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