Summary: Why do we love the ones we love? Is there a reason behind the choice? Or does love choose for us?
Author's Note: This is a sequel to A Promise Kept, in the Post Script series of stories.
Lou sighed with weariness as she trudged quietly into the dark house. It had been a long night patrolling the unusually unruly streets of the growing town of Rock Creek. Ever since the war the small village had been steadily growing, and with rumors of the railroad building a spur through town, on its way from Lincoln down toward Wichita in Kansas, more and more folks were moving in every day. Not all of them were as law-abiding as she’d like.
Peeling off her coat and toeing off her boots, she silently padded across the kitchen into the living room and sank into the welcoming embrace of the rocking chair Kid had built for her with his own hands all those years ago, when they’d just learned little Jamie was on his way.
She snorted slightly at the thought. ‘Little’ Jamie wasn’t quite so little anymore. He was a grown man himself, taller than Kid and getting ready to take over their interest in the ranch. Maybe it was time for her to retire, too? Let someone younger, more energetic take over for her as the U.S. Marshal. Nights like tonight were becoming a little too exhausting, emotionally, not just physically.
She shook her head, leaning back against the smoothly polished headrest of the chair, thinking about the young man she’d left in one of her cells, sleeping off a night of too much liquor and too little common sense. He’d reminded her so much of Jimmy when they’d first met, all those years ago, so full of anger he was nothing but piss and vinegar. But, underneath, she could sense the pain and hurt that lurked in his heart. She hoped when she went back into town later today she could maybe talk some sense into him, do for him what she’d never been fully able to do for Jimmy. No one had.
With a slight nudge of one foot, she pushed the rocker into motion, lost in her thoughts as she considered what might work. But something blocked it’s generally smooth back and forth sway.
“Wha?” she mumbled, looking down to see what was in the way. “I’m gonna have ta talk ta that girl,” she muttered, reaching down to pick up the memory book full of family pictures her youngest, Mary Margaret, had apparently left in the corner of the room where she liked to curl up and read in the evenings.
Mary Margaret had been fascinated with the photos and the stories Lou’d told her about their Express Family last week and had taken to looking at the picture book every night before bed, talking to the boys in the pictures as if they were her best friends.
Lou shook her head, smiling slightly. They probably would have been, if they’d lived long enough or just plain stuck around. They’d have loved Lou’s sprightly, opinionated, smart little girl and would have spoiled her worse than she already was.
Setting the album on her lap, Lou tucked her feet up under her in the chair and flipped the book open to a random page. It was a picture that British photographer had taken of Jimmy, Cody and Noah. Lou couldn’t even remember why he’d been in town anymore. She just remembered the excitement they’d all felt about getting their images preserved for all time.
With one finger, she reached out and softly, slowly traced the lines of those beloved faces. Unnoticed tears slipped down her cheek as she thought about all the loved ones she’d lost over the years. Of all those deaths, and departures she mentally added looking at Cody’s twinkling gaze, Jimmy’s had hurt the most.
She’d always harbored the hope that someday he’d come to his senses, find a good woman, preferably his Thatch he’d spent so many years searching for, and come back to join them at the ranch and settle down. He’d come and stayed with them a few times, sticking around for several months once. But someone seeking to make a name off his reputation always seemed to find him and then he’d disappear again. He’d eventually found his Thatch, they’d even married. But they’d only had a few months before that glory seeker had caught up with Jimmy one last time. He’d never had the chance to bring her home to meet the family.
“How come you didn’t marry him?”
Lou jerked in surprise as a large, warm hand came to rest gently on her shoulder. Looking up, she saw her eldest son, Jamie, looking down at her, a cup of coffee cradled in his other hand. She hadn’t realized how late, or rather early, it was when she’d come in. Jamie was already up, getting ready to start morning chores. The other boys would be following soon.
“What are you talkin’ about?” she asked, hastily wiping away the tears she could now feel laying wet and cold on her cheeks.
Jamie squatted down beside her and set his coffee on the floor. He reached out and took the photo album from her and looked at it in complete silence for a long moment, considering. Lou resisted the urge to reach out and push a stray lock of hair off his forehead. He reminded her so much of his father sometimes it was nearly unbearable.
“I remember when Uncle Jimmy used to come visit,” he finally said, choosing his words carefully. “You would always light up like it was Christmas mornin’. Even then, I could tell there was somethin’ special ‘tween you two. But it wasn’t ‘til last week, when you was tellin’ little M and M all them stories ‘bout the Express I realized you loved him.”
He turned his head slowly toward her, looking her straight in the eye as he asked, “So how come ya didn’t marry him, ‘sted of Pa?”
“I love your Pa,” Lou started to respond defensively.
“I know ya do,” Jamie said, putting a reassuring hand over hers on the rocker’s curved arm. “That ain’ t never been in question. Anyone lookin’ at ya can tell ya love each other ta distraction. But it ain’t the same. Not like I remember you bein’ when Uncle Jimmy was around.”
Lou opened her mouth to answer, but Jamie waved his hand, indicating he wasn’t done yet.
“It wasn’t just that you looked so happy and relieved ta see him, Pa would look that way, too,” Jamie continued, thinking as he spoke. “There was an…. energy between ya. It was like ya fed off o’ each other. Almost like… like you were two parts of a whole bein’.”
Reaching out, Lou gestured for Jamie to give her the album back. She slowly flipped through the pictures, flipping through her memories as she thought about those days. She’d never really considered marrying Jimmy, despite that one intensely passionate kiss they’d shared on the trail. But, Jamie had a good question. Why not?
“I guess….” she started to say, then stopped, thinking some more for a moment. “I guess that’s precisely why.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We were like two peas in a pod. We both had a thirst for adventure, hearts desperate to be loved but afraid ta… ta open up ta someone ‘cause of what had happened ta us, startin’ with our own fathers.”
Lou paused, shaking her head. “I don’t think ya can ever understand just how messed up somethin’ like that can make ya. Ye’ve been too lucky. Ya grew up in a lovin’ family, ready and able ta do anythin’ ta keep ya safe. Jimmy and me? We had ta keep ourselves safe, from the time we was Mary Margaret’s age. Needless ta say….” she paused to swallow the lump that tried to keep her from speaking, “we didn’t always succeed.”
“That still don’t make sense, Ma,” Jamie huffed. “If ya had so much in common, how come…”
“Let me finish, child,” Lou smiled. There was just a touch of her in him. One he rarely allowed to show, but it was there none the less, apparent in his impatience. “Imagine if ya will, two injured birds tryin’ ta help each other. They ain’t gonna get very far, now are they?”
Jamie shook his head, mutely.
“Well, see, that was me and yer Uncle Jimmy. Oh, maybe if yer Pa hadn’ta been around, we mighta given it a try still, but yer Pa was and he offered me a kind of quiet, healing love and strength I needed more’n anythin’ else in this world. Jimmy was excitin’, but yer Pa… he was…. well, I guess he was home. Yer Grandpa Teaspoon said it best that first day we all met. Yer Pa wasn’t quite as messed up as the rest of us. Oh, he had his problems,” she laughed. “But they weren’t nearly the same.”
“So that’s it?” Jamie asked seriously. “Pa was just… the safer choice fer ya?”
“Oh, no, that’s not it at all. That’s just a small part,” Lou smiled fondly. “There may’ve been an… energy… ‘tween yer Uncle Jimmy and me, but that was nothin’ compared ta the fire burnin’ ‘tween yer Pa and me. Like ta burned both o’ us ta a crisp at one point. Lord, we made so many mistakes,” she paused, shaking her head in wonder that they’d ever moved beyond their adolescent foolishness.
“But, the thing is, yer Uncle Jimmy and me, we was too much alike, like I said. With him, I could do anythin’ I wanted, without anyone even remindin’ me there was such a thing as common sense. Yer Pa, he didn’t always do it in the most…. politic of manners, but he was my life preserver. He was always there when I needed him, carin’ ‘bout me, worry’n over me. I can’t tell ya the number of times he saved me, from myself and others. It was the surest proof of love anyone coulda given me, after what all I’d been through. Jimmy was a bit too busy needin’ savin’ himself most days ta even see it. Oh, I fought it, but I craved it all the same.”
“Yer Pa and me? We was… different. But that’s good. I was impatient. He spent too much time thinkin’ things over. I was adventurous, stupidly so at times. He was more laid back, cautious. I was stubborn. So was he. It took a lot of work, but we eventually figured out how ta make that work for us. Together we’re stronger than either one of us is alone.”
Lou laughed lightly and turned to look at her son, closing the book firmly. “Not that I thought any of that through, back then. Like I said, there was a fire burnin’ ‘tween us that nearly burned out o’ control. It was all I could do ta handle that. The rest, well, I guess the love ‘tween us just figured it out fer us. Fortune favors the foolish, so they say.”
Standing up, Lou moved toward the shelf and carefully put the book back in its place. Caressing the spine, she said softly, “I never once even considered marryin’ anyone but yer Pa, Jamie. Oh, yer right, I loved Jimmy. But… not like that. It would never’ve worked ‘tween us. We just didn’t… fit, not in a way that would ever have lasted. There was a time when yer Pa and I thought things were over, went our separate ways. We eventually found our way back ta each other, but until we did, I always felt like there was a piece of me missin’.”
“So, Pa’s like yer other half?” Jamie asked curiously.
Lou nodded. “A marriage is like a partnership, Jamie. Ya gotta be able ta work together. It helps, a lot, if ya can be strong where yer partner’s weak, and vice versa.” Turning toward the kitchen, she added, “And right now I’m a little weak on the sleep side.” She smiled, yawning. “I’m gonna turn in.”
“Night, Ma,” Jamie said quietly, leaning forward to kiss her on the cheek as she walked passed him, out of the room.
Lou smiled gently as she trudged slowly up the stairs to the room she’d shared with Kid since the day they’d moved into their snug little home. She’d been pretty sure her boy had his eye on a particular young lady, one scheduled to come home from school soon. His questions tonight, this morning, had told her she was right. She just hoped she’d given him the answers he was looking for.
The door squealed as she pushed it open and she frowned slightly. She’d have to see about oiling the hinges in the morning. She didn’t want to wake Kid when she came in from work. He got up early enough as it was. She frowned. Actually, he should be up already. She was surprised she hadn’t seen him--
A hitched in breath stopped her in mid-thought and she looked over at the bed. Kid sat on the edge of the thick feather mattress, hunched in over himself, in the early morning dark.
“Kid,” she asked, moving quickly to his side. “Are you alright?”
He raised his head to meet her eyes and she gasped as the first pre-dawn rays of sunlight peeking through their window glinted off the tears streaming down his face.
“What’s wrong?!” She rushed to him, reaching out with both arms. He wrapped her in his embrace, burying his face in the rough material of her workshirt, turning his face in one direction, then the other, drying the tears in the scratchy fabric over her stomach. “Kid?” she asked again, starting to get seriously worried.
“I… I always thought, deep down inside, that you married me ‘cause he wasn’t the marryin’ kind,” Kid finally muttered into her shirt. “I figured I was the second choice, the… safe choice. But I loved ya so much I was willin’ ta accept that if it meant I got ta spend my life with you.”
“Oh, darlin’,” Lou groaned, sinking to her knees and putting both hands on his cheeks, holding his face forcefully in place so he had no choice but to look at her. “I wish ya’d’ve said somethin’.”
She leaned forward and began to press her lips to his in quick, fluttery kisses of remorse and apology. Still speaking against his lips and chin, she added, “When I said, ‘til death do us part, I meant it. I knew there was nothin’ on this earth I wanted ta part us, then or now.”
Jamie paused at the top of the stairs, on his way to his brothers’ room to sound the wake-up call for morning chores. He shook his head, smiling, as he heard the sounds coming from their parents’ room. It didn’t look like his Pa would be making it down in time to help this morning after all.