Lu shifted on his pallet in front of the fire for the hundredth time. Even once Jimmy and Teaspoon had taken over guard duty, he hadn’t been able to stop the million and one thoughts chasing themselves through his brain long enough to really get any rest. Exhausted, yet unable to sleep, he opened his eyes as the first rays of morning daylight peeked through the blue calico curtains on Rachel’s windows.
Stretching, he started to yawn, then suddenly froze when he heard Lydia’s and little Carl’s voices coming from the kitchen. There’d been so much movement through the parlor where he was bedded down that he hadn’t realized the last set of footsteps he’d heard had belonged to them.
A choked back childish sob speared its way into his heart.
“What is it, honey?” he heard Lydia ask, her voice full of motherly concern. “Did you hurt yourself?”
Lu could easily imagine little Carl violently shaking his head from side to side, mouth pursed shut in a silent “No!” when there was no verbal response and Lydia began speaking again.
“Then what is it, darlin’? What’s the matter?”
Lu closed his eyes, envisioning the scene in his head. He’d seen it so many times over the last five years. Lydia would be on her knees, peering into Carl’s eyes. She’d reach out and tenderly brush his hair back from his face while speaking to him, maybe even pulling him into her arms and hugging him close, depending on how upset he really was. She was such a good mother. It’s what attracted him the most to her, what had made him think a marriage between them might work.
After a couple of hiccups, Carl spoke haltingly. “Is… Is Lu still my second Pa?”
Lu sat up, readying himself to run into the kitchen and pull the boy into his embrace, but slowed his forward motion when he heard Lydia’s response.
“Of course he is! He’ll always be your second Pa,” Lydia reassured the boy emphatically. “Nothin’ can change that.”
“But…. but… he and you ain’t married,” Carl objected. “How can he be my Pa if he ain’t married to ya?”
“Aren’t, not ain’t,” Lydia gently corrected. The sound of chairs scraping across the wooden kitchen floor indicated she’d taken a seat at the table next to Carl. “And he’ll be your Pa the same as he’s always been your Pa. He’ll be there for you, answer your questions, take you fishing and riding, teach you how to use that rifle, how to be a man.”
“But…” Carl started to object, but Lydia kept right on talking.
“Why, just look at Mr. Hunter. He’s Lu’s Pa, more or less, and they aren’t related. Why, they haven’t even lived in the same state for almost a decade. But he’s still his Pa.”
Sounding better, more sure of himself, but still wondering, Carl asked, “But, if you and Lu don’t get married, what are we goin’ ta do? Are we goin’ ta move back to Tennessee? I don’t wanna move back to Tennessee. I like it here, Ma. But we don’t have a farm or house here.”
Lydia sighed, pulling the child into a tighter hug, resting her chin on his head for a moment. “I don’t know, son. I just don’t know. We’ll figure something out, I promise.”
“And I’ll be there to help, just like always,” Lu said from the kitchen door. He grinned as Carl pulled out of his mother’s arms and raced across the room to Lu’s side, where he wrapped both arms and both legs around Lu’s leg. Picking the boy up underneath his arms, Lu hugged him tight and walked over to take a seat next to Lydia at the table. Reaching out he covered her hand with his. “These folks’re family, even if I can’t remember ‘em and y’all don’t know ‘em. And family sticks together. They’ll help, too.”
“Mama, are we gonna stay here?” Mary Kate asked, chattering a mile a minute as she walked down the stairs at her mother’s side. “I like it here. Grampa Teaspoon’s awful funny! And Uncle Buck tells mighty fine stories about some tricking guy named Sen… Sendeh. Oooh, can I learn to shoot like Uncle Jimmy? Who’s Mr. Mallory? Is he here to help us?”
Lou laughed at her daughter’s non-stop litany of questions, coming so fast and furious Lou couldn’t have answered any of them, even if she’d tried. But she was used to her daughter’s need to talk, all the time, about anything that came into her mind and just moved on through the living room.
“Oooh, look, Carl’s up! I like Carl. He plays with me.”
Lou winced at the longing tone in Mary Kate’s voice. She’d often lacked for friends due to Lou’s job and wandering lifestyle and had often begged for siblings, something Lou hadn’t obligingly provided. Pulling her attention away from her daughter, Lou looked through the kitchen door and came to an abrupt halt.
Kid was there, Carl snuggled in his lap, arms wrapped around Kid’s neck and, worst of all, Kid had reached out and was cradling that woman’s hand in his, smiling at her. He was her husband, goldangit! Even if he didn’t have the decency to remember it.
Lou’s good mood ruined, she followed her daughter’s lead into the kitchen.
“Louise!” Kid said in warm greeting, standing up at her entrance.
“Oh, sit down, Kid! Ya oughta know better’n ta act like that ‘round me,” she snapped, brushing rudely past him toward the sink and cupboards along the western wall. She began roughly opening cupboards until she found a pot and some oats, muttering to herself the entire time. Speaking only to Mary Kate, she muttered, “Looks like it’s oatmeal for breakfast, baby. I can’t find anything else.”
Mary Kate looked questioningly from her mother to this tall man, Mr. Mallory, who’s eyes followed every move her mother made. She wondered what was going on between them. She’d never seen her mother act like this before. She could be stubborn and definitely had a short temper, but this? This was unprecedented in Mary Kate’s short life.
“I’ll… I’ll… ah…. go check on the stock,” Lu finally said. Turning toward the door, he grabbed his hat and shoved it on his head. He paused at the entrance a moment to take one last look at his wife, still muttering to herself as she poured water from a bucket into the pot and added salt.
“I just don’t know what to do, Cyrus,” Lu found himself pouring his problems out to the horses as he fed and watered them. “She’s my wife. Everyone agrees on that much. I guess we loved each other once… but… I just don’t know.”
“You love her, I can tell.”
Lu spun around to find Lydia standing behind him.
“What are you talking about? How can I love her? I barely know her.”
“I’ve seen the way you are around her. When she’s there, all your attention is on her. All of it, Lu. The rest of us… I… just seem to disappear. Trust me, you love her.”
“But, what about you? What about my responsibilities, the promises I made?”
Lydia walked up to him and placed a hand on his shoulder, smiling up into his eyes. “I’ve been in love, Lu. Everyone should be in love at least once in their lives. You and I? That wasn’t love. It was convenience, for both of us. Go after her. Fall in love with her, all over again. Make it work. Be happy.”
Lu smiled down at Lydia. Then reached out and enfolded her in his arms.
“Thank you,” he whispered into her hair.
“Here, let me take over that, before you burn it,” Rachel said, laughing slightly. “I swear, Lou, I don’t know what’s come over you. If I didn’t know better I might think you’d been taking cooking lessons from Jimmy!”
“Sorry,” Lou muttered, flopping down into a chair at the table. “I just….” she let the sentence drop, not sure what to say.
“You’re confused, mixed up and completely overwhelmed?”
“That about sums it up.”
“Listen, why don’t you take a little time for yourself,” Rachel suggested, turning away from the stove with a pot of bubbling oatmeal in her hands. Moving toward the table, she began dishing it up. “Take a walk, take a ride, think things through. You need to get your head back on straight.”
“But Mary Kate…” Lou started to protest.
Rachel half-glared at her over her nose, “You really think I can’t handle one sweet little girl? And all of her uncles are here, ready to defend her at a moment’s notice. Now, git!”
“Yes, ma’am,” Lou answered meekly, heading for the door. As she walked across the yard, she thought over the changes her life had undergone over the last 24 hours. She should be ecstatic that Kid was alive, and there was a part of her that was. But so much had changed. She hadn’t realized just how angry she was at him for leaving, for dying, until she’d seen him in town yesterday. And then there was the added complication of his fiancée, Lydia, and her son. She was a petite, refined, southern lady, the type Kid had always had a hankering for before. The type Lou had never really been. So much had changed in their lives over the last decade. Maybe they should just leave the past in the past and get on with their lives. She and Mary Kate were used to being on their own. They could continue to manage without Kid just fine.
Reaching the barn, she pulled open the big doors, eager to saddle a horse and ride out. Riding had always helped clear her mind. Looking up, she saw Kid and Lydia pulling out of an embrace, smiling at each other just like a couple in love. What was left of Lou’s heart seemed to crumble into shards. He’d obviously made his choice. Turning, she began to walk away, toward the prairie to nurse her wounded spirit in private. Head down, hands in her pockets, kicking at the occasional stone as she passed, she never heard Kid’s voice calling after her.
“Lou! Lou! Wait up, Lou!”