“Alright, you two, strip!”
“What?” Lu asked, shocked. Looking from Teaspoon to Louise he noticed she was already reaching for the buttons on the man’s shirt she’d donned that morning, quickly and efficiently slipping each disc from its hole. As the shirt began to gape open, he gulped.
“Just do what he says,” Lou muttered.
“Only to yer longjohns, boy,” Teaspoon said sternly. “Though, the good Lord knows I’ve caught the two of you cavortin’ around in less more times’n I kin count.”
Quickly realizing there was going to be no talking the older man out of this course of action, Lu began to remove his shirt as well.
“Better hurry it up, there, Kid,” Buck said as he walked past the trio carrying an armful of chopped logs. “You don’t get them duds off fast ‘nough, Teaspoon looks mad enough ta light them on fire, stead of this firewood.”
In a matter of moments, Teaspoon was shoving the reluctant duo through the door of the sweatlodge, muttering as he ducked through it after them.
Lu looked around the hut curiously. On one side there was a bench of sorts, next to a bucket of water and a pile of stones. Buck was kneeling in front of a firehole in the center of the sweatlodge, coaxing the wood he’d just brought in into a flame. Once it was burning steadily, he began setting the stones in and near the fire. It was no wonder they called it a sweatlodge, Lu thought, tugging ineffectually at the collar of his longjohns. He hadn’t been inside for more than a couple minutes and already could feel sweat trickling down the back of his neck.
“Sit down,” Louise hissed at him from where she’d dropped into a crosslegged seat across the fire from Buck. Teaspoon kept on moving until he settled on a stool near Buck.
Clumsily trying to figure out how to move in the cramped confines of the hut without stepping on somebody or something, Lu finally managed to settle on the ground near Louise, although he left a wide margin between them, fearful of what might happen if he got too close to his volatile wife.
“Now, you two been fightin’ like cats ‘n’ dogs since ya both come back ta town,” Teaspoon began.
“Wait a minute, you can’t exactly blame that on me,” Lu complained.
“Wouldn’t be a problem if he wouldn’t keep stickin’ his nose where it don’t belong,” Lou said at the same time.
“Enough!” Teaspoon glared at the two pointedly. “Sittin’ in here has a way of helpin’ people think through their problems. And I believe you two need to do a powerful lot of thinkin’. You can just stay in here until you’ve settled things between the two of you, leavin’ the rest of us out of it!”
“Wha-” Lu opened his mouth to ask about the children, but Teaspoon held up his hand for silence.
“No deals, Kid. You either, Lou. The boys and me’ll take care of everythin’ and everyone out there. You two just deal with you. Buck’ll be in occasionally ta tend the fire, but he’ll knock real polite-like ‘fore he comes in. So you’ll be real private in here. If yer here long enough, Polly or Rachel’l bring ya some food and leave it outside the door. But you two ain’t leavin’ ‘til ya can act civilized again.”
Without another word, Teaspoon stood up and walked out of the hut, Buck right behind him. Lu turned at the sound of a soft huff behind him. Louise had flopped down on her back, blowing a stray lock of hair out of her face as she did so.
Noticing his attention, she grimaced. “Might as well get comfortable. We’re gonna be here awhile.”
“’Til we settle whatever it is Teaspoon needs us to settle,” she shrugged.
“Dunno,” she muttered, throwing an arm over her face. “I’m gonna take a nap. Wake me when supper’s here.”
Lu watched this bewitching, bewildering, contrary woman who was his wife. He couldn’t figure her out. They’d been stuck in this damned sweatlodge for most of the day now. He’d given up trying to maintain propriety and shed his longjohn top along with the rest of his clothes. Louise had simply slumbered on in her corner of the lodge.
But it had not been a peaceful slumber. Dreams had often invaded her sleep, some obviously pleasant to judge by the smile that had occasionally graced her gamine features, others even more notably nightmares that had made her cry and cry out in fear and anguish.
Lu rested his chin on his upraised knees, his arms wrapped around his legs as he pondered his wife. He wished he could figure her out.
“You two ready ta come out yet?”
Lu turned his head in the direction of the lodge entrance, where Teaspoon had poked his head through the door. He said nothing, just met the old man’s eyes before returning his own gaze to his snoozing wife.
“Guess not,” Teaspoon muttered. “Here’s yer supper. It ain’t much, but ya won’t starve.”
Lu didn’t respond to the old man’s comments. After Teaspoon had left, he reached out one arm and tapped Louise on the arm she’d flung over her eyes.
“No! Don’t touch me!” she shouted, coming up swinging, even as she scooted back on her bottom until she was pressed up against the back wall of the lodge. She scrambled in the dirt around her, looking for something with a frantic, though silent, desperation.
Lu held up both hands, showing he had no weapons as he said quietly, “You said to wake you when Teaspoon brought supper.”
The sound of his voice seemed to bring her out of her terror as Louise’s eyes focused on his face. Her entire body deflated, whether in relief or disappointment, he wasn’t sure.
Without looking, Lu picked up one of the two plates Teaspoon had set down next to him and handed it to Louise. She took the plate with a muttered, “Sorry. You surprised me.”
“Seemed like a bit more than a surprise. You were scared to death of somethin’,” he commented, picking up his own plate.
“Well, life ain’t ‘xactly been easy since ya left,” she said, barely audibly, shoving the beans around on her plate without taking a bite.
Lu set down his plate, untouched. Her defensive posture and despondent tone of voice hit him somewhere in the region of his stomach, turning it in somersaults that stole his appetite.
“Tell me about it,” he asked quietly. “Tell me what it was like.”
She set her barely touched plate down on the floor and wrapped her arms around her own legs, resting her chin on her knees, unwittingly mirroring his earlier contemplative posture. She closed her eyes and sat silent for several moments, so long Lu thought she’d changed her mind and had decided to go back to ignoring her presence. Then, she began to speak.
“You never did understand why I wouldn’t go with you,” she practically whispered. “That’s what we’d agreed to when we got engaged. If the war wasn’t over by the end of the year, you felt you had to join up, protect your homeland. I couldn’t stand the thought of you riding on without me. So, we’d planned to go together. But then, things changed.”
She was pregnant. Lou stared into the mirror over their dresser in Rachel’s house, one hand pressed firmly over her still flat belly. It was hard for her to imagine a child there, growing safe and sound beneath her heart. But the doctor had been so sure that’s why she’d been feeling poorly lately, not the flu or some other illness. A baby.
Her eyes flitted over her shoulder to the saddlebags out on the bed, half packed for the journey to Virginia they’d planned to start in a couple days. She could feel tears slipping down her cheeks. She’d begged him not to ride off without her, but now she’d have to either convince him to leave her behind. No way was she going to ride into a war zone with a babe in her belly to worry about. This war had already dragged on months longer than anyone had ever expected.
“That night after supper, I told you I wasn’t goin’. You begged and pleaded.” She let out a strangled half-sob, half-laugh at the memory. “All those years of trying to keep me in safety and now that I was determined to stay out of harm’s way, you wanted me to go.”
She finally raised her eyes to meet his and he saw a pain there that made his own heart ache in a way he hadn’t known it could.
“I couldn’t watch you leave. And I couldn’t tell you why I had to stay. You didn’t understand.”
“Please,” Kid asked one last time.
“I can’t, Kid,” Lou shook her head. “Just…. I can’t. I’ll be right here, waitin’ fer ya.”
“Is it…. Am I smotherin’ ya again?”
“No, Kid,” she smiled through the tears gathering in her eyes. “It ain’t ‘bout you and it ain’t ‘bout no one else. I… I just can’t go. I need to stay here for now.”
She stood up on tiptoe to press her lips to his in a goodbye kiss that was tearing her heart out. He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her tight against him as he returned the kiss tenfold. But eventually, they had to come up for air.
Stepping back from him, she straightened his coat, whisked non-existent dust off his shoulders, then turned to the bed and, picking up his hat, carefully set it on his head.
“You go do what you have to, Kid. You protect your Virginia. Then you come back home to me. Just as fast as you can, you fly home. And then you’ll see, everythin’ll be fine.”
Kid reached out to her, opening his mouth to make one last attempt at convincing her to come along, but she reached out and pushed at his shoulders, urging him out their bedroom door.
“Go,” she said quietly. “You know you need to.” Then she closed the door behind him, stifling the sob that threatened to burst out.
She moved over to the window, reaching out with one hand to push the curtain just slightly aside, just far enough so she could see him saying goodbye to Rachel, Buck, Teaspoon and Polly. Even as he mounted up and began to ride out, he kept turning his head back toward their window, a question on his face. A question she couldn’t answer. When he was finally out of sight, she let the tears go, flowing down her face without stop. Watching him ride out without her had been the hardest thing she’d ever done in her life.
“If you’d known ‘bout Mary Kate, you’d’ve stayed,” Louise whispered. “And you would’ve been miserable. You could never have lived with yourself if you hadn’t gone. I knew that about you. But I simply couldn’t risk her life to go along.”
She lapsed into silence, reliving the pain of that cold, January morning when the light had gone out of her life. She’d thought she’d moved on, but telling the story to the man she’d thought lost to her forever had brought back all the pain and fear she’d felt that day.
“Once you’d been gone a week, I told everyone else why I’d stayed,” she finally said, picking up her story once again. “They weren’t happy with my choice, but seemed to understand. Things were about what you would expect for the next few months, for a town torn, much like the rest of the country, in two by the war. A lot of people didn’t approve of you goin’ off ta fight fer the South at all. And then when I started showin’, they started gettin’ nasty. There were even a few threats. I’d never thought to feel in danger here, and I doubt Teaspoon realized what some folks were sayin’ or he’d’ve interfered.”
She paused to shake her head a moment, stealing herself for the next portion of the story.
“That’s why, when news came that you’d been ….. k-killed in action… I knew I needed to leave.”
“Wel, well, if it ain’t the pretty little Seccesh Widder.”
Lou ignored this latest of the many taunts hurled her way recently, although always well out of Teaspoon’s hearing and reach. She missed the days when she had the run of the town, a gun on her hip, friends at her side. She’d learned over the last few weeks that this town couldn’t accept her, not now, not in the middle of this war, not as she truly was. She fought the returning tears. She was tired of crying. It seemed like it was all she’d done since she’d gotten the letter from Kid’s commanding officer with the news Kid wasn’t going to be able to keep his promise and come home to her.
Moving on down the boardwalk, she continued on her errand for Rachel.
“Hey!” The man behind the taunt reached out and grabbed her arm, pulling her around to face him. “I was talkin’ ta ya, little missy. You’d better learn ta be a mite friendlier ta folks ‘round here.”
“You ain’t no friend of mine,” Lou growled, trying to keep a lid on her temper. “Now, let me go ‘fore I do somethin’ you’ll regret.”
“I think what this little filly needs is a lesson in respect,” her captor said to his companion, a man Lou recognized as being the eldest son from a farm just outside of town. “What ya say we teach her?”
The farmboy grinned enthusiastically. Lou stiffened, glaring a warning at the duo.
“I’d suggest ya let me go, ‘fore the Marshal comes along,” she gritted out. She hated relying on the threat of a man to get out of this situation but knew it would be simpler than trying to fight her way out.
“What? That ol’ coot? He’s prolly asleep at his desk, like usual,” the farmboy laughed.
“D’you put out fer the ol’ man, too, little gal? Or was it just them other Express boys you was friendly with? Wonder which one of ‘em’s responsible fer this little bun o’ yers?” Her captor used his free hand to rub across the rising mound of her belly. Turning his head to his companion he added, “No wonder that husband of yers took off ta fight with the Rebels. I’d run away too with a wife like you at home. But, heck, I don’t mind helping myself to somethin’ done been given away ta so many already.”
He started to lean in to kiss Lou, a leer smeared across his features. She’d had enough. Stomping down on his instep with the heel of her shoe, she shoved her elbow into farmboy’s gut to make room for her escape, and twisted free of her captor’s grip as he howled in pain, hopping on one foot.
“Next time I’ll have my gun on me and ya won’t get away so easy,” she warned from a safe distance. “I’d suggest ya stick to the workin’ gals down at the saloon, from now on.”
Turning, she hurried on down the street, shoulders back, head held high, refusing to let the folks in this town see her cowed. Despite the relatively crowded boardwalks, no one had lifted a hand to help her during the confrontation. She knew what she was worth in this town. She needed to get herself and her child out of there.
“But when I went to the bank to withdraw our savings,” she said in a monotone, “the banker told me he needed proof you were dead ‘fore he could release our money to me. Said I didn’t have no right ta touch a man’s life savin’s without his permission. Never mind half that money was mine and we’d put the account in both our names, he said it all belonged to you and I couldn’t touch it until you’d been gone at least seven years.”
“What did you do?” Lu asked.
“I waited until Teaspoon and Polly were out of town fer the day,” she answered, finally focusing on Kid’s face rather than the memories she was reliving. “They like ta take a day every couple weeks or so ta get away by themselves. I packed up Jeremiah and Teresa, saddled our horses and rode out of here with nothin’ but the scant supplies in our saddlebags and the gun on my hip. Headed to St. Joe, figured ta disappear in the crowds there. But, I couldn’t find a job. Not even scrubbin’ floors. No one really believed the children were my brother and sister, or that I was a war widow. So, when I got the chance to work as a trail cook on a short cattle drive to Omaha for a local rancher who’s cook had taken sick, I jumped at it.”
She sighed. “And that’s where I ran into Sam, who was visitin’ the Territorial Governor. He was ready ta telegraph Teaspoon right away, then drag me home ta Emma. But I couldn’t handle that. I didn’t need, didn’t want their pity.” With a laugh, she added, “I’m just lucky he believed my bluff that I’d disappear again if he tried. Truth was, I didn’t have enough money ta relocate again at the time. I barely had enough ta keep us in the boardin’ house we was stayin’ in fer the next week.”
“And that’s when you started workin’ for him?”
Louise nodded. “It was steady work, paid well. That first job I worked as a hotel maid, tryin’ ta get proof that a local landowner was cheatin’ folks outa their land. I found the papers that proved he was guilty just days before Mary Kate was born. I was able to take a month or so off while waitin’ fer the trial. Then, we moved to a new town and a new case. We’ve been movin’ all over this territory every few months for years now. We stick around long enough ta get the evidence we need ta put the bad guys away, stick around ta testify at the trial, then move on as soon as Sam’s got a new case fer us. Rather than pay me by the job, like most Marshal’s, Sam pays me a little less but keeps me on all the time. Not that there’s ever much time when I ain’t workin’ a case.”
“Tell me about Mary Kate,” Lu pleaded. “It’s hard to believe I have a little girl out there. I always wanted children. I guess that’s why I stuck around after helpin’ Lydia deliver Carl. I just couldn’t leave the boy fatherless when I had nowhere else to go, that I knew of, anyway.”
Picking at something on the ground next to her, Louise lowered her gaze to her restlessly moving hand. “Tell me about you, first. What happened? At least, the part you remember.”