Author's note: This story occurs during the Season 3 episode, Spirits.
“Buck, where’s the Kid?” Lou asked, wiping her hands dry on a dishcloth and laying it down on the table next to the bowl of water pinkened by Jesse’s blood. Until the doctor had told them Jesse was going to be fine, she hadn’t had a thought other than for the young man she already considered a younger brother, despite the short time he’d been with them.
Her hands shook a little as she picked up the bowl and headed out of the bunkhouse door to dump the water. It never really bothered her to get shot. Oh, sure it hurt, but it didn’t bother her. It was a risk she’d taken. But when one of the other was hurt, or missing, it shook her to the core every single time. She never quite got over that.
Right now all she wanted to do was hide away from the world, snug in the safety of Kid’s arms. But he was nowhere in sight.
“I dunno,” Buck said, following her. Stopping on the bunkhouse porch, he looked around the station yard searchingly. “Last I saw him, he was helpin’ Rachel bring Jesse into the bunkhouse.”
“Wonder why he took off?” Lou muttered to herself. Handing the bowl to Buck, she asked, “Would ya take this back? I think I might know where he is.”
“Thought I might find you back here,” Lou said quietly, as she stopped next to Kid. The young man was perched on the edge of his horse’s stall wall, elbows resting on his knees, staring down at his hands, one clenched in the other. “What’s wrong?”
Kid looked up at her and she had to force herself not to gasp at the haunted look in his blue eyes. Instead, she just stepped closer and laid her hand on his thigh. They stood like that, staring at each other, for long moments. Then, Kid finally spoke, in a harsh, quiet rasp she almost couldn’t make out.
“I coulda killed him. Almost did.”
“I felt like shootin’ Stalder myself when I saw what he done to Jesse and Rachel.”
“But ya didn’t draw down on him,” Kid protested.
“He wasn’t around by then.”
Kid shook his head violently from side to side, turning his back on Lou.
“You don’t understand,” he muttered.
Lou looked at his huddled, forlorn shape for a moment, then climbed up on the stall wall herself. Sitting side by side with the Kid, not looking at him, she said, “Then make me understand.”
Kid looked down at his clenched hands. With great effort he wrenched them apart, spreading the fingers wide. Out of the corner of her eye, Lou could tell both hands were shaking like a leaf in the wind of an oncoming spring thunderstorm. She wanted nothing more than to wrap herself around him and comfort him. But she could tell he wouldn’t let her. Not yet.
“He said he was sorry,” Kid whispered in a small voice, starting to rock back and forth. “But he always says that. Then he hits us again. And again and again. I don’t know why she lets him.”
Confused, Lou turned to look at Kid. It was then she realized he wasn’t talking about the Express special investigator Mike Stalder accidentally shooting Jesse, then hitting Rachel when she wouldn’t let him near the boy. No. Kid was talking about something, someone else.
“Who, Kid?” she asked quietly.
Once, after Kid’s brother Jed had died, he’d told her a bit about their family life. Not much. Just that their Pa had been a mean drunk and had run off on them. She’d sensed, even then, there was so much more to the story than that.
“Tell me about it.”
“I remember when things were good,” Kid started. “When he loved us and played with us. But then we had a couple bad years on the farm. Crops failed, we couldn’t pay the mortgage. Pa turned ta drink. Suddenly he was comin’ home drunk almost every night. And drink made him mean. Didn’t matter what any of us did, it’d set him off. One night he’d haul off and wallop us fer bein’ too noisy. The next night fer sneakin’ around, ‘cause we was tryin’ ta be quiet.”
Lou tentatively reached out and grabbed one of Kid’s shaking hands in hers.
“Got so’s we’d do thin’s deliberate ta make him mad at us so’s he’d leave Ma alone. She was small, like you. He broke her arm one time. We was scared he’d do worse if we didn’t stop him.”
“But then he left.”
Kid shook his head slowly. “Jed had gotten almost as big as him. And one night Pa, he comes in, sotted ta the gills and starts yellin’ how Jed ain’t pullin’ his weight around the farm. He hauls off ta hit him and Jed beats him ta the punch. Pa was so drunk, he fell backward. Broke one of Ma’s heirloom table chairs. But Jed didn’t care. Told Pa ta go ta bed, sleep it off. Then get the hell off the farm and never come back. Said Pa hadn’t done a lick of work around the place fer two years and had no claim on it no more. And if he didn’t leave, Jed said he was goin’ ta kill him.”
Lou nodded, trying not to wince at the death grip Kid now had on her hand, as he squeezed her tight.
“He was gone the next mornin’ when I got up ta do the milkin’.”
Lou leaned her head against Kid’s shoulder. All of a sudden, she understood his fierce protectiveness of her in ways she never had before. She bit her lip to keep from blurting out how shocked she was that he’d ever been able to keep her secret at all, let alone had the strength to stand by and watch her ride off into possible danger by herself on a regular basis.
Instead, she asked, “Why now?”
“I ain’t never been as angry with another man as I used ta be with my Pa. Until now. I coulda kilt him without a second thought.”
“But you didn’t,” she reminded him.
He continued almost as if he hadn’t heard her. “I coulda kilt him then and there. A defenseless human bein’. I coulda ended his life without a speck of remorse. I wouldn’t’ve felt nothin’, nothin’ but relief. I remember the first time I killed a man. I threw up later that day. Did I ever tell ya that? It was awful!”
“Yeah, you told me,” she said reaching up to brush a stray curl of hair off his forehead. “But you learned to do what you had to do to survive.”
“Except, I didn’t have ta kill Stalder and I woulda anyway.”
“So, what stopped you?” she asked, staring up at his tortured face.
He paused a long moment, thinking back over the incident.
“I don’t know. I guess knowing Rachel and Jesse were right there.”
Lou smiled a smile he never saw.
“I’d say you had every right ta that anger, the desire ta kill Stalder. He’d threatened, he’d hurt, she paused to ruthlessly correct herself, a hint of her own anger seeping into her voice, “the ones you love. Do you remember Lambert?”
Kid nodded, slowly turning to look down at her, as if to reassure himself that she no longer bore the bruises Marshal Cole Lambert had ruthlessly imprinted on her face when he got the drop on her after she’d helped the others break Kid out of Lambert’s jail.
“Did you feel sorry for killin’ him?”
Kid shook his head.
“He deserved ta die,” Kid said baldly.
“And you gave him a fair chance,” Lou added. “But you had no doubts about what you had ta do. And ya did it fer me. But ya turned away from killin’ Stalder. Why?”
“It… it was an accident. He didn’t really mean ta hurt them,” Kid whispered in dawning realization.
“Yer anger was pure, it was righteous both times. But ya were able ta make a conscious choice about right and wrong.” She paused, reaching up to cup his cheek in one palm. “Yer not yer Pa, Kid. Sure, you’ve got a temper,” she laughed lightly. “But ya know how ta control it. And ya don’t let drink control you.”
She felt some of the tension seep out of Kid’s body at her words as he pondered the truth in them. He wasn’t ready to go back and join the others yet, but he’d pulled back from the brink of whatever cliff he’d been looking over. With a grunt, he reached out and wrapped one arm around her, pulling her tight to his chest.
“What would I do without you?” he asked, resting his chin against the top of her head.
She smiled against the fabric of his shirt.
“I dunno. But ya ain’t got ta worry ‘bout it. Tol’ ya. I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”