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.