Monday, January 16, 2012

The Only Thing To Fear: The Trial Run

Music:
Stand Back Up, Sugarland
Fear, Bon Jovi
Something Wicked This Way Comes, Doro
Safe In The Arms Of Love, Martina McBride
Amateur Lovers, Switchfoot
Raggedy Jane, Lee Aaron


Dear Jeremiah and Teresa,

I’m sorry I haven’t written as much lately as I should.  Things have been real busy at the waystation lately.  Jimmy almost got hung, Teaspoon’s daughter showed up and turned out not to be his daughter, but she saved his life and he says she’s his daughter anyway.  Confused?  Me too, sometimes. 

I miss you two so much lately.  But, I’m making good money and saving almost every cent.  My grubstake is growing daily.  By this time next year I should have enough saved up to start looking for a place for us.  Just think.  Our own ranch, with a house and barns full of horses, just like Grandpa McCloud always dreamed of.

I miss you two so much.  I can’t wait to see you again.  But, that may not be for awhile.  I keep drawing the runs West instead of East.  Ike promised to deliver this letter for me.  So, be sure to give him a big hug in thanks.

I love you.
Lou


Lou looked over the letter.  It was too short.  Yet, it still contained things she wondered if she should tell her siblings.  She sighed.  They’d already seen so much in their short lives nothing in this letter would come as a surprise.  Deciding not to change anything, Lou folded the single sheet of paper and slipped it into an envelope. 

She couldn’t afford the exorbitant prices the Express charged for delivery.  But Ike had promised to carry the letter in his pocket and deliver it himself.  They’d get it faster than any other method of delivery.  She rushed out of the bunkhouse and handed the letter to Ike. 

“Thanks,” she smiled up at him.

*You’re welcome,* he signed.  *See you in a couple of weeks.*

With that he spurred his horse toward the East.

“Ride safe!” she yelled after him.  He waved his hat at her in goodbye.

That same night, Teaspoon pulled Lou aside after supper.

“With Ike off the rotation fer two weeks, I’m havin’ ta switch up some runs, Lou,” he announced.  She nodded her head.  She’d known this would be coming.  It always did when someone was gone on a long run.

“So, where’m I goin’?” she asked, crossing her arms over her chest.

"I need you to take the run to Blue Creek tomorrow,” he said apologetically.  He knew she hated the Blue Creek station.  It was one of the worst on the routes.  The stationmaster and riders permanently based there were rude, crude and uncivilized.  The bunkhouse was a mess.  But, this time, Lou was actually relieved to have drawn the run.

“I’ll be ready,” she smiled at Teaspoon.  She was more than ready.  With recent events, she’d had to put off her plan to ‘practice being Louise’.  But, Blue Creek itself was far enough away, she might be able to get away with being herself for a bit and the station was far enough out of town she wouldn’t have to worry about anyone there catching her.  It was just about perfect.

“Alrighty, then,” Teaspoon said doubtfully, looking down at Lou with a frown.  She ran a hand across her mouth to hide her pleased grin, knowing it was not the response he’d been expecting.  Quickly she’d turned back to the bunkhouse and began preparing for bed.

As she lay on her bunk listening to the others move around the room, her mind cast back over the last few weeks.  There had been times she’d thought their family was being torn apart and it had nearly ripped her heart out.  Thankfully things had worked out.  But it had been hard going for awhile.  First, there’d been that time Jimmy’d ‘quit’, or so they’d all thought.

It had taken everything she had to work up the nerve to walk into Grace’s place.  It reminder her too much of things she’d rather stayed forgotten.  It was even worse than the Silver Spurs had been.  But, this was where Jimmy was, and she’d been even more determined to bring Jimmy home than she’d wanted to stay away from that cathouse.

She’d walked in diffidently, but as soon as her eyes had met Jimmy’s, she’d stopped in place, crossing her arms over her chest in challenge.  He’d the floor to greet her. 

“Hello, Lou.”

She’d given him the once over, checking out the new outfit he’d been wearing.  Jimmy had looked particularly comfortable in the fine, three piece suit. 

“Fancy duds,” she’d said.

“Ah, thank you,” Jimmy had said, unfailingly polite.  Then, he went for the throat.  “Ain’t you out past yer bedtime?”

Lou swallowed her rising anger, determined to be the peacemaker, not a role that came naturally to her.  “When you walked out last night, you stepped on a few toes.”

He’d chuckled.  “And you came all the way over here just to tell me that?”

She’d uncrossed her arms, sticking her thumbs in her pants’ pockets like Cody’d taught he and sighed.  “I came ta… ask ya ta think about what yer doin’.  It may not be too late.”

“And I suppose Teaspoon feels the same as you?”  Jimmy’d stumbled over Teaspoon’s name, telling Lou, or so she’d thought, just how important her answer had been to him.  Since she’d snuck out when Teaspoon wasn’t looking, she could only shrug in answer.  Jimmy’d never lost the mocking smile he’d pasted on his lips.  “I didn’t think so.”

“If we all talk to him, he’ll change his mind,” she’d insisted.

Jimmy’d just shaken his head.  “No, I’m done talkin’.”

“You don’t belong here!”

“Lou, I don’t belong anywhere!”  The words had been like an arrow straight to Lou’s heart.  “This is as good a place as any and it does have some advantages,” he’d almost leered at her.

“Jimmy,” she’d practically begged, “please come back.”

He hadn’t listened to her pleas, though he’d made sure she got out of there safely.  Later, she, along with the rest of the riders, had learned it had all been a con job.  Jimmy’d been working undercover for the Army.  Lou’d about torn his head off when she found out.  Though, once she calmed down, she’d understood why he’d done it.  As he’d said, their reactions needed to be real and none of them was that good of an actor, except maybe the Kid or Cody.

Then came the time Kid had landed himself in prison, doing hard time.  He and Cody had been gone on one of those long distance runs.  The minute Cody had ridden in without the Kid, Lou’d had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.  Something was wrong.  She’d tried telling herself she was just being a pessimist, until Cody’d told them all about how Kid had landed himself in the hoosegow. 

And when they’d started learning other stories coming out of the same town, she’d known there was real trouble.  The others had no longer needed her urging to ride to the rescue.  Even Sam was sounding worried.  And after he’d checked in at Fort Laramie.. well, the whole game had changed, for the worse.

“What did ya find out, Sam?” she’d asked.

Sam had walked up to the fire and squatted down.  With a sigh, he’d admitted, “Nothin’ definite.”  But there’d been a whole lot of indefinite that had added up to a major problem.  As the details had started piling up, Lou’d about lost it.  She’d wanted to scream.  Not again.  Couldn’t the Kid stay out of trouble for one run?

But, she’d found it oddly charming how the others had tried so hard to comfort her, without letting Sam in on her secret.

“Don’t worry, Lou,” Cody had reassured her.  “Kid can take care of himself.”

“Yeah,” was all the response she’d been able to muster.  They’d all closed ranks, keeping her surrounded at all times, never leaving her alone.  Their presence had been a comfort when they’d all reached Prosperity, especially after the Sheriff had lied to them about Kid having left town already.

When they’d ambushed the prison guards herding the inmates back toward the barracks, it had been all Lou could do to keep her itchy trigger finger from letting the bullets fly.  She’d wanted to bury one in the heart of each of those men for every bruise she saw on Kid’s face.  She’d been so furious it had taken a few jokes from Kid and another prisoner for her to get herself under control.  Finally, she said, “You look awful, Kid.”

“I’ve had better weeks,” he’d said, flashing that lopsided grin at her.

When they’d headed back into town to confront the outlaws who’d put Kid behind bars, Lou’d stayed close to his side, her finger constantly on the trigger of her gun.  She knew Kid could take care of himself, but somehow felt he wasn’t safe unless she was there to back him up.

Lou chuckled quietly to herself.  On the way back, they’d thought they’d managed to slip away for a few minutes of privacy.  She’d been trying to clean Kid’s wounds down by the creek, and evading his hands with a laugh when Sam had walked in on them.

“Lou?  Kid?” he’d blurted, shocked.  They’d turned to face him, guilty looks on both their faces.  Kid jerked his hand away from Lou’s waist, where he’d settled it, trying to reel her in for a kiss.  “What is goin’ on here?”

“Uh, nothin’,” Lou’d muttered, turning away and starting to pack away the medicine kit she had laid out on the ground at Kid’s feet.

 “Don’t go givin’ me that, Lou McCloud!” Sam had demanded.  “I know what I saw and you know-“

 “Sam, ya gotta keep quiet ‘bout her,” Kid had started to protest.  “Teaspoon’d--”

 “Her!” Sam had hollered, nearly loud enough to be heard all the way back at the way station.  “He’s a … a… she!?”

 "Dang it, Kid,” Lou’d grumped, smacking him on the chest.  “You and yer loose lips!”

 “But, he already saw us,” Kid protested.  “I was just tryin’--”

 “What exactly did he see?” she’d demanded.

“Uh, more than I wanted to,” Sam had interrupted.

“Nothin’ that woulda tol’ him the one thing I didn’t want him ta know,” she continued without pause.

“A girl?” Sam had muttered to himself, bemused, as he watched Lou and Kid go at it.  “That sure explains a lot.”

"He saw you grabbin’ at me,” she’d rolled right over Sam again.  “The worst he was gonna think is the same as those yahoo’s at the other station and the ladies of the night at the Silver Spurs.  I coulda lived with that.  Now, I’m gonna lose my job.”

Suddenly, Kid turned to Sam and practically begged, “You can’t tell, Sam.  You can’t.  Teaspoon’d fire her for sure!”

“Well now,” Sam had begun to hem and haw.

In the long run Sam had agreed not to tell.  He’d agreed with the boys that she’d proven she could do the job.  In fact, he’d admitted, she’d been in less trouble then certain of her brothers, to remain unnamed, over the last few months.  Most of the time she’d helped mop up after them.

Lou grinned at the memories.  Yes, things were going well.  It was definitely time to let Louise out to play for a bit.  Rolling over, she pulled her blanket up over her head to block out the noise of the others.  She needed her sleep.  She had a long ride in the morning.

**********

Leaning low over her horse, Lou smiled into the wind.  She’d been on the road since before dawn, but her day’s work was almost over.  She could see the Blue Creek home station just rising over the horizon.  Soon, she was pounding into the yard, holding out the mochila to the next rider.

“Vin!” she yelled.  “Come on!  Hah!”

And with that, the run was over.  She pulled her mount to a stop.

“Tough ride, eh,” smiled old One Eye, grabbing her horse’s bridle so she could dismount.

“Had worse,” she said, swinging her right leg over the saddle horn and sliding off the side of her horse.

“There’s stew and a dry bunk waitin’ fer ya,” he offered.  “I’ll see ta yer hoss.”

She nodded.  After the long ride, she was exhausted.  She’d get a night’s sleep here, then head into town tomorrow.  The schedule didn’t have her returning to Sweetwater for two more days. 

“Thanks,” she said, turning and heading to the bunkhouse.  Moving up to the entrance, she reached out and pulled the door open.  As it swung inward with a loud creak, Lou paused in the doorway.  Was that Carl’s voice she heard?  Ah, crap.  It was.  He was one of the worst of the lot at the Blue Creek home station.

Carl was sitting at the table playing cards with Wade, in their longjohns.  Swinging her gaze across the room, she noted Hank sitting the tub, surrounded by steam.  Her eyes came to a sudden stop as they stumbled on the mangy old dogs snoozing in the bunk that she’d be expected to sleep in.  She physically pulled back from the sight.  This station was always bad, but this was the worst she’d ever seen it.

“Come on in,” Wade said.  “Game’s hot.”

She narrowed her eyes, contemplating her options.  Just as she was about ready to give in and chase the dogs off ‘her’ bunk so she could get some sleep, Hank added, “So’s the water.”

She swung her gaze over to the tub even as Hank stood up.  That’s when she realized, though he’d still had his hat on, he’d been sitting in the tub without his longjohns.  He was completely, totally, naked!

“Looks like you could use it!” he added, rising to his full height.

She lowered her gaze to the floor, wiping a hand across her face, trying to wipe the sight from her memory at the same time. 

“Uh, um, no.  I don’t think so,” she said, having suddenly found the energy to move on to Blue Creek that afternoon.  “Thanks anyway,” she added, pulling the door closed behind her as she took off for the barn again.

“I’ll buy ya an extra ration of oats,” she promised her horse as she led it back out to the yard.  She could feel old One Eye’s perplexed gaze following her.  “And I can promise ya, the livery’ll be more comfortable than this place anyway.”

With those muttered comments, Lou was mounted up again and on her way to Blue Creek.  It took her another two hours on horseback to get there.

As she rode into town, she let her gaze roam across the buildings of Main Street.  There was what looked like a nice hotel at the end of the street.  Blue Creek also boasted a haberdashery, general store and newspaper along one side of the street, as well as a grain and feed store, the livery and a milliner’s on the other side.  There was even a nice restaurant next to the milliner’s.  Suddenly, her eyes caught on the window display in the dressmaker’s store.  It was a pink dress trimmed with some sort of pretty lace.  It had been years since Lou’d seen such a fine dress.  She glanced down at her dust covered clothes for a moment, then shrugged.  She’d just pretend she was buying the dress for a friend.  If it needed any altering she’d have to do it herself tonight.

************

Lou sighed as she stepped out of the bathtub.  It had been such a luxury to just lie back and enjoy the hot water.  And this tub had been big enough she could really lie back.  She knew she had it good compared to the boys in Emma’s little cowboy tub, but still, it was nice to be able to stretch out for a change.  And, oh!, the ability to just lie there, soaking up the heat from the water until her fingers turned into raisins!  What heaven that had been.  Even when she got first turn at the tub, she was always rushing, trying to get done before Emma came along to hurry her up.

Shivering slightly, she hurried over to grab the towels she’d laid out in front of the fire to warm up.  Wrapping herself in the big, slightly scratchy, pieces of cloth, Lou smiled as she looked at the dress package sitting on the end of the bed.  She hadn’t unpacked it yet for fear of dirtying it.

Now, she moved over and began tearing into the brown paper packaging, like a child opening a present from Santa on Christmas morning.  She reverently picked up the dress by the shoulders and shook it out.  Holding it in front of her she just stared at it for a moment.  Then, with a sigh and a grin, she laid it down and began to vigorously rub herself dry.

A half hour later, she stood in front of the small mirror over the dresser, fiddling with her hair.  Finally, she gave up with a huge sigh.  It was simply too short to do anything with.  Maybe she should let it grow out, just a bit.  Just enough that she could tuck it up under a hat, to make it look like an updo.  With a shrug at her image in the mirror, Lou set the thought aside to examine later.  Grabbing her hat, she jammed it on her head and reached for the door handle.

Odd.  Her hand was shaking like it was about to fly off her wrist.  Suddenly, nerves tangled up her stomach so much it felt like it was turning inside out on her.  She turned a longing look back at the boys clothes she’d washed out in the tub and hung over the chair next to the hearth to dry.  It wasn’t too late.  She could still take the dress off, pack it back up and keep her disguise.

"Oh, screw your courage to the sticking point, Louise,” she muttered to herself.  With a great effort of will, she reached out again and grabbed the door handle, turning it with all her strength.  She turned the knob so hard she practically ripped the door off its hinges.  Giggling slightly hysterically, she gently closed it and locked it behind her.  Tripping down the back stairs, she took the rear exit from the hotel to avoid being seen by the clerk.  He’d seemed a little odd when she’d checked in and she didn’t want to take any risks.

Soon, she found herself walking around the corner of the hotel and down the main street of Blue Creek.

“Howdy, Ma’am,” one man said, tipping his hat to her.  Startled, she began to back away, then realized he was just being polite and mentally chastised herself.  Giving him a slight, regal nod, she continued on her way, a grin playing with the edges of her mouth.  This was fun.

She really enjoyed the polite attention of the men as she moved down the street toward the restaurant.  Stepping up onto the boardwalk, she stopped in front of a large display window and looked at herself curiously, trying to figure out what it was that others saw so differently when she was dressed this way.  She was so busy examining the image of herself in a dress she never noticed the man walking up behind her, dressed in a dapper suit and fine evening hat, not until he addressed her.

“Excuse me,” he smiled at her in the window.  “But I believe it would be much more flattering if the hat was tilted slightly to the left.”

“You do?” she asked, feeling a bit confused as to why this total stranger might be speaking to her so familiarly.  But, as she thought about it, she decided he probably had more experience looking at ladies and how they dressed then she did.  So, she reached up and tried to adjust the hat, as he’d suggested.

Considering her appearance, she relaxed slightly.  “That is better.”

“Better,” he said consideringly, “but not quite.  May I?”

He paused, waiting for her permission.  She thought about it for a moment, even turning to look him in the face, before agreeing.  She didn’t really like the idea of a strange man touching her, even if it was just her hat.  But, he’d already proven he knew more about these things then she did.  Finally, she said timidly, “Alright.”

“Now hold still now,” he warned.  “Yeah.”  He muttered something she didn’t quite catch as he fiddled with the hat.  Finally, he was satisfied and pulled back.  “I think that does it.”

She considered the change with mild approval.

“Turn around,” he said.  She turned to face him, raising her eyes boldly to his.  “Much better,” he purred approvingly.  “Tyler DeWitt, at your service.  And you are?”

She opened her mouth to respond, then forced herself to slow down and think about her answer.  Half laughing at herself, she said, “Louise.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Louise,” he smiled at her, not commenting on the fact she’d withheld her last name from him.  “You’re just the person who might be able to provide the answer to a very difficult question,” he continued, almost coyly.

Lou had to hold back a full throated laugh at his antics.  This guy was worse than Jimmy with his flirting.  At least Jimmy didn’t expect anyone to take him seriously!  “What?”

“Is being saved from social embarrassment sufficient cause for a young lady to dine with a gentleman who finds her… most attractive?”

It was his accent, she decided.  His accent is what allowed him to get away with talking like this.  She looked at him a long time before answering his not quite question.  This wasn’t what she’d had planned.  But, maybe she could practice being a lady with him so she could surprise Kid on their next dual run.  Finally, she nodded a hesitant yes.

His entire face lit up with appreciation. 

“That’s more like it,” he said suavely.  Reaching out he took her hand in his.  “May I?” he belatedly asked, as he tucked her hand into his elbow and began leading her down the boardwalk toward the restaurant.

She initially stiffened at the uninvited contact, although he didn’t seem to notice.  He immediately started talking about himself, not really requiring much in the way of a response from her.  This suited Lou just fine as it allowed her to relax and concentrate on her steps.  She had to be careful not to swagger along like one of the boys.  Even worse, she had to be careful not to trip over her own skirts!  She’d noticed that last month, when she’d bought the dress to visit Teresa and Jeremiah.  She’d spent so much time in pants and walking like a man she didn’t know how to maneuver a skirt and petticoats anymore.  This dress was actually a bit too short, but she’d decided to leave it that way instead of letting out the generous hem.  It made not tripping over her own feet a little bit easier.

“Louise?”

“Hmm?” she asked, startled back to the world around her.  “I’m sorry,” she smiled up at, what was his name again?  Oh yeah, DeWitt, Tyler DeWitt.  “I guess I was woolgathering.”

“I hope I haven’t been that boring,” he smiled at her.  “I know business really isn’t what a young lady like yourself wishes to discuss on a fine evening such as this.”

“No, it’s fascinating, really,” she smiled up at him, trying to make up for her lack of attentiveness earlier.  “I’ve just had a really long day, is all.”

DeWitt pushed open the door to the restaurant and led her inside.  “Well, hopefully a good meal will put you straight to rights,” he commented.

Inside, he led her straight to the finest table near the window.  It was obvious from his manner, and the staff’s, that he was a regular here and expected preferential treatment.  Lou felt a bit like a princess, parading along on his arm.  It was... nice, she decided.  She’d never felt so pampered before.  Although it did grate on her when he insisted on ordering for her.

“I don’t know as I should really try this champagne stuff,” she said timidly, after the server had filled her glass and left.

“Oh, it’s all the rage back East,” he assured her.  “You’ll love it.”

She looked at him skeptically, but chose not to say anything.  Digging in his pocket, he took out a card and handed it to her.  Looking down, she saw it said, Tyler DeWitt, Insurance Agent, Mutual Assurance Company, Chicago, IL. 

“What’s insurance?” she said, slowly sounding out the unfamiliar word.

He huffed a half laugh.  “Well, it’s funny.  Right now it doesn’t seem too important.”  At her slightly annoyed glance, he changed his mind and decided to try and explain.  “Let’s see. Basically, insurance helps people pursue their dreams by reducing financial risk in the event of unforeseen circumstances.”

Lou could tell he was feeding her the practiced spiel of an experienced salesman.  Luckily, she wasn’t buying.  She asked, skeptically, “How’s it do all that?”

“Even if I could explain, I don’t think I care to,” he said, changing the topic, “at the moment.  More champagne?”

“No, thank you,” she said, wondering when she’d drunk the first glass.  The last thing she needed was more alcohol in her system.

“Actually, it’s not as boring as it sounds,” he continued.  “My company also insures some very valuable shipments. Gold.  Weapons.  Army payrolls.  Things like that.”

Lou smiled as she thought maybe this fellow’s job will take some of the heat off us riders.  They were constantly having problems because of those kinds of shipments.  She gazed at DeWitt, wondering what he was really like, underneath his suave exterior, as he continued to babble on about insurance, bragging about his power.

“In fact, I’m one of only a handful of people with access to the shipping schedules,” he smiled at her, then started to laugh.  “There I go again, braggin’.”

She laughed with him.  He’d definitely been doing that, but if he could laugh at his own foibles, he couldn’t be that bad, she figured. 

“I’m sorry,” he apologized. 

“It’s alright,” she assured him.  Looking down at the napkin in her lap, she smiled slightly.  His need to talk about himself meant she didn’t have to say much about herself, and, to tell the truth, she did find this insurance business sort of interesting.  “I like it.”

“Well, I just get sick and tired of hearing myself talk,” he said.  She smiled up at him, to encourage him to do just that.  But, then he continued, “That’s enough about me.  What about you?”

She looked down again, fighting this time to keep the smile on her face.  Damn it! she thought.  What should she tell him? 

“What about me?” she asked back, bargaining for more time to figure this out.  Lou, you should’ve had something planned, she berated herself.

“Well, for starters, I know your first name’s Louise.  Now, what’s your second?”

He would have to ask that, she hmphed to herself.  “Does it matter?”

“You are evasive.”  She looked down at the now empty champagne glass in her hand and smiled.  Yep.  Evasive as hell, that was her.

“Let’s try another tack,” he said, undaunted.  “Why would a beautiful young woman, traveling alone, check into a hotel in an out of the way place like this.”

Lou stiffened internally.  The words ‘traveling alone’ had her nose for danger twitching.  Best he not continue to think that.  Off the cuff, she said, “Who said I was alone?”

“Ah hah!  So, have I to be on the lookout for an insanely jealous husband or fiancĂ©?”

“Nope,” she dragged the word out to keep from laughing.  The idea of her with a husband or fiancĂ© was, well, laughable for the moment.  “I’m traveling with my mother.  We have family in Sweetwater.”

Dang it, Louise! she chastised herself.  You shouldn’t have said that. 

“I see.  Well, I hope she’s not expecting you back too soon.”

Distracted from her thoughts, Lou asked, “Who?”

“Your mother?”

“Oh!  Ah, she’s probably asleep by now,” Lou said, trying to laugh away the gaff she’d just made.  “We had a long day.”  That last part was certainly the truth, Lou thought.  Apparently too long, the way she was messing everything up tonight.

“Good,” he smiled at her.  He lifted the champagne bottle to pour her some more.

“No,” she started to protest, but he didn’t stop.

“You see, there’s something you should learn about a man in my line of business,” he said as he poured more of the sparkling wine into her glass.  “We never take no for an answer.”

Something about the way he said that sent shivers down Lou’s spine.  Then he smiled at her and she relaxed again.  She was just imagining things. 

“Guess one more cain’t hurt,” she admitted, taking the once again full glass from him.

“That’s the spirit,” he said, raising his glass at the same time.  Cautiously, she clinked her glass against his, like she’d seen her Ma and Pa do a long time ago, at a fancy party.

“No, no,” he said.  “Not like that.”  He twisted his arm through hers before bringing the glass to his lips.  “Like this.”

Tentatively, she leaned forward to drink, not liking how close it brought her to him.  But the champagne itself was delicious.  “Um.”

“How do you like it?”

“It tickles my nose,” she laughed.

While she enjoyed the attention Mr. DeWitt, Tyler as he’d insisted she call him, lavished on her, the longer the evening dragged on, the worse the feeling in her belly got.  She wasn’t sure why.  She wasn’t doing anything wrong.  Was she?

It was almost a relief when dinner was over and she could leave.  She didn’t wait for DeWitt as he paid the bill, instead heading straight out the restaurant door and down the street toward the hotel. 

“Wait up, Louise,” he called after her.  “I was hoping you might allow me to escort you on a promenade.”

“I’ve gotta go,” she said, continuing down the street.

“Why?  Why?” he practically begged, half jogging to keep up with her hurried pace.

“It’s late and I, … we’re leavin’ early in the mornin’,” she improvised. Dang it!  Nearly forgot that fictional mother, again.  She was definitely going to stay away from that champagne stuff from now on.  Too risky!

“I want to see you again,” DeWitt pleaded.

“I wish I could,” she said. It wasn’t a lie.  She had enjoyed her time with him, at least when she hadn’t been thinking about how Kid would feel if he saw her there.  “But, I… I cain’t.”

“Of course you can,” he insisted.

“No.  Really, you don’t understand,” she insisted, wrapping her arms around her waist, trying to keep all the ugly feelings inside from bubbling over.

“Try me.”

“I’m sorry,” was all she could offer.  “I’ve gotta go.  Really--”

He grabbed her by the arms and forcefully turned her to face him, then swooped in to claim her lips with his.  Her blood, already racing through her veins, suddenly accelerated.  It felt like every last drop left her head in the moment he kissed her. It felt… exhilarating... and awful, all at the same time.  Even as she enjoyed the kiss, she kept her hands between them, as if to keep him from getting too close to her.

He raised his head, calmed down a bit from his earlier angst. 

“I.. I couldn’t help myself,” he said, apologetically.  The implication that she was too beautiful for him to resist did, partially, sooth her ruffled feathers.  But it wasn’t enough.  She was too sick, sick at her own actions and reactions.

Pulling back from him, she said an anguished, “Good night!” and fled.  She could hear him calling after her, but this time she was moving too quickly for him to catch up.  As she turned the corner toward the back door of the hotel, she wiped her hand across her mouth, trying to wipe away the feel of his kiss with the movement.

“She’ll never be anythin’ but some man’s whore, the way you let her run around, wearing those dirty ol’ boy’s clothes.”

“No one’ll want you once I’m done with you.  I’ll break you in, real good.  Then all you’ll be good for is joining my girls.”

“How will she ever learn to be a lady if she never practices?”

“You’re good, Louise.  You were made to be a lady, a Lady of the Night.”

Voices from her past swirled through her head as she raced up the stairs and into her room.  She slammed the door behind her, trying to lock out her own thoughts along with the rest of the world.  He’d excited her.  He’d scared her.  His insistence on seeing her again worried her.  How had her beautiful night on the town gone so wrong?

By the next morning, she had calmed down.  She knew she’d overreacted to the whole situation.  She’d done nothing wrong, she kept repeating to herself.  She’d done nothing any well brought up young lady might have done.  She’d had a nice dinner with a gentleman.  So, he’d stolen a kiss.  That wasn’t anything Kid hadn’t done a dozen times by now.  It didn’t have to mean anything.

Determined to enjoy her day, Lou ventured out again.  But, though, she showed a calm demeanor to the rest of the world, she jumped every time a pair of male footsteps neared her.  After spending quite a bit of time perusing the wares at the milliners and the dressmakers, she decided to stop off at the general store before heading back to the hotel.  She needed to head out early in the morning if she was going to make it back to the home station in time to catch the mochila.

The general store didn’t have much that Thompkins didn’t have back in Sweetwater.  But it was nice to be able to freely peruse the women’s accessories and knick knacks.  Walking around, she found herself staring into a display case full of rings.  One in particular caught her eye.  It wasn’t anything fancy, just a small ring with a simple stone in it.  But it spoke to her.

Staring at it, she could just imagine walking down the aisle of a beautifully decorated church, Jimmy at her side.  She’d be wearing a fabulous white satin gown, her hair pulled back with a crown of little white flowers.

“Are you sure?” he’d ask, for the thousandth time.  She’d smile up at him brilliantly and nod her yes.

Slowly, they’d make their way to the front of the church, where her beloved stood, waiting for her.  Jimmy would put her hand in her beloved’s and step away.  She could almost hear the words of the service being spoken around them, as she stared down at her hand clasped in his.

Then, he’d reach out and slowly slip the ring onto her finger.

“With this ring, I thee wed,” he’d say quietly, in a voice full of the emotions he was feeling at that moment.

With a sigh, Lou made an instant decision.  Before she could change her mind, she turned to the storekeep and asked, “How much for this ring?”

Minutes later, she was walking out of the store with the ring in a little, red velvet bag clasped tightly in her hand.  She didn’t know what she was going to do with it or why she’d bought it.  She just knew she had to have it.

***********

Riding hellbent for leather, Lou barely made it back in time for the handoff.  Pulling into the station yard, she saw Ol’ One Eye standing with her saddled mount.  Wade was nearby, suited up and ready to ride.

“Thought ya wasn’t gonna make it,” One Eye said, half accusingly.

“I tol’ ya I’d be back,” she insisted as she transferred her bedroll to the fresh horse.  “Just had a few errands ta run in Blue Creek, that’s all.”

Even as she was climbing into the saddle, she could hear the incoming rider pounding down the trail.  Pulling her horse away so she could get a running start, she looked back when One Eye said, “Well, tell Teaspoon I said ‘howdy’ when ya get there.”

She nodded even as she bent low over her horse’s neck and took off.  Grabbing the mochila out of the air, she settled it over the pommel of her saddle and urged her mount onto the trail.  It was going to be another long day in the saddle, she thought.  But, it had been worth it.  She’d discovered she could be a lady.  For a night, at least.

***********

“Come on, Lightning,” she urged, all thoughts of her stolen night on the town disappearing as she turned her horse toward Sweetwater.  She was worried.  They’d said the injured man wasn’t hurt too bad, but he hadn’t looked very good to her.  She spurred him on to an even faster lope.  “Let’s go!”

Galloping into town, she pulled Lightning straight up to the Marshal’s office.  She leapt off the saddle directly onto the boardwalk, not bothering to hitch Lightning up in her hurry.  Landing on both feet she ran straight into the office, and straight into Sam.

“Sam, you gotta come quick!”

“Lou,” Sam said, grabbing her shoulders.  “Calm down, Lou.”

She paused to gulp down a quick breath.

“Now, tell me what’s wrong?”

“A freight wagon.  Ambushed.  Out by Bitter Springs, just east of town.  The guard’s been shot.  I don’t know how bad.”

“Alright,” Sam nodded, already grabbing his hat and heading out the door.  “Barnett!  Get saddled up!”  Turning back to Lou, he asked, “You on a run?”

She nodded, continuing to gulp in big breaths of air. 

“Then ya better get on out ta Emma’s, they’ll be waitin’ fer ya.  I’ll take care of this mess.”

She nodded again and followed him out of the jail, quickly remounting Lightning.  Without a backward glance she headed in the opposite direction as Sam and Barnett, toward Emma’s place.

It took her only a few minutes to cross the distance at a flat out gallop, trying to make up for the time she’d lost in her side trip into town.  She came roaring into the station at top speed and almost missed Ike as she tossed the mochila to him.

She slowed Lightning to a stop and wearily slid out of the saddle to the ground.  Her shoulders slumped in exhaustion.  It had been a long and tiring trip, not to mention emotionally draining.  Looking up, she saw Teaspoon walking toward her, closely followed by Cody, Buck, Jimmy… and the Kid.  She almost sighed out loud.  He was the last person she wanted to see right now.

“What happened Lou?  Fell asleep in the saddle?” Cody asked.

“Freightwagon was held up near Bitter Springs.  The guard was shot.  I rode inta town ta tell the Marshal,” Lou shrugged, even as she quickly began pulling her extra large bedroll from behind the saddle.  It was all in a day’s work as far as she was concerned.

Teaspoon nodded approvingly.  “Ya done good.  Go get washed up.”

Cody took Lightning’s reins and offered with a smile, “I’ll get yer horse.”

“Thanks.” Lou nodded appreciatively, even as she turned toward the bunkhouse.  She wanted to get her new dress hidden before anyone started asking questions.  It was obvious her bedroll contained more than it normally did.  Casting a cautious look over her shoulder, she hurried up the steps to the bunkhouse porch and through the door, closing it carefully behind her.

Certain she was alone, Lou laid the bedroll on the table and began to unroll it, maintaining her hurried pace.  But that pace slowed some, as she reached out to pick up the dress almost reverently.  Holding it out in front of her, she shook it open.  It sure was a pretty dress.  The prettiest she’d owned since she’d been on her own, since she’d fled her Pa to tell the truth.  And she’d sure had a good time in it.

Tossing it over her shoulder, she reached out to grab the hat, with the purse she’d stuffed inside.  She moved over to her bunk and began unceremoniously stuffing the lot under the pallet on her bunk.  She’d have to find a better hiding place than this, she thought to herself, but it would do for now.  In her preoccupation, she never noticed the sound of the bunkhouse door opening and closing behind her.

“What’s that?”

Lou nearly jumped out of her skin at the sound of Kid’s voice right behind her.  Dang it!  She really didn’t want to explain things to him.  She didn’t want to hurt him, she already felt guilty for stepping out on him with another man, and she didn’t want to ruin her memories of her night on the town.

“Nothin’,” she said sullenly, trying to finish hiding the dress.

Kid moved closer to her.

“Come on.  What are ya hidin’?” he persisted.

“I’m not hidin’ nothin’.”  Kid smiled slightly and reached out to touch the last corner of the dress sticking out from under her pallet.  Annoyed that he wouldn’t take a hint and leave things be, Lou slapped his hand away.  “That’s none of yer business.”

She squelched a grimace at the defensive, almost scared, note that had entered her voice.  Kid looked at her confused.  “I just wanna see what ya got.  It looks pretty.”

Lou did sigh this time.  He wasn’t going to let her get away with it.  Turning back to her bunk, she pulled the dress out.  “It’s a dress. Alright?”

Her tone had sharpened unintentionally, even as she was mentally begging him, Don’t ask anymore questions.  Please!

“Looks nice,” Kid said, reaching out to touch the lace trim.  Lou jerked the dress away from him.  This dress wasn’t about the Kid.  Hadn’t been even before she’d met DeWitt.  After that evening, it never would be.  Kid didn’t seem to notice her defensiveness.  With a slightly wistful smile, he asked, “Why’d ya buy it?”

Lou couldn’t meet his eyes.   How could she tell him she’d bought it to practice being a lady for him, and then spent the evening with another man?  “I felt like it,” she nearly spat.  Turning, finally to face him, she asked, almost accusingly, “Somethin’ wrong with that?”

Kid shook his head.  “No.  I just thought there might be a reason.”

“I’m a girl, Kid. That’s reason enough.”  Her tone practically dripped with sarcasm.  Things were definitely going from bad to worse.  She could tell even Kid was starting to get a little uncomfortable, as he looked at her.  She could barely breath, the air was so heavy with tension.

Kid smiled at her as she returned the dress to its hiding place, trying to ease whatever was the problem. 

“Guess it’s best Teaspoon don’t see it,” he joked.  “He might think you’re kinda strange.”

Lou turned to face the Kid again and crossed her arms over her chest, as if trying to hold in her heart, that was trying to leap out and strangle her with her own guilt. 

“Did ya get it in Blue Creek?”

Lou covered her face with one hand and sighed in exasperation.  Sometimes, the Kid was like a dog with a bone, just gnawing at it until there was nothing left.

“You alright, Lou?” he asked, concerned.  She could tell by the look on his face he knew something was wrong.  She just wished she could tell him what it was.  After that whole affair with Boggs she’d promised herself to be more open with the others, share things, problems, with them.  But she just couldn’t share this one, not with the Kid.

“Fine,” she eventually spat out.

“You coulda fooled me.”  His tone had hardened.  He was losing his patience.  Lou could feel her shoulders tensing.  She’d learned to stand up to the boys, but she still didn’t like it when one of them was angry at her.  That’s why she so often tended to attack first, herself.

“I just don’t like people askin’ a lot of questions and pokin’ in my business.  Understand?”

She could tell Kid was giving up.  The look on his face told her she’d hurt him, the last thing she’d wanted to do, what she’d been avoiding doing all along.

“Sorry,” he muttered, turning around and walking away from her.  Lou couldn’t keep the guilt off her face any longer as she watched him leave.  She wondered if she’d pushed him away for good this time.  Had her night on the town been worth all this?

After a moment, she shook herself out of her stupor.  There was nothing she could do about any of it right now.  And, if she didn’t hurry, Cody’s implicit offer of guarding her back while she cleaned up would be null and void.  Hurrying, again, she grabbed her soap and a towel and headed for the shower Teaspoon had set up on the other side of the bunkhouse, now that the weather was warming up.

As she skidded around the corner of the bunkhouse porch, she found Jimmy sitting there instead of Cody.

“Thought Cody was keepin’ guard,” she asked.

“He was.  I took over for him,” Jimmy muttered, pressing a leather pouch to his cheek.  A closer look and Lou realized his cheek was swollen.

“That looks pretty bad there, Jimmy,” she commented, moving on toward the shower.  “You oughta go see that new tooth doctor in town.  What did Teaspoon call him?”

She could hear Jimmy standing up to take the guard’s position, leaning against the porch post, back to the shower, looking out over the station yard for any sign of Teaspoon or Emma.

“Dentist,” he muttered so softly she could barely hear him.

Tossing her dirty britches, shirt and longjohns over the side of the stall, Lou pulled the rope and shivered in delight as the sun warmed water poured down over her.  It took her only a few minutes to get cleaned up.  Soon, she was toweling herself dry and reaching for the clean clothes she’d brought with her.

Stepping out of the shower stall, still rubbing her hair dry, she walked up and stood next to Jimmy.

“So?” she prodded.  “Why don’t ya?”

Jimmy just shrugged, then started to move away. 

“Don’t wanna,” was all he would say, as he headed over to help Emma bring the last of the food to the bunkhouse for lunch.

Pushing past him, Lou couldn’t resist the impulse to tease him.

“I can’t believe it.  Jimmy Hickok, afraid of the tooth doctor,” she marveled, holding the door open for both Jimmy and Emma.  For the moment, she’d forgotten

**********

Lou sat in the buckboard, fuming.  She couldn’t believe it when Teaspoon had told her she had to go into town with the rest of the boys.  She’d been looking forward to spending some time working with the new ponies, training them to accept the saddle.  Then, to make matters worse, she’d had to ride in the buckboard with Teaspoon, like some helpless ninny, just because Lightning had to go and throw a shoe just as they were about to leave.  Why did life have to gang up on her right now.  It had been all she could do to smooth things over with Kid after that incident with the dress.  She leaned back on the seat, crossing her arms over her chest, angry with the world.

When Teaspoon began pulling back on the reins to slow the horses, Lou didn’t wait for the buckboard to cone to a stop before jumping out.  The sooner this trip was over with, the better. 

“You boys help me load up here and then you can go about yer business,” Teaspoon said, seeming to assume Lou had some sort of business in town.  Hmph, she grumped to herself as she followed Teaspoon toward Jimmy, Buck and Kid, who’d just finished tying their horses to the hitching post.  But, Teaspoon wasn’t done.  “Jimmy, I’d keep sniffin’ that pouch there, or else you’ll end up in Doctor Lucket’s chair over there.”

This improved Lou’s mood.  Along with the rest of them, she’d enjoyed ribbing Jimmy good over his quite evident fear of the dentist.

Buck leaned over Jimmy’s shoulder to taunt him in a velvety voice, “The chair’s a good idea.  I’ll go with ya, Jimmy.”

Lou laughed.  “Me too.”

But Jimmy remained stubborn. 

“See, I don’t see any need for that because this stuff you gave me,” he said to Teaspoon, “I think’s workin’ out real well.  Don’t hardly hurt no more.”  To illustrate his point, he slapped  at his swollen cheek.  Lou and the others just looked at him, not buying his bravado.  Lou wondered how long he’d be able to hold out before doing something about that tooth.  It was obvious he was in a lot of pain.

She just shook her head and followed the others into Thompkins’ store.  They were always careful to go in groups after that fight they’d had over Buck a month or two ago.  Lou could hear Teaspoon and Thompkins discussing their order, but really didn’t pay much attention as she wandered aimlessly around the store.

Her meandering eventually brought her over to the dress goods on a table in a corner of the store.  She absently picked up a man’s bowler and looked at it.  It was very similar to the one DeWitt, Tyler, had worn.  It had been very dashing on him.  Maybe she’d get one for Kid for his birthday.  When was the Kid’s birthday, anyway? she wondered idly as she set the hat back down.

Moving on to the next hat, she stopped for a moment.  It was a beautifully decorated woman’s bonnet. The sort of bonnet Emma might wear to Sunday Services. It had a pretty, ruffly ribbon around the crown with several cloth flowers on the front.  Lou tilted her head, imagining wearing the confection herself.  It would even hide her lack of hair, she thought whimsically.  Reaching out, she began to tilt it from side to side, the way Tyler had when helping her better situate her straw hat.  Absently, she began to hum the tune that had been playing at the restaurant to herself.

As if conjured out her memory, she heard his voice.

“Excuse me, Sir. I was looking for the proprietor.”

Lou jerked her head up, snatching her hands away from the bonnet as if they’d been burned.  It wasn’t a memory.  He was here!  She ducked down to hide behind the row of hats and bonnets.

“Tyler DeWitt, Mutual Assurance Company of Chicago, at your service.”

Keeping a close eye on him, Lou skittled out from behind the table, turning her back on the room.  Glimpsing a pile of those penny dreadful Thompkins sold, Lou grabbed one and held it up open in front of her face. “I was wondering if I could have a moment of your time.”

Keeping a close eye on Tyler to make sure he didn’t turn around, Lou moved slowly toward the door, her only thought on escaping the store before he saw her and exposed her charade.  She stopped near a stack of canned goods as Tyler tipped his hat to Thompkins and Teaspoon and turned in her direction.  Now what? she wondered.  Peeking around the stacked cans of food, she watched as Tyler moved around the store, always in her general direction, checking out the various good for sale.  He came to a stop on the other side of the table Lou was hiding behind and paused to take a bite out of an apple he’d grabbed. Perfect!  Lou gently pushed against the table, tipping it forward and knocking half the cans to the ground.  Even as Tyler reached out, attempting to stop their downward tumble, Lou made good her escape.

She hurried around the side of the store, only stopping once she was clear of the street.  Peeking around the corner, she saw no one had followed her.  Good.  Leaning back against the wall, she breathed a sigh of relief.  Safe.  For the moment.  But, she’d have to figure out a way to stay out of town for a few days, until Tyler was gone.

**********

“There,” Lou said, patting Lightning’s side.  “That oughta feel better.”

Turning away from her stallion, Lou began putting away the blacksmithing tools she’d just used to re-shoe the horse, chattering to him the entire time.

“It’s starting to get really warm, isn’t it?  Almost feels like home.”  Lightning snorted, shaking his head up and down in an apparently affirmative response.  Lou laughed as she walked back over to him and ran a hand down his side.  “You’re sweating, boy.  Would you like a bath?”

He headbutted her, pushing her backward toward the trough.  She laughed.  Even when things were at their worst she could always count on Lightning to be there for her.  “Alright, I get the message.  Just let me go get some clean water, alright?”

With a reassuring pat on Lightning’s forehead, Lou headed to get some fresh water from the well.  As she pulled the bucket up and set it on the side of the well, she felt a large hand come to rest on her shoulder.  Stiffening, she looked back and relaxed at the sight of Ike.

“What’s up, Ike?” she asked as she poured the water into a carrying bucket.

*What are you doing?*

“Lightning says he wants a bath,” she smiled.  “I figured I’d humor him.  It is kinda warm out today.”

*Want some help?* he offered.

“Sure,” she smiled.  “That’d be nice.  Finished all yer chores already?”

*Yep.  And everyone else is gone,* he signed as they walked back toward the barn.  *Besides, yer easy ta talk to.  You always listen.*

“You mean, other than Buck, I’m the only one who can read all yer signs, dontcha?”

Ike shrugged and gave her a slightly embarrassed smile.  Lou laughed.  Soon, they were standing side by side, companionably washing down Lightning.  Ike started to whistle the tune to a new song they’d recently learned at the saloon.  Soon, Lou was singing and laughing along to his whistled accompaniment.

“Gwine to run all night! Gwine to run all day! I'll bet my money on de bob-tail nag -Somebody bet on de bay,” she warbled, finally unable to continue singing for all her laughter.  She gently shoved Ike back to retaliate for him getting her started.  He responded by dribbling water down the back of her neck from the cloth he’d been using to clean Lightning.

The laughter felt so good.  Lou was happy to relax and forget her troubled confusion for the moment.  Even as the playfight began to gain momentum, Lightning stomped a hoof dangerously close to Lou’s toes and turned his head to glare down at her.

“Sorry,” she choked back a laugh.  “Sorry, we’ll behave. I promise.”

Getting back to work, she calmed down enough and started quietly humming the tune to herself.

“Lou?”

Lou turned at the sound of her name coming from Emma’s house to see Emma standing in the door looking out at her.

“Could you come in here for a minute?”

“Sure,” Lou said, dropping her rag into the bucket of water and turning to walk toward Emma’s house.  Passing through the fence gate, she caught a whiff of herself.  She smelled like wet, dirty horse.  She looked briefly down at her hands then shrugged and quickly wiped them on her trousers, the only available towel.  Springing up the steps to the porch, she stopped and knocked at the door, calling Emma’s name.  When she got no response, she moved on inside.

"Emma?” she asked again, looking around.  Mrs. Shannon’s house was so homey.  Lou took the moment to survey the comfortable seating by the fireplace, the prettily set table near the window.  She could only hope to have such a nice house someday.  At the sound of footsteps, she turned in the direction of the stairs as Emma came down.  “You wanted ta see me?”

Emma walked up to Lou saying, “I wanna try somethin’.  Come here.”

She reached out and grabbed Lou’s glasses, pulling them off.  Suddenly nervous without her shield, Lou ducked her head to hide her face, arms crossed over chest.

“That’s better,” Emma said, reaching out to push Lou’s face up with a finger beneath her chin.  Meeting her gaze, she said, “You’ve got nice eyes.”

“Thanks,” Lou said, not sure if it was a statement or a question.  What was Emma about?  she wondered uneasily.

Emma reached up and snatched Lou’s hat off her head, pushing the hair off Lou’s forehead with her other hand.

“Face is real pretty, too,” Emma continued.  Lou stepped back slightly, getting nervous.  This was just plain weird.  “You shouldn’t hide it the way you always do.”

Lou nodded slightly a little scared now and ready to do anything to get out of here.  But every step away she took, Emma just followed, smiling.

“That so?” Lou asked.

Emma nodded and reached out to grab Lou’s arms, halting Lou’s slow progression toward the door.  

“You know, I have always liked you,” Emma smiled at her.

“I.. ah…” Lou, completely freaked out, glanced toward the door, frantic to escape but having no idea how to without insulting the station mistress.  “I have to go, Emma.”

“Why?  What’s the matter?”  Lou began to breathe a little easier as Emma moved away from her, toward a chest in the corner under the window.

“Ah…I ah… I have to go help Ike.”

Emma bent over and opened the trunk, continued to speak as she reached inside.  “I’m just tryin’ ta tell you how attractive you are.”

“Now hold it, Emma!” Lou exclaimed.  This was just too much.  Politeness or not, it was time to call a halt to this farce.  But, before Lou could say another word, Emma whirled around holding a damning pink dress trimmed in white lace in her hands.  Lou shrank into herself at the sight.

“I think … you’d look a whole lot better in this.”  With a gasp, Lou covered her face with both hands.  It was over.  All over.  She started trying to think what job she could get now.

“I’d love ta see it on you,” Emma said gently.

Lou shuddered.  “I  knew I shouldn’ta bought this dress.”

Despite her best attempt at control, even she could hear the tears of distress in her voice.  Emma tilted her head in a questioning move.

“Well, why not?  It’s lovely.”  Sudden insight entered her eyes and she reached out to once again tilt Lou’s chin up, forcing her to meet her gaze.  “Besides, I knew a long time before I saw this poking out from yer mattress.”

Lou gulped.  Emma’d known?  And she hadn’t said anything?  Had Sam told her?  Finally, over the growing lump in her throat, she forced out, “How long?”

“Well, right from the first,” Emma said matter of factly, pulling Lou by hands over to the love seat by the fire and sitting them both down.  “But, I admired your spunk.”

As Emma continued speaking, Lou could feel hope growing in her breast.  Emma had become an adopted mother to all of them over the last few months.  But, Lou had always felt at a slight remove from her, due to her charade.  Now, as she spoke, Lou could feel the walls between them crumbling and falling.  To hide the overwhelming feelings coursing through her, Lou began folding the dress on her lap.

Not unaware of Lou’s nerves, Emma continued, “And I didn’t see no reason why you shouldn’t have the same chance as the boys.”

“I appreciate that, Emma.  It hadn’t been easy,” Lou said.  Not knowing what to do with herself, she kept fiddling with the dress on her lap, rolling it into a ball.  There was no way to express just how not easy it had been.

Emma smiled gently.  “Well, I know that and that’s why I thought we should have this little talk.”  Lou looked up to meet Emma’s eyes again.  Emma continued with a commiserating smile.  “When I found that dress, it near broke my heart.  I remember a while back at that dance, you watchin’ all those pretty girls in their fine clothes.  Musta hurt real bad.”

Lou looked away at the reminder, not willing to admit just how true Emma’s words were.  Even less willing to admit the night hadn’t been as bad as Emma supposed.

“But… now ya have another woman ta talk to…” Emma let the thought trail off.

Lou was still not ready to accept things might work out, not yet.  “What about my job?” she asked persistently.  “The company’d fire me.”

“Well who’s gonna tell ‘em?” Emma smiled.  “Anyway, you’re one of the best riders we got.”

“And Teaspoon?” Lou asked, holding up her last obstacle.

“Ohhhh, well as long as he’s in the dark there’s no law that says we got ta show him the light.” Emma laughed slightly.  Lou felt herself pulled into Emma’s sense of the absurd and began to return her smile with a mischievous grin of her own.  Watching the smile finally blossom on Lou’s face, Emma reached over and pulled her in for a tight hug.  Lou leaned into the embrace, closing her eyes in pleasure.  She hadn’t felt this loved, this safe, since her mother had died.  It was nice being able to let someone else shoulder the burdens of life, if only for a moment.  It was nice letting someone else be the adult, the parent.

After a moment, though, Lou opened her eyes and pulled back.  Looking at Emma, she asked, “So, what now?”

Emma patted her knee and smiled.  “Now, we bring the boys in on the truth.”

“But,” Lou started to protest.

“Oh, I know they already know yer a girl,” Emma smiled.  “I could see how they changed toward ya after that mess with yer father.  But, they don’t really know yer a girl, if ya know what I mean.”

Lou looked back down at the dress tangled in her hands.  Kid knew.  The  memory of his grinning face as she’d stood in the dressmaker’s shop before that mirror flashed across her brain.  Her hands trembled a little.  Things had been so simple and straightforward then.  Finally, she looked back up at Emma and asked, “What did ya have in mind?”

Emma reached out and took the crumpled dress out of Lou’s hands.  “Well, for starters, I’d love ta see ya in this dress. It looks beautiful.”

**********

Lou stood in front of the mirror at the top of the stairs.  She could hear the china clinking, the boys’ voices mixing with Emma’s.  She tugged nervously at the skirt of the dress, straightening pleats that were already straight. 

What was she doing? she wondered for the hundredth time.  It had been hard enough to get the boys to let her do her job after they’d found out she was a girl, without actually showing them.  This was such mistake.

She started to turn back to the bedroom and the safety of her trousers and vest.  Too late.  She could hear Emma’s voice calling out to her.

“I would like ta introduce to you Miss Louise McCloud.”

Taking a deep breath, Lou started to step forward, than stopped.  Better to start things off the way she meant to go on.  “The first one that laughs gets a punch in the nose.”

“Lulabelle!” came Emma’s exasperated cry.  Lou smothered a giggle.  She’d never let the boys get away with calling her something like that, but from Emma it sounded so much like something her Ma or Grandpa McCloud might’ve called her.  She found the name was growing on her already.  Sighing, Lou stepped slowly forward, peeking timidly around the corner before turning it completely.  Emma continued in a satisfied tone.  “I wanted y’all ta see how pretty she looks.”

The boys’ reactions were worth the hour she’d spent bathing and primping in Emma’s upstairs bedroom.  She scanned their faces, watching as shock slowly changed their expressions, all but one.  Jimmy, who’d been laughing at Lou and Emma’s exchange turned his head to look up at Lou and lost his beautiful grin.  Buck and Cody, standing at the back of the group, both took a step forward, faces rapt.  Ike smiled gently, as if completely unsurprised.  Kid just sat there grinning at her.  The same grin he’d worn that day in the dressmaker’s shop.  The grin he only ever turned on her.  The grin that made her insides melt.

“I didn’t mess things up for ya, Lou.  Did I?” Kid asked, as if reading her mind.

Lou crossed her arms around her waist, trying to hold the happiness of this moment in.  With a slight break in her voice she answered his question.  “She knew all along.”

She knew the boys were laughing and joking about her transformation, but she was too busy absorbing the Kid’s reaction.  The look in his eyes, that was why she’d bought this dress in the first place.  She basked in the appreciative glow.  Suddenly, unable to hold his gaze anymore, she looked away, covering her burning cheeks.  But she couldn’t resist another peak in his direction, once again finding herself trapped in his eyes.

“Well, don’t just stand there,” Emma scolded.  “Come on down here, so’s they can meet you proper.”

Rising to his feet, Kid walked over to the base of the stairs and held out a hand toward Lou.  Carefully holding her skirts in one hand and the railing in the other, she made her way down to his side, letting go of the railing only long enough to grasp Kid’s hand.  Looking up into his eyes, she smiled at him naturally.  This was the way things should be.  It felt so right.

Suddenly, she felt a hand on her shoulder.  Looking up, she saw Buck standing next to her, smiling his infectious grin.  Behind him stood Ike.  Then, Jimmy and Cody joined the circle, pushing Kid out of their way.

“Now boys,” Lou admonished, laughing.  “I don’t know what yer all so het up about.  I’m the same me I was two hours ago!”

“No ya ain’t,” Cody smiled down at her.  Lord, she thought, she’d never noticed just how much taller they all were than her.  “Two hours ago ya was Lou.  Now yer Louise.  That’s gonna take some gettin’ used to.”

“And, unlike the Kid here, we ain’t got no experience with Louise,” Jimmy smiled, playfully punching Kid’s shoulder.  Kid just ducked his head and blushed.

“Well, why don’t you all escort Miss Louise to the table,” Emma suggested, a laugh in her voice.  “And we can commence with the getting to know each other.”

Lou found herself being passed from one of her brothers to the other as they all fought over who would escort her to the table.  In the end, Jimmy was there, holding her chair out for her.  Sitting down, he pushed the chair in to the table, then sat next to her. Kid quickly occupied the seat on her other side with the others ranged across the table from her.

A girl could get used to all this attention, Lou thought.

**********

Lou leaned against the corral fence, considering the events of the last week.  It had been eventful to say the least.  But, things seemed to be getting back on an even keel.  Even the boys, as excited as they’d been at Emma’s little Coming Out party, had managed not to let that change how they treated her on a daily basis.

Thinking of which… she sighed.  It was time to get back to work.  Teaspoon and the boys should be back soon from town.  She’d avoided the trip by trading chores with Cody.  All of which meant she needed to finish cleaning the manure out from the corrals.

Reaching over, she grabbed the shovel and began attacking the horse droppings with vigor.  She was so absorbed in her work, she didn’t hear Teaspoon and the boys return.  Nor did she hear Kid walking up to her.

“Lou?”

She looked up from her work, slightly surprised at his presence.

“What happened in Blue Creek?” he asked, getting straight to the point.

“What?” she asked, honestly confused by the unexpected question.

Kid came to a stop next to the fence post.  He looked at her steadily and said quietly, “You heard me.”

Lou paused, trying to think what could have him asking this question.  Had she somehow given something away?  Was he angry at her?  Jealous?  Finally, she decided the safest tack was denial.  “I don’t know what yer talkin’ about.”

But, she was unable to meet his eyes even as she spoke.

Kid, stubborn soul that he was wouldn’t let her get away with that.  He pressed on in that same steady tone.  “That fella that was in Thompkins’ store yesterday, he’s been askin’ all over town about ya.

Lou shrugged, keeping her eyes downcast.  “I didn’t notice anyone.”

“Yes ya did,” Kid pounced verbally, his voice hardening as he continued.  She could tell he was starting to lose his patience.  “Ya ‘bout broke a leg tryin’ ta get outta there.  Who is he?”

Lou stiffened her shoulders and her tone.  “I tol’ ya, I don’t know.

Why did he have to keep at her? she wondered.  Why couldn’t he just leave well enough alone?  She squirmed internally at lying to him outright, but didn’t know what else to do.  She just couldn’t bring herself to tell him what had happened.

“Stop lyin’,” Kid said in a dangerously calm voice.  He wasn’t going to let this go.  That really started to get under Lou’s skin.  Couldn’t he tell she didn’t to talk about this?

“Stay outta my business,” she spat at him, pushing the shovel she’d been holding violently to the ground and stomping toward him.  Stopping in front of him she repeated the refrain she’d been telling herself for the last week, not that it had done her conscience any good.  “I don’t owe you nothin’.”

Without another look at his wounded and worried countenance, she stomped off toward the bunkhouse.  Maybe she could get a little peace there.  But, the more she thought about the whole situation, the more she knew she’d have to do something about it.  She changed directions and headed over to Emma’s place, instead.

“Lou,” Emma said, starting to smile to see the disheveled rider on her doorstep.  “What brings you around this afternoon?”

“Do you have some paper?” Lou asked, fiddling with the hat in her hands, not able to meet the older woman’s eyes.

“Sure,” Emma smiled.  Stepping back, she held the door open for Lou.  “Why don’t you come on in and tell me what’s up while I get it?”

“That’s alright, Ma’am,” Lou said, shaking her head.  “I just need ta write a quick note.  Then I’ve got some errands ta run.  I ain’t got time ta visit.”

Emma looked at her doubtfully but accepted Lou’s excuse and quickly brought her a sheet of paper.  After she closed the door, Lou sat down on the porch steps and, laying the paper on the porch, pulled out a pencil.  Mulling it over for a moment, she finally decided what to say and started to rapidly scribble her note.

Tyler,
Please stop asking after me.  I’ll meet you outside the hotel tomorrow night at 9 o’clock.
Louise

Sighing, she folded the note up and, taking it into the bunkhouse, used a bit of beeswax from a candle to seal it.  Soon, she was on Lightning, headed into town.

**********

Lou sighed as she snuck out the backdoor of the bunkhouse with her dress wrapped up in a brown paper package under her arm.  The boys were all out front, enjoying an after dinner ramble with Teaspoon.  She had a run in the morning, so it had been easy to convince them she wanted to turn in early.

Moving as quietly as she could, she headed over to the barn and slipped inside to saddle Lightning.  Soon, she was pounding across the prairie, headed for Sweetwater.  She just prayed her visit would be short enough to keep anyone from recognizing her.

A short ways out of town, she pulled Lightning to a stop inside a small copse of trees.  Leaving him tied to a low hanging branch, she pulled out the dress and began the process of transforming herself from Lou into Louise.

Once she had the dress on, she began the walk into town, flinching at every night sound along the way.  She felt so naked out here without her gun!  It got worse once she entered town.  Now, it wasn’t nature she had to be afraid of, but every man, woman and child she’d ever met or ever would meet.  Moving quickly but cautiously down the street, using alleys whenever she could, she made her way to the hotel.  She kept tugging at the dress, which suddenly didn’t seem to fit her at all.  She was really starting to hate the damned thing.  Finally, in exasperation, she grabbed a handful of the skirts and held them up, out of the way of her feet so she could make quicker progress to her rendezvous.

Looking up, she saw Tyler standing there, waiting for her.  Her steps slowed involuntarily.  He was so elegant in his fine broadcloth suit and bowler hat.  And he treated her so well.  She hated to do this, but felt she had no choice.  There was no room for him in her life. 

He smiled invitingly at her, even as he called her name.  “Louise!”

Her steps faltered.  This was why she had to do this.  He could never deal with Lou.  Her smile faded away.  Twisting her hands in her skirts to hide her nervousness she said,  “Sorry, I’m… late.”

He tilted his head a little, still smiling at her.  “I was getting worried.  I thought you’d changed your mind.”

“I almost did,” she admitted.

She could see this took him aback, but, as ever, he didn’t let it slow him for long. 

“You’re a hard woman to find,” he laughed slightly.

Hearing footsteps on the boardwalk across the street, she took a few steps toward him, hoping to keep this conversation private.  Raising her face, she met his eyes.  Her tone softened as she saw the his appreciation of her in them.  “Why’d you come ta Sweetwater, Tyler?”

Tilting his head, he got that flirty look on his face.  “I promised I’d see you again.  I always keep my word to a Lady.”

The way he spoke, it sounded like he’d capitalized the word lady.  Lou smiled softly, regretfully, at the thought.  “I cain’t.”

She saw his face starting to lose its eagerness at her words.  She couldn’t bear to watch.  Why had no one ever told her this would be so hard?  They talked about the pleasure of having beaus by the dozen, but this juggling just wasn’t worth it.  She dropped her gaze to the ground.

“That’s why I came here, to tell ya ta stop lookin’ fer me,” she added.  Lifting her chin, she snuck another glance his way.

“Why? Does your mother object?”

She stiffened, not liking how his tone had turned hard.  And his odd emphasis on the word mother told her he’d never bought her cover story.

“You shouldn’t have lied to me, Louise.”

“I had to,” she said.  Truth enough.  Turning her back on him, she started to move away, putting more distance between them.  There was something about his stance that had suddenly turned… predatory and she didn’t like it.  But, he followed her.

“Why?” he demanded.

Lou, still walking away, stopped at the hitching post with her back to DeWitt.  Time for some more truth, mostly.  It was the only thing guaranteed to get him to forget her.  “There’s someone else.  We intend to marry.”

“You love him?” he asked.

“Of course,” Lou said, wondering why he would even ask such a question.  Why would she ever marry someone she didn’t love?  Lost in her thoughts, she missed Tyler’s latest movements as he neared her, bracing one arm on each side of her, pushing her back against the hitching post behind her.

“No you don’t,” he insisted.  “You’re just saying that because you think I’ll believe you and then I’ll go away. Well, you can’t get rid of me that easy.”

She heard the catch in his voice and felt awful, even more awful than she’d been feeling all evening.  How could that be?  Why did things have to be so hard?  Why couldn’t love and romance be easy?

At the same time, she seriously did not like the way he’d trapped her.  That made her feel very vulnerable.  Hardening her heart to him, Lou ducked under his arms to escape.

“I don’t wanna see you, Tyler,” she said, being perfectly honest now.  She just wanted this over with and forgotten.  But he grabbed her by the shoulders and swung her around and into his arms.

“I don’t believe you,” he insisted, pulling her close, almost shaking her in his desperation.

Lou was seriously getting scared now.  Keeping her arms between them, for all the protection they offered, she looked away.  “Stop it!”

Almost shouting now, Tyler insisted, “You’re not getting married!  You’re just scared.”  His half angry tone scared her as much as the tight grasp he kept on her.  Leaning forward, he rubbed his lips across her forehead.  She shrank away from him.  This was too much.  She started to consider yelling for Sam. 

“I want you and you feel the same way about me,” he continued, pulling back to look in her face.  “If you didn’t you wouldn’t be here.” 

Without giving her a chance to reply, he leaned forward and captured her mouth with his.  Despite the anger behind the kiss, Lou still felt the exultant response of her body to his physical attentions.  It was like when Kid kissed her, yet completely different and she reveled in the unique sensation.  But, she never quite relaxed, never let down her guard, keeping her hands up and at the ready to push Tyler away if he went a step too far. 

Pushing him back, Lou looked up at Tyler.  She took several steps away from him, her voice trembling slightly.  She didn’t understand what was happening to her.  “I meant what I said.”

Half-turned to run away at the slightest provocation, she pointed at him to emphasis her words, nodding her head to make sure he understood.  Then, she turned and started to walk away as sedately as she could.  But, within a few steps, she began to move faster, in a hurry to get away from this disturbing scene.  Reaching up, she swiped a forearm across her lips, as if to wipe away the devastating kiss he’d just forced on her.

“We’ll be seeing each other, again!”

Hearing him call after her, Lou stopped to look back at him, her arm still raised to her mouth.  Shaking her head, she turned away again and continued back to her horse.

**********

The next morning, Lou caught the pouch from Cody and took off East for Horse Creek.  It would be a short run, but it would give her time to think.  The images of Kid and Tyler chased each other through her mind to the rhythm of her mount’s pounding hooves.  She knew she needed to make a decision, a choice of some sort.  But she had no idea what to do.

About mid-afternoon she passed off the mochila and dismounted, weary in soul as well as body.  She nodded her thanks to Tom as he took her horse and headed for the corrals to cool it down and feed it.  She sank onto the bunkhouse porch, waiting for the rider to come with her return pouch.

While she sat there, she pulled out the ring she’d bought in Blue Creek, dumping it out of its velveteen bag to stare at the engravings and blue stone.  It represented all her hopes and dreams.  But now she was wondering who the man in that daydream had been.  Had it been Kid?  Or had it been Tyler?  Did she want someone her own age?  Or someone with a little life experience?  Someone who’d already figured himself out?  She sighed heavily.

“That’s a purty ring,” Zeb said.  “You done got ya a sweetheart?”

Startled, she looked up to find Zeb had brought out her new mount for the return run.  Lou shrugged her shoulders, not really answering his question.  He dropped down to sit next to her on the steps.

“I had me a gal oncet,” he said.  “She decided she preferred a city boy over an Express Rider.  Said he had a future and I didn’t.”

“That ain’t true,” Lou protested defensively.

“I know,” Zeb said.  “I got plans.  But, they take time and she wasn’t ready ta wait fer me.  Guess it just wasn’t meant ta be.”

Shaking off his melancholy thoughts, he turned to Lou.  “You gonna give that ta yer gal.”

Again, she just shrugged, having no idea what she was going to do.

“Well, if ya are,” he added, “I’d get right on it, before some other feller beats ya to it.”

Curiously, she asked, “Did ya know yer gal had another feller?  Did it bother ya?”

“Yeah, I knew,” he admitted.  “Didn’t really bother me.  I figgered, I had another gal over by Sweetwater, why shouldn’t she have another feller?  But, it did bother me when I found out she’d been lyin’ ta me and never really thought we’d go anywhere.  That really got my goat!”

Lou nodded in commiseration.  It still didn’t make her feel any better.  After all, she had been lying, to both Tyler and Kid.

“What is it with you and the Kid?” Zeb asked curiously.  “You both sparking the same gal or something?”  Before Lou could ask him what he was talking about, Zeb jumped to his feet and shouted, “Rider up!”

Looking to the East, she saw a new guy racing toward the station.  With a running leap she was on her horse’s back and catching the mochila.  Another day, another run.,

**********

After passing her horse to Buck to be cooled off and put up, Lou wandered over to Emma’s place.  She wasn’t feeling like hanging out with the boys right now.  There was too much on her mind.  Knocking on the door, she removed her hat and held it in her hand.

“Lou!” Emma exclaimed, surprised to see her. “I left your dinner over at the bunkhouse, honey.  I wasn’t expectin’ ya ta come on over.  Figgered you’d want to eat and sleep.”

Lou shrugged as she followed Emma into the house. 

“Don’t feel much like eatin’,” she muttered.

Emma turned around so fast Lou practically ran her over.  But Emma never noticed.  She’d already put the back of her hand to Lou’s forehead.  “What’s the matter, Lulabelle?  You feelin’ poorly?”

“I ain’t sick, Emma,” Lou sighed.  “Just… I, well I was hopin’ ya could help me figger some stuff out.”

A bright smile lightened Emma’s features as she brushed stray strands of her bright red locks out of her face.  “Come on into my parlor, then young lady.  A little tea and some conversation and we’ll have ya fixed all up.”

Lou just hoped it would be that easy.  Sitting down at the table, Lou watched quietly while Emma filled the teapot with water and set it over the fire in the fireplace.  Wiping her hands on her apron, Emma began to get out the tea leaves and china.

“Why don’t you start tellin’ me what’s botherin’ ya while I get this all set-up,” she encouraged.

Despite a couple of false starts, Lou managed to spill the whole sorry tale.  By the time she’d finished, Emma was pouring her tea and sitting down next to her.  Not meeting Emma’s eyes, Lou kept her gaze firmly planted on her glasses, her hands nervously fiddling with the useless eye pieces.  She sighed as Emma sat down next to her.

“It was nice Emma.  I never been treated that way by a man before,” Lou said quietly.  She snuck a quick glance at her mentor to see how she was reacting to this revelation.  “It made me feel good… you know?  Like a real lady.”

Emma huffed a small laugh as she noted the wistful look in Lou’s eyes. 

“Well, that’s how it’s s’posed ta be.”  But the hardened tone of her voice captured Lou’s attention and had her listening real close.  “How it sometimes is.

Emma looked away for a moment and Lou wondered what it was she was thinking about so hard.  What wasn’t she saying?  Lou had a feeling it might tell her more than Emma was willing to say.

“Lord knows you haven’t been gettin’ that around here,” Emma added.

Lou could feel tears gathering behind her eyes.  She hadn’t realized what all she’d been missing until she’d come here and met Emma and the boys.  She looked away.  If she met Emma’s eyes right now she’d be blubbering in no time.  Even so, she couldn’t quite keep the tremble out of her voice as she admitted her fears.  

“But… there was… somethin’ else about him, somethin’… I… I don’t know… scary?  The closer I got ta him, the more I felt it.  It frightened me, the way he wanted me.”  Lou looked back up at Emma as she confessed her greatest guilt about the entire situation.  “But I liked it, too.”

Watching Emma’s face harden, Lou steeled herself for the dressing down she knew was about to come.  Yet it didn’t.  Emma waited and thought a moment before replying, “Well, Lulabelle, some men in this world are takers.  And it sounds like he might be one of ‘em.”

Takers?  Lou thought.  Like Pa?  But she couldn’t ask Emma about that.  She hadn’t told her about her Pa yet, and wasn’t sure if or when she ever would.  Scared, she asked, “How can I tell?”

“Experience,” Emma sighed.  “I guess it’s somethin’ every woman’s got ta figure out fer herself.”

“I told ‘im I wasn’t gonna see ‘im again.  I meant it, but now I…I don’t know,” Lou admitted.  Desperate for Emma to tell her how to solve her conundrum she nearly begged, “What do you think?”

But Emma wouldn’t play along.  She smiled regretfully and shook her head.  “I can’t tell you what to do.  That is something you have got to figure out for yerself.”

Lou looked at Emma as if someone had just murdered Lightning.  Emma relented and put her hand on Lou’s shoulder.  With a smile she asked, “What do you want?”

“I don’t know, Emma,” Lou nearly wailed.  Those damned tears were even closer to the surface now.  “It’s so damned confusin’.  I mean, I already feel guilty about the Kid.”

Lou looked up in surprise when Emma stopped her from saying anymore. 

“Well, don’t.  You didn’t make no promises and you did not do anything wrong.  So, you put that notion, right out of your head,” Emma said adamantly.  Lou looked at her, wanting to believe what she was hearing but still, in her heart, knowing it wasn’t true.  “You’ve been livin’ here, pretendin’ ta be somethin’ yer not.  And there is no reason ta feel guilty about feelin’ like a lady.”

Emma paused and smiled at Lou, who tried feebly to return the smile, but failed.  Emma continued, “You just make sure you’re not makin’ a mistake.  Or hurtin’ anybody.”

Lou nodded, trying to digest everything Emma was telling her.  Emma smiled again, commiserating with the girl.  “It’s not easy growin’ up.”

Lou frowned slightly at that and shook her head.  That was the problem.  She hadn’t been growing up, not really, for several years now. 

“It’s not easy not growin’ up, either,” she finally admitted.

Emma laughed and patted Lou on the shoulder.  They both looked up when they heard Teaspoon yelling, “Rider comin’!”

Emma moved to the window and peered around the curtain.  “Looks like Kid’s back from his run.”

Lou nodded and grabbed her hat.  Break time was over.  It was her job to help put away Kid’s horse, not that he’d let her do much of it, just as Buck had put away Lightning.

Even as they all shouted words of encouragement to Buck, taking off toward the East with Kid’s pouch, the sound of another pair of hooves caught their attention.

“Wonder who that might be?” Teaspoon asked, spitting on the ground.

“Why, it’s Sam!” Kid exclaimed.  “What's he doin’ out here in the middle of the week?  Ain’t like it’s Sunday Go A Courtin’ time.”

Lou smothered a chuckle at the sight of the red blush staining Emma’s cheeks.  But, it turned out Sam was here to talk to Teaspoon.  After bringing some water to Katy, Lou climbed up in the buckboard to think, while Kid finished unsaddling his horse.  Lou soon had the conversation tuned out as she mulled over Emma’s advice.

In some ways, Emma was right.  She’d never made Kid any promises, not verbal ones.  But, she’d thought they’d had an understanding and that’s what she felt she’d violated.  She was sure he’d feel the same way if he ever found out about Tyler.

She found herself watching the Kid move about the station yard, his muscles rippling under his shirt, his bright blue eyes glinting in the sunlight, the wrinkles already forming around his lips from his frequent smiles.  There was so much she liked, no loved, about the Kid.  She just couldn’t imagine her life without him in it.

But, he was young, inexperienced in the ways of the world, just getting a start on life.  Tyler was dashing, elegant and knew so much.  His experience attracted her in ways she didn’t understand.  His kisses had certainly gotten her heart racing as much as Kid’s.  But, there’d been something wrong, something off.  He’d been too possessive, too demanding.  Too much like her Pa, she suddenly thought.  That’s the problem, she realized.  While she’d begun to open up to Kid, share her life and dreams, though not yet much about her past, with him because of how much he reminded her of her Grandpa McCloud, Tyler reminded her of her Pa.

This revelation shed a whole new light on everything Tyler had said or done.  Lou began to re-examine their entire acquaintance.  She’d just reached the conclusion she’d done the right thing to send him on his way, when something Sam was saying caught her ear.

“Anyways, I was hopin’ that fella, that insurance fella, DeWitt could help me.”

At the sound of Tyler’s name, Lou suddenly started paying attention to the conversation.  What had she missed?  Oh, yeah, something about that gang robbing all the freight wagons around here lately.

“But he tells me he ain’t privy to any of the shipping schedules,” Sam continued.

Lou lifted her chin from where it had been resting on her arm.  “He told you that?”

She couldn’t believe what she was hearing.  Then, she nearly kicked herself for speaking up as both Sam and Teaspoon turned to look at her.  Lou quickly looked away.

“That’s right,” Sam said.  “Somethin’ wrong?”

Lou shook her head and quietly answered, “No.”

She very carefully avoided Emma’s questioning look as she began plotting a trip into town. 

**********

Lou looked down at the shipping schedules Tyler had bragged about having access to back in Blue Creek.  The same schedules he’d told Sam he didn’t have.  She knew what this meant.  She knew she needed to get them to Sam right away, just as soon as she was sure she had everything.  She started shuffling through the papers again when she heard the door snap close and a gun being cocked behind her.

“Take off your gunbelt,” Tyler told her.  “And raise ‘em.  Real slow.”

With a suppressed sigh, Lou did as he’d instructed, setting aside the papers and slowly, carefully unbuckling her gunbelt and letting it fall to her feet.

“Whoever you are, you just made a big mistake,” he nearly purred in an ugly tone.  “Turn around.”

Idly wondering how he was going to react, she slowly turned around then raised her eyes to meet his.  He paused, then stepped closer to her, a puzzled look crossing his face.  He reached out and pushed her hat back by its brim.  Comprehension slowly dawned. 

“Louise?” he drawled.

Lou decided to play it cool, nonchalant.

“Tyler,” she said, as if they’d just run into each other on the boardwalk.  “Those the shipment schedules you told me about?”  She pointed to the papers with her chin.

A slightly dazed DeWitt answered her mockingly.  “It would appear that way.”

“You’re the one behind those hold-ups all along,” she stated calmly.  Her thoughts earlier at the station coalesced into one certainty at this moment. She probably should have told someone where she was going, she thought distractedly. 

DeWitt chuckled and half smiled at her.  “Sometimes the truth comes out in strange ways.”

“Yeah,” Lou said very quietly, admitting her own lies to him as well as to the Kid and the others back at the station, even Sam.

DeWitt stepped closer again, trying to use his size to intimidate her.  He asked in a sharply pointed voice, “Who are you Louise? And why are ya here?  No games now.”

Lou shrugged slightly.  Nothing but the truth from here on out, she figured.  It wasn’t going to make much difference in the long run, not with no one knowing where she was or what she was up to.  

“I’m the same person you met in Blue Creek.  I also ride for the Pony Express.  You been robbin’ the company I work for,” she said, managing to avoid crying.  She was sorry she’d never get to tell the boys goodbye, or to let Kid know how much he’d really meant to her.  She didn’t really want to die.

“I see.  You know?  I liked you.  I really did,” he said, letting his charming side show for a brief moment.

“Does the Marshal know you’re here?” he pressed on.  When she didn’t answer, no reason to she figured, he laughed self-deprecatingly.  “You’re not gonna tell me, are you?”

His voice suddenly shifted from light and teasing to heavy and menacing.  “You afraid of me, Louise?”

She looked at him questioningly.  What did he mean?  She knew he was going to kill her, but she wasn’t really afraid of what he could do to her.  The worst had already happened.

“I asked you a question.  Are you afraid of me?”

She shook her head.  No, she wasn’t afraid of him.  She wasn’t afraid of being beaten up and she wasn’t afraid of dying.  She was just sorry, and mad, that she’d let him fool her.  Her own thoughts prevented her from seeing his hand flying toward her face until it made contact.  She grunted at the pain as the power of his slap flung her toward the floor.  Her arms reached out reflexively to break her fall, but it was too little, too late.  She hit her head on the corner of the nightstand on the way to the ground.  The world started to black out as she landed, but she hung on to consciousness long enough to roll over and glare up at him.

**********

Lou groaned at the ache in her head as she slowly awoke.  She found herself tied up in the back of a buckboard, speeding across the prairie.

“Glad to hear you waking up, Sleeping Beauty,” Tyler murmured from the driver’s seat.  “I thought you were going to sleep the day away.”

Lou slowly pushed herself up into a sitting position and stared back across the prairie in the direction they’d just come from.  She was hoping against hope to see one of the boys, even Sam or Teaspoon, come riding over the horizon.  But, the horizon remained maddeningly blank.  She pulled her hat off and began to worry it with her hands.  Then realized she had the perfect clue to leave the boys. 

Tyler was unwittingly using one of the routes the riders covered on a daily basis.  Trying to be unobtrusive about it, she tossed her hat to the ground.  If she was lucky, they’d see her hat, recognize it and start tracking her.  At least they’d know what had happened to her, even if they didn’t find her in time to save her.  She nearly groaned as DeWitt pulled back on the reins.

“Whoa!  Whoa!” he shouted to the horses before turning back to look at Lou.  “That’s very clever.”

Lou glanced up at him without physically moving, not ready or willing to say anything to him.

“Now, go back and get it,” he ordered.

With a glare,  Lou did as he’d instructed, making sure to rough up the ground with her shoes and leave clear footprints along the way.  She hid her glee by throwing herself back onto the back of the buckboard with a pout.  Then, she ran her hands over her face, to make sure she didn’t gibve anything away.

**********

Lou had given up trying to avoid his blows.  She’d also refused to answer any of his questions.  It was the principle of the thing.  Her eye was starting to turn black and her lip was split, but she was proud of the injuries.  They proved her toughness.  He could just keep it up.  She could take anything he dished out, she thought even as he punched her again.

She started to fall with the force of the blow.  He dragged her back to her feet, leaning her listing body against his.  She glared at him over her shoulder.

“Now, one more time,” he growled, “are they expectin’ us?”

“I hope so,” she admitted, imagining the boys reactions when they followed her trail and found her body.  She winced internally as she heard the tears that thought had brought into her voice.

“She hopes so,” DeWitt grunted with a laugh to his friends.

“She don’t know nothin’,” one of them said.  DeWitt nodded even as he punched her in the face, again, this time apparently for not knowing anything.  Again, she fell over.  This time he let her land on her stomach.  He was bending over her, already grasping the collar of her jacket to jerk her back up when something one of the other men said distracted him.

Lou took the time to catch her breath.  But, as soon as she realized the situation with his fellow thieves had him completely distracted, she began to inch her way toward the horses.  Maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t get the chance to kill her after all.

She forced herself to move slowly, not wanting to attract his attention.  Yet every second she remained there meant another second he might turn her way. 

Bam!  She jumped as a bullet hit the dirt right in front of her face.

“Don’t leave us yet, Louise,” he said, walking over and jerking her up off the ground.  “Louise. Louise. Louise.,” he called her name several times, shaking her like a rag doll until she opened her eyes to look at him.  “Hunh?  That’s very good.”

He spun her around easily, despite her renewed and increasingly frantic attempts to break free.  Finally, he brought her to rest against his chest, his arm painfully tight around her throat.  Then, his hostage secured, he returned to his disagreement with his fellow thief

It didn’t surprise Lou in the least when a moment later he casually raised his gun and shot the man he’d been arguing with.  Even as the outlaw fell tot eh ground dead, DeWitt was reholstering his pistol.

“Now it’s time for truth,” he said, swinging Lou around to face him.  She started fighting him again.  If she kept fighting one of two things might happen.  She might delay him long enough for the boys to find her.  Or, she’d make him so made he’d kill her.  Either way she’d have made him do what she wanted.

“Oh, good!” he chortled.  “You’ve got some fight left in ya.”

Lou was puzzled when he began to slice away at the ropes around her hands, freeing them.  He reached out and held her hands together in one of his, despite her best efforts to fight him off.  Peering down at her he asked, “Why aren’t ya afraid of me?”

“Should I be?” she asked, exhausted.  There wasn’t anything new he could do to her, except kill her.  And death had ceased to frighten her.  It was the living that could be so difficult at times.

“Sure,” he responded, confused.  “What are you trying to prove here?”

Realizing that her lack of fear was really getting to him, Lou slowly shook her head and smiled up at him slightly.

“Nothin’,” she said, giving him the truth.  “You’re gonna kill me anyway.  So, go ahead, get it over with.”

Despite knowing the blow was coming, Lou did nothing to avoid it, simply accepting it as part of her fate.  That accepting attitude changed in an instant when she heard Sam’s voice.

“This is the United States Marshal.  Drop yer weapons and put yer hands behind yer heads.”

Even as the predictable gunfight broke out, Lou began to thrash around in DeWitt’s arms, trying to slow his escape while at the same time make her own.  Now that rescue was at hand, her accepting attitude toward an impending death had flown.

Despite her best efforts, DeWitt made it to his horse.  Tossing her aside like a sack of grain, he mounted his stead and spurred it off into the nearby brush.

“Like hell,” Lou muttered, jumping to her feet and grabbing the reins of the nearest remaining mount.  It wasn’t Lightning, but would have to do.  Forcing her weary body to leap into the saddle, she gave chase.  Even as she ducked to avoid the low hanging branches at the edge of the clearing, she could hear Kid yelling after her, but she had no time to stop.  Not if she wanted to keep DeWitt from getting away.

Even on the strange horse, it didn’t take her long to catch up to him.  Her own familiarity with the territory helped her take a couple shortcuts.  Soon, she was rounding scrub on one side as he exited on the other side.  Pushing out of the stirrups with her feet, she leaped onto his back, knocking him off his horse.

She landed with a tuck and roll.  Pushing herself up on her arms, she saw that he’d dropped his gun.  Grabbing it, she looked up and pointed it at him.

“Stop right there,” she gritted out, refusing to pant for breath.

He just threw his shoulders back in his characteristically confident swagger and stepped toward her with a slight grin.

“You can’t shoot me, Louise,” he smiled at her.  “You like me too much.”

Lou shook her head slightly at his attitude and cocked the gun.

“You’re sick.”

DeWitt didn’t take the hint, continuing to move closer to her, his movements taking on a predatory feel to them.  A feel that reminded her too much of that other one, the one who’d survived treating her like this, and worse.  Something she’d swore she’d never let any man get away with again!

“Stay away from me!” she almost shouted, desperately trying to get him to stop.  He didn’t.  She sighted down the gun, giving him one last second to save his life.  He didn’t.  She squeezed the trigger, exactly how Jimmy’d shown her, putting her bullet precisely where she wanted it, right in his black heart.

He looked down at his chest and the blossoming rosetta of blood in confusion, then back up at her.  He tilted his head in a silent question.

“Don’t be surprised,” she gasped.  “You had it comin’.”

Even as he fell over, dead, she heard hooves pounding up behind her.  Seconds later, a pair of belovedly familiar hands were grasping her shoulders and helping her stand. 

“You alright?” he whispered.

“It’s alright, Kid,” she reassured him and herself.  “I’m alright.”

Kid helped her to her feet and she turned toward him, relaxing as he wrapped his wonderful, protecting arms around her in a loving hug.  His tenderness brought the tears.  She began to sob.  What had she done?

“Shhhhhh,” he crooned to her, rubbing his hands up and down her back in a reassuring manner.  Dropping her gun, she reached up to return the embrace, hugging him tight, as she continued to cry.  She’d though the worst was over when she’d shot DeWitt.  Now, she realized the worst was yet to come. 

**********

“Lou, I’m takin’ you off the run rotation for the next week,” Teaspoon told her that night.  She’d refused to see a doctor, but Kid said she, at the least, had bruised ribs to go with her split lips and black eyes.

Lou nodded disconsolately.  Teaspoon waited, as if expecting her to say something else, then sighed and walked off toward his room in the barn.  Lou just sat there, leaning against the porch post, staring at nothing.

The boys had all tried to talk to her, to let her know everything was going to be alright, since she’d gotten back.  The problem was, she knew they were all wrong.  Nothing was ever going to be alright again.  Not after Kid learned the full truth.  And she was going to have to be the one to tell him.  But not tonight.  She didn’t have the strength to do any of this tonight.

Wearily, she shoved herself to her feet and dragged herself over to the barn.  Soon, she was bedded down next to Lightning.  In the morning, she thought. She’d talk to Kid in the morning.

**********

“What do you mean he’s not here?” she demanded irritably.

“What do you think I mean, Lou?” Jimmy asked.  “Exactly that.  He ain’t here.  Teaspoon had him take the morning run.  He’ll be back in a couple days.”

“Damn it all to hell!” she growled, hauling off and taking a swing at the nearest stall door, pushing her fist straight through the wood plank.  Not even pausing to examine the damage she’d done, she stomped off muttering to herself.

That night, she moved back into the bunkhouse.  After spending the first half of the night tossing and turning, she moved down to Kid’s bed.  Soon, her nose pressed into his pillow to inhale his scent, she fell fast asleep, silent tears leaving dirty trails down her cheeks.

**********

“Lou,” Sam called to her as she walked away from the church after Sunday services.  She stopped and looked back at him.  “Lou, I need you to stay in town tonight.  The judge’ll be arriving sometime today.  And either this evening or first thing in the morning he’s gonna wanna talk ta ya ‘bout what happened with DeWitt.”

“He was gonna kill me, Sam,” she sputtered.  “It was self-defense!”

"I know, Lou,” Sam smiled down at her.  “That ain’t what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.  He just needs ta talk ta ya ‘bout what ya heard from them while they had ya hostage.  We want ta make sure they didn’t have anymore ‘complices back at the insurance company.”

“Alright,” Lou sighed.  “Guess I kin bed down in the jail tonight.”

“Thanks,” Sam said, patting her on the shoulder.  Noticing her downcast expression, he asked, “You alright?”

She pulled away from him jerkily and started striding toward the jail.  “I’m fine.  Why wouldn’t I be?”

**********

When she got back to the station the next day, she learned Kid was out on another run, some errand with Teaspoon.  There was only one conclusion she could reach.  He was avoiding her.  Shoulders slumped, she completed her chores in silence.  At supper, she spent more time pushing her food around her plate than eating.  Immediately afterward, she headed back out to the barn. 

“He hates me,” she told Lightning, barely holding back the sobs that wanted to tear their way out of her chest.  “It’s over.  I ruined everything.  Me and that stupid dress!”

Suddenly, she knew what she had to do.  Tearing out of the barn, she ran across the station yard to Emma’s.  Without pausing to knock, she burst through the door and headed straight to the trunk where Emma’d stored her two gowns.  She yanked them out roughly, grinning in savage delight as her handling caused the lace trim on one to tear free.

She moved over to the fireplace and used the poker to stir the coals into full flame before adding the dresses.  She settled down on her haunches to watch them burn, along with all her hopes and dreams.  She should have known better than to even try.  She knew what she was worth, what he’d made her worth, as a woman.  There was no escaping her fate.

“Louise?”

An 11 year old Louise looked up from the basket of wet laundry she was hanging out on the line as Charlotte walked out of the boarding house’s back door.

“Aw, who’re ya kiddin’, Louise?” she  muttered to herself.  “Ya know damned well it ain’t no boardin’ house.  It’s a cat house, pure and simple.  Ya done figgered that out weeks ago.”

With a shrug to herself, Louise waved to Charlotte and returned to her work.  Cathouse or not, this was a good job and she wasn’t willing to lose it.

“Louise,” Charlotte smiled as she approached.  “I was hoping you could find time today to mend this.”  She held up a ruffly camisole with a piece of lace dangling from the front, half torn off.  “It got…damaged… last night and I need it for a special… dinner … with a client tonight.”

Louise nodded.  Charlotte was the only one who tried to protect her from what really went on in the house.  “Just hang it over the end of the line there,” she smiled at Charlotte.  “I’ll take care of it as soon as I get this laundry hung out.”

“Can I help?” Charlotte asked.

“Sure,” Louise smiled.  “Here, take these pins and use them to clip the clothes to the line while I hold them up.  With both of us working, we’ll get this done in no time.”

“Then, maybe we can go in and talk Cook into a treat,” Charlotte smiled back conspiratorially.

It took only a few moments of chatter and laughter to complete the job.  Soon, both were headed in to the kitchen.

“Where’s Josephine this mornin’?” Feather asked as Charlotte and Louise walked in.

“Oh, she got a prime catch,” Jewel grinned lasciviously.  “He paid off her debt and they went and got married last night!”

“Man, I wish I could find me a catch like that,” Feather swooned dramatically.  “Someone ta take me out of this place and love me.”

“How do you know if he loves you?” Louise couldn’t help asking.  She rarely spoke when all the women were gathered together, but this topic had been really bothering her for the last few months.  Her mother had told her someday she’d find a man who really loved her.  But, how could she tell?

“Well,” Charlotte began, “he’ll want ta do things for ya.  He’ll treat ya with respect--”

“Oh, don’t go fillin’ the girl’s head with that foolishness,” Jewel interrupted.  “That ain’t gonna do her no good workin’ here.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Feather muttered.  “Remember what happened ta the last laundry girl?”

“Shush!” Cook hissed forcefully.

Continuing as if she’d never been interrupted, Jewel turned to Louise, “If he really loves ya,  he’ll wanna take ya upstairs to one of the bedrooms, just like all the other gents.  But his kisses and such won’t scare ya or hurt ya, they’ll make ya feel good.  And, he’ll care about yer pleasure before his own.  That’s how ta know he really loves ya.”

“But, shouldn’t I know if a man loves me before I marry him?”

"Oh, honey, ain’t nobody gonna marry the likes of us that work here!  Leastwise, not if they’re stayin’ in town,” Jewel laughed.  “But they can love ya and take care of ya.  It’s only if they’re leavin’ town, like Josephine’s beau, that they’ll consider one of us good ‘nough ta marry.  Just ask any one of those biddies in church on Sundays.  Once a whore, always a whore.”

She’d forgotten who she was, Lou thought forlornly, watching the dress burn, what she was.  Why she'd given up being a girl.

“Lulabelle,” Emma gasped, rushing over to her from the open door.  “What are you doing?”

She reached out to grab the poker and try to rescue the dress least burned.  Lou grabbed her arm and stopped her.

“Don’t.  Let it burn,” she said quietly.  “Let it burn.”

“Oh, Lulabelle,” Emma whispered, choking on her sudden tears.  She reached out and placed a gentle hand on Lou’s shoulder, keeping vigil with her as the dresses slowly crumbled to ashes.

**********

“Lou!”

Lou ignored Kid’s call as she continued on her way to the barn.  She’d been spending more and more time out there the last week.  Even after Kid had gotten back with Teaspoon, she’d kept avoiding him.  If he didn’t want to talk, that was fine with her.  She didn’t think she could survive the discussion anyway.

“Lou, if you don’t stop and talk ta me I’m gonna start yelling everythin’ I gotta say so loud they’ll hear me in Sweetwater,” he threatened.

This brought her to a stop.  As much as the coming conversation would hurt, it wouldn’t hurt as much as having her secrets spilled for Teaspoon to hear.

She came to a stop next to the corral fence behind the barn and crossed her arms over her chest defensively.

“Whatta ya want, Kid?” she asked sullenly.

“Why’ve you been avoidin’ me, Lou?” he answered her question with his own.  “What have I done?”

“You didn’t do nothin’, Kid,” she muttered, looking down at her feet.  “I did.  I was just savin’ ya the trouble of tellin’ me it was over.”

“Over?  Lou, what are ya talkin’ ‘bout?  I just wanted ta make sure ya was alright,” Kid said, confused.

“But, you were so angry with me fer cheating on ya.”

“What are you talkin’ ‘bout, Lou?”

With a gulp, she let it all out.  “I stepped out with Tyler.  DeWitt.  I didn’t mean to. It just sorta happened.  But I did.  And then he kissed me and... and I kinda liked it.  But he scared me, too.  And I didn’t know what ta do.  By the time I figured it all out, it was too late.  Then ya had ta come rescue me like some idiot girl!”

Kid moved closer to her, not yet touching her, quite.  “Aw, Lou,” he sighed.  “I wish ya hadn’t stepped out with him, or kissed him, but it was the lyin’ that made me mad.  It ain’t like we’d made any promises ta each other.”

Lou leaned her head against the corral fence, still looking down at her feet.  “Maybe not in words, but the way we been… actin’… they were promises to me.  And I broke ‘em.  I’m sorry.  I shoulda been honest with ya.

Tentatively, she looked up at him.  Kid kept his hands on his belt buckle as he stared down into her eyes for a long moment. 

“I don’t know,” he finally said softly.  “You needed somethin’ and I was blind to it.  Won’t happen again, I promise.”

Thinking about everything he’d done for her, time and time again, Lou almost cried as she broke eye contact with him.  “I owe ya a lot.”

“You don’t owe me nothin’, Lou.  Louise.” 

At that, she looked back up into his eyes and laughed at his attempt to use her full name.  Lou smiled.

“Yes. I do,” she insisted.  She reached one hand out to grab onto the top rail of the fence, turning her body to face Kid full on.  “I never realized how much ‘til now.”

He smiled down at her and shrugged bashfully.  She couldn’t resist, closing the short distance between them to lean up on tiptoe and kiss him on the cheek.  His grin widened.  As she pulled back he followed her to press a real kiss to her lips.  She could feel her heartrate picking up as he reached an arm around her shoulders.  Forgetting that Teaspoon might come out at any moment and discover them in flagrante delicto, she leaned into the kiss, reaching up to wrap her arms around Kid’s shoulders, one hand tangling in his hair.  It felt so comfortable to be pressed up against his chest with nothing between them.

This was how it should be, she marveled, even as she pressed herself closer into the kiss and enjoyed the melting sensation that moved through her entire body.  His kiss slowly moved from her lips, along her jaw to her ear, causing a tingle that she could feel all the way to her toes.  Then, he began whispering in her ear.

“But, I don’t want to leave things unspoken between us anymore.  Louise.  Will you be my sweetheart?  No more stepping out with other men?  Even accidentally?”

 "Yes,” she breathed.  “Oh, yes.  Forever.”

To be continued....

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