Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Whole Truth: What's Hidden

Author's Note: This is the third installment in a series of shorts called The Whole Truth, based on the idea of what would have happened if Lou had told Kid about her rape after their first night together.
The pounding of the horses hooves, the familiar rhythmic sway of her mount beneath her was soothing, almost lulling her into a half asleep state after the last few days.  So much had changed so fast, Lou wasn’t sure if she could handle it.  Not that the changes were bad, necessarily.  But any change was dangerous.   She’d just started figuring out how to handle her life as it was, how to add Kid to it.  Now, this.  Marriage.  Was she ready for it? 
The unfamiliar weight of the band of gold he’d bought her that morning echoed the thumping of her horse’s hooves as it bounced against her chest hanging from a chain around her neck, keeping time to the animal’s movements against her chest.
Without thinking about it, she found herself reaching for the slender band with one hand, patting it through her shirt, whether to reassure herself it had all happened or to hold it in place, not even she was sure.
After that impromptu wedding ceremony in the meadow, the traveling preacher had insisted on accompanying them back to town, where he’d filled out and signed a marriage certificate, duly witnessed by the boardinghouse mistress and one of her boarders. 
She’d barely seen the marriage certificate after putting her own signature on it.  The preacher had handed it to Kid who’d quickly slipped it into the inside pocket of his coat, where it rested even now.  But she knew what it said and what it meant, and that was plenty.
The marriage was as legal and binding as anything she’d done in her life.  More, really.  And that scared her.  Because she knew what the law would let him get away with.  Not that she really thought Kid would be like him, her father, but still.  She couldn’t help shivering at the thought that now he could and there wasn’t anything, legally, she could do about it.  The hand that had been touching her ring slipped down her side to rest almost lovingly on the butt of her weapon, worn crosswise for a quicker draw.  The feel of it calmed her nerves.
She’d begin this marriage as she meant to go on, letting go of none of her independence.  She wanted Kid in her life, but she wouldn’t let him take over her life, not for nothing.  She refused to end up like her mother, running for her life and the lives of her children, always hiding in fear.  She’d already had to put her foot down once and she and Kid hadn’t even been married 24 hours.
Walking out of the boarding house, Kid paused to pull Lou close to his side and press a quick, elated kiss to her lips.  She’d laughed at the expression of pure happiness on his face, trying to fight off the fear boiling in her own gut.
Suddenly he’d grabbed her hand and begun pulling her down the boardwalk.
“Come on,” he’d practically shouted to her exuberantly.
“Where are we goin’?” she’d asked, breathlessly, as she tried to keep up with his long legged pace.
He skidded to a stop in front of one of the store windows and, with a grin, pointed at it. “Here.”
Goldberg’s Jewelry and Fineries
“Kid?” Lou turned a puzzled glance to her newly minted husband, looking for the answer she couldn’t find in the store’s name.  He pointed again, this time to a tray of rings laid out on one side of the window display.  Wedding rings.  Her tone changed, but still the question was there, “Kid?”
He’d just grinned and pulled her on inside.  The next twenty minutes or so had passed in a blur as he’d gone over the available rings, making her try them all on until he found exactly the one he wanted, the one he said fit her like it was made for her.
“But, Kid, it’s too much.  You… we… can’t afford that,” she’d tried protesting.
“I been savin’ up,” he‘d shrugged bashfully, blushing.  The rest was half mumbled, barely audible as he turned his head slightly away.  “Knew this moment would come sooner or later.”
The man behind the counter had barked with laughter as he’d moved toward the register to ring up the cost.
“Wait!” Lou had called after him.
“Yes, ma’am?” he’d asked, smiling.
“What about you?” she’d asked Kid.  “If you get to mark me as yers ta the world, don’t I get ta do the same?”
“I, uh, guess I never thought much ‘bout it,” he’d shrugged.
“We have some beautiful men’s wedding bands, too, sir,” the jeweler had quickly offered, pulling out another tray from under the counter. 
Lou had glanced through them quickly, before finding a simple gold band, similar to the one Kid had picked out for her, and pulled it out of the tray.  Turning to Kid, she’d grabbed his hand and started to slip it onto his finger.
Except it got stuck at the second knuckle.  She struggled for a moment, then her shoulders slumped in defeat.
“I don’t get it,” she muttered, frustrated.  “It looks like a perfect fit.”
“Most rings that fit right get stuck on the knuckle, ma’am,” the jeweler said helpfully.  Nodding to Kid, he added, “You’ll probably be able to twist it on right easy.”
Kid fiddled with the unfamiliar jewelry for a moment and it slipped right into place.  He grinned and reached out with his now beringed hand to grab hers, the two golden bands gleaming in the sunlight that streamed through the shop’s window.
“We’ll take them both,” Kid said, never pulling his eyes from Lou’s now blushing face.
“If that’ll be all,” the jeweler said, moving once again toward the register.
“We’ll need two chains, to hang the rings on, too,” Lou blurted out, not meeting Kid’s gaze.  “We, uh, don’t want to risk these doin’, uh, farmwork,” she added by way of explanation.
“Of course, ma’am.”
Only after they had paid and stepped out of the store, back onto the boardwalk did Kid ask the question.
“What was that all about?”
Lou sighed.  “You know I can’t go wearing this ‘round the others, Kid.  How would I ever keep up my disguise.”
“I guess I just figured you’d leave the ring with me when ya went on rides elsewhere,” Kid said.
“Kid, ain’t no way we can even tell the boys ‘bout this, lessen yer tryin’ ta get me fired,” Lou said, forcing sternness into her voice.
“Aw, Teaspoon won’t fire ya.  He didn’t fire ya fer bein’ a girl, despite all yer worries, now did he?”
“That’s different from bein’ married, Kid.  Even Teaspoon’d have trouble keepin’ me on as a rider knowin’ I was married, that we’d been doin’… well…. what we’ve been…. doin’.  That… that there could be a …. you know,” she finished off, practically hissing the last two words at him.  “And I don’t figure on this changin’ my life.  I love ya, Kid, with all my heart.  That’s why I agreed ta the weddin’.  But I can’t just stop bein’ me ‘cause I let ya put a ring on my finger.”
“When did I ask ya to stop bein’ yerself,” Kid asked, hurt.  “I… I just want the world ta know how I feel ‘bout ya.”
“I know, Kid,” she whispered, her stance softening as she reached up to caress his cheek.  “And it will.  But… not now, alright?  Not ‘til I… ‘til we’ve got ‘nough saved fer our own place and ta bring Teresa and Jeremiah home.  ‘Til then, the rings are gonna have ta stay on these chains.  Tell me ya understand.”
Kid nodded mutely, but she could see the hurt still in his eyes.  To block it out, she leaned up on tiptoe to press her lips to his, ignoring a catcall from a passing cowboy as she kissed him deeply right there on the boardwalk.
Pulling back, she smiled as brightly as she could, “Thank you, Kid.”
Sneaking a glance at the man riding by her side, Lou smothered the sigh that tried to escape.  She still felt bad about hurting him like that, but she just wasn’t ready to have her life change that much.  She’d finally settled into the way things were and she liked them that way.  For now.
She turned her head fully to meet Kid’s blue-eyed, questioning gaze.   “Yes, Kid?”
“Want to stop for a bit?  Give the horses a rest and grab a bite to eat,” he asked, a tad tentatively.
“I’d love to, Kid,” she smiled.  “But we’re already a day late getting back.  Teaspoon’s going to be mad as a wet hen when we get back as it is.”
Kid laughed. 
“Yeah, yer right.”  Lowering his voice and leaning closer, he added, “But I’d still rather stop and take a break with ya.  It’s real purty round here and you make it even purtier.”
Lou blushed and pushed him away smilingly as she urged her horse onward.
“Where in tarnation have you two been?”  The first blustery words out of Teaspoon’s mouth were red hot enough they could have started a prairie fire.  “You two were due back here yesterday mornin’!  Here it is practically dark the next day!”
“Sorry, Teaspoon, we, uh….”
“Lightning threw a shoe and we had to wait until this mornin’ fer the blacksmith ta get back in town from another job,” Lou threw in hurriedly, rescuing Kid from his own innate honesty.  Tossing him a meaningful glance, she added, “Sorry we’re late.”
“Well,” the chastened older man harrumphed.  “I don’t s’pose ya can ride a shoeless horse.  Leastwise not that far nor that hard.  But next time send a message through, ya hear!”
“Yes, sir!” the duo chorused.
“Come on in and get some supper,” Rachel said from where she stood on the porch smiling down at them.  “Buck, why don’t you take care of their horses.”
“Sure thing,” the dark rider flashed a broad white grin as he took the reins from first Kid then Lou.  “Threw a shoe, hunh?  Is that what they’re callin’ it these days?”  He murmured to Lou teasingly.
She could feel the blush trying to climb up to her face and forced it back down again.  She didn’t dare show any response around these boys.  If there was one thing she’d learned about them by now, that was it.
“What would you know ‘bout it?” she taunted back as she turned to head inside.
Buck just shook his head and meandered over to the barn, trailing the two horses.
“That was great, Rachel, as always,” Kid said, smiling as he wiped his mouth and stood from the table.  “Thanks.”
Rachel smiled, pleased, and collected Kid’s plate from the table.
“I’m gonna go check on Katy.” Kid turned his attention to Lou, laying on a hand on her shoulder. 
She nodded, looking up at him quickly, almost shyly.  “I’ll be out in a few minutes,” she said quietly.  “I should check on Lightning, too.”
Rachel hid her smile at their fumbling attempts to hide their attraction and desire to be alone by turning her back on the room and stacking the dishes for washing.
She heard a moment of whispering and then the door opening and closing.  A moment later, Lou came up beside her with the rest of the dirty dishes from the table.
“Well, what?” Lou answered, keeping her eyes studiously on the dishes.
“So… how’d it go?  Did you like my surprise?”
“It was beautiful, Rachel,” Lou said honestly as she thought of the white, lacy nightgown Rachel had pressed on her just before she and Kid had left.  “Thank you.”
“Every woman deserves to feel beautiful on a night like that, Lou,” Rachel said tenderly, reaching up to brush a strand of hair off Lou’s forehead.  “She also deserves a gentleman who treats her right.”
Lou blushed.  This time there was no stopping the rush of blood to her face as she thought of just how tender and considerate Kid had been, even after.  Especially after.
“Uh, I gotta go… check on Lightning,” she muttered, handing the last cleaned dish to Rachel to dry.
“So… what happened while you two were out there, Kid?” Cody asked as he caught up with Kid just outside the barn, Noah and Buck trailing behind him.  “That special run turned inta a three day trip.  And it weren’t even yer turn.  Shoulda been Ike and Jimmy.”
“What’s it matter to you?” Kid asked, trying not to blush in front of the other boys.  “We… got ta… spend some time together.  Somethin’ that don’t happen much around here.”
“Aw, come on, Kid,” Noah grinned.  “You two spend practically all your time together around here.”
“That ain’t what I mean, Noah,” Kid grumped, turning his back on the others as he walked into the barn.
“So what did ya mean, Kid?” Cody persisted, following him.
Kid shrugged.
“Is he blushin’?” Cody suddenly asked, peering more closely at the taller rider.  “Buck, get that lantern over here.  I think the Kid’s blushin’.”
“He sure is,” Buck agreed as he raised the lantern a little higher, revealing the rosy hue of Kid’s normally tanned face.  “Now, I wonder…. just what happened out there that could be makin’ the Kid blush like that?”
“You sure you gotta ask, Cody?” Noah grinned knowingly.  “I think we can all guess.”
“Maybe there’ll be a bit less botheration round the bunkhouse, now that you two got yer…. itches scratched.”
“Don’t talk ‘bout Lou like that!” Kid demanded, rushing toward Cody, hands clenching into fists. 
Noah and Buck grabbed him and held him back.
“Now, Kid, we’re just playin’,” Buck soothed. 
“You know we all love Lou like a sister,” Noah added.  “We just want to make sure you treat her right.”
“That’s right, Kid,” Cody added self-righteously straightening the hem of his jacket.  “So make sure you do that, alright?”
Kid growled.
“I think we’d better leave the little lovebird be,” Noah smiled.  “I think his partner’s headed out here.”  He nodded his head toward the partially open barn door, where he could see Lou jumping down off the bunkhouse porch.  “Don’t know about the rest of y’all, but I’m not sure I could stand sticking around for all that cooing and such.”
Letting go of Kid, Buck and Noah stepped around the still seething rider and wrapped their hands around Cody’s arms to hustle him out of the barn.
But Cody, as always, had to have the last word. “Guess now we know why the Kid never wanted ta spend any time at the saloons or dance halls.  He was savin’ himself for his own entertainment right here at home.”
He laughed at the sound of Kid’s growl erupting from the barn behind him.
“Mmmm,” Kid murmured, pulling back from their most recent kiss.  They stood in the dark shadows of the barn, as far from light and the door as they could get.  Lou had lost track of how long they’d been there, snuggling and kissing like there was no tomorrow.  Kid rested his forehead against hers and added reluctantly, “We’d probably better head back ta the bunkhouse.  Teaspoon’s gonna be out here soon lookin’ fer his bed.”
“And the boys’ll come lookin’ fer us, no doubt,” Lou grumbled in reluctant agreement.  She slowly began to pull back out of Kid’s embrace, only for him to cinch her in tighter.
“One last kiss?” he pleaded.  “It’s the least you can do,” he added mischievously.  “If I can’t hold you in my arms tonight.  I’m gonna miss havin’ ya by my side, wakin’ up ta ya in my arms.”  With exaggerated care he glanced around the barn to assure himself they were alone before leaning closer to whisper the last in her ear, “Lovin’ my… wife.”
Lou shivered at the tenderness he put in that one word.  But even as their mouths came together in one last caress, another part of her shivered at the way Kid had acted before saying it.  It felt…. wrong… somehow.  And she wasn’t sure if it was the word and what it represented or the secrecy around it that bothered her.
Teaspoon watched from Rachel’s porch as his last two riders exited the barn and headed toward the bunkhouse for the night.  His eyes narrowed as he took in the new, unconscious familiarity between the two, the looks, the touches, the air between them.  
He grunted.  A lot more had happened on that last run than just a thrown shoe.  He’d been married six times, he ought to know.
“Hope they know what they’re doin’,” he muttered to himself, shaking his head.  Love was hard enough without complicating things the way those two obviously had.
A week later…..
A week, a whole week.  More actually, Lou mentally grumbled as she bent low over her mount’s neck, urging the gelding on.  She’d been married all of nine days now and hadn’t seen her husband for seven of them.  She could almost think Teaspoon was conspiring to keep them apart.  The morning after their return, he’d sent Kid off on a run that was supposed to be Jimmy’s.  He said it was because Jimmy had had to take Kid’s run the day before ‘cause they hadn’t gotten back in time.  But she wasn’t so sure of that.  It just wasn’t Teaspoon’s normal style.  This run was so long Kid hadn’t made it back before Lou’d had to leave on her regularly scheduled run. 
It had been so long, or felt like it anyway, that their peaceful little wedding in the meadow had started to feel like nothing more than a dream.  She often found herself reaching up to clasp her wedding ring, still hanging on its chain, tucked safely beneath her shirt, as if it were a talisman of some sort.  It was the only thing, these last couple of days, that had kept her centered, let her get her job done, instead of worrying over other things.
But finally, finally, she was headed home.  And when she got there, Kid should be waiting, if Teaspoon hadn’t sent him off on another errand or something.  Lou grumped unhappily to herself, shifting in the saddle a bit at the thought.
The seemingly sudden sight of Emma’s windmill cresting the horizon sped-up her heartbeat.  She was almost home.  Dropping the wedding band she held in one hand, she urged Lightning to faster speeds.  Realizing why, he eagerly complied.
“Yah!” she shouted as she reached down to grab hold of the mochila with one hand.  Rounding the corner of Emma’s house she saw Jimmy come running out of the bunkhouse and leaping onto Sundancer’s back. 
Without a word she tossed the mail pouch to him and slowed her horse as his sped off.  A quick glance showed no one else in the yard and her shoulders slumped with disappointment.  Evidently Teaspoon had all the boys off on chores somewhere.
Lifting one leg over the saddlehorn, she agilely slid off the side of the saddle to the ground and gathered the reins in one hand to begin cooling Lightning off herself. 
A short time later she walked to the barn doors leading her horse, who was beyond ready for some food and rest in his stall.  Heaving a sigh, she pushed the barn doors open and tugged on the reins, directing Lightning into the cool, dark interior.
As she turned from closing the barn doors behind her, she yelped in surprise.   A strong pair of familiar arms wrapped themselves around her waist as Kid reeled her in for a long welcome home kiss.
“Where were you?” she asked when he finally let her up for air.  “I was lookin’ fer ya outside.”
“I knew I couldn’t do nothin’ but kiss ya the minute I saw ya, so I figured it’d be better ta wait where no one could see me,” he whispered, dipping his head for another taste.  “I missed ya, Lou.  This has been the longest week of my life.”
“Mine, too,” she murmured against his mouth.
The clanging of the dinner bell finally broke their embrace and they rushed to bed down a restless Lightning and make it to the table before Cody and Teaspoon ate all the food.
As they exited the barn and latched the doors, Kid wrapped his arm around Lou’s waist to escort her to the bunkhouse.  She stiffened and shot him a surprised look, which he missed as he watched Teaspoon walking from the house to the bunkhouse perusing something in his hand.  Then she relaxed.  There was only family around tonight.  They all knew her secret. Well, one of them anyway, she smiled to herself as one hand brushed the ring tucked inside her shirt.  Leaning her head into Kid’s shoulder she let him lead her to the dinner table and let herself enjoy the experience of being escorted.
“I don’t think I oughta be part of the welcomin’ party,” Lou said as she sat on the fence rail outside the bunkhouse that night.
*Why not?* Ike questioned.
“She don’t want him catchin’ on ta the fact she’s a she,” Cody answered for her.  “That’s alright, I’ll go.”
“Well, yer not goin’ alone,” Teaspoon said.  “Kid, you and Ike go with him.  Last thing we need’s for that reporter ta think Cody’s the best we got ta offer.”
Kid laughed.  “Aw, it’ll be some stuffy ol’ man from back East.  He won’t know the difference.”
“Still, we need ta put our best feet forward,” Teaspoon said.  “The Express needs this.  So you all treat that reporter right. With respect.”
Buck grunted.  “Hopefully he’ll be gone ‘fore I get back, then.  Can’t say as I can respect a newspaperman much.  I’ve seen too much of how they can twist the truth ta say what they want.  Publicity or not.”
“I’m with you,” Noah smiled.  “Something about all this just seems to stick in my craw wrong.”
“Someone oughta warn Jimmy,” Lou spoke up thoughtfully.
Kid, who was leaning casually against the post next to her, looked down with a question in his face.
“He ain’t gonna like some reporter tryin’ ta dig up stories ‘bout him,” she explained.
“You gotta point, there, Lou,” Teaspoon agreed.  “Why don’t you take care of that?  Oughta keep both of ya out of this reporter’s way.”
Lou nodded agreeably.
“Lou, Jimmy ain’t due back for another couple hours,” Rachel said, as she came out of the house wiping her hands on her apron.  “Could you and Kid head into town and pick up the week’s supplies for me.”
“Rachel,” Kid groaned.  “I just got back from town.”
“And now I need ya to go again,” Rachel smiled with a hint of steel behind the friendly expression.  “If you two leave now ya should be back before Jimmy gets in.”
“I’ll go hitch up the buckboard,” Lou said, pushing her glasses further up on her nose and crossing her arms across her chest as she tried to use a manly swagger to cross the yard to the barn.
“I’m tryin’ ta keep her out of the way of that reporter,” Rachel hissed to Kid.  “Why’d she have ta be a woman?  She’s much more likely ta notice.”
“Well, I ain’t gonna tell her.”
“Not with words, maybe.  But ya keep lookin’ at Lou like that and ye’ll give the whole thing away in no time.  Put yer eyes back in yer head fer a few days, would ya?”
“Who woulda guessed J.R. Walker, New York Dispatch, woulda been a woman?” Lou marveled in a combination of disgust and envy as they began loading the boxes and bags of supplies onto the buckboard.
“Well, I sure never guessed Lou was...” Kid lowered his voice to a barely audible whisper, “Louise.”
Lou pushed him away and laughed.  “Well, no one ever accused you of bein’ overly observant.  But it makes one think, don’t it?”
“Whatcha mean?”
Taking another crate of bottles and tins, Lou settled it carefully on the bed of the buckboard.  “Well, if she can be a reporter, what else are women doin’ now they didn’t used to?  And she even uses her own name, well, sorta, and dresses in skirts and such.  What I’m sayin’ is she don’t have ta pretend ta be a man ta do it.”
Kid smiled at her as he picked up a barrel of molasses and hefted it to his shoulder to deposit in the buckboard.  “Guess not.”
Lou grabbed another crate and followed.  The sound of pounding hooves caught her attention as a horse galloped into town.  Looking up, she recognized the horse and rider.
“Jimmy!” she called out wondering what he was doing here so early and why he was in town, instead of back at the station.  He didn’t appear to have a mochila with him, so maybe he’d just gotten back early.  But he must’ve ridden like the hounds of hell were after him to do that.  
When he didn’t respond to her call, she slashed a worried glance Kid’s way.  Kid nodded and she took off to catch up with Jimmy.  By the time she did, he was hitching his horse up out front of the saloon. 
“You alright?” she asked, concerned.
“Why?” he grunted, not meeting her eyes.
“Uh, saw ya ridin’ in here like a bat outta hell.”
“Somethin’ ya wanted, Lou?” he asked brusquely.  Without waiting for an answer, he turned away and walked toward the boardwalk and the entrance of the saloon.
She followed, thinking fast.  This wasn’t really the right time to warn him about the reporter lady. 
“Yeah!” she said in sudden inspiration. “Yeah.  Um, I just, uh, I… wanted ta thank ya.”  Her hand unconsciously moved to the ring underneath her shirt, fingering it as she spoke. “About.. what ya told the Kid about….” Her voice lowered even more. “You know… about… well, dancin’.”
Jimmy’s mouth moved in a parody of a smile.  “So, you two finally did some dancin’?”
Lou nodded, forcing herself not to blush, although she couldn’t stop the foolish grin that spread across her face.  She avoided meeting his eyes and shrugged her yes.
“Glad ta hear it,” Jimmy said, patting her on the shoulder.   His voice said something completely different.  It said he could care less about what was going on in her life.  He started to push past her, then stopped and reached out grab at her hand.  “Whatcha got there, Lou?”
She jerked away, turning her body protectively away from him.  “Nothin’ of consequence.”
“Did Kid give ya a momento fer the big night?”  Jimmy practically leered at her.  “Lemme see?  Make sure he did right by ya and all.”  His voice practically dripped with sarcasm. 
“What’s wrong with ya, Jimmy?” she asked, backing away from him, tears in her voice.  “This ain’t… ain’t like ya at all.”
“Hey, yer the one brought it up,” Jimmy shrugged.  He turned without another word and walked, stalked really, up the stairs and toward the saloon.
She watched him for a moment, worry clouding her features.  Why was he acting this way?  Had the reporter already gotten to him?
“Jimmy?” she called after him.  He reluctantly turned to find out what she wanted.  “You talk to that reporter?”
“What reporter?” he asked in confusion.
“The reporter Russell, Majors and Waddell sent out ta do a story on the Express?  Teaspoon thought it might be best if you and I stayed out of her way while she’s here.”
“Fine by me,” Jimmy muttered.  “Let me know when she’s gone.  Better yet, just let me alone.”  Without another word, he flung himself through the doors into the saloon.
“Jimmy?” Lou whispered, pain and worry fighting each other for dominance.
“Lou, what’s wrong?” Kid asked, stopping what he was doing when he saw her slowly walking back toward the buckboard as if in a daze.
Lou looked up at him.  “Somethin’s wrong with Jimmy, Kid.  He was…. he was just an… an… ass about….” she paused and looked around before finishing.  “Well.. about… us.”
“That ain’t like him,” Kid muttered as worry and anger began to clash on his face.  “Let me go talk ta him.”
“Kid,” Lou said, grabbing his arm as he started to walk after Jimmy.
“Be…. gentle,” she pleaded.  “I… I think he’s really hurtin’ this time.”
Kid nodded slowly, then continued after Jimmy, still unsure if he was going to find out what was wrong with him, or just knock him into next week for putting that look on Lou’s face.
Stepping cautiously into the saloon, he peered around the corner in time to hear Jimmy tell the bartender, “Leave the bottle.”
“I better get my eyes checked,” he muttered.  Lou was right, something was desperately wrong with Jimmy.  He plastered a friendly smile, completely unfelt at the moment, onto his face and sidled up to Jimmy to cheerfully say, “I must be seein’ things.”
“Whadda ya want, Kid?” Jimmy asked, knocking back a shot of whiskey like it was water.
Forcing himself to keep smiling, Kid asked, “You forgettin’ the company rules about drinkin’?”
“Nope.”  Still Jimmy wouldn’t look at him.
“I’m sorry if that reporter’s bein’ here is stirrin’ up old demons,” Kid tried again.  “But… this ain’t the way ta handle it.”
“We don’t want ta disappoint Russell, Majors and Waddell, now do we?”
“That ain’t what I’m talkin’ about,” Kid shot back, starting to lose his barely held temper.
“Coulda fooled me.”
Kid straightened.  “Come on,” he said, reaching out to grab Jimmy’s shoulder. “Let’s get outta here.”
Jimmy jerked away.  “I’ll leave when I’m good and ready,” he ground out.  “Now Kid, why don’t ya go outside. Yer sweetheart’s waitin’ fer ya.  Go outside and play, maybe do a little dancin’. Seems my advice done ya good, Kid.”
“Back off, Jimmy!” That was more than Kid could take. “I made the worst mistake of my life followin’ yer advice ‘bout ‘dancin’,” he hissed.  He reached out and grabbed the front of Jimmy’s shirt, pulling him in close, and ground out between gritted teeth.  “Thanks to ya, I pushed too far, too fast.  And that ain’t somethin’ I kin ever fix!”
Jimmy shrugged, a half smile forming on his mobile mouth as he turned back toward the bar, leaning on his elbows.  “Sorry.”
Kid reached out and put his hand over Jimmy’s as he grabbed the whiskey bottle again.
“That reporter will be gone in a couple days,” Kid growled.  “You don’t wanta talk to her, don’t talk to her.  Just stay away from her.  That’s all Lou was tryin’ ta warn ya ‘bout ta begin with.  But ya ain’t gonna find any answers in here,” Kid added.  “And ya ain’t gonna find ‘em by hurtin’ yer friends, either.
Jimmy jerked free of Kid’s grasp, leaving Kid’s hand alone on the neck of the whiskey bottle.
“Have one on me, Kid.”  Glaring, he dropped a coin on the bar and stalked out of the saloon.  Kid’s shoulders drooped in defeat.
Lou heard the footsteps coming toward the saloon door and hurried away, wiping at the tears gathering in her eyes.  She plopped down on a nearby rain barrel that had been capped, one hand keeping a white knuckled grip on the ring hanging beneath her shirt.  Kid’s words kept rolling through her mind, again and again.
I made the worst mistake of my life followin’ yer advice ‘bout ‘dancin’.
She’d heard those words loud and clear, though the ones that had followed had been too quiet for her to pick up.  What had he said next? Did he regret marrying her already?  Or was it more than that?  Had he had her and realized that’s all he really wanted?  All he needed?
…the worst mistake of my life…
She was so caught up in her self-doubt she didn’t hear or see Jimmy mount up and ride off, or Kid walk up next to her. 
“I don’t know what’s with Jimmy,” he said.
“Hunh?”  Lou looked up at Kid, confused.  What was he talking about Jimmy for?
“He ain’t actin’ like himself,” Kid continued as he walked past her toward the buckboard they’d been loading.  “He just got back from Benton, didn’t he?”
Lou reluctantly slid off the barrel and followed him.
“Hm hm,” she answered non-committally. 
“Somethin’ musta happened,” Kid said as he held up the clothesline for her to duck under.  The worried tone in his voice finally got her complete attention and she looked up to see him staring off down the street.
He was thinking about Jimmy right now, not about them, Lou realized in wonder.  And he was worried.  She looked down the street, too, catching the last plumes of dust kicked up by Jimmy’s horse as he disappeared over the horizon.
“I…” she paused to clear her throat then continued.  “I don’t have a run scheduled for a couple days… I could, ah, go find out.”
Getting out of town, and away from Kid for a couple days, would give her time to sort through some things, she thought to herself.  And, given how little time they’d been able to spend together since the wedding, his reaction to the offer would tell her a lot about what he was feeling and thinking.
He slowed, turning to look down at her searchingly as they stopped.  His eyes searched hers for a moment, then arrived at a decision.
“Take Katy,” he said, glancing over Lou’s shoulder at his horse tethered to a hitching post.  “She’s rested.”
Lou looked away.  Not the response she’d expected.  He wanted her to go.  Either that meant he didn’t really care, or it meant he was more worried about Jimmy than he was letting on.  But then he was offering her his horse.  His horse!  He never, ever, let anyone else ride Katy.  Not once in the time she’d known him had he let anyone else do anything with or for Katy.  Still in shock, she looked back up to catch his next few words.
“If you leave now you can make it before dark.”
“You’re… you’re gonna let me ride yer horse?” she asked, still stuck on that one shocking fact.
He nodded, a glint in his blue eyes warming her from the inside out.  A slight grin broke out on her face.  Maybe she hadn’t heard what she’d thought she’d heard, Lou mused as she turned to mount up.  She must have misunderstood.  That had to be it.
Kid smiled easily up at her as he handed her the reins and her heart lifted.  Turning Katy around, she pushed the big paint into a gallop, Kid’s goodbye ringing in her ears this time.

“Be careful, Lou!”


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