Friday, January 17, 2014

The Whole Truth: Love & Loss

Author's Note: This installment takes place during the season 2 episode Color Blind.
“Now that’s just plain disrespectful of Rachel’s oatmeal casserole, Lou!  If not outright sacrilege!”
“Why don’t you just absquatulate, Cody, and leave me the hell alone,” Lou growled, wiping her mouth with her sleeve once the last of the retching had finished.  Straightening, she kicked dirt over the remains of her breakfast, now left in an unsightly mess ironically close to the manure pile.  Without another word she stalked off toward the barn entrance.
“Still grouchy, hunh?” Noah asked.
“Yep.  Tetchy as a bear in mid-winter,” Cody sighed.
“She’s been like that ever since things… cooled off between her and the Kid.  Wonder what’s up with them two.  They went from hot to cold so fast it’d make your head spin,”
“I dunno, but sure wish’d they’d figure it out.  They’re makin’ life miserable fer the rest of us.”
“Ain’t that the truth!”
Lou’s stomach rumbled angrily at its lack of sustenance as she walked down the boardwalk, trailing Noah, Cody, and Ike.  She didn’t know what she’d caught but wished it’d finish with her and go away.  Then again, maybe it was just nerves.  Lord knew she’d been more than a mite stressed out lately.
“Who’s that?” Cody asked.
Lou looked up to see what he was pointing at.  Kid was sitting on the seat of an uncovered wagon next to a dark-haired, quite pretty, young lady.  Katy was tied to the back of the wagon.  The woman said something, pointing toward Tompkins’ store.  Kid turned his head to look down at her, flashed a smile and answered.
“I dunno,” Noah shrugged.  “Looks like the Kid done already staked his claim, though.”
Lou’s stomach turned a somersault as she took note of just how close Kid was sitting to the pretty, no beautiful, woman on the bench next to him.  She could tell their thighs were pressed close together, despite her voluminous skirts.  Lou gulped to quiet the sudden surge of nausea threatening to overwhelm her yet again.
Good, she thought to herself.  He’s moving on.  That’s what I want.  Isn’t it?  
But she couldn’t completely lie to herself. She’d given him back his ring, told him to take his freedom. But inside she’d really hoped he’d wait for her, that he’d see all she was asking for was time, that he’d be there when she’d found her balance and was ready to come back.  Better yet, that he’d grab that ring off the floor and come chasing after her, that he wouldn’t let her run away.  But he hadn’t done any of those things.  He’d just let her go.  He’d said he loved her.  Apparently what he’d loved was his ready access to her body.  And, without that, he was ready to move on. 
“You’re a natural born whore.  You’ll learn to like it soon enough, my dear.  And then, Louise, you’ll make us both a lot of money.”
Wicks words echoed through her brain.  Had they been a prophecy?  Or a curse?
Suddenly, she couldn’t take it anymore.
“I… uh.. I forgot ta do somethin’,” she muttered to Ike.  “I’ll…. I’ll meet ya back at the station.”
He frowned at her as she turned without another word and rushed back to where they’d hitched their horses.  She flung herself onto Lightning’s back and turned his nose down the main street out of town.  She bit her lip to keep from crying as she rushed to escape the pain of her heart as it shattered in her chest.  She tasted blood didn’t care.
“Whoa there,” Jimmy scowled up at her as he jumped out of Lightning’s path.
At the sound of his voice, she pulled back on the horse’s reins, pulling him into a neighing, protesting rear.
“Watch where yer goin’!” Jimmy shouted as he stepped in to grab the bottom of Lightning’s halter and help steady him.  “Ya tryin’ ta kill yerself or me?  Cause yer most likely goin’ ta kill yer horse ya keep up at this rate!”
“Sorry, Jimmy,” she muttered as she slid off Lightning’s back.  Leaving the horse in his hands, she wandered over to the woodpile and sat down, slumped really, on one of the upended logs. 
Jimmy watched her for a moment as she rested her chin glumly in one hand and looked off into nowhere.  Sighing, he shook his head and tied Lightning to the corral fence and returned to his wood chopping, leaving Lou to her silent contemplations.  He had enough on his own mind to deal with her drama right now.
“Yer grievin’ that church lady you was courtin’, ain’t ya? Alice, right?” Lou finally said.
Jimmy lowered the ax and looked over at her.  She wasn’t looking at him, instead watching her own feet as they dug a trench in the dirt beneath them. 
“Really ain’t much ta talk ‘bout,” he said finally.
“She was special. You probably won’t never forget her,” Lou said slowly, as if she were thinking things through as she said them.  Looking up at him with hope brimming in her eyes, she added, “But… but there’ll be others.” 
The statement ended up sounding more like a question to Jimmy’s ears.
“Is that what you say about the Kid? There’ll be others?” he asked.
“I try to.”
“Do you believe it?”
“Sometimes…..” Lou shrugged as the word trailed off into silence.  Her gaze returned to the distance horizon.  “Sometimes love don’t always make sense.
“Love don’t never make sense, if you ask me,” Jimmy grunted, hefting the ax and swinging it down on the log waiting to be chopped.
Silence reigned for the next few minutes as both became lost in their thoughts.  The rhythmic sound of Jimmy’s grunts as he swung the ax and the thump of it hitting wood, the crack of the wood splitting into pieces, soothed some of the pain in Lou’s soul and provided relief for the angry grief in his.
Finally, Jimmy set the ax aside and began to stack the pieces of scattered chopped wood along the back wall of the bunkhouse.
“You wanna tell me ‘bout it?” he asked, continuing to work.
She looked at him for a long moment before lowering her gaze to her now entwined hands, the knuckles turning white as the fingers suddenly tightened against each other.
“Kid and I…. we’re through.”
“Yup,” Jimmy grunted.  “We sorta picked up on that one.  What happened?”
“I… I wasn’t ready for marriage I guess,” she said quietly.
“Marriage?!” That shocked Jimmy into inaction.  Moving to Lou’s side, he grabbed another unchopped log, upended it and sat down next to her.  “Did the Kid actually propose?  And ya turned him down?”
“No,” she said even more quietly.  Should she tell him? she wondered.  The last time she’d tried to confide in Jimmy he’d brutally turned on her, using something beautiful to insinuate something… awful.  Of course, he’d been hurting awful bad at the time, too, over that woman who’d run in front of his bullet in the middle of a gunfight.  She’d nursed the hurt from his betrayal for weeks afterward.  On the other hand, he’d trusted her enough to tell her about Alice, when he hadn’t said a word to anyone else.  Of course, as volatile as Jimmy was, he might get mad that he’d opened up to her so much and she’d stayed quiet about something so big in her own life. “I didn’t… turn him down.”
What the hell? she mentally shrugged.  It wasn’t like she had much to lose anymore.  “We…. we got married, Jimmy.  During that trip ta Red Fern.  But… things just didn’t work out.”  How to explain to him that she’d been too scared to let go of her disguise and live life as a woman?  “I… I needed time ta adjust…. and he… he wanted us ta be any normal couple.  I ain’t never gonna be ‘normal’, Jimmy.”  The last ended on a near wail.  Even she wasn’t sure how much of what she’d say was fact and how much was her deepest, darkest fear.
“Course not,” Jimmy grunted in agreement.  “Not the feller in the bunkhouse with the funny name.” 
“I told him ta forget it,” she said, straightening.  “No one knew, ‘cept the witnesses.  And they ain’t likely ta ever see us again.  We never filed the certificate at the county courthouse.  So it ain’t really legal, now is it?”
“Why?!” Jimmy asked, still reeling in shock at the news which explained so much about the last few weeks.  “You two always worked out every argument you had.  You couldn’t get this one figured out, too?”
Suddenly, Lou crumpled, her face twisting in pain as tears started leaking from the corners of her eyes. Jimmy shifted in alarm, looking around to make sure no one else was around, or in search of help.  Even he wasn’t quite sure which.
“I can’t stay ma…. marr…. married to a man what don’t trust me!” she gasped out between hitched breaths as she fought back the sobs crowding her chest. 
Jimmy, unable to stand her pain any longer, pulled her into a tight embrace. 
“What foolishness are you talkin’?” he asked as he awkwardly patted her back.  “Ain’t a one of us wouldn’t trust you with his life!”
And then the whole story began to spill out…. the reason for their hidden, hurried marriage, her determination not to let it change anything about the life she’d worked so hard to build, Kid’s desperate desire to be a ‘real’ husband and the mistaken assumption he’d made that had spelled the end for them.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” Lou said, letting the warmth of Jimmy’s arms calm her some.  “I couldn’t believe a man who said he loved me would think I’d do somethin’ like kill my own baby?”  Pulling out of Jimmy’s embrace, she straightened up, surreptitiously wiping at her eyes. 
“Don’t mean he don’t love you,” Jimmy said slowly, trying to frame his words with care.  “Maybe… maybe it just means he understands how much your…. your freedom, I guess… means ta you and was afraid of what it might push you to do.”
Lou just shook her head and leapt to her feet, refusing to accept Jimmy’s explanation. Somewhere deep inside her, in the part of her that felt her heart, maybe even more than that, still somehow belonged to Kid, Jimmy’s words made sense.  But she couldn’t bring herself to let Kid off the hook so easily.  Not after what he’d suggested.  Not after what he’d said!
“I don’t even know where he’d get an idea like that in the first place,” Lou said. “If I were carryin’ he’d be the first one I’da told.”
“Well, it ain’t like ya ain’t been showin’ a lot of the symptoms lately.”
“What…. what are you talkin’ ‘bout?!”  A note of suspicion and fear crept into her voice.
“I watched my Ma carry several babes,” Jimmy shrugged.  “Some lived, some didn’t.  But some things were the same regardless.  She’d get short-tempered, sick to her stomach over certain foods, didn’t have her courses, not that I was s’posed ta know ‘bout that part,” Jimmy grinned like the unrepentant little boy he’d been.  “And she’d start… well… fillin’ out.”  He gestured with his hands to indicate what he meant.
Lou looked down at her own chest, which she’d stopped binding unless she was on a run or going into town.  Right now she wore the bindings and as she looked at her own chest realized they were a lot more uncomfortable, and less effective, than she remembered.
As her mind ran over the way she’d felt that morning when wrapping the bindings in place, her lost breakfast, her lost temper, oh, so often lately, her face whitened and she practically fell back down onto her log seat.
“You don’t think…..”
Jimmy nodded. 
“I think ya ought ta at least check with a doctor,” he said.  “If ya are, I guarantee the Kid’ll want ta be there with ya.”
“But… but he’s already moved on,” Lou gasped, thinking about what she’d seen that morning in town. 
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Jimmy said darkly, obviously thinking of what he’d willing give or do for just one more chance with Alice.  “A man don’t forget love that fast.  No matter how things look.”
Lou reached out and grabbed his hand in hers, holding on tightly.
Lou’s footsteps slowed as she neared the bunkhouse.  She needed to talk to Kid, tell him what she now suspected was the truth.  See if there was still a chance to work things out.  Apologize for the way she’d treated him.

“Come on, Kid!  We saw the way you were lookin’ at her.”  Cody’s voice wafted out through the window as she neared the building. “Your eyes were bigger than a lovesick calf!”
“Yer crazy, Cody,” responded Kid’s distinctive voice, that could still make her stomach leap in excitement. “I was helpin’ her out, that’s all.”
“It looked like more than helpin’ goin’ on ta me,” Noah’s deeper tones reached her ears as she stepped up onto the porch.
“So, what’s this new schoolteacher’s name, anyhow?” Buck chimed in.
“Samantha,” Kid said after a short, pregnant pause.
The tone of his voice stopped her in her tracks.  Her fists clenched tight at the sound of the other boys’ sniggering laughter.
“See!  Ya can’t even say her name without blushin’!” Cody crowed, putting her worst fears into words.
“Yeah,” Noah said. “Maybe ya oughta give yerself some… time ta get over things.”
Lou raised one hand to press it flat against the door. Please, she thought.  Oh, please say you agree.  Deny what they’re saying about you and… and her.
That’s not what she heard, though.
“Get over what? You mean Lou?” Kid asked. “How long am I supposed ta brood over somethin’ that wasn’t meant ta be?”
Lou’s other hand crept down to cover her lower belly at his words.  She was so caught up in their meaning, she didn’t notice his voice getting louder as he neared the other side of the door.
“Lou’s sweet.  She’s….. good hearted. But it just didn’t work out.  Maybe it never coulda worked out, the way we live and work together,” Kid finished, wrenching the door open and stepping through the doorway, running right into Lou.
They both paused for a moment that felt like a millennium, staring deeply into the other’s eyes.  Lou fought every instinct she had not to reach up and caress his cheek as she’d been accustomed to.  Oh, how she missed him with every fiber of her being.  But his last words continued to echo in her brain and as their meaning broke through the shock of being this close to him again she felt the pain beginning to pound at the back of her temple.
Teaspoon’s strident voice shattered the silent tableau. 
Jerking away from Kid, Lou hurried to the edge of the porch and jumped to the ground.  Not even she was sure if she was in a hurry to respond to Teaspoon’s call or to get away from Kid.
“Yeah, Teaspoon?  What is it?” she called, trying to keep the incipient tears out of her voice.  Lord, she hated being this weak!
“I got a special run for ya, Lou. There’s a shipment of bonds and bank drafts intended fer Russell, Majors and Waddell comin’ in from San Francisco,” Teaspoon explained, walking toward her from the corral.  “But we got ta pick it up at Willow Spring tomorrow mornin’. So you best put some miles behind ya ‘fore sundown.”  He paused a moment, then added, “And.. I’m… sendin’ Jimmy.”
Lou narrowed her eyes, taking the addition as an insult because it was easier than dealing with her own emotional turmoil.  She hardened her voice as she said, “I can handle it.”
“I didn’t say ya couldn’t,” Teaspoon says, stepping back as she pushed past him toward the corral, holding up both hands in a peace gesture. “I just want a second gun on this one, is all.”
Lou grunted as she continued on to the tack room to get the gear she’d just put away a short time earlier and saddle up Lightning for the second time that morning.
“This looks like a good place ta stop fer the night,” Jimmy said, breaking the silence that had ridden with them all the way from Sweetwater.  “It’s gettin’ dark and I don’t think we can go much further without riskin’ the horses.”
Lou didn’t say anything, just pulled her horse up and dismounted.  She hadn’t said a word since they’d left the station.  Jimmy was starting to get really worried.  He didn’t know what had happened between her and Kid in front of the bunkhouse.  But he’d seen how her face had gone sheet white.  Whatever it was had definitely overset her on a day when she was already dealing with a pretty heavy shock.
The silence continued as they cooled off the horses and hobbled them for the night, tying two legs together so they’d be free to roam and graze but couldn’t run away.  And it stayed with them as they started the fire, laid out their bedrolls and got supper started.
Finally, Jimmy dished out some beans on Lou’s plate and handed it to her.  “Here, you better eat somethin’,” he muttered.  “You ain’t had but a nibble all day.”
Lou took the plate unenthusiastically and began pushing the beans around with her spoon.  The second she lifted it to her mouth though, she turned green around the gills, grimaced and set the spoon back on the plate.
“Here,” she muttered.  “You eat it. I…. I think I’ll just turn in.”
“Lou, that ain’t smart,” Jimmy chided.  “If yer really expectin’, ya gotta feed the baby, even if you don’t wanna eat.”  Turning, he dug into the saddlebags next to him.  He pulled out a cloth wrapped package and quickly opened it up to reveal a couple biscuits.  “Rachel gave these to me fer our breakfast.  My Ma used ta say, even when she couldn’t eat nothin’ else, at least plain bread would stay down.”
Lou eyed the biscuit Jimmy was holding out to her warily.  Eventually she took it and lifted t to her mouth, pausing to let her nose catch the scent.  When her stomach didn’t protest, she slowly began nibbling.
Still nibbling on the biscuit, she lay back on the bedroll, turning her back on Jimmy and pulling the blanket over her.
The painful hitches and exhalations of someone sobbing against their will broke through his troubled slumber.  Rolling over, Jimmy looked across the campsite to Lou’s bedroll.  Sure enough he could see it shaking as she sought to fight the grief.
“You alright Lou?”
Lou froze, one hand surreptitiously wiping at the tears on her face. 
“Yeah,” she ground out in a gravelly hoarse whisper.
“Wanna tell me ‘bout it?” he asked, not sure he wanted her to, but knowing from his sisters that she really needed to talk to someone.
She shook her head wildly without turning over to face him.
“Come on, Lou,” Jimmy cajoled.  “Ya know ya can tell me anythin’.  I’m a good listener.  Or so I’ve been told.  And I won’t go spillin’ yer secrets.”
“I… I can’t,” she gasped. 
“It ain’t gonna hurt any less keepin’ it all bottled up inside like that.  Maybe… maybe it’ll hurt a bit less if shared?”
“Like ya shared how ya felt ‘bout Alice with us?” she practically sneered.
He winced.  She had him there.
“It’s… it’s different fer gals,” he tried.  “My sisters had ta share ever’thin’.  They’re good at talkin’ about stuff, figurin’ it out.  Why do ya think I told ya ‘bout Alice?  Guys…. they just wanna be left alone ta try ta ferget.”
“Then just leave me alone!” she snapped.
“Problem is, Lou, fer all yer playactin’, ya ain’t a guy.  Not down deep inside where it really matters.”
“Well, I’m certainly not a woman!”  The angry statement hovered in the air between them, followed closely by a much quieter, more pained, “Leastwise, not woman enough fer Kid.”
“What happened, Lou?”
“He…. he’s over me,” she said quietly.  “He told the others…. we was never meant ta be.”
Jimmy sighed, wishing Kid were there right then so he could punch him in the nose, maybe knock a little sense back into him.  “The Kid was just talkin’, that’s all.  Fellers just seem ta talk a lot. It don’t mean anythin’, believe me.”
“Yeah, that or I didn’t mean nothin’ ta him,” she spat bitterly.  “Apparently nothin’ that happened between the two of us did.  I was just a convenient, warm body ta him.”  Just like Wicks told me would happen, she thought.  Much as she’d seen with her parents, where the only value her mother had had to her father was as a bedmate and broodmare.
“That ain’t what I meant.”
“I know,” Lou sighed apologetically.  “It’s just that… when the Kid and I went our own separate ways it was more my idea than his. And… now he’s courtin’ that new teacher lady…. and… and.. he’s free ta do what he wants. It just…. it hurts seein’ him fall for another woman.  Especially now,” she suddenly sobbed, losing the control she’d fought so hard for.  “He’s probably thinkin’ about her right now.  Whiles all I can do is think ‘bout him!”
“No, Lou! That’s not true. The fool ain’t thinkin’ nothin’ at all,” Jimmy said, trying to comfort her, yet shocked to hear Kid was actively courting someone else while still married to Lou.  Jimmy strangled the urge to get up, race back to Sweetwater and strangle Kid.  “Go to sleep,” he said softly, reaching across the distance between them to comfortingly pat Lou’s shoulder.  She covered his hand with one of hers in gratitude and closed her eyes, slowing falling into a much needed rest.
“Here, you take this,” Lou said waspishly, handing over a chunk of cheese and some beef jerky.  They were meant for breakfast, but “I just can’t stomach them.  Maybe I’ll be able ta find somethin’ in town.”
Jimmy sighed and took the food back. 
“Would ya at least take my biscuit?” he practically begged.  He’d deliberately left it uneaten, afraid of exactly this happening. 
Lou nodded, accepting the biscuit as she turned to Lightning.  Swinging up into the saddle, she grunted, “Let’s get this thing over with.”
Jimmy nodded and they turned their horses toward Willow Springs, Lou nibbling slowly on the biscuit, her stomach still unsettled.
Jimmy tensed as the clerk announced the shipment hadn’t arrived yet.  Lou’d been pricklier than a scared porcupine all day.  She hadn’t slept well, was still sick to her stomach and now hungry enough to eat a horse, to boot.  As expected, she blew up.
“So yer sayin’ we have ta spend the night here?”
“Lou, the bank drafts were delayed. They should be here tomorrow.  There’s nothing more I can tell you,” the clerk said placatingly. 
“Oh, that’s just great!” Lou exclaimed in anger, pounding on the counter in emphasis before stomping out of the office.
“What’s the matter with him?”
Jimmy winced as the door slammed shut behind her.  Looking at the beleaguered clerk who’d never seen Lou in such a fit, he sought a quick explanation. 
“Oh, toothache,” he shrugged, before following her outside.
She was leaning back against the wall a couple stores down, arms crossed over her chest.  When Jimmy reached her, she sighed.
“Everything.  Just everythin’ seems ta be goin’ wrong.”
“Oh, come on, Lou.  I’d say this is a stroke of good fortune,” Jimmy laughed.  “Got the day off. All to ourselves.  Beautiful sky, bright sun.  In Willow Springs.”
Lou just looked at him, not even cracking a smile.
“Seriously, Lou, this could be the answer ta yer dilemma.”
“What’re ya talkin’ ‘bout, Jimmy?” she asked, straightening up and lowering her hands to her sides.
“Willow Springs… it’s big enough fer you ta disappear fer awhile… and go see some folks about things ya needs ta take care of.  If ya get my drift.”
Lou started nodding slowly.  Yes, that just might work.  But…. “I can’t go like this,” she said, indicated her clothing.  “Walk in dressed as Lou, the Express Rider, and say,” she lowered her voice to a barely audible hiss, “I think I’m in the family way!”
Jimmy smiled as he grabbed her elbow and started dragging her down the boardwalk.  “We can fix that,” he said.  “First get some rooms at the hotel, tell ‘em ya ain’t feelin’ well cause of a toothache.  ‘Lou’ can take a nap with a bottle of ‘medicine’ and Louise can come out ta take care of business.  While yer doin’ that, I’ll stop by the mercantile a couple streets over.  Saw they had some ready made clothes, and get ya somethin’ more appropriate ta wear.”
She looked at him skeptically. 
“It’ll be easy,” he promised.  “Long as you do yer part.  Stopping outside the hotel, he pushed her toward the door.  “Go on, get rooms.  I’ll meet ya at the livery in an hour.”
“How’d ya get this without lettin’ on?” Lou asked suspiciously, holding up the pretty dark blue dress Jimmy’d bought for her, trimmed with handmade white lace.
He shrugged.  “First of all, it’s a store we never go to when we’re here, so none of  ‘em knew me,” he said.  “Go on,” he added, pushing her toward the nearest stall.  “Get changed.” 
Once she was inside and he could hear the sounds of her changing clothes, he continued.  “I just told ‘em my wife was expectin’ and couldn’t fit none of her clothes no more.  Said she wouldn’t come ta town like that and made me buy her somethin’ new.  They was real sympathetic.  Even gave me some extra material so’s ya can let the skirt out later on, when ya…. well, ya know…. when ya….”
“Get fat?” she asked sarcastically, hands on her hips as she stepped out of the stall.
“Damn!” Jimmy whistled.  “Louise just gets prettier and prettier every time I see her.”
“Oh stop it,” she grumbled, punching him in the arm as she passed him.  “You see me everyday.”
He winced, rubbing his arm in pain as he followed her.  “Well, yeah, but that ain’t Louise.  That’s Lou.  It… .it just ain’t the same.”
Lou looked up at him with a question on her face.
“Don’t ask me why not, but it ain’t,” he shrugged.  “You ready?”
She tugged a few more pieces of hay over the boys’ clothes she’d just hidden in Lightning’s stall, then straightened her skirts and breathed deeply.  “As ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.”
“Then come on,” Jimmy said, reaching out to grab her hand and tuck it into his arm at the elbow.
She looked up at him in surprise at the gentlemanly action.
“Hey, my momma raised me ta treat a lady right,” he smiled down at her.
She blushed and looked down at the black toes of the boots he’d also bought her as they stepped out into the early evening air.  She took long, deep breaths, trying to calm her nerves as she followed Jimmy’s lead down the boardwalk, toward the center of town.  She hadn’t been here near as often as Jimmy and rarely explored beyond the hotel where Express riders put up for the night when they had to stay here.  But Jimmy apparently knew exactly where he was headed and the closer to downtown they got the harder it was for her to breathe.  It felt like someone was tightening a vice around her lungs with each step she took.
“Hey!” she yelled as she tripped over something.  Looking down, she saw a man dressed in some silly, polka dotted outfit, his face covered with white goop and giant eyes and a smiling caricature of a mouth painted on.  He held up a flyer which she took without really looking at it, then waved and gamboled gleefully on down the street which she suddenly noticed was filled with odd people, one man swallowing sticks of fire, another dressed as a woman, someone else walking along on a pair of outrageously tall stilts.
“Here we are,” Jimmy said, drawing her attention back to their location. 
She looked up and saw the sign hanging out over the boardwalk proclaiming the door in front of them the entrance to Dr. Nicholas Hicks’ office.  She clamped down on Jimmy’s arm in sudden agitation, missing his wince of pain at her grasp.
“It’ll be alright,” he said, patting her hand in an effort to get her to release him. “You’ll see.  I’ll be with ya the whole way.”
She nodded and he pushed the door open for her, motioning for her to go in first.  Stepping over the doorstep, she tripped over the skirts she wasn’t used to wearing and grimaced at the stumble.
“Can I help you?”
A tall man with grey hair growing wildly in every direction, a round, reddened nose and sharp chin came walking out of the back room at the sound of the tinkling bells they’d set off when Jimmy opened the door.
Lou froze where she stood, unable to speak.  Jimmy looked down at her and sighed.
“Uh… my… Lou… Louise.. we think she’s expectin’,” Jimmy stumbled through an explanation.
“Ah, well, the best sorts of cases in my experience,” the man said, pushing a pair of wire rimmed spectacles higher on his nose.  “Come right this way and we’ll find out if you’re right.”
They followed him down a short hall to a small room with only a thin cot  in it and some cupboards and a counter on the other side.
Doctor Hicks pointed at the bed and said, “Mrs… uh…”
Jimmy looked down at Lou when she still didn’t respond, her face white as a sheet. “Hickok,” he finally said, answering the doctor’s unspoken question.  “The name’s James Butler Hickok.”
“Mrs. Hickok, we’ll leave you alone for a moment so you can take off your dress for the examination. You can leave on your chemise if you wish, but I will need you to remove the pantalettes,” Dr. Hicks said, smiling gently at the obviously terrified young woman.  “This won’t hurt a bit,” he promised.
“Jimmy…” she said, turning to look up at the man she clung to.  “Can… can Jimmy stay?  For the exam, I mean?”
“Why, of course.  Now, you just get changed, leave your clothes on the hooks here,” he pointed to the back of the door.  “We’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Will you be alright, Lou?” Jimmy asked, worried by the slightly panicked expression on her face.  He could feel her breathing accelerating, become rapid and shallow in a dangerous way.
Hearing the worry in his voice, Lou looked up and met his concerned eyes.  In them she saw something she’d never thought she’d see, a weak woman needing a strong man to protect her from a scary situation.
No!  her mind screamed at her. No!  This is what you fought so hard NOT to be!  Do not fall down this hole!  There’s no coming back.
Straightening her shoulders, she forcibly took a deep breath and relaxed all her muscles.
“I’ll be fine, Jimmy.  You go on out with the Doc,” she said quietly in a calm, serene voice.
“Well, you two were right,” the doctors said, standing up from the examination and gently lowering the blanket back over her legs.  “You are most definitely expecting.  Congratulations!”
He turned to Jimmy and held out his hand.  Jimmy, startled, looked down at the hand and, for the first time, realized the Doc thought he was the husband, he was the father.  “Uh,” he stumbled, holding out a surprised hand to accept the congratulatory shake, “Thanks?” 
The response came out more a question than a statement.
Lou sat up and pushed herself back against the wall, the blanket tucked carefully around her legs to protect her modesty.
“So, now what, Doc?” she asked. 
“Well, first you get dressed and this handsome husband of yours takes you out for a special meal at the hotel restaurant, to celebrate,” the doctor smiled at first Lou and then Jimmy.  “Then, you take it easy for the next few months.  Based on what you told me and the exam I’d say this young one will be making his or her entrance sometime around October or November.”
“Uh, Doc,” Jimmy asked cautiously, “we rode to town, ain’t got a buckboard or nothin’.  Will…. Is it alright fer her ta ride?”
“As long as you take it easy, for the next month or two, sure,” Hicks said.  “But as soon as you start showing you must stop all forms of exercise until the baby arrives.  And even now you should avoid hard riding, or anything else that raises your blood pressure.  Undue excitement of any sort has been known to dislodge a child that hasn’t taken proper root.”
He frowned as he looked down at Lou, still sitting on the bed, looking almost as much a child as an adult.  He nodded at her shortened hair, “I’m guessing from your hair, ma’am, that you’ve been sick fairly recently.  That makes it more important than ever that you not cut your hair.  It opens you up to all sorts of infections that can hurt your baby.  And, given your size, I’d suggest Mr. Hickok here be the one to get anything from the top shelf for you.  Once you start showing, you shouldn’t even raise your arms above your head.  It could wrap the umbilical cord around the baby’s neck.”
“But…. but how can I do my work-” Lou started to protest.
“Don’t worry about it now, Lou,” Jimmy smiled down at her warningly.  “We’ll deal with that when we get home.  For now, why don’t we go get something to eat?”
“But not too much,” the doctor warned.  “It can be dangerous for an expecting mother to eat too much.  The child can grow too large for her and not be able to make it down the birth canal.  You must be very careful to limit how much you eat for the next few months.”
Lou looked down at the food on her plate.  For once she was hungry and her stomach was cooperating with her.  But suddenly she was afraid to eat what she had for fear she’d make the baby grow too big.
Jimmy placed a hand on her arm and said softly, “Don’t worry ‘bout it.  My Ma always ate like a horse once she got past the mornin’ sickness.  Never seemed ta make no difference with the babies.”
“You ever think about the future?” Lou asked as she brought a forkful of stew to her mouth. “Where you’ll be five years from now?  Ten? Where we’ll all be?”  She took the bite and chewed vigorously, looking to Jimmy for his answer.
“No,” Jimmy said thoughtfully.  “No, I can’t say that I do.”
“Seems like that’s all I’m thinkin’ ‘bout right now,” she said softly, a sense of wonder overlying the fear of the future in her voice.  “This baby…. he’s goin’ ta change ever’thin’, I just know it.”
“I don’t blame ya,” Jimmy smiled at her.  “And Kid’s gonna be the proudest pappy on the planet when he finds out.”
Lou looks away and says quietly, “I don’t know’s I’m goin’ ta tell him.”
“It’s his child, Lou,” Jimmy said seriously.  “He’s got a right ta know.”
“You know the Kid, Jimmy,” she said urgently, leaning in close.  “He’ll make this marriage real, stay with me ‘cause of this baby.  I don’t want no man what’s only with me ‘cause he has ta be.  Things were over ‘tween us before this.  I’m not so sure that’s changed.”
“Really, Lou?” Jimmy asked.  “Were they really over?”
“Over enough,” she muttered.
“Lou,” Jimmy said, suddenly worried about what she might do, “promise me somethin’?”
“What, Jimmy?”
“Promise me ye’ll give Kid at least one more chance when ya get back?”
She opened her mouth to protest.
“Ya don’t gotta tell him ‘bout the baby right away,” he said quickly, holding up his hands to forestall her words.  “Just…. give it one more try.  For the baby’s sake.  He, or she, deserves ta know his father.  Deserves the kind of childhood none of us really had, growin’ up in a home with two parents what love him and love each other.  Safe.  Secure.  Loved.”
Lou closed her mouth as she thought about the picture Jimmy was drawing.  Then she thought about what it would be like on her own, raising a child out of wedlock, or as a supposed widow, always fighting to survive, for just a token amount of respect from the people they lived near, or not living near anyone, in constant danger from outlaws because of their solitude.  Slowly, she set down her fork and nodded.
“I’ll give it another chance,” she said softly. 
“Good,” he said, smiling at her proudly.  “Are ya finished?”
She looked at her plate and, to her surprise, discovered she’d cleaned it.  “I… I guess I am.”
“Then why don’t we go see that circus, you know, the one we practically tripped over on our way to the Doc’s?” He grinned his big, infectious grin.  “Who knows, all those clowns and play actors might help ya understand the Kid a bit better.”
Lou laughed, slapping him with her napkin as she stood up to follow him out the door.
“You’re a funny man.  A sweet man,” she said, leaning in to kiss him on the cheek.  “You’ve been a good friend to me, Jimmy Hickok.”
Jimmy wrapped his arm around her waist and slowly guided her out of the restaurant.  Neither of them noticed the tall man sitting by the kitchen, a scar running from his right eye to his chin, his left sleeve pinned up because there was no arm to fill it.  But he noticed them, his eyes narrowing as they turned around and he saw Jimmy’s face in the shimmering candlelight.  Standing, he followed them out the door and down the street.
Lou smiled, relaxed and enjoying herself completely for the first time in days, as Jimmy led her, paraded with her really, down the street.  The sound of a sweet song came from a trumpeter and she laughed as Jimmy paid him to play their favorite, I Dream of Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair.  Teaspoon loved the song better than anything.  He was always singing it, whistling it, humming it.  They’d all picked up on it after awhile.
Jimmy pulled her into his arms and swung her in twirling loops around and around down the middle of the street for the duration of the song and she lost herself in the moment, letting the fears and worries for tomorrow take flight, drifting up into the sky along with the notes of the trumpet.
When the song ended, they continued on their way, marveling at the delights before them, acrobats leaping and twisting in the air, the fire eater swallowing swords fully aflame, the strange animals lounging around for the public to gawk at.
Finally they stopped before a magic show to watch the marvels there and try to figure out how they were done.
“You don’t think it’s really magic, do ya?” Lou asked.
“Naw,” Jimmy shook his head.  “I know it’s tricks.  The fun’s in tryin’ ta figure out how he’s doin’ it.”
Lou laughed and nodded in agreement.
“Do we have a volunteer from the audience?” the magician called out. 
People started looking around to see who would volunteer, some pushed others forward.
“Hey, this is our chance,” Jimmy whispered, pushing her slightly forward.
“Ah ha!  We have a beautiful volunteer,” the magician announced, stepping toward Lou and holding a hand out toward her. 
She stepped back, pressing against Jimmy’s safe warmth, not sure she was ready.
“Come on, Lou. Go on,” Jimmy urged.
Lou laughed. 
“Alright, I will,” she said, stepping forward and taking the magician’s hand, letting him lead her up the stairs to what looked almost like an upright coffin.
He opened the door and gestured for her to enter.  She smiled and did, turning to wave at Jimmy as the magician closed the door.  The sound of a muffled explosion of some sort startled her and she jumped slightly, just as the floor of the box started to lower beneath her. 
Lou squealed slightly in surprise, then covered her hand and laughed at her own foolishness.  Of course, a moveable floor.  And the magician would open the door and, voila!, she would have disappeared.  This was sooo much fun, she thought.  She almost wished she could see Jimmy’s face when the door opened.
She stiffened at an odd sound coming from behind her.   As she tried to turn to see what was going on, a gloved hand suddenly wrapped around her shoulders, pressing an oddly scented cloth to her nose and mouth.
Lou reached up with her free hand, trying to pry him away, scratching and kicking for all she was worth.  But whatever was on the cloth was affecting her, she could feel the edges of her sight…. dimming… the world suddenly going black around her.
Lou groaned as her stomach rebelled, causing her to retch herself to consciousness.  As she slowly tumbled to full wakefulness, she realized she was tied up, hand and foot.  The swaying motion making her sick to her stomach was the result of her lying in the back of a wagon.  The night sounds around her told her they had already long since left the town.
She began to struggle, unsure what had happened or why she was trussed up like a pig on its way to market, but quite sure she needed to get away now.
“Stop your fussing, Mrs. Hickok,” a slow voice from the front of the wagon called out.  “I won’t hurt you.  Though your husband might.  We’ll see.”
The chuckle that followed sent shivers down her spine.  She struggled harder, more determined to get free.
“If you don’t quiet down back there, I’ll have to give you more chloroform,” he warned.
No! she screamed in her head, suddenly stilling. What could a drug like that do to her baby? 
The wagon continued on its way into the dark of night.
“Wakey, wakey,” her captor sounded out in a sing song voice as he grabbed her bound hands and tugged her upright.
“Please,” she said in a rough voice.  “Please, don’t hurt me.”
“That’s all up to your man,” he said smilingly.  Lou saw the gun attached to his horse nearby and her fingers twitched, practically itching to wrap around it and blow him away for threatening her and her child this way.  “And he should be here, soon.  I left him a note, you see.”
Lou didn’t have time to respond, she was too busy trying to stay on her feet as he dragged her out of the back of the wagon and toward a nearby tree with a noose dangling over one branch.  Her scared eyes traced the path of the rope as it looped over the branch and down to where it was tied to the saddle horn of the man’s horse.  The closer she got to it, the more she struggled, desperate to escape.
“Stop it!” he suddenly yelled at her, pulling back and walloping her across the cheek, leaving behind a quickly darkening bruise.  “I don’t want to hurt you.  But I will.  Now stop fighting!”
Lou could feel the throbbing pain from where he’d hit her and her will to fight suddenly drained away.  The doctor’s warnings echoed in her ears.
Undue excitement of any sort has been known to dislodge a child that hasn’t taken proper root.
She let him lead her to the large rock underneath the noose, and stood passively while he lowered the noose around her neck, then walked to his horse and tightened it so she had to stand on her tiptoes to keep it from digging in and cutting off her air.  All the while she prayed God, and Jimmy, would keep her child safe.
It wasn’t long before she heard the familiar pounding of hooves presaging the quick arrival of a rider.  As the staccato sound neared and slowed, Hopkins spoke.
“I appreciate you’re punctuality.  Your lady friend and I were getting chilled.”
“You alright, Lou?” Jimmy called out, ignoring the other man for the moment.
Lou kept her eyes on her feet, not looking up, afraid with all her heart of what was going to happen.  If Jimmy saved her child, he might not survive.  But if he didn’t, she and her baby wouldn’t live. Her captor hadn’t exactly explained his plan, but it wasn’t hard to deduce.
“Yeah,” she said.
“Oh, she’s fine now.  But, as you can see, her situation is somewhat…. tenuous,” he said.
“Why the hell you doing this?” Jimmy demanded.
“Just returning the favor you did me.”
Lou heard the exasperation in Jimmy’s voice when he said, “It was a fair fight, Hopkins.”
“Gunfighting was my trade.  And you took that away from me,” Hopkins indicated his missing arm. “You call that fair?!”
The argument continued, but Lou’s concentration wandered.  She wondered what Kid was doing right now.  Would he even care if Jimmy chose his own survival over hers?   Would Kid ever find out about the babe in her womb?  Suddenly their words pierced her conscious again.
“By the time you reach her, she’ll hang,” Hopkins laid out the choice in bald words that never took into account her condition, a condition he knew nothing of.  Nor would he have cared about, from what she could tell. “Or, you can shoot the horse. If you do that, I’ll have time enough to drop you, sure.  It’s your choice.”
Her eyes flew to Jimmy’s, wondering what choice he’d make.  The calm love she saw there reassured her. He nodded slightly.  He’d watch out for her and her child, to the death if necessary.  The conundrum tore what was left of her heart in two.
“Cut her loose,” Jimmy demanded. “I’ll face ya with no guns.”
“Ah, that wouldn’t be sporting.”
Lou could hear the creak of Jimmy climbing off his horse, the slap as he unbuckled his gunbelt and the thud as his pearl handled Navy Colt revolver hit the dirt.
“I ain’t doin’ it.”
“Pick it up!” Hopkins demanded.
Lou glanced at Jimmy through her eyelashes, afraid to move because it might distract him but desperate to see what was going on.
“I ain’t gonna draw on ya, Hopkins. I just want the lady,” Jimmy said.
“Strap on your gun! Do it, Hickok!”
“Yer gonna have ta shoot me!”
Oh, when would this torture end? she wondered.  She just wanted to go home with those she loved, to rest and relax, to enjoy the knowledge of her coming child, to fix things with Kid, to live the life she’d dreamed of since she could remember.  She felt her stomach cramping in protest at the tension eating into her from the two men.
“Alright!  My gunfire’ll spook this horse and you’ll both die.”
It all ended in seconds.  She heard the sound of Jimmy’s clothes rustling, and the bang of his gun as it went off, then she was falling.  Her head and shoulder hit the ground first, causing stars to sparkle across her vision.
“Ow!” she grunted.
Before she had time to pull the rope off over her head and see if there were any way she could help, two more gunshots followed and she could hear Hopkins’ body hit the ground and Jimmy’s footsteps as he raced to her side.
“Lou, you alright?” he gasped as he pulled her tight into his embrace.  “Oh, God, Lou, I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.”
The cramping and clenching in her belly increased.  For a moment she wondered why.  The tension was over.  She and her baby were safe.  Then it hit her.

“My baby!” she cried as the first gush of blood flooded the ground beneath her.

Author's Note: This story, the entire series, wouldn't be half of what it is if it weren't for the beta work of two wonderful TYR ladies, JennaLynn and CindyPio.  I can't thank you two enough for helping me get my muse back.  Sometimes she came kicking and screaming, but you never gave up on me and that means the world!

The Whole Truth: Self Evident

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Whole Truth: Misunderstandings

Author's Note: This story falls during the Season 2 episodes from Requiem for a Hero to Daisy, but takes place mostly during Daisy.  It is a sequel to What's Hidden..
            Lou leaned forward over the horse’s neck, stretching her face into the wind kicked up by their rapid progress across the hard prairie soil.  The pounding of the animal’s hooves soothed the ache that threatened to rip her heart out of her chest.  Really, she’d already done that all on her own.  She should’ve known better, known she wasn’t destined for a traditional life as wife and mother and never tried to reach for the forbidden.  It was all her own damned fault.  She pressed her face into the soft hide of her mount to wipe away the tears once more leaking down her cheeks.
            No matter how hard she thought over the last few months, she could never quite place just when or where things went wrong.  It had been more of a gradual slide down a very slippery slope.
            At first, things had been blissful, all she could have ever asked out of marriage.  He’d been loving, attentive, considerate.  Christmas had come and gone in a haze of pleasure.  It had been all walks in the moonlight and stolen kisses beneath the stars.  Had been.
            But then, the loving became claustrophobic jealousy. The attention drew too much notice from others. What had been considerate was suddenly over-protective.  He struggled to accept the continued secrecy of their relationship, their marriage, even from their family.  He wanted to be a ‘normal’ couple, to show his appreciation in public, to treat her like a woman.  She’d tried to explain to him, so many times, why she needed time, space to get used to this huge change in her life. Not to mention why she couldn’t be ‘normal’. But it never seemed to come out right and the explanations began turning into fights.
The words of their increasingly frequent disagreements slithered through her brain yet again.
            “You ain’t hidin’ a couple other husbands on me, are ya, Lou?” he’d asked half suspiciously, half jokingly after Barnett’s failed wedding.
            It wasn’t long after that he’d started harping on her about doing what was proper, the way they’d been brought up.  
“If we don’t do things to make things proper, something terrible could happen, and that scares me.”
He’d started pushing her to go public, at least with their family at the station.  Said he was tired of hiding his feelings all the time.  It wasn’t like the others didn’t already know the two of them were a couple.
Then, he was trying to tell her what to do.
“I’m taking this run!  The Comanche are acting up.  It ain’t safe.”
When she’d argued, he’d reminded her of the vows she’d made in that meadow.
“Why is it so hard for you to understand that I am the same person I was before you and I… you and I started… ridin’ double.”
“Because yer not the same person to me, Lou. Yer my wife,” he’d hissed.  “Damn it, Lou, it’s my job ta protect ya now!”
Eventually she’d lost her temper with him.  
“Why don’t ya stop bein’ my mama and stick ta bein’ my man?” she’d demanded as she took off for the run.
            They’d always managed to get back on track.  Until… well, until he’d thought she was expecting.  That had been the beginning of the end.
”Three weeks earlier….
“Why cain’t ya just give me some room ta breath?” Lou practically screeched, pushing past Kid out through the open bunkhouse door.  “All of ya, just leave me alone!”  
Kid watched her, bewildered, as she stomped off toward the barn, still muttering under her breath.
“Looks like I just missed Hurricane Lou,” Cody teased as he walked up to the bunkhouse steps, looking back over his shoulder repeatedly at the annoyed woman he’d just passed.  “What’s got her dander up this time?”
“I dunno,” Jimmy said, just as flummoxed as Kid.  “We was just jokin’ around, and she flew off the handle like we was tryin’ ta murder her.”
            “Sounds like her woman’s time to me,” Buck murmured from his bunk at the back of the bunkhouse.  “’Cept the time’s all wrong.  That’s only s’posed ta be once a month and this seems ta be all the time now.”
            Kid blanched.  No, it couldn’t be, he thought.  They’d been so careful.  He knew they needed to take things slow and he knew he’d been pushing her probably faster than he should’ve.  But this would take all choices away from them, from her  And it would be his fault.  He had to fix things.  But, how?  Without a word, he jumped off Lou’s bunk where he’d been sitting and strode, practically ran, out of the bunkhouse.  Unlike his errant wife, he headed toward Rachel’s place.
            “I just don’t know what ta do,” he said, resting his chin on his hands, his elbows on his knees.  He never felt quite comfortable on Rachel’s, well Emma’s actually, pretty white settee.  And the current topic of conversation certainly wasn’t designed to put him at ease.  He sat perched on the edge of the couch as if ready to take flight at any moment.
            Rachel hid a smile behind her tea cup as she raised it to take a sip.  She didn’t say anything for a moment, then decided to take pity on the bewildered and worried young man.
            “I think ya need ta give her the space she’s askin’ for,” Rachel said quietly.  “If it’s true, changes’ll come fast enough without ya pushin’ them on her.  Let her deal with them in her own time and her own way, Kid.  Just be ready ta help her when she needs it.”
            “Are ya sure?” he asked plaintively.  
Rachel nodded and patted his shoulder reassuringly.  “And, Lord knows, I don’t have to ask if you’re ready to do the right thing by her.”
            It was hard but he was determined to follow Rachel’s advice. He didn’t say a word as Lou rode off the next morning.  She should only be gone for the day, back in her own bunk that night.  Although the thought of her riding hard in her condition worried him, he figured she’d probably be alright.
            By supper she still wasn’t back.  Unable to eat, he settled in on the front porch of the bunkhouse, his eyes glued to the horizon for any sight of her.
            “Here, ye’ll need some coffee if yer gonna keep vigil, son.”
            Startled, Kid looked over his shoulder to see Teaspoon standing with a tin cup of coffee outstretched in one hand.  At Kid’s look Teaspoon nodded and waved the cup his direction again.  He could see the steam wafting up from the dark, fragrant liquid even as the savory smell reached his twitching nostrils.  Gratefully, Kid accepted the offering.
            He took the cup and lifted it to his lips, blowing gently to cool the still hot beverage before sipping at it.  Already his thoughts and his eyes had returned to the horizon and his missing wife.
            “She’ll be fine, Kid,” Teaspoon said gently.  “Ain’t nothin’ special ‘bout this run.  Probably just a sick or missin’ rider at the next station made them keep her fer an extra run or somethin’.”
            “Probably,” Kid murmured in agreement.  But the roiling in his gut disagreed mightily.  So intent was he on keeping watch he never noticed Teaspoon’s heavy sigh or when the older man finally gave up and sought out his own bed.
            He sat there through the long night, worrying about what had happened.  He sat there through breakfast and on into the morning.  Until Teaspoon finally had enough.
            “Kid, I don’t pay ya ta watch the horizon.  There’s stock needs feedin’.  Now get to it!”
            Kid reluctantly pulled his stiffened body up off the bench he’d been sitting on and headed toward the barn and his daily chores.  But his eyes continued to stray toward the horizon at every possible chance.
            “That does it,” he muttered angrily to himself as Rachel rang the lunch bell.  “I can’t do this no more.”
            “You can’t do what anymore?” Rachel asked, overhearing him.
            “This,” he spit out between gritted teeth, waving his hand around to indicate himself and the current situation.  “Sittin’ here, worryin’ like crazy, not able ta work.  She’s movin’ inta the big house with you and findin’ somethin’ safer ta do.  I can’t risk her… I can’t risk them, like this.”
            Rachel shook her head mournfully as she watched Kid move purposefully into the bunkhouse and start opening up trunks and packing up Lou’s stuff.
            Lou reveled in the feel of the fresh spring air as it rifled past her face.  
            “Come on, boy,” she urged Lightning.  They were almost home.  It had been a long run, double run, really.  When she’d gotten to the next home station, all the riders had been down with some illness.  The stationmaster had sent her on with orders to bring back backup riders.  She’d ridden straight through the night, only to turn around and head back.  She was just now finally almost home.  She couldn’t wait to eat some of Rachel’s stew and collapse on her bunk.  She figured she’d sleep straight through til morning, at the least.
            “Kid, it’s Louise!”
            Lou heard Rachel’s faint call from where she stood outside Emma’s house hanging laundry.  She smiled at the homey feel of that alert.  Lowering her head, she pushed Lightning ever faster and soon they were galloping up to the bunkhouse porch.  Lou leaped off the horse’s back with more energy than she’d felt since the day before.  There was just something about being home again.
            She smiled as she saw her husband come rushing across the porch toward her.
            “Hi, Kid,” she started to greet him, but was interrupted when he grabbed her up in a bear hug that like to break her in two.  She could tell from the tension vibrating through his arms just how worried he’d been by her delayed return.
            “Thank God yer alright,” he breathed in her ear loudly enough for everyone to hear him. “I’ve been worried about ya.  Where ya been?”
            Annoyed by his lack of discretion almost as much as she was pleased by his concern, she pulled back and muttered, “Workin’.”
Kid didn’t get the message.  “When ya didn’t come home last night Jimmy had ta practically tie me down to keep me from ridin’ after ya.”
Lou glared at him. “Glad someone around here’s got some sense.”
She pulled away and turned toward her horse, ready to start cooling Lightning off and settling him for the night so she could get some rest herself.  But Kid wouldn’t let up.
“Lou!” he called excitedly, grabbing her arm to slow her down.
“Uh, Kid, I don’t think now’s such a good time,” Rachel said, hoping to put off the coming explosion.  Kid never heard her.
“Got a surprise for ya,” he said, tugging Lou toward the big house.
“Can’t it wait ‘til after supper,” Lou sighed, exasperated.
“Nope,” Kid shook his head, his eyes bright with a fevered form of excitement that half scared, half amused her. “Jimmy, could ya take her horse?” he asked, tossing the reins to the other rider.  “Come on,” he added, beginning to tow her toward the big house in earnest.
“I’m comin’.  I’m comin’,” Lou muttered, stumbling over her own tired feet trying to keep up with his rapid pace.
On the porch, Kid paused, turning to Lou.  
“Alright, close yer eyes,” he said softly.  And, despite her exhaustion, the fading anxiety mixed with excited nervousness made her want to kiss him silly.  Instead, she just closed her eyes as he’d asked and let him lead her into the house.  He carefully guided her into what she knew was the parlor and stopped, positioning her so she faced one of the front windows.  She could feel the sunlight pouring in through the glass, warming her face.  It was so pleasant she just wanted to curl up and go to sleep.
“You can look now,” he said softly.
            She slowly opened her eyes to see a bed set up in the corner, blankets hanging from the ceiling, pulled back for now, but obviously designed to be closed for privacy.  Her breath hitched as she tried to absorb what she was seeing.
            Trying to keep her temper, she asked very, very quietly.
            “What’s this about, Kid?”
            He looked at her, suddenly nervous at her tone.
            “Well, see… things are changin’, and yer not gonna be able ta ride fer the Express much longer and I didn’t think it was a good idea fer ya ta stay in the bunkhouse now….” his voice trailed off at the growing fury in her eyes.  He added, quietly, “I… I couldn’t take worryin’ so much over ya…both.”  His last word was lost in the sudden storm of her words.
            “You low down, mealymouthed coyote.  Who the hell do you think you are?  You got a lot of nerve movin’ me in here!”
            She picked up the glass vase he’d set by the bed filled with Black-eyed Susans, her favorites, and threw it at his head before turning and throwing herself back out the front door.
            He watched her go with a leaden lump growing in his chest, flinching as she slammed the door behind her.  He slumped down on the bed he’d so lovingly made for his wife, hoping to share it with her soon, to begin planning their family.  He heard the door open and close again and soft steps approach him.  Looking up, he saw Rachel watching him with a worried face.
            “What do I do now?” he asked, not really expecting an answer.
            Despite her exhaustion, Lou found she couldn’t relax enough to sleep after that awful trick Kid had pulled on her.  She still couldn’t believe he’d tried to change her life like that without even consulting her about it.  This… this was one of the many things she’d feared about marriage, she thought to herself, trying to drown out the part of her heart that saw his actions as worried concern simply taken too far.  
As a young child she’d seen it all happen before, her father slowly tightening the noose around her mother, all in the name of love, until it was so tight she couldn’t move without arousing his wrath over her ‘endangering herself’.  She’d seen love turn to abuse in the most insidious way possible.  She’d stood at her mother’s side when it had all gotten to be too much and helped her run, far and fast.
She didn’t really think Kid could ever be like that.  He didn’t have the same hate in him, the same greed and possessiveness her father’d had.  But she’d fought so long and hard to achieve her freedoms just the thought of losing them could send her into a panic!
Yet, she longed for the sort of loving relationship she saw Sam and Emma building.  Obviously not all marriages were like her parents.  Emma had no problem letting Sam worry about her, in private and in public.  And Sam never crossed the line in trying to protect her.  Emma wouldn’t let him.  
Oh, how she wanted to have Emma’s strength.  Yet she had no idea how to do it.  The only thing she really knew how to do was to run away when things got too scary for her.  And she didn’t want to run away from Kid.  Not ever again.  Somehow she had to find the strength to stay.  If he’d just back off a little and give her time to adjust.
            After what seemed forever tossing and turning in her lonely bunk, she climbed down and marched across the room, ignoring the boys busy with their various evening pursuits, and out the door.  As expected, Rachel was ringing out the day sitting on the porch swing with a cup of tea in her hand.  Lou crossed the yard to join her.
            For a long time, they sat there saying nothing, simply enjoying the quiet peace of the deepening twilight and the uncomplicated nature of each other’s company.
            Eventually, Rachel broke the silence.
            “So, you never said what exactly made you so late,” she said.  “We were all worried about you, ya know?  Even Teaspoon was talkin’ about mountin’ a search party if ya weren’t back by dinner.”
            “I know,” Lou muttered, nervously shoving an unruly hank of hair behind her ear and looking off into the distance to avoid meeting Rachel’s gaze.  
            “Lovin’ a woman like you ain’t easy,” Rachel said with a small smile, letting her hand fall comfortably to Lou’s leg on the seat next to her.  “Kid’s doin’ the best he can.  He’ll learn.  Give him some time.”
            Lou looked away without answering.
            “Lou, you comin’ in?”
            She stiffened at the sound of Kid’s voice as he called to her from the bunkhouse porch.  
            “I’m talkin’ ta Rachel,” she growled back.  “I’ll be in when I’m done.  Do you mind?”
            Kid’s shoulders slumped and he nodded before heading glumly back into the bunkhouse.
            Rachel shook her head. “Don’t you think yer bein’ just a little hard on him?”
Lou turned her head stare at Rachel in astonishment.  “After that trick he pulled today?!”
Rachel nodded.  “He’s just tryin’ ta do the right thing.”
“I’ve been livin’ in the bunkhouse fer about a year now. Are you sayin’ that that’s the wrong thing?”
“No, of course not. It’s just that sometimes things…. change,” Rachel said, trying to tiptoe around what Kid had told her without letting on that she knew.
Lou looked down at her hands clasped in her lap in front of her.  In a small voice, she asked, “What if you don’t want ‘em to?”
“Hmh,” Rachel grunted, smiling a touch sardonically.  With a half laugh she added, “You don’t always have a choice.”
Lou shook her head vigorously, as if trying to shoo away a fly.  “Maybe not. But I got one here and I plan to keep things the way they been,” she said firmly, before standing up and walking away.
Rachel watched Lou cross the yard toward the barn with a frown on her face.
            “Just what are ya plannin’ ta do ta make that happen, young lady?” she asked worriedly.  “How do ya think ta keep a baby from changin’ yer life?”
            Only the wind answered her.
            “Kid,” Rachel said after breakfast the next morning, “help me with the dishes?”
            “Uh, sure,” Kid said, looking longingly over his shoulder as the other riders filed out of the bunkhouse, Lou in the lead.  He’d been hoping to make things up with her, somehow, this morning.
            Rachel tossed him a towel and he began drying the plates and bowls as she handed them to him.
            “Kid, are you sure Lou’s… expectin’?” she finally asked hesitantly, not sure how or if she should tell him her suspicions.
            Kid sighed.  “’Bout as sure as I can be without seein’ a doctor,” he said, setting a plate aside and picking up a tin cup.  “She ain’t had…. had her courses since ya sent us off ta Red Fern.  She’s suddenly highly emotional, more so than normal.  And.. well, she looks more like a woman every day, if ya know what I mean.  Not ta mention her appetite lately.”
            “There could be a number of reasons for each of those changes,” Rachel said quietly.
            “But all together?” he asked. “At the same time?”
            Rachel sighed.  That’s what she’d been afraid of.  
            “I think ya need ta talk to her,” she said heavily.  “Let her know ya know and yer there for her, that ye’ll help her deal with all the changes comin’.  If ya don’t…. well, I think she’s goin’ ta do somethin’ she’ll regret the rest of her life.”
            Kid set the bowl he was drying down on the counter very carefully and turned to look Rachel full in the face. “What are ya sayin’, Rachel?”
            “I think…. it’s just somethin’ she said last night, ‘bout plannin’ ta keep things the way they been.  I… I think she’s goin’ ta get rid of the baby.”
            “Have you seen Lou?” Kid asked urgently.  
            *No,* Ike signed.  *I think Teaspoon sent her to town with Jimmy for supplies.*
            “If you see her, tell her I’m lookin’ fer her, would ya?” he asked.  “I gotta talk ta her.”
            *Sure,* Ike signed, shrugging.
            “Hey, Kid,” Buck called from the other end of the barn, “I think I heard them pulling up behind Rachel’s place a few minutes ago.”
            “Thanks, Buck!”
            Lou grabbed a sack of feed from the back of the buckboard and started to move around the end of the conveyance toward the side of the barn.
            “Yeah?” he asked.
“What would you do if you were in my position?”
Jimmy looked pointedly at the bundle she carried. “I would put that feed bag on the pile.”
Lou shook her head, smiling slightly at his joke. “That’s not what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.”
She sat down on the pile of feedbags, hugging the one she’d been carrying to her chest.
“You mean the feller with the funny name that lives in the bunkhouse?” Jimmy asked.
Lou nodded and flashed another mini-smile his direction.  He grunted, glad his jibes had brought some joy to her face.  He didn’t know what was up, but it was obvious something was wrong these last few days.
“Aw, Lou, what’s the trouble?” he asked, turning back and grabbing a crate off the buckboard. “I thought you two was regular lovebirds.”
Lou shrugged as he sat the crate on the ground by her feet.  “We are. …. We were. I don’t know. Somethin’s changed.”
Jimmy paused in his unloading to face her. “I know. Ever since you been looking and actin’ more like a girl, he’s been wantin’ ya more and more for himself.”  He smiled a bit and shoved her shoulder when he added, “I can’t say that I blame him.”
“That’s sweet, Jimmy,” she said.  
“You scared?”
“You know the Kid,” she said by way of explanation.  Jimmy laughed.  “He can’t have his wi… uh, woman doin’ a man’s job, livin’ a man’s life.  Not for very long, anyway. It would drive him crazy.”
Jimmy rested his hand comfortingly on her shoulder, even as he wondered at her stumble. What had she really been about to say?  It certainly hadn’t been ‘woman’.
“This is more than just him wantin’ ta treat ya like a lady, Lou.  That’s what ya said ya always wanted,” he said, sitting down next to her.
She nodded.  “It’s all just happenin’ so fast.  I feel like I can’t breathe.  I just… I just need ta get away  fer awhile.  Stop my head from spinnin’.”
She wanted to be a wife and mother, longed for it with every fiber of her being.  But she liked who she was now, who she’d managed to become as that ‘feller with the funny name’ as Jimmy so aptly put it.  As a rider she was strong, independent, capable of protecting those she loved as well as herself  How could she still do that, be that person and be a woman?  Hell, she couldn’t even walk properly in a dress anymore.  She kept tripping over the hems.  How was she supposed to be able to take care of herself, let alone the others, like that?
She supposed she could just give in, put on those pretty dresses, let Kid buy her jewelry to wear, walk down the street on his arm, go to dances with him.  It wouldn’t be hard, really.  But could she survive if she did?   Would she still be her?  Or would she have lost herself in the fantasy, much like her mother had?  Would she still like who she was on the other side of that door? She just didn’t know.
“Tell him that,” Jimmy suggested.
She shook her head.  “It’s too late.  The time fer talkin’s over.  I’ve gotta do somethin’… at least buy me some thinkin’ time.”  Lou stood up and flung her arms around Jimmy’s shoulders, hugging him tight, clinging for a moment as if afraid he’d disappear, as if he were the part of herself she was most afraid of losing.  “I just don’t know if I can do this.”
            Well, he hadn’t gotten to talk to her, but he’d sure gotten his answer, Kid thought from where he stood, frozen, around the corner of the barn.  He hadn’t heard all of their conversation, but he’d heard enough.  She was planning on getting rid of their baby.  How could she?!  He knew things were moving faster than they’d, either of them, ever expected or wanted.  But…. kill their child?!  He’d thought better of her than that.  That wasn’t the action of the woman he’d thought he’d fallen in love with!
            He could feel the rage growing in him to explosive levels and knew he had to get out of there before he did or said something they’d both regret.  Turning around, he raced into the barn and began saddling Katy.  Soon, he was galloping away from the station and the woman he suddenly didn’t think he knew anymore.
            Lou inhaled deeply, loving the scent of the morning air after a storm had passed through.  Limping about from her fall off Lightning the night before, she moved out into the yard, running her eyes across the station complex.  The lines they’d used to tie down the windmill were still in place and the temporary gate repair to the corral had held, despite the increasingly violent storm.
            Looking toward the barn, she noticed a few boards out of place and headed over to begin fixing the damage.  She quickly tied her lengthening hair back with a strip of sinew used to repair saddles.  She was growing it out for Kid, not that she’d ever told him that.  But that meant it had gotten to the point where it was long enough to get in her face while working, without being long enough yet to put up properly.  She patted her hair.  Soon, she thought.  
Within moments she was immersed in the soothing work of sawing and nailing new boards in place.
            She turned to look up at the sound of her name.  Kid stood in the barn doorway, hands shoved deep in the pockets of his trousers.  She couldn’t figure out the expression on his face.
            “We need ta talk.”
            She nodded and stood as he approached her.  She wondered why he stopped several feet away from her, though.  That wasn’t like him.  Usually he got as close to her as he could. especially when they got to the making up part of a fight.
            “Lou…. please, don’t do this.  We can figure somethin’ out.  Don’t get rid of our baby.  Please,” he begged.
            “I know ‘bout the baby.  And I know ya don’t want it changin’ yer life.  I’ll…. I’ll stay here and take care of it.  I can take over some of Teaspoon’s job as handyman.  He needs help now, anyway, since he took over marshalin’ in Sweetwater.”  The words came out in a hurried rush, as if he were determined to get his whole plan out before she had a chance to object.
            “What the hell are ya talkin’ ‘bout, Kid?” she asked, exasperated.  “What baby?”
            “I know yer… yer expectin’.  I seen all the signs.  I watched my Ma go through them often enough,” he said.  “And… and ya tol’ Rachel ya had a plan ta keep it from changin’ yer life.  I know bein’ with child will mean ya have ta admit ta bein’ a lady.  But we can keep it here.  Just don’t go in town.  Hide when others come around.  We can figure out ways so ya can go back ta ridin’ after the baby’s born.  Please.”
            She gasped in horror as she finally figured out what he was saying.  One hand crept down to cover her flat belly.  “You… you think I’d actually kill our baby in order ta keep my secret?!”
            “Well…. that’s what ya said, ain’t it?  I mean….”
            “If you could think that ‘bout me, ya don’t know me at all!”  she raged at him.  “I can’t believe I’ve been…. dancin’… with someone… that could believe I’d do somethin’ so despicable!  Let alone that I’m married to him!”
            She frantically pulled out the ring hanging on a chain around her neck, ripped it off over her head and threw it at him.  It bounced off his chest and landed in the dirt at his feet.  “Take it!  Far as I’m concerned, this marriage is over. Ain’t like it’s ever been registered or nothin’.  And no one but us knows it ever happened. Burn the damned certificate and leave me alone.  You ain’t the man I thought you was.”
            A shocked Kid watched, frozen in horror, as she ran out the other end of the barn.  He could already hear the sobs pouring out of her.  What had he done?
Present day…
            By now she’d cried so many tears over her lost love that she was plumb dried out.  But that hadn’t relieved the continuing ache threatening to tear her apart from the inside out.
            Suddenly, Lightning’s harsh breathing punched through her fog of misery and she pulled back on the reins.
            “Sorry, boy,” she muttered as she slowed him to a walk and began to look for a place to camp.  
            Within the hour she’d settled Lightning down with some oats and plenty of green grass to nibble on and seated herself by a roaring fire.  She huddled there on her side, curled into herself, head leaning on the saddle behind her.  An embroidered handkerchief lay tightly clutched in one hand next to her heart.  She’d been making it for Kid.  But now it was all she had left of him.  She bitterly regretted throwing her ring back at him in anger. It felt like she’d lost a limb in losing that talisman.
            If only that fight had been the end of things, there might still have been a future for them.  But oh no, she’d had to go and make things worse.  Now…. now, she couldn’t even stay at the station with him anymore.  Once he learned what she’d done, accidental or not, he’d never forgive her. And she couldn’t bear to see the hate in his eyes every day.
            “We just went too fast,” she murmured to herself. Lightning’s ears flickered at the hoarse sound of her quiet voice.  “And now we can’t never go back ta the way things were.  There’s no startin’ over from this.”
            She shivered in the spring coolness and wished her heart could freeze as cold as winter ice to save her from this fiery grief.

Love & Loss