Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Starting Over, Chapter 21

Chapter 21
“So, let me get this straight,” Kid said, disbelief coloring his voice.  “It ain’t 1861, it’s 1871?  I’ve got a nine year old daughter I cain’t remember, a five year old ‘sorta’ son with a woman I almost married who ain’t Lou, I cain’t shoot worth a damn and Lou’s been workin fer the territorial…. uh, sorry, federal marshal?  Oh, and I almost forgot, Jimmy’s a more famous gunman than ever and Cody finally started that Wild West show he’s been talkin’ about?”
Teaspoon nodded.  “That about sums it up, son.”
Kid snorted.  “Right.  Now pull the other one!  Would someone please tell me what really happened?  Why does my head ache like I’ve been on a three day bender?  What are y’all doin’ in Virginia?”
There was a strong hint of desperation in his words this time.  He didn’t want to believe what he’d been told.  Lou sat next to him, weeping inconsolably, so he knew something was horribly wrong.  But this?  This was too much.
Teaspoon grunted.  “Look around you.  Does this really look like Virginia to ya?  Look at my face…wait, no.  Look at Buck and Lou’s faces.  Look close.  They ain’t the same kids you remember.  They’ve gone and grown up on ya, Kid.  And talkin’ about growin’ up, look at Teresa.  She ain’t the little girl ya left behind when ya went off ta War.  Face it, we’ve told ya the truth.”
Kid slowly let his eyes scan the clearing they’d set up camp in.  It certainly looked more like something he’d see on a run in the territories than in hilly, verdant Virginia.  He peered intently at first one face then another as they all looked back at him anxiously.  He noted how Teaspoon’s hair, once a salty salt and pepper was now pure snow white.  He saw the crow’s feet beginning to fan out from the corners of Buck’s eyes.  He noted the more rounded curves of Lou’s body.  Finally, he looked over at the other young woman in their midst.  Dressed much like Lou, except with long hair tied back into a braid that dangled down the middle of her back, she didn’t’ look familiar at all.  Not until he stared deeply into her eyes.  There he found the little girl he’d left behind what felt like a few weeks ago.  But there was no way she’d grown up so much in just a few weeks.
“Damn!” he breathed, quietly at first.  Then, more loudly, more angrily, “Damn it all to hell!”  He turned to look at the petite woman sheltered in his arms, tears still seeping from her eyes as she buried her face in his shoulder.  “Any why the hell did you let me take off if ya knew you were expectin’?”
Lou turned her tearstained face up to look at him.  “’Cause… ‘cause ya’d have stayed,” she whispered.  “And ya’d have been miserable and you’d have blamed me fer it.  I couldn’t do that to ya.”
Kid pulled away from her.  “So’s ya just made the choice fer me?  Isn’t that what ya spent all those hours tellin’ me not ta do to you?  So’s how’s it alright fer you to do the same thing to me?  Thanks to yer damned games I missed out on my baby girl!”
Standing up, he stomped off into the surrounding woods.  Lou watched him go, tears still pouring down her cheeks.
“Why that…” Teaspoon stood up as if to follow him, but Lou grabbed at his arm.
“No,” she whispered.  “Let him go.  He’s… he’s right.  I knew that.  Why do you think I took his death so hard?”
Teresa stepped over and wrapped her arms around her sister, comforting her.
Kid walked among the horses, looking in vain for Katy. 
“What ever happened to ya, girl?” he mused sadly.  “I s’pose I’ll never know.”
One horse nickered and pushed his head over Kid’s shoulder as if trying to comfort him.  Kid reached up and absently stroked the animal’s soft, velvety nose.  Leaning his head against the animal’s cheek, he sighed.
He’d been harsh on Lou.  He knew that, but he’d just been suddenly so angry.  He’d have to apologize when he headed back to camp.  But first he needed some time to digest what had happened.
Kid groaned and winced, raising a hand to shade his eyes.  The only problem was, the harder he tried to think, the more his damned head hurt.
“Teaspoon, we can’t just sit around here waiting for Kid to come to his senses,” Buck said hours later.  “If he ain’t back by mornin’, we’re gonna have ta leave without him.”
Teaspoon nodded wearily.  “The good news is, he knows where we’re headed and he’s got his old memories back.  That means he can find his way to Fort Kearny easily enough without our help.  He’s a grown man.  He can take care of himself.”
“And he knows how ta apologize when he’s wrong,” Kid said from the shadows at the edge of the clearing, where the flickering light of the fire didn’t reach.  Stepping into the light, he looked from one person to another.  “I shouldn’ta taken my anger out on all of y’all.  You were just tryin’ ta help.”
Teaspoon nodded, accepting the younger man’s apology wordlessly.  Noting how Kid’s eyes were darting back and forth across the clearing, obviously in search of something or, more likely, someone, he cleared his throat.  “Ye’ll have ta wait ‘til mornin’ ta apologize to her, son.  She’s long since asleep.”
Kid nodded disconsolately and moved over to the pallet he’d awoken on earlier.  Lowering himself to the bedding, he pulled off his head and turned it around and around in his hands, keeping his eyes on it.
Lou rolled over, reaching automatically for her pistol as the long, agonized sound pierced her troubled sleep.
“Noooo, Carl!  No, why’d you do it, Carl?  Why?”
Recognizing Kid’s voice she sat up and looked across the glowing embers that were all that remained of the campfire and saw him thrashing around on his bedroll.  She dropped the pistol and jumped up to rush over to his side.  She placed one hand on his forehead to calm him and gasped at how cold and clammy it was.
“Kid,” she whispered.  Then, a little louder, “Kid, it’ll be alright.”
“How’m I gonna tell Lydia, Carl?” he moaned.
“Louis,” she gasped.  Thinking quickly, she lay down on the pallet next to himand gathered him to her in both arms.  She pressed her lips to his cheek, his forehead, his chin, anything she could reach as she began to talk to him in soft, soothing tones.  “It’s alright, Lu.  You told her he died savin’ yer life.  And that was the truth.  You were there for her when she needed it.  You helped raise her boy.  You did the right thing, Lu.”
“Louise,” he breathed, suddenly wrapping his arms around her in return and crushing her to his chest.  Laying his head back on his saddle, he was asleep so fast she never had the chance to answer him.
The chill of the early morning roused Lu slowly, the sounds of birds eagerly greeting the new day ringing in his ears.  He rolled toward the warm imprint of his wife’s body, cuddled close to his side.  She was using one of his arms as a pillow.  He wrapped the other one around her and started to nuzzle her neck, until she squirmed in recognition and pushed futilely at him.
“Kid, stop that,” she hissed.  “We ain’t alone no more.”
Lu pulled back abruptly and narrowed his eyes at her, wincing a bit at the pounding the sudden movement instigated in the back of his head.
“I thought we were past that,” he said heavily.
“Past what?” she asked, pushing herself up on her arms to look him in the eye.  “You bein’ mad at me fer making bad choices 10 years ago?”
“No, you not bein’ able ta tell the difference ‘tween a memory and the man in yer bed,” he growled huskily.
The duo stared at each other in confusion for a moment.  Then asked simultaneously, “What are you talkin’ ‘bout?”
“Lu?” Louise whispered, reaching out one hand to tentatively caress his cheek.  “Are you back?”
“Wasn’t aware I’d gone anywhere,” he muttered, pulling away from her.
“But… but…. last night….” Louise sputtered, unable to pull together a coherent thought.
“Last night?”  He squinted up at the early morning sky, dawn just peaking over the distant horizon.  “What happened last night?”  He rubbed the back of his head, then winced again as another pain, this one in his shoulder, made itself known.  “I feel like I been rode hard and put up wet.”
“What’s the last thing you remember?” Lou asked.
“Ridin’ into the river….” he paused to consider.  “Gunshots.  Leapin’ at you.  Feelin’ like I was drownin’.  There’s other stuff… but it’s all fuzzy, like it ain’t quite real.  I cain’t make heads nor tails of it.”
“You hit your head on a rock in the riverbed,” Lou said, reaching around to check the back of his head while she was talking about the injury.  “Apparently it knocked the memory back into you.  You were Kid last night.  And you were madder than a wet hen.”
“Why?” Lu asked, bewildered.
“You didn’t remember nothin’ of bein’ Lu,” she said quietly, sitting back and looking away from him.  “You just remembered me sendin’ you away, not tellin’ you ‘bout Mary Kate.”  She paused and turned to look back up at him.  “How’d you know ‘bout her anyways?”
Lu just stared at her, mystified.  Shrugging his shoulders, he answered, “Dunno.”
“I wrote him,” Teaspoon said.  “He had a right to know, Louise.”
Lou swung her head around to look at Teaspoon.  He stood at the edge of the clearing, obviously just having come back to the camp from taking care of his morning needs.
“But you had no right,” Lou started to protest.
Teaspoon held up a hand to forestall her.  “Somebody had ta do it.  You were wrong not ta tell him and ya know it, Lou.  Ya said so last night.  He,” Teaspoon swung his hand to point at Lu, “he had a right to make decisions based on all the facts.  Keepin’ somethin’ like that from a man, well, it’s real hurtful young lady.  And it can ruin lives.  Don’t ya remember Elizabeth?  And Amanda?”
Lou sagged, the fight taken out of her.  Lu wrapped a comforting arm about her shoulders.  She nodded. 
“Yeah,” she said in a small voice.  “I remember.”
“Well, I don’t,” muttered Lu disconsolately.
Teaspoon walked up to him and put a comforting hand on his shoulder.  “That’s alright, son.  We can remember for ya.”
“Teaspoon,” Lou asked hesitantly.  “What’s up with Lu anyway?  I get him gettin’ hurt and fergettin’ us and all.  Don’t like it, but I understand it.  But… what happened yesterday?  And this mornin’?”
“Well, darlin’,” Teaspoon mused, moving over to the fire to pick up the pot of coffee he’d set on to boil before leaving and pour himself a cup.  “I don’t rightly know.  The brain’s a mighty mysterious thing.  You can shoot right through it and never hurt a man permanent.  Or, ya can knock him down once and he dies of it.”  Teaspoon shook his head and then took a sip of the hot brew.  “As far as yesterday, we’ll just have ta wait and see.  It may’ve been a one-time thing.  Or, Lu, ya might continue ta flip back and forth between the two sets of memories.”
“Now there’s a scary thought,” Lu muttered.
Teaspoon grunted in agreement and raised his coffee cup in salute.  “Or, ya could wake up one mornin’ and it’ll all be there, both the Kid’s memories and yers.”
“Well, we don’t have time to wait around here to find out,” Teresa said, walking over to the fire from her bedroll.  “We’ve got to be in Fort Kearny by 9:00 a.m. for the trial, or the Cole Lampton will walk.”
“Over my dead body,” Lou said fiercely.  “He’s gonna pay with his life fer Jeremiah and all the others he’s killed.”
“I don’t know ‘bout yer dead body,” Teaspoon said quietly.  “But he’ll definitely be doin’ it over Lu’s.”
“What?” the three of them chorused.
“Only one man got away last night.  Buck and I’ve been keepin’ watch fer him all night and he’s long gone.  Probably already in Kearny waitin’ fer you.  So far’s he knows, Lu’s dead, leavin’ our Louise on her own.  Oh, he might suspect Buck turned on him, but even so… that leaves us up three guns.”
“So, what’s the plan?” Lu asked curiously.  The others all looked at him in surprise.  He grinned, “Well, I assume he has a plan.  He’s always got a plan!  Even I know that much!”
Chapter 22

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Courtship of James Hunter McCloud, Chapter 1

Chapter 1
Julia stared intently into the small mirror leaning back against the wall on top of her dresser.  Starting with her hair, she checked out every millimeter of her appearance with a critical eye.  She had to look perfect, like lady and not the tomboy she’d been when she’d left for college four years ago.  She had to prove to Jamie that she’d grown up, so he’d see her as someone to love, not just… well… love.  She sighed.
Her coal black hair was carefully parted down the middle, pulled back in two soft wings.  It was held in place by a small braid that ran across the top of her head like a headband then looped around her ears.  The rest of its length, and it hung below her waist when not pulled back, was tied into a snood.  Not very fashionable anymore, but the style worked well with her hair and was easy, simply braid the hair, curl the braid up and stuff it into the hairnet and done.  Julia liked to look pretty, but she didn’t care to spend all day working at it like some girls she could mention.  Noticing one lock of shorter hair trying to escape the braid, Julia grabbed a hairpin and quickly tacked it into place. 
Satisfied with her hair, she stepped back and did her best to peruse her dress.  She’d spent an unusual amount of time trying to decide what to wear today.  She desperately needed to make a good impression on Jamie, but she didn’t want to look like she was trying too hard, either.  Finally, she’d chosen to don her favorite work dress from her years at college.  Already well-tailored, it had molded to her body through the last couple of years of early morning shifts in the school’s kitchens, performing her required work service before afternoon classes. She’d have rather been in the barns or the fields with the male students, but that wasn’t allowed.  The dark blue dress buttoned down the front and had loose sleeves that reached to mid forearm.  The bottom of the bodice flared out below the waist to emphasize it’s natural slenderness and the curve of her hips.  It was plain, but showed that she was a woman grown now.  Just what she needed.
Satisfied that she’d done all she could about her appearance, Julia grabbed her straw hat and headed toward the door.  Then, paused and stepped back to peer into the mirror again.  Reaching up, she quickly pinched each cheek once, hard.  The resultant flow of blood gave them a pleasing rosy appearance.  Smiling at her image, Julia nodded.  Time to get started.
James Hunter McCloud, Jamie to his family and friends, grunted as he hefted a pitchfork full of alfalfa hay out of the wheelbarrow and over the stall wall into the feed trough for the eagerly waiting equines.  While he generally enjoyed the physical labor required to keep the family’s horse ranch operating, today’s efforts had a little more force behind them as he tried to work through the thoughts racing about in his head.
She’d looked so pretty when she’d come riding into the farm with her parents last week, sitting on the seat of the buckboard between them like the princess she was.  There’d been a time when he’d hoped for more between them.  They’d been inseparable throughout childhood and he’d always planned to start courting her once they were old enough. 
His brothers had teased him about her, since she was a year old than him, but he didn’t care about that.  She was his best friend and he just couldn’t see spending the rest of his life with anyone else.  Besides, she made him feel things no other woman ever had.  But then, she’d finished school a year ahead of him and gone off to college in Iowa.  Oh, he’d seen her after that, when she’d come home between terms.  But there’d always been a distance between them.
Now, she was a fine college graduate, with a fancy degree in Languages and Literature.  While he was exactly who he’d always been, a farm boy.  Oh, he’d finished high school alright, mostly just trying to keep up with her.  But when his parents had offered to send him to college, too, he’d turned them down.  Why bother?  He planned to take over the ranch someday and didn’t see how any college study would help him with that.  He knew his numbers well enough to keep the books and could read about anything else he needed to learn.
No, she was too good for him now.  And that hurt in ways he couldn’t describe.  With another grunt he flung more hay into the next stall.  This time he used so much force quite a bit of it landed at the startled horses’ hooves instead of in the trough.  The animals eyed him uncertainly, then bent down to begin nibbling at the offering anyway.
Kid smothered a grin as he watched his son push through morning chores with unnecessary effort.  He knew what the boy was going through.  They all knew he was desperately in love with Julia.  He just wondered when Jamie would admit it.  It was sort of like watching himself at that age.  As Jimmy’d once pointed out to him, that wasn’t the look of a brother looking at his sister when Jamie started at Julia. 
Those two were meant to be together.  Kid allowed himself a soft smile of remembrance as he thought about the day Jamie’d been born.  He’d brought the tiny baby boy out to meet the rest of their extended family while Lou got some rest.  Little Wiggle Girl, as she’d been known then, had been barely a year old.  She’d toddled up on her short, still wobbly legs and stared down at the newborn for a long time, as if searching for something.  Then, suddenly, as if she’d found what she’d been looking for, she’d smiled that infectious grin of hers and reached out with one chubby baby hand to pat Jamie’s cheek.
“Mine,” she’d said emphatically.  And that had been that.  They’d been together ever since.  They’d played together, learned together, gotten into trouble together.  It had taken everyone by surprise when she’d suddenly headed off to college and Jamie’d decided to stay home.
Kid shook his head in wonder, trying to figure out his own off-spring.
A pair of slender hands suddenly snaked around his waist and a small, soft body pressed up tightly against his back.
“Mornin’, handsome,” Lou whispered.
Kid reached around with one arm to pull her in front of him and hug her tight.
“Mornin’, darlin’,” he murmured, leaning down to press his lips to hers.  “Rock Creek still standin’?”
She laughed, swatting at him with one hand.  “Locked up tight,” she smiled.  “Now, what were you contemplatin’ so seriously?”
Kid nodded toward where their eldest son was still flinging hay around like there was no tomorrow.  “The follies of young love.”
Lou laughed.  “Speaking of which, I had the most interesting visit from Julia yesterday.”
“Oh, really?”
Lou nodded, pressing her head wearily against her husband’s strong shoulder.  He might be heading into his fourth decade of life soon, but he was as solid and strong as ever.  The hard work on the ranch had assured that.
“And just what did Miss Julia have to say?” Kid asked, using his fingers to tickle his wife’s waist.
Giggling, she tried to wiggle away from the torment.  “Stop that!”
“Why should I?” he asked, breathlessly, loving the joy in her eyes.  It never failed to amaze him that this incredible woman had picked him.
Pressing closer to him, she leaned up on tiptoe to whisper, “Because there’s much more enjoyable ways to make me move like that.”
Then, she was pressing her lips to his in a slow, deep kiss.  He groaned in appreciation.  Her lips had been like a lodestone for him since the moment he’d found out she was Louise and not Lou.  He hadn’t been able to resist stealing a kiss at the first opportunity then and he never turned down the chance to enjoy one now.
Jamie looked back, first in irritation then in jealousy, at the teasing laughter and soft sounds of romantic entanglement coming from the other end of the barn.  Turning around he watched as his Pa tucked one arm under his Ma’s legs and lifted her up, never breaking their kiss, and carried her out of the big horse barn toward the house.
He shook his head.  They’d been like that since he could remember, always touching and hugging and kissing on each other, disappearing without any warning for minutes or hours at a time.  He wanted a marriage like that.  He’d wanted a marriage like that with Julia.  But she was out of his reach now.
With a sigh, he turned back to his chores.
Julia paused in her trek across the yard from the Big House to the barn where she knew Jamie would be doing morning chores.  She watched enviously as Uncle Kid carried Aunt Lou across the yard.  She laughed at something he’d whispered while nuzzling her neck.  He grinned down at her unrepentantly.
Taking the porch steps two at a time, even with his small wife in his arms, Kid was soon disappearing through the door and into the house.  The door slammed shut behind them emphatically, inviting no interruptions.
Julia smiled wistfully.  That’s what she wanted.  What she hoped to have with Jamie.  Soon.
Chapter 2

Monday, August 27, 2012

Starting Over, Chapter 20

Chapter 20
Lou rode along feeling like someone was sliding straight pins under the skin of her back.  She knew a trap awaited them up ahead and felt the full weight of protecting not only herself but also Lu.  Oh, he had been a seasoned soldier, but that was something far different from this and it had been several years ago.  To say his skills were rusty was a compliment.  The repeated signals from Teresa, oddly bent branches, scraps of cloth, bird calls in a particular tune, reassured her, as did the owl hoot that indicated Buck was waiting up ahead for her.
So, when the gunfire broke out, she was as prepared as it was possible to be.  Bending low she urged her horse forward, intent on rushing her adversaries on the opposite shore of the river.  That was until she felt Lu’s body hitting hers with full force, knocking her out of the saddle.
Accompanied by his own anguished grunt, she didn’t need to see the spray of blood to know he’d been hit.  Surfacing from beneath the shallow, yet fast flowing, river water, she rapidly looked around while trying to keep her own head out of the line of fire.  When she didn’t see or feel Lu surfacing nearby, she dove down beneath the surface again, reaching out blindly with her hands, searching.
In moments her fingers found themselves tangled in the strings holding his hat on his head.  Following them, she quickly found the back of his shirt and pulled with all her might, lurching slowly toward the surface.
When both their heads broke the surface, she smacked his face soundly, trying to rouse him, hoping that he was only unconscious and not dead.
“Lu!” she screamed.  She breathed a huge sigh of relief as he groggily began to shake his head, trying to clear the fog.  She could hear Buck’s familiar war cry as he attacked the outlaws from behind.  Knowing that Teresa, Buck and, most likely, Teaspoon, were out there too, she stopped worrying about their assailants for the moment.  Turning her attention to Lu, she gasped, “Come on, we gotta get outta the water.  Yer hurt!”
Together they slowly stumbled toward shore.  Just as they were about to step clear of the river’s muddy, churned up waters, she heard the familiar popping of Teaspoon’s favored firecrackers and the earth in front of her exploded, pushing both of them back into the river on their backs.
“Damn it!” she muttered.  “Damned blasted pyromaniac!  Couldn’t he have left the danged firecrackers at home fer once!”  Sitting up, she looked down at Lu.  Despite his struggle, he’d lost the fight to stay conscious.  At least he was floating face up this time.  Reaching down, she got a good hold on both sides of his shirt and began to drag him free of the water yet again.
“Is he going to be alright?” Lou begged desperately, as Buck and Teaspoon looked Lu over.
“He’ll be fine,” Teaspoon smiled reassuringly up at her.  “The bullet just grazed him.  Looks like he hit his head when he landed in the river.  That’s why he’s unconscious.  He should be comin’ to any minute now.”
Lou breathed a sigh of relief as she sank to her knees next to her husband.  “Oh thank God.  ‘Cause if you’d gone and died on me after I just found you, I’da killed ya myself, Louis Mallory!”
So intent was she on inspecting his wounds, she didn’t notice the slow smile that slipped on and off Lu’s face as he surfaced.
“So, you do care,” he murmured, reaching out with one hand to grab hers as she brushed the wet hair plastered to his forehead away from his eyes.  Opening them, he started up at her, wincing as the light speared into his eyes causing a paint hat felt like it would never end.  Even as he stared at her, he suddenly felt a rush of images flood through him.  There she was, lying on a pillow, face grimacing as he started down at her in shock, stepping out from behind a curtain in a small dress shop wearing a dark blue dress that showed off her curves in a way the boys clothes she generally wore didn’t, her face twisted in pain as she held a ring out toward him, then surrounded by little white flowers as she glided toward him doing everything in her power to control the beaming smile that kept trying to escape her, tears streaming down her cheeks as she pushed him toward the door, telling him he’d have to fight the war without her.
Groaning at the onslaught of images, he closed his eyes tight.  Were they real?  Or was he just imagining all the things they’d been telling him about for the last several weeks.  Deciding he didn’t care, he began to examine each image in every detail, trying to memorize it, afraid it would disappear as suddenly as it had shown up.
“Do something, Teaspoon,” he heard his wife begging the Marshal.  “He’s in pain.”
“Tol’ ya, he hit his head,” Teaspoon muttered.  “Ain’t much I kin do fer that.  It’s gonna hurt awhile.”
“I don’t know, Teaspoon,” Buck said.  “It looks like more than that.”
More images flooded Kid’s brain, Teaspoon popping up out of a trough of water, Teaspoon yelling at them, Teaspoon rescuing them, Teaspoon marrying him and Lou.  Then came memories of Buck, Jimmy, Ike and the rest.  The intensity of the emotions that surfaced along with the memories made his eyes tear up. 
Then, he was remembering riding away to war, wondering why she’d suddenly changed her mind.  She’d always been so adamant about facing danger with him, even made him promise never to leave her behind again.  He flashed on a scene of himself sitting by a fire, shivering in the winter air, looking down at a picture of them on their wedding day, wondering if she’d decided she didn’t want to be married to him after all, trying to decide whether to go on or go back.  Then, he was getting a letter.  Teaspoon’s name was on the return address.  He was ripping it open so fast he got a paper cut.  The few short lines inside it changed his life.
“You ready to sign those papers Mr. McCloud?” the Major asked as Kid stepped into the tent.
“No, sir,” Kid said.  “I’m just here to tell ya I changed my mind.  I’ll be ridin’ out in the mornin’ ‘sted of signin’ up.”
The Major stood up, startled by this announcement and walked toward Kid.  “Can I ask what brought about this change of mind?”
Kid held up the letter he’d just finished reading, beaming.  “I’m gonna be a Pa!”
“Well, I can’t argue with that!” the Major said, smiling back at the younger man’s happiness.  “I can’t say as I’m glad to lose you.  We sure coulda used your skills in this conflict.  But this ain’t really your land.  You go on home to your wife and give her a big old hug from me.”  Reaching out, he shook Kid’s hand.
“Yes, sir,” Kid smiled enthusiastically.  “Right after I shake her within an inch of her life for not tellin’ me ‘fore I left.”
The two men laughed heartily together.
“Oh, Lu,” she whispered, as she watched his features contort with the pain.  “I’m sorry.”
“You damned well should be,” he muttered.  “Sendin’ me off ta war without tellin’ me ‘bout our baby.”
Louise looked down at her husband in shock.  His eyes still clenched shut against the light, he pushed himself up on one elbow.  She scrambled back, falling on to her rear.
“Wha… what are you talkin’ ‘bout?” she asked.
He opened his eyes to look straight into hers.  “I was comin’ home, ya know.,” he whispered.  “When I was hurt.  I was comin’ home.”
Lou’s eyes widened as she absorbed his words.  Her mouth opened to speak, but couldn’t get any words past the lump in her throat as tears gathered in her own eyes.
“Kid?” she finally whispered in a strangled voice.  “Is that really you?”
But he didn’t respond, falling backward into Teaspoon’s arms, once more unconscious.
Louise McCloud paced back and forth across the clearing where they’d made camp, pausing in the middle of each pass to check on her serenely snoozing husband.  Buck and Teresa had gone off to bury the outlaws they’d taken out.  No sense trying to take them in to the law.  Teaspoon had stayed to keep an eye on her, no doubt, seeing as how one had still gotten away.  The ringleader no less.
“Lou, would you settle down?” Teaspoon complained.  “Yer makin’ me dizzy.”
“He remembered, Teaspoon,” she said for the hundredth time.  “He remembered.”
“Yep, that’s sure how it sounded ta me, too, darlin’,” the older man agreed.
“Do ya think he’ll still remember when he wakes up?” she asked, almost begging.
Teaspoon shrugged, even as he put another handful of branches onto the fire he’d started.  “Hard to tell,” he sighed.  “Head wounds is a tricky thing.  He might remember everythin’, or he might forget even the last few weeks and years.  We just won’t know ‘til he wakes up.”
“Would you two stop yammerin’,” came the irritable groan from the pallet on the other side of the fire.
Teaspoon and Lou both spun to look at the man sprawled on the pallet.  Putting a hand to his head, he pushed himself to a sitting position.
“What the hell happened ta me?” he grumbled.  “I feel like I got kicked by a mule, or just got off a three day bender.”
Lou suddenly broke out of the shock that had frozen her in place and rushed to his side.
“Lu?  Kid?  Are you alright?”
“No, I ain’t alright,” he grumbled.  “My head’s tryin’ ta outrun a herd of gallopin’ horses.”
“Here, son,” Teaspoon said gruffly, holding out a tin cup.  “Willowbark tea.  It’ll help.”
The man on the ground lifted his lip in a grimace of distaste, but took the cup and swiftly downed its contents.  Shaking his head at the bitter taste, he grimaced again as his head responded by doubling its pounding.  He lifted a hand to his forehead and groaned.
“What the hell happened to me?” he asked.  Suddenly he raised his eyes to Lou.  “And why’d you cut yer hair again?  Ain’t like ya’re gonna get away with pretendin’bein’ a boy if yer expectin’.  Fer that matter, what the hell are ya doin’ in Virginia?  Why aren’t ya safe at home?”
“Um… Kid?” Teaspoon asked uncertainly.  “Kid, is that you?”
“Who else would it be?”
“Kid?” Lou whispered tentatively.
“Would you two stop it,” he complained.  “You sound like yer afraid I’m gonna ferget my own name or somethin’.”
Lou and Teaspoon looked at each other in bewilderment.
“What?” Kid demanded, seeing the exchanged glance.
“Kid, I’m gonna ask ya something and it’s gonna seem kinda strange, but…. Just trust me.” Teaspoon almost visibly squirmed as he squated down by the younger man’s side to look deeply into his eyes.
“Just ask already,” Kid said exasperatedly.  “Before I start ta think I’ve gone crazy.”
“I’m not sure if it’s you or me that’s headed for the bat house,” Lou muttered.
Teaspoon threw her a shushing look, before turning back to the young man sitting on the pallet.  “Son….” he paused, trying to think.  “Son, what year is it?”
“What kinda question is that?” Kid scoffed.  “It’s the same year it was yesterday, and the day before,” he answered defensively.
“And what year would that be, precisely?” Teaspoon pressed him, bracing himself for the answer he was afraid he was about to hear.
“Merciful Lord,” Teaspoon sighed, rocking back on his heels and running a hand tiredly over his face, afraid to look back at Lou, afraid of what he might see if he did.  “Merciful, Lord,” he repeated.
Chapter 21

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Courtship of James Hunter McCloud, Prologue

Hotheads & Misfits Ranch, Near Rock Creek, Neb.
December 1885
Wiping her hands nervously down the sides of her navy blue skirt, Julia Star Gazer Cross, once known as Wiggle Girl, took a deep breath.  She could do this, she told herself.  She could.  It wasn’t as if Marshal McCloud, Aunt Lou under other circumstances, would toss her in the Rock Creek jail for her request.  But she did hold Julia’s future happiness in her hands. 
Running one palm across her straight, raven black locks to make sure every strand was in place, she finally gathered the courage to reach up and knock on the front door of the McCloud House.
“Comin’,” came the faint call.  It was obvious Louis McCloud had been in the kitchen at the back of the house.  Julia grimaced, hoping she hadn’t been trying to cook again.
Who could be knocking on her front door?  Lou wondered as she hurried through the parlor toward it.  No one used the front door.  It was for guests in formal situations.  Mostly they only had friends and family over.  And friends and family always came to the kitchen door at the back of the house, rarely, if ever, bothering to even knock.
Shaking her head, Lou quickly finished drying her hands on the towel she held then looked around blankly for some place to put it, uncertain why she hadn’t finished drying her hands before leaving the kitchen.  Unable to cook much, she’d taken over most of the clean-up duties shortly after they’d moved in to this house some twenty years ago.  Shrugging her shoulders, she finally picked up a cushion on the settee in front of the large plate glass window Kid had installed for her birthday last year and stashed the towel behind the cushion.
Straightening, she paused behind the door, doing a quick check of her appearance in the mirror by the door.  Noticing a few stray locks of hair that had slipped out of the bun at the back of her head, she quickly swiped them back behind and ear and straightened her skirt before reaching out to open the door.
Swinging the wood paneled door open on its hinges, Lou absently noted that it needed to be oiled as it screeched a bit.  But then all thoughts fled her mind as she saw who was outside the door, dressed in her Sunday best.
“Wiggle Girl?” she gasped.
Buck and Dawn Star’s eldest daughter, born the spring before she and Kid returned from the War, stood before her, looking like a frightened rabbit ready to run but determined not to.  With both of her parents being only half Indian, Buck was Kiowa and Dawn Star was Cheyenne, the girl had inherited their straight blue black hair, large brown eyes and high cheekbones.  But those were the only things that marked her heritage.  Anyone who didn’t know, would never have been able to tell.  Her skin was a creamy pale white, whiter even than Lou’s perpetually tanned hide.  That’s what had allowed her to pass as white and attend Iowa Agricultural College, from which she had just graduated last month.
“What are you doin’ out here?” Lou asked, reaching out to grab the girl’s hand and pull her into the parlor.  “Why didn’t ya come ta the back door?  Yer family, after all.”
“Well,” Julia hedged, suddenly unsure how to begin what she’d come here to do.  “I… this was sort of… to make sure…”
Lou laughed at the girl’s flustered inability to spit it out.  “Come on in,” she smiled.  “I’ll put on some tea and we can talk.”  Turning back toward the kitchen, she added an enticement.  “And I believe Kid left a few gingersnaps in the cookie jar.  Those are still your favorites, aren’t they?”
Julia laughed, suddenly relaxing.  She was still nervous, but no longer quite so fearful.  She’d been away so long studying, that she’d built this moment up in her mind until it was an almost insurmountable obstacle to her plans for her future.  She’d forgotten just how… down to earth… Aunt Lou was.
Stepping into the room, Julia followed Lou through the parlor and into the kitchen.
“Take a seat,” Lou said, casually pointing to the large kitchen table even as she moved toward the stove and grabbed the teapot.  Moving it onto a center burner, she turned toward the hutch and began pulling out a beautiful tea set.  It had been a late wedding gift from the Cains.  Made of delicate bone china, each piece was rimmed in gold and decorated with tiny hand painted roses.  Lou insisted upon using it anytime she had a guest in her kitchen.  When Kid said they should save it for special occasions only, Lou smiled and answered that having a friend to share tea with was a special occasion.
Leaving Julia to think, Lou moved around the kitchen humming as she pulled out the tea leaves, the strainers, sugar and milk, placing each on the table before the girl, along with a small platter of gingersnaps.  Soon, the teapot was whistling merrily away on the stove.
Settling into the chair across from Julia, Lou served the tea and then leaned back in her seat.
“So, what brings you over here today, Julia?” Lou asked, smiling.  “I would have expected you to be over at the Big House,” what everyone called the Cross home across the yard from the McCloud House, “gettin’ reacquainted with yer brothers an’ sisters.”
Julia laughed.  Reaching out for a gingersnap, she brought the sweet morsel to her mouth and nibbled delicately at it, as she’d learned to do in her deportment classes at college, before she’d managed to convince the school president to let her pursue a more…. masculine…. course of study.
“The thing is, Mrs. McCloud,” she paused as Lou raised a surprised brow at her form of address.  “I had a request to make.”
“Must be pretty important,” Lou said, sitting up more straightly in her chair.
“Oh, it is,” Julia breathed.  “It is.”
“Well, I’m sure I’ll have no problem helpin’ ya out,” Lou smiled.  “What do ya need?”
“Your blessing, ma’am.”
Lou frowned in confusion, tilting her head in question.
“I wish to court your son, James.  And I wish your blessing before I begin.”
Speechless for a moment, Lou just stared at Julia.  Finally managing to gather her wits about her, Lou said, “I don’t see as how you need my permission so much as his.”
“I didn’t ask for your permission, ma’am,” Julia said tightly.  “Just your blessing.”
“So, you’ll be moving ahead with your plans, will I nill I?” Lou asked, hiding her own amusement behind a stern expression.  She’d known Julia since she was an infant.  That didn’t mean she wouldn’t put her through her paces if she was truly interested in Lou’s eldest baby.
Julia nodded her head choppily.  “But I know things would be better if we had your…. approval.”
“I take it your intentions are… honorable?” Lou asked perspicaciously.
Julia blushed and ducked her head.  “Yes, ma’am,” she murmured.  “I hope to marry your son, someday.  If he’s agreeable.”
Taking pity on the girl, Lou smiled and reached out to pat her hand.  “Well, eat up,” she said.  “You’ll need your strength if you plan on catchin’ that rapscallion.  He’s a lot like his Pa, and let me tell you, he certainly led me on a heckuva chase ‘fore I finally nabbed him.”
Chapter 1

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Starting Over, Chapter 19

Chapter 19
Bright morning sunlight streamed through the window as a fresh breeze made the plain white curtains, edged with handmade lace, dance to its tune.  The two people curled around each other slowly surfaced to consciousness.
Lu awoke quickly, the way he’d learned to do during the war, instantly aware that something was different.  Without moving, he mentally took inventory of the sensations around him.  The fresh scent of vanilla, violets and something slightly spicy tickled his nose.  The crisp feel of the sheets caressed just one side of his body.  On the other side, he felt the soft skin of another person, her weight resting as much on top of him as next to him.  A few hairs tickled his nose.
Turning his head just slightly, he was able to see the woman’s head nestled against his shoulder.  One arm was flung across his chest, one leg hitched up over his hip.  She was wrapped around him almost as if she were trying to keep him from escaping.
Even as he watched, fascinated, her eyelids began to flutter and she slowly surfaced from her dreams.  The delicately veined lids opened to reveal deep brown orbs that shone up at him.
“Mornin’, handsome,” she smiled at him sleepily.
He lazily ran the fingers of one hand up and down her lower back, enjoying the smooth texture of her skin.  With his other hand he reached up and smoothed the hair back off her face, before leaning down to steal a morning kiss.
“Mmmmmm,” she murmured against his lips.  When he finally pulled back, she asked, “Not that I’m complainin’, but what was that for?”
“For bein’ you,” he smiled. “For bein’ here, now, in my arms.”
Using the hand she’d had flung over his chest, she pushed him back onto his back, rolling with him to end up laying atop him, resting her hands on either side of his head.  Gazing down at him, she smiled playfully.  “Seems like I oughta be the one thankin’ you, Lu, after last night.”
“It was my pleasure,” he grinned up at her.
“Mmm hmm,” she mumbled, leaning down to begin kissing her way across his cheek to his ear, then down his neck toward his chest.  “Mine, too.”
Enjoying her attentions, he began to pull back the sheets to give her better access.
“No,” she said, stiffening.  “Don’t.”
“Why not?” he asked, perplexed.  “It ain’t like we didn’t both see everything last night already.”
She rolled off him, taking the sheets with her, effectively rolling herself tightly inside them in the process.  Throwing one arm up over her forehead she muttered, “It ain’t the same in broad daylight.  I… I ain’t the same.”
“It’s not like I’m comparin’ ya to anythin’, or anyone,” Lu reassured her.  Stretching up on one elbow, he leaned down to peck her on the nose.  “Fer all intents and purposes I was a virgin until last night.”
Lou grimaced at him.  That didn’t change much.  “I…. I ain’t as young as I used ta be.  I’ve… I’ve got… scars… from Mary Kate.”
“Stretch marks?” he guessed.
She nodded.  Turning her head away, avoiding his gaze, she added, “And, things just never quite went back the way they’d been before.”
It was his turn to nod in understanding.  Then, realizing she hadn’t seen.  In fact, she was moving as if to get out of the bed, he reached out with both arms and dragged her back against his chest.  Beginning to nuzzle her neck, he spoke.
“So what?  Yer a mother, of course ya ain’t got a girl’s body no more.  No shame in that.  It’s somethin’ to be proud of,” he reassured her.  “A lot more proud than the scars on my body.  Heck, I don’t even know where most of ‘em come from, other than a bullet.  ‘Sides, like I said, I ain’t exactly in the business of comparin’.”
Touching her chin with a finger, he turned her face so he could look her in the eyes.  “I think yer beautiful just the way you are.  Don’t be hidin’ from me.”
She blushed and ducked her head back into his shoulder to hide her flaming face.
“Lord, I ain’t thought about how I look in years,” she groaned, laughing at herself.  “Now, here I am actin’ like a girl with her first beau.”
“I certainly hope you didn’t step out with yer first beau like this,” Lu teased.
“Not…. exactly,” she said, her words muffled in his chest.
“Well, I guess I’ll just have to drive that memory right out of yer brain,” he said, recovering quickly from the momentary start her words had given him.  Playfully he added, “But to do that, I need one thing from you.”
“What’s that?” she asked, pulling back a couple inches to look up at him curiously.
With no warning, he grabbed one end of the sheet and deftly unrolled it from around her, leaving her lying in the middle of the bed in the only covering God gave her.
“This!” he said, holding the sheet up triumphantly.
“Louis Mallory,” she scolded, holding back her laughter.  “I’m gonna get you fer that!”  She flung the threat at him along with her body in a full on attack.
Catching her in both arms, he laughed.  Speaking more quietly he said, “I certainly hope so,” just before closing his lips over hers in a highly serious manner.
“So, we’ll catch them while they’re tryin’ ta cross the Platte,” Nolan said to the four men gathered around the table, roughnecks and ruffians all.  “Take the man out as quick as you can.  But I want the girl alive.  She and I got a little talkin’ ta do ‘fore I take care of business.  You’ll each get $50 when the trial is cancelled ‘cause she failed ta show up.”
“Sounds good ta me,” said the burly man in a dirty bearskin coat next to Nolan.
“Do we get a turn, too,” asked a stringy, beanpole of a man with dirty hair hanging to his waist.  “If she’s as purty as ya say, I want a turn.”
“Sure,” Nolan smiled agreeably.  “Why not.  But I got first dibs.”
“When are we pullin’ this job,” asked the tall Indian at the back of the group.
“This afternoon, as she’s makin’ her way to Fort Kearny,” Nolan said.  “No matter what happens, she can’t make it to the fort.  She gets to Kearny and the only pay any  of us’ll get is a hangman’s noose.”
“Ain’t a lawman borned can catch up with the likes of ol’ Hank Halifax,” boasted the fourth man, a short, husky fellow with yellowing teeth underneath a bristly mustache.
Nolan turned on him sharply, offended a the implied insult.
“You ain’t never gone up against the likes of Sam Cain afore, neither,” he growled.  “And now he’s got that ol’ Texas Ranger, Teaspoon Hunter, in on it, along with Wild Bill Hickok.  Them’s some of the best lawmen in the country, so don’t go gettin’ to prideful, ya hear?  And that little gal maybe be a female… but she’s right tricky, too.  Hear tell she used ta ride with Hickok and them others, back in the day.”
“Hey, maybe she picked up a few trick she’d like ta share with us,” the bearskin clad older man grinned.
“That’s what I’m hopin’ fer,” the dirty beanpole chimed in.
Everyone laughed as if he’d just told the funniest joke in the world.  No one noticed when the Indian slipped out of the saloon.
“That’s it?” Teaspoon asked.  “That’s all they’re plannin’?”
“Yep,” Buck confirmed.
“Good lord,” Teresa marveled.  “It’s a wonder this bunch ain’t shot themselves gettin’ dressed in the mornin’.”
Buck nodded a silent agreement with her statement.
“Don’t underestimate stupid, darlin’,” Teaspoon said.  “It’s got a wisdom all its own.”
“So,” she asked.  “What are we gonna do now?”
“You’re gonna ride out and try ta catch up with yer sister and Kid.  Don’t let anyone see ya with ‘em, though.  We know they’ve got a rider tailin’ them and we don’t want ta tip our hand.  Find a way ta leave ‘em a note or somethin’, ta warn ‘em.  Then skedaddle back ta the river crossin’ and be ready.  I’ll be settin’ up a few tricks of my own there.”
“What about me, Teaspoon?” Buck asked.
“You, my boy, are goin’ ta head back and join our ignorant outlaws fer the ambush.  When the time comes, we’ll take ‘em out from both sides.”
Buck nodded grimly.  He didn’t like the assignment, hated the idea of spending anymore time with those men, but he’d expected it.
“Alrighty then,” Teaspoon said, grinning.  “Let’s be about it.  Time ta ride ta the rescue.”
“Ungh,” Lou groaned, rolling onto her back and throwing one slim arm over her eyes to block out the sun that had finished rising and was relentlessly pouring through their window.  “I hate to say this, but we need to get out of bed, get dressed and hit the road.”
“Too bad we can’t stay here a little longer,” Lu mused, kissing her shoulder even as he reached out to entwine his fingers with hers.  “But, on this run, yer the boss.  You know the trail better’n I do.”
Lou looked at the man cuddled to her side and grinned.  “No,” she said.  “I just remember it better.”  Reaching out she smacked one hand against his bare flank.  “Now get yer lazy butt out of bed, sir!”
Setting a good example, she crawled out from under Lu, leaving him face down on the bed, as she reached for the pants she’d left hanging over a chair the night before.  Soon, she was fully dressed.  Standing in front of the mirror, she carefully pulled her vest closed over her shirt and pulled out her old glasses to perch them on her nose.  Looking up, she saw Lu still lying in the bed, leaning up against the headboard, one arm flung over his head, watching her.
She turned to face him, laughing.  “Would you get a move on.”
“Why?  It’s too much fun to sit here watching you,” he grinned insouciantly at her.
“Well, I’ve got a job ta do and I cain’t have ya interferin’ with it.  I’m leavin’,” she said calmly, matching actions to words.  She picked up her hat and plopped it on her head, then gathered up her dress and stuffed it into a nearby carpetbag.  Heading for the door, she tossed over her shoulder.  “If you don’t move it, you’ll get left behind.  I ain’t waitin’ fer ya.”
Lu watched her flounce out of the room with great appreciation.  The view from behind was as…. intriguing… as the one from in front, he mused.  The sound of the door swinging shut behind her roused him from his thoughts and he realized she hadn’t been kidding.  She really was leaving, and if he didn’t get dressed and down to the barn, she would leave without him.
Flinging the covers off, he leaped out of bed and began to frantically dress.
“I’m bored,” yellow-teeth whined.  Buck nearly snorted.  The ignoramus was bored?  That was nothing compared to what Buck felt about now.
“Aw, shut yer trap,” growled mountain man.  Lacking names for most of the men Wolfard had recruited, Buck hadn’t cared enough to try to find out.  Instead he’d simply renamed them based on how they looked at acted.
“When are they goin’ ta get here?” string bean piped up.
“When they get here,” Wolfard snapped.  “But if ya don’t quit yer yappin’, you won’t be here ta greet ‘em.”
Buck smothered a grin.  Maybe he’d get lucky and by the time Teaspoon and the others got here there’d be nothing left to do but shoot the lone wolf and put him out of their misery.
Lu nervously tried to look in every direction.  Something was wrong.  He could feel it in his bones.  He just couldn’t pin down the cause of his  unease.
“Would you stop fidgeting,” Lou hissed at him.  “We’re losing time ‘cause ya got ta be so almighty careful.  At this point speed is more important than hidin’.”
“Sorry,” he muttered, trying to get his nerves under control.
“What’s the matter with ya anyways?” she asked.  “Yer actin’ like a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rockin’ chairs.”
Lu looked over at his wife, frowning in confusion.  Where’d she pick up a phrase like that?  Shaking his head, he tried to concentrate yet again.
“I dunno,” he finally said.  “I just got a feelin’ somethin’s wrong.  Like we’re bein’ tailed or somethin’.”
“We are,” she smiled at him, deviltry in her eyes.
“What?” he exhaled sharply, pulling his horse to a stop as he tried to digest her words.  “What are you talkin’ ‘bout?”
Turning her horse around, she rode back to his side, smiling broadly.  Reaching across to grab the back of his neck, she dragged his head down to hers in what would appear like a kiss to anyone watching them.
“Teresa’s on our tail,” she whispered, her lips pressed tightly to his.  “Has been half the day.”
“How’d you know?” he mumbled almost incoherently, afraid to pull away.
She ran a hand suggestively down the front of his shirt, getting his blood pumping and temporarily distracting him from any other thought then the feel of her fingers.  Then her lips moved again.
“Did ya hear that whipoorwill earlier this mornin’?”
Lu shook his head.  He hadn’t noticed any one bird in particular.  The morning air had been full of the music of songbirds.
“Trust me,” she whispered, sinking the fingers of the hand at the back of his neck into his hair, making him groan in appreciation.  “She was there.  It’s an old signal we’ve used for ages.  She’s on our tail, and there’s an ambush up ahead.  Be vigilant, but don’t waste yer energy worryin’ ‘bout what’s behind us.”
With that warning, Lou pulled back from the mock embrace that had just shattered all Lu’s abilities to think straight.  Grinning at him, she tipped her hat and turned back toward the trail.
“Lu, catch me,” she challenged, spurring her horse into a canter.  “If you can,” she added, taunting him.
Teaspoon sat still as a stone in his hiding place high in a tree overlooking the ambush site.  He could see where Buck was holed up with the gang waiting to try to take out Kid and Lou.  Every line of the that boy’s being screamed his readiness to have this ruse overwith.  Teaspoon wanted to chuckle, but wouldn’t let himself.
He could also hear the warning twittering of a blue jay in the distance, letting him know Kid and Lou were on their way, Teresa close on their tales.
What none of them knew was just how early he’d arrived this morning and what surprises he’d prepared for the gang.  If he had his way, none of his boys, or girls, would have to be involved in the fighting at all.  It would all be over almost before it started.
“Hold up, Lu,” Louise said, pulling her horse to a stop.  “I think my horse’s picked up a stone.”
Lu looked at her oddly.  He’d seen no sign of a limp or anything else to indicate her mount was injured.  But he pulled his own horse up and dismounted, joining her next to her animal as she slid a hand expertly down one leg to the fetlock, then gently urging the hoof up off the ground so she could examine it.
Bent over, she whispered to Lu, “The river’s just around the next bend.  That’s where they’ll try ta take us, at the crossin’.  Be ready.”
Straightening, she set the animal’s foot back on the ground and dusted her hands off on the seat of her pants.  “Guess not,” she said loudly enough that anyone trying to spy on them could hear her easily.  “We’d better get a move on.”
Moving around her mount, she slid easily back into the saddle.  Lu followed her lead and soon was trotting after her toward the nearest crossing of the Platte River.  But this time he rode with a hand on the butt of his pistol.  He noticed his small wife was doing much the same thing, albeit a tad less obviously than he.  Lu sighed in remorse over his apparently lost expertise in situations like these.  He hated the fact that he was so jumpy while she seemed to be getting calmer and more certain the closer to danger they got, almost like she relished it.
Jerking his attention away from Lou, he began to scan the territory ahead of them, the tightly spaced Cottonwood and River Birch trees beginning to give way to the sight of a low, fast running river, the water merrily burbling downstream.   A slightly odd color amongst the greens of the tree tops caught Lu’s attention.  Glancing around then back at the tree, Lu swore he saw a man perched in the branches.  A sudden flash of light reflected off something metal confirmed his suspicions.
He closed the distance between his and Lou’s horses and pulled his gun.  He might not be very accurate, but at least he could make them keep their heads down and ruin their aim.
Lou didn’t pause as they reached the edge of the river, urging her horse right on into the rushing waters.  Lu followed close at her side, trying to look in all directions at once.
Just as they reached the middle of the crossing, the first shots rang out, coming from directly in front of them.
“Down!” Lu shouted.  Forgetting entirely his plan to protect Lou by shooting at their attackers, instead he launched himself off his horse at her, pushing her off her own horse and sending both of them flying into the river.
“Hey!” she yelled, exasperated.
“Ooomph,” he grunted as a searing pain tore into his shoulder, from the back.  The force of their fall pushed his head under the water, the current banging it against a submerged rock.
“Lu!” Lou screamed, reaching out to pull him back up out of the water, struggling to keep his head where he could breathe.
Lu shook his head, trying to clear it.  The sounds of gunfire continued to fly over their heads.  But now it seemed to becoming from both sides.  And he could swear he heard an Indian war cry coming from the near shore, accompanied by a spate of furious shooting.
“Come on,” Lou panted.  “We gotta get outta the water.  Yer hurt.”
Lu nodded, wincing at the pain in his head from where he’d hit the rock.  Letting her lead him, he closed his eyes against the sunlight, trying not to blackout as he struggled to move.  Just as they reached the shore, a sudden large explosion sent them tumbling back into the water.
“Damn it!” Lou swore.
Sinking further into the beckoning darkness of unconsciousness, Lu smiled.  He could swear he heard his wife muttering angrily about Teaspoon and a love of firecrackers.  He’d always loved a good firecracker himself.  Then, the lights went out completely and he heard no more.