Saturday, June 30, 2012

You Were Always There, Prologue & Chapter 1

Author's Note:  This story begins toward the end of Color Blind, mid-late second season, and moves on from there.  It is an AU story in response to the Unexplored Love Challenge at The Writers Ranch.

This was a particularly difficult story for me to write, as I am a die hard Kid/Lou fan.  But, I found once I got into it, it really started speaking to me.  I hope it appeals to you, as well.


Lou watched with pained eyes as Jimmy rode up cautiously.  She wanted to struggle against the ropes that bound her, but knew it would be futile.  She’d already tried, more times than she could count.  This was the icing on the cake of a horrendous few days.  It seemed like everything had gone wrong since she’d sent Kid packing.  Now, she had to stand here, on her tiptoes, waiting to be rescued like a damsel in distress.

She barely heard the exchange between Jimmy and her captor, Hopkins.  She was too busy trying to tell Jimmy with nothing more than her eyes to ride out of here.  She wasn’t worth his life.  She wanted to scream at him as he reached out and unfastened his gunbelt, dropping it to the ground, but the rope bound tightly around her throat strangled all sound before it could reach her lips.

She watched in disbelief as Jimmy pulled his other pistol, carefully hidden in the back of his pants and took aim.  In the split second before the shot’s report hit her ears, she knew he wasn’t shooting at Hopkins.  The angle was all wrong.

Then she couldn’t see anything else as the rope holding her on her tiptoes suddenly relaxed, releasing the tension that had held her in place.  Without its support, she tumbled to the ground, her hair obscuring her sight of what was going on.  Wordlessly, frantically, she ripped the twisted hemp off over her head, pushing her hair out of her face, desperate to see what had happened.

But already it was too late.  She’d heard the second shot Jimmy fired, too late.  She’d heard Jimmy’s pained grunt and Hopkins’ satisfied laughter.  Without a thought for her captor, she raced to Jimmy’s side, reaching him just as he hit the ground.  She struggled to scream out his name, but could manage only a hoarse whisper.

“Jimmy!  No!”

Dropping to her knees, she frantically pushed his coat out of the way, desperate to see just how bad his wound was.  Hearing Hopkins moving toward her from behind, she reached out and wrapped her fingers around Jimmy’s fallen gun. 

“You’re a lucky lady,” Hopkins sneered.  “I didn’t really think he’d do it.”

With no warning, she turned and fired into his chest at point blank range.  He looked at her in surprise, before falling silently to the ground, dead.  Lou hadn’t waited to watch.  She’d known exactly where her bullet was going and had no more thought for the man behind this tragedy.

She was already back to inspecting Jimmy’s wound.  Whatever one said about Hopkins, there was no denying, even one armed and shooting with his off hand, he was a good shot.  He’d put a single bullet right through Jimmy’s heart.  Already, Lou could hear the rattle of death in Jimmy’s labored, wheezing breaths.

“No,” she whispered, gathering him close to her chest.  “No.”  She wanted to say so much more, to tell him so much, but everything she wanted to say was locked inside a jail of pain, sorrow and guilt.

Jimmy struggled to reach out with one hand, wiping her silently falling tears away one last time.  She reached up with one hand, continuing to cradle him to her chest with her other arm, and covered his fingers with her own.

“I’m sorry,” he gasped.  “I’m sorry.”

She started to shake her head, denying his guilt.  This wasn’t his fault, it was hers.  But it was too late.  She watched, desolate as the last light of life faded from his eyes.

Chapter 1

Lou rode slowly into Rock Creek, dreading the prospect of telling everyone what had happened.  How was she supposed to inform them Jimmy was dead?  She still couldn’t quite believe it herself.

Sundancer moved in closer to Lightning’s side, snuffling at Lou with his muzzle, as if commiserating with her pain.  He’d been acting upset the entire ride back, unable to figure out why his master was lying, inert, across his back instead of guiding him home like usual.  Lou reached out and patted the stallion’s head gently, looking back to make sure that Jimmy’s body was still securely tied across his horse’s back.  She could have had him buried back in Willow Creek, but that wouldn’t be fair to the others.  They deserved the right to say goodbye.  So, against the advice of the local sheriff, she’d brought Jimmy home.

Passing the church, Lou drew Lightning and Sundancer to a halt, gazing curiously at the somber crowd exiting the small white building.  Her brow creased in a concerned frown as she realized Teaspoon and the boys were at the head of the crowd, carrying a coffin.  They were all dressed in their Sunday suits, their faces stoically still in the afternoon sunlight.  Having lived with them so long, she could read the pain they were all trying to conceal.  To her discerning eyes they looked, each and every one, as if someone had reached in and ripped their hearts out through their chests.  But there was no way they could already know about Jimmy!  No one could have reached Rock Creek faster than she had.

The group reached the bottom of the steps and carefully turned the casket away from her, moving toward the graveyard at the edge of town.  Lou strained, trying to see who was there and who wasn’t.  All she could tell for sure was that there were only four people carrying the casket.  Now, maybe one of the boys was out on a run… but something deep inside told her otherwise.

Unable to wait anymore, deeply afraid of what she would find out, Lou opened her mouth and croaked as loudly as she could, “Teaspoon!”

When the mourners continued on her way, she tried again, pushing her aching throat to allow her to yell louder.  “Teaspoon!”

This time Ike, recognizable by his red bandana’d head looked back in her direction, then elbowed Teaspoon, who was in front of him.  Teaspoon looked back at Ike in irritation, then, followed Ike’s shaking head to look in Lou’s direction.  Turning to the boys, Teaspoon said something, and they all stopped and waited for her.

Still trying to see their faces, Lou urged Lightning forward, Sundancer following along behind on his leadline.  Reaching the funeral procession, Lou looked down and finally got a good look at all the casket bearers, Cody, Noah, Ike and Teaspoon.

The first words out of her mouth were, “Teaspoon, where’s the Kid?”

But they were nearly drowned out by Cody’s own question, “Lou?  Where’s Jimmy?”

“I’m sorry, Lou,” Teaspoon said tentatively, looking down significantly at the casket he and the boys were still holding.  “There’s been some trouble and….”

But Lou didn’t need Teaspoon to finish the story.  She already knew.  She could see the tearstreaked face of that schoolteacher Kid had been mooning over in the first row of mourners behind the casket, leaning heavily on Rachel.

First Jimmy, now the Kid.  It felt like her life had suddenly fallen apart around her.  And it was all her fault.  She’d ruined everything, for everyone.  She could feel her future being eaten away by the shadows encroaching on her life, the shadows she’d invited in with her fears and selfishness.

“Someone catch him!” she heard faintly, even as the shadows closed out the rest of the world.


Lou could feel strong, gentle hands pushing her hair off her forehead, followed by a cool cloth being carefully put in place.  Moaning, she turned her head away from even that scant comfort.  She didn’t want to wake up and face reality.  She wanted to sink back into the blessed emptiness of unconsciousness.

“I think she’s comin’ round,” she heard Cody mutter nearby.

“Better go get Rachel,” Noah said.

The gentle hands ministering to her simply continued to move, picking up the cloth she’d dislodged and replacing it tenderly.

“Lou, honey?  Are you back with us?” Rachel’s concerned voice asked.

“Leave me alone,” Lou muttered, not opening her eyes.

“I’m afraid we can’t do that, honey,” Teaspoon’s gruff voice came to her.  “We need to know what happened to Jimmy and you need to know what happened to Kid.”

“No,” Lou forced out through her still aching throat.  “I already know.  I killed ‘em.  I killed ‘em both.”


Lou sat in the barn, motionless.  She’d just finished mucking out Katy’s and Sundancer’s stalls, along with Lightning’s.  She’d taken on the care of Jimmy’s and Kid’s horses, as well as her own, ever since her return a week ago. 

Despite her resistance, she’d eventually had to listen as Teaspoon explained to her what had happened.  How Kid had been sucked into an unholy triangle between Samantha, her mother, who was a former slave, and her old beau who was apparently also her father and her mother’s former owner.  Teaspoon had tread delicately, not wanting to hurt Lou more than necessary, but she could read between the lines.  Kid had found someone who would let him protect her the way Lou hadn’t, and had died doing so.

As Lou had figured, his death was her fault.  If she hadn’t chased him away with her pride, stubbornness and fear, he’d still be alive today and they’d be planning a wedding.  A wedding that, though she’d said ‘no’, she’d wanted more than anything.

And Jimmy would still be alive today, too, if it hadn’t been for her.  She’d made a mistake, let him get too close that night at Willow Creek in her attempt to forget how much she was hurting over Kid.  The next morning, feeling guilty for having led him on, she’d taken off on her own, before he’d woken up.  If she hadn’t done that, Hopkins would never have been able to bushwhack her and set up his dastardly little plot.

Lou watched as Katy stuck her head over the stall wall and nuzzled at Lightning, trying to get his attention.  Sundancer whickered in the next stall over, feeling left out.  Pulling a piece of hay out of the bale she was sitting on, Lou started shredding it into tinier and tinier pieces, each one jagged and sharp, just like the shattered pieces of her life.

The sound of Rachel ringing the dinner bell, had Lou lifting her head and looking out the barn doors.  She watched as her remaining brothers trooped in for supper, the sight of their decimated numbers adding another bruise to her already bloodied soul.  She thought about joining them, but just couldn’t make herself do it.  She was bad luck.  She should just leave, before anyone else got hurt.

“Is she comin’?” Cody asked, a concerned tone to his voice.

Rachel sighed as she let the curtain fall back into place before turning to face the assembled men at the table.  “Doesn’t look like it.”

“We’ve got to do somethin’, Teaspoon,” Noah said.  “She’s mourning herself sick.”

“I know,” Teaspoon said heavily.  “Just yesterday I caught her tossing back up what little she’d eaten for breakfast out behind the barn.”

*And she’s not sleeping at night,* Ike signed.

“But all she wants to do is sleep during the day,” Buck added.  “Just this afternoon, I found her curled up asleep in Katy’s stall.”

“I just don’t know what to do for her, boys,” Teaspoon admitted slowly.  “I’ve tried increasing her chores, to take her mind off things.  But that ain’t workin’.”

“And I’ve tried getting her to talk, but she just sits there, like a lump on a log,” Rachel said as she began dishing out the evening’s stew.

“I’ve had to take her off the run schedule.  I just don’t trust her to make it there in one piece.  Buck, you’ll have to take her run tomorrow.”

Buck nodded understandingly.

*I’m going to see if I can get her to eat something,* Ike signed, standing up to grab a couple of biscuits and walking out the bunkhouse door, toward the barn.

“Good luck, son,” Teaspoon whispered, as the others silently turned their attention to consuming the meal none of them really wanted to eat.


Lou rolled over restlessly in her bunk.  The sounds of the night were thunderous amidst the silence of the nearly empty bunkhouse.  With Buck out on her run and Noah headed the other direction, it was only her, Ike and Cody tonight.  The lack of noise was worse than the cacophony she’d always complained about before.

Finally giving up the fight, Lou sat up and looked around.  She knew what she had to do.  She just had to get up the courage to do so.  Her eyes slowly roved over the forever empty bunks of her missing friend and lover, then turned to the temporarily empty ones of Buck and Noah before coming to rest on the beloved faces of Ike and Cody.  She watched them for a long moment as their chests rose and fell with the steady breaths of slumber.

She nodded to herself.  There was no time like the present and she needed to leave before her selfishness got anymore of them killed.  Slipping down off her bunk, she quietly pulled on her clothes and packed up the few belongings she was going to take with her.  Slinging the saddlebag over her shoulder, she grabbed Kid’s bedroll and Hickok’s jacket before walking toward the door.  Pausing next to the table, she pulled a sealed envelope out of her pocket, setting it carefully in the middle of the table where it couldn’t be missed.  With one last look around the bunkhouse, she turned and walked out the door.  Forever.


The soft sound of the closing door woke a lightly sleeping Ike.  He raised his head and quickly checked Lou’s bunk.  Looked like she was up on one of her midnight rambles again.  She’d been taking a lot of strolls in the dark lately.  Letting his head fall back down on his pillow, he settled in to wait, knowing he wouldn’t get anymore sleep until he heard her sneak back in in an hour or two.

The sudden sound of horses galloping out of the yard a few minutes later though, had Ike jumping out of his bunk and rushing to the window.  This was something new and it worried him.  He reached the window just in time to see Lou disappearing toward the West, mounted on Katy, Lightning and Sundancer trailing along behind her.

He turned toward Cody’s bunk to shake him awake when he noticed the letter sitting in the middle of the table.  A sudden sinking sensation filled his heart with dread as he slowly moved toward it, afraid to find out what it said, yet even more scared to wait until morning to open it.

Reaching out with one hand, he grabbed the missive and ripped it open, reading the three sparse lines in a matter of seconds.

I’ve already gotten two of you killed.  I can’t wait around to see who’s next.  Please don’t follow me.  –Lou

Dropping the letter back onto the table amidst the remains of its envelope, Ike grabbed his own, ever ready saddlebag, even as he stumbled into his clothes, and rushed out the door after her.  Someone had to save her from her own self-destructiveness.  Since Kid was no longer around to do so, Ike would gladly pick up the challenge.

Chapter 2

Starting Over, Chapter 7

Chapter 7
“We’ll figure somethin’ out.”
“I wish we had time fer that, Kid,” Lou said, swallowing hard.  She sincerely did wish she could simply concentrate on the news that she wasn’t a widow, that her husband had returned to her after all, with all his limbs intact but his memory lost.  She would have preferred he come back to her missing an arm or a leg, then as this stranger who was wearing her beloved’s face.
Jerking her gaze away from Kid, Lou turned to Teaspoon.  “I didn’t just come here ‘cause y’all are family, Teaspoon,” she said quietly.  “I came because I needed your help, as a U.S. Marshal.”
Teaspoon sat up straighter in his chair, a serious look sobering his face.  “What is it, girl?”
Trying to maintain her composure, she nodded at the older man, then began to speak.  “Before… before Jeremiah was… killed, he’d gathered enough evidence to prove my boss at the telegraph office, Clint Lampton, was the gang’s mastermind.  He’d left it for me at our secret drop spot before he was shot.  I was just supposed to pass it on to Sam.  But, I never got the chance,” Lou reached up to wipe the tears falling down her cheeks away.  When she resumed speaking, it was in a hard, cold voice that carried death in its echo.  “That plus my testimony about what I saw and heard while working for Lampton should be more than enough to see he hangs.”
Lu listened as Lou spoke.  He wanted to drag her into his arms and comfort her as he watched the tears splashing down her face.  But everything about her, her voice, her eyes, her posture, screamed at him to stay back.  So, he did.
Teaspoon sighed at her story.  It brought back so many memories for him, mostly of the constant fear he’d felt as his ‘boys’ took one life-threatening risk after another.  Two had fallen to their foolhardiness.  But that obviously hadn’t slowed the rest of them down, just look at Jimmy and Cody!  And now, Lou.  To tell the truth, they wouldn’t be his ‘boys’ if it had.
Clearing his throat, he asked, “What do you need my help fer, then?”
“Mary Kate,” was her simple, bleak answer.
At this, Lu couldn’t hold back anymore.  Reaching out he grasped her hand in his.  She didn’t look at him or acknowledge what he’d done in any way visible to the others.  But, she did turn her hand in his, accepting his grasp and returning it with a hard squeeze, communicating her tension, grief and fear in that one small motion.  Teaspoon, however, did note the silent byplay out of the corner of his eye with approval, even as Lou began to speak again.
“I have to be in Fort Kearny in ten days for the trial,” she said.  “But, as soon as Lampton was arrested, the attacks began.  At first they only targeted me -- an ‘attack’ by a ‘drunk’ on my way home, stuff like that.  Nothing I couldn’t handle.  Then, they went after Teresa.”  Lou paused to laugh harshly.  “I’ve taught her to ride, shoot and fight as good as me so, again, we were alright.  But then, despite our close watch, they almost managed to kidnap Mary Kate, right out of school.”
Lou paused as a shudder took over her body.  Those few, horrific moments when she’d thought Lampton’s henchmen had succeeded in stealing her little girl had been the worst of her life, even worse than finding out her husband had been killed in the war.
Lu stared at her, aghast to realize he could have lost his newfound daughter without ever having the chance to meet her.
“That’s when I knew I had to get us out of there,” she whispered, darting a glance from Teaspoon to Kid to Polly and back.  “Find someplace safe to hide out until the trial.”
Choking back a half-hysterical laugh, she reached up to self-consciously touch her short hair.  “I broke out my old Express disguise -- dressed both myself and Mary Kate as boys, although I couldn’t bring myself to cut her hair off like mine, and put Teresa in a widow’s weeds.  Then we boarded the stage for Chicago.”
“How’d you end up here, then?” Lu asked.  “Chicago’s east.”
“She was tryin’ ta throw ‘em off her scent, Kid,” Teaspoon said quietly. “Go on, gal.  Finish yer story.”
“Yer right, Teaspoon.  We switched disguises and directions a dozen times, until I was sure we’d lost them.  Then we headed straight here.”
“Well, no wonder you look exhausted,” Teaspoon harrumphed.  “How long’s it been since you got a full night’s sleep?”
Lou shrugged helplessly.  “I’ve lost track.”
“That’s the first thing on the agenda, then,” Teaspoon said, starting to plan.  “We’ll get you over to Rachel’s and put you to bed.”
“I can’t,” Lou started to protest.”
“Relax.  You’ve done what you needed to do.”  Teaspoon reached out and put a calming hand on her shoulder.  “Now it’s time to let yer family help out.  That’s why ya came to us.”
Turning to Polly, he continued to outline his plans.  “I’ll get all the boy together and we’ll set up a watch schedule.  Could you and yer girls keep an ear out for strangers asking after Lou and Mary Kate?”
“Sure thing, Sugar Lips,” Polly said softly, leaning forward to press her own lips to Teaspoon’s grizzled cheek, causing her husband to flush.  “I’ll go talk to the girls now.”  And she stood up, quickly disappearing into the backroom behind the bar.
Teaspoon stood and motioned for Lou and Kid to follow him, all the while continuing to plot.
“I’ll send Jimmy to get Buck,” he said.  “Deputize ‘em both.  You, too, Kid.  We’ll set it up so at least two people are on watch at all times.”
Stopping in the middle of the boardwalk, Teaspoon turned to look back at Lou.  “Don’t you worry none.  We’ll keep that girl of yours safe and make sure you get to court on time.”
Lou nodded in acceptance, then slowly crumpled to the ground.
“Louise!” Lu shouted, reaching out to catch her in his arms before her head hit the wooden boardwalk.  “Lou!”
Teaspoon hunkered down beside the pair, gently brushing a few stray hairs off Lou’s forehead.  Then he clasped a hand on Kid’s shoulder as he straightened.
“Don’t worry, son,”  he reassured the distraught man.  “She’ll be fine.  She’s just plumb tuckered out.”
When Lu came bursting through Rachel’s front door, Lou clutched tightly in his arms and Teaspoon on his heels, Jimmy and Lydia jumped up off the sofa, looking away from each other almost guiltily.
Seeing Lou’s condition, Jimmy rushed to Kid’s side in sudden worry.  He stretched out a hand to brush Lou’s cheek tenderly.
“What happened?” he asked urgently.  “Is she alright?”
Lu looked at Jimmy oddly, something about his tone of voice waking a surge of... jealousy?  Setting the thought aside to examine later, Lu nodded.  “She’s just sleepin’.  Teaspoon says she pushed herself too hard fer too long.”
Jimmy shook his head in wonderment.  “Well, that’s our Lou alright, stubborn to the bone!”
“Bring her here,” a beautiful red-headed woman, older than the rest, but still quite a bit younger than Teaspoon and Polly, said from the bottom of the stairs, where she’d been talking to Teaspoon.  “Let’s get her upstairs and into a bed.”
Lu followed her up the stairs and soon was laying his wife gently in a wide bed set beneath an open window, with blue gingham curtains blowing in the late afternoon breeze.  Spreading a quilt over her, Lu took the opportunity to truly examine this sprite he was married to.  Her short hair was shiny and smooth.  He gently ran his hand over her head, enjoying its silky, softness.  But, as he’d noticed earlier, her delicate features seemed drawn, her cheekbones too sharp for her face, as if she hadn’t eaten enough in recent days, much as she’d obviously not been getting any sleep.
“Come on, let her sleep , Kid,” the woman behind him said softly.  “She’ll be right as rain in the mornin’, and mad as a wet hen if she finds out you’ve been standing here starin’ at her like a starvin’ man at a banquet like this.”
Startled out of his reverie, Lu blushed to the roots of his hair.  Ducking his head to avoid the woman’s amused gaze, he quickly shuffled out of the room.
“You know I love havin’ y’all here,” the woman, whom Teaspoon had introduced to Lu as Rachel Dunne, said as she began dishing up supper.  “But I ain’t really got enough room fer y’all in the long run.  We’ll be sleepin’ on pallets on the floor tonight, as it is.”
“S’alright, Rachel,” Teaspoon smiled.  “I’ve got a plan.”
“Oh, lord, protect us from this man’s plans!” Polly said, rolling her eyes heavenward.
Teaspoon shrugged.  “The old bunkhouse is still standin’.  Just needs a little fixin’ up and then all my ‘boys’ kin be back where they belong.”
“Teaspoon, it ain’t like we’re still seventeen,” Jimmy almost whined.
Taking a bite of the biscuit in his hand, Teaspoon shook the hand Jimmy’s way as he chewed.  “I know that boy!  Ya think I fergot how ta count in my old age?  But, if the purpose is ta protect Mary Kate and Teresa, it just makes sense ta have everyone all tagother.  Like a family.”
The sound of a knock at the front door, followed by the door opening, had everyone turning toward the portal.
“Buck!” Jimmy exclaimed, jumping up to grab the newcomer in a tight hug ,thumping his back heartily.  “What have you been up to, man?”
“If you’d write more often, you might know,” the tall, dark-haired Indian Lu had glimpsed through the window at the telegraph office smiled at the gunfighter.  “’Course, I don’t need ta ask what you’ve been up to.  I kin read all about yer exploits.”
Punching the more slender man in the arm as they walked toward the dinner table, Jimmy couldn’t keep back the grin on his face.  “You’ve been spending too much time around Cody!”
The duo came to a stop in front of the table and Jimmy gestured to Lu, sitting at one end next to Lydia and Carl.  Mary Kate sat on his other side.  “Buck, you remember Kid?  The man with no name!  Apparently he decided to steal his wife’s ‘cause he’s goin’ by Lu, now!”
Jimmy burst into guffaws at his little joke, Teaspoon and the others joining in.  Lu stood to shake the newcomer’s hand.  But he would have none of that, grabbing Kid’s hand in his but using it to pull the other man into another hug.
“Welcome home, Kid!”
Lu sat by one of the front windows, periodically fiddling with the gun Jimmy had given him.  If he thought the weeks since meeting someone from his past had been bewildering, they had nothing on the last 24 hours.  Things had been happening so fast he hadn’t had the time to think, just react.  Now that he did have time, he didn’t know what to think.
Lu looked up into the Indian’s face.  Buck, he was called.  Having heard so many stories about the “uncivilized savages” of the West, he’d kept a close ey eon the man throughout supper and on into the night.  But he’d yet to see any sign of the so-called ‘wild savage.’  On the contrary, Buck had impressed Lu as an educated, refined gentleman possessed of a wry wit that had startled more than one laugh out of him that night.  And the way the others all acted around Buck, treating him as one of the family, told its own story.  Lu supposed it was like folks’ attitudes toward the Coloreds back in Tennessee.  So many thought of and treated themas something less than human.  But, in Lu’s experience, any differences only went skin deep and weren’t worth losing any sleep over.
Lu smiled and held out a hand, accepting the cup Buck was offering.  “Thanks.”
Buck sat down next to him and let out a long sigh.  “I’m gettin’ too old fer this.”
“Tell that to Teaspoon,” Lu muttered.  He had less than a full day’s worth of memories of the old man, but already knew he had an apparently inexhaustible reserve of energy to do what he felt needed doing.
Buck laughed, slapping Lu on the back companionably.  “Ain’t that the truth!  That old man won’t slow down ‘til we put him in the ground.  Even when he’s nappin’ or eatin’, he’s still takin’ it all in!”
Lu smiled appreciatively, sipping at the hot beverage Buck had brought him.  The other man tilted his head as he contemplated his brother, back from the dead.  He caught a hand moving upward to grasp protectively at his medicine pouch and chastised himself.  There was nothing supernatural about Kid’s return, he thought for the umpteenth time, striving to convince himself of this truth.
“A lot to take in, hunh?” Buck finally asked, as he noticed Kid’s eyes darting around the room yet again, his hands twisting and turning the revolver he held.
Kid chuffed, looking down at the toes of his boots, a self-deprecating smile on his face.  “To say the least.”
“Any idea what you’re gonna do next?  Must be mighty hard, givin’ up yer lady love fer a wife ye can’t remember.”
Kid shrugged his shoulders, not wanting to talk about it. 
Buck smiled.  “Just remember, we’re family, man,” he said.  “Even if you don’t quite remember why.”
Lu nodded.  It was a refrain he’d heard a lot today.  But the sentiment, and all the good intentions of those offering it, couldn’t help him make some of the decisions facing him now.  He just needed some more time and space to put his thoughts in order and figure things out.
Standing, he moved toward the front door, saying only, “Think I’ll stretch my legs a bit.”
Buck watched his brother walk out the door.  He smiled to himself.  Some things never changed.

Chapter 8

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Starting Over, Chapter 6

Chapter 6
Lu stared at his erstwhile friend, his mouth gaping open in shock, as his mind struggled to comprehend what he’d just heard.  Trying to confirm it, he finally said, “That… that’s Louise?”
Jimmy nodded happily.  “Although you’d best start getting used to calling her Lou.  She don’t cotton too well to us using her full name.”
Lu was barely listening as he turned back to watch this woman who was, apparently, his wife.  At first he was aghast at the idea.  Despite her beauty, she was just so… so… unnaturally… masculine.  He couldn’t imagine relating to her as a man to a woman.
But, the more he watched her animated discussion with Teaspoon, the graceful sweep of her hands as she emphasized a point, the gentle sway of her hips as she agitatedly paced from one end of the room to another, the surprising mobility of her beautiful lips as she spoke, the more he felt an inexplicable pull to stand at her side, to be there for her in any capacity she needed.
He shifted his stance on the boardwalk uneasily, not comfortable with the direction of his thoughts and feelings.  He’d never felt this way about a woman before, at least not that he knew about.  He’d felt the desire to protect a woman from danger, the desire for a woman’s body or simply to enjoy a woman’s uncomplicated company.  But he’d never felt the urge to stand side by side with a woman, ready to face any danger that came their way, together.
Jimmy watched the play of emotions rolling across Kid’s face.  He struggled not to laugh at the man, again.  He’d been doing too much of that this day.  But it was almost like watching Kid go through his courtship with Lou all over again, except in fast forward.
“Did… did we… love each other?” Lu asked tentatively.  “You’re sure we’re married?”
Jimmy swallowed. He’d known this question would come eventually and had debated with himself how to answer it.  Finally, he nodded.  “Yes, you loved each other.  Madly, passionately.  Almost too much, sometimes.  But you figured out how to make it work,” Jimmy said. Although he’d wished at times they hadn’t.  “And yes, you’re definitely married.  I was there, walked her down the aisle and gave her away.”  In more ways than one, Jimmy thought.  “Teaspoon in there was the one what married you two.  So there’s no denyin’ it.  Heck, half the town was witness.”
Just then, Lou collapsed onto the bench next to her sister, hiding her face in her hands as she began to weep.  Lu couldn’t stand outside watching anymore.  Without realizing he’d even made the decision to move, he was suddenly pushing through the doors and into the Marshal’s office.
“Jeremiah’s dead, Teaspoon,” Lou whispered through her hands, tears coursing down her face.  Looking up at the man she’d thought of as her father, she added, “And it’s my fault.”
Lu came to a skidding halt at those words.  Lou was so wrapped up in her story and grief she never noticed his entrance.  Teaspoon squatted down in front of the two women, putting one hand on Lou’s shoulder, even as Teresa wrapped an arm around her waist.
“Now, I highly doubt that, young lady,” he smiled softly at her.
“No, Teaspoon,” she said adamantly.  “It is.  He was working undercover for Sam with a local gang of bank robbers, trying to find out who the mastermind was.  He got shot during a hold-up, died before I could get there.  He died alone and in pain, Teaspoon,” she sobbed.  “And it’s all my fault.  He would never have gone into that line of work if I hadn’ta been working fer Sam myself.”
At her obvious pain, Lu stepped further into the room, intent on taking her into his arms and comforting her.  But he stopped again at her words.  She’d been working for Sam?  Who was Sam?
“Cain?” Teaspoon asked incredulously.  “You been workin’ fer the Territorial Marshal?  Fer how long?  How come he never tol’ me he’d found ya?  We all been lookin’ high and low fer years!”
Lou shook her head, smiling slightly through the tears.  “I swore him to secrecy, said I’d hightail it out of town again if he told anyone.  I was workin’ undercover fer him, too.  We’re pretty sure the owner of the local telegraph office is behind the robberies.  I was actin’ as his operator.”
“What the hell would ya do a fool thing like that?” Lu couldn’t keep his anger inside any longer.  How dare she risk, not only herself, but her sister, brother and child in the process, by doing such dangerous work.  “There’s a reason hunting criminals is men’s work!”
Lou looked up and noticed Kid’s presence in the room for the first time.  Her eyes narrowed in returned anger, not only at his presence but as his words.
“How dare you,” she hissed, rising to her feet and crossing the room until she was practically toe to toe with her husband.  “How dare you!  You left me to fend fer myself while you went gallivantin’ off ta fight in that blasted war of yers.  And then you have the gall ta criticize how I did it?”
“I left you with family to take care of you,” Lu said, repeating his version of what Jimmy had told him over the last few weeks.  “If you’d just stayed put, you’d have been fine.”
“You wouldn’t--”
“Lou!” Teaspoon said sternly, his voice raised to be heard over the quarreling couple. 
Both turned on the man who’d been the best father they’d ever had and shouted in unison, “What!?”
Lou turned to look oddly at Kid for his response, even as Teaspoon began to speak.
“Enough is enough!” Teaspoon said, more quietly now that he had their attention.  “There’s things you don’t know ‘bout the Kid yet.  Things you need to know before you go runnin’ him off again.  And Kid, there’s things you need to know, too.  Things none of us was aware of  until  you’d already gone.”  He turned to glare at Lou with this last.  Lou blushed slightly and turned away.
Looking pointedly at the children, Mary Kate huddled near Teresa and Carl standing uncertainly by the door, he added, “And little pitchers have big ears.  There’s some things that shouldn’t be mentioned in front of the children.  Things you’d both regret later.”
Lu gulped at this and looked from one child to the other, feeling shame well up in his heart.  He couldn’t believe he’d spoken to a woman like that in front of Carl.  He’d always taught the boy to speak to a woman with respect and here he’d been cussing out his own wife, even if he didn’t remember marrying her.
“Sorry,” he muttered for what felt like the hundredth time that day.  “Yer right, Sir.”
“Course I am,” Teaspoon said, self-satisfied.  “Glad you remembered that.”  Turning back to Lou, he suggested, “Why don’t we take these children over to Rachel’s?  She’ll be glad ta watch ‘em until dinner.  Then we can talk in private.”
Lou and Lu nodded in agreement.  It was a sound plan.  Lu turned and opened the door behind him, nodding to motion the others through first, then he followed them out.  As he stepped out onto the boardwalk, Jimmy fell into step alongside him.
“So,” Jimmy asked.  “That went well.”
Lu looked at him incredulously.  That was not the way he’d describe things.
“No,” Jimmy said, smiling.  “I mean it.  She felt open enough ta read ya the riot act.  That’s a good sign.”
Lu sighed.  “I just feel like there’s somethin’ more.  Somethin’ I still don’t know.”
Jimmy didn’t respond, just walking alongside his brother in silence.  Lu turned his eyes to the children, walking along quietly, hand in hand, occasionally glancing nervously from one of the adults to another.  They were obviously picking up on the intense vibes of emotion roiling through the group, creating a bubble that shielded them from intrusion by anyone else in town.
Suddenly, Lu’s gaze zeroed in on Mary Kate’s eyes as she glanced back at him, noticing the odd shade of crystal clear blue, a shade that was repeated every morning in the mirror when he shaved.  Lu came to a sudden halt in the middle of the intersection.
Turning to Jimmy, he gasped, “How old is she?  How old is Mary Kate?”
Jimmy sighed.  “Wondered how long it’d take ya ta get there.  By the looks of her, I’d guess she’s about eight.  And those eyes of hers… well, let’s just say that confirms the suspicion I have that she’s yers.  Lou was about six months pregnant when she disappeared.”
In a state of shock so profound Lu wondered if his world would ever settle back onto its axis, he followed Teaspoon from Rachel’s, where they’d dropped the children and Teresa off with a beautiful, brassy haired woman who’d hugged him excitedly in greeting, to the town saloon, called Polly’s Place of all things.  It was late afternoon, so the lunch rush was over and the evening crowd had yet to appear, leaving the place empty except for Lu, Lou, Jimmy, Teaspoon and the woman Teaspoon introduced as his third, sixth and final wife, Polly Hunter.  Lu was beyond trying to understand the strange people he found himself surrounded by, he didn’t even look askance at the idea of Lou, or Polly for that matter, entering a saloon.
As they began to sit down at a table near the back of the room, Jimmy stepped back from the group.
“Uh, I think I’ll go check on Lydia,” he said.  “I never did find Cody and I’m sure she’s gettin’ nervous bein’ left this long alone out there.”
Without another word, he disappeared out the door.  Jimmy sighed a huge breath of relief.  This day had been so heavy with emotion, he didn’t think he could withstand the conversation he knew was about to take place in there. 
A smile came back to his face as he contemplated the fireworks he’d get to watch from the front row over the next few weeks.  But he had no doubt things would eventually settle between Lou and Kid, not the way the sparks were flying between them already.
The sound of sobbing emanating from the closed down Cathers wagon wiped the smile off Jimmy’s face.  Had something happened to Lydia?  He hadn’t worried about leaving her alone in Rock Creek.  Since the departure of the Express and the end of the War, it had been a quiet town, with little in the way of crime.  Part of why the residents had been content to let Teaspoon continue on as the Marshal despite his advancing years.
Pushing aside the drawn canvas at the back of the wagon, Jimmy crawled inside to find Lydia curled up on Carl’s pallet, sobbing her eyes out.  Reaching out, he pulled the woman into his arms, rocking back and forth on the floor of the wagon, crooning a wordless tune to her.
“Shhhh, it’ll be alright,” he finally whispered as the sobs began to recede.  Pushing her hair, which had fallen loose from the tight bun she generally kept it in, back from her face, he looked down into her clear green eyes.  “What’s wrong?”
“Everything,” she wailed.
Pulling her close, continuing to rock her, Jimmy rested his chin on top of her head.  “Tell me about it.”
“That was her, wasn’t it?” she answered his question with one of her own.  “That woman he kept staring at?”
“I don’t know who yer talkin’ ‘bout,” Jimmy sighed, “but yeah, Lou’s here.”
“I knew it.  I could feel it,” she whispered.  Looking up at Jimmy, she smiled sadly through her tears.  “I was the belle of the county in my day.  I know when a man’s really interested in me, or another young lady for that matter.  I could tell the minute he clapped eyes on her.  Remember her or not, he’s well and truly on her hook.”
“Yer right there,” Jimmy half-laughed.  “I ain’t never seen two people more in love, even when both of ‘em ‘re fightin’ it fer all their worth.”
“But where does that leave me?  I knew Lu didn’t really love me.  But, I needed someone…” she trailed off, not sure how to finish her story.
“Tell me about it,” Jimmy encouraged.
“I have no family.  I was my father’s only child, my mother died in childbirth and my father died shortly after I married,” she said, sitting up and straightening the bodice of her dress.  Continuing her story, she began to set her hair to rights as well.  “He kept me at home, didn’t let me go to the village school, brought in a governess to tutor me in the ‘womanly’ arts instead.  Needless to say, other than the most basic of reading and writing, I have no education.  Her emphasis was all on the skills I’d need to win a husband, something she’d failed to do herself.  But that was no help when Carl died on me, leaving me to run the farm on my own.”
She sniffed, looking around for something to wipe her nose on.  Jimmy reached into a pocket and pulled out a bandanna, handing it to her.  Taking it, she muttered, “Thank you,” then brought it to her face and noisily blew her nose.
“When Lu showed up, it was like he was a gift from God.  He did his best, but he wasn’t a farmer anymore than I was.  Now, I won’t even have his help anymore.  I’m stuck in the middle of a strange town, no farm, no family, no friends… no man.”  Looking Jimmy straight in the eyes, she asked wearily, “What am I supposed to do now?  How am I supposed to take care of my son?”
Jimmy smiled gently at her, pulling her into another hug.  She stiffened at first at the unexpected familiarity, then relaxed into his embrace.
“You’re stronger than you think, Lydia,” he said.  “Don’t forget, I’ve seen you on the trail.  You’ll do just fine out here.  And you’re not alone.  You may not be the love of his life, but yer special to the Kid.  And that makes you special to us.  We won’t let you and the boy starve to death.  Heck, if nothin’ else, you can go to work fer Teaspoon as a deputy!  We’ll figure something out.”
“We’ll figure somethin’ out,” Lu said softly, smiling weakly at Lou.  It was her turn to be completely flummoxed by the day’s revelations.  Her husband was home but had nary a memory of her.  As she stared from one person to another at the table, looking for answers that weren’t there, Lu repeated himself.  “We’ll figure somethin’ out.”

Chapter 7

Friday, June 22, 2012

Starting Over, Chapter 5

“Get your hands off my daughter.”
Lu stiffened at the icy tone as much as at the words themselves, or the click of the trigger being cocked.  Moving incrementally slowly, he freed Mary Kate from his hug and lifted his open hands up by his head.
Speaking as he turned around, he said, ”I wasn’t tryin’ ta hurt her.”
It took every ounce of self-control Lou possessed not to pull the trigger.  It was bad enough they’d targeted her.  But when they’d gone after her family, her sister and, even worse, her precious daughter, they’d awakened a sleeping monster.
Even as the miscreant who’d dared try to kidnap her baby girl slowly released her and began to turn around, she could feel her trigger finger fighting to squeeze back and send a bullet flying straight into the base of his brain.
She felt a murderous rage shaking her to the bone, even as her gunarm remained rock steady.  A red film began to cloud her vision as he slowly turned around to face her.
“I wasn’t tryin’ ta hurt her.”
Something familiar about the voice began to pierce the shield of her fury.
As he completed his turn, Lu blinked in surprise to see the slender, petite young woman he’d admired earlier glaring at him over the barrel of a gun she held quite competently in her hand.  Up close she looked even more tired and worn, and beautiful, than she had when he’d seen her earlier. 
For some odd reason he had this insane desire to pull her into his arms and promise her that everything would be alright, that he’d take care of her.  Ludicrous in the face of her obvious ability to protect herself, as evidenced by their current standoff, but the way he felt nonetheless.
“Uh, ma’am,” he spoke softly, trying not to anger her further, even as she blanched paper white and swayed as if she were about to faint.  Instinctively, he began to reach out to catch her with both arms.
Lou felt all the blood drain from her head as she stared into a pair of blue orbs she’d thought permanently closed on a distant battlefield in a land she’d never visit.  They were a perfect match for her daughter’s, except for all the wrinkles surrounding them, evidence of laughter and tears, of years spent squinting into the sun, doing hard work.
“Kid?”  She felt her lips forming the word as she began to sway in shock.
Suddenly, the thought of all she’d been through since receiving news of his apparently exaggerated death overtook the temporary joy she felt at seeing him alive again.  All the rage she’d felt earlier came rushing back, three times as strong.
Even as she watched his arms reach out to her in a way she’d dreamed about so many nights over the last decade, her gunarm began to drop to her side, while her other hand tightened into a fist.
“Are you alright, ma’am,” Lu asked worriedly, breathing a sigh of relief as she let the gun drop to her side.  His eyes explored every crook and cranny of her face and form.
Stepping forward, leaning in to provide support as she continued to sway, Lu looked down at the pixie-ish beauty with concern.  Despite his intent perusal, he never noticed her other hand, clenched tightly in a fist, rising to meet his face.  Not until it collided with his chin!
Lou felt a deep sense of satisfaction as her fist impacted on that strong, manly jaw.  There was a part of her that wanted to leap at him, wrap her arms around him and kiss him until neither of them could breathe.  But right now that part couldn’t outshout the part of her that was furious at him for leaving her to fend for herself while pregnant and for the eight long years since.
That part of her nearly chortled at the startled ‘oof’ her punch surprised out of him and the sight of his perplexed face as he went flying backward into a horse trough full of water behind him.  The bewildered look on his face as he surfaced was priceless and Lou took it with her as she spun around toward the Marshal’s office.
“Come along, Mary Kate,” she snapped over her shoulder.  The little girl scurried to her mother’s side in response to the urgent tone, a confused look twisting her small face.
Lu pushed his torso out of the dank water, grasping for breath.  Shoving his wet hair out of his eyes, he looked about, trying to figure out exactly what had happened.
His only answer was the laugher emanating from Jimmy and an older man, presumably Teaspoon Hunter, looking down at him from the boardwalk.  Rubbing his already throbbing jaw, Lu tried to shake off his stupor as he started to crawl out of the trough.
Looking up at his two supposed friends laughing over his predicament, the sopping wet man growled, “What’s so funny?  I was just tryin’ ta be nice to her!”
Teaspoon simply shook his head and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, “And I thought I was bad with women!”
“Y’all can stop laughing anytime now and help a fella out,” Lu complained.
Jimmy leaned down, offering a hand to Lu, helping pull him the rest of the way out of the water and up onto the boardwalk.  Carl immediately ran up to him and plastered himself to Lu’s leg.
“You alright, Pa?” he asked worriedly.
Lu reached down to pat the boy’s head reassuringly.  “I’m fine, son.  No thanks to these two jack a dandies here.”
Jimmy held up his hands in a gesture of peace.  “Hey,” he protested.  “I tried to stop her!”
Lu just looked at him.  Any attempt on Jimmy’s part had been feeble at best, especially since he’d recognized Hickok’s gun in her hands.
“Yup!  You can tell my boys are back in town,” the man Lu assumed was Teaspoon chortled, snapping his suspenders against his chest with a satisfied look on his face.  “It’s been too danged quiet around her lately.”
With that pronouncement, he turned and followed the woman into his office.  Lu watched through the window as the older Marshal walked up to the virago who’d nearly punched his lights out and drew her into a fierce hug.
Turning back to Jimmy, Lu asked in a wondering tone, “Who is that woman?”
Jimmy clapped him on the back, grinning for all he was worth.  “That?  That, my dear Kid, was your beloved wife -- Louise McCloud, of the short temper and long memory!  And she is NOT happy with you!”

Chapter 6

Starting Over, Chapter 4

Author's Note: It's ten years after the end of the Express.  The Civil War is over.  But hings have not exactly gone according to plan for Lou and Kid. That doesn't mean they can't learn to fall in love all over again. Hope springs eternal.

Lou clutched her daugher’s hand tightly as she marched determinedly down the boardwalk toward the Marshal’s office, her sister trailing along behind her.  While much about Rock Creek had changed over the years since she’d left, the Marshal’s office was still right where she’d left it.  Unfortunately, she could tell by looking through the window that no one was there.
Not even sure if Teaspoon were still the Marshal in these parts or not, Lou let out a beleaguered sigh, her shoulders slumping slightly.
“Whatsa matter, Louise?” Teresa asked.
“He ain’t here,” Lou answered, clearing her throat of the lump blocking it.
“You mean he ain’t the Marshal no more?”
Lou shrugged her shoulders.  “Dunno.”
“What are we gonna do now, Momma?” Mary Kate asked, looking up worriedly at her parent.
The sight of that precious face gave Lou the strength to figure out the next step.
“We’re gonna go see if Tompkins is still here,” she said brightly, turning toward the large sign that read “General Store” just down the street.  Moments later, the tinkling of a bell welcomed her into the familiar environs of Tompkins store.  It was larger than she remembered, but other than that not much had changed.  The irascible old shopkeeper still wore his white apron and stood behind the counter, waiting to pounce on the next unwary customer to poke a head in the door.  Except, he was already occupied, speaking to a tall man, dressed all in a fancy black suit, but with a familiar pair of pearl-handled Colts riding on his hips.  She couldn’t stop the whispered “Jimmy?” from escaping her lips.
At the sound of the bell, Tompkins cocked his head to look around the man he was talking to and check on the new arrival.  “Can I help… Lou!?! Is that really you?”
At her name, Tompkins conversation partner spun around on his heel and gaped at her as well.  Lou found herself pressing back against the door behind her, a hand to her heart.
“Lou!” Jimmy shouted, rushing over to her and picking her up in her arms to swing her around in a circle, accidentally knocking over a pile of canned beans in the process.  “Lou!  I’m so happy to see you!  Where have you been?  Why didn’t you write?  Why did you leave?”
Lou laughed in delighted relief that Jimmy, at least, wasn’t holding a grudge against her. 
“If you’ll put me down we can talk all about it,” she said, smiling.
Jimmy quickly set her back on her feet, brushing off her skirts and straightening her mussed clothes in apology.
Tompkins stepped up then to reach out and grab Lou’s hand tightly in his. 
“It’s so nice to see you again,” he said soberly.  “Louise.”  Ever since the day she’d invited him to her wedding, he’d made it a point to address her by her full name and not the shortened version she’d used as an Express Rider.  In his surprise at seeing her he’d let the old sobriquet escape and she could tell he was mildly embarrassed.
“It’s good to see you, too, Sir,” she smiled at him.  “I’ve missed all of you.  You have no idea.”
“Is this yer little one?”
Lou turned back to Jimmy to find him now kneeling in front of Mary Kate, staring at her in awe.
“Yes, this is my daughter, Mary Kate McCloud,” she said softly, tears gathering in her eyes.  “Mary Kate, this is your Uncle Jimmy.”
Mary Kate looked the tall man up and down soberly, then let a bright smile burst forth, like the sun coming out from behind the clouds.  “Hi, Uncle Jimmy!  You were my Pa’s best friend!”
Jimmy laughed.  “I sure was, half pint.  And yer Ma’s, too.”
Tompkins cleared his throat, ever the businessman ready to get down to the nitty gritty.  “So, Louise, what is it brings you back to town after all these years?”
“Um, well, I needed to talk to Teaspoon, Sir,” she hedged.  “He is still the Marshal, ain’t he?”
“Well, Polly’s done her best to get him to retire,” Tompkins smiled, “But the old goat just won’t give it up.”
“Where might I find him?” she asked urgently.
“Oh, if he’s not in the Marshal’s office he’s probably over to the saloon.  He spends most afternoons at Polly’s Place.”
Lou nodded as she said, “Thank you, Sir.  I’ll just head over there then.”
Without another word, she turned back toward the door, intent on reaching her goal.  Jimmy’s hand on her shoulder stopped her.  Looking back at him, she tilted her head in question.
“Listen, Lou,” he started then stopped, blushing a bit.  “Polly’s Place really ain’t the best place to be takin’ a little girl.  I was just askin’ after Teaspoon myself.  Why don’t you let me to get him, and meet y’all back at his office?”
“That sounds like a good idea, Louise,” Teresa spoke up.
Looking from one to the other, then down to her daughter, Lou nodded.  “Alright.  Thank you, Jimmy.”
He smiled at her, and reached out with one gloved hand to brush her cheek.  “Just don’t go disappearing on us again in the meantime, alright?”
She blushed in shame and smiled, “Promise.”
With another backward glance to make sure she wasn’t a figment of his imagination, Jimmy headed out the door.
“Here,” Lou said to Mary Kate, “why don’t we clean up this mess Jimmy made.”
Soon, mother and daughter were quickly stacking the cans of beans back into a pyramid.  Tompkins shook his head, grinning wryly.
“Some things never change!  You Express boys come in here and suddenly my store’s a mess.”
“At least now they clean up after themselves,” Teresa laughed.
“True,” Tompkins admitted.  “I guess even the worst of hooligans grows up eventually.  Although trouble never stops dogging some,” he muttered darkly with a glance toward the door through which Jimmy had exited.
“There, that should do it,” Louise said as she reached up to place the last can at the top of the pyramid.  “Good as new!”
“That was fun, Momma,” Mary Kate said.  “Can we do it again?”
“Now there’s a girl after my own heart,” Tompkins smiled, charmed by the little girl’s sunny smile and bright attitude.  Stepping back to the counter, he reached out and grabbed something out of a jar next to the register.  He turned back to the three females in his story and handed a peppermint stick to each of them.  Bending low as he handed Mary Kate hers, he whispered, “You just keep that up and someday you’ll be a very rich little lady.”
She giggled, hiding her face behind her mother’s skirts for a moment, before peeking back around them at the big man with the friendly smile.
“I can’t believe how friendly Tompkins was,” Lou said as they walked back down the boardwalk toward the Marshal’s office.  “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him smile so much, not even at my wedding.”
“Well, things change, Louise,” Teresa said simply.  “People change.”
Lou jumped nervously when a passing freight drover spat a wad of tobacco nearly directly in front of her feet.
“Damned greenhorns,” he was muttering to his companion.  “Did ya see that one what nearly ran my wagon over on his way inta town?”
The other man shook his head in commiseration.  “Stupid farmers.   You’d think they’d never been to town they way they all gawk at everything in sight.”
Lou shook her head, as if trying to shake off the momentary fright she’d taken.  Teresa reached out and patted her shoulder.  Lou looked at her sympathetic eyes and steeled her backbone, not willing to be a victim for anyone, and began moving down the boardwalk again.
As they reached the Marshal’s office, Lou paused, thinking, outside the door.  Looking down at her daughter, holding on tightly to her with one hand and licking at her peppermint stick clutched in the other, Lou made a decision.  Squatting down to be at face level with the girl, she said, “Mary Kate, this is going to be boring grown-up talk with your Uncle Jimmy and your Grandpa Teaspoon.  Why don’t you sit out here on this bench.  Enjoy the fresh air and finish off your candy?”
“Alright, Ma,” Mary Kate agreed brightly, turning to hop up onto the bench.  Her legs, not quite able to reach the ground yet, began to swing back and forth as she perused the street before her, bringing the peppermint stick to her mouth for an occasional lick.
Lou smiled at the sight.  There’d been a time when she’d thought no sight could make her happier than Kid’s face.  She’d been so wrong, she thought.  This little girl eclipsed anything the Kid had ever made her feel.  She was the reason Lou’d had the strength to go on, after receiving news Kid had been killed.
Sighing, she turned back toward the door and reached out to open it.
“Why’d you leave Mary Kate outside, Louise?” Teresa asked.
“Just ‘cause Jimmy was happy to see me doesn’t mean Teaspoon will be.  I betrayed him more than any of the others when I left,” Lou said, gripping the carpetbag in her hands even more tightly.  “No sense subjecting her to a scene, if there is one.”
By the time Jimmy arrived, trailing a nearly running Teaspoon, Lou was pacing nervously back and forth across the Marshal’s office.  Teresa had seated herself on a bench along the back wall and was watching her sister calmly.
“Where’s my girl?” Teaspoon demanded enthusiastically, scanning the office from one end to the other as soon as he opened the door.  Finally finding Lou, he rushed the rest of the way through the door to reach her side in two bounds.  Much like Jimmy, he grabbed her with both hands, pulling her into a bear hug that left her gasping for breath.  “Thank God, yer safe and sound!” Teaspoon whispered hoarsely into her hair.  “Thank God!”
Pulling back, he looked her up and down, he added, “You ever pull a stunt like this again and I’ll tan yer hide so bad you won’t be able ta sit still fer a month of Sundays!”
Lou laughed.  “You’d have ta catch me first, Teaspoon.  Somethin’ ya never could do.”
Teaspoon raised one eyebrow as he asked caustically, “I ain’t so sure about that gal!  What the hell happened to ya?  You look worse than ya did that first day with the Express!”
“It’s a long story, Teaspoon,” Lou sighed, pulling out of his arms and sitting down next to her sister.
“Well, why don’t ya start at the beginning,” he suggested, resting one hip on the edge of his desk.
“Why’d you leave, Lou?” Jimmy asked.
Looking up at him with tears in her eyes, she asked in a choked off voice, “Do you really have to ask that?”
“No, guess not,” he muttered, looking away from her pain.  Turning to Teaspoon he said, in a brighter tone, “Before we get started here, I’ve got some more good news.  We’re not the only ones back--”
“What the hell does he think he’s doin’?”
The sound of Lou’s enfuriated voice had both Jimmy and Teaspoon turning in her direction.  Before they could figure out what she was so mad about, she’d rushed toward the door, grabbing one of Jimmy’s pistols out of his holster as she pushed past him.
“Hey!” he shouted, turning to tumble out the door after her, only to come to a shocked standstill, as she pointed the gun at the head of a tall, sandy-haired man squatting next to the boardwalk hugging Mary Kate.  “Um, Lou--”
“Get your hands off my daughter, mister!” she growled in as menacing a tone as Jimmy’d ever heard from her, even as she pulled back the hammer and cocked the gun.