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.
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.
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.