“Damnit,” Lu muttered under his breath, kicking at the dirt in frustration. He turned at the soft touch of a hand on his arm.
“Give her time,” Lydia said softly. “This has got to be as hard on her as on you. More, really. You just forgot. She thought you were dead. She needs some time to adjust.”
“Not to mention, when our Lou takes off on her own, it’s best to leave her alone.”
“Morning, Mr. Hunter,” Lydia smiled at the grizzled Marshal who’d just walked up to them. “Did you have a good night’s sleep?”
“’Bout as good as can be expected when I’m worried ‘bout one of my children, ma’am,” Teaspoon said, swaying back on his heels and snapping his suspenders in a self-satisfied manner that belied his beleaguered tone. “Which ain’t ta say well.” Looking around, he began to rub his hands together. “Now,where’s the rest of the boys? We got work to do?”
“I believe they’re in the house getting breakfast,” Lydia smiled, starting off in the direction of Rachel’s place.
“Now there’s a right fine notion,” Teaspoon muttered, taking off after her. “A good meal is just the thing before a day of good, honest labor.” Pausing, he looked back over his shoulder at Kid. “Well? Ya comin’ or ain’t ya?”
Shrugging, Lu started after the pair.
“I thought you said this place just needed a little fixin’ up, Teaspoon!”
“Yep, it sure does,” Teaspoon smiled at the men and women gathered behind him staring at what remained of the old Express bunkhouse. Which wasn’t really all that much. The porch was on the verge of falling down, having lost two of the four posts holding it up. The front door was missing entirely. There were obviously holes in the floor, the leavings of several wild animals and so much junk lying around there was nowhere to step.
“That ain’t a little bit of work,” Jimmy complained. “That’s a whole shit--”
“Watch your language, young man!” Rachel glared at him. “I didn’t put up with that sort of talk when I was your boss, and I won’t put up with it now that you’re sleeping on my living room floor.”
“Sorry, ma’am,” Jimmy muttered. Tilting his chin upward in defiance, he waved at the lopsided building they used to call home and added, “But that’s more than a day’s worth of work. That’s more like a week’s! This is worse than when we first came to Rock Creek.”
“Well, there’s nothing for it but to get started,” Lu muttered, stretching up to step onto the rickety porch. Moving gingerly, making sure each floorboard was solid before putting his full weight on it, he slowly made his way inside.
“Still the goody two shoes, I see,” Jimmy muttered beneath his breath.
“Well, you can’t expect his personality to have completely changed just because he forgot a few things,” Buck said. “Now, quit yer griping and let’s get movin’.”
That’s how Lou found her family when she finally returned from her morning walk. She was hot, tired and her feet hurt. Her boots were not made for walking in. Seeing the others already hard at work emptying out the old bunkhouse and knowing she hadn’t done her fair share just made her crankier.
When Kid walked out, a crate full of old chipped and broken dishes steadied in his arms, saying something with a smile that made Jimmy and Lydia, who were right on his heels, laugh, it was almost more than she could take.
“Lou!” Jimmy cried, the first to notice her presence. “Yer back.”
“Well it ain’t like I could get that far on foot,” she grumbled.
“Louise! Get over here and start pitching in,” Teaspoon shouted from the dark depths inside the building.
Sighing, she brushed brusquely past Kid and the others without a word. Stepping up onto the porch, she nearly fell as she tripped over a loose floorboard.
“Watch it, Lou!” Buck mumbled around a mouthful of nails, his hands busily hammering another one into the porch floor. “I ain’t got that far yet.”
Lou grunted and continued on her way. Inside, she found Teaspoon seated on the only unbroken chair in the now mostly empty room. In one hand he held a hammer, in the other a two by four. On the floor in front of his rested several other pieces of wood.
“What’re ya doin’?” she asked, bending down to pick up the wooden peg Teaspoon had just dropped.
“Puttin’ yer bunks back together.”
Lou gaped at the mess of lumber in front of her, then darted out a hand to snatch the hammer from Teaspoon. “Give me that before you put these together backwards, just like you did that veloci… veloci… velo--”
“Velocipede?” Teaspoon asked, straightening up in his seat.
“Yeah, that thing,” Lou muttered, settling to the floor and beginning to arrange the pieces of the bunk into an order that would allow her to put them together quickly. “Make the horse obsolete. Hah!”
She was so intent on her work, she failed to note the hurt look that passed over Teaspoon’s face at her comment.
“What?” she muttered, not looking up.
“Louise McCloud, you look at me young lady!”
“Hunh?” Lou looked up into Rachel’s furious brown eyes.
“That’s no way to speak to your elders and you know it!” Rachel admonished. “I would think you’d have outgrown these little snits of yours by now.”
“Sorry, ma’am,” Lou muttered. Turning to Teaspoon, she added a bit more enthusiastically, “Sorry, Teaspoon. You know I didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”
“I know child, I know,” he said, smiling and patting her on the head like an obedient child. Standing up, he added, “I think, though, I’ll leave ya ta work alone with yer thoughts. I’m gonna go check on the boys.”
Several long, hot, dirty hours later, the entire group stood looking in astonishment at the transformation they’d wrought. The bunks were back in their places along the wall, built by Lou and set in place by Jimmy and Lu. Buck had rebuilt the table that had, somehow fallen into several pieces. Lydia and Rachel had stuffed tics for each of the bunks. Even the kids had helped out, overseen by Teresa, washing the windows and floor, making beds and just generally fetching and carrying for the others.
“I can’t believe it’s the same room,” Lydia murmured in astonishment.
“I can’t believe this is the place you described so fondly in your letters, Lou,” Teresa murmured.
“I can’t believe we got it done in a single day,” Lu added.
“What’d you expect,” Lou snapped, brushing past him on her way into the bunkhouse, her carpetbag at her side. “Teaspoon ordered us to do it. We did it. That’s what we always do. It’s part of being a member of this family, or had you forgotten that, too?”
Rachel and Teaspoon shared a look, as they watched her move, stomp really, into the room.
Teaspoon cleared his throat and announced, “Well, let’s get settled folks.” Following Lou into the bunkhouse, he began assigning bunks. “Jimmy, I want you and Buck by the door here. Lydia, Jimmy says yer good with a gun, and so I’m gonna put you here under the window. Teresa, you can take the top bunk there. You ladies be sure to sleep with yer guns, ya hear?!?”
“Yes, sir,” they chorused.
“He really expects us to all sleep in one room? Men and women?” Lydia whispered to Rachel, slightly scandalized.
“It’s fer yer safety,” Jimmy said, moving past her, his saddlebags slung over one shoulder. “You and the boy.”
“’Sides, my boys know how to act around ladies,” Teaspoon said with a wide grin.
Lou greeted that comment with a sarcastic cackle. “That may be, but they sure have trouble rememberin’ it! Just make sure ta keep yer wrap on over yer night clothes, if you don’t want ‘em tryin’ ta snatch peeks.”
Without another word, she stomped off toward the barn.
“What’s eatin’ her?” Buck asked.
“Same thing as always,” Jimmy drawled. “Kid.” Buck laughed, nodding his head ruefully.
Teaspoon just shook his head and continued with what he’d been saying. “Kid, I want you….”
He stopped in mid-sentence, staring at Kid, sitting on his old bunk at the back of the room, unpacking his satchel. The man looked up to find everyone staring at him.
“Uh, why’d you pick that bunk, Kid?” Rachel asked.
Lu looked around the room, thinking carefully before answering. “Well, I figgered with my lack of gun skills you’d want me as far from any doors or windows as possible. Couldn’t take the children’s beds, and Louise already claimed the top bunk,” he lifted his chin to indicate the bunk over his head where Lou had dropped her carpetbag. “That left this one.”
Teaspoon cleared his throat. “Yes, well…. good thinkin’, Kid.” Turning back to the others, the brisk note re-entered his voice. “Now, everyone else get settled in. I’m sure Rachel’s already got dinner in the works.”
“It won’t be much tonight,” she smiled. “Just biscuits and some beans I’ve had on the back burner all day.”
“You’re worst is still the best, Rachel,” Buck smiled as he moved past her to put his bag on his assigned bunk.
Lou groaned crankily as the noise of others shuffling around the bunkhouse and talking quietly roused her from her slumber. She always hated waking up and last night she’d stayed up late, catching up with Buck and Jimmy, falling back into their old camaraderie easily without the Kid staring over their shoulders befuddled all the time. She’d shared the first watch with the other two, leaving Kid, Lydia and Teresa to take the second watch. Maybe it had been the coward’s way out, but she couldn’t handle anymore of Kid’s constant, unnerving attention, like he was trying to figure her out by watching her. She didn’t know why he even bothered, since it was obvious he was in love with his precious southern belle.
“Up and at ‘em sleepyhead,” Kid said, reaching out to ruffle her hair as he moved past her bunk with the same easy grace she remembered.
“Keep yer hands ta yerself,” she growled, slipping down out of the bunk and reaching for her clothes.
Lu gaped at his wife as she moved easily around the bunkhouse in nothing more than a pair of longjohns! He’d been out getting coffee at the main house when she’d bedded down, so hadn’t realized what she’d worn to bed, and had done his best not to imagine. But this was something outside his wildest imaginings.
Having stepped into her trousers, Lou sat down on the bench to pull on her boots. He watched as her slender, graceful hands, gripped the tops of the boots with assured strength. Standing, she pulled a man’s shirt on over her longjohns and headed toward the door even as she was buttoning it up. He gulped at the sight, wondering what it would feel like to be the one to undo those buttons she was so quickly slipping through the buttonholes.
Stopping at the door, Lou turned and look back at Kid. Laughing to herself, she smiled. Maybe not all chance was lost after all, judging by that look on his face. As Jimmy’d once said, that wasn’t the look of a brother for his sister he was giving her right now.
“Better shut yer trap, there Kid, ‘fore a somethin’ flies in,” she said. Turning as she went, she added, “’Sides, wouldn’t want yer fee-ahn-sey ta catch ya starin’ at another woman, now would ya?”
She let the door close on its own behind her with a satisfyingly firm thud. Still smiling, she stepped toward the edge of the porch, intent on relieving her bladder.
“You really oughta give him a break, Lou,” Jimmy said.
She froze in mid-step and turned to see Jimmy sitting on the bench, just outside the bunkhouse door, sipping on a cup of coffee.
“Don’t know what yer talkin’ ‘bout,” she muttered, turning back to resume her journey.
“He’s tryin’ real hard,” Jimmy said to her back as she walked away. Slowly raising his voice to make sure she heard everything, even if she wouldn’t acknowledge it. “You got no idea how hard all this is fer him.” He waited a beat before adding. “And he and Lydia broke their engagement. She ain’t his fiancée no more.”
He grinned into his coffee cup as Lou’s steps slowed for a moment, her shoulders hunching a bit at that last hit. Let her stew on that, he thought.
“Have you thought about how you’re going to tell Mary Kate about Kid?” Rachel asked quietly, as she and Lou stood side by side in the main house’s kitchen washing and drying the breakfast dishes.
Lou shook her head, giving the plate in her hand a final swipe with the towel before turning to place it in the cupboard. On her way back to the counter to take the next dish from Rachel, she paused at the window, pushing the curtain aside slightly to look out.
“Not really,” she muttered. “Figger ta wait a bit.”
“It’s not a good idea to put these things off, Louise,” Rachel warned her emphatically.
“I know,” Lou sighed, watching as Carl came barreling around the corner of the barn, laughing, with Kid hot on his heels. “But what am I supposed ta tell her? Honey, guess what? Yer Pa’s not dead after all, he’s alive. But he’s got a new family now and doesn’t want us?”
She turned away from the window, missing the sight of her own daughter chasing after Kid with a bucket full of water, laughing just as hard as the other two had been. She raised her eyes to meet Rachel’s. “I just can’t do that to her. I’ll wait ‘til he’s made up his mind what he’s gonna do.”
It was Rachel’s turn to shake her head, in disapproval. A slight frown marred her brow. “I don’t know, Louise. That could come back to haunt you. Besides, even if things don’t work out between you two, he’s still her father. She deserves the chance to get to know him.”
“I’ll think about it,” Lou said, grabbing the last dish from Rachel and swiping roughly at it with the towel in her hand.
The sound of the back door opening interrupted whatever Rachel had been about to say next. The two women turned to see Lydia poking her head through the doorway tentatively.
“Anything I can do to help?” she asked with a strained smile.
“I think we’re about finished,” Rachel said. “But come on in. We were just talking.”
Lydia stepped all the way into the room, closing the door carefully behind her.
“Um, I think I’ll go find Mary Kate,” Lou muttered, starting to move past the newcomer toward the door. “She needs to practice her shootin’.”
Lydia cleared her throat. “Um, could I ask you to include Carl in your lesson?”
Lou stopped to stare at the other woman in surprise. She raised one brow in question.
Lydia smiled self-deprecatingly. “I know. I’m good with a gun myself. But…. well… I’ve tried to teach him other things and I just don’t have the patience for him. I can work with other children no problem, but my own? Forget it. I end up just carping at him the entire time about all the things he’s doing wrong.”
This admission startled a chuckle out of Lou. Here was one thing she could connect over with this stranger who might be stealing her husband. It seemed the troubles of raising children were universal.
“Yeah,” she said. “I know what you mean. Teresa’s the same way. I won’t let her near Mary Kate anymore when I’m teachin’ her somethin’ new.”
Lydia nodded, accepting the unspoken peace offering. Lou continued.
“Sure, send him on over. We practice behind the bunkhouse.”
Without another word, Lou slipped out the backdoor. Seeing daughter racing toward the bunkhouse steps, she called out, “Mary Kate, run on inside and grab yer pistol. We’re gonna do some target practice.”
Lou interrupted whatever complaint the girl was about to raise.
“No buts, young lady. This is important, ya know that. Now run along. And if yer good, I’ll let ya help me teach Carl a thing or two,” she added, offering the girl a little incentive.
“Bully!” Mary Kate shouted ebulliently, turning on a dime and racing into the bunkhouse at top speed.
“Now, Carl, watch close, then do what Mary Kate does. You attach the drum like this…. Good! Now you do it, Carl.”
The sound of Louise’s voice coming from behind the bunkhouse drew Lu’s attention. Walking around behind the building, he found her standing between the two children. Teresa and Buck sat back to back underneath a nearby tree, each with a gun sitting in their lap.
“Nice, Carl. But you need to be a little more careful. The mechanism there is very fragile. If you push too hard or in the wrong direction, you could cause the gun to jam when you’re shooting. And that can be very, very dangerous,” Louise warned in a gentle, though serious tone.
“Yes, ma’am,” Carl answered equally seriously.
Louise placed a hand on each child’s shoulder and turned them both toward several bottles lined up along a corral fence. That’s when Lu realized she was teaching the children to shoot.
“Just what the hell do you think you’re doin’?” he exploded, stomping over to grab the revolvers out of the children’s hands. “Are you tryin’ ta get these children killed?”
“No, I’m tryin’ ta make sure they kin protect themselves.”
“They’re too young for this sort of violence,” Lu snorted. “Especially when there are plenty of folks around who can do the protectin’!”
“Oh, and I suppose you count yourself amongst them, do you?” Lou scoffed.
“I may not be a sharpshooter like Jimmy or the others, but I can handle a rifle well enough to protect my children!”
“Yours? Yours! How dare you!” Lou blew her top. “You weren’t there when I was nine months pregnant and scrubbing floors was the only job I could get. You weren’t there when she nearly tore me in half bein’ born! You were too busy fightin’ yer damned war and then takin’ care of yer precious ‘son’!”
“Yes, mine! And I do feel responsible for them. And as I hear it, I left you with family to watch out for you and OUR daughter and plenty of money. You’re the one who chose to leave!”
“I’m perfectly capable of takin’ care of myself! And fer danged sure I’m gonna make sure MY daughter can do the same. I ain’t gonna let her get hurt like I did. NEVER!” Lou practically screamed at him.
“Well, you ain’t the only one around to make those sorts of decisions anymore,” Lu responded, his own voice getting louder and more heated with every word. “And did you even think to ask Carl’s mother if she wanted him to be turned into a gunslinger?”
“She didn’t have to,” Lydia broke in quietly, having just walked up with Teaspoon at her side. “I asked her to help me. He needs to know how to shoot out here, for basic survival and especially in the sort of situation we find ourselves.”
Teaspoon said nothing, watching one of his most volatile children square off against his often most straitlaced. Few realized Kid was so responsible and straitlaced because he feared losing total control, something he was in danger of doing at this very moment. Hurrying up to the couple squared off against each other. Grabbing each by their elbow, he said, “That does it. I’ve had enough! You two are going into the sweatlodge. And yer stayin’ there until ya work some things out!”
Without another word, he began marching the mutinous duo toward a straw hut some distance away from the rest of the buildings.
“Buck!” he shouted over his shoulder. “Go get the fire started in the sweatlodge!”
“You heard the man, Buck! Better get goin’.”
“Just where do you think yer headed, Jimmy?” Buck asked, exasperated.
“Oh, I figgered Rachel needs someone ta taste test her mulberry pie, seein’s how Cody ain’t around ta do it.”
“Coward,” Buck shouted after Jimmy, who was already scampering off toward the main house, as fast as his long legs would carry him.
Mary Kate stood under the tree next to her aunt, Carl by her side, watching as the adults acted more like schoolyard brats than any children she’d ever seen. As Teaspoon finally began moving her mother and Carl’s Pa off toward the strange grass hut she’d noticed earlier, something she’d heard in the argument kept running through her mind. Our daughter. He’d said, Our daughter.
Unable to keep the question to herself anymore, she turned to Carl, fighting to hold tears back. “Does this mean yer Pa is mine, too, afterall?”