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.
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.