Summary: Sometimes growing up means learning to let others care about you, too.
Author's Note: This is part 8 of the Sweetwater Romance series. It comes after Sweet Spot and bookends the third Season 3 episode, Blood of Others.
“Listen, boys, you need to be extra careful the next few runs,” Teaspoon warned the group of riders gathered around the table, waiting for dinner.
“Tell us somethin’ we don’t know,” Cody grumbled. “The Paiute are mad as hell about this latest treaty.”
“Well, if the Army would ever bother to figure out a chief can only speak for the warriors who’ve agreed to follow him,” Buck said in exasperation, “and stop trying to hold other bands to a treaty their chief hasn’t signed, things wouldn’t get like this.”
“I know, Buck, I know,” Teaspoon sighed tiredly. “But that don’t change the situation we have on our hands in the here and now.”
“What situation?” Lou asked curiously as she walked through the bunkhouse door. She wondered if there’d been a new development in the latest indian troubles that she hadn’t heard about yet. Removing her hat, she hung it up on its peg, next to her gunbelt, but kept her eyes expectantly on Teaspoon.
He waved a hand in front of his face, as if waving the whole previous discussion away. Clearing his throat, he said, “Listen, Louise, I’ve been wantin’ ta talk ta ya.”
She moved over to stand by the table, next to the man she’d come to think of as a father. “Well, here I am.”
“Ah, yeah.” His eyes flickered to each of the boys at the table as they shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Their behavior had Lou raising a suspicious eyebrow. “Look,” he finally said, “I need someone ta pick up a special pouch fer me in Craig.”
“But, Noah’s up next fer a special run,” Lou protested.
She was as aware as the rest of them of the dangers the trail west currently posed, and had a bad feeling this ‘special assignment’ was make-work, designed to keep her out of the danger zone. She narrowed her eyes slightly as she took in the nervous mannerisms of Buck, Cody and Noah. Kid was looking at his hands, fiddling with his harmonica. Even Teaspoon looked like he wanted to run for the hills.
“I know, Lou,” he reasoned. “But that’s out by yer brother and sister. I figgered ya could leave tomorrow, spend a couple days visitin’ them, then pick up the pouch when it’s ready end of the week and bring it on back.” Feeling he’d provided a sound case for his decision, Teaspoon sat up a little straighter and ran his hands under his suspenders, snapping them back against his chest in satisfaction. Grinning, he finished, “It’s no more’n I’d do fer any of the other boys if they had family out that way.”
Each of her brothers started nodding eagerly in agreement.
“He’s right, Lou,” Noah said cheerfully.
But Kid still wouldn’t look up, confirming her suspicions of a conspiracy.
“Yeah, right,” she growled, glaring dourly at the lot of them. Turning away from the table, she marched toward the door, back stiff, head held high. She paused only long enough to grab her hat off its peg and slam it down on her head.
“Where ya goin’, Lou?” Cody asked. “Rachel’ll be out with dinner any minute now.”
Not bothering to turn around, she spat out through gritted teach, “I ain’t hungry. Tell Rachel I’ll be back later ta help with the dishes like I promised.”
She put extra emphasis on the word promised, wanting them to know just how betrayed she felt at that moment. After that fiasco with the Pike brothers she’d thought she’d put an end to this sort of nonsense. Without another word, she slipped through the door, letting it slam shut behind her with extreme prejudice.
The five males at the table all jumped guiltily at the sound.
“What do you want, Kid?” she snapped, never slowing the quick, jerky movement of her arms as she shoveled manure violently out of a stall.
“To apologize,” he said quietly. “That didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped.”
This stopped her motions. She straightened to her full five feet three inches of height, tightened one hand around the handle of the shovel, as if trying to squeeze its neck instead of Kid’s. She was ready to tear a strip out of his hide, but held herself in check, for the moment. “So, it was you!”
He shrugged sheepishly. “Sort of.” Seeing that his words had fanned the banked fire in her eyes into a full blown blaze of anger, he held up a placating hand. “It wasn’t deliberate. I was just tryin’ ta do somethin’ nice fer ya.”
He interrupted her with a soft smile, stepping closer to reach out and grab her free hand in both of his.
“I know yer birthday’s comin’ up,” he said. “So, when I come back from my run this mornin’ and heard Noah gripin’ ‘bout havin’ ta make the run ta Craig, it occurred ta me it might be a nice surprise ta get ta spend it with Jeremiah and Teresa. I swear, Lou, I didn’t know ‘bout the other.” He paused a heartbeat to let her digest his words. “I promised not ta interfere with yer job anymore and I meant it. Hard as that may be sometimes.”
Lou’s shoulders slumped. She could see the truth in Kid’s eyes. He was a horrible liar. And she knew he’d just come back from a three day run east. He wouldn’t have heard about the latest Indian troubles until he got home.
“Thanks fer the thought, Kid,” she said miserably. “That was sweet.”
She turned away from him and went back to mucking out the stall. This time her body screamed a souldeep weariness instead of seething anger, as it had earlier. Kid waited, letting her work up to whatever it was she had to say.
“How could he do this to me?” she finally whispered, stopping her work and letting her forehead rest on the top of the shovel’s handle. Squeezing her eyes shut, she was unable to keep a single tear from escaping down her cheek.
Seeing her pain, Kid walked up to her and wrapped his arms around her tightly.
“Teaspoon. That’s who,” she whispered. “He swore… swore ta me my bein’ a girl didn’t make a difference. Then he goes and does this ta me. And the rest of ya let him.”
“We love ya, Lou,” he said, pressing a kiss into her hair. “All of us. And, like it or not, yer bein’ a girl, the only girl, does make a difference. I know, I know,” he added hurriedly, feeling her stiffening in outrage. “We can’t let it show. And most times we don’t. But you gotta understand sometimes the need ta protect ya gets overwhelmin’. We’re gonna forget sometimes.”
“Maybe,” she muttered, pulling away from him. “But that don’t mean I gotta like it.”
Kid watched her almost visibly withdraw from him without moving an inch and knew this had set their renewed relationship back weeks. But he had no idea what to do about it. Sadly, he shook his head and turned to leave her to her thoughts. Then, he turned back to say, “Don’t hold this against Teaspoon, Lou. He’s just tryin’ ta do what’s best fer all of us.”
She looked at him for a moment, nodded, then returned to her labors.
Lou had spent the night thinking about what Kid had told her, that her being the only girl sometimes did make a difference, no matter how much the others might try not to let it. She supposed there was some truth to what he’d said, but it didn’t mean she had to like it or let it stand. It still hurt to know that Teaspoon didn’t think she could handle herself in trouble, though. Especially after all she’d been through with him and the boys this last year.
Looking up, she noticed Teaspoon was sitting on the porch outside his office, talking with Buck, Cody, Jimmy and the Kid. He’d taken off suddenly last night with Buck and Noah. Looks like whatever mission he’d been on was over and he was back.
Walking across the street, she stepped up on the boardwalk and listened to what he was saying.
“Killed a lawman, two of his deputies. Some say he’s done a lot worse since then,” Teaspoon was explaining to the others.
Buck shook his head. “Hard to believe he’s lasted this long.”
Looking to his side at the younger man, Teaspoon said, “Well, they brought him in once, but he got free. You boys are gonna have ta watch him every step of the way.”
Cody groaned. “I’m really lookin’ forward ta this.”
Lou saw her chance to make a point. Flicking a warning glance at the Kid, she spoke up. “I’ll do it.”
Teaspoon shook his head. “Sorry, Lou. Already made my de… ow!” he paused as he put his foot down in obvious pain. Lou wondered what that was about. “Decision,” he finished.
She wasn’t about to give up. And from what she’d over heard, she had plenty of ammunition. “Yer already sendin’ me in that direction ta pick up that pouch in Craig.”
“I know,” was Teaspoon’s uncomfortable response.
Knowing she had him where she wanted him, Lou decided it was time to press her point. “Look, Teaspoon, yer always sayin’ that me bein’ a girl don’t make a difference, right?”
“Does it?” she insisted.
Lou suppressed a grin. She had him. “So, then I kin go, right?”
Teaspoon looked over at the blonde rider seated next to Buck. “Cody, looks like you got yer replacement.” The Marshal paused a moment to gather his thoughts, then looked pointedly at Kid, Jimmy, then Lou. “Listen up you three, Mills is gonna be lookin’ fer an edge. God help ya if he gets it.”
Lou winced, ducking her head at the clatter of the trapdoor under Elias Mills’ feet opening and the sound of his body hurtling downward only to be pulled to a halt far short of the ground by the rope around his neck. She turned away, unable to watch the macabre spectacle of a man she’d come to admire dying.
Over the last week she’d learned a lot about herself, as well as the two men she loved the most. Much of it thanks to Mills’ levelheaded commentary on life. Yes, she could admit it to herself, now. She loved Jimmy. She always had. Maybe there might have been something there. The kiss they had shared certainly said it was possible. She just didn’t love him as much as the Kid. If she had to live without one of these two men, she knew which one she couldn’t let go.
Turning toward him, she hid her head in Kid’s shoulder, trying not to cry. Not caring if her actions exposed her disguise for what it was. His arm wrapped around her almost automatically, without him even being aware of it at first. Then, he looked down at her for a second in surprise, before bringing his hand up to cradle the back of her head comfortingly.
That was something else she’d learned this last week. Sometimes the freedom to be treated exactly like one of the boys wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Sometimes it was nice to have someone want to hold you, cherish you, protect you from the horrors of this world. It wasn’t that she couldn’t handle those things, just that it was nice to know she didn’t always have to.
She’d never been so happy, so relieved, as when Kid had shown up to shoot that disgraced former Marshal who’d been trying to take Mills in himself. Oh, he’d probably have come back even if it had been just Jimmy, but she knew he’d pushed himself harder, further because she was in danger, too. And that didn’t bother her.
She couldn’t change who she was now. She couldn’t go back to who she’d been before she’d started dressing and acting like a boy. But she could break free of the chains she’d put on her own life. She could accept the part of her she’d been denying for so long. It wouldn’t be easy, but it would be worth it.
She savored the comfort of Kid’s embrace a moment longer, felt the lingering pleasure of his hand brushing up and down along her back. Then, she pulled back, strengthened once again to face the tragedies of life. Not happy, but ready to move on. She turned to follow Kid’s lead away from the scaffold, but paused to place a comforting hand on Jimmy’s shoulder, understanding in that moment perhaps better than anyone how he was feeling. He, too, needed someone to be strong for him when he was weak. But she wasn’t that someone. Couldn’t be.
Saddened by this new thought, she slowly walked away. But even though she refused to look back to see if Jimmy was coming or not, her ears strained for the sound of his footsteps. When she heard them, she relaxed.
Freedom to be herself wasn’t as sweet as she’d once thought it might be. But, she’d found a new freedom this trip, the freedom to not always have to be in control, in charge, the freedom to let others care for her. She hoped someday, soon, Jimmy discovered this freedom, too.
Let It Go, Brit & Alex
I was on the outside (lookin in)
Wondering where do I (go from here)
I wanna show the world my (time is now)
I won't hold back
I'm comin out
I took a bite of freedom (it taste so sweet)
Now that I know (my body's being released)
I can't go back to who I was before
I'm walking through this open door
Because tonight I'm so inspired
I feel the beat, it takes me higher(higher)
To break free is my desire
This is the new me