Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Morning After

Author's Note:  This story falls after Requiem for a Hero, but before Lou and Kid started having problems.  It's a sequel to Good Night, Sleep Tight.
A growing chill slowly pulled Kid from his contented slumber.  At first, he snuggled closer to the warm body tucked up against his under the covers, pulling her more closely into his tight embrace.  Finally, unable to ignore the creeping cold any longer, he opened his eyes and glanced around the bunkhouse cautiously, without actually moving much.  He realized his nose felt rather icyclish about the same time his gaze lit on the hearth, where not even the coals glowed any longer.
Careful not to let the frigid air seep under the blankets, he crept out in a shivering rush and hurried to put more wood on the fire, using the poker to stir up the coals.  Soon, warmth began to flood his extremities once more as flames began to consume the logs.  Turning around to toast his other side for a moment, he looked down at the still sleeping woman curled up in the pile of blankets.  A slow grin transformed his cold-tightened features.
A quick glance out the window confirmed his thoughts.  It was still early in the morning.  There was plenty of time to make up for last night’s lost opportunity.
Lou pushed closer to the large body that brought a returned heat to her not-quite-so-warm nest.  The cold had almost been enough to force her to wake up all the way.  But it had receded.
Now an almost blazing heat wrapped itself around her, the strong planes of his muscled chest against her back, his arms tugging her closer, his feet tangling with hers.  She nearly moaned in appreciation.
Then, his hands began to rove about beneath the blankets, finding all those perfectly sensitive places they both loved.  His nose nuzzled her cheek, his wiry whiskers leaving behind a pleasantly tingling red patch.  She pushed back into his warmth, stretching into his embrace.  This time she did moan aloud, in appreciation.  She could wake up like this everyday.
“I s’pose we oughta get up,” he finally said, regretfully, his chin resting atop her head, which was pillowed comfortably on his arm.
Lou snuggled down into the combined warmth of his arms and the blankets wrapped around them.  “It’s barely dawn,” she muttered.  “We got time.”
“Um, Lou….” he started tentatively.  “It’s a bit past dawn.  I’d say at least an hour or so.  Rachel should be out here with breakfast anytime now.”
Lou looked up at the windows along the bunkhouse wall that faced the big house and the barn.  A grey, hazy light filtered through the not quite perfect panes of glass.
“It ain’t light ‘nough ta be that late,” she complained.
Kid laughed.  It was always like this between them.  He was ready to sleep well before her, but she never wanted to get up when the time came.  Somehow, they made it work for them, though.  He hugged her tighter to him, then roughly threw the blankets off then and across the room, away from the fire.
“Hey!” she shouted, huddling into a tighter ball.  “What’d ya do that fer?”
“You’re the one always sayin’ ya don’t want others watchin’ us,” Kid said, slightly sardonically, as he disentangled himself from her while buttoning up this longjohns against the still chilled air of the room.  “Well, we gotta get movin’ then.”
She grumbled a bit more, even made a few threats that would truly frighten him, if he’d actually thought she’d meant them, but got to her feet, pulling on her longjohns as she went, and rushed over to hustle into the clothes Kid had laid out in front of the hearth to warm up.
Finally, fully clothed, she headed for the door.  “Might as well go check on the horses while we’re waitin’,” she grumbled.  “We kin get some water on the way back.”
Kid nodded agreeably and handed her coat to her as he shoved his hat tightly down over his hair.  She reached for the door and he pulled her back just as her hand touched the handle.  She stumbled fell into his arms.
“What now?”
He set her up on her feet, then pulled her coat closed more tightly around her throat, buttoning the top button and pulling the collar up to shield her neck from the wind.  Then, he pushed her hat further down on her head. 
“Can’t you hear that wind out there?” he asked.  “It ain’t gonna be pretty.”
Lou didn’t respond, just flattening her mouth in a sideways grimace and turned to fling the door open.  Cold white pellets of frozen snow flew through the opening, striking the skin on her cheeks with the force of a sledgehammer.  Hunkering further down in to her coat, she pushed her way through the door and out onto the bunkhouse porch.
“Good thing Teaspoon strung the guide lines yesterday,” she shouted over the howling wind, grabbing onto the porch post in an effort to stay upright despite the gale’s force.  “No way we’d make it ta the barn otherwise.  Or that Rachel’d make it over here.”
Kid just nodded, lending a supporting hand to help keep her on her feet as they pushed forward into the blizzard’s snow, headed for the corner of the porch where Teaspoon would tie ropes to the post and string them to the big house and the barn so no one could get lost in white out conditions like these.
Grabbing the last porch post, Kid reached up for the guideline and found…. nothing.  He reached again, thinking he’d just missed.
“Kid, it ain’t there,” Lou shouted.
“What?” he gasped back.
She held up the frayed ends of the ropes tied to the post.  They were maybe two feet long.  He shook his head and turned to look in the general direction of the barn, a worried expression on his face.
“Don’t worry,” she said, stepping closer to him so she didn’t have to shout so much.  “Teaspoon will take good care of her.  Come on, let’s go back inside.  There’s nothing we can do until this passes.”
It took them mere moments to struggle their way back to the door.  The wind was so strong it took both of them working together to close the door firmly on the storm outside.  Leaning back against it, Lou sighed.
“What?” Kid asked.
“Just thinkin’ ‘bout what supplies we’ve got on hand,” she said.  “Ain’t much.  There’s the cookies, a bit of leftover stew, some milk and coffee.”
Kid reached out and pulled her into his arms, rubbing his nose, once again frozen through and through, against her cheek.  She laughed and struggled to escape his icy attack.
“Who needs food?” he growled.  “Don’t you see?  We’re snowbound.  All by ourselves.  Ain’t no one comin’ ta interrupt us fer…. hours… maybe even days.  Imagine what we could do with all that…. time… alone.”
His voice slowed and grew huskier with each word as his head slowly lowered, until his lips touched hers as he whispered the last word.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Good Night, Sleep Tight

Author's note:  This moment happens sometime mid-Season 2, shortly after Requiem for a Hero, when Kid and Lou get together, but before things start to fall apart.
Kid sighed with relief as he and Katy galloped cautiously into the station yard.  They’d already taken more than one spill on this run.  He’d had more than that even before picking Katy up at th last waystation.  He tossed the pouch to Noah without really looking at him, concentrating instead on bringing Katy to a safe halt in the knee high snow that had started falling that morning and showed no signs of stopping anytime soon.
He was so glad that run was over, he thought, gingerly crawling out of the saddle.
“I’ll put her ta bed,” Teaspoon said through the warmth of the muffler wrapped tightly around his head and shoulders, shouting to be heard over the howling wind.  “There’s a warm meal and hot coffee waitin’ inside fer ya.”
Kid nodded wearily and trudged, carefully, up the steps to the bunkhouse, for once glad to let someone else take care of his precious horse.  Muscles he didn’t even know he had were screaming at him after their unaccustomed workout that day.  It had taken every ounce of strength and tittle of skill he’d possessed to not only stay in the saddle through the snowy run, but to keep each horse he’d gotten from sliding out from under him on the slippery ice that hid in a thick layer underneath the piles of snow.
The golden light glowing through the windows of the bunkhouse welcomed him home with a cheery insouciance.  He slowly started to relax as he turned the handle, pulled open the door and stepped through the portal into what felt like another world.
The warmth of the blazing fire seeped through the wet cloth of his coat as he began to peel off his winter weather gear.
“Here, let me help you.”
He looked down at the small hands pulling his own frozen fingers away from the buttons of his coat and smiled. 
“Thanks,” he said softly, letting his hands fall to his sides.  It was strange.  His Lou was such a contradiction sometimes.  She was so independent minded.  If he even looked like he was worrying about her, she’d read him the riot act.  At the same time, she loved to coddle and cuddle him, something he didn’t mind at all.  Though, she generally would only let that side of herself show when he was hurt or there was no one else around.
The thought brought his head up and he rapidly scanned the bunkhouse.  Yep.  Empty.
“Where is everyone?” he asked, as she peeled the coat off his shoulders, taking his scarf and gloves with it.
“Oh, Noah and Ike are off on mail runs.  Teaspoon sent Buck and Cody to Fort Laramie for a special delivery.  And Jimmy’s temporarily deputized and patrolling the town during this storm,” she explained, shaking the snow out of Kid’s coat.  She laughed softly as she hung it up.  “Me and Rachel practically had ta sit on Teaspoon ta get him ta agree ta that.  But we could all tell this cold was hurtin’ his joints.”
Kid shook his head in wonderment.  “I’m surprised he agreed, even then.”
Lou shrugged, towing Kid to the table by one hand and pushing him down onto the bench.  “Oh, I think he was happy for the excuse.  Especially after we pointed out that we’d need someone ta keep an eye on the stock, make sure they didn’t bust outta the barn durin’ the storm, like last time.”
She chattered on as she scooped up a plateful of Rachel’s stew, added a couple of her light, fluffy biscuits and turned to set the pile of food in front of Kid.  She smiled and ran a hand through his hair, pushing the shaggy locks back off his forehead, wondering if she could talk him into a haircut.  Probably not before spring, she grunted in laughter to herself.
“Eat up,” she murmured, not that he needed any encouraging.  “I made cookies fer dessert while I was waitin’ fer ya ta get in.”
Kid paused, his spoon piled high with stew halfway to his mouth, and turned to look at her.  “What kind?”
“Yer favorite,” she smiled at him.  “Molasses.”
“Mmmm,” he moaned in appreciation.  “Can’t wait.”
It seemed like just moments until he was scraping the last of the stew off his plate and shoving it in.  Picking up his napkin, he carefully wiped his mouth and grinned up at Lou.
“That was good.  I was hungry.”
She laughed, grabbing his plate and turning back to the counter.  “I could tell.”  She nodded toward the blaze in the fireplace and added quietly, almost shyly, “Why don’t you curl up in the special bed I made fer us while I get the cookies.”
Following her movements, Kid noticed for the first time the pile of comfy blankets laid out with several pillows on top of the fur rug in front of the fireplace.  It looked soft and comfortable and, most important of all, warm and inviting.  Suddenly, all the fatigue of the day’s hard ride caught up with him and he practically stumbled over his own feet in the few short steps it took him to get from the table to the fireplace.
He stripped down to his longjohns, leaving a trail of clothes on the bunkhouse floor behind him.  He knew he’d have to pick them up come morning, before Rachel or Teaspoon came in for breakfast, but couldn’t make himself care at the moment.  Curling up in the nest Lou had made with the blankets, he pulled the warm covers around him and rested his head on his bent arm so he could watch Lou’s graceful movements about the room.
It wasn’t often the two of them had the bunkhouse to themselves and he planned to enjoy every second of it.  He loved watching her.  And it wasn’t just that she was so physically appealing, which she was. Even in its exhaustion, his body was reacting to her presence and their solitude.  But it was more than that.  It was the way she made him feel, comfortable, at home, at peace.  He loved the way she bit her lip when she was thinking, the way she seemed to dance as she moved from one chore to another, the way she concentrated on each task wholeheartedly.  He could spend a thousand years learning about her and still not know enough.
He couldn’t wait for the day when moments like this were a daily event.  Someday, someday she’d be his wife.  He could see it in his mind’s eye already.  After they put the children to bed, they’d work together to make sure the house was settled for the night, then crawl into bed together and fall asleep in each other’s arms every night.  That was his idea of heaven.
Lou finished cleaning the dishes from Kid’s supper, wiped them dry and carefully put them away in the cupboard.  Grabbing the plate with the cookies she’d made earlier, she bit her lip unconsciously as she tried to decide whether to bring him a cup of coffee, too.  There was still a bit left in the pot.
Turning, she started to ask, “Kid, would you like some--“
A soft snoring buzz interrupted the question and she smiled gently at the sight.  Kid was curled up in the blankets she’d set out for a romantic rendezvous in front of the fireplace.  He was on his side, facing her, but his eyes had slid shut and he was snoring gently.
She sighed.  There went her plans for the evening.  But then she smiled as he snuffled slightly and tucked his cheek into his hand, just like her little brother had done when he was a baby.  She knew just how hard and long his ride must’ve been today.  It was no wonder he was tuckered out.
Setting the plate of cookies on the counter, Lou laid a napkin over them to keep them fresh and quietly leaned over to blow out the wick in the kerosene lamp.  That left the only light in the room coming from the cheerful flickering of the flames in the fireplace.  In their glow, she bent over to pull the blankets more tightly around Kid’s shoulders and gently kissed his brow.  Then, she picked up his scattered clothes and carefully laid them out on his bunk to dry before removing her own outer layer of clothes, revealing the lacy, embroidered chemise and pantalettes she’d donned for the evening.  She stood over the fireplace for a few minutes, holding out her hands and feet toward the warmth, then turned and crawled into the bed she’d made on the floor next to Kid, careful not to let any cooler air seep in under the blankets with her.
Wrapping her arms around him protectively, she nuzzled her nose into the back of his neck and kissed him.
“Night, Kid,” she whispered, closing her own eyes and savoring the chance to hold him close.  “Sleep tight.”

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Her Last, Best Chance

Author's Note:  This gapfiller falls in the middle of The Exchange, Part II, the Season 2 finale, after the boys have ditched Lou, for her own protection.
“Sorry, sonny, we need men what can handle themselves in a fight now. We ain’t gonna have no time ta be babysittin’ boys that should still be home with their Ma’s,” the burly outlaw sneered, stomping out the stub of the cigar he’d been puffing on when Lou had first approached him.  “Look us up in a couple years,” the man grunted in afterthought.  “if yer really as good with that gun as ya claim, the boss’ll want ta give ya a try.”
Without another word, the man walked back toward the prostitute who was leaning against the saloon door, waiting for him.
Lou heaved a deep, tired sigh, almost exhausted, as she watched the painted woman tuck her arm through the man’s and lead him inside the saloon, grinning the entire time.  This was her last, best chance to find the Pike’s hideout.  She’d tried following the boys, but lost their tracks fairly quickly on the main road and never found where they’d left it.  Honestly, tracking had never been her strong suit, she was adequate at best.  Then, she’d tried getting the Sheriff in town to raise a posse.  No such luck.  No one in this town was going to go up against the Pike brothers and their gang.  Joining the gang itself had been a last ditch effort.  She couldn’t even get anyone to tell her where their hideout was, other than the vague ‘south’ she’d gotten from the livery owner.  They just looked at her and told her she was too young.  
She didn’t know what she was going to do now to get out to Pike’s hideaway and help rescue Amanda while protecting her brothers.  And she was running out of time.  It had been a full day since the others had left her behind.
And believe you me, I’ll have a few things to say to them about that when I catch up with them, she thought angrily.  How could they have done this to me?  Then she sighed again as she contemplated her lack of ideas.  If I ever catch up with them.
She shoved her hands deep in her pockets and hunched her shoulders as she started morosely walking down the boardwalk.
“Watch where your goin’, laddie,” came a sharp reprimand, accompanied by a rounded, feminine hand pushing Lou forcefully back.
Lou looked up and gawked at the parade of half dressed saloon gals marching past her and climbing into a large stage parked in the alley next to the building.
“What... what’s this?” she asked the large woman who’d pushed her out of the way.  She was still standing next to Lou, directing traffic so to speak.
“These are Pike’s Gals,” the woman smiled down at Lou, her soft Irish brogue a soothing balm to Lou’s jangled nerves.  “Leastwise, that’s what we call ourselves.  The best and prettiest workin’ girls in the territory.  This is our weekly trip out to play with our boys.”  She smiled proprietarily.
“Um, Mistress Sorcha?”
The tall, broad woman at Lou’s side turned her attention to the well-rounded, but much shorter girl with lengths of tousled blonde curls falling down around her shoulders.
“Yes, Nora?” she asked.
“Ma’am,  Clara’s sick.  I mean real sick.  She can’t come.  What are we gonna do?  Emory’s gonna kill us, we don’t got enough girls.”
A light entered Lou’s eyes.  Here was a surefire way into the hideout.  And they needed her, which means they wouldn’t ask too many questions.  Without letting herself think about it anymore, she reached out and grabbed the edge of the Madam’s lacy sleeve.
“Ma’am, I think I can help.  I know someone... a girl... she might be willin’ to go along.”
“Can she be here within a half hour?” Sorcha asked.  “We can’t wait any longer.  Showin’ up late’d be worse than showin’ up with too few girls.”
“Sure!” Lou exclaimed, already turning and running toward the livery stable at the other end of the street.  “I’ll just run and get her.”
Mentally sorting through what she’d packed in her saddlebags as she ran, Lou shook her head.  How was she going to pull this off?  A slight fluttering of cloth to her left caught her attention and without thinking about it, she swung down the alley.  On the other side of the two buildings that formed the alley’s walls, she found herself surrounded by the clotheslines of a laundry.
“Yes,” she breathed quietly to herself as she glimpsed all the clothes.  Without giving the theft a second thought, she pulled the nearest dry skirt off the line, shoved it inside her coat and ran for the livery.
Inside the large barn, she snuck into a stall and began ripping off her boy’s clothes, until she wore nothing more than the thin, sleeveless chemise she’d had on underneath.  She’d taken to wearing more girl’s underwear when it was just the boys, Teaspoon and Rachel around.  They all knew her secret anyway.  Over the chemise, she pulled on the skirt she’d scavenged.  
She grunted in annoyance as she realized it was a bit too big.  Sucking in her breath, she fastened it then knotted it up on one side, so it would stay up on her hips.  There wasn’t much she could do about her hair, she figured, other than to comb it out real quick.  When she dumped her saddlebags upside down to find her brush in a hurry, a pot of creme Rachel’d given her fell out, too.  Lou grinned and slathered some on her face and lips to make them softer and shinier.  Minutes later, a young girl walked, ran really, out of the barn and raced for the stage that stood just down the street.
She came to a skidding halt in front of the anxious looking madam.
“Are you Mistress.... Sor.... Sorcha?” she panted.
The woman’s eyes narrowed on her as she nodded slowly.
“My bro..ther, Jeremiah... said you could use an extra girl.”
“You don’t have the look of my normal girls,” Sorcha mused, looking her up and down.  “But you just might do. “  She nodded.  “There’s something appealing about your elfin appearance.  Even if you are a bit on the... slender... side. ”
Then she shook her head in dismay.  “But those plain clothes will never do.  You look like a little girl playing dress up in her Ma’s clothes.”  With no warning, she reached out and pulled the straps of Lou’s chemise down over her shoulders.  “Magpie,” she called over her shoulder.  “Hand me that scarf you’ve got in your hair.”
“But--” the other girl, with a mess of long, red curls twined around a white, lacy scarf, started to protest, even as she reached toward the scarf and began to pull it out of her hair.
“You know better than that, girl,” Sorcha said sternly, without turning to look behind her.  “When I tell you to do something, you do it.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the girl answered, chastened, placing the scarf in Sorcha’s upstretched hand.
Sorcha pulled Lou roughly closer to her and wrapped her long arms around the smaller girl’s waist, taking the scarf with her.  Soon, it was tied tightly about her waist, holding up the skirt and hiding the knot Lou’d used to keep it up.  And Sorcha’s hands were buried in Lou’s hair.
“A shame you don’t have more hair, gel,” Sorcha mused.  “It would be your crowning glory.  Men love a woman with lots of curls to wrap their hands in.  And you’ve got some beautiful hair.”
Lou shrugged.
“I... ah.... was sick,” she muttered, looking down.
“Well, nothing to be done about it now,” Sorcha shrugged.  With a strong, yet surprisingly gentle, shove, she pushed Lou toward the stage.  “Up you go.  We can’t keep the Pikes waiting any longer.”
Lou shivered from her seat in the middle of the stage.  The chill prairie winds, heavy with the moisture of the recent storms, caressed her skin, leaving behind something that more closely resembled a chicken’s plucked hide than a fancy girl’s caressably smooth packaging.  But that was the least of her worries.
Now that there was no backing out of this plan, she was starting to have second thoughts.  Sure as shooting, when she arrived, some randy young buck would want to walk off with her.  What--
Her thoughts came to a stumbling halt as the girl next to her started shouting something out the stage window to a rough looking man running alongside.  Without her realizing it, they’d arrived.  Lou silently swore at herself.  Now she had no idea which direction to go to get out of here.
The stage pulled to a stop and the hands of an unseen outlaw jerked the door open.  The other girls, even the Madam, began to step out, into the eagerly waiting arms of their hooting and hollering customers.  Lou felt like she was frozen in place.  Or was it in fear?  She couldn’t do this.
But the girl next to her didn’t let her wallow in her sudden indecision.
“Move it!” she hissed, pinching Lou’s upper arm.
“Ow,” Lou muttered, rubbing the offended appendage.  But she took the none too subtle hint and stood.  Stepping down, out of the stage, she heard the sound of pounding hooves and turned to see who was following them into the outlaws’ compound.  Amanda came flying through the gate, then slowed her horse and calmly dismounted, right in front of the man Lou recognized as Emory Pike from Teaspoon’s wanted posters.  She watched, curiously, as Amanda said something to Pike.  She could only catch a few words.  Something about proving herself to Pike.  Lou’s eyes narrowed at the words, as she tried to figure out what Amanda was talking about.  Then, Amanda handed over what looked like a necklace of some sort.
Suddenly realizing she was the only one left standing by the whores’ stage, Lou started to move away.  The words, ‘Trust me now?’, ringing in her ears in Amanda’s unique tones.
“Hey, there, purty thing.”
Lou gasped as a pair of strong arms reached out and wrapped themselves around her.  She started to struggle, then realized she couldn’t.  Not without giving herself away.
“Ooh, you’ve got spirit,” he cooed, the smell of whiskey on his breath nearly knocking her out as he nuzzled her cheek.  Pulling his head back, he squinted down at her as his hands measured her size.  “Yer a bit tiny fer my tastes, but heck, yer better than nothin’, which is what I’ve been makin’ do with!”
Lou forced herself to look up into his face and smile, like she was enjoying the way his hands were roving over her body, pushing rudely at her clothes, trying to get them out of his way.
“Why don’t we go somewhere a little more.... private,” she asked, giggling for effect.  “So’s we can really have some fun.”
“Sounds good ta me,” he grunted, lifting her up in his arms.  Lou forced herself to relax as he carried her toward a nearby tent.  “What kinda fun ya got in mind?”
Lou looked at her captor and smiled as pleasingly as she could.  “Now if I tol’ ya, it wouldn’t be a surprise, would it?  And where’s the fun in that?”
He grunted in reply, whether to agree or disagree she wasn’t sure, as he bent to duck under the flap into an old army tent.  He dropped her on the cot in the corner, half hidden behind a couple of boxes of supplies of some sort, then turned to toss his hat on top of a pile of personal belongings in the corner.
That was all the time Lou needed to pull her revolver out of its hiding place, strapped to one leg.  He was still reaching for the buttons on his shirt as he turned to face her when the butt of the sixgun came slamming down on the back of his head.
He let out a slight moan as he collapsed at her feet.  Lou didn’t give him a second glance, knowing he was out cold and would be for some time, as she stepped over his prone body and peeked out the tent entrance.  She smiled grimly as she saw Amanda walking directly toward her.  Time to get some answers.
Author's Note: This story is dedicated to Segate, aka Indywriter, who inspired it with a picture and a complaining question about Lou's actions in The Exchange.  Believe me, I will send a bunny to bite back, sooner or later!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Dancer

The old man shuffled slowly down the street, keeping one eye on the youngster who trotted merrily along ahead of him.  He wasn’t even sure why he was here, except his daughter had asked him to be.
“Grandpa, let’s look in here,” the young boy tugged at the old man’s sleeve urgently, pointing into the new jewelry store that had opened up in town just a couple…. decades ago, was it now?  He couldn’t quite remember.  Funny that.  He could remember the days when Tompkins’ General Store was the only option in town as clear as a bell.
He followed his grandson, still tugging at his sleeve, into the shop.  But his mind was seeing his friends pouring off the street and through the single door with a bell mounted over it.  A grey-haired grouch stood watch, making sure they didn’t ‘mess anything up.’  The single mercantile hadn’t carried half the products available today at the Woolworth’s down the street, but then it had seemed like you could get just about anything in the world there.  He snorted in amusement at himself, the folly of youth.
“What about this, Grandpa?”  The boy pointed to a beautiful diamond necklace, the stones laid out in a lacy pattern that glittered fiercely in the harsh glare of the artificial miniature suns fueled by that new-fangled electricity.  He missed candlelight.  It hadn’t hurt his eyes the way these false lights that were going in everywhere did.
“I think you’d better look at something a little less expensive,” he suggested gently, pointing the boy toward another counter covered with costume jewelry the child had a fighting chance of affording.  Sure, he’d been saving his money for a couple of years now, but that didn’t mean he should waste every last cent on a single purchase.
The old man continued to let his eyes roam across the room even as they crossed time.  So it should’ve come as no surprise when the two intersected in front of him.
“Ohhhh,” he breathed in awe, stopping in mid-stride for a moment.  Then, ever so slowly, he stepped to his left, toward a counter covered in porcelain figurines.  He reached out a shaking hand to glide a single finger down the side of the tallest figurine in the display.
So that’s where she’d gone.  He’d wondered sometimes where she was.  She’d always been there, at his side.  Until one day, she just wasn’t.  He’d wondered where she’d disappeared to and now he’d found her.  Such an odd place for her to go.  He couldn’t really understand her choice.  She’d always preferred the outdoors and fresh air to being cooped up inside.  And she’d hated these electric lights as much as he did.  Then again, maybe she’d just been humoring him on that.
But it was definitely her.  The graceful curve of her arms, hands held aloft in jubilation, celebrating some event.  The head thrown back, a joyful smile gracing her mobile face, her long brown curls trailing down her back.  The large, belled out skirt, fancifully decorated with various colored flowers.  Lace edging the sleeves, neck and skirt of the beautiful gown.  It all proved it was her.  Just the way she liked to dress for special occasions.
The single word slipped between his lips unnoticed, like a thief escaping into the night, there and then gone again so fast one wondered if it had ever existed at all. 
His Lou.  She’d always loved to dance.  It was no wonder she’d chosen to spend eternity here, dancing her heart out.  Dancing was how he’d always remember her.
It had been obvious from that very first dance they’d ever attended together.  He could see her clear as if she were in front of him now, wearing her boy’s clothes, leaning up against the wall with her arms crossed protectively over her chset, staring at the ladies in their pretty dresses with a look of such naked longing on her face he couldn’t ignore it.  He’d risked it all, her secret, his reputation, both their jobs, to sneak her out back behind the schoolhouse to the corrals for their first dance in the moonlight.
So many precious moments in their life had been marked with the magic of her dancing.  There’d been the typical church socials, harvest festivals and Founders Day celebrations, of course.  And she’d danced her heart out at each and every one.  Oh, how she’d rejoiced the first time she got to wear a dress to a dance.  The smile that had lit her face that night had been rivaled only by the smile on her face the day they’d married, and at the birth of each of their children.
She’d celebrated those events with dance, too.  He could remember walking into their bedroom less than 24 hours after their first child had been born to find her twirling around the room, their newborn daughter held tightly to her chest, as she hummed a happy tune.
She’d pulled him into a whirling dervish of celebration over every little thing in their lives.  We’re pregnant!  Let’s dance!  The biscuits ain’t burned!  Let’s dance!  Katy delivered a beautiful colt!  Let’s dance!  He didn’t count his memories by time or place, but by how she’d danced.
So caught up was he in his memories he didn’t notice the wistfully happy smile splitting his features, or the single mournful tear coursing down his cheek.  But the boy did.
“She’s beautiful isn’t she?”
“Hunh?!”  He looked up, startled.  He hadn’t heard anyone approaching him, but a young lady dressed in a simple blue frock stood at his side, smiling up at him.  She was pretty, but not like his Louise.  Her eyes didn’t hold that same mischievious glint, her mouth didn’t curve into that fun-loving smile, her spirit didn’t scream out for adventure.  She was content with her lot in life.  And that was fine for her.
“We call her, The Dancer,” the sales girl said.  “She’s only $50.”
“Oh,” he said, realizing she thought he wanted to buy the figurine.  “That’s alright.  I was just looking.  She… reminded me of someone I… used to know.”
With a last lingering glance behind him, he turned and walked over to the boy’s side at the other counter. 
“Well?” he asked.  “Anythin’ fer yer Ma’s birthday?”
“Naw,” the boy sighed.  “She wouldn’t care fer any of these gew gaws.  I think I’ll just make her a nice card.  Maybe carve her something myself.”
The old man put an arm around the young boy’s shoulders as they walked toward the store entrance together. 
“I think she’d like that, son,” he said, smiling down at the child.  “You know, Ma’s always like what you make yourself the best.  Did I ever tell you about the time yer Ma gave yer Grandma a dance fer her birthday?”
It had been a long day.  First there’d been the confirmation of his youngest granddaughter at Sunday services.  Then, they’d come home to celebrate his daughter’s birthday.  As he’d predicted, she’d loved the gift her eldest son had made for her.  It was a beautiful card, cut in the shape of a heart from a large piece of red paper and decorated with bits of lace, old buttons and ribbons pulled from her sewing kit.  And the little cupid he’d carved for her from a piece of driftwood he’d found down by the river had been a hit.  It now sat proudly on the mantle over the fireplace in the living room, next to her wedding portrait.
With a sigh, the old man climbed the stairs to his bedroom and pushed the door open.  He ignored the light switch by the door, moving by memory through the room to the fireplace.  There was no fumbling as he reached for the packet of matches lying on the mantlepiece and skillfully lit the candle.
As his eyes adjusted to its flickering, golden glow, they widened in surprise.  There, on the mantle, standing in solitary splendor, was The Dancer, a slip of paper peeking out from under the figurine’s base.
He pulled it out and read it by the candlelight.
“Grandpa, I know you miss Grandma.  We all do.  So, I thought I’d bring her back home for you.”

Monday, February 11, 2013

A Kid By Another Name

“Time to ‘fess up, Kid,” Teaspoon intoned, satisfied mischief glinting in his eyes.
Kid shrank back slightly.  It was the moment he’d dreaded for days, weeks, months even.  While Lou’d been dealing with her own worries about getting married, he’d been worried, too.  About what he was going to say right here, right now.  Sighing, he cleared his throat nervously.  There was no help for it.  He had to tell the truth if he wanted to marry his Louise, and there was nothing else in this life he wanted more.  But he refused to shout it out for the whole congregation.
His back itching from the curious looks of everyone in the church, including his beautiful bride, he leaned forward and whispered into Teaspoon’s ear.
Straightening back up, he waited with bated breath for Teaspoon to spill the beans.  The old man just looked at him, nonplussed, one eyebrow raised in disconcerted disbelief.
He refused to look around at the curious, questioning looks he knew were coming from all those gathered beside him.  He wasn’t worried too much about Lou.  She’d already promised she wouldn’t laugh.  But he figured his brothers would be rolling in the aisles in a matter of moments now.
Teaspoon, flustered, cleared his throat and flashed Kid a look that said, You’ve got to be joking!
Kid assayed a flattened, nervous smile and shrugged, closing his own eyes briefly as if to shut out the truth.  What could he say?  That was his name, the only one he had.  And it was no joke.  He wished to God it were.
“Louise,” Teaspoon said.  Kid sucked in a breath and held it, waiting to hear those awful words.  He could feel her tense in anticipation.  “Do you promise to take….”  Teaspoon paused and looked once again at Kid, who steeled himself for the moment of truth.   “Kid….” Teaspoon said and paused for the expected reaction from those gathered for the ceremony, which was none too approving, even Lou wilted a bit in disappointment.  Kid tried to hide his sigh of relief.  Once the grumbles quieted, Teaspoon continued, “to be your lawful wedded husband?”
Kid glanced at Lou out of the corner of his eye and knew, by her expression alone, he’d have to share the whole story of his name before the night was out.
“Time to ‘fess up, Kid.”
The gentle, teasing words pulled Kid out of a light slumber faster than a bucket of ice water dumped over his head.  He sighed.
“You promised,” Lou caroled sweetly, the fingers of one hand headed unerringly for his most ticklish spot, just in case he might still be a little comfortable in the warmth of their wedding bed.
Kid grabbed her dangerously wandering hand in one of his and set it on top of his chest, patting it gently, and sighed.  He hugged her closer to his side with the arm wrapped around her shoulders and ran his other hand through his hair, trying to shake off the few remnants of pleasant lassitude left from earlier.
He turned and looked down at her face and couldn’t help but smile a little bit, albeit wanly, at the excited look on her face.  It was the one real secret he had left and he had promised to share it.
“I know you told Teaspoon,” Lou said, “so you can’t go sayin’ you’ve forgot like everyone else has!”
“Don’t worry, I could never forget,” Kid muttered.
“Well?” Lou urged, pushing up slightly on one elbow to look him in the eyes.  “Out with it!”
He took a deep breath and then blurted it out.
Lou stared at him, her mouth opening and closing but no words pouring out.  She’d promised not to laugh, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t, and she just looked soooo funny.  Her eyes narrowed as he began to chuckle and, as she tensed, he quickly grabbed her free hand resting on his chest and held it in place before she could do who knew what with it in retribution.  Knowing her, it would hurt.
“I’m sorry, Lou, but….” he paused, gasping for breath.  “You looked just like a fresh caught fish, gaspin’ fer water!”
“You can’t be seriousl,” Lou nearly screeched, staring at him in disbelief.  “That’s impossible.”
Kid nodded, sobering.  He’d been a newborn, but had heard his Ma and brother Jed tell the story so many times he could see it in his mind’s eye almost as well as if he’d been old enough to remember.
“Well, ya know I’ve tol’ ya how my Pa had a problem with drink.  It’s why I don’t partake too much.  Anyway, when times was good, it wasn’t a problem.  But when things was bad, you could pretty much count on him losin’ himself in a bottle.  By the time I was born, thing’s’d been bad fer awhile.”
“It’s a healthy, bouncing baby boy,” the midwife proudly proclaimed over the lusty wails of the newborn infant.
Lenora Rae Kidd raised her head wearily and blinked at the squawling infant.  She sighed.  He was the sixth child she’d birthed in the last five years, the third born alive.  Neither of the others had survived their first year.  She held out little hope for more from this infant.  Turning her head, she asked after her only, other, living child, “How’s my Jed?”
“He’s fine,” the midwife’s assistant assured her.  She continued carefully bundling the newborn tightly into a soft blanket.  “I sent him into town to get your husband.  They should be back any moment, in fact.”
“What are you going to call him?” the midwife asked, taking the carefully wrapped infant and tucking him into the crook of his mother’s arm.
Rae, as her husband called her, looked down at the child, trying not to notice his bright blue eyes, of a shade that indicated they might actually stay blue, cute little, chubby cheeks, pert nose and head of, already, unruly sandy brown curls.  She tried to ignore the burst of affection that started to melt her heart.
The midwife shook her head sadly when Lenora Rae looked away from her newborn without comment, not touching him or cooing to him the way most new mothers did.  She’d seen this reaction before, from women who’d lost too many children.  It didn’t bode well for this baby’s chances.
“You really should feed him,” she said gently, trying to encourage Rae to interact with the child.
Rae didn’t respond, just kept her eyes glued to the front door of their small cabin.
The midwife shared a concerned look with her assistant, who tried next.
“So, what are you going to name him?”
This got Rae’s attention for a moment.  She turned to look at the assistant for a brief instant before looking back toward the cabin’s door. 
“His Pa’ll name him when he gets back,” she said quietly, almost emotionlessly.  She herself saw no reason to name a child that probably wouldn’t live long enough to be baptized.  Nonetheless, she did bring the now whimpering, rooting child to her breast.
It didn’t take the midwife and her assistant long to finish cleaning up the room and they were packing away the last of their supplies when the door burst open, letting in a blast of cold, wintry air along with an eight year old boy and an obviously drunk man.
Rae’s eyes clamped tight on her husband’s face, then closed in disappointment as she realized his condition.  It was hard to miss as he stumbled over the threshold and nearly fell to the floor.  Her son, Jed, caught him by the arm though and managed, somehow, to keep him upright.
“Hear ya popped out another one,” he mumbled, continuing to stumble his way across the small room to the bed near the fireplace.
“You’ve another, healthy son,” the midwife announced brightly, bending over to take the now sleeping babe from his mother and tuck him into his father’s arms.
The tall, slim man looked down at the infant and grunted.  There was no mistaking the child’s parentage.  His father’s features were molded on his face in miniature, easily visible despite the scrunched, wrinkled redness of his newborn state.
After a moment, the man nodded.  “Yep.  It’s another Kidd, alright.”
With that, he handed the child back to the midwife and made for the door at a near run.  Moments later, the sounds of retching could be heard wafting through the still open portal.
“So… what’s his name?” the assistant asked, confused.  “We need something to report to the pastor so he can write it in the parish records.”
Rae, starting to fall asleep, exhausted from her work that day, mumbled, “You heard him.  The boy’s name is Another Kidd.”
“Things got better after that, Pa sobered up and stayed sober for several years.  Til the drought came,” Kid shrugged.  He’d already told Lou that part of his life’s story.  “He and Ma always felt guilty about my name and just called me the Kid.  The nickname sorta stuck.  After awhile most folks forgot I even had ‘Another’ name.”
“That was an awful lot of babies ta lose,” Lou said quietly.  “Is that why yer Ma was so sickly?”
Kid shrugged.  “Maybe. Or she lost the babies ‘cause she was sickly.  I don’t know which.  She lost two more after me.”  Lou winced slightly as he hugged her tightly to him, a touch too tightly.  But she didn’t interrupt him.  “Then, they just stopped comin’.  But she never got any stronger.  And after…. after Pa left, she just seemed ta lose the will ta live.”
Lou pressed a soft kiss to Kid’s chin and snuggled closer to him, willing to provide the physical contact he seemed to need right then.
“Well,” she smiled against his chest, “we both know I’m stronger than I look.  And, thanks ta Buck’s herbs we don’t haveta worry ‘bout babies comin’ too fast.  Which just leaves one thing to deal with.”
The mischievous tone of her voice pulled Kid the rest of the way out of his not so pleasant memories.  He looked down at her suspiciously, not sure if he was more afraid to ask what she meant or not to know.
“And… what would that be?”
“Promise me,” she whispered, hiding her smile against his neck, “promise me…. we’ll never name any of our children after you.  I don’t know if I could handle another Another Kid!”
She squealed in delighted laughter as he retaliated with a vicious round of tickling.  But, when the tickle fight was over and both lay there panting, he promised, smiling the entire time.  There would never be Another Kid.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

A Night's Vigil

Summary:  As a final test of a knight's honor before getting his spurs, he was expected to spend a night on his knees in prayer, that he might properly uphold the ideals of chivalry and honor that came with the title about to be bestowed upon him.  Kid's test took a slightly different form.  Will he still earn his proverbial knighthood?

The pounding in Lou’s head outpaced the rhythmic sounds of Lightning’s hooves.  She squinted against the late afternoon glare of the sun, trying to think past the two inch spike it felt like someone was banging into her eye socket.  It took all her willpower to say on her mount’s back.
She breathed a sigh of relief as the windmill of Emma’s farm poked up over the horizon.  She was almost home, almost done with this hellacious run, almost to a soft bed and several hours of sleep.  She didn’t even want the meal she was usually starving for after a run.  Just a quiet, dark room for several hours, uninterrupted.
“Rider comin’!”
Kid had been pacing the bunkhouse porch for the last hour, since about 15 minutes before Lou was due back from her run.  He’d gotten a couple of strange looks from Buck, but he couldn’t tell the other rider why he was so worried.  It was troublesome sometimes being the only one in on Lou’s secret.
He started to wilt with relief at the sight of her galloping in on Lightning.  But then he noticed her slumped posture over the horse’s back, almost as if she were… unconscious?
“Lou!” he called out in frantic worry, rushing out into the station yard, past Buck, waiting on his horse to take the mochila, straight for a now recognizably wild-eyed Lightning.  Grabbing the reins, he slowed the large black horse to a halt, its sides heaving for breath.  Ducking around the animal’s side, Kid was barely in time to catch Lou as she slid off the horse’s back, the mochila she held clenched in one hand, ready to pass off.
“Buck, come get the pouch,” he called urgently, already racing toward the bunkhouse with Lou in his arms.  “He’s burnin’ up.  I can’t believe he made it all this way!”
“He’s stubborn, that’s fer sure,” Buck remarked as he bent over to pry the mail bag out of Lou’s fingers.  “Damn.  He’s on fire, alright.  Better make sure Emma gets some willowbark tea down him.”
“Thanks,” Kid threw over his shoulder.  “I’ll do that!”
Pushing his way into the bunkhouse, Kid gently laid Lou down on her bunk.  She moaned slightly, but otherwise didn’t react.  He pushed her hair off her head, then pulled her hat carefully off.  What should he do?  He vaguely remembered his mother wiping his head with cold, wet clothes when he was sick.  But was that for a fever?  Or something else?  He just couldn’t remember.
Panicking, he jumped to his feet and ran for the door, yelling even as he pulled it open.
“Emma!  Emma!  Come quick!”
“What do we do, Emma?” Kid asked, practically wringing his hands with worry.
“He’s got a fever, alright,” Emma sighed, equally concerned.  Standing up she moved briskly to the stove and started tossing more wood onto the fire.  “Open all the windows,” she ordered Kid.  “We’ve got to keep the air moving through here, to blow away any infectious gases.”
Kid nodded and ran to open all the windows in the building.
“Do you think he’ll be alright?” he asked as he worked.
“I don’t know, Kid,” Emma sighed, shaking her head.  “It’s always hard to tell with a fever.  It could run its course and he’ll be fine by mornin’, or this could last several days…..” She paused, obviously fighting not to say what else.
“Or?” Kid anxiously prompted her.
“Or he might not get better,” Emma practically whispered.
“Lou’s strong,” Kid insisted.  “He’ll get better.”
“Your right, Kid,” Emma smiled faintly, turning back to the stove.  “We’ve got to think positively.
“What else do we do?” Kid asked, as he propped the last window wide open.
“I think it’s time for you to leave, Kid,” Emma answered him barely audibly.  “It’s not safe for you to stay here.  Grab some clothes and head over to my place.  You boys’ll have to bed down there until…. until Lou’s better.”
“But, won’t you need help?”
Emma looked over at Lou’s small form.  “No, I can handle it.  He’s not that big, getting him out of his clothes won’t be too hard.”
Kid stiffened.  He knew what that would lead to and just how badly it would hurt Lou.  He couldn’t let her secret get out like this.  He hadn’t really ever promised her he wouldn’t tell, and if things got bad enough, he would tell to save her life.  But, for now…
“If it’s ‘bout contagion, I’ve been closer ta him fer longer,” Kid said, his southern accent thickening.  “’Sides, if yer here, who’d cook?  He’s gonna need good food ta get better.  And ya don’t want the others gettin’ sick ‘cause of Teaspoon’s cookin’!”
Emma choked back a laugh as she stared at the tall young man standing so earnestly before her.  She tilted her head slightly and stared deeply in to his pleading, worried eyes.  In that moment, she knew.  Lou had a supporter, someone in on her secret who was willing to help her keep it.  After a long moment of consideration, she nodded. 
“Alright, you stay and I’ll go,” she said briskly, heading toward the door.  “Keep the fire built up.  We’ll make sure you’ve got plenty of wood.  Keep his feet warm and his head as cool as you can.  Make sure the air keeps moving in here, no matter what.  Get him out of those infectious clothes.  If you set them in the oven for 20 minutes, that should burn the dangerous gases out of them.”  She paused at the doorway to look back at Kid.  “You sure about this?”
He nodded, gulping slightly as the enormity of the task he’d just undertaken really began to dawn on him.
“You’ll have ta make sure he, um,” a slight blush tinted the edges of her cheeks, “uses the necessary regular like.  At least once a day!  Use castor oil if it isn’t coming natural.  It’s in the cupboard over the counter.”  She pointed in the direction of the counter she used to prepare meals for the riders.  “Oh, and whatever you do, don’t feed him!  Starve a fever, feed a cold.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Kid said quietly, seriously.  Hoping he could remember all her directions.  He watched her for a long moment as she stepped out onto the porch, down the steps and across the yard to her house.  Had he done the right thing, he wondered, turning to look back at Lou, now shivering fearsomely on her bunk.
“Please….” a moaned plea issued from her lips.  “I’m sooooooo c-c-c-cold.  I’ll do anythin’….”
Kid rushed to her side, pulling the blanket off his bunk above hers and quickly spreading it over her.  “Shhhh,” he whispered.  “It’ll be alright.  We’ll get ya better, I promise, Lou.  Louise.”
Her full name came out, even now in the solitude of the bunkhouse, as a slight whisper, afraid the wrong person might hear him say it.  But he couldn’t resist.  He still used ‘he’ and ‘him’ when talking about Lou, still called her by the shortened sobriquet, but in his heart and mind she was now Louise and always would be.  He couldn’t help it.
Once she’d calmed down from the bout of chills she’d been suffering, he pushed the blanket back again and began to pull her clothes off her, one piece at a time, starting with her coat.  At first she lay as unresisting, and unhelpful, as an infant.  After taking off her coat, boots and socks, he sighed and reached for the buttons of her shirt.
“Sorry, Lou,” he muttered, trying to look anywhere but at what his hands were doing as he slipped one button after another out of its buttonhole.
When he started to pull the unbuttoned shirt out of the waistband of her trousers, she began thrash about again.
“No, no….” she yelled, batting ineffectually at his hands. “Don’t.  Please.  don’t.”  With each movement, she lost strength until the last word came out as little more than a pained whimper, her hand barely brushing the backs of Kid’s.
The sound ripped a chunk out of Kid’s heart.  He didn’t know what to do to calm her though and, with Emma’s words ringing in his ears, he went back to work.
“I’m sorry, Lou,” he repeated, doggedly pulling the shirt off, then reaching to begin unwrapping the bindings around her torso that hid the most obvious evidence of her femininity.  Closing his eyes, he pulled the last strips of cloth free and tossed them behind him on the floor with the rest of her already removed clothes.  He pulled his blanket back up and over her, tucking it carefully under her shoulders so it wouldn’t shift and then reached underneath it to unfasten her trousers and pull them, along with her longjohns, off over her feet.
He stepped back, panting with the exertion of not letting his eyes wander where they’d wanted, not letting his hands slip where they shouldn’t, not letting the blanket drift revealingly with his movements and hers.  He’d been raised to be a gentleman, even if they didn’t have much money.  But sometimes that was a damned hard ideal to live up to.
Suddenly, Lou began to mutter discontentedly.  “Too hot,” she mumbled, pushing at the blanket he’d so tightly wrapped around her.
“No, Lou!” Kid called frantically.  “Please, rest.  I’ll get some nice cold water fer ya, alright?” he pleaded.
Flying around the bunkhouse, he gathered what he needed and soon he was sitting on the edge of Lou’s bunk, wiping her forehead with a cold, wet dishrag.
“There,” he soothed.  “That’s better, isn’t it?”
Emma watched from her porch as Kid stepped out onto the bunkhouse porch and grabbed another load of wood for the fire.  She nibbled at her lower lip in worry.  Had she made the right choice? Maybe she should have insisted.  It really wasn’t proper leaving those two alone like that, under these conditions.  Then again, with Lou so sick it wasn’t like they could get up to any shenanigans.  And Kid was so wrapped up in doing the right thing he wouldn’t…. trespass, anyway.
She shook her head and returned to the table in her dining room, unaccustomedly surrounded by the other riders and Teaspoon as they gobbled up their dinner.
“I’ll be back in a bit,” she announced to the room in general.  “I’m going to take Kid’s supper to him.”
Teaspoon looked up from the conversation he’d been having with Cody and said, “You be careful, Emma.  And tell Kid ta be careful, too.  Cain’t havin’ no more of my boys gettin’ sick.”
Emma nodded shortly and, with a covered plate in her hands, stepped out of the house.
Kid looked up at the unusual and unexpected sound of someone knocking on the bunkhouse door.
“Unh,” Lou muttered, tossing restlessly in the bunk.
“Shhhh,” Kid murmured soothingly for what seemed the hundredth time that afternoon.  He tucked the blanket tightly around her, making especially sure the bottom was under her feet.  Then stood and headed to the door.   “Emma.”
“How’s he doing tonight?” Emma asked, trying to peer over Kid’s shoulder into the bunkhouse. 
Hearing Lou’s renewed thrashing about, Kid shifted position to block the station mistress’ view.
“No change,” he sighed, running one hand through his hair, leaving deep furrows in the curls ruffled by the wind.  “Back and forth ‘tween chills and bein’ too hot.  Got some water down ‘im a bit ago.  I been doin’ like ya said, cold water compresses on the head an’ hot packs at h.. his feet.  But it don’t seem ta be doin’ no good.”
Emma held out the plate in her hands.  “Well, here’s your supper,” she said.  “Don’t give any to Lou, no matter what.  Not ‘til after the fever breaks.  The cup’s for him, though.  It’s Buck’s willowbark tea.  Really does wonders for a fever. See if you can get that down him.  And don’t forget, he’ll need to use the necessary soon, if he hasn’t already.”  She paused, then added anxiously, “Are you sure you’re going to be alright alone?”
Kid nodded uneasily.
“Um, yeah.  We’ll manage,” he muttered, praying the evening shadows hid the blush he knew was creeping up his neck.
“Call if you need anything,” she added as she nodded uncertainly and turned to head back toward her house.
Kid closed the door behind her with relief, set the supper plate down and took a deep breath before turning to face the bunk where Lou was moaning and moving restlessly about.  As he’d feared, she’d fought her way clear of the blanket he’d left tightly wrapped around her.  The sight of her smooth, lightly bronzed skin hit him like a punch in the gut.  He quickly raised his eyes to his own bunk, over her head and moved half-blindly back to her side.
Settling onto the bunk at her side, he once again wrapped the blanket around her.  He was getting pretty danged good at turning her into a mummy without looking.  But just the touch, the feel of her warm, soft skin under his hands as he fumbled to wrap her up, was enough to make him wonder what was more invasive of her privacy, looking or touching.
Short of breath himself, trying to ignore his own body’s reaction to her nearness and near nakedness, he grabbed the cup of willowbark tea in one hand and gently raised her head with his other hand until her lips touched the edge of the cup.
“Please,” he whispered hoarsely.  “Please drink this and get better, Louise.”
It took some effort on his part, but eventually he managed to get most of the tea down her, one sip at a time.  He wasn’t sure, but thought it was doing some good.  She seemed, calmer, at least.
Lou fought to make sense of the image swirling through her brain in a kaleidoscope of colors and emotions.  One moment she was burning hot, the next so cold her teeth chattered.  Only one thing kept her grounded, Kid.  Every time disturbing memories started to surge forward and take over, the sound of his voice as he talked to her, the feel of his strong hands as he brought cooling relief or warming comfort helped her remember where and when she was.  Barely.
She could tell she was starting to surface as the words Kid was saying started to make sense again.
“Please, Louise, you gotta wake up,” he begged.  She could hear the tears in his voice and wondered why he was so upset.  “If you don’t wake up, I’m gonna have ta call Emma so’s she can take ya to the… the… outhouse.” 
The last word came out in a distressed hiss.  She wondered why he was suddenly so concerned about using it in front of her, then realized he was using her full name. 
“Come on, Louise,” he pleaded, shaking her shoulders with a gentle roughness.  “Wake up.”
“Lou… m’name’s Lou,” she mumbled remonstratively.  “Call me… Lou!”
“I’ll call ya Bob’s my uncle if ye’ll open yer eyes and talk sense to me, Lou!”
Sighing, she did as he asked.  “Happy?”
“Lou!” he breathed in ecstatic relief.  “Thank God!”
“Kin I go back ta sleep now?” she asked, her eyelids already sinking closed.
“No!” He shook her again, determined to keep her awake.  “You gotta stay with me, Lou.”
“Listen, can you get dressed, if I help ya?  And make it out ta the necessary on yer own?”  To his credit there was barely a pause before he said the word this time.
“Why?” she mumbled.  “Just wanna sleep.”
“Emma says ya gotta…. you know… regular.  And if ya can’t do it on yer own I gotta dose ya with castor oil and clean ya up later.  Like a baby.”  He practically wailed the final words, squirming in discomfort.  “Please, Lou.”  He shook her gently once again.
“Alright, alright,” she mumbled, pushing herself sluggishly up on her elbows.  “I’m up.”
She started to swing her legs off the edge of the bunk but stopped at Kid’s gasped, “Hold on a sec!”
“Wha now?!” she demanded grouchily.
“Uh, Lou, ya need some clothes on.  Ya cain’t walk ta the outhouse in the all together!”
“What?!!!!” she shrieked, looking down at herself.  “How’d I end up like this?  You told didn’t you?  I ougha--”
“No!”  Kid held up his hands for peace.  “I didn’t tell.  Wouldn’t even let Emma stay ta take care of ya.  That’s why it’s just you an’ me in here.  We’re sorta quarantined.”
“You?!?”  The word came out as a strangled accusation.
“Well, you were in no shape ta do it and yer clothes needed ta be cleaned,” Kid shrugged, blushing sheepishly.  “I didn’t look or nothin’.  I promise.”
“Here, put these on,” Kid said, holding out his spare pair of longjohns.
“Where are mine?” she asked tiredly, grabbing them from him.
“They was already on the clothesline,” Kid shrugged.  “Ain’t had time ta go get ‘em.”
“Turn around,” she ordered, clutching the blanket to her chest tightly.
“Um., how’s ‘bout I stand here with my eyes closed and hold a blanket up in front of ya?” he suggested.
She shrugged as she struggled to her feet.  “Just don’t peek.”
Kid dutifully closed his eyes, even pulling the blanket up over his face so if he accidentally opened them he wouldn’t see anything.  This time.  He’d done his best, but he hadn’t been able to avoid catching glimpses of her lovely body here and there over the last several hours.  Much like that first time, when he’d discovered her secret, they were images that would be permanently seared into his memory.
Even now, as she moved about pulling on his longjohns, he could imagine every move and felt a sudden intense jealousy of his own woolen underwear.  He shook his head at his own foolishness.
Emma stood on the porch of her house, a cup of steaming coffee cradled in her hands, untouched.  Her eyes remained glued in worried concentration on the bunkhouse.  She should’ve stayed.  Lou’s secrets be damned.
She straightened as the sound of the bunkhouse door swinging open shimmied across the station yard to her ears.  Her eyes sharpened as Kid helped a weakened Lou, wrapped in a blanket and wearing an obviously oversized pair of longjohns.  She stepped forward, one hand coming up to clench around the porch post.
“It’s good ta see them boys startin’ ta take ta each other like fam’ly.”
She looked behind her, startled to see Teaspoon coming out of the kitchen door.  He stepped up next to her at the porch railing, and nodded toward Kid and Lou, just as Lou stumbled and Kid caught the smaller rider up in both arms and carried Lou the rest of the way to the outhouse.
“Does a heart good ta see how close them young’uns ‘re gettin’,” Teaspoon clarified.
“Oh,” Emma said in a small voice.  She watched as Lou entered the outhouse, carefully shutting the door behind her.  Kid leaned back against the side of the small outbuilding, studiously looking up at the stars filling the sky overhead, whistling a tuneless tune.  When Lou came out a moment later, she practically collapsed into Kid’s arms.  He lifted her carefully up, conscientiously tucking the blanket around her before heading back to the bunkhouse with her cradled to his chest.
Emma looked back at the pleased as punch smile on Teaspoon’s face and shook her head.  She wondered if he’d seen what she’d just seen.  How could he be so blind to Lou’s secret, or the tenderness growing between her and the Kid?
By the time Kid got back to the bunkhouse Lou was once again asleep, unconscious?, in his arms.  He gently lowered her to her bunk and checked her head.  Her fever, which had come down for awhile, was going back up. 
He knew he was in for a long night.
The warmth of Kid’s arms surrounded her, keeping her floating on an island of safety and hopefulness.  She never wanted to leave it.
His voice was a soothing rumble that soothed the pounding ache in her head.  But then he left.
The hovering black clouds of doom his presence had been holding back began to close in on her.  It had so many arms and all of them were trying to hurt her.  There was her father, slapping her for every word she said, calling her an unruly tomboy, unladylike, unrefined, unfit.  There was the janitor at the Mission, sneaking touches and pinches on softly budding womanly curves anytime the nuns weren’t looking.  There was him.  The man she’d thought had saved her from freezing or starving.  His hands hurt her.  His words slammed into her ears, piercing through her eardrums straight to her brain, a taunting diatribe she could never fully erase, no matter how hard she tried.
She tried to push them away.  She tried to hit them, like she’d learned to with the other boys.  She tried to yell at them.  But they wouldn’t go away.
Until he came back.  He brought cool relief to the heat trying to tear her head in two.  But, more important, he kept the demons at bay.  So, when his voice faded, as if he were going to leave again, she latched on.  She couldn’t survive without his presence.
“No,” she murmured,  “Don’t go.  Don’t leave me. They’ll get me. They’ll win.  They always win.  Don’t… go.”
Her hands clenched around the fabric of his shirt in such a tight fist he couldn’t release her grip.
“Shhhh,” Kid whispered, giving in.  “I’m not going anywhere.”
The sound of his voice calmed her some.  But she still wouldn’t let go, still wouldn’t relax into the deep, healing sleep she needed.  After a few minutes, he gave in and crawled up onto the bunk next to her, pulling her onto his lap and wrapping his arms around her.
He was sooo tired.  He’d been running around all afternoon and evening taking care of her.  He decided to just lean his head back against the wall and rest his eyes a bit.  Then he’d get up and get some fresh, cold water to help keep her cool.
When she became restless at his silence, he began to croon an old lullaby his mother used to sing to him when he wasn’t feeling well.
Sleep my child and peace attend thee,
All through the night
Guardian angels God will send thee,
All through the night

Soft the drowsy hours are creeping
Hill and vale in slumber sleeping,
I my loving vigil keeping
All through the night.

While the moon her watch is keeping
All through the night

While the weary world is sleeping
All through the night

O'er thy spirit gently stealing
Visions of delight revealing
Breathes a pure and holy feeling
All through the night.

Love, to thee my thoughts are turning
All through the night

Emma hurried over to the bunkhouse, a covered plate with Kid’s breakfast in one hand, a piping hot cup of willowbark tea in the other for Lou.  She anxiously stepped up onto the porch and set the dishes down to knock on the door.
No one answered.
Frowning in worry, she looked around and decided to go ahead.  Pushing the door open, she peered inside.  Lou was resting comfortable, a sheen of sweat glinting off her forehead in the morning sunlight pouring through the open window, wrapped tightly in Kid’s arms.  The young man was just as soundly snoozing as Lou, unaware how the way he cuddled her to him screamed her gender to the world.
Reassured, Emma stepped quietly into the room and tiptoed over to the couple.  Reaching out, she pressed the back of her hand against Lou’s forehead and smiled in relief.  A perfectly normal temperature.
Her smile grew broader as, in her sleep, Lou’s hand reached up and cupped Kid’s cheek, pulling him closer to her.  He snuggled his face down against her hair and both sighed, slipping back into a deep slumber.