Author's Note: This is part 6 of the Sweetwater Romance series. It comes after Sweet Reunion and falls at the beginning of the season 3 premier, A House Divided.
“Alright boys,” Teaspoon humphed, “you, too, Lou. Pick yer poison.”
Teaspoon was seated in his customary seat at the head of the dinner table, a handful of straws held out. Earlier that day he’d told them two of the riders would have to go to Rock Creek, Nebraska Territory, to rebuild the Express station there, after free-staters had burned them out.
Lou watched the others, pushing forward to grab the straw each had targeted as being least likely to be short. Only two straws had been pulled when the first groan came.
“Aw, man,” Jimmy whined. “Why me?”
“Just luck, I guess,” Teaspoon shrugged. Looking over toward where Lou still sat, Kid at her side, at the other end of the table, he added, “You two better get over here, before Cody beats you out.”
Lou leaned forward and grabbed the third to last straw, sitting back and sticking it between her teeth to show off its length. But something about Kid’s demeanor when he reached out to pick his straw, hand hovering over first one, then the other, a questioning glance thrown Teaspoon’s way, then a quick dart toward one of the two remaining pieces of hay, had her sitting up straighter as she tried to figure out what was going on.
“Guess, you and I share the same luck, Jimmy,” Kid said, holding up the short straw he’d pulled, half the length of the one Lou was chewing on.
“Better get to packing boys,” Teaspoon threw out. “I want you on the road with the dawn.”
A short time later, Lou slipped out the bunkhouse door in search of Kid. She found him in the barn, talking to Katy as he curried her, bedding the mare down for the night.
“You want to tell me what’s goin’ on?” she asked without preamble.
Kid sighed, letting the hand with the curry comb fall to his side as he turned to face her. “Don’t suppose you’d believe me if I said nothin’, would ya?”
She shook her head silently, arms crossed over her chest as she glared at Kid. He slowly put away the curry comb and exited Katy’s stall, carefully latching the stall door behind him. Grabbing Lou’s hand, he led her over to a bale of hay sitting in a corner. Sitting down, he drew her down next to him.
“I’m leavin’ fer you,” he finally said.
“Well, remember when I asked ya to marry me? What ya said then?”
Lou nodded, chewing absently on her lip as she thought back to that day she’d rather forget.
“I need some room, Kid,” she’d said. “Room to breathe, room to think.”
“I don’t understand,” he’d practically begged. “What did I do wrong?”
“Nothing, Kid,” she’d said, reaching out a hand to calm him. “This ain’t about you. This is about me.” She’d turned away from him then, gathering the courage to admit a hard truth. “When we met, I was runnin’ away from myself. I’ve kind of lost track of who I am since then. I need to figure out who I am, now, before I go tryin’ ta change me. I just… need a little time.”
“This ain’t gonna work, is it?”
“I remember,” she said softly.
“I think I understand better, now, what you were tryin’ ta tell me then. And, you were right.”
“Lou, I ain’t gonna pussyfoot around,” Kid said, exasperated. “I want to marry you. And I’d like it to be someday soon, not in some far distant future.”
Lou stiffened, drawing in a surprised breath at his sudden frankness.
“It’s alright,” he immediately soothed. “I ain’t askin’. Even I kin tell the time ain’t right yet.”
She relaxed, releasing the breath she’d been unconsciously holding.
“What I’m sayin’ though… is, well… we’ve been spendin’ a lot of time together since we got back from Benton. And I’ve enjoyed getting’ ta know you again, maybe better than I ever did before.”
“Me too, Kid,” Lou said, agreeing quickly as she reached out a hand to cover his. “It’s been… nice.”
“But we ain’t exactly started talkin’ ‘bout, or workin’ on the problems we had…. before. I kinda saw this as an opportunity to do that. To… maybe move forward a bit.”
Turning her hand over in his, he began tracing the lines in her palm with one finger of his other hand. Lou sat back, enjoying the sensations and letting the quiet sounds of the barn soothe her while Kid thought through whatever else it was he wanted to say. Being patient wasn’t in her nature, but for him she was trying to learn. Finally, he raised his head and met her eyes.
“I want you to take this time I’m gone, to think about who you are, what you want, what you’re dreams are,” he smiled at her, poking a finger at her to emphasize his point. Then, he reached out and brushed her hair back off her face. “I love you more than anything, Louise McCloud. When I get back, I hope you can still say the same. I don’t want to lose you anymore than you do.”
A soft smile brightened Lou’s features as she gazed up at this man who was bending over backward in his efforts to make her happy, even if he didn’t always understand exactly what he was doing or why. Suddenly, she couldn’t help herself. They hadn’t done more than hold hands ever since they’d decided to try again, both agreeing they needed to take things more slowly this time around. But now she impulsively leaned forward and pressed a kiss to Kid’s lips, reaching out with her free hand to grasp the back of his head and hold his face close to hers. A moment later, she pulled back to smile up at him.
“What was that about?” he asked, confused, although happy.
“Sometimes I wish I could’ve said ‘yes’,” she whispered, looking up at him through her eyelashes. “Thank you.” Without another word, she tore herself out of his arms and scampered out of the barn.
Lou watched the sun slowly peaking over the horizon, heralding a new day and, maybe?, a new her. She shifted from one foot to the other as she waited for Kid to come out of the bunkhouse. She wanted to say a private goodbye, before the others came out.
“Pretty isn’t it?”
Turning she saw Kid looking at her with that look, the one that made her stomach take flight every time.
“Yeah,” she nodded. “It is.”
Kid walked up to her and pulled her tight in a hug.
“I’m gonna miss you,” he whispered into her hair. “You have no idea how much.”
“Me too,” she nodded, speaking into the lapel of his coat. “I know Teaspoon says it’ll only be a couple weeks, but right now that feels like forever.”
Reaching down to tilt her chin up so he could look into her face, Kid said, “I’ll write you. As soon as I get there.” He laughed slightly. “Seems I do my best talkin’ to ya in letters anyway.”
“I still have your last one,” she whispered shyly.
“And you’ll do some thinkin’ while I’m gone?” he asked earnestly.
She nodded. “Just stay safe. You know, if we ever… move on… we’re gonna have to consider a change in profession. I don’t like sending you off like this.”
Kid laughed, reaching out to tweak her nose. “And I do? Maybe yer right. Somethin’ else to think about.”
Lou opened her mouth to say something more only to be interrupted by Jimmy walking out the bunkhouse door onto the porch.
“Am I interruptin’? Or can a fellow get a goodbye hug?” he asked, a smile flirting with the corners of his mouth.
Kid reluctantly released Lou as she turned to hug Jimmy goodbye as well. Soon, Jimmy was settling his hat more comfortably on his head and walking toward the barn. Kid’s eyes followed him.
“Maybe you need to do some thinkin’, too,” Lou said softly.
“What do you mean?”
“You and Jimmy,” she said. “You’ve been at odds fer awhile now. If you don’t make it up soon, it’ll be too late. He’s your friend, Kid, don’t lose him over stubborn pride or jealousy.”
“Why do I always end up drawin’ the short straw?” Jimmy complained as they rode out of the barn, ready to head for Rock Creek. Kid wasn’t looking forward to the long trip or the troubles he was pretty sure awaited him, but at the same time felt the special run was a godsend.
“I drew the other one,” was all he said. “Come on, Jimmy, a change of scenery might do us both good.”
“Yeah, if we live through it,” Jimmy muttered. They came to a stop in front of Teaspoon and Noah, who had joined Lou in the yard to wish them a safe ride.
“When you get to Rock Creek look up Ben Turner. He’s the Marshal there,” Teaspoon said, offering a last bit of advice. It was obvious he was nervous about the situation, as much as he tried to cover it up.
“Thought he was a Texas Ranger,” Kid said, remembering stories Teaspoon had told them of his days with the Rangers and recognizing the name.
“He was,” Teaspoon grunted. “Then he got married. His wife wanted him to take a safer job.”
Kid’s eyes flew to Lou as Teaspoon nearly repeated what she’d said just moments before. Lou lowered her eyes, trying to hide her own blushing reaction, but unable to completely keep the smirk off her face.
“Sounds about as safe as sittin’ on a powder keg,” Jimmy commented.
“Ben’s an old friend of mine. Solid as an oak. I seen him put down a riot once,” Teaspoon reminisced, “single handed, without firin’ a shot. You boys get in trouble, you can count on him. I’ll be along as soon as I can. Shouldn’t be more’n a couple of days.”
Lou stepped forward, reaching up to take Kid’s hand in hers one last time before he rode off. “You take care of yourself, Kid.”
Kid nodded, gazing deeply into her limpid brown eyes as he squeezed her hand in return, before letting go and turning his horse toward the East.
“Ride safe,” Lou whispered under her breath as she watched him ride off. She barely noticed Teaspoon wrapping an arm around her shoulders and pulling her close to his side.
Room to Breathe, Reba McEntire
You ain’t done nothin’ wrong, but I think we need to talkYou might be the one, but before we go too far I need a little time to figure out my heart
Who could ask for more? But I need to know for sure.
I haven’t been myself from the minute that we metI ran into your world and kind of walked out on myself
All those dreams I had, I begin to second guess, for you
One too many questions, until I know the truth
I know you’re not to blame and I swear there’s no one newThis has to do with me and not a thing to do with you
So don’t try to understand
You don’t have a thing to prove to me
If you really love me, just give me what I need
Please don’t take this wrong and please don’t turn awayI just don’t want to look back one day and say…
I need room to breathe
A little time to think
to make sure I don’t lose me