou’s calloused hands.
Lou took the underthings and the dress from her and moved into the corner set aside by a pair of curtains held up on a rope. She was almost afraid to touch the fine cloth of the clothes. She just stood and stared at them for the longest moment.
“You’d better get a hurry on, young lady,” the dressmaker said with a smile in her voice. “I think your young man’s starting to get a bit restless out there.”
At this reminder, Lou began to quickly unbutton her longjohns and unwrap the bindings around her breasts. Moments later she found herself fully dressed in women’s clothing for the first time in nearly three years. Pushing the curtains aside, she marched toward the front room and Kid with a determined stride.
She moved right on past a flummoxed Kid as she headed straight toward the sole mirror in the building. It was an unusually large full-length mirror, probably shipped at great cost from back East. But the mirror wasn’t what had captivated her attention. Who was that young lady she was staring at? Where had all those curves come from? When had she changed so much?
She almost reached out to touch the mirror in disbelief when she heard the dressmaker say, “Well, don’t just stand there.”
Lou glanced away from her own image to see that Kid had moved up to stand next to the mirror and was staring transfixedly at her. Suddenly, she wasn’t sure. Was she pretty? She had no way to know for sure. Did he like what he saw? Did she want him to like what he saw?
“That’s it?” the dressmaker asked, astonished. “What, are you blind? She’s beautiful.”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever look at ya again and not see ya like this,” he finally said, unable to keep a grin of his own off his lips. Looking into his clear, blue eyes, Lou felt like she was drowning. She never wanted this moment to end.
“Is that good?” she asked.
Leaning forward, he lowered his voice slightly. “Depends who’s watchin’.”
Lou found herself blushing and smiling inanely at him. “Cain’t imagine how good it feels.”
“It’s a good thing I can’t,” he agreed. She found herself nodding. It probably was a good thing. He’d never been entirely comfortable letting her continue her charade. If he realized how much she was enjoying this moment, he might give her up. Thing was, what he wouldn’t realize, couldn’t know, was that it was the look in his eyes that made her feel so good, not the dress.
“Would you like to wear it home?” the dressmaker asked, interrupting the moment of communion between the two.
Lou almost choked over her laughter, trying to keep it from bubbling over. “Uh… I don’t think so.”
The dressmaker nodded in understanding and said, “Take it off. I’ll wrap it up for you.”
“Give me a minute,” Lou nearly begged, not willing to give up the feeling she had at this moment, basking in Kid’s nearly unblinking stare.
As the dressmaker moved away with a knowing smile of her own, Kid leaned forward again, this time whispering, “This is one secret I don’t mind keepin’.”
She didn’t mind either. Not one whit. She’d do just about anything to guard this feeling, this moment, from ever being corrupted by the rest of the world.
Lou bent low over Lightning’s neck, pushing him to ever greater speeds. She needed to get back to Sweetwater as quickly as possible, let them know she was quitting. The sooner done, the sooner she could start the hunt for Teresa and Jeremiah. And she needed to start the hunt before the trail went cold. The only reason she was doing this much was because one of his men had made mention of Harper’s Ridge while they were at the orphanage.
She bit back a sob. She had no time to break down. Maybe later, but not now. How had he found them? She and her mother had taken so many precautions to make sure they were safe.
“Ma,” nine year old Louise begged, ”can we stop yet? I’m tired. And I need to go to the necessary.”
She was tired of hanging on to the seat with both hands as her mother urged the horses pulling their buckboard into a canter, then a near gallop. Louise only vaguely understood why they were leaving. She knew her father had lost his temper and hurt her mother. All she had to do was look to her side to see her Ma’s bruised face and the arm she cradled against her side.
"I’m sorry, honey. But you’ll have to wait. We gotta make it ta Galveston before the mornin’ tide,” her Ma said, smiling down at Louise for a split second before turning her attention back to the road ahead of them.
“I thought we were goin’ ta visit Aunt Kathleen and Uncle Seamus,” Louise asked, confused. “That’s what you told Mr. Matthus when we left.”
“I lied, darlin’,” Ma said softly. “It ain’t right, but I didn’t see no other way. We had ta get yer father lookin’ in the other direction long enough so’s we could disappear.”
The next month had followed the same pattern, over and over again. In Galveston, her mother had bought tickets aboard a ship bound for California. A ship they’d boarded in broad daylight only to sneak off again that night.
From there, they’d ridden horseback east to New Orleans, where they’d done the same thing again. This time, boarding and deserting a ship bound for Mobile, Alabama.
At each stop, they’d changed their names, and even their genders. Over the last few weeks, Louise had been a boy, Louis and Lou and Luke, three times. Jeremiah had been a girl, once. He hadn’t been so good at it. A couple of times they’d even completely hidden Teresa’s existence. They’d used the last names McCanles, Dougherty, O’Flannery and McDonald.
From New Orleans, they’d snuck aboard a riverboat and headed north, eventually ending up in St. Louis. Then, after leaving a trail headed East on the train, they’d changed names again and headed West, joining a wagon train on its way to California. But, they’d left the wagon train in St. Joseph. Their money had finally run out.
“I’m gonna havta get a job,” Ma had sighed as she’d looked at the last nickel to their names. The only coin in the purse that had been full to overflowing when they’d started this long journey.
How? She could’ve sworn he’d never find them. That they’d disappeared into the Great American Desert, leaving everyone and everything known behind them in Texas. That’s why she’d felt safe enough to use the name McCloud when her mother had died and they’d taken her and her siblings to the orphanage.
Damn that man! Why couldn’t he have stayed in the past. She continued to curse her father to the rhythm of Lightning’s pounding hooves as she hurried toward home as fast as she could.
Lou stood in the barn, barely holding herself together. She’d have left already, but after the ride she’d just put Lightning through he deserved, no needed, a good night’s rest. She knew she needed to get some sleep too, but didn’t see it happening any time soon. Her mind just kept running through scenario after scenario of what her father could be doing to Jeremiah and Teresa.
She could feel the tears slowly seeping down her face but steadfastly ignoring them. Hoping that would make them stop. She stiffened at the sound of the barn door opening and hastily reached up to rub her cheeks dry with the sleeve of her coat.
“It’s alright, Lou,” Kid said. “It’s just me.”
“Hey,” she mumbled.
“You gonna be alright?” he asked, walking up to stand next to her, pressing his shoulder against hers. She found herself leaning slightly into him, taking comfort from his nearness.
“I’ll live,” she mumbled. “But I won’t be alright until I’ve found them.”
“He is their father,” Kid began. “I know you don’t like him, but do you think he’ll really hurt them? If you think they’re in danger, maybe me and some of the boys should come along, too.”
“You can’t, Kid,” Lou said, ever practical. “With Ike down and me gone, you’ll all be ridin; double duty for awhile. Teaspoon won’t let ya go.”
“At least come in and get some sleep,” Kid urged, turning to place a hand on her shoulder. “Ya won’t be no good ta anyone if ya don’t get some rest.”
Sighing, she nodded and followed him out of the barn, headed for one last night in the bunk that had become home.
She rolled over, groaning as a shaft of sunlight stabbed at her eyes. Suddenly, they sprang open as the last few days events came rushing back at her. She quickly sat up and looked around, slightly surprised to see the bunkhouse was completely empty.
She had just jumped out of bed and finished throwing on her vest and coat when she heard Emma yelling from up at the big house.
“It’s Ike! He’s come to!”
Grabbing her hat she headed up to Emma’s place. She was still in a hurry to hit the road, but figured a few minutes spent checking on Ike wouldn’t make much of a difference one way or the other. Stepping through the door, her eyes went first to Kid, taking note of the tenseness of his shoulders and the worried wrinkles around his eyes, then to Ike. She smiled to see him looking so good. He’d been very pale the night before.
Catching her eyes, Ike signed, *Glad you made it.*
“Good to see you too, Ike,” she nodded. “Sorry ‘bout what happened.”
“That sounds like Peters, alright,” Sam’s voice broke into the silence, capturing everyone’s attention. “Used to be a hold-up man for that gunrunner, Boggs.”
Lou stiffened, shock rippling through her entire body at the sound of that name. Swinging her head around she asked sharply, “What was that name you said, Marshal?”
She had to be sure she’d heard him right.
“The other one,” she pressed.
She could barely move in her shock, managing only to nod her head in confirmation. It appeared her father had stuck to his outlaw ways even as he’d moved around the country trying to find them.
“The last I heard he got run out of the country for selling guns to the Apaches,” Sam continued.
No surprise there, Lou thought sarcastically. Heck, he’d probably made a profit even as he’d run.
“If a man wanted to find this Peters, where would he go?” Kid asked.
“Ol’ Red, he’s a thirsty ol’ boy,” Sam said, puffing on his cigar even as he shook his head. “Spends most of his time wearing out barstools in Blue Creek.”
Blue Creek? Lou thought. That wasn’t far from Harper’s Ridge. The same direction and a possible connection to her father? Maybe she wouldn’t have to desert her newfound family in order to find her brother and sister. Maybe her luck wasn’t as bad as she’d thought it was.
Before the others even stood to begin heading for the barn and their horses, Lou was out the door. She had Lightning already saddled by the time the others reached the barn.
“You weren’t goin; ta leave without sayin’ goodbye, was ya, Lou?” Cody asked with a frown.
“Ain’t leavin’ ya,” she muttered. “I’m goin’ with ya, least as far as Blue Creek.”
With that she mounted up and started her horse trotting down the road. A few minutes later, the others came thundering past her. She let them, feeling no need to take the lead right now. Moments later, Kid slowed Katy to match paces with Lightning.
“Lou, ya with us?”
“Whatta ya want, Kid?” she gritted out, afraid she knew what he was going to ask and not ready to answer that question.
“Ta ask ya a question.”
Knowing there was no way to sidetrack him when he had the bit in his teeth, she said, “So ask.”
“Why’d ya change yer mind about quittin’?”
She decided to give him at least part of the truth.
“I was gonna search Blue Creek anyway,” she started. When it came time to tell a half truth she couldn’t quite meet his eyes. “Figured you’d need all the help you could get.”
“Uh hunh,” he said skeptically. Looking up at him through the shade of her hat, she could tell Kid hadn’t bought the line she’d fed him. Time to make good her escape, she thought, taking off.
“Hey, Lou, what’s goin’ on?” he yelled after her. She pretended not to have heard him.
Lou watched as the Blue Creek sheriff questioned Peters about his gun. She didn’t even flinch as Jimmy tried his own brand of interrogation, going so far as to put an arm out to hold Kid back as he made a move to interfere.
“Don’t,” she muttered.
But she showed little reaction to anything, until Peters said, “It was Boggs.”
No more could she hold back the anger and fear that had been coursing through her system for the entire day. She could hear it leaking out in her voice, but could do nothing about it as she demanded through gritted teeth, “Where is he?”
“You heard the boy,” the sheriff prompted.
Peters turned a questioning look Lou’s way as he said, “Eagle Canyon. Runs the territory for 50 miles around. Built himself a big ol’ fort right in the middle of it. Ain’t no one ever gets close without him knowin’ about it.”
Lou stared straight ahead as memories of her childhood assaulted her.
“Grandpa, Grandpa,” a seven year old Louise shouted joyfully, “watch me!”
Bending low over the stallion’s back, she gripped the saddle horn tightly in her hands as she flung herself off one side of the galloping horse, touched down on the ground only to launch her body over the horse’s back and touch down on the other side. Another spring and she landed back in the saddle, sitting up to slow the horse down.
“Well done, my young colleen,” he said, his deep Irish brogue flowing over her, filling her heart with love. “But I think it’s time we be headin’ on home. Yer Da’ll be mighty displeased if we’re late fer dinner.”
Despite that proclamation, they both rode slowly along the creek bed at the bottom of the canyon, taking their time as they headed back toward the house. Louise loved it out here in the open. She always felt so suffocated at the house, from the big wall surrounding it, to the guards all over the place and the locks on the outside of all the doors. It felt more like a prison than a home to her, even at her young age.
Louise copied her Grandpa’s polite nod to the guards as they rode through the front gates a few minutes later. Little did she know that it made her look like a young princess acknowledging her subjects.
She gasped as her grandfather suddenly dragged her off her horse and into his lap, forcing her face against his chest.
“Don’t look, mauverneen,” he whispered into her ear. “Try not ta listen.”
That’s when she heard a strange whistling sound, followed by a snap and an agonized yowl. Her little body jerked in sympathy as she instinctively tried to see who’d been hurt,
“I said don’t look,” her Grandpa repeated, hurrying the horses through the front yard toward the barns.
Though her eyes were hidden, her ears were wide open and she couldn’t help but hear her father’s voice, in a strange, harsh tone she’d never heard before, shouting, “Be glad yer such a good worker, else it’d be a lot worse fer ya. I even suspect yer gonna try that again and I’ll shoot ya where ya stand.”
A shiver worked its way down her spine.
Lou became suddenly aware of her surroundings. She’d been so lost in her memories she’d followed the boys toward Eagle’s Canyon without paying any attention to what she was doing. ‘Though Red Peters’ directions were seared into her brain. She knew she was only a short ride away. They’d stopped for the night to get some rest, before scouting out the compound in the morning and planning their attack. She had no intention of being there. She could feel her fists clenching as she even thought about her ‘brothers’ coming into contact with the man who called himself her father.
They were too close to her father’s compound for her to relax.
Yet, for all her apparent distraction, she was well aware of every move Kid made next to her, every sound that issued out of his mouth. That one tiny corner of her brain that was apparently dedicated to him chuckled humorlessly as it wondered why she couldn’t get him off her mind, even now. So, she was well aware of him as he leaned over and nudged her leg with his hand.
She appreciated his consideration. When she didn’t respond, he continued, “Don’t ya, Lou?”
She began to fight with herself. There was nothing she wanted more than to share this burden with him. But, though he was definitely earning her trust one inch at a time, she still couldn’t quite trust that he would let her do what she needed to do. She was the one who’d left her siblings to the mercy of that man. She needed to be the one to rescue them. Not to mention the dangers of the others finding out her secret if they came in contact with him.
“Don’t ya?” Kid persisted when she didn’t answer.
She turned to look him in the eyes. She could see him begging her to trust him with this. She could tell he knew the truth. But it was just more than she had in her to open up about this right now. Looking away, she said quietly, “Go to sleep, Kid.”
He sighed, knowing that was going to be her last word on the matter. Yet, even as he closed his eyes and settled into sleep, Lou kept her eyes wide open staring at him, thinking about all he’d done to prove he was trustworthy and wondering why she couldn’t bring herself to open up to him.
Once all the boys were sleeping soundly, she quietly got up and packed her things. Creeping over to Lightning, she saddled the stallion and rode out. She had a mission to complete.
Well, that had been a bust, she thought to herself as she heard the gun being cocked behind her.
“I wouldn’t do that.”
Turning around she faced the man holding the revolver and slowly let the large rock she held in her hands drop to the ground. She’d known her father had guards on the place. She hadn’t known he had guards on the guards. She idly wondered if this was a new development or just something she’d not realized as a young child.
“So, what now?” she asked in her gruffest ‘boy’ voice, even as the guard she’d been about to knock out began tying her up with her own rope.
“We take a little ride down to the boss,” said the guard who’d caught her. “If yer lucky, he won’t shoot ya on sight.”
Lou let out a manly grunt and, responding to the gun poking into her side, began moving toward Lightning. Within minutes she found herself tied to the saddle and being led down the mountainside into the canyon.
Since she had no other choice, she took her time looking around her as they descended. With the exception of all the green, this could have been the compound she’d spent the first nine years of her life in, she thought, right down to the house in the middle of the fortified compound.
It was with despair that she entered the gates. She had a feeling that even if she got out of here alive, that life would never be the same.
“Uhnh,” she grunted as the guard dragged her off her horse and through a back door of the house into a lean-to that had obviously been used as a holding cell before. She bit her lip to keep from yelling out when her captor roughly pushed her into the room, slamming the door shut behind her and locking it. Her shoulders slumped in defeat.
“You don’t never give up, do ya?” Kid’s voice floated up from the mists of her memory. It had been a hot, sunny spring day. They’d spent hours working on building a new corral fence. Lou had insisted on doing as much of the work as the others, never letting Kid shoulder a portion of her load. She’d basked in the approval she’d heard in his voice that afternoon.
Deliberately straightening her shoulders, she whispered, “And I ain’t gonna give up now! This is too important.” Whether she was talking to him or herself, she couldn’t have said.
First she moved to the door to peek through a gap in the planks. She sighed in disappointment. There was a guard posted out there. Turning in a circle, she surveyed the rest of the room, taking stock. That’s when she noticed the chair and the window. Soon, a plan began to formulate.
From her perch peering out the shed’s window, Lou watched as he timed Jeremiah’s efforts to clean and load the rifle. The sound of his voice as he murmured to the boy brought back memories she’d long since forgotten.
“How’s my little lady doin’ today?” he asked, bending down so he could look her in the eye. Seven year old Louise sat straight and proud in her chair as she held up the cross-stitch sampler she was working on for him to inspect.
“I’m sewin’, Daddy,” she smiled at him proudly. “Do ya like it?”
‘That’s right pretty, dumplin’,” he said, smiling and chucking her under the chin. “I bet yer the best needleworker in the whole of Texas.”
Louise sat up straighter in her chair, beaming with pride at this compliment. “My dollies and I are goin’ ta have a tea party later,” she chattered. “Wanta come?”
“I’d love to,” he said, smiling at her. “Why don’t I drop by after I take yer brother for his horse ridin’ lesson?”
Louise’s eyes brightened with excitement. “Can I come? I love ridin’!”
A slight frown marred her father’s normally jovial face. “No, Louise. Ridin’ ain’t proper fer a lady. And that’s what you are, my little lady.”
With that he stood up and moved toward the door, already discussing Jeremiah’s riding lesson with one of his hired hands. Louise scowled after him. She hated that… that… baby! He got to do everything fun, even though he was only half her age. And she had to be stuck in here doing needlework and learning to be a boring ol’ lady’. Looking down at the sampler now hanging limply in her hands, she tossed it to the floor and jumped out of her seat. Stomping across the room, and trampling all over the sampler on the way, Louise followed her father down to the barn.
“Oh no, you don’t,” her mother said, grabbing her by the arms to waylay her. “You go out to the barn right now and yer Pa’ll whip you for sure.”
“Here, let me Mary,” Grandpa said, coming into the room. “Leesha gal, would you like to go swimming with me today? It’s perfect weather for it.”
Running to her grandfather, Louise flung herself into his arms, tears threatening to overshadow her naturally sunny constitution.
“Yes, please,” she mumbled into his shirt.
Lou looked down at the rifle Teresa had handed her. This would be her ticket out of here. She wasn’t her mother. She didn’t have to wait until she’d been beaten and broken to know when the getting was good. And she had skills, skills her father would never have approved of, that meant she could get her brother and sister out with her. But first, to get past the guard at the door.
Moments later she was bending over the unconscious guard, pulling his revolver to take with her. Unfortunately, the outer door was locked, too. And, though she began to quickly work her way through several doors, knocking out the locks on one, she was too slow.
She shrank from the sound of the bullet hitting the door near her head. Turning around she found herself face to face with her worst nightmare. Her father.
“Drop the gun,” he said menacingly. She paused, considering her options. She could take him out, though she might get hit, even killed, in the process. The sound of her father’s henchman cocking his weapon too, brought her back to reality. She couldn’t take that great of a risk. Not with Teresa and Jeremiah still here.
She pulled out the pistol she’d tucked into her holster and set it on a nearby shelf.
“Who are you?” he asked curiously.
That’s when she realized, he hadn’t recognized her. It had been too many years since he’d seen here. She’d been younger than Teresa was now. And, she hardly looked like the ‘lady’ he’d tried so hard to turn her into.
Thinking quickly, she decided to go with a partial truth. “Someone who knew Mary Louise McCloud.” As her father’s brow furled in confusion, she continued. “I come fer her kids.”
Comprehension finally dawned on him and he started to laugh, making Lou’s teeth grind against each other in anger and frustration. Why couldn’t he ever take her seriously?
“She’s dead and you’re about to join her,” he threatened. Gesturing to his henchman, Boggs, she refused to think of him as her father, turned his back on her and headed back toward the cell she’d started in.
The henchman holstered his weapon, grabbed her discarded pistol in one hand and her shoulder in the other.
“Move it!” he hissed, shoving her down the hallway and through the series of doors.
She could taste her own blood as her father leaned over her to ask again, “Now who sent you?”
Lou stuck to the half truth she’d started with. “I told you, Mary Louise McCloud.”
“She died a long time ago. Which is what’s gonna happen to you if you don’t start tellin’ the truth,” he threatened.
She welcomed his threats. Watching as he turned away from her and gestured to his henchman, she exulted once more. Even as the strong man swung at her, hitting her again and again, she felt triumph soar through her entire being. She could take anything he could dish out. Would take it. And keep on fighting. She couldn’t be beaten, not by the likes of him.
In her internal victory over him, she stopped even trying to answer his questions. She began defying him at every turn, trying to shake him off, letting him know he would never win, never defeat her, never make her accept him as her master. He wasn’t her father. Not now, not ever again. Her father was dead! This was just an outlaw trying to beat her down. She considered laughing in his face for a moment, but decided to settle for a glare and sneer. She’d won.
She was so busy enjoying her internal victory over this man who’d ruled so much of her life, that she barely noted the explosions or Boggs’ departure. She really didn’t notice much of anything until a dearly familiar voice suddenly spoke in her ear, “Can ya move?”
Looking up, she stared into those sparkling eyes that made her heart race faster than Lightning ever could. Starting, she realized she hadn’t answered him. Looking down she assessed her injuries. She was bruised and sore, but nothing was broken. “I think so.”
She moved so Kid could reach her hands and cut her loose. The second she was free, she was out of the chair and running out of the store room and down the hall. There was only one thing on her mind, reaching Jeremiah and Teresa before anything could happen to them in this fight. She could hear Kid’s footsteps behind her, his moccasins making soft slapping sounds as he rushed to keep up with her own hurried paces.
Pushing one door at the end of the hall open, she stared briefly out into the courtyard, full of smoke, explosions and gunshots. She quickly slammed it shut and barred it before turning to the second door. Stepping through it she knew immediately her suspicions were true. This house was an exact replica of the one she’d lived in as a child in Texas.
“Mary Louise,” she heard her Grandpa call out as he stepped through the front door into the entryway. “MARY LOUISE!”
“Ye can stop yer caterwaulin’, Da,” Louise’s mother said from the top of the stairs. “What’s wrong?”
“More like what ain’t,” young Louise heard her Grandpa grump even as he stepped forward, releasing his grip on her head that had kept her face pressed into his shoulder. “Come take little Leesha here. The bairn needs a bath after our ride.”
Taking a look at Louise as the little girl lifted her head to look at her mother, Mary Louise put a hand to her chest.
“What on earth did you do on that ride?” she asked, moving down the stairs to take little Louise from her grandfather. “Roll in the mud with your horses?”
Louise smiled as she heard her Grandpa’s deep belly laugh. “No, darlin’, the wee pothogeen and I decided ta take a break from ridin’ and do some fishin’.”
Louise’s ma joined her grandfather’s laughter. “Seems the fish did more catchin’ than you two did.”
“Too true, child, too true.”
Louise’s ma turned with the little girl in her arms and began to move up the stairs.
“Ya may need ta discuss some of yer husband’s doin’s with the bairn,” he warned. “She saw what was goin’ on in the yard when we rode in.”
Louise could feel her mother’s body stiffen as her face grew serious. Nodding, Mary Louise turned and continued her way up the stairs. “Let’s get you in the bath, Lulabelle. Luckily, we haven’t dumped the tub after your brother’s bath. We’ll have you all cleaned up before your father comes in.”
Pointing up the stairs, Lou told Kid, “It’s this way.”
She paused to look back at him as he grabbed her arm.
"Your brother and sister?” he asked.
She nodded in confirmation, not bothering to take the time to explain to him how she knew. “Yeah.”
Kid recognized her determination and sense of urgency and didn’t ask any more questions, just following her up the stairs and down the hall. Lou didn’t pause before the first two doors, knowing they led to her father’s bedroom and to an office. The third door had been the entrance to the children’s suite of rooms back in Texas. She was willing to bet the kids would be in there.
Bursting through the entrance, she surprised a guard who’d been looking out the window at the chaos below. Lou didn’t give him a chance to gather his wits, rushing up to him and knocking him out with the butt of her pistol. Hearing noises behind one of the doors, Lou turned to it and pushed it open. One of the sweetest sounds in the world greeted her ears as she rushed through the door.
Lou hunkered down just in time to catch an excited Teresa who was flinging herself into her sister’s arms. Lou marveled at how big the little girl had gotten. Teresa had been only five years old when Lou’d left the orphanage. She’d been so afraid the little girl wouldn’t even remember her after all this time.
Hugging Teresa tightly to her, Lou didn’t ever want to let go. But, what about Jeremiah? Opening her eyes, she saw a suspiciously glaring young man standing by the foot of the bed. Lou stifled a sigh. She’d been afraid of this. Jeremiah had never been a very forgiving soul and had begged her not to leave him behind. He’d believed he was old enough to get a job and help.
“It’s been a long time, Jeremiah.” Lou said as he failed to speak, simply continuing to stand there glaring at her. She stood and reached out a hand to him. “Let’s go.”
That’s when the expected explosion came.
“I ain’t goin’ with you! You left us!” Jeremiah hollered.
“I had to,” Lou defended herself, using almost the same words she’d used on that night five years ago when she’s said goodbye to him. “It was the only way I could make a life for us. I did it for you and Teresa.”
“We gotta get outta here, Lou,” Kid warned from the window he’d been keeping watch through.
Jeremiah continued as if he’d never been interrupted. “I’m not goin’! I’m stayin’ with my father!”
Lou felt like he’d shot her in the heart. Luckily she’d had the last few months with the boys to learn how to control her emotions and not show exactly how she was feeling. But that didn’t keep the anger from creeping into her voice and a sneer onto her face. “He’s not your father, Jeremiah!”
How could Jeremiah have been so taken in by the man who’d just had her nearly beaten to a pulp? one portion of her mind wondered idly even as Jeremiah continued his diatribe.
“Yes, he is! He came for us and you didn’t!”
And that was really the crux of the matter, she thought sadly. Yet, how could she explain to a 12 year old boy exactly why it had taken her so long to come for him? Or that she hadn’t really come to take him to a new home, yet? Kid’s next words interrupted her flow of thoughts.
“Lou! There’s no more time. We gotta move!”
Gathering herself together to shake off the distracting thoughts, Lou reached out to grab Jeremiah by the shoulders. “I’m sorry I didn’t come before, but I’m here now and you’re comin’ with us whether ya like it or not.”
Following her lead, Kid grabbed Jeremiah’s hand and began dragging the recalcitrant boy out the door, Lou on his heels with Teresa in tow. Lou was internally quailing at the noise her brother was making, yet she was unwilling to do what was necessary to quiet him. Hopefully all the noise from the fighting in the courtyard would cover any sounds coming from inside the house.
She knew where Kid was leading them. Her father always had an escape hatch from the house. She was so caught up in her own thoughts, she barely noticed when Kid gunned down one of Boggs ‘men at the base of the stairs. Somehow she wasn’t surprised to find Jimmy waiting for them in the dining room, near the entrance to the secret tunnel.
Yet, she paid little attention, other than to keep a tight hold on both of the children. Her head was too full of memories at the moment.
“Drop the gun!”
“Mary Louise, why aren’t the children down here ready for dinner yet!”
Young Louise looked up at her mother with suddenly frightened eyes. She’d finished her bath in record time, but was still getting dressed. Pa must’ve come home early.
“Don’t worry, Lulabelle,” her Ma reassured her, standing up and handing the brush to the nanny. Taking Jeremiah by the hand, she turned to the door, “You just finished getting dressed. I’ll go talk to your father.”
Louise nodded and quickly returned to the work of tying her pinafore behind her back then reached for her shoes.
A few minutes later she was creeping timidly down the stairs. Halfway down, she paused at the sound of her father’s angry, rasping voice.
“Drop the excuses, Mary. She was out with yer father again. You know how I feel about him encouragin’ her to act like a little tom boy!”
“If yer just goin’ ta talk about me like I ain’t here,” Grandpa said quietly, “I kin always leave.”
“I wish you would , old man,” Boggs turned his wrath on Grandpa. “Then maybe my little angel would start acting like the lady she’s goin’ ta be.”
“T’aint nothin’ unladylike ‘bout learnin’ ta ride,” Grandpa defended. “Unless yer gonna tell me all them Ladies back in Ireland wasn’t really ladies!”
“If her ridin’ is so ladylike, how come she always comes back lookin’ like somethin’ the cat dragged in?”
“John!” Ma objected. “She’s a child. Children get dirty.”
“Boys get dirty. Little girls learn to sew and stay clean,” Boggs remained adamant.
“Ach! Yer impossible, me boyo,” Grandpa said. Leaving the dining room, he stomped toward the front doors. “I’ll come back when you can talk sensible.”
“Why don’t ya just stay gone?” Boggs yelled after him.
“John, please, calm down,” Ma said quietly. But Louise could hear the pleading undertones in her voice. “Louise will be down in a minute.”
“You know the only reason he doesn’t move on to start that horse ranch he’s always talkin’ ‘bout?”
Louise could hear her parents moving away from the dining room door, their voices slowly getting quieter.
“Because he can’t bear to be away from his grandbabies,” Ma answered confidently.
“Because he doesn’t trust me alone with my own wife and kids,” Boggs complained. “But those that aren’t wanted can always be ousted, even if they won’t leave on their own.”
Louise sank down onto the step she’d been crouched on, wondering what her father’d meant by that. She didn’t realize how long she’d been there until her father’s voice called for her.
“Louise! Now, where are you?” he yelled, coming to the door of the dining room.
“Now, who are you?”
Lou looked up as she realized the words she was hearing were more than just her brain dredging up memories she’d thought long forgotten.
“Don’t you know?” she found herself asking him.
“How the hell should I know?”
Time to go for broke, Lou figured. Without a thought for Jimmy standing there, she blurted out, “Mary Louise McCloud was my mother.”
Lou saw the confusion cross Boggs face as he tried to figure that one out.
“That’s impossible, I had two daughters and one son.”
Lou felt herself jerking back slightly, pressing her back into the wall. The gig was up. She could sense the wheels turning in Jimmy’s head even before she said anything. No sense trying to hide it now. Looking up, she said, “You still do.”
“Louise,” he drawled, comprehension dawning.
“I’m takin’ Jeremiah and Teresa,” she said, stating her position as clearly as she could through her swollen jaw. She knew it would start a fight, but hoped to keep it to words. Even as they went back and forth, she was thinking how nothing about this man had changed.
“I’m your father!”
“My father’s dead!” she exclaimed, not willing to prolong this anymore. She was leaving. To hell with Boggs. Turning to the children, she said, “Let’s go.”
What he said next hurt almost as much as when she’d lost his attention to her little brother when he’d been born, almost as much as when her father had started insisting she had to learn to be a lady.
“No! I’m not gonna let you do what your mother did to me. You wanna leave, leave! You wanna take the girl? Take her. But Jeremiah stays!”
“So he can grow up to be like you?” Lou spit out. “So he can learn to whip people ‘cause it’s good business? Kill ‘em ‘cause it’s easier then trustin’ ‘em? You wanna stop me, yer gonna have ta kill me.”
She’d had enough. Gathering Jeremiah and Teresa to her, she started to move toward the entrance to the tunnel. She wasn’t going to stop for anything.
Shots rang out and she jerked, expecting to feel the pain of a bullet tearing into her flesh. But, nothing. Turning, she saw her father falling to the floor, even as Kid stood from where he’d taken his shot. Jimmy hurried over to her side to make sure she was alright. Leaving the children with him, Lou moved over to the man who’d sired her but stopped being a father to her years ago.
She watched with a sense of detachment as he lifted his head and whispered, “I came for you, too.”
She just stared at him as he breathed his last, trying to figure out what she was really feeling.
Lou looked over to the Kid who held Jeremiah securely on the saddle in front of him on Katy. Her brother sat there in sullen silence. He’d refused to speak to anyone since Boggs had died. She couldn’t believe how quickly he’d become attached to the bastard. Then again, she remembered how slick Boggs could be when he wanted something. And he’d definitely wanted Jeremiah to like him. Lou shook her head, even as she hugged Teresa closer to her. At least Teresa was happy to see her.
“Are we goin’ ta come live with you, now, Louise?” Teresa asked.
“I’m sorry, sugarbear, but not yet.”
“That’s kinda complicated,” Lou said, thinking about how her secret had just spread to one more person. She still had hopes of convincing Jimmy to keep quiet.
“Jimmy,” she said, pulling her horse up next to his.
“Yes, Louise?” he asked, emphasizing her full name.
“Jimmy, please don’t be mad.”
“Don’t be mad?” he asked, exasperated. “Don’t be mad? You’ve been lyin’ to us fer months now!”
“Ain’t like I had a choice,” she muttered. “Ain’t like they’d’a hired me if I’d shown up in a dress.”
Jimmy chuffed a laugh at that mental image. “Probably not,” he agreed. “But that don’t mean I gotta like it.”
“Please, Jimmy, don’t tell,” she said, hating the pleading note that had entered her voice. It sounded way too much like her Ma’s had with her Pa. “I need this job. Probably more than any of ya!”
Jimmy said nothing for what seemed like forever. Finally he asked, “How long’s the Kid known?”
“Since I found her wounded,” Kid said, joining them.
“What made ya agree ta keep quiet?” Jimmy asked curiously.
“Like ya said then, she proved she could do the job,” Kid answered with a shrug.
Jimmy just nodded. Lou figured that was the best she was going to get for the moment, as she could see the other boys coming into sight.
“So, where’d you get the pretty dolly?” Cody asked, sitting down next to Teresa, as they all settled in for the night around the camp fire. They’d ridden long and hard to get as far as possible from Boggs’ men. But they knew neither the horses nor the children could stick it out through the night. So they’d finally stopped and made camp. Now, with bellies full, they were all settling down for a little sleep.
“Miss Annabelle Mumblepuss?” Teresa asked sleepily, laying her head down on the jacket Buck had donated for a pillow. “She was a gift from my sister.”
“Your sister?” Cody asked louder, confused. “You’ve got a sister?”
Everyone turned to watch at those words and saw Teresa roll over and point at Lou, who groaned and dropped her head into her hands. So much for her secret.
“Lou?” Cody nearly yelled. “Lou’s your SISTER?!”
“Yeah, Cody, didn’t ya know?” Jimmy interrupted. “Our Lou here’s a girl.”
Lou could see Buck turning to Kid and mouthing, “A girl?” Kid simply nodded and went back to whatever it was he’d been talking over with Jeremiah. Buck shook his head bemusedly. Lou sighed and flopped back onto her bedroll, letting the talk roll over her.
The ride back to Sweetwater had been bittersweet for Lou. They’d arrived at the orphanage in St. Joe to find Ike waiting for them. He’d tracked them that far once he’d been cleared to ride again. From him they learned that Teaspoon had imported several temporary riders from the surrounding stations to cover for them.
She’d been glad for whatever Jeremiah and Kid had spent so much time talking over, because at the very last her brother had relented a bit toward her, even going so far as to accept a goodbye handshake from her. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.
She’d promised to write them regularly and visit whenever she could. But she wasn’t sure how she was going to keep that promise. With everyone now knowing her secret, especially Cody, she figured she’d be looking for a new job soon as they got back to the home station.
Seeing the distinctive windmill clearing the horizon, Lou pulled her horse to a stop and just stared at it. That sight had become a beacon of hope for her, a sign that her run was almost over. It meant... home. It was the only real home she’d ever known. Thinking about leaving it behind, she found herself sighing, again. She’d been doing that a lot on this ride.
Kid, who pulled Katy to a stop next to her, asked, “What’s wrong?”
Looking around, Lou realized all the boys had pulled up when she had. Not wanting to show her depression in front of them, she limited herself to a muttered, “Nothin’.”
Checking to make sure they’d all bought her act, she caught Jimmy staring at her. He’d been doing a lot of that ever since that scene with her father. When her eyes met his, he cleared his throat.
“A girl. Hmph.”
Lou narrowed her eyes at him. She’d expected better from him, at least. “Somethin’ wrong with that?”
“Only thing wrong with it is I didn’t see it sooner,” he said. “I’m tellin’ ya Lou it’s a relief. ‘Cause the way you and the Kid been lookin’ at each other all this time…” He let that thought dangle in midair, unfinished. “Hell, I even caught myself lookin’ at ya like that a couple times.”
“Like what?” Lou asked, starting to get exasperated with him. Then she felt like giggling as she realized Jimmy, rough and tough Jimmy, was blushing.
He shrugged. "Uh… you know.”
Lou decided to put him on the spot, the devil in her that made her needle the boys so badly sometimes raising his knobby head. “No, Jimmy. I don’t know.”
“All I’m gonna say is… you’re the best lookin’ boy I ever seen.”
Now it was Lou’s turn to blush. She never thought much about the way she looked. At least she hadn’t until the Kid had come along. The idea that Jimmy had noticed, even thinking she was a boy, made her feel good in an odd sort of way.
“I wouldn’t let that go to yer head, Lou,” Cody interjected. “I seen him lookin’ at his horse the same way.”
This made her laugh, a giggle she normally would have hidden from the boys but didn’t bother to keep quiet now. This thought brought her back to where she’d started and she sighed again. “I’m sure gonna miss ridin’ with you all.”
“What are you talkin’ about?” Jimmy asked, genuinely confused.
Lou shook her head. “When Teaspoon finds out I’m not what he thinks I am…”
She couldn’t finish the thought. It made her too depressed.
“Well, who says ya ain’t?” Cody asked.
“You ride tall as any man I ever seen,” Kid added helpfully. Lou looked at them, feeling the first stirrings of hope in her chest.
“Any man says different’s gonna answer ta me,” Jimmy defended her. Lou started to smile, maybe this might work out after all.
“And me,” Buck added, even as Ike thumped on his chest, signing the same thing.
“Then ya won’t tell?” Lou asked, having to get their commitment in plain, spoken English, with no room for changed minds later.
“Ain’t nothin’ to tell,” Kid smiled at her, knowing exactly what she was asking.
Looking at all the others, Lou could see the agreement on their faces. A broad grin broke out on her face, bringing a sparkle to her brown eyes they’d rarely seen. She’d begun to think of them as her family, her brothers, mostly. It looked like they felt the same. And now, she could be their sister, instead of their brother.
Nodding to herself, she turned Lightning toward home, spurring him into motion. Things were going to work out just fine.
*mauverneen: Irish term for 'my darling'
colleen: Irish term for 'young girl'
pothogeen: Irish term for 'little messer'
bairn: Irish term for 'baby'
Leesha, Lulubelle: Irish diminutives (affectionate nicknames) for Louise
wee: Gaelic term meaning 'small'
Chapter 6: The Indecision
*mauverneen: Irish term for 'my darling'
colleen: Irish term for 'young girl'
pothogeen: Irish term for 'little messer'
bairn: Irish term for 'baby'
Leesha, Lulubelle: Irish diminutives (affectionate nicknames) for Louise
wee: Gaelic term meaning 'small'
Chapter 6: The Indecision