He cupped his palm around her cheek for a moment, holding her lips tighter to his in a slow, hot kiss. Once assured she wasn’t going anywhere, his hand began a soft slide down the side of her face and neck, until it reached her collar bone. His fingers glided back and forth across the prominent ridge of the bone, enjoying the feel of her silky smooth skin and the shudders of her reaction to his touch for a moment, before moving on toward her shoulder, pushing the edge of her shirt out of his way as he went.
He moaned in appreciation of her own tactile explorations as her hands moved up and down his back, caressing the skin bared when she’d pushed his shirt off him moments ago. It now lay, abandoned, in the hay next to them. One minute, she skimmed her fingers across his lower back in a touch so tantalizing light he couldn’t be sure he’d felt it, sending quivers up and down his spine. The next, she was digging them into his muscles so deep he thought he’d never escape the memory of her touch.
Lifting his lips from hers for a scant instant, he murmured, “You’re so beautiful.”
Then he plunged back in, unable, unwilling to leave a single breath unshared. His fingers continued to smooth their way across her shoulder, pushing her shirt off. A sudden tugging impeded his progress and he pulled back to see what the matter was. His thumb had gotten caught up in a rawhide string that hung around Lou’s neck.
Lu lifted his hand with the string still attached and inspected it. Sliding back and forth on the string was a large gold band.
“Yer weddin’ ring,” she whispered. “Ya left it with me when ya took off fer Virginia. Ya was afraid of gettin’ robbed on yer way and didn’t want ta lose it after all ya went through ta get them.”
She held up her own left hand where a smaller, matching band still rested on her third finger.
Lu pulled back from her, scrambling up to squat on his heels as he stared into Lou’s eyes searchingly. She raised herself up onto her elbows to look at him with a question in her eyes, wondering what was going on.
After several long moments of silence, he asked, “Why didn’t ya give it back already?”
She shrugged. “Didn’t think about it, really. Honestly, most times I don’t even remember it’s there.”
Lu raised an eyebrow as he looked at the ring, now nestled in the crevice made visible between her breasts by her shirt which was now hanging completely off one shoulder.
“You forgot?” he murmured, shaking his head. “No, you didn’t forget.”
Reaching out, he grabbed his shirt and began to shrug back into it.
“What are you doin’?” Lou asked, sitting fully upright as she watched him move toward the stall door, tucking his shirt into his trousers as he went.
“Back ta the bunkhouse,” he muttered. “This was a mistake. I was right, you…. we ain’t ready fer this yet.”
“What the hell are you talkin’ ‘bout?” A note of anger crept into her voice.
Not slowing his motion toward the door, he reached out and grabbed his hat which was resting on top of a post and slapped it onto his head. “I ain’t the husband ya mourned. I ain’t the one ya really want ta celebrate yer anniversary with. I just wear his face,” he said wearily. “When yer ready ta love me, Louis Mallory, then we’ll be ready ta move on.”
She watched him moving away from her, his long legs eating up the distance to the door in no time, incredulously. Her mouth moved for a moment as she struggled to come up with an answer for him. Seeing him pull open the large doors and step out, she finally yelled after him, “You coward! Yer takin’ the easy way out. Again!”
He paused half out of the doorway, one hand still on the door holding it open, the other fumbling to button his shirt closed. His shoulders stiffened and his head raised, but he never looked back at her.
She could just barely hear his answer as it drifted back through the evening air to her.
“If you think this is easy fer me, ya obviously weren’t payin’ much attention a few minutes ago,” he said softly. “This is about the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.” Without another word he disappeared from her sight.
She kept staring out the barn door which he’d left ajar in his exit, hoping in vain he’d come back. Suddenly, the moment merged in her mind’s eye with two others, the day she’d said she wasn’t ready to marry him yet and the day she’d told him she couldn’t go to Virginia with him. Both times, just like now, he’d walked out that door without looking back.
“But,” she whispered to herself, a tear slipping out of the corner of one eye and sliding slowly down the cheek he’d been caressing so passionately just minutes earlier, “you promised. You promised you wouldn’t leave me behind. So why do you keep leaving?”
Razor thin slivers of wood peeled free of the larger piece cupped in his hands, one after the other, as Lu slid his knife along one edge, whittling it down to a rounded end. He sat on the bunkhouse porch steps, his shoulders slumped as he worked the wood in his hands, not even really looking at what he was doing but lost deep in his own thoughts.
He jerked, sliding the tip of the knife off the edge of the wood and into his thumb, when a hand settled on his shoulder, surprising him.
“Ow!” he muttered, lifting his thumb to suck at the wound.
“You alright son?” Teaspoon asked. “Didn’t mean ta startle you.”
“Just thinkin’s all,” Lu muttered.
“Must’ve been some pretty heavy thoughts fer ya to have been so lost ta the world.”
Lu just shrugged, unwilling to discuss his problems just yet.
“Lou?” Teaspoon guessed. When Kid didn’t respond, the older man sighed and settled down onto the porch steps next to him. Staring out into the night air, he pulled out a cloth and his pistol and began to polish it. With a sigh, he finally said, “Give her time, son. She’s got a powerful lot of hurt inside her ta deal with. She’ll come around.”
“What about me?” Lu asked, suddenly angry. “Ain’t I got a lot ta deal with? It ain’t like changing all yer life plans is exactly easy. Finding out you’ve got a wife and a little girl, that need a kind of protection you’re not exactly equipped ta give ‘em is danged hard, if you ask me.”
“But yer dealin’ with it mighty fine,” Teaspoon said approvingly. “And yer fallin’ in love fer the first time. She’s tryin’ ta figure out how ta love you without holdin’ a past ya can’t remember against ya.”
Lu snorted in disdain, a trace of bitterness entering his voice. “Yeah. Fallin’ in love fer the first time makes it easier. Maybe it might if I weren’t competin’ with a ghost. A ghost that wears my face.”
Teaspoon opened his mouth to say something, but changed his mind when the sound of someone running down the boardwalk calling his name reached his ears.
“Marshal Hunter! Marshal Hunter!”
“Over here, darlin’,” he said, waving. “What can I do ya fer?”
“Mrs. Polly tol’ me ta bring ya this,” the young girl, maybe 15 years old, said, smiling shyly. “Said it was real ‘portant ya got it right away.”
“Well, thank you kindly Miss Sarah,” Teaspoon smiled at her, accepting the missive. Digging in his pocket, he pulled out a nickel and handed it to her. “And here’s a little somethin’ fer yer troubles. Now get on back ta Polly’s Place, and no stoppin’ ta chat up the fellows on the way.”
“No sir,” the girl blushed as she turned and hurried quickly back in the direction she’d come from.
Teaspoon watched her go for a moment before looking down at the paper in his hands.
“What’s Mrs. Hunter doin’ at the saloon on a Sunday night?” Lu asked, confused. Like most towns, Rock Creek had a city ordinance banning businesses from opening their doors on Sundays.
“Oh, there’s a farmer’s co-op meetin’ every third Sunday evenin’ of the month,” Teaspoon shrugged. “Polly’s Place is the only spot big enough ta hold ‘em all.”
Teaspoon opened the paper, which had been simply folded in half, and quickly read the note.
“Damn,” he muttered, his features taking on a shuttered look. Turning to Kid, he said, “Head on over to the main house. Tell Rachel ta put the coffee on and make it strong. Ain’t none of us sleepin’ tonight.”
“What’s wrong?” Lu asked, jumping to his feet in sudden concern.
Holding up the note, Teaspoon said grimly, “Three strange men came into the meetin’ tonight and started askin’ after a boy matchin’ our Lou’s description, askin’ if they’d seen him alone or in the company of a woman and a child.”
“Kid, relax,” Buck said as he watched the other man move from window to window, stopping to peer out of each one in turn, over and over again. “Even if they come, they’ll wait until just before dawn, when we’re the tiredest and have the least light.”
“Sorry,” Lu muttered, blushing slightly. “This feels just a bit too much like the night before a battle. I never could relax then, either.”
He moved over and sat back down at the table, setting down his pistol and picking up his knife and the wood he’d been whittling on for the last day.
Buck smiled to see the other man so nervous. They were all concerned and on alert, of course, but only Lu was acting like a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. That boded well for his future with Lou, Buck figured. Meant he was already caring more than he wanted to admit.
“More coffee?” Teresa asked, walking up to Buck with the coffee pot carefully held in one hand protected by a towel.
Buck smiled at her as he picked up the cup he’d set on the windowsill next to him and held it out to her. “Sure. Thanks.”
She smiled back as she poured the black elixir slowly, so as not to splash any precious drops out of the cup.
“How are you holdin’ up?”
“I’m fine,” Buck said. “It’s been awhile since I’ve pulled a shift like this, but not that long. I still fill in as deputy occasionally when Teaspoon needs an extra hand. Just makes the next day at the telegraph office awful long.”
Teresa laughed, before moving on to offer Jimmy a refill.
“You sure do have a routine down for this sort of thing,” Lydia said skeptically from her spot near Jimmy. The two stood on opposite sides of the same window, keeping watch for any unexpected intruders.
“Seems like we pulled shifts like this at least once a month or so durin’ the Express,” he shrugged. “Ya know, it’s a wonder we ever managed ta deliver the mail, we was so busy fightin’ bandits, not ta mention each other!”
“Oh, I’m sure fighting wasn’t all you did back then,” she answered tartly, a twinkle in her eye. “Lu and… uh… Lou had time enough to fall in love. I’d bet the rest of you found yourselves victims of Cupid’s arrow a time or two, as well.”
Jimmy shrugged. “Maybe. But we didn’t let it interfere with our jobs.”
“Tell me about them,” she said quietly.
“Who?” Jimmy asked, turning to look at Lydia confused.
She refused to meet his eyes, continuing to search the dark night outside the window for intruders instead. “The women you fell in love with.”
“I thought I’d seen the last of this sort of thing with the end of the Express,” Rachel muttered, stabbing her needle into the material stretched tightly around a circle of wood. “I hate this.”
“You should’ve known better than that,” Polly chided, from where she was grinding beans for more coffee. “These boy’s’ll grow older, but they’ll never completely grow ‘up’. Not like others. All you have to do is look at Teaspoon to see how they’ll end up.”
Two shadowy figures watched over the yard between the bunkhouse, barn and main house alertly from their positions on opposites of the hayloft door in the barn. Both grasped a rifle tightly in one hand, pistols strapped securely to their hips.
“You need ta give the boy a break,” Teaspoon broke the stillness of the night.
“What’re ya talkin’ ‘bout?” Lou asked acerbically, although she had a pretty good idea.
“Kid. Lu. The man yer married to.”
“I tried,” she sighed. “He wouldn’t take it.”
“Did you? Or did ya try ta rush things again, so’s ya wouldn’t have ta think things through, wouldn’t have ta deal with everythin’ his return’s makin’ ya feel?”
Lou turned to look at the man she thought of as a father in surprise.
“How’d you guess?” she asked in a small voice.
“Ain’t hard fer someone knows ya as well as me,” he smiled. “Yer a woman of action. He’s a man of thought. That’s part of what makes ya such a perfect pair. Ya balance each other out. But you’ve got ta remember ta let him do that balancin’, just like he does.”
Eyelids fought to stay open, heads nodded in desperate need of sleep across the old Express station as all struggled to stay awake and alert in that final hour before dawn. All jerked to instant clarity as the first shots sounded from the barn.
“Intruders to the West!” came Teaspoon’s cry as he and Lou opened fire.
“Keep an eye on the East,” Lou added. “We only see two. There’s at least a third somewheres!”
In moments the air was thick with the smell of sulfur, ears ringing from the staccato banging of the rapidly fired rifles and pistols. But with so many competent, and expert, gunmen and women ready and waiting it took little time to down the three intruders. When sudden silence prevailed, they all stood, waiting to see if there were any more men out there they didn’t know about.
After about twenty minutes, Teaspoon gave the all clear and everyone rushed out to inspect the damage.
“Everyone all right?” Polly asked, as she moved from person to person.
“We’re fine,” Jimmy said, one arm around Lydia, holding her close to his side.
“Lou, you’re limping,” Lu called out worriedly as he watched her and Teaspoon exit the barn and join the rest in the middle of the yard. “Did you get hit?”
“No,” she said simply, not meeting his eyes. “Twisted my ankle comin’ down the ladder from the hayloft a minute ago. I’ll be fine by mornin’.”
“Well, everybody come on up to the main house,” Rachel said, looking toward the east where the first rays of the morning sun were sneaking up over the horizon. “I’ll put breakfast on.”
“I should leave for Fort Kearny,” Lou said as she sat at the table in Rachel’s kitchen. Kid stood behind her, Buck sat at her side, Teresa next to him. Teaspoon, Lydia and Jimmy sat across from them. The children were at the kitchen counter, helping Rachel load up the platters for breakfast. “If I’m gone, they’ll chase after me. I’ll leave Teresa and Mary Kate here, where they’ll be safe.”
“Sounds like a good plan,” Teaspoon said. “We’ll make sure they’re well protected, just in case. But I’m sendin’ Jimmy with ya. You’ll need the extra gun.”
Lou was already shaking her head. “No. I want him here, watchin’ over my family. I can take care of myself.”
“You’re not goin’ alone, Louise McCloud,” Teaspoon said sternly. “It’s too dangerous.”
Lou started to open her mouth to argue, but stopped when she felt Kid’s hand come to rest on her shoulder. She looked up at him in question.
“I’ll go with ya, Louise,” he said. “I ain’t good enough with a gun ta add to the protection detail here. But I’m one of the best on a horse. And better’n most at trackin’, and hidin’ my tracks. We’ll move fast and give ‘em lots of false trails ta get lost followin’.”
“Don’t argue, Lou,” Polly said. “You came here because you needed our help. You can’t turn it away now that you’ve asked.”
Lou slumped down, accepting the inevitable. “Fine,” she muttered. Turning to look back at Kid again, she added, “Get some rest this mornin’. We’ll leave right after supper.”
Lu looked down at her and nodded.
“Do you have ta go?” Mary Kate asked as she stood on the bunkhouse porch with the rest of the Express family, ready to bid goodbye to Lou and Kid.
Lu squatted down on his haunches so he could look the little girl in the eyes. Reaching up, he brushed her bangs back out of her eyes. “I’m sorry, but yeah, I’ve gotta go.”
She started to tear up as she reached out to wrap her little arms around his neck. “But I just got you, Pa! You can’t leave me already. What if you don’t come back?”
Lu wrapped his arms around the little girl and squeezed her tightly to him. Then, seeing Carl sneaking up next to him, he loosened one arm to draw the boy into the embrace. Without letting go of either one, he looked straight at his wife as he said, “I’ve got to go. Part of bein’ yer Pa means helpin’ protect yer Ma. And I can’t promise nothin’ll happen to me while I’m gone. No one could ‘xcept God. But I can promise I’ll do everything in my power to make sure we both come back, alright?”
He finally pulled back to look down first at Mary Kate and then at Carl. Both children nodded somberly.
“And you two can help,” he smiled.
“How?” they asked eagerly in unison.
Lu freed his arms from the children and opened the flap of the front pouch of the saddlebags slung over his shoulder. He pulled out two small items wrapped in cloth and handed one to each child. With nimble fingers, they quickly pulled off the cloth to reveal matching handcarved horses. Carl’s was carved from an ash black wood. It had a painted white blaze carved into the horse’s forehead. The animal was captured in mid-stride of a full gallop. Mary Kate’s was made from a light brown wood. Lu had painted the equine’s hindquarters white with brown spots in a pattern that trailed down the animal’s legs and over its back. This horse was caught at rest, muzzle pressed against its left shoulder, tail caught as it whipped at an unseen fly on the animal’s right side.
Lou gasped, raising a hand to cover her mouth as she saw the finished carvings Lu had begun the day before.
Lu waited as the children exclaimed over the toys. When they’d calmed down, he said, “You take care of these two animals, make sure to feed them and exercise them every day, just like real horses. And every time you do, think about us and say a little prayer. That’ll bring us back just as fast as possible.”
Giving them one last tight hug, he turned and moved toward his horse, using the excuse of checking the cinch strap on his saddle and tying down his bedroll and saddlebags to give Lou time to say goodbye.
Soon both were mounted up and ready to leave. Turning their horses heads toward the west, they urged them into motion, moving away from their family to the sounds of shouted ‘goodbye’s and ‘good luck’s and one gravelly call of “Ride Safe!”