Rock Creek, Neb.
“Did my mommy fall down again?”
Lydia and Jimmy jumped apart, both looking down at little Carl a tad guiltily.
“Um, yeah,” Jimmy muttered, clearing his throat. “She, uh, hit her… uh… mouth on the table over there.”
Carl looked at Jimmy through narrowed eyes, before nodding jerkily in acceptance of the story. Turning to his mother, his look softened. “You oughta be more careful, Ma. Yer gettin’ hurt an awful lot lately. And Uncle Jimmy won’t always be there ta kiss it all better.”
Lydia blushed a bright red and looked at Jimmy desperately for help. Catching her unvoiced hint, Jimmy turned the full power of his grin on Carl, and Mary Kate who’d just stepped through the door after him. Bending down, he grabbed the little boy up in both arms and tossed him into the air, making him squeal. Catching him deftly in his hands, Jimmy tucked Carl under on arm, on his hip, and reached out to ruffle Mary Kate’s hair.
“Why don’t we head on over to the Marshal’s office,” he suggested with a devilish grin. “Maybe if we’re not all underfoot, yer Ma will quit hurtin’ herself.”
Carl nodded, satisfied with the proposed solution. Mary Kate looked up at him with all the wisdom of her nine years and snorted contemptuously. Jimmy knew he’d have trouble with that one, and soon. She was too smart for his own good, and full of her Pa’s self-righteous sense that everything was black and white. There was no doubting she was Kid’s… well… kid.
Jimmy sat on the porch, ostensibly on watch, but really, he was too busy watching the goings on inside the bunkhouse to have noticed if an entire regiment of Union regulars had ridden into the former Express station’s yard. Lydia bustled around the room, setting out the platters of biscuits and vegetables, the bowl of stew she’d left simmering on the back of the stove when she’d headed off to work that morning. The children bickered happily as they laid out the plates and utensils. She just smiled indulgently at them and continued with her labors.
There was something about her that drew him like a moth to a flame. And he found he no longer wished to escape. It wasn’t just that she could cook well enough to satisfy even Cody’s appetites. Or that she tasted like honeyed milk when he kissed her. It was so much more than that.
For the first time in he couldn’t remember how long he could actually see a future for himself. And she was everywhere in it. He could see her rounded with his child, scolding him for teaching the children how to trick shoot when they should be studying their reading and ‘rithmatic. He could see her sitting next to him on the porch, withered and greyed with age, watching their children chase their grandchildren across the yard. He could see it all. And he wanted it with a ferocity he’d never have dared imagine.
Was this love? He didn’t know. He hoped so. He’d ‘fallen in love’ so many times over the years, but it had always been the wrong time, the wrong place, or worse yet, the wrong woman. But this? This was so much more than any of those experiences. And everything about Lydia screamed that she was the right woman, if he just dared to say the words. Did he have that kind of courage?
Lydia looked over Jimmy’s shoulder at the two sleeping children sprawled out in the bunkhouse. She jumped when he suddenly reached around and began tickling her ribs.
“Stop that,” she hissed through a smile. She grabbed his arm and dragged him out the door to sit on the steps of the bunkhouse porch. Though they ostensibly were still on guard and keeping watch for intruders, they’d concluded a few days ago they didn’t need to worry any longer. The trial should already be underway. Either Kid and Lou had made it, or they hadn’t. An attack here would now be pointless.
Jimmy reached out to pull the luscious woman next to him into his arms. But she stiffened and pushed him away.
“We can’t keep doing this,” she whispered, looking pointedly behind her. “Even if Carl doesn’t catch on, you know full well Mary Kate already has. Just how long do you think she’ll keep her mouth shut?”
“Until I stop bribing her with peppermint sticks or her Ma comes back, whichever comes first,” Jimmy shrugged, startling a burst of laughter out of Lydia.
“You’ve been bribing her?”
“Yep,” he grinned unrepentantly, his teeth flashing white in the gathering dusk. “And it’s costing me a fortune. Do you know how much candy that girl can eat?”
Lydia shook her head despairingly at him. “You’re going to make that girl fat!”
“Not before her Ma gets back,” Jimmy said, grabbing Lydia and pulling her insistently into the circle of his arms. She was now sitting on the step below him, between his legs, her back leaning against his chest, his arms around her shoulders, his chin resting atop her head as they both stared out at the spectacular prairie sunset. “’Sides, Lou would understand. All’s fair in love and war. Teaspoon taught us all that. Lou just lived it a little better than the rest of us.”
“Are you saying this is war?” Lydia stiffened in his arms, afraid to ask about the other. She felt him shake his head no.
“Feels more like love ta me,” he finally said, barely audibly, holding himself in rigid control, afraid she’d run from him and his sudden declaration. But she didn’t. Instead, she melted back into his arms, tilting her head up to smile tentatively at him.
“Does it?” she asked softly.
“Sure does,” he murmured, lowering his head toward hers. “But maybe I’m wrong. We should test the theory out a bit.”
His warm lips met her soft ones with a renewed intensity that stole their breath away. His hands came up to cup her cheeks, holding her face still for his explorations. She sighed in appreciation as his lips left hers to roam happily toward her neck.
After long moments in which neither of them thought about much of anything, Jimmy pulled back to look down into her bright, moss green eyes. He cleared his throat noisily, suddenly wondering how Kid had ever had the nerve to do this so many times. He wasn’t sure he was up to doing it even once. He rubbed his hands against his thighs to dry the nervous sweat that had inexplicably moistened his palms. How was it he could face down a deadly gunfighter without flinching, but this little woman in front of him had him all in a tizzy over which of two one syllable words she would choose?
“James?” she asked softly. “What’s wrong?”
“I was just thinkin’…” he started to say, then trailed off, not sure how to phrase things and afraid of saying something wrong and scaring her off.
“Now that can be a dangerous past time,” she smiled. He mock-glared at her. She held up a hand in a peace gesture. “What were you thinking about?”
“Well, the Kid and Lou and the rest should be back within the week,” he started. She stiffened. Was he about to tell her he was thinking about leaving? “And, well, I won’t have a reason ta stick around no more…”
She started to pull away of him in sudden anger, but he grabbed at her shoulders to hold her in place. “And… well… I was wonderin’ if maybe ya’d like me to anyways?”
She softened. “What are you saying James?”
“Well, I’m gettin’ sorta tired of all this sneakin’ around,” he said with a half smile. “I ain’t a kid no more. I’d like ta be able ta kiss ya… and maybe more... without worryin’ ‘bout bein’ caught. I guess… what I’m sayin’ is… will you marry me, Lydia Monroe Cathers?”
She pulled away from him to stand up and begin pacing the ground in front of the bunkhouse porch. “Well,” she finally said. “That depends.”
“On what?” he asked, standing up himself and straightening his guns as if prepping for a fight.
“On why you’re asking,” she said. She stopped pacing and turned to face him square on, her shoulders back and chin up, hands resting easily at her side, as comfortably at ease as the most experienced gunfighter he’d ever faced, but armed with much more deadly ammunition. “If it’s just to have the right to kiss me… and maybe more….” she said with a teasing light in her eye, “well, there’s plenty of saloon girls for that. You don’t need me.”
“And if I do need you?” he asked, stepping tentatively closer to her, his hands resting on the butts of his Colts.
“For my peace ofmind? For my sanity? For my….” he hestitated a moment before rushing through the last word, “happiness?”
“Well, that’s another matter,” she smiled softly, taking her own steps toward him. “See, in that case, you’d need me, not just any old warm body in the night.”
He took another step forward, standing now just mere inches away from her. His body thrumming with the blood rushing from one end to the other at the speed of light as his heart raced faster than Sundancer had ever crossed the prairie.
“I’d want that body next to me in the night even when it is old,” he whispered.
“That’s good,” she said, taking a last step toward him, so that their chests just barely brushed against each other, their lips hovering a hairsbreadth apart. “Cause it is going to get old. Just like yours.”
“We’d have to move West,” he said, “or East. Far away. Use another name. That’s the only way they’ll leave me… us …. alone.”
He reached out to wrap his arms around her, pulling her into his embrace.
“Or,” she whispered into the cloth of his shirt, “we could stay here and let your family keep us all safe.”
“Yeah,” he breathed into her hair. He brushed his lips gently across her forehead. “They’re good at that.”
Carl jerked awake at the sound of a bird’s raucous cawing outside the bunkhouse window. He looked wildly around the room. Mary Kate continued to snooze in the bunk next to him, but his mother, who he really wanted, wasn’t there. Standing, he walked toward the bunkhouse’s front door, the horse his Pa had carved him clutched tightly in one hand, the other hand rubbing sleepily at his eyes.
He stepped out onto the porch to find Uncle Jimmy, that’s what Mary Kate had said to call the tall gunslinger, kissing his Ma again. He sighed.
“What’d ya hurt this time, Ma?” he asked tiredly. He really wished she’d stop needing get well kisses so she could start giving him more.
Uncle Jimmy and his Ma jumped apart, acting almost as if he’d caught them stealing a cookie out of the cookie jar before dinner. He knew what that looked like ‘cause he did it every time Pa caught him trying to sneak a cookie. But Pa would just shake his head, take the cookie and split it in half with him. It was too bad Uncle Jimmy didn’t have any cookies. Carl wouldn’t mind sharing a cookie with him. He was fun to play with.
“Um…” Lydia paused, at a loss for words. She looked at Jimmy helplessly.
Jimmy hunkered down in front of the sleepy boy. He brushed the hair out of the boy’s face and smiled at him.
“Son, yer Ma didn’t hurt herself.”
“Then why are ya kissin’ her?” Lydia winced at her son’s growing accent. His grammar was becoming atrocious. She’d have to do something about that, and soon.
Jimmy cleared his throat and looked up at Lydia tenderly for a moment, before turning his full concentration on Carl. “Well, see, we were talkin’ and I had an idea. Maybe, if I lived with you all the time, and kissed her regular like, you know, before she gets hurt, we could stop her from ever havin’ any accidents.” Jimmy paused to see how Carl was taking this suggestion. “What do you think?”
Carl looked at him searchingly for a moment. “Are ya gonna live with us like my Pa did?”
Jimmy laughed softly beneath his breath and reached out to gather the boy into his arms. “Not quite. I’d marry yer Ma and live with ya until the good Lord takes me home.” He pulled back to look seriously into the boy’s eyes. “Sorta like yer Ma planned ta do with yer Pa, but better.”
“Does that mean Pa won’t be my Pa no more?” the child asked, concerned.
“Never,” Jimmy shook his head vehemently. “It would just mean ya’d have two Pa’s, that’s all.”
Carl nodded sagaciously. “But my first Pa’s dead. Remember?”
Carl leaned his head on Jimmy’s shoulder and yawned hugely.
“I think it’s time to get ya back into bed, young man,” Jimmy said softly, standing up still holding the boy. “There’ll be plenty of time ta talk ‘bout this in the mornin’.”
“Will ya stay?” Carl asked, his eyes closing even as he spoke. “And scare the scary things away?”
The words warmed Jimmy’s heart in ways he couldn’t explain. Lydia stepped up next to him and wrapped an arm around his waist as he led the way back into the bunkhouse.
“Always,” he answered, smiling into Lydia’s eyes. “Always and forever.” This was what he was meant to do. He could feel it in his bones.
Fort Kearny, Neb.
Teaspoon tiptoed out of the room, leaving Lou and Kid to celebrate in privacy as he carefully closed the door behind him.
“How’s he doin’?” Emma asked, coming back through the front door of the blacksmith’s shop.
Teaspoon raised his eyes to meet hers, beaming for all he was worth. Rushing across the room to her side, he grabbed her hands in his and began dancing around the room with her. “He’s awake! And he remembers. He’s got all his memories back. All of ‘em!”
Emma stared at him in disbelief for a moment, before throwing her head back and laughing in abandoned relief and joy, joining wholeheartedly in Teaspoon’s dance of celebration.
The sound of Sam clearing his throat caught their attention and they turned to look in his direction.
“I hate ta interrupt yer celebration,” he said a touch acerbically, “but I got some news for Lou.”
“You ain’t interruptin’ them young’uns,” Teaspoon started to bluster, stepping toward Sam threateningly.
“Ain’t got no choice,” Sam said, shaking his head. “Judge says she’s got ta come back and finish testifyin’ or he’ll declare a mistrial and Lampton gets off scott free. She’d kill all of us if we let that happen.”
“Damned straight I would,” Lou spoke up from the doorway of the little bedroom that served as the blacksmith’s living quarters.
Everyone turned at the sound of her voice. She stood in the doorway, Kid leaning heavily against her shoulder, her arm wrapped around his waist, helping steady him.
“Welcome back, son,” Teaspoon said happily, unable to wipe the joyous grin off his face.
“It’s good ta see ya, Kid,” Sam said.
“How are ya feelin’?” Emma asked in concern.
“Better,” Kid said. He reached up to ruefully rub the back of his head. “Still got a headache, but nothin’ like before. This one feels…. almost good. Like things are… healin’.”
Emma nodded, satisfied.
“That’s good, son,” Sam said, walking up next to his wife and wrapping an arm around her shoulders, ignoring the glare she tossed his direction.
“What’s this ‘bout Lou needin’ ta testify again?” Kid asked, worry furling his brow.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” Sam said. “But the judge is insistin’. She left in the middle of the case when you collapsed. He wants ta hear the rest of what she has to say.”
“It’s alright, Kid,” Lou said softly, looking up at him. “Now that I know yer alright, it ain’t no big deal. Just another day in court.”
Kid looked down at her searchingly for a moment before nodding his acceptance of her decision. She grinned up at him. The parts of Lu that she’d preferred over Kid, like his ability to step back and accept her decisions even when he didn’t like them, seemed to still be there. That was good.
“Ah, we’d better get goin’,” Sam said. “Judge gave me only 20 minutes ta come get ya and have ya back in court.”
“Comin’,” Lou said, leaning up on tiptoe to press a light kiss to Kid’s lips. “Don’t go nowhere,” she whispered against them.
“I ain’t goin’ anywhere,” he answered seriously. Placing one hand on the doorway to brace himself, he reluctantly released his grip around her shoulders and gave her a gentle push toward Sam.
She followed the Marshal toward the door, looking back over her shoulder several times just to assure herself that he was still there and hadn’t changed.
Once she was gone, Kid turned to Teaspoon. “Help me get back ta court, would ya?” he asked seriously. “I don’t think I can make it on my own and I wanna be there. I don’t like the way that lawyer was goin’ after her.”
Teaspoon sobered, remembering, and nodded quickly.
Lou walked into the courtroom next to Sam and nodded at Judge Thayer. She was ready to go. There was nothing Lampton’s lawyer could do or say to upset her right now. She was flying on cloud nine and just wanted to get this over with so she could go back to getting reunited with her husband.
The judge motioned to the witness’ chair and Lou walked forward and settled into it easily. He then banged his gavel several times, calling for quiet.
“Alright then, let’s get back to work ladies and gentlemen.” He turned to Lou. “Mrs. McCloud, I remind you that you are still under oath. Do you understand what that means?”
Lou nodded at him. “Yes sir, I do.”
“Alright then.” He cleared his throat and glared over the tops of his glasses at Lampton and his lawyer. “Before your young man collapsed that cretin over there was asking some highly irregular questions. Would you care to take a moment to set all our minds at ease so we can get this trial over with.”
“Certainly, sir,” Lou smiled. “It’s really quite simple.” And she launched into her story.
Kid looked around the fort’s grounds as he moved down the boardwalk toward the officers housing where the trial was. He noticed the frenetic activity and lack of civilians and looked questioningly at Teaspoon.
“What’s goin’ on here, Teaspoon?” he asked, concerned. “I ain’t heard nothin’ ‘bout no Indian trouble.”
Teaspoon shook his head tiredly. “Nope. Indians here ‘bouts have mostly quieted down these last few years. So much so, the Army’s abandonin’ the fort. Turnin’ it over to the state. These are the last of the troops and they’ll be gone by the end of the month. That’s why Sam’s been out here so long. He’s not just over-seein’ the trial but also co-ordinatin’ the handoff for the state.”
Kid shook his head in disbelief. “Things just won’t be the same without this place around.”
“Things never are, son,” Teaspoon sighed, thinking about all the changes he’d seen in his numerous years. “But one thing ya can always count on, no matter the changes.”
“What’s that?” Kid asked curiously.
“Family, son,” Teaspoon smiled at him. “Family.”
As Teaspoon and Kid arrived at the officers housing, people were streaming out the door, chatting amiably and smiling broadly. Several gave Kid odd looks as they passed him by. He wondered what that was all about, but brushed the thought away as he searched the crowd for Louise.
Suddenly, there she was, standing in the pretty purple dress at the top of the steps laughing at something Sam had just said. Kid sighed. Just seeing her made his head feel better.
“Kid!” she called, waving excitedly to him. Like magic almost, the crowd parted and she tumbled down the steps and into his open arms. He hugged her tightly to him, enjoying the warmth of having her close, closing his eyes to savor the moment.
“I take it things went alright?”
“Yes,” she smiled. “Judge Thayer wouldn’t even let Lampton’s lawyer ask me anymore questions. Just had me tell our story and then sent the case to the jury. It took them less then five minutes to find Cole Lampton guilty.”
“Good,” Kid smiled down at her. “As soon as they get the hanging over with, we can head home. I miss Mary Kate.”
“Me too,” Lou said. She reached up and cupped his cheek in her hand. “Let’s go home in the mornin’. I’ve seen enough hangin’s. Sam’ll make sure ever’thing goes accordin’ ta plan here. Let’s just go home.”
“Fine by me,” Kid said, smiling down at her. “I’m ready ta get back ta my life.”
Supper that night was a joyously raucous affair as everyone spoke at once, asking Kid questions, sharing their own experiences over the last few years to bring him up to date on all he’d missed and just generally celebrating.
But it was obvious to all he was tiring quickly. Shortly after they’d finished eating, Emma nudged Sam none to gently. He looked down at her in surprise and she nodded in Kid’s direction, then at Lou. He followed her gaze and then blushed at the look he saw passing between the two young people.
Clearing his throat, he stood and pulled Emma up next to him. “We’ll be goin’, now,” he said.
Emma nodded. “Yes, we all need to get a good night’s sleep before hitting the trail in the morning.”
Sam looked down at his wife, startled. “What?”
“I’m going with them, Sam Cain,” she said tightly, a smile covering her steely determination. “I want to meet Mary Kate and catch up with my boys. I’ll take Noah and Ike with me. You can catch up with us when you’re done here.”
“But… but… .I thought this was a family vacation,” Sam sputtered.
“And we’ll be spending it with family,” Emma said firmly. “And if you’re not there, whose fault is that? That’s what happens when you keep secrets from your wife!”
Tying the ribbon of her bonnet underneath her chin, she marched straight-backed through the door and into the night air. “Take your medicine like a big boy, Sam, and maybe I won’t make you sleep on the sofa.”
“Now, Emma,” Sam called after her, racing to catch up.
“Well, they’ve certainly not changed,” Kid marveled. Teaspoon and Lou laughed with him as they could hear Sam and Emma bickering their way down the boardwalk.
Teaspoon stood and grabbed his hat as well. “I’ll be headin’ over ta the enlisted men’s quarters,” he said. “I’ve got an old friend I want ta check in with. I’ll see you two in the mornin’.”
And just that quickly, Lou and Kid found themselves suddenly alone. Inexplicably nervous, Lou stood and began to clear the dishes off the small table they’d sat clustered around.
“Um, I’ll wash these,” she said, not quite looking at her husband.
Kid reached out and placed a hand on her arm, gently restraining her.
“Let me help,” he said, taking the plates from her hand and pointing toward the fireplace where a pot of water hung over the flames, bubbling merrily. They worked side by side in silence, getting cold water to mix with the hot, then scrubbing and drying the dishes until they were stacked neatly in the cupboard.
Kid closed the cupboard door with a slight bang that made Lou jump. He looked at her oddly, then reached out to drag her into his arms.
“What’s the matter, Lou?” he asked. “You’ve been actin’ like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockin’ chairs ever since Teaspoon left. Afraid I’ll ravish ya?”
She pulled back a bit to look up at her husband. Her eyes narrowed as she searched his face carefeully.
“You ain’t mad?”
“About Mary Kate?”
Suddenly he remembered how he’d reacted the last time he’d remembered himself as Kid. He shook his head. “No. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I was furious when I got Teaspoon’s letter and found out why ya wouldn’t come with me. But that was ten years ago, Lou. I’ve had plenty of time ta get over that.”
“I don’t understand.”
Kid pulled her over to the bed and sat down on it, pulling her down between his legs so he could wrap his arms around her and hold her close while talking.
“The war taught me a lot. And one thing I learned is what ya kept tellin’ me back durin’ the Express.”
“I tol’ ya a lot of things, Kid,” she said in exasperation.
He laughed a bit. “This was somethin’ ya kept sayin’ over and over. Ya told me ta be yer man, not yer Pa. Ya asked me ta respect yer decisions, ta let ya fight beside me instead of constantly tryin’ ta protect ya. I didn’t understand then. I loved ya and tried ta do what ya wanted ‘cause I didn’t want ta lose ya, but it was hard. It certainly didn’t come naturally. And that’s why ya kept accusin’ me of hoverin’. I was too afraid of losin’ ya and so I tried ta protect ya from everythin’ and everyone.”
Lou nodded. She remembered those times well. She’d wondered at times if they could ever get past that, much as she loved Kid, she needed to be herself, too.
“But since then, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned ya can’t control other people, even if it is for their own good,” he said smiling self-deprecatingly. “I’ve learned ta respect their decisions and simply be there for them, but to wait to be asked for help. And I’ve learned I much prefer being in love with my best friend who can act like an equal partner than being responsible for every life decision of another person, constantly worrying I’m making the wrong choice for them as well as myself.”
“That’s a lot of learnin’,” Lou said softly, wonderingly.
“Ten whole years’ worth,” Kid smiled. “And now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to make up for missed time.” Leaning down, he began to nibble at her neck. “Unless ya’ve got somethin’ better in mind.”
She moaned in response, quite willing to follow his lead at the moment.Epilogue