Stronger, Faith Hill
This is Love, This is Life, Bon Jovi
“Lou! Catch!” Buck yelled to her across the yard, tossing the baseball in her direction. With a quick flip of her hand, Lou reached out and snatched the spinning sphere out of the air. A flick of her wrist, and the ball was quickly re-directed toward Cody who was hopping anxiously from one foot to the other by second base.
“Get ‘im, Cody!” she yelled, as Cody reached out desperately to catch the ball, nearly falling on his face in the process. Quickly righting himself, Cody spun on one leg and slammed a foot down on the base next to him, bracing himself to catch Ike who was barreling down the baseline toward his blonde brother.
The duo went down in a tangle of arms, legs and curses. Teaspoon ran over to inspect the situation and found Cody holding one arm high in the air, the ball still tightly grasped in his fist.
“You’re out!” Teaspoon shouted to Ike, waving his arms in front of him.
“Come on, Teaspoon,” Kid whined, coming toward the duo from his place at first base. “He lifted his foot off the base!”
“Boys!” Emma shouted from the bunkhouse porch. “Dinner’s ready. You can stand out there and argue about baseball or you can come in and enjoy Sunday dinner. But you can’t do both, not on my station.”
Cody promptly dropped the ball, scrambled to his feet and headed toward the door, Teaspoon and most of the others close on his tail.
Lou watched them moving toward the bunkhouse like a gaggle of geese, continuing the incipient argument over whether Ike was safe or out that Emma had interrupted.
“Hmph!” she grunted, bending over to pick up the ball that had rolled to a stop near her feet. “Still didn’t get my turn at bat.”
Shrugging, she tossed the ball over her shoulder and headed toward the dinner table herself, never noticing, or caring, that the ball landed in the pigsty, right in front of the noise of a curious hog.
“I still say Ike was safe,” Kid said before stuffing another spoonful of Emma’s mashed potatoes into his mouth.
“In your dreams!” Lou smiled.
“You gonna eat that, Lou?” Cody asked from her other side.
Looking down, Lou grunted as she realized she’d been doing nothing but pushing her food around on her plate for the last few minutes. The summer heat had stolen most of her appetite and she’d barely touched her steak and potatoes, sticking to the salad greens and fresh fruit Emma had served.
Shrugging, she slid the still half full plate across the table toward her fellow rider. “Help yourself.”
“Hey!” Kid complained. “What if I wanted some?”
“You didn’t ask, now did ya?” Lou responded acerbically.
“But…” Kid started to protest, only to realize it was too late. Cody had already wolfed down most of the food on Lou’s plate.
“Emma, I’ll go get the water to wash up,” Lou said, standing up from her place at the table. It was getting insufferably hot inside the bunkhouse.
“You sure you don’t want dessert?” Emma asked.
“No ma’am. Guess I just ain’t hungry is all,” Lou smiled at the older woman as she headed out the door, grabbing the bucket as she went.
Moments later she stood next to the well, splashing the cold well water over her face, head and shoulders. She groaned in appreciation of how it cooled her down.
“I thought you were my girl!”
“Hunh?” Lou raised her head, confused. Looking around she saw Kid standing behind her, hands on his hips and a frown on his face. “What’re ya talkin’ ‘bout, Kid?”
“Didn’t ya stand out there by the corral fence not three weeks ago and agree ta be my gal?” he asked, obviously in a temper.
Shaking her head, Lou enjoyed the feel of the water droplets flying in every direction, taking the day’s heat with them. “You know I did. I still don’t get what yer so het up about.”
Stalking up to her and lowering his voice so they couldn’t be overheard, he hissed, “Why didn’t ya offer me yer food if ya weren’t goin’ ta eat it? I was still hungry.”
Lou stopped what she was doing to stare at Kid incredulously.
“And how was I s’posed ta know that if ya never said nothin’?” she finally sputtered.
“Ya shoulda asked,” he muttered.
“Well if that don’t beat all,” she marveled, bending over to pick up the bucket of water. “Just ‘cause I’m yer gal don’t mean ya own me!” she started to tear into him, getting angrier with every word. “I got a right ta share what’s mine with whoever I choose. Cody. Jimmy. Ike. Heck, Thompkins, if I feel like it. If ya want somethin’, you gotta ask!”
With that, she turned her back on a steaming Kid and stomped back to the bunkhouse.
Oh Lord, what had she done? she asked herself for the hundredth time that night, twisting onto her other side on the bunk. She’d let her danged temper get ahold of her again and ruined everything.
Sighing, she thought back over her argument with Kid that afternoon and how he’d refused to speak to her the rest of the evening. Tears started to gather in the corners of her eyes. What if he no longer wanted anything to do with her because she was so selfish?
Wait a minute, what was selfish about sharing her food with Cody? She’d been right. She had a right to share her food, or anything else for that matter, with whoever she wanted. Who cared if Cody was a gluttonous pig half the time? It was her decision to make. Not Kid’s!
But… what if he decided he didn’t want ta be her beau after this? What if he decided she was too much trouble? Too much a boy, not enough Lady for him?
Lou rolled to her stomach and pressed her face into her pillow to stifle an incipient sob. How could she ever live without him?
Suddenly, it was all too much for her. Sitting up, she slid out of her bunk, grabbed her boots from their place by the door and headed for the barn, moving faster with every step. By the time she reached the barn doors, she had a hand held to her face, trying to hold in the sobs now wracking her body.
I’ve ruined everything with my big mouth and tomboyish ways, she moaned to herself. Slipping inside the barn, she flung herself onto the nearest haybale and wailed her misery into the sweet smelling straw.
I’ll never sit by the pond with him again, sharing stories and jokes while waiting for the fish to bite, she mourned. And our games? Who will lay in the tall prairie grass with me finding shapes in the clouds and throwing rocks at the ones that look like bad guys?
Rolling to her back, she swiped her arm under her nose, wiping off the tears and snot her crying storm had spread across her grief ravaged face.
And, we’ll never again look at each other and say exactly the same thing at the same moment, like that time we watched the new banker trying to mount a mustang and turned to each other to simultaneously say, “Greenhorn!” I’ll miss realizing someone else is thinking the same thing as me almost as much as his kisses. I’ll even miss having to sneak around to find time for sparking.
“I don’t know what’s going on ‘tween you and the Kid, but I sure wish you’d settle it so I could get some sleep.”
At the sound of Jimmy’s voice, Lou gasped. Opening her eyes, she flinched away from the light of the lantern he held aloft, raising her arm to hide her face from him and protect her eyes at the same time.
“I don’t know what yer talkin’ ‘bout,” she mumbled, rising from the haybale she’d flung herself onto.
“Don’t try that on me, Lou,” Jimmy smiled, sitting down on the same haybale and grabbing her hand to pull her down next to him. “We could all tell ya was upset tonight. And the way you and the Kid have spent all night tossing, turning and sighing meant none o’ the rest of us could get any sleep, either.”
“Sorry,” she grumped.
“Tell me about it,” he urged, wrapping an arm around her and pulling her head into his shoulder. Turning her head to subtly rub her nose dry on Jimmy’s longjohns, Lou started to speak.
Kid rolled over onto his side and let loose with another sigh as he watched Lou stumble out of the bunkhouse. He knew he’d upset her earlier today. But, how could he explain to her how hurt he’d been when she’d never even thought about his desires at dinner?
Throwing an arm over his pained eyes, Kid lay his head back down on his pillow. He was worried he’d blown everything with his damned temper. He knew she wasn’t your average girl. She’d never have started dressing like a boy and gotten a job with the Express if she had been. She would’ve held no appeal for him if she’d been the type of mealy-mouthed flirt he ran across in town all the time. He loved her strength of will and independence. He adored the fact that she didn’t need him to do everything for her. But… well, sometimes he wished she’d be just a little more... normal… at least then he’d know how to act with her.
Sighing again, Kid twisted in his bunk so he was lying on his back.
“Dadblameit, do I have ta do everythin’ around here?” Jimmy exhaled loudly to himself, climbing out of his bunk and grabbing his boots. Seconds later, the bunkhouse door was swinging shut behind him.
“Wonder what that was all about?” Kid muttered.
“Maybe he’s tired of tryin’ ta sleep through your and Lou’s shenanigans,” Buck whispered across the room.
“Ain’t no maybe about it,” Cody threw in, not making any attempt to be quiet.
*What happened, Kid?* Ike signed, getting straight to the point.
“I don’t know,” Kid sighed, sitting up in his bunk and resting his head in his hands, his elbows braced on his knees. “One minute, we’re laughing and arguin’ over the game, the next I’m furious with her for giving you her supper, Cody.”
“Jealous,” Buck said, nodding sagely. “You were jealous.”
*Why would he be jealous?* Ike signed curiously. *Lou doesn’t have eyes for anyone else when he’s around.*
“It is a gift from White Buffalo Woman and Sendeh, the trickster,” Buck maintained. “To help them learn to love each other.”
“Now that don’t make any sense, Buck. Why would someone send jealousy to help create love?” Cody drawled.
But Kid was slowly nodding. He understood.
“The jealousy caused a small problem now,” Kid said. “But, if we can learn how to get past this.. if I can learn how to get past this, it may prevent bigger problems later.”
“That’s right,” Buck nodded. “White Buffalo Woman says jealousy is what delivered this world up to the Shadows. And it will only be by defeating jealousy, and other evil and hateful emotions, that we will be able to join her and the Creator one day.”
“But, how?” Kid moaned. “I didn’t even know I was jealous ‘til now.”
*You’ve got to talk to Lou,* Ike signed. *Tell her how you feel. Not us. Then figure things out together.*
“If yer gonna do a bunch a gabbin’,” Cody groaned, falling backward onto his pillow, “could ya do it elsewheres? I gotta run in the mornin’ and I’d like ta get at least a little sleep.”
“Sure, Cody,” Kid smiled, throwing his pillow at the blonde rider. “Anything ta make yer life easier.”
But, already the sandy haired young man was slipping into his boots and out of the bunkhouse.
Kid skidded to a stop just inside the barn doors, shocked to his toes by the sight before him. The jealousy he’d felt earlier today when Lou’d given her leftovers to Cody was as nothing compared to what he felt seeing her snuggled into Jimmy’s side, holding his hand and talking away. Jimmy’s head was bent low to catch every word. Even as Kid watched, his fellow rider reached up and tenderly brushed a stray curl off Lou’s forehead.
Kid almost turned around and walked back out, the feelings of betrayal so strong he didn’t even know how to react. But, just as he started to turn away, Jimmy looked up and quietly called his name.
“Kid, come over here,” Jimmy said, even as Lou turned her back on Kid and rapidly brushed the sleeves of her longjohns over her face, then finger combed her disheveled hair. Noticing her attempts to hide her condition, Jimmy chuckled. “Now, Lou, that ain’t what we talked ‘bout, remember?”
Lou nodded and slowly turned to face Kid, who gasped when he saw her red blotched face, eyes rimmed with irritated flesh from being rubbed so often, nose a glowing scarlet. Forgetting all about Jimmy and his own jealousy, Kid rushed to Lou. Falling to his knees, he grabbed both her hands in his.
“Lou! I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
“Me too,” she said, not raising her eyes to meet his. “You were right. I was being thoughtless. I should be putting you first.”
“You were right, too, Lou,” Kid smiled, leaning in and resting his forehead against hers, forcing her to meet his eyes. “You have every right to share your things with whoever you want.”
Pulling one hand loose from his, Lou reached up and cupped his cheek in her palm. She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it, not sure what to say.
Kid watched her struggle for a moment, then decided to break the increasingly heavy silence, just as she finally figured out how to say what she was thinking.
“I was afraid I’d lost you!” they both exclaimed, then laughed as they heard their own words coming from the other’s lips. Neither noticed as Jimmy quietly slipped out of the barn, headed back to his own bed.
“The only way you could lose me Lou is if you told me to go away,” Kid smiled softly at her.
“I can’t imagine every telling ya ta go away, Kid,” Lou said back. “I can’t imagine my life without ya.”
“Good, ‘cause I don’t want ta imagine my life without you in it,” Kid answered, pulling Lou down off the haybale and into his lap. Wrapping his arms around her, he whispered, “Next time I act like an idiot, just take Buck’s knife ta me.”
Lou laughed her soft, silky gurgle that always sent shivers to the depths of his belly. Leaning down, he brushed his lips softly across her forehead, each of her eyes, the tip of her nose, her chin. But, as he began to spread small, tender kisses down her neck and around to her ear, Lou started to squirm in his lap and, giggling, pushed him away.
“Kid! Your whiskers, they tickle,” she smiled at him.
A rueful look entered his eyes as he reached up to run a hand across his chin.
“I don’t guess I can very well shave in the middle of the night,” he muttered. Looking down he noticed the line of reddened skin where his whiskers had abraded her tender neck. “And I can’t keep kissing ya like this. They’ll all know soon’s they see ya.”
Reaching up, Lou grabbed the hand at his chin and pulled it to her lips. Pressing it to her mouth, she whispered, “’Sides, we need ta get some sleep. Even if we don’t have a run in the mornin’, there’ll be chores. And, I don’t know ‘bout you, but I don’t feel like explainin’ ta Teaspoon why I’m too tired ta do ‘em.”
Standing up, she pulled Kid up after her, continuing to talk, even as she started moving toward the barn doors.
“Listen, Kid,” she said. “The next time I do somethin’ that upsets ya, just tell me, alright? I may not change my mind ‘bout what I did, but I can promise I’ll think ‘bout it.”
Kid nodded. “Sure. If you promise not ta run away and go all silent on me again. I can’t read yer mind, ya know?”
Reaching the bunkhouse steps, Lou slowed her pace. Looking down at her, Kid noticed she was chewing on her lip in that way she had when she wanted to say something but was uncertain if she should.
“What is it, Lou?” he asked.
Squaring her shoulders, she looked up at him and nearly whispered her request. “Can I sleep in yer bunk tonight?”
Frowning in puzzlement, Kid cocked a questioning eyebrow at her. “Hunh?”
She hurried to explain. “I thought I’d lost ya. I don’t think I could sleep if ya weren’t nearby. If… if I couldn’t reach out and touch ya when I needed ta.”
Kid’s breath caught in his throat as he finally realized what she was asking. “Are ya sure, Lou? Even with all the boys here?”
“It ain’t like they don’t know ‘bout us,” she whispered, leaning her face into his chest, even as his arms automatically wrapped themselves around her.
“But knowin’ and seein’s two different things,” Kid breathed into her ear.
“Maybe it’s time they start seein’,” she spoke into his longjohn shirt. Then, pulling her head back, she looked up to meet Kid’s eyes. “But, you gotta promise ta wake me up early ‘nough Teaspoon won’t see!”
“Promise,” Kid said with laughter in his eyes. He knew the rest of this night would be just as torturous as the first half had been, although for completely different reasons. But he didn’t care.
Moments later, he crawled into his bunk, pulling Lou down into his arms with him. She nuzzled her nose into his neck and breathed deep.
“I love how you smell,” she whispered, already half asleep. He held her tightly to him, enjoying the feel of her small frame relaxing into his larger body, trusting him to hold her safe through the night. He could feel his blood racing and his muscles tightening in excitement at her closeness even as she relaxed into slumber. With a great effort of will he forced his thoughts away from sparking. There’d be time enough for that later, he promised himself.
Jimmy’s whispered question floated across the bunkhouse. Kid nodded a silent yes, before burying his nose in Lou’s hair and closing his eyes, savoring the feel and scent of her in his bunk. For the first time since this afternoon things felt right with his world.