“So, let me get this straight,” Kid said, disbelief coloring his voice. “It ain’t 1861, it’s 1871? I’ve got a nine year old daughter I cain’t remember, a five year old ‘sorta’ son with a woman I almost married who ain’t Lou, I cain’t shoot worth a damn and Lou’s been workin fer the territorial…. uh, sorry, federal marshal? Oh, and I almost forgot, Jimmy’s a more famous gunman than ever and Cody finally started that Wild West show he’s been talkin’ about?”
Teaspoon nodded. “That about sums it up, son.”
Kid snorted. “Right. Now pull the other one! Would someone please tell me what really happened? Why does my head ache like I’ve been on a three day bender? What are y’all doin’ in Virginia?”
There was a strong hint of desperation in his words this time. He didn’t want to believe what he’d been told. Lou sat next to him, weeping inconsolably, so he knew something was horribly wrong. But this? This was too much.
Teaspoon grunted. “Look around you. Does this really look like Virginia to ya? Look at my face…wait, no. Look at Buck and Lou’s faces. Look close. They ain’t the same kids you remember. They’ve gone and grown up on ya, Kid. And talkin’ about growin’ up, look at Teresa. She ain’t the little girl ya left behind when ya went off ta War. Face it, we’ve told ya the truth.”
Kid slowly let his eyes scan the clearing they’d set up camp in. It certainly looked more like something he’d see on a run in the territories than in hilly, verdant Virginia. He peered intently at first one face then another as they all looked back at him anxiously. He noted how Teaspoon’s hair, once a salty salt and pepper was now pure snow white. He saw the crow’s feet beginning to fan out from the corners of Buck’s eyes. He noted the more rounded curves of Lou’s body. Finally, he looked over at the other young woman in their midst. Dressed much like Lou, except with long hair tied back into a braid that dangled down the middle of her back, she didn’t’ look familiar at all. Not until he stared deeply into her eyes. There he found the little girl he’d left behind what felt like a few weeks ago. But there was no way she’d grown up so much in just a few weeks.
“Damn!” he breathed, quietly at first. Then, more loudly, more angrily, “Damn it all to hell!” He turned to look at the petite woman sheltered in his arms, tears still seeping from her eyes as she buried her face in his shoulder. “Any why the hell did you let me take off if ya knew you were expectin’?”
Lou turned her tearstained face up to look at him. “’Cause… ‘cause ya’d have stayed,” she whispered. “And ya’d have been miserable and you’d have blamed me fer it. I couldn’t do that to ya.”
Kid pulled away from her. “So’s ya just made the choice fer me? Isn’t that what ya spent all those hours tellin’ me not ta do to you? So’s how’s it alright fer you to do the same thing to me? Thanks to yer damned games I missed out on my baby girl!”
Standing up, he stomped off into the surrounding woods. Lou watched him go, tears still pouring down her cheeks.
“Why that…” Teaspoon stood up as if to follow him, but Lou grabbed at his arm.
“No,” she whispered. “Let him go. He’s… he’s right. I knew that. Why do you think I took his death so hard?”
Teresa stepped over and wrapped her arms around her sister, comforting her.
Kid walked among the horses, looking in vain for Katy.
“What ever happened to ya, girl?” he mused sadly. “I s’pose I’ll never know.”
One horse nickered and pushed his head over Kid’s shoulder as if trying to comfort him. Kid reached up and absently stroked the animal’s soft, velvety nose. Leaning his head against the animal’s cheek, he sighed.
He’d been harsh on Lou. He knew that, but he’d just been suddenly so angry. He’d have to apologize when he headed back to camp. But first he needed some time to digest what had happened.
Kid groaned and winced, raising a hand to shade his eyes. The only problem was, the harder he tried to think, the more his damned head hurt.
“Teaspoon, we can’t just sit around here waiting for Kid to come to his senses,” Buck said hours later. “If he ain’t back by mornin’, we’re gonna have ta leave without him.”
Teaspoon nodded wearily. “The good news is, he knows where we’re headed and he’s got his old memories back. That means he can find his way to Fort Kearny easily enough without our help. He’s a grown man. He can take care of himself.”
“And he knows how ta apologize when he’s wrong,” Kid said from the shadows at the edge of the clearing, where the flickering light of the fire didn’t reach. Stepping into the light, he looked from one person to another. “I shouldn’ta taken my anger out on all of y’all. You were just tryin’ ta help.”
Teaspoon nodded, accepting the younger man’s apology wordlessly. Noting how Kid’s eyes were darting back and forth across the clearing, obviously in search of something or, more likely, someone, he cleared his throat. “Ye’ll have ta wait ‘til mornin’ ta apologize to her, son. She’s long since asleep.”
Kid nodded disconsolately and moved over to the pallet he’d awoken on earlier. Lowering himself to the bedding, he pulled off his head and turned it around and around in his hands, keeping his eyes on it.
Lou rolled over, reaching automatically for her pistol as the long, agonized sound pierced her troubled sleep.
“Noooo, Carl! No, why’d you do it, Carl? Why?”
Recognizing Kid’s voice she sat up and looked across the glowing embers that were all that remained of the campfire and saw him thrashing around on his bedroll. She dropped the pistol and jumped up to rush over to his side. She placed one hand on his forehead to calm him and gasped at how cold and clammy it was.
“Kid,” she whispered. Then, a little louder, “Kid, it’ll be alright.”
“How’m I gonna tell Lydia, Carl?” he moaned.
“Louis,” she gasped. Thinking quickly, she lay down on the pallet next to himand gathered him to her in both arms. She pressed her lips to his cheek, his forehead, his chin, anything she could reach as she began to talk to him in soft, soothing tones. “It’s alright, Lu. You told her he died savin’ yer life. And that was the truth. You were there for her when she needed it. You helped raise her boy. You did the right thing, Lu.”
“Louise,” he breathed, suddenly wrapping his arms around her in return and crushing her to his chest. Laying his head back on his saddle, he was asleep so fast she never had the chance to answer him.
The chill of the early morning roused Lu slowly, the sounds of birds eagerly greeting the new day ringing in his ears. He rolled toward the warm imprint of his wife’s body, cuddled close to his side. She was using one of his arms as a pillow. He wrapped the other one around her and started to nuzzle her neck, until she squirmed in recognition and pushed futilely at him.
“Kid, stop that,” she hissed. “We ain’t alone no more.”
Lu pulled back abruptly and narrowed his eyes at her, wincing a bit at the pounding the sudden movement instigated in the back of his head.
“I thought we were past that,” he said heavily.
“Past what?” she asked, pushing herself up on her arms to look him in the eye. “You bein’ mad at me fer making bad choices 10 years ago?”
“No, you not bein’ able ta tell the difference ‘tween a memory and the man in yer bed,” he growled huskily.
The duo stared at each other in confusion for a moment. Then asked simultaneously, “What are you talkin’ ‘bout?”
“Lu?” Louise whispered, reaching out one hand to tentatively caress his cheek. “Are you back?”
“Wasn’t aware I’d gone anywhere,” he muttered, pulling away from her.
“But… but…. last night….” Louise sputtered, unable to pull together a coherent thought.
“Last night?” He squinted up at the early morning sky, dawn just peaking over the distant horizon. “What happened last night?” He rubbed the back of his head, then winced again as another pain, this one in his shoulder, made itself known. “I feel like I been rode hard and put up wet.”
“What’s the last thing you remember?” Lou asked.
“Ridin’ into the river….” he paused to consider. “Gunshots. Leapin’ at you. Feelin’ like I was drownin’. There’s other stuff… but it’s all fuzzy, like it ain’t quite real. I cain’t make heads nor tails of it.”
“You hit your head on a rock in the riverbed,” Lou said, reaching around to check the back of his head while she was talking about the injury. “Apparently it knocked the memory back into you. You were Kid last night. And you were madder than a wet hen.”
“Why?” Lu asked, bewildered.
“You didn’t remember nothin’ of bein’ Lu,” she said quietly, sitting back and looking away from him. “You just remembered me sendin’ you away, not tellin’ you ‘bout Mary Kate.” She paused and turned to look back up at him. “How’d you know ‘bout her anyways?”
Lu just stared at her, mystified. Shrugging his shoulders, he answered, “Dunno.”
“I wrote him,” Teaspoon said. “He had a right to know, Louise.”
Lou swung her head around to look at Teaspoon. He stood at the edge of the clearing, obviously just having come back to the camp from taking care of his morning needs.
“But you had no right,” Lou started to protest.
Teaspoon held up a hand to forestall her. “Somebody had ta do it. You were wrong not ta tell him and ya know it, Lou. Ya said so last night. He,” Teaspoon swung his hand to point at Lu, “he had a right to make decisions based on all the facts. Keepin’ somethin’ like that from a man, well, it’s real hurtful young lady. And it can ruin lives. Don’t ya remember Elizabeth? And Amanda?”
Lou sagged, the fight taken out of her. Lu wrapped a comforting arm about her shoulders. She nodded.
“Yeah,” she said in a small voice. “I remember.”
“Well, I don’t,” muttered Lu disconsolately.
Teaspoon walked up to him and put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “That’s alright, son. We can remember for ya.”
“Teaspoon,” Lou asked hesitantly. “What’s up with Lu anyway? I get him gettin’ hurt and fergettin’ us and all. Don’t like it, but I understand it. But… what happened yesterday? And this mornin’?”
“Well, darlin’,” Teaspoon mused, moving over to the fire to pick up the pot of coffee he’d set on to boil before leaving and pour himself a cup. “I don’t rightly know. The brain’s a mighty mysterious thing. You can shoot right through it and never hurt a man permanent. Or, ya can knock him down once and he dies of it.” Teaspoon shook his head and then took a sip of the hot brew. “As far as yesterday, we’ll just have ta wait and see. It may’ve been a one-time thing. Or, Lu, ya might continue ta flip back and forth between the two sets of memories.”
“Now there’s a scary thought,” Lu muttered.
Teaspoon grunted in agreement and raised his coffee cup in salute. “Or, ya could wake up one mornin’ and it’ll all be there, both the Kid’s memories and yers.”
“Well, we don’t have time to wait around here to find out,” Teresa said, walking over to the fire from her bedroll. “We’ve got to be in Fort Kearny by 9:00 a.m. for the trial, or the Cole Lampton will walk.”
“Over my dead body,” Lou said fiercely. “He’s gonna pay with his life fer Jeremiah and all the others he’s killed.”
“I don’t know ‘bout yer dead body,” Teaspoon said quietly. “But he’ll definitely be doin’ it over Lu’s.”
“What?” the three of them chorused.
“Only one man got away last night. Buck and I’ve been keepin’ watch fer him all night and he’s long gone. Probably already in Kearny waitin’ fer you. So far’s he knows, Lu’s dead, leavin’ our Louise on her own. Oh, he might suspect Buck turned on him, but even so… that leaves us up three guns.”
“So, what’s the plan?” Lu asked curiously. The others all looked at him in surprise. He grinned, “Well, I assume he has a plan. He’s always got a plan! Even I know that much!”Chapter 22