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.
Lu watched as the town called Rock Creek slowly materialized on the horizon. Jimmy had told him this was where he’d worked for the Express, where he’d gotten married and the place he’d left his one, true love behind when he’d headed East to fight in the War Between The States.
He half-held his breath, hoping against hope that his return to familiar environs might spark a memory or two. Living the last several years as a man without a past had become a burden he wanted free of, even if it did mean totally upsetting the life he’d built for himself since. The uncertainty, not knowing who he really was, was killing him. Anything would do, really, a momentary glimpse of the men he’d called brother, the scent of this Lou he’d once supposedly loved so passionately -- though how he could have loved someone so much and still left her to fight that damned, senseless war he didn’t know. But, try as he might, he remembered nothing, recognized nothing.
Despite all that, he felt an odd quickening of his heart the closer he came to the settlement. He had the strangest urge to push his team into a gallop, to shout… something… as he raced into town.
“Slow down, Lu,” Lydia begged, grasping tightly at his arm.
Looking down at her, Lu noticed the white lines of stress showing around her eyes as she tried, and failed, to hold back her fear. It was then he realized the horses were moving, if not at a full gallop, at the next best thing to it… and would appear to be a runaway team to anyone watching.
“Whoa!” he called out, pulling back on the reins to slow the animals to a sedate walk. “Sorry,” he muttered to Lydia, who simply nodded compliantly and released her death grip on his arm now that she felt safe. What had happened to the spirited woman who’d been traveling with him and Jimmy these last few weeks, he wondered, the woman only Jimmy seemed to bring out so easily? Even as the name crossed his mind, the husky laughter of the man himself penetrated Lu’s thoughts.
“See,” Jimmy smiled up at Lu form the back of the palomino gelding he was riding alongside the wagon. “I told you you’d remember, once we got here.”
Lu shook his head in denial. Flapping one arm uselessly toward the town ahead, he said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t recognize any of this. I haven’t remembered anything!”
His voice rose in volume and heat with each word, venting his frustrations on this man who’d promised so much and failed to deliver. Jimmy just laughed some more, pulling his hat off to slap it against his thigh before settling it once more, securely, atop his head.
“Guess that explains why you pushed yer animals so hard back there, starting right where we used speed up on our way in from a run, eager ta get home and taste some of Rachel’s good cookin’,” Jimmy smiled, once he’d conquered his laughter. “You may not have remembered here,” he said, pointing at his head, “but you sure remembered in here.” He emphasized the finish with a slap of his chest, right over his heart.
A few moments later and Lu was turning the wagon onto Rock Creek’s main street, following Jimmy into town. As they drove past the stagecoach, pulled up in front of the hotel, Lu could tell it, too had just arrived, but from the West, instead of the East.
He watched the people disembarking one at a time, wondering what had led each of them to head back East. Just as he pulled even with the stage, a pretty young woman, with painfully short hair, dressed in a worn out old calico frock Lydia wouldn’t even have used as a rag, stepped out of the stage, leaning wearily on the driver’s uplifted hand for a moment before turning back to speak to someone still inside.
He’d only caught a moment’s glimpse of her as he passed, but there was something so compelling about those large, expressive brown eyes and that mobile mouth that he felt this indescribable urge to run back and find out everything about her, to learn why she looked so tired and hungry, and do something to make her smile.
Unconsciously, he turned his head back, hoping to get another look at her. A sudden hiss from Lydia had him snapping his head back to the front, just in time to guide the horses around a freight wagon stopped in front of the general store.
“Would you watch where we’re going?” Lydia snapped, obviously trying to maintain her fragile hold on her temper, and failing judging by the sudden flush along her cheekbones.
“Sorry,” Lu found himself muttering again, mentally kicking himself for getting so distracted and endangering not only Lydia, but also Carl, who rode in the wagon behind them, and was right now leaning up against his back, checking the town out as eagerly as Lu had been.
“Pull up to that barn at the end of the street, Jimmy interrupted Lu’s inner diatribe. Pointing out the large structure he’d been talking about, he added, “I’ll go roust out the livery owner for ya and let Teaspoon know we’re here.” The comment was accompanied by a mischievous smile that had Lu’s shoulder blades itching something fierce.
“I… I have a headache,” Lydia whispered after they’d been stopped outside the livery but a few moments. “I think I’ll lay down in back for awhile.”
Without another word, she crawled into the back of the wagon where there was a small pallet for Carl. She pulled the canvas flaps closed tight behind her. Lu watched, wondering what was really bothering her. She didn’t really have a headache. She never did. It was just an excuse to escape from something or someone. He wondered what she was trying to escape from this time.
He looked down at Carl, who stood at his side, and quirked an eyebrow in question. Carl just stared back up at him, lifting both hands up in an open gesture and shrugging like an old man. Lu laughed.
Holding his hand out to the boy, he said, “ Come on, let’s go exploring! Let yer Ma get some rest.”
Smiling happily, Carl took his hand and soon they were walking down the boardwalk, stopping every once in awhile to peer into a window, or comment on something they’d seen. There were two restaurants and a hotel, in addition to a dressmaker’s shop and a feed and seed on one side of the street. Crossing over to the other, they peeked into a window labeled Telegraph Office. Inside the telegraph operator was hunched over his little machine, tapping out a message to who knew where for a businessman waiting impatiently on the other side of the counter.
Pointing at the telegraph operator’s dark skin and long, black hair pulled up into a pony tail, Carl asked curiously, “Is that an injun, Pa?”
“Don’t rightly know, son,” Lu replied, taking another look. “Mebbe so. Don’t look like no nigra I ever seen. But, if he is, he don’t look all that savage to me.”
Moving on down the street, they came to a general store and a barber shop, before Carl noticed Hickok disappearing into a building labeled U.S. Marshal across the street.
“Hey! There’s Uncle Jimmy,” Carl shouted, tugging urgently at Lu’s hand, pulling him down off the boardwalk and out into the road. Laughing, Lu allowed the child to drag him across the street.
But, peering through the window, he saw Jimmy talking earnestly, yet animatedly, to an older man wearing a badge. The pretty young lady he’d seen earlier was seated next to another woman, slightly younger, against the far wall.
Lu squatted down in front of Carl to get his full attention, then said, “Your Uncle Jimmy’s busy, Carl. We’d best wait out here fer him.”
“He’s probably talking to my Grandpa ‘Spoon,” a bright voice spoke up from behind them. Spinning around, Lu found a smiling cherub of a girl sitting on a bench against the wall, swinging her legs back and forth, while sucking on a candy stick. She had long brown hair bound into two straight braids that fell over her shoulders, and the brightest blue eyes Lu’d ever seen. Those eyes seemed hauntingly familiar to him, though he couldn’t figure out why. Standing up, she wiped her hand off on her pinafore, then held it out to them and, with a big grin, introduced herself. “Hi! My name’s Mary Kate.”
Lu gravely took her hand in his, careful not to crush it as he shook it, and completed the introductions. “I’m Louis Mallory and this is my son, Carl.”
Carl stepped forward. “Nice to meet you, Mary Kate. How come you have two names?”
Lu started trying to hush the boy, but Mary Kate was already answering him.
“Cause I’m named fer two people, both my Grandmas. Not that I ever met them. They’re dead.”
“I’m named fer my Pa,” Carl said, obviously happy to find something in common with the young lady.
She tilted her head in question and asked, “But I thought he,” she pointed up at Lu, “was yer Pa.”
Carl laughed. “He’s my second Pa. My first one died ‘fore I was borned, back during the War.”
Mary Kate looked from Carl to Lu and back again several times, before reaching out to grab Carl’s hand and drag him off down the boardwalk with her.
“Hey, where are you…” Lu started to question.
“We’ll be right back,” she shouted over her shoulder, never slowing down. Carl just grinned and waved. Lu sighed and settled down to sit on the edge of the boardwalk and await the children’s return.
They didn’t go far, essentially just until they were out of hearing. Then, Mary Kate began chattering a mile a minute at Carl, who just nodded occasionally in answer. Breaking off a piece of her candy stick, Mary Kate handed it to Carl, who grinned and immediately stuck it in his mouth. Lu laughed softly to himself, watching the children’s antics. A moment later they returned to his side. Carl settled himself on the boardwalk next to Lu, while Mary Kate jumped off the edge to stand in front of him.
Looking up at Lu, she contemplated him for a long moment before saying, “My Pa died in the War before I was borned, just like Carl’s. Could you be my second Pa, too?”
Lu gasped for breath, struggling not to cry at the sad, wistful tone in the little girl’s voice. Dropping to his knees in front of her, he held out his arms. She rushed into them, and he hugged her tightly to him.
“I--“ he started to say, planning to let her down as gently as possible, but a sharp voice interrupted.
“Get your hands off my daughter, mister!”
The harsh tones were followed up by the ominous clicking of a gun being cocked, right next to his ear.