Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Screwing Up, By The Numbers

Summary:  What’s a workaholic to do when she gets stretched too thin and makes a major mistake on the job?
Author’s note:  This story falls somewhere early in Season 2, after Rachel and Noah have joined the group but before Teaspoon finds out that Lou is Louise.
The four boys seated at the table all jumped at the sound of the bunkhouse door slamming shut.  Noah and Ike turned to see what the other two were so carefully trying not to see.  As soon as he realized it was Lou in a particularly foul mood, Ike turned back to the plate of food in front of him and ignored her as well.  Noah, unfortunately, didn’t know any better.
“What’s eatin’ you, Lou?” he asked.
Lou ignored him, continuing to stomp her way to her bunk.
Rachel, having heard Lou’s noisy entrance, turned from the counter where she’d picked up the plate she’d set aside earlier for the girl rider.  Setting it down on the table, she said, “Food’s hot.  Come and get it.”
“Ain’t hungry,” Lou growled, never turning to look at the others in the room.  Reaching her bunk, she slammed her saddlebags down on the straw tic, followed quickly by her jacket.  She grabbed her hat that was hanging on a nail on the wall by the bunk and turned to stomp out just as noisily as she’d entered.
“Louise Mc-” Rachel started to follow after her, a scolding tone in her voice.  Ike grabbed her arm and pulled her back toward the table, before motioning emphatically. 
Still learning his signs, Rachel quickly got lost and turned to Buck for help.
“He’s sayin’ it’s best ta just leave Lou alone when she gets like this,” Buck said.
“Yep,” Jimmy agreed.  “You go messin’ with her right now and she’s liable ta tear ya limb from limb.”
Looking around at the four boys, Rachel raised a brow to see them so cowed.  Even Noah looked confused.
“I don’t care what’s wrong, there’s no excuse for being so rude,” Rachel huffed, rescuing Lou’s plate from Ike’s covetous gaze.
“I’d wait ‘til she’s calmed down a bit ‘fore tellin’ her that,” Buck suggested.
“Are you sure you’re talking about our Lou?” Noah asked.  “She’s always seemed so quiet.  I just can’t see her in a real temper.”
“Oh, you ain’t seen nothin’, yet,” Jimmy said.
*There’s a reason we call her Tornado Lou,* Ike signed.  *But never to her face!*
The others laughed.
Marching across the yard toward the barn, Lou could hear the chatter and laughter coming from the bunkhouse and knew she was probably the topic of discussion.  She didn’t care.  She knew if she went back in there, there was a good chance she’d end up shooting someone.
Everyone thought Jimmy had the most volatile temper.  But she knew better and she knew when she needed to get away from the others, like today.
Climbing up into the hayloft, Lou flopped down in the straw, flinging one arm over her eyes, her hat still clutched in that hand.  Clenching her jaw, she did everything she could think of to keep from crying, or screaming, or both.
She tried so hard to be the perfect rider.  But sometimes she just screwed things up so bad she didn’t know how to handle it.  This had been one of those days.  No, it had been one of those weeks.
It had all started when she’d left four days ago and gotten halfway through her run before realizing she’d forgotten her hat.  Her fist tightened around the brim, crumpling one side, even as she thought about it.  She never went anywhere without her hat.  Never.  But this time, she’d been distracted by something Kid had just said and had walked out of the bunkhouse at the call, “Rider comin’!”, without grabbing it.
As punishment, she’d been badly sunburned by the time she’d reached the next home station at Harper’s Ridge.  She was supposed to turn around and come back the next day.  But that’s where her bad luck had taken a turn for the worse.  Several of the riders at Harper’s Ridge were sick and the station master had pressed her into service for the next morning’s western run, taking her another day’s ride further away from home.  And the only remedy he’d had for her sunburn had been a gawdawful smelling concoction that would have made Teaspoon proud.
By the time she’d finished that run, she’d figured out what had made all the others at Harper’s Ridge sick.  It had to have been the food, because she’d then spent the next 24 hours puking her guts out.  And, thanks to being so far from home, she’d had to stay in the same clothes the entire time or risk discovery.
That’s why she hadn’t even flinched when they’d told her she’d have to pull two runs today, all the way home, still weak from being sick.  She’d even looked forward to getting home, getting cleaned up and getting some real rest.  But that’s when the worst had happened.
Lou rolled over, hiding her eyes in the crook of her arm, trying to stifle the sob that was struggling to burst forth.  No, she would not cry like some sissy little girl.  She’d take her medicine like the man she pretended to be.  But, if she was going to keep her composure, she needed to do something to let off some steam and her usual method… riding… was not an option right now.
It wasn’t long before she found herself in the back of the barn, working the bellows before the ironworks fire as she fought to heat the coals to a bright red.  Soon, she was pounding away on a piece of scrap iron, turning it into the basic form of a horseshoe that could be finished and fitted at a later date.
Clang!  Clang!  Clang!
The loud sound of metal hitting metal, the effort of bringing the hammer down on the iron she held in the tongs with all her might, the sweat brought on by the hot fire, all went a long way toward extinguishing the anguish in her soul.
“Is it safe?”
“Depends,” she grunted, bringing the hammer down with all her might once again.
“On what?”
“Ya plannin’ on buggin’ me?”
Jimmy held up both hands in a peace gesture and shook his head.  “Nope.  Just thought ya might like somethin’ ta eat,” he smiled.  “Rachel’s a mite miffed at ya fer turnin’ up yer nose at her cookin’.”
Lou’s shoulders slumped as she paused in her banging to submerge the horseshoe form into a bucket of water.  She hadn’t meant to insult anyone.  She just hadn’t dared stick around other people.  She’d have lost it if she had.
“Tell her I just ain’t hungry,” she finally muttered, barely audibly.  “Don’t mean I don’t like her cookin’.”
Jimmy nodded, settling down to watch as Lou went back to banging madly away at the metal in front of her.
By the time she’d finished four horseshoe forms, her hammer blows had begun to lose some of their force and a lot of their angered speed.  Jimmy figured it was finally safe to push a little bit.
“Ready ta talk?”
“Nothin’ ta talk ‘bout,” she said, turning her back on him so he wouldn’t be able to tell she was wiping away stray tears instead of sweat.  “I just messed things up so badly Teaspoon’ll have ta fire me.  Might as well march into his office right now an’ announce I’m a girl!”
“Naw, Teaspoon’d never do that,” Jimmy said in what he thought was a reassuring manner.  “Not even if he found out … well… you know.”
Lou huffed out an exasperated snort of disbelief.  But after a moment she finally spoke again, keeping her back to her fellow rider.  “I lamed a horse taday.  Permanent.  Only reason they didn’t put her down was it was a mare.  They kin still use her fer breedin’.”
Jimmy stiffened.  That was a pretty serious mistake.  But he just couldn’t see Lou messing up like that, deliberately or through inattention to detail.  She was always so meticulous about her job.  When Lou didn’t say anything else, he ventured to ask, “How’d it happen?”
“She picked up a stone and I didn’t notice her limpin’ until we came inta the Julesburg waystation.  The hostler read me the riot act and swore he’d have me fired.”  Losing what mental and physical strength her agony had given her, Lou suddenly slumped down onto a bench along the wall.  Looking up to meet Jimmy’s worried gaze, she added brokenly, “And I should be.  I can’t believe I put her through so much pain.  I must’ve ridden her 10 miles, at a full gallop!, with that stone in her hoof.”
“I can’t believe you just didn’t notice ‘cause you were daydreamin’,” Jimmy said.  “What distracted ya?”
“I was half asleep in the saddle,” she murmured, picking at a stray thread hanging off the end of her sleeve.
“Somehow I doubt it’s cause ya spent the night before carousin’ at the local saloon with the barmaids,” he said, laughing at his own joke.  When his jest got no response from Lou, he moved over to squat down in front of her.  Forcing her to meet his eyes he added, “And I doubt Teaspoon’ll fire ya. I’m sure there’s a good reason why this happened.  Yer too good at what ya do.  And if I know that, ya can bet fer damned sure he does!”
Pulling free of his grasp, she looked away, shrugging non-committally.
“Tell me, Lou,” he asked.  “Is there any one thing you could’ve done differently that would’ve changed this?  Anyway you could have prevented it?”
“I could have stayed awake!” she practically shouted at him.  “I could have done my damned job!”
“And I’m sure you would’ve,” Jimmy placated, reaching out to pull her into his arms.  “If you could’ve.”
She suddenly burst into tears, unable to hold her upset in any longer.  Jimmy looked down at her head, nestled against his shoulder as she bawled into his shirt, in surprise.  Tears were the last thing he’d expected from her.  Then again, Lou never did what one expected.  Tightening his embrace, he just stood there and let her cry it out.  Everyone needed to find a way to get over a bad day.  Apparently, this was Lou’s.
Author’s note:  If you couldn’t tell from reading this, I had a horrible, awful, absolutely crappily sucky day today.

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