Author's Note: This is the beginning of a new story. It starts 10 years after the end of the Express. Things have not exactly gone according to plan for Lou and Kid. But that doesn't mean they can't learn to fall in love all over again. Hope springs eternal.
Overland Stage, Nebraska, 1871
“Momma, are we there yet?”
Lou smiled down at the precious little girl who had been the one thing that had kept her going these last 10 years. Reaching out, she gently brushed a stray curl back behind her ear.
“We’re almost there, honey,” Lou said. “Why don’t you work on your sampler to pass the time?”
Sighing, Lou watched as her petite daughter, with curly brown hair pulled back into two braids and bright blue eyes, began digging into her bag for her cross stitch sampler. The gamine little imp reminded Lou more of her father every day. Sighing, Lou turned to stare out the stage window at the prairie slowly sliding past, much like her life had for the last decade. Ever since the day all her dreams for the future had died, along with her husband, in the War.
“It’ll be alright, Lou. You’ll see.”
Lou looked across the stage at her sister, Teresa, smiling softly at her.
“I don’t know, Sugarbear,” she said, using her old nickname for her little sister. “the way I left....” she let the thought trail off, whispering almost too quietly to hear as she turned back to her perusal of the passing plains, “I just don’t know.”
Not really seeing the countryside before her eyes, Lou’s thoughts wandered back to the day she’d left, without a word or a note for anyone. Would they be able to forgive her for just disappearing? She’d never been able to get up the courage to contact Teaspoon, Rachel, Emma or any of the surviving boys in the years since. For all they knew, she’d died that day, same as Kid.
“Rock Creek, Nebraska, next stop!”
The stagecoach driver’s call jerked Lou from an uneasy sleep. Sitting up straighter, she reached up to push her hair back from her face, coming to a sudden stop when she found no hair to push. It was going to take some getting used to, this having short hair again, she thought inconsequentially.
Soon, she was letting the driver hand her down out of the stage, then turning to catch her daughter as she jumped from the stage into her mother’s arms. Hugging the girl close to her, Lou set her down gently, keeping a tight clasp on her hand.
“Thank you,” she murmured to Teresa as her sister handed her a lone, almost empty, carpetbag that held all their worldly possessions. Slowly, she began a determined march down the familiar street toward the Marshal’s office. At a soft tugging on her hand, Lou looked down. “Yes?”
“Momma, where are we going?”
“Home, honey,” she said, looking back up toward her goal. “We’re going home.”
Winchester, Tennessee, 1871
Louis Mallory smiled as he watched his soon-to-be stepson come running down the boardwalk toward him. The five year old was the joy of his life. It was hard to believe the boy would be officially his tomorrow, Louis thought as the child flung himself at the only father he’d ever known, wrapping all his limbs around the tall man’s leg.
“Pa, guess what?”
“What, son?” Louis, Lu to his friends, asked as he bent over to pull the child up into his arms.
“Mr. Fisher gave me a whole ten cent piece fer holdin’ his horse fer him. He was real purty, too.”
“Mr. Fisher was pretty?” Lu asked, putting on an astounded look just for the boy, who laughed uproariously. Mr. Fisher was unanimously declared the ugliest man in town, with crossed eyes, crooked teeth and only half a head of straggly grey hair. But he loved children and was always finding little ‘jobs’ for them to do so he could give them money. There was something about the old man that just warmed the cockles of Lu’s heart.
“No, Pa!” the five year old smiled, slapping a hand against the man’s broad shoulder. “His horse was. It was a new one, too.”
Lu smiled, walking down the boardwalk as the child continued to chatter in his ear. He’d come to Winchester five years ago, at the end of the war, to deliver the sad news of the death of Carl Cathers to his widow, Lydia. He’d arrived just in time to help her deliver her son into the world. Carl had been his best friend ever since he’d joined the 1st Tennessee Infantry back in ’62 and, at his behest, he’d stayed on in Winchester, helping Lydia run her farm and raise her son.
A few months ago they’d started courting and tomorrow she would become his wife, making her son his, officially. Probably not a good idea to mention to her he was more excited about becoming a Pa than a husband, Lu thought with a slight grimace.
The day after that, they were pulling out, heading west. He’d done his best, but he was no farmer. And the post-war economy hadn’t helped. They’d never gotten caught up on Carl’s back taxes and now they were out of time. So, they were headed west in hopes of finding free land and starting a horse ranch.
Jimmy Hickok stepped out of the hotel where he’d booked a room for the night. He could have continued to travel another few hours, but there was no hurry. It wasn’t as if he had anyone waiting for him back home, or that he even really had a home. The last time he’d had a place that had truly felt like home was back before the start of the War, when he’d been riding for the Express. But now his family was dead, missing or scattered to the four winds.
He’d tried recapturing some of that old family feeling these last few months, working with his ‘brother’ Billy Cody for Cody’s newly-minted Wild West Show. But his heart just hadn’t been in it. Now, he was headed back to the western frontier, where at least things worked in a way Jimmy could understand.
Sighing, he turned down the boardwalk, headed toward the small town’s singular restaurant. He missed Emma’s and Rachel’s good cooking. No restaurant meal ever measured up, let alone all the saloon food he’d eaten over the last few years. So deep in thought was he, he didn’t notice the man walking down the path toward him, a chattering child held in his arms, not until he ran right into them.
“Oof!” the man let out a gasp of air as he desperately reached for the child falling out of his arms. Jimmy’s quick reflexes, honed to a fine tune by a lifetime of gunfighting, let him catch the boy just inche before he crashed headfirst into the wooden boardwalk.
“You alright?” he asked, hauling the child upright and brushing him off. “Nothing’s broken? No bleeding?”
“No, I’m fine, mister,” the youth said, smiling up at him through a gap in his teeth. “That was a nice catch. Even my Pa couldn’t move that fast! And he’s the fastest man in the whole county!”
“Well, I better have caught you seeing as how I’m the one what sent ya flyin’ in the first place,” Jimmy smiled back. He’d always loved children. There was something so pure and uncomplicated about them. Straightening to his full six feet of height, he raised his head to meet the gaze of the man he’d run into, only to freeze at the sight of a familiar pair of crystal, blue eyes. He gasped, “Kid? Kid!”
With a shout of glee, he reached out, throwing his arms around the startled man. “Kid! You’re alive!”
Noticing the man’s stiffness, Jimmy pulled back to look at him again. No, there’d been no mistake. It was Kid. The same curly hair, about as short as Jimmy’d ever seen it, the crystal blue eyes circled by more lines than Jimmy remembered, but still the same, and the height that let Kid look Jimmy in the eyes, something few men in this world could do.
The man cleared his throat and spoke, a touch uncertainly. “I don’t know who this ‘Kid’ is, but I thank you for rescuing my son.” He held out his hand to Jimmy for a more formal greeting, “Name’s Louis, Louis Mallory. Though most folks just call me Lu.”
“Lu?” Jimmy asked, bewildered, shaking his head in disbelief. “Well, we never knew what yer real name was. Not even yer brother would own up to it. We all just called ya ‘the Kid’.”
Now it was Lu’s turn to look flummoxed. Taking a half-step backward, he stammered, “You… you mean you know me? You actually do know me?”
“Well of course I do! Shared a bunkhouse with ya fer nigh on two years, back when we rode fer the Express. Called you brother, right up until the day ya rode off ta fight fer the South and I was too stubborn ta realize the importance of family.” Jimmy laughed. “You might’ve aged a bit, but I’d recognize ya anywhere!”
Never taking his eyes off the tall, lanky fellow who claimed to know him, Lu spoke to his son. “Carl, you go on down to the church and tell yer Ma ta head home. I’ll be along later.”
Looking back and forth between the two men, Carl reluctantly began walking away.
“Let’s go someplace more private and talk,” Lu said urgently, grabbing Jimmy’s arm in a tight grasp, as if afraid he might disappear. Soon they were seated in a corner at Ma’s Kettle, the town’s only restaurant.
“What happened to ya, Kid? Er… Lu?” Jimmy asked. “Last we heard, was when we got word you’d been killed at the Battle of Seven Pines, along with the rest of yer unit.”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know?”
“Precisely that,” Lu grimaced. “I don’t know anythin’ from before I woke up in the hospital back in ‘62. I’d taken a bad blow to the head. Doctors figured my memory would come back eventually, but it never has.”
Jimmy didn’t know what to say to that and just stared at Kid.
Lu chuffed a half laugh. “Honestly, I don’t even know if Louis Mallory is my real name or not. It’s the best we could figure at the time. Doctors called me Lu, ‘cause that’s what I kept mumbling when I was unconscious. And the Mallory was embroidered into the collar of my jacket, so they figured that must’ve been my last name.”
All color seemed to leach out of Jimmy’s face at this news. It explained so much. He began shaking his head, trying to deny the pain a simple misunderstanding had caused.
“What?” Lu asked, curiously.
“Lu ain’t yer name,” Jimmy said hoarsely. “It's yer wife's. Lou… Louise McCloud. You even went by McCloud after marryin’ her, rather than reveal yer real name, Kid. She embroidered it into yer coat collar shortly before you left.”
“My…. my wife?” Lu asked in a strangled voice.
“Pretty little spitfire…. rode fer the Express with the rest of us. We all thought of her as a sister,” Jimmy explained. “You’d only been married a couple months when you left for the War.”
Lu ran a hand over his face, trying to absorb this new information.
“I’m married?” he muttered. To a woman who’d lived and ridden with a bunch of men?!
“Actually… I don’t know,” Jimmy shrugged sadly. “Lou disappeared, along with her brother and sister, about a week after we got word you’d been killed. No one’s seen or heard of her since. We honestly don’t know if she’s alive or dead.” He decided to keep the rest of the disturbing news to himself for now.
“Well, shee-ite,” Lu let out a long, low whistle, collapsing back into his chair. “This sure puts a crimp in things.”
Jimmy nodded, remembering what he’d heard Kid say earlier.
“Lydia?” he asked.
Lu nodded. “My fiancée. We’re supposed to get married tomorrow. I’m adopting her son, Carl.”
Jimmy just looked at Kid, Lu, not sure what to say to that.
“Guess I’d better go tell the minister the weddin’s off… leastwise fer now.. then head home and bust the news to her. She ain’t gonna be very happy about this.” Lu stood up and headed toward the door. Turning back he asked, “You stayin’ around?”
“Wild horses couldn’t drag me away now,” Jimmy said. “See you in the mornin’?” Kid nodded and walked out the door, shoulders slumped.
“You’d better hope Lou doesn’t catch wind of this either,” Jimmy muttered as he watched his brother leave. “Yer Lydia may not ‘be happy’ but our Lou’ll skin ya alive, that’s fer sure and certain.”
“So you may already be married?” Lydia asked quietly, sitting on the maroon loveseat in her beautifully appointed parlor. Lydia was a quiet woman, strong in her own way, but not outspoken. She could easily disappear in a room with only two people if she wanted. She preferred to let someone else deal with the troubles of the world and had leaned on Lu to handle things ever since he’d arrived.
Lu looked at her and nodded his head miserably. He’d never been particularly attracted to Lydia. It wasn’t that she wasn’t pretty enough. She had long ebony hair with a silky sheen, a body with all a woman’s curves in all the right places and a face pleasing to the sight. But she’d never sparked an interest in him. Maybe it was because he’d always thought of her as his fallen comrade’s wife, not as an available woman. Or, maybe, his mind whispered, it was because he’d always known, somewhere deep inside, that he was the one who was unavailable.
Her son, Carl, who he’d helped deliver the night of his arrival, was another story however. Lu loved the boy with every ounce of his heart. The thought of losing him because of some phantom woman he couldn’t even remember tore Lu’s heart in two. Already he was starting to dislike this other ‘Lou’.
“I’m afraid so,” was all he said.
“What are we going to do?” she asked, a tone of steel in her voice, without looking up at him. “The wagon train won’t let Carl and I come along unless I’m married and the farm’s already sold. The new owners are set to take possession day after tomorrow.
“I’ll talk things over with this Jimmy in the morning,” Lu sighed, feeling the pressure of having to make all the decisions himself. Sometimes he wished he had someone who would take an equal part of the burden. “See if he has anything to suggest.
“You’d better get things straightened out quickly,” Lydia finally spoke shortly.
“I know, Lydia. And I’m sorry, but there’s not much I can do about it.”
“Well, shoot, Kid,” Jimmy smiled at him. “That’s easy. Pack ‘em up in the wagon and we’ll head west together. We don’t need no wagon train. Ain’t nothin’ ‘tween here and Rock Creek like what you and I used to handle with the Express. The two of us are all we really need to protect a single wagon with a woman and child.”
“Are you sure?” Lu asked uncertainly. It seemed like an awful large burden to be taking on for a stranger. Then again, according to this man, he wasn’t a stranger at all.
“Sure as shootin’ I’m sure,” Jimmy said, standing up. “What are you waitin’ fer. Let’s go get you packed up. We’ll head out first thing in the morning.”
“Alright,” Lu said, picking up his hat and placing it on his head as they walked out into the bright southern sunshine.
Seeing the sign for a telegraph office, Jimmy suddenly stopped. “Listen, I’ll catch up with ya in a few minutes.”
Kid looked at him with a question on his face. Jimmy pointed at the sign that had caught his attention.
“I need to send a telegram. Warn a few people we’re comin’.”