Sunday, July 29, 2012

Starting Over, Chapter 14

Chapter 14
A pair of torn and much mended trousers, a worn and ragged graying calico dress and two large men’s shirts in equally poor condition lay spead out on the bunkhouse table.  A lone figure stood staring down at them for long moments without moving, eyes flicking from one item to the next.
Lou shifted her weight from one foot to the other, sighing discontentedly as she ran a hand through her already disheveled short hair.  She turned her back on the displeasing sight of the clothing before her and paced across the room to peer out the window, watching Jimmy and Buck loading blankets and food delivered by the others into the back of the buckboard.  The rest of their family scurried back and forth from the house to the buckboard, arms loaded with supplies for their picnic.
Even as she watched, Kid turned and took a picnic basket from a smiling Lydia, laughing at something she said.  Lou spun away from the aggravating sight, trying to push down the spurt of jealousy that came surging to the surface.  Kid said they were just friends.  She had to trust him if they had any chance of making things work.
But even with her back turned to the window, she couldn’t get the sight of the other woman’s summer frock out of her mind.  It was so pretty and feminine.  And new.  The rose colored dress sported two rows of ruffles along the boatneck neckline, hanging over Lydia’s shoulders while leaving her arms bare to the summer prairie breezes.  It showed off the other woman’s figure to perfection.
It was about as unlike the oversized yellow dress Lou had had to borrow from her taller sister to wear to church that morning, as Lou was from its wearer.
Lou had been dismayed when Polly had cut breakfast short that morning with the announcement it was time to get ready for Sunday services.  With all the moving around they’d been doing trying to evade the notice of Lampton’s gang she’d lost track of the days.  Most of her clothes had been left behind when they’d run for it and she’d had nothing except the dirty dress she’d worn on the day she’d arrived in Rock Creek and her boy’s disguise, forcing her to borrow Teresa’s single extra dress.
Sighing again, Lou returned to her perusal of the clothing options available for their afternoon outing.  It had been so long since she’d thought about, worried about what she wore, that it felt odd, but she found herself wanting to look pretty for her husband.  Or maybe it was simply that she wanted him to see that she could clean up as nicely as Lydia did, seeing as how he couldn’t remember her.
“You about ready, honey child?”
Lou didn’t respond, simply reaching out to finger the worn calico of her single dress, which Kid had already seen her in.
She finally raised her chin to meet Polly Hunter’s searching gaze.  Tears dripped from one corner of her eyes.
“Lou, what’s wrong?”
“I ain’t got nothin’ ta wear,” Lou practically wailed.
“What are ya talkin’ ‘bout honey?” Polly asked, moving to the younger woman’s side and wrapping one arm around her shoulder.  Lou waved her hand disconsolately at the clothing laid out in front of her.
“How am I s’posed ta court my husband when all I kin show him is a boy and a beggar woman?” she muttered.
Polly laughed quietly.  “First off, I don’t think you really need ta worry about catchin’ yer husband’s eye. It’s already well and truly caught.”  She paused and held up a hand as Lou opened her mouth to respond.  “But, if you truly want ta dress up fer him, you do have some options.”
“What are you talkin’ ‘bout?” Lou asked, confused.  “Not even you or Rachel could whip up a dress for me before we leave on this picnic.”  Then added in an undertone, “And somehow, even if she could, I doubt Lydia would offer.”
Polly just laughed again, even as she began pulling Lou toward the bunkhouse’s back door.  “Come on,” she smiled.  “I’ve got somethin’ ta show you.”
“What is this?” Lou asked, as Polly pulled an old trunk out of a corner of the attic and knelt down in front of it.
“Your dresses.”  Polly carefully unlatched the trunk and opened the lid.  She reached inside to pull out a brown, tailored jacket, followed by a split riding skirt in a slightly darker shade of brown, a series of blouses in a variety of colors and laid them out before Lou’s astonished gaze.
“Where?  How?”
“Teaspoon,” Polly smiled.  “He always knew you’d be back and figured you might want yer things when ya got here.  Your wedding dress is even up here somewhere.”
Lou picked up the skirt and held it in front of her.  “But, will they fit?” she murmured.  “It’s been so long.  And I’ve had a baby in the meantime.”
Polly laughed.  “You may be a bit curvier, darlin’, but I don’t think you’ve got much to worry about.  Now, hurry up and get dressed.  Everyone else is chompin’ at the bit ta get goin’.”
Without another word, she left Lou alone in the attic.
“Where is she?” Lu asked anxiously as he saw Polly coming out the front door of the house.  “Is she ready to go?”
Polly smiled, amused at the man’s obvious anxiousness.  “She’ll be right down.”  Turning to the two children sitting on the porch swing, she held out her hand.  “Why don’t you two come with me.  We’ll get you all mounted up, so as soon as Miss Louise gets down here we can all be on our way.”
The children clambered down off the swing and swarmed around Polly.
“Can I ride my own horse?” Mary Kate asked excitedly.
“I’d rather ride with Mr. Hickok,” Carl said.  “He’s fun!”
Lu resumed his pacing up and down the porch.  He didn’t understand what had happened.  Things had seemed to be going well, until they’d all started getting ready for church.  Then she’d suddenly withdrawn, gone into hiding.  He was almost afraid she’d decide not to go on the picnic, the way she’d been hiding in first the bunkhouse then the house ever since they’d gotten back from services.
“Um hm,” Lou cleared her throat to get his attention.  “I’m… uh… ready.”
Lu froze in his tracks for a moment, then turned on his heel to look at his wife.  She ducked her chin shyly, smiling up at him the entire time.
“You look…. “
“Yes?” she encouraged.
“Beautiful.”  He couldn’t believe his eyes.  The woman he’d seen as an exhausted mother, unnaturally thin from her travails, her troubles written in her slumped shoulders and drooping eyes was transformed into the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.  She’d changed into a dark brown split skirt and a white blouse with large, puffed sleeves and a plunging neckline.  The outfit was a tad tight across her hips and bust, but the snug fit only enhanced her winsome curves.
Lou relaxed as she saw a belovedly familiar flummoxed expression take over Kid’s face.  This was a Kid she knew how to handle, the one who didn’t know how to react to her transformation into a woman.
“I thought Teresa said you didn’t have anything to wear…” Kid paused a moment, shaking his head as he rethought what he was saying.  “You know what I mean.”
Lou laughed.  “I didn’t bring anything with me.  But, apparently Teaspoon kept some of my old things after I left.”  She tugged ineffectually at the too tight blouse to demonstrate her next comment.  “They don’t fit as well as they used to, but better than Teresa’s clothes fit me.”
Kid walked up to her and reached out to take her hand in his.  Enveloping it between his two palms, he said, “I think they fit just fine.”
Lou blushed, averting her gaze from his.  He took the hand he’d captured and drew it through his arm, patting the back of it as he rested it on his forearm.
“Shall we go, ma’am?”
“Well, I don’t know, sir,” she said playfully, batting her eyelashes up at him.  “My mama told me never to ride off with strangers.”
“Then I guess it’s a good thing we have so many chaperones,” he teased.
“I haven’t been on a picnic in years,” Lydia sighed, lifting her face to enjoy the fresh breeze rustling through the tree leaves shading them from the sun.  “And this is such a perfect spot.  How’d you all find it?”
“You can blame the Kid fer that,” Jimmy smiled.  “He was always off looking fer places ta spend time alone thinkin’, or with Lou.  Or thinkin’ ‘bout bein’ alone with Lou.”
Lydia laughed.  “I was a lot like that when Carl and I were courting.  When we weren’t sneaking off together I was dreaming about sneaking off with him.”
“Hey, the kids are having fun playing tag with Teaspoon and Buck, what say we sneak off a bit ourselves,” Jimmy suddenly suggested, a devilish light entering his eyes.  “There’s a pretty little cave the other side of the waterin’ hole I’d love ta show you.”
“Why sir,” Lydia teased, bringing a hand dramatically to her breast.  “Are you trying to corrupt my morals?”
“Only if they’re corruptible,” Jimmy grinned playfully, grabbing her hand and pulling her to her feet.  “Come on!”
The two began to walk around the edge of the clearing, staying in the shadows cast by the trees surrounding the swimming hole.  Heads together they chattered like little children the entire time.
“Wonder what those two are up to,” Rachel asked as she watched them disappear.
“I don’t know,” Polly said, following the direction of Rachel’s gaze.  “But I think she’s good for him.  I haven’t seen Jimmy this relaxed and playful since before… well, since before the war.”
“This was a grand idea, Polly darlin’,” Teaspoon sighed, walking over to collapse on the picnic blanket, next to the two women, with an overly dramatic sigh.  “But I swear those young’uns are ‘bout ta wear me out.”
“Well, no one told you to run around like a 10 year old playin’ tag with them,” Polly admonished, handing her husband a glass of lemonade.
He tilted the glass to his lips and drained it in one long swallow.  “Ahhh,” he groaned.  “Now that hits the spot.”  Handing the glass back to Polly, he added.  “And I wasn’t talkin’ ‘bout them young’uns.”
Teaspoon indicated Lou, seated on a second blanket halfway around the pond from them, looking up at Kid who was leaning against a tree, whittling away at a piece of wood he’d found.
“I was speakin’ ‘bout them two.”
“Now, Teaspoon, you leave those two alone,” Polly admonished.  “You’ve done your part, now let them work things out for themselves.”
“You know you can’t push either one of them too hard or too fast,” Rachel added.  “They’ll just dig in their heels and start heading the other direction.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Teaspoon smiled at the two women.
“What are you whittlin’?” Lou asked curiously.  “I’ve never seen you carve nothin’ before.”
Lu shrugged, continuing to move the small knife in his hands smoothly along the planes of the wood, as the object began to take shape in his hands.  “It’s a toy.  For Mary Kate.”  He paused to look at Lou.  “I really never whittled before?”
Lou shook her head.  “Not that I ever saw. It’s possible you knew how and just didn’t.”
“Hunh,” he grunted.  “What was I like?”
Lou laughed.  “Are you sure you really want to know?”
He looked at her over his nose with a disbelieving stare for a moment, then slid to sit with his back still against the tree.  Nodding his head, he said, “You have no idea how much I want to know.  There’s nothin’ I’ve wanted more in the last 9 years than ta know who I am, where I came from.”
Lou could hear the terrible longing in his voice and nodded.  “I s’pose I can understand that,” she said.  She sat, thinking for a moment.  “When we met you were the most stubborn, self-righteous man I’d ever met.”  She laughed before adding, “Well, really still more a boy than a man, but almost there.  You practically gave away my secret the first day you found out.”
“Why?” he asked, genuinely unable to understand.
“You didn’t think a woman should put herself in that kind of danger,” Lou answered.  She smiled at him.  “You always were a bit over-protective of me, wantin’ ta keep me safe, even from imagined dangers, or myself.”
“You’re right,” he mused.  “I was a boy, then.”
Lou cocked her head as she pondered that statement.  Finally, unable to figure it out, she asked, “What do you mean?”
He set the knife and wood down next to him and looked her directly in the eyes.  “Durin’ the war, I saw a lot of things.  Things I don’t ever want ta even think ‘bout again.  But one thing I learned was… women are strong.  They can, and do, do whatever they need to ta survive”  His serious tone turned slightly lighthearted as a smile flitted across his somber face for split second.  “And there ain’t nothin’ so dangerous as a mother protectin’ her children.”
“Hey, you two,” Buck interrupted them.  “Whatcha so serious ‘bout?”
“Nothin’,” Lu muttered, picking up the toy he’d been carving and keeping his eyes glued to his hands as he peeled long shavings of wood away.
Buck grunted.  Right, the tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife and there was nothing going on.  He plopped down on the blanket next to Lou, stretching out his full body length along the ground, groaning in relief.
“What’s the matter, Buck,” Lou teased him.  “Too old ta keep up with a couple of children?  Teaspoon I get,” she added, nodding toward where Teaspoon was obviously settling in for an afternoon nap, hat pulled down over his eyes.  “But I figured you had more stamina in you.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s the physical he can’t handle,” Teresa smiled, walking up to the group.  “It’s the non-stop chatter.  Even I get exhausted by it and I’m used to her.”
“Where’d she get that anyway?” Buck asked, opening his eyes to look from Lou to Kid and back.  “Not like either one of you was ever a chatterbox.  I swear, she may look like you, Kid, but she sounds like Cody!”
“Well, here they come,” Teresa said matter of factly.  “And it’s your turn to entertain them.”
“Pa, Pa!” came the twin calls from Carl and Mary Kate.
“Pa, can we go fishin’ now?” Carl asked.
“Pa, will ya make me a fishin’ rod like ya made Carl?” begged Mary Kate.
Lu laughed at their exuberance.  He handed the half-carved toy he’d been working on to Lou and brushed his hands off on his pants.  “Well let’s see now….” he pondered for a moment, looking around the clearing.  “I don’t rightly see the proper type of wood for a fishin’ pole.  How ‘bout I teach you two to noodle?”
He stood up and began striding toward the inviting waters of the pond, the two children chasing after him.
“What’s noodlin’?” the girl asked curiously.
“Does this mean we get ta get in the water?” the boy added excitedly.
Kid looked down at the children, one on each side of him and smiled.  “Sure does.”  His grin broadened.  “But you’ll have ta be real quiet if ya want ta catch anythin’.”
“Here,” Lou laughed, handing Kid a towel to dry off.  “I can’t believe you got those two to be so quiet for so long!”
“It’s all in giving them a reason to hush up,” he smiled, taking the towel.  But, before beginning to use it, he grinned mischievously and began to whip his head back and forth, sprinkling Lou with water droplets.
“Stop that!” she laughed.  “Yer gonna ruin  my dress.”
“Good, then maybe ye’ll take it off,” he winked at her as he brought the rough material up to dry his face off and then began toweling his hair dry.  Lou gaped at him in astonishment.  Her Kid had loved to tease her, but he’d never flirted this openly with her before.  She blushed.
“Hush,” she hissed at him sternly, even as a grin flirted with the corners of her mouth.  “Little pitchers have big ears.”
Kid just grinned at her.  “Hard ta listen in when yer busy talkin’,” he said.  With a nod in the direction of the buckboard, where Mary Kate and Carl were animatedly describing their fishing expedition to Teaspoon, he added, “They’re gonna sleep well tonight.”
“Where’d you learn that, anyway?” Lou asked curiously.  “You never used ta like fishing.  Said it reminded you too much of yer Pa and brother.  Wouldn’t even eat fish when one of us caught some fer Rachel ta cook up.”
“Really?” Kid looked at her, startled.  “I love fish.  ‘Specially hand caught catfish, fried up in cornmeal with fresh, bakin’ powder biscuits.  It’s one of my favorites.  Has been fer as long as I can remember.”
Lou gaped at him, mouth hanging open.
“That’s… that’s the only thing I knew how ta cook without burning,” she whispered, eyes wide.
He reached out a hand to trace the edge of her cheek comfortingly.  Then continued.  “As for noodlin’?  Carl taught me how durin’ the war.  Apparently it’s an old Cathers tradition going back ta before the Revolution.  Sure saved us from some hungry nights, lemme tell you.  I taught Carl, Jr, just as soon as he was old enough ta understand staying quiet.”
“I can’t imagine what that was like,” Lou said sadly.
“I don’t like to remember it much,” Kid said.  “It was an awful time.  And I never shoulda been there.  But I figured that out too late.  Now, I just try ta move on with my life, not dwell too much on the past.  There’s much more appealin’ things ta dwell on…. like the taste of yer lips.”
Without any warning, he swooped down and captured her mouth in a tender kiss, the only part of him touching her was his lips.  They moved across hers in a determined search for….something.  Lou didn’t know what, but she knew what she wanted and reached out to him, wrapping her arms around his shoulders, sliding her fingers into the soft, curly hair at the nape of his neck.
“Hey, you two comin’?” Jimmy yelled from atop his horse, Carl seated securely in front of him.
Lou and Lu broke apart almost guiltily.
“Hold that thought,” Lu whispered to her, smiling down at his blushing wife.  Grabbing her hand, he turned and began walking toward their waiting family.
“I still remember the first time I cooked up a mess of catfish for Lu,” Lydia smiled, laying a hand familiarly on Kid’s arm.  “I’d baked it, just like my Ma taught me when I was little.  He was aghast!  Refused to eat it.  Said I’d ruined a perfectly good fish.  From then on he insisted on cooking anytime he’d gone fishing.”
Everyone at the table laughed as Lu ducked his head, blushing. 
“It didn’t taste right,” he muttered.
Lydia pushed at his shoulder playfully.  “Fish is the only thing I ever cooked Lu here didn’t care for.  Got to the point where I just plain stopped offering.  Thought I was losing my touch in the kitchen or something.”
“Never that,” Lu smiled, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and hugging her tight to his side.  “You know you’re the best cook this side of the Mississippi.”
“Now wait a minute!” an outraged, yet still smiling, Rachel exclaimed.
Lu held up both hands in a peace gesture.  “Now Rachel, you’re retired from cookin’ fer others regular like.  Said so yerself.”
“That’s the truth,” she smiled, settling down.  “And don’t you forget it.”
“Excuse me,” Lou said unsmilingly, plopping her napkin down on the table with a little too much force.  Without another word, she scrambled up from her place on the bench and headed out the door, letting it slam behind her.
“What?” Lu asked, confused, starting to stand to follow her out but stopping at the feel of a hand on his shoulder, pushing him back into his seat.  Looking up, he met Jimmy’s gaze.
“Lemme,” Jimmy said.  “I think I know what’s goin’ on.”
“You’re doin’ it again.”
“What?” she answered roughly, her hands busily swiping along the back of her horse with the curry comb.
“Actin’ like a spoiled child and a jealous fishwife, all at once,” Jimmy smiled, walking up next to her and grabbing the curry comb out of her hand the next time it came near him.
“Give that back!”
“Not until you’re payin’ attention ta what I’ve got ta say.”
“What are you goin’ ta tell me?  That she’s the better woman fer him?  She’s sweet, she’s friendly, she’s a good Ma, she’s a great cook, she knows him in ways I’ll never be able to.  You think I don’t know all that?”  The tirade that had begun so heatedly ended on a quiet, dispirited half-sob.
“No,” he said softly, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.  “That he’s head over heels in love with you and doesn’t have eyes for anyone else.”
“Yeah, right,” she muttered, jerking away from him to walk over to the other side of the stall and begin pulling off a flake of hay to put in the horse’s feed bin.  “That’s why he was all over her tonight.  ‘Cause he’s in love with me.”
Jimmy laughed at her.  She turned to glare at him, eyes narrowed so tightly in anger they almost looked shut.  “What?”
He stepped up to her and grabbed both her hands in his gloved ones to hold her still and make sure she was paying attention to him.
“You weren’t listenin’ ta a word he said, were ya?”
“What are you blatherin’ on about?” she nearly growled, pulling at her hands trying in vain to free herself.
“Oh no, yer not runnin’ away from this conversation Louise McCloud,” he said sternly.  “He spent the entire night, and so did she, pointing out that even though he loves her cooking he can’t stand the way she makes the one thing you know how to cook perfectly.  Even Rachel always wanted you ta cook up the catfish.”
Lou cocked her head, considering Jimmy’s words as she thought back through the events at supper.
“Do you remember how jealous Kid got over you and me bein’ friends?” Jimmy asked, interrupting her flow of thoughts.  “He started actin’ all stupid, comin’ after me an’ everything.  It almost spelled the end fer you two.”
Lou nodded.  “Yeah, he did act a little stupid, didn’t he?”
“That’s puttin’ it mildly,” Jimmy smiled.  “But it was because he was so desperately in love with  you and couldn’t imagine you havin’ a guy like me fer a best friend.”
Lou shrugged.  “He got used to it.”
“And now yer gonna have ta get used to it.”
“What?”  She looked up at him in obvious confusion.
“She’s his best friend.  Heck, she’s been his only friend fer years now.  Maybe someday he’ll remember the rest of us,” Jimmy shrugged.  “Maybe he won’t.  But she’ll always be extra special to him.  And yer gonna have ta get used ta that.  Doesn’t mean it’s anythin’ more.”
“But, they was gonna get married,” she protested.
Jimmy shrugged.  “And what did he tell you about that?”
Lou’s shoulders sagged as she whispered, “That it was fer the boy and the trip.”
“Somethin’ a good friend might do fer ya, if he didn’t have anyone else in his life?  Somethin’ I might do fer you?”
Lou nodded.
“Louise?  You in here?”
Lou looked up at the sound of Kid’s voice coming from the barn door.
“I think you ought to talk to him,” Jimmy said.  “Apologize.”
Without another word, he walked out of the stall and toward the barn door.  He said something she couldn’t hear to Kid as he passed him, heading out into the night.  Kid nodded and began moving toward Lou.  She just watched him approach, frozen in place.
“You alright?” he asked.
She nodded jerkily.
“You seemed sorta upset at supper.”
She opened her mouth to say something, closed it, opened it again and finally blurted out, “I was jealous.”
“Of who?  Lydia?”
She nodded mutely.  He reached out and dragged her into his arms.  “Ain’t nothin’ ta be jealous of,” he whispered in her ear.  “I ain’t never felt like this about her.  ‘Specially ain’t never wanted ta do nothin’ like this with her.”
Suddenly, he was no longer talking, but sprinkling kisses up and down her neck and across her jawline until he reached her lips.  She eagerly responded, wrapping her arms around his waist and holding on tight as they both tried to devour the other with a frantic energy born of renewed passion and fear of loss.
Wrapped up in each other, they stumbled across the stall until Kid’s back slammed into the wooden wall.  Never letting go of her lips or her body, he slid down the wall until he was sitting in a pile of straw and dragged her into his lap.  She left one hand wrapped around his waist, tugging at his shirt until it came free of his waistband, even as she began searching for the buttons of his shirtfront with the other hand.
Feeling the skin of her palm caressing his suddenly bared back, Lu reared back in surprise.  Looking down into her passion hooded eyes, he said hoarsely, “We should go back to the bunkhouse.”
“I ain’t in the mood fer company,” she murmured, reaching her free hand up to caress his face.  “I want ta spend time with you.”
“This is movin’ too fast,” he mumbled, trying to pull his gaping shirt closed with one hand while reaching behind him to snatch her other hand and stop its disturbing wanderings across his back.
“How?” she asked, beginning to kiss at his neck and ear and any other part of him she could reach.  “We’re already married.  With a child.”  She plastered her mouth over his to deliver a deep, probing kiss that had him gasping for breath along with whatever tiny portion of control he still had left.
“We just met,” he muttered, trying to push her away.
“Our tenth anniversary is next month,” she responded, suddenly stilling in his lap and staring deep into his eyes.  “I’d like to celebrate with my husband for a change.”  She paused for a long moment.  “Make love to me, Kid,” she whispered.
He groaned, no longer able to resist the open invitation in her large brown eyes.  Wrapping his arms around her, he fell back into the hay, pulling her down with him in a tangle of body parts, hands caressing, fingers searching, lips tasting.

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