The shadows of early evening lengthened as the horses continued plodding westward. Their riders didn’t speak, to each other or themselves, didn’t look at each other, keeping their eyes on the purpling landscape ahead of them, barely moved, except the occasional tightening of muscles to keep the horses moving in the right direction.
Lu shifted in his saddle, trying to hide his sigh, sneaking a peak at his wife out of the corner of his eye, as he’d been doing off and on throughout the day. Her stiff posture and tight mouth shouted her desire to be left alone to the world. He was trying to respect that, but at the same time, how were they supposed to move forward if they never spoke? How were they supposed to make this work? He was starting to wonder if it was worth all this effort to find something he didn’t really understand.
If he hadn’t been glancing at her, he never would have seen her suddenly veer off to the left, controlling her horse with just the pressure of her knees, the reins resting, knotted up, on the saddlehorn under one hand.
“Dang it!” he swore softly to himself, quickly swinging his own horse around to follow the new course she’d set. Raising his voice, he called out, “What’re ya doin’?”
“It’s gettin’ dark,” she muttered, never looking his way. “Time ta make camp fer the night, ‘fore we can’t see what we’re doin’.”
Soon, she was riding into the shadowed depths of a copse of trees he hadn’t even noticed. Following closely on her horse’s tail, Lu ducked his head to avoid several low hanging branches. Sitting upright once again, he pulled back on his reins, stopping his mount’s forward momentum as he watched his wife dismount in a small clearing. In the distance, he could hear the cheerful burbling of a brook.
“You know how ta get a fire goin’?” she asked.
Lu looked at her, pursing his mouth at the silly question. “Do fish swim?”
She simply nodded sharply and gathered up the reins of both horses. “I’ll tend the stock then.”
And, as simply as that, the camp chores were divided up. By the time Lou had finished watering, brushing down and hobbling the two horses, fed them a little grain and set them loose to graze, Lu had a bright fire dancing in the middle of the clearing, water heating in a pot for coffee and two fish speared on sticks stuck in the ground next to the fire, slowly turning a crispy, toasty brown.
He watched as his wife pulled her bedroll clear of her saddle and quickly and efficiently spread it out on the other side of the fire’s warmth. When she settled herself down on it, leaning back against the saddle, he pulled out the nearest fish and handed it to her, still on the stick. She nodded her appreciation and began to nibble at it.
The nearly unnerving silence continued between them as they settled in for the night.
“I’ll take the first watch,” Lou finally said.
Lu nodded and pulled his hat down over his eyes to block out the light of the fire. But he was still hyper aware of every noise around him. He began to slowly empty his mind of all thoughts in an effort to fall asleep, knowing that if he didn’t get to sleep now, he’d be no good on guard duty later.
Suddenly, he twitched where he lay, jerking himself awake. He lay there, nearly panting for a moment, wondering what it was that had startled him out of his snooze. Then, he heard it again. A soft sob.
Sitting up slightly, he slowly pushed his hat back off his eyes and looked across the glowing embers of the dying fire. Lou sat there, one fist stuffed in her mouth to stifle any noise, the string with his wedding ring on it tangled in her fingers. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she stared down at something she held in her other hand.
“What’s wrong?” he asked quietly, standing up to move around the campfire to her side. Looking over her shoulder, he saw that she was staring down at a wedding photograph of her and what was most definitely a younger version of him. His eyes widened slightly at the sight. She was wearing a beautiful white dress heavily decorated with lace, flowers laced through her curled hair, a half smile gracing her face. He was standing at her side, one hand on her shoulder, staring seriously into the camera lens, wearing a dark wool suit and what appeared to be a few bruises on his face. He wondered about that.
Lou finally noticed his presence and looked up at him questioningly, her face stained with the tracks of her tears. He sighed and settled down next to her, pulling her gently against his shoulder. She went, unresisting.
“Tell me about him,” Lu said.
“Who?” she whispered in a strained voice.
Lu reached down and slipped the picture out of her grasp. Holding it up to the light cast by the small fire, he stared at it. “Tell me about Kid, the man you married. The one you’re crying over.”
She hiccuped slightly, holding out one hand for the picture. He handed it back to her and she started down at it again, tracing the edges of the man’s features with one fingertip, gently, slowly, in what was obviously an oft-repeated move, judging by the faded track she was tracing. Realizing what she was doing, she pulled her hand away from the picture, swiping angrily at the tears on her cheek instead.
“He was.. you were….” she stopped, looking up at Lu pleadingly.
“He’s not me,” Lu said quietly. “Not anymore. Tell me about him.”
She nodded. “He was sweet, shy, so afraid of losing control.” The words ‘nothing like you’ hovered in the air between them. Lou kept her eyes glued to the picture. “Not that I was much better. We… clicked, I guess you could say, almost immediately. But I was afraid. I had a…. a past. There was a reason I was livin’ as a boy, workin’ fer the Express. But he stayed by my side, was my friend and confidante first. Later… well, he may have been bumbling and clueless about women, but he was stubborn, too. Wouldn’t give up on me. When I finally decided he was what I wanted though….” She paused, laughing slightly under her breath. “Well, let’s just say, once he had me he wasn’t quite sure what to do with me.”
“Why do I get the feeling it wasn’t as easy as all that?” Lu asked, smiling.
“Because life never is. Like I said, I had a past. I wasn’t ready for a lot of the things he wanted. He had a fear of losing control. He needed to control everything and…. everyone…. around him. I told him I needed time, space. He….. he walked out. Oh, we eventually worked things out, but it was never quite the same again. I was always afraid he’d leave me behind again. That’s why… why I made him promise not to when we got engaged.”
“But I left anyway,” Lu said quietly, finally understanding. “First I went off to war, then I went and forgot you entirely.”
“Yes, damn you, you did!” she hissed, trying to pull away from him.
“Un unh,” he grunted. “No runnin’ away this time. We’re stayin’ right here until we get a few things straight ‘tween us.”
Furious, she started to struggle, trying to pull out of his arms. He let out an explosion of air when her elbow unerringly found his diaphragm. But he refused to loosen his grip on her. The steel toes of her boots met with his shin, startling an explosive, “OW!” out of him. Still he didn’t let go. She wrenched her head back and forth violently, eventually slamming it back into his chin. His jaw snapped shut sharply, catching the tip of his tongue between his teeth. He tasted the coppery flow of blood.
“Damn it, woman, would you stop,” he finally grunted.
“Just let me go!” she demanded, nearly shouting.
“No way, not until we’ve worked this out.”
“What do you care?” she wailed, starting to pummel him in the chest with her small clenched fists that still managed to pack quite a wallop. He winced. That was going to leave bruises. “You’ll just find a reason to leave again. You always do.”
Having expended her energy with the fight, she suddenly collapsed against his chest, sobbing. “You’ll leave me behind, walk away, ride away, maybe run this time.”
“I’m not goin’ anywhere,” he said softly, wrapping his arms tightly around her, hugging her close. Leaning down he pressed a kiss to her forehead. “I’m not goin’ anywhere.”
She laughed bitterly through her tears. Whispering, she said, “I’ve heard that before. Then you left anyway.”
He reached down and put a finger under her chin, tilting her face up so he could look her in the eyes. “I don’t know Kid. I don’t know what he was thinkin’ when he rode off, but I can’t imagine it was easy fer him. He expected you ta go with him. I’ve learned that much from you and the others. I imagine he felt just as betrayed when you refused to come as you did when he wouldn’t’ stay.”
“No buts. Your reasons for stayin’ were good,” Lu said. “I wouldn’t want any wife of mine ridin’ off ta war knowin’ she was expectin’ my babe. But he didn’t know that, did he?”
She shook her head mutely, startled to suddenly be hearing things from Kid’s perspective.
“So how do you think he must’ve felt when you suddenly pulled out of the bargain you’d made?”
Unable to keep eye contact, Lou looked suddenly away.
“No, look at me,” he said sternly. “Now, I can’t imagine walkin’ away from the woman I love ta go fight in a war like that one was. If I’d known I had ya at home waitin’ fer me I’d have walked away from that hospital just as soon as they’d’a let me. I never would’ve joined up again. But I didn’t know.” He paused, trying to catch his breath. “I didn’t know,” he finally said one last time, barely audibly.
The next morning found them waking together, Lou still cradled in his arms. Once the ice had been broken, they’d spent hours talking. She’d told him all about their crazy courtship, going to dances as two boys, sneaking off for some time together, long rides in the woods, their break-up and eventual make-up, finally their wedding and short-lived marriage. He’d told her more about his time during the war, his friendship with Carl, meeting Lydia, delivering Carl, Jr, his struggles as a farmer. It had been cathartic for both of them.
This morning, the heavy cloud that had kept them both locked inside themselves the day before seemed to have lifted. They quickly and easily moved through the chores of getting breakfast together and breaking camp. Soon, they were riding westward again, toward Fort Kearny.
“How long have you been teachin’ Mary Kate ta shoot?” Lu asked as they headed out.
“Oh, that,” Lou laughed a little, looking down at the reins gripped tightly in one hand. “’Bout the same time she could hold the gun, I guess. Didn’t see no reason ta wait. ‘Specially not with my job and all.”
“I just don’t get it,” Lu said, shaking his head in wonder. “Seems like an awful dangerous thing ta do.”
“We live in a dangerous world,” Lou said. Turning her head to meet his eyes, she added, “’Specially if yer a girl in it. I didn’t want her ta face what I faced without some means of protectin’ herself.”
Lu nodded. Although he couldn’t quite make himself understand at the gut level, he did get her point. Lord knew, he wished he were a better shot.
“So, how do you handle it when she throws a temper tantrum?” he asked. “And don’t tell me she don’t. She’s yer daughter!”
Lou laughed, the bright sound tinkling across the prairie and warming his heart. He smiled at the sight of his wife relaxed and enjoying herself. She was so beautiful when she let herself have some fun.
“No, that’s what I do,” Lou said, catching his look out of the corner of her eye. “I laugh. And then walk away. Works like a charm. She can’t stand ta be laughed at.”
“Hmmm, wonder if it would work with Carl,” Lu mused. “I’ll have ta keep that in mind fer next time. Threats of a hidin’ sure don’t do the trick.”
The morning passed quickly as their horses ate up the miles and their words ate up the distance between them. They discussed everything from child rearing techniques to favorite colors to how to properly shoe a horse, and anything in between that occurred to them.
So caught up were they in their conversation, they never noticed the lone horseman that would occasionally appear on the distant horizon behind them.
“What do you mean, they’re gone?”
“I…. I’m sorry, but they left while we was still re-groupin’ after the attack. Ya never tol’ me she had a U.S. Marshal fer a friend!”
“What did ya expect? She was workin’ fer the Federal Marshal when she helped take down Lampton. ‘Course she had other friends.”
“But…. Wild Bill Hickok?”
The first men raised his brows at that one. “Alright, that I didn’t expect. But he’s still just one man. Ain’t like he’s got eyes in the back of his head.”
His companion just glared at him. He raised his hands in surrender.
“Alright, alright,” he appeased. “Ya lost ‘em.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“I just said they was gone. Left the next mornin’. But I sent Dick out after ‘em. He’s the best trailer… heck by now he’s the only trailer… I got. He’ll catch up to ‘em. Gave him orders ta leave ‘em alone, just trail ‘em, ‘til he kin get a message ta my brother in Grand Island.”
“That’s right next to…. “
“Precisely,” the second man grinned, exposing a mouthful of half-rotten teeth, stained dark with tobacco juice. “We’ll set up a trap ‘tween there and the Fort. She’ll never make it to that trial.”