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.