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.”
“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.”