Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Whole Truth: Self Evident

This story comes after The Whole Truth: Love & Loss.  It falls during the events of the episodes between Color Blind and The Exchange in Season 2.
“Are ya sure, Doc?”
“I’m afraid so,” the doctor said ruefully, wiping his hands dry after washing them in a basin on the counter.  He stood next to the bed in which Lou lay, sleeping like a pale angel.  “She’s lost the babe.”
“Damn it!” Jimmy roared quietly, being careful not to wake Lou even as he let loose his hurt and anger.  His fist flew until it impacted on a nearby door post.  The dull thud made Lou shift and mutter on the bed.  Jimmy swore again, even more softly, as he shook his now throbbing hand and looked guiltily at his friend.
“These things happen,” the doctor consoled, patting Jimmy on the shoulder.  “Don’t worry.  It was a natural miscarriage and early on the pregnancy.  She’ll be perfectly able to try again in a few weeks.  Now,” he said more briskly, taking a look at Jimmy’s hand with the knuckles seeping blood, “let’s get that cleaned up before the missus wakes up, hmh?”
Jimmy didn’t say anything else as the doctor led him out of the room by the hand.
Lou’s eyes popped open as soon as they were gone.  Jimmy’s conversation with the doctor had roused her.  She hadn’t heard it all, but she hadn’t needed to.  She’d known as soon as she’d started bleeding what was happening.  She didn’t deserve to have a child to love, a happy family, to have all her dreams come true.  She was nothing more than a two bit whore. Not even, really.  She’d given it away for free.  And just cause he’d ‘made it right’ by marrying her afterward didn’t cleanse her soul of that blight.  Not to mention her pride in her ability to ride as hard and as well as the boys and her unwillingness to let that go.  Her very pride had put her child in danger. Now, the most precious of innocents had paid for her sins. 
The sun streaming in through the window was suddenly too much for her and she turned her head toward the wall, the shadows, where she belonged.  She closed her eyes against the pain, but the tears just wouldn’t come.
“But, Lou, you need ta rest, take time ta recover,” Jimmy argued through the hotel room door later that day.
Lou shook her head, even though she knew he couldn’t see her. 
“No,” she said as she finished buttoning her shirt.  “I need ta get home.  Get back ta work.”  Pulling her coat on, she grabbed her hat and saddlebags and opened the door. 
“Lou, please,” Jimmy practically begged.
“Let’s just go.  Please,” she said.  “I… I just want ta forget this trip ever happened.”  Looking down at the bulging saddlebags filled with the bonds and bank drafts they’d been sent to pick up, she added, “’Sides, Teaspoon must be frantic ‘bout this shipment.  We gotta get it to him ‘fore he sends a posse out after us fer stealin’ it.”
She didn’t say anything else, just pushed past Jimmy and tromped determinedly down the hall toward the exit.  Jimmy watched her go until she disappeared around the corner, racking his brain for a means to change her mind.  Then, suddenly realizing she was leaving without him, he leaped forward and pounded after her.
“Don’t….don’t say anything ta the others.”
Jimmy’s head swiveled toward his riding partner in surprise.  Those were her first words in the day and a half they’d been on the road back to the station.  She’d ridden like the hounds of hell were after her, despite his begging her to slow down and take it easy.
“Teaspoon’s probably already sent out a search party fer us, we’re so late,” had been her response as she urged Lightning on faster.
He’d been able to force her to stop for frequent breaks, citing the horses’ health since they weren’t riding relay. But he could tell she’d still been pushing herself too hard   Looking at her now, her normally pale face was several shades paler.  One might even call it grey-tinged.
But he wasn’t trying to slow her down anymore.  They were almost home anyway.  He could see the top of Emma’s windmill on the horizon.  She’d get plenty of rest and time to recover there.
“Whatcha talkin’ ‘bout?” he asked, confused by her request.
“What happened,” she said quietly.  “On this trip.   That stays ‘tween us, alright.”
“And when they ask why we’re so late?”  He wanted to say, And when they ask why ya look like death warmed over? But he knew better.
She shrugged.  “We tell the truth.  The shipment came in late.”
“Why?” he asked, still trying to make sense of her request.  She’d need rest, time to recover.  Hiding her miscarriage wouldn’t let that happen.
“It’s fer the best.”
She didn’t explain further, simply pushing Lightning back into an all-out gallop.  How could she put into words all the things she was feeling right now?  She didn’t know how she could hurt over losing someone she’d never even met, had barely even known existed before losing them.  But it was a pain that washed over her with every breath, carrying with it the guilt that it was her fault Kid’s baby had died.  She’d been the one taking risks the doctor had warned them against.
No, an inner voice mocked her.  It’s even worse than that.  You’re the one who thought you could buck reality and grab things you just weren’t meant for.  You should’ve known God would put you back in your place.
Lou leaned down over Lightning’s neck, urging him even faster, trying to escape that devilish voice, but it was always right there, as if riding on her shoulder, taunting her.
“Come on, girl,” Kid whispered in Katy’s ear, urging her on faster as he sped away from the station.  He was glad this run would last a few days.  He needed the time away, away from the others’ constant teasing and interfering in his life, away from Lou’s presence everywhere he turned.  Even when she was off on a run, he’d see her by the corrals, sitting at the table, laying on her bunk above his.  She’d permeated every second of his life.
He’d loved her with all his heart and she’d tossed him aside like he was trash, leaving his heart tumbling in the dirt of the barn floor with her wedding ring.  He’d tried to assuage that hurt with a new love.  But he’d constantly found himself comparing Samantha to Lou.  And, honestly, deep down inside, he’d known who the winner was every time.  It had never been Samantha.
Samantha’s words as she’d left had hit home. 
“I don’t care what ya are,” he’d told her.  And he’d meant it.  “I only care who ya are.”
“Kid, I don’t even know who I am,” she’d said, her soft voice sending the deep southern accent flowing around him in familiar, comforting waves.
“Maybe I can help ya find out.”
“It wouldn’t be fair ta either one of us,” she’d said.  “Ya see, I ran away from Robert.  But I never stopped lovin’ him.  I just need a little more time before I can feel that way again.”
She’d managed to put his own feelings into words.  He’d been running away from Lou as fast as he could, straight into Samantha’s arms.  But he’d never stopped loving Lou. 
And, the thought occurred to him, maybe if he’d spent more time helping Lou figure out who she was instead of telling her who he thought he wanted her to be, he might not have lost her.  Should he try again?  Was there still a chance for them?  These were questions he needed to answer for himself, without her presence there to…. distract him.  Then, he could handle seeing her again.
“Hah!” he shouted, urging Katy ever onward.
“I’m sorry you two had ta wait so long fer the shipment ta arrive,” Teaspoon said, taking the reins to their horses while Lou and Jimmy wearily dismounted.  “But glad ya made it back safely.”
Lou handed him the saddlebags filled with the bonds and such they’d been sent to pick up.
“Gotta say, I was gettin’ a mite worried,” Teaspoon smiled a bit.  “I was about ta send out a search party fer ya.”
Lou looked up at Jimmy as if to say, See?  I told you!
“We’re fine,” Jimmy said, distracted as he watched Lou trudge up the steps of the bunkhouse porch, her shoulders slumped as if they carried the weight of the world.
“She alright?” Teaspoon asked quietly, watching alongside him.
Jimmy looked at the grizzled stationmaster incredulously.  Of course she wasn’t alright!  Anyone could see that.  But he couldn’t tell the man they all looked to as a father what, exactly, was wrong.  He’d promised Lou.  Sort of.  Enough not to tell Teaspoon right now, anyway.
“Ask her,” he finally grunted, annoyed, and followed Lou into the bunkhouse.
Jimmy elbowed Lou at the table. When she turned to glare up at him, he looked pointedly at her practically untouched plate.  It wasn’t like Lou not to eat everything in sight.  Normally, her appetite rivaled Cody’s, not that she’d admit it.  That had fallen off in the last couple weeks with her morning sickness, but now… now she simply wasn’t eating at all.  And the doctor had said she needed to eat hearty to get her strength back, build her blood back up.
Lou shrugged and picked up her fork, but mostly pushed the food around on her plate.  Only occasionally did she actually lift it to her mouth with food on it.
Jimmy sighed.  This was all his fault.  If only he’d done a better job protecting her.  This was why he’d had to leave Alice.  Why he could never have a family, a wife, children, why he could never, ever, let himself fall in love again.  It ended up hurting too many people, people he loved more dearly than life itself.
“Wonder what the Kid’s up to,” Cody sighed meaningfully.
“Ridin’,” Buck answered.
“Dreamin’ ‘bout it, more like,” Cody grinned mischievously.  “With that pretty little schoolmarm of his.”
“After she nearly got him killed?” Noah asked.  “I don’t think so.”
“Ah, he’d a taken care of things himself, if Teaspoon hadn’t been there ta interfere in the first place.”
“I was tryin’ ta keep anyone from gettin’ killed,” Teaspoon grunted.  “But if someone had ta die, damned straight it wasn’t goin’ ta be one of my boys!”
“I still can’t believe he even agreed to that damned silly duel,” Noah shook his head.  “Just ain’t like the Kid.”
“That’s ‘cause he’s in loooooove,” Cody crooned, drawing out the last word like a caress.
Jimmy felt Lou shudder at the words and looked down in time to see her set her fork down, with extreme precision, next to her plate.  Her face white as a sheet, she stood up, shoulders stiff, and walked out of the bunkhouse without a word.  He winced as if it had slammed when the door closed gently behind her without a sound.  The lack of fire screamed her grief louder than the most furious tantrum ever could have.
“I bet he’s thinkin’-“
“Why don’t ya just shut it, Cody!” Jimmy yelled, slamming his own fork down and leaping to his feet.  “Think about someone other than yerself and yer own twisted desires fer a change and keep yer damned thoughts ta yerself!”
Then he followed Lou out, much more noisily, with everyone else staring after him.
“What’d I say?” Cody asked plaintively, breaking the stunned silence.
“Lou?”  Cody asked tentatively as he stepped up beside where she stood leaning against the corral fence, watching the young colts gamboling about.  She didn’t move, didn’t acknowledge his presence.  “I’m.. uh, I’m sorry.  ‘Bout… what I said at supper.  I… I wasn’t thinkin’.  It was just talk, anyway.  She’s left.  All they ever did was dance a few times at the church social.”
She shuddered at the word ‘dance’ and all the other connotations it now held for her.
“Don’t worry ‘bout it, Cody,” she said so softly he almost wondered if he’d imagined it.
“Listen,” he said, “why don’t I take yer run later this week?  Ya had a hard trip and look like ya could use the rest.  And.. well, I owe ya.”
“I ain’t a ba… a baby,” she retorted, her voice catching suspiciously on the last word.  “I can do my job.”  It was really all she had left at this point.
Lou pushed away from the fence and walked into the barn, leaving Cody to stare after her, his face twisted in an unaccustomed frown of worry.
“Lou, you in here?”
“You need somethin’, Rachel?” Lou asked, poking her head out of Lightning’s stall.
Rachel smiled gently as she walked up to the stall and saw Lou leaning comfortably against her horse’s side.
“Teaspoon…. thought ya might need a friend,” she said softly.  “I know things ain’t been so easy for you lately.  What with the Kid… and… all.”
Lou stiffened and turned her back on Rachel. 
“I’m fine.  Just need ta get back ta doin’ my job and stop foolin’ around, that’s all.”
“I’m fine, Rachel, really.  Just leave me be.”
“Alright,” Rachel sighed, patting Lou on the shoulder gently.  “But don’t forget I’m here any time you want to talk.”  She waited a pregnant moment, hoping against hope Lou would turn around and start talking.  But she didn’t and Rachel finally gave up, turned around and left.
Lou sat in the hayloft, staring out the window at the big, round moon that lit the station yard as if it were midday.   
She’d harbored some hope that there might still be a chance for them, despite the interest Kid had shown the teacher lady.  But Cody’s words tonight, and Noah’s, on top of what had happened on this last run, had stripped her of all hope. 
Even if he hadn’t moved on, fallen in love with another woman - and why else would he be willing to get in a duel?  The only other time he’d willingly called another man out had been on her behalf! – he’d never forgive her for losing their baby through her own reckless actions. That was, if he even believed she’d lost it and not deliberately killed it. 
One hand crept down to cover her now empty belly and she curled around it, trying to draw comfort from this place where she’d always been so happy.
But it wasn’t working.  There were just too many memories here.  Over there, by the pile of stacked firewood, that’s where she’d first kissed Kid.  She’d aimed for his cheek, but he’d turned and she’d ended up with her lips pressed to his. And there, by the bunkhouse steps, that’s where she’d almost given in and kissed him, right in front of Teaspoon, after he’d returned alive from being captured by Indians.  And over there… and there… and there… he was everywhere she looked, everywhere she went.
Even here, in this hayloft, she could feel his ghost hovering over her.  They’d often escaped up here for a few moments alone after their wedding.  Who knows, perhaps this was even where they’d conceived the life she’d so briefly carried.
The grief, too heavy to bear, slowly bore her under.  Her eyes closed and she slept, one hand tucked beneath her cheek, the other still cradling her empty womb.
A few days later…
“Teaspoon?” She winced at how rusty her voice felt after not having been used much over the last few days. “Teaspoon, you got a minute?”
Teaspoon straightened in his chair behind the desk in the marshal’s office and set aside his pen
“Fer you darlin’?  Always,” he smiled with a forced joviality that hurt.
She walked the rest of the way into the office and sat down on the chair by his desk.  She perched uneasily on the edge, unable to relax.
“What is it?” Teaspoon asked, hoping she was finally ready to talk.  They’d all watched with increasing concern as she’d gone about her duties without talking to anyone, without even truly seeming to be aware of the world around her.  “How can I help you this find day?  Did ya come fer some of my silver minted advice?”
She shook her head, the edges of her mouth tilting up in what could, if one were generous, be called a smile.  Teaspoon took it as a win, until the next words out of her mouth.
“I want a transfer.”
“I…. I can’t stay here no more, Teaspoon,” she said quietly, never looking up to meet his eyes.  Hers remained glued to the sight of her hands, clenched around each other, on her knees.  “I… can’t take it no more.”
Teaspoon stood up and walked around the desk to squat in front of her, resting one hand on her shoulder. 
“Now, I know things ain’t exactly been easy fer ya here lately,” he said gently, “what with the Kid and all.  But don’t let that chase ya away from yer family.”
“Family’s the problem, Teaspoon,” she broke out with the first true sign of emotion since she’d come in.  “All of ya.  Ya think I can’t feel it?  See it?  Watchin’ me, protectin’ me, babyin’ me.  I….” she paused to catch her breath and try to put her thoughts into words.  “I got knocked down, hard.  I ain’t down fer the count, but I gotta learn ta stand on my own two feet again.  And I cain’t do that with y’all…. hoverin’ over me, waitin’ fer me ta break.  Much more of this and I will break.”
Teaspoon rocked back on his heels and sighed heavily.  He knew what she meant, had been there himself a time or two.  Sometimes a wounded creature needed to withdraw from the world to lick its wounds.  He’d just never suspected Lou would be one of them.  She’d always been so…. strong, feisty… spry.
“What ‘em I s’posed ta tell the boys?” he said heavily, trying one last tack to get her to stay, afraid of what might happen without them to watch over her, no matter what she said.  “Ya know they’ll just come after ya and drag ya back.”
“Don’t,” she said shortly, standing up and walking toward the door.  “Don’t tell ‘em I’m leavin’.  And, once I’m gone, don’t tell ‘em where I’m at.”
“I cain’t do that, Lou,” he protested.  “They love ya.  We all love ya.”
She looked back over her shoulder at him. “Yes, ya can,” she said quietly.  “Or I’ll just leave without a new job and head out on my own.”  She saw the shocked look on his face at her threat and smiled a smile that made him want to cry.  “I’m serious, Teaspoon.  I gotta do this.  How is up ta you.”
He stared at her, reading the truth in her deep, wide, wounded eyes and finally nodded.  “Alright, Lou,” he sighed, slumping down into his chair.  “We’ll do this your way.”
“Thank you, Teaspoon.”
The quiet words barely wafted across the room with the puff of air that swirled through the open door, and then both were gone.
“I know Fort Kearny ain’t yer favorite place, Lou, but it’s the only home station with an openin’ right now,” Teaspoon said, standing in the door of the bunkhouse a couple days later, watching as she packed her bags.  “If ya wait a little longer, maybe I can find ya a better post.”  One a little closer, he thought, where he’d be able to keep a better eye on her while she was gone.  He had no intention of letting her departure be permanent.
He watched as she stuffed the last dress into a carpetbag willy nilly, using none of her usual care for her things, especially her dresses.  She’d become even more drawn in the last twenty-four hours, large dark shadows now carving out hollows beneath her eyes.
“This’ll do,” she grunted, standing up to take the paper from him.  Turning her back on him, she tucked the letter into a saddlebag.  “I’ll leave in the mornin’, after the boys have taken Rachel ta pick up supplies in town.”
He said nothing, knowing now there was nothing he could do or say to sway her.  She picked up the carpetbag she’d finished packing and walked over to him with it.
“I’d appreciate it if… if ya’d keep this fer me,” she said hesitantly.  “I can’t exactly take a bag full of dresses and frillies with me, not when I’m s’posed ta be a boy.”
“I’m sure Rachel’ll watch over it for ya,” he said, reluctantly taking the bag from her.
She nodded and turned back to her now Spartan bunk, just her hat, coat and saddlebags laid out on it.  Less than she’d come to him with.  He turned his back and left the room before his emotions betrayed him and he cried the tears she was refusing to let fall.
Lou watched, dry eyed as the boys rode out, escorting Rachel to town on her weekly trip in to Sweetwater for supplies.  Teaspoon had taken off earlier that morning, reluctantly answering a summons from Barnett. She was just as glad.  It let her leave without any messy goodbyes.
She’d told the others she wasn’t feeling well and asked to stay behind today.  It hadn’t even been a lie, not really.  She hadn’t felt well since…. since… well, since.  And she didn’t know when she would again.   That’s what she had to find out.
When they’d disappeared over the horizon, she grabbed her packed saddlebags from where she’d stashed them under Kid’s bunk and headed toward the barn to saddle Lightning.
“Alright, boy,” she whispered as she led her horse from the barn a few minutes later.  “We’ve got a long, hard ride ahead of us.  We gotta get all the way ta Fort Kearny in four days.  It’s gonna take everythin’ we got.  But you can do it.”
Lovingly patting his shoulder, she gathered the reins in one hand and leapt into the saddle.  As the buildings of the Sweetwater Pony Express Station flashed past her eyes, the tears started to fall.  At first they came by ones and twos, trickling down her cheek.  By the time they’d left the yard and hit the trail, she could barely see through them they’d become such a flood and uncontrollable, gut-wrenching sobs had joined them.
“Teaspoon, where’s Lou?” Jimmy asked as he, Cody, Buck, Ike and Noah came out of the barn from putting away supplies.  “She’s not in the bunkhouse or the barn, and her horse is missin’.  You didn’t send her on no special run, did ya?” he asked suspiciously.  He’d been suspicious from the minute they’d come back from town to find the marshal back at the station instead of in his office in town.
“You know I was gonna take her next run, Teaspoon!” Cody exclaimed in surprise.  “We agreed!”
“Any of us could’ve taken it,” Buck added. 
Teaspoon shook his head and motioned for the riders to come nearer.  They clustered around where he sat on the top bunkhouse porch step.
“Boys, Lou’s gone.”
“What?!” they chorused.
*What do you mean gone?*
“Where’d she go?”
“She weren’t that sick!”
“Come on, let’s saddle up, boys!”
“Hold yer horses,” Teaspoon cut through the shocked responses, holding up his hand for quiet.  “She don’t want ya followin’ her.  Said she needed some time ta…. ta get her head straight again.
“Teaspoon, where is she?” Jimmy spat out between gritted teeth.
“Son, I can’t tell ya that.”
“Why not?”
“I promised Lou,” he said quietly, turning and sitting down heavily on the steps to the bunkhouse porch.
“Why’d ya go do a fool thing like that fer!?”
“You know how stubborn our Lou is, Jimmy,” Teaspoon placated wearily, running a hand across his forehead in frustration.  “If I didn’t promise, she said she’d leave without tellin’ me where she was goin’.  At least this way I know where she’s at and I can keep an eye on her, if only from a distance.”
*So, tell us anyway,* Ike signed urgently.  *We don’t have ta tell her that’s how we know.  We can just say Buck tracked her down.*
Teaspoon shook his head.  “That won’t work, Ike.  She sees any of you and she’ll leave for good.  Don’t matter the reason.”
Cody plopped down on the step next to Teaspoon.
“What’re we gonna do, Teaspoon?” he begged.
Kid smiled as he topped the rise and saw the station below him.  It was good to be back.  He’d spent a lot of time thinking the last few days and he realized there was one thing he knew for sure.  He didn’t want to spend the rest of his life feeling the way he’d felt when Lou had thrown her wedding ring at his feet.  He couldn’t imagine living the rest of his life without her. 
He knew he had a lot of groveling to do, a pretty big, downright heaping, serving of crow to eat.  But he was ready to take his licks. He’d spent so much time thinking about what he wanted, he hadn’t taken enough time to consider what she needed.  She needed time. He knew that better than anyone.  She needed control.  She needed… she needed trust.  To give her what she needed, he needed to let her go, then show her what she was missing and hope she’d be willing to take him back.
But first he had to get her to forgive him.  Forgive his grossly unjust accusations.  He knew she’d never do something to deliberately hurt their child. He’d let his own fears and desires cloud his judgement. Even worse, would she ever forgive his flirtation with Samantha, compounding insult on injury?  Nothing inappropriate had happened, thank goodness, just a few dances.  Not that you wouldn’t have jumped at the chance for another sort of dance, his mind mocked him.  He ducked his head in shame as he admitted the truth to himself, at least.
Pounding into the station yard, he grabbed the mochila off his saddle horn and held it out at arm’s length, waiting for Noah to take it.  The others all sat, scattered in various slumped positions around the bunkhouse porch.
“Where’s Lou?” he asked, as soon as he slowed Katy to a stop.
“Gone,” Cody said glumly, digging in the dirt with the toe of his boot.
“Oh.”  Kid’s shoulders fell in disappointment.  “When will she be back?”
“She’s not on a run, Kid,” Buck said softly, his tone of voice filled with such sadness, Kid stiffened in fear.
“She’s… she’s alright, ain’t she?” he asked in growing desperation.  “She came back fine from her last run, right?  Teaspoon, tell me!”
“She’s alive,” Teaspoon said wearily.  “As for alright?  Ain’t a one of us can say fer sure.”
“What the hell’s goin’ on?” Kid half-wailed in confusion.
*She ran away,* Ike signed.  *And Teaspoon won’t tell us where.*
“I can’t!” Teaspoon roared.  “Can’t y’all get that through yer thick heads?  Not if we ever want ta see her again!”
“She ran away?  What’d you do to make her run away?”
“Us?!” Buck asked.  “Why don’t you look in a mirror. We didn’t do nothin’ except try to clean up your mess!”  Disgusted, he pushed away from the porch railing he’d been leaning on and started stalking across the yard to the barn.
“What’d I do?” Kid barely breathed.  “She-”
Jimmy suddenly exploded off the upended log he’d been perched on. 
“What’d you do?!” he practically screamed as he rushed at Kid, head down.  “You almost killed her!”  The infuriated rider slammed into his erstwhile brother headfirst, taking them both to the ground. There, the fists started flying.
“If you hadn’t accused her of plannin’ ta kill yer baby, then started flirtin’ around with some southern floozy, maybe she wouldn’t’ve lost it!”
“Me?” Kid rolled clear of Jimmy for a moment, holding one hand to his now streaming nose.  Most of Jimmy’s words hadn’t registered, only the accusation that he’d almost killed Lou.  “Maybe if ya hadn’t’ve constantly urged her ta reckless behavior we wouldn’ta had so many fights.”  He took his own swing, landing a solid blow on Jimmy’s left eye.  Kid grabbed the edges of Jimmy’s shirt and dragged him in close to hiss, “And maybe if ya’d kept yer damned advice ta yerself in the first place, my wife never woulda run away!”
“Oh, please!  You were only lookin’ fer someone ta tell ya it was alright ta do what ya already wanted,” Jimmy spat, nose to nose with Kid, his fists clenched at his sides.
This time Kid landed the first blow as open hostilities resumed. The two fell to the ground and began rolling about as the punches continued to fly, each accompanied by an accusation.
After a stunned moment of silence, Teaspoon huffed and said, “Get them apart, boys.”
Watching as Buck and Cody struggled to pull the two fighters apart, he mouthed, “wife?  baby?”
Teaspoon sighed as he surveyed his boys.  Most of them anyway.  Jimmy sat, flanked by Cody and Buck on one side of the fire in the sweatlodge.  Kid sat next to Teaspoon, with Ike on his other side.  They’d carefully kept Jimmy and Kid separated to prevent any more fights.  Kid’s nose was swollen, Teaspoon was pretty sure Jimmy’d broken it, and he had a cut along one cheekbone.  Jimmy sported his own set of bruises, including a nice shiner developing around his left eye.  Both of them now sat, staring sullenly anywhere but at each other.
It had taken a lot of prodding and badgering on Teaspoon’s part, but he’d finally gotten the whole story out of the two.  He could tell there was still a lot of guilt riding each of them, but had no time to coddle the duo at the moment.  First, they needed to figure out how to get their Lou… their Louise back.
“What are we gonna do, Teaspoon?” Buck asked, voicing the question the grizzled stationmaster was still trying to answer himself.
“I don’t rightly know, son,” he sighed. “All’s I know is what we can’t do.  Ain’t none of us can show our face around her new station or we’ll lose her fer good.  The stationmaster there is keeping an eye on her-”
Kid started. “Teaspoon, how could you tell-”
He held up a hand to forestall Cody’s protest.  “I didn’t tell him a thing.  Just said Lou’d nearly been killed and asked him ta send me updates on how he was doin’.  Far as McKenzie knows, Lou’s just another one of his boys, albeit a mite damaged.”
“Thank you, Teaspoon,” Kid said, his voice low and gravelly after his shouting match with Jimmy earlier.
“Didn’t exactly do it for you, son.”
“I know.  But… thanks, anyway.”
Teaspoon nodded silently in acknowledgement of all Kid wasn’t saying, the responsibility he was owning up to, with those words.
“If we can’t go, how ‘bout we send her letters, let her know we want her back?” Buck suggested.
*That’s a good idea,* Ike signed excitedly.  *We can show her how much we miss her and need her.*
“I think you two are on to somethin’, there,” Teaspoon mused, rubbing his chin as he thought.  “If each of us writes letters to her, I can send them with the mail pouch to her stationmaster.  But y’all’ve got ta promise me you won’t try ta follow!”
A chorus of nodding heads, hands over hearts, ‘I swear!’s and ‘I promise!’s followed as Teaspoon directed a stern look at each of them.  He nodded in acceptance and said, “Then I reckon we better get ready fer supper.  Rachel’ll have a fit if we turn up lookin’ like this!”
Almost as one, the five riders started to get up and push eagerly toward the entrance.
“NOT you two,” Teaspoon ground out, grabbing Kid and Jimmy by the elbow and dragging them back down into their seats.  “You two still got some thinkin’ ta do, to my mind.  I’ll see ya in the mornin’, ready fer chores.”
Assuming his command would be followed he left the Kid and Jimmy staring across the firepit at each other.  Teaspoon whistled contentedly now that he had a plan as he headed for supper.
Lou looked around her as the stationmaster of the Fort Kearny Pony Express Station led her past the various Army buildings and tents to a dugout on the edge of the military camp. The facilities at Fort Kearny weren’t nearly as nice as the Sweetwater station.  But she hadn’t expected it to be.  It wasn’t nearly as bad as others she’d stayed at either, and that was good enough for her.
The station sat next to the stables where the Pony Express horses were kept with the Army’s animals.  The walls, floors and ceilings were all sod, chunks of dirt cut out in brick-like squares from what became the center floor of the hut.  There were no windows.  The only light came in from the front door or from lamps or the fire in the fireplace. 
For a moment, as Lou followed the stationmaster, Bart McKenzie, into her new bunkhouse, their bodies blocked out all light and she felt like she was descending into a deep, dark pit.   She reached out and groped blindly for the wall as she felt carefully for the edge of the next step down with her foot.  This was something she’d have to get used to.  From now on she’d wait for her eyes to adjust to the dim interior lighting before trying to go down the steps into the cabin itself.
“You can drop yer stuff over there,” McKenzie said gruffly, pointing to the top bunk along one wall.  It was obviously empty.
There were six bunks, three on each side of the room, she noted as her gaze swept around the confined quarters.  The top bunks barely left enough room for a rider to slip between the hard mattress and the ceiling with prairie grass roots dangling from it. 
“Just don’ ferget and sit up in the middle of the night,” McKenzie wheezed with laughter. “I’ve had a boy or two knock themselves plumb out that way.  I sleep over there,” he added, pointing to a hammock strung up in the corner by the fireplace along the wall opposite the door.  “Do yer share of the work, I ain’t got no patience fer slackers, and show up on time fer meals and we’ll get along fine.  Don’t expect ta have any problems with ya,” he added at last, “comin’ from Teaspoon, an’ all.”
Lou nodded.  There really wasn’t much for her to say. 
“Get settled in,” he added, switching his wad of chewing tobacco from one cheek to the other, “supper’s at seven.  You can start work in the mornin’.”
Lou looked around the table, mentally cataloging her new co-workers.  To her left sat George Youngston.  He was a tall, blonde man with heavily muscled, broad shoulders.  The others all seemed to defer to him, but his sneering attitude about women left a strong distaste in Lou’s mouth.
Across from them sat twin brothers, Ed and Benjamin Banks.  Mmiddling in height, slender, with arms that seemed too long for their bodies, they didn’t seem to have an original thought between the two of them. Benji, the younger of the two, spoke with a stutter.  He actually didn’t seem like he’d be that bad.  The fifth rider at the table didn’t speak any English.  A Chinaman, he was great with the horses.  But he didn’t make any effort to communicate with the others.  There was another rider out on a run.  They just called him The Swede.  McKenzie rounded out their group. Like the Chinaman, he didn’t say anything beyond the obligatory prayer to start the meal.  Then he concentrated on downing as much of the poorly cooked food as quickly as he could.
Lou listened to the chatter between the George, Ed and Benji and sighed.  Like the Sweetwater station, there was a lot of teasing banter going back and forth.  Unlike home, this teasing carried with it an underlayer of meanness that turned her stomach.
“Hey, Lou!” George called.  “Sure yer old ‘nough fer this job?  Like a might puny, ta me.”
“McKenzie says ya’ve been ridin’ since the beginnin’,” Ed simpered.  “Were ya ridin’ on yer pappy’s coattails?”
The others laughed uproariously at his joke.
Lou shrugged, standing up from her barely touched plate.
“Anyone’s got any doubts ‘bout my ridin’, they’re welcome ta join me exercisin’ the horses in the mornin’,” she said.  Turning her back on her would be tormentors, she walked over to her bunk and climbed in, pulling her hat down over her eyes to drown out the sights and sounds of the dinner table.
Kid sighed, staring over the horizon, wishing with every fiber of his being that Lou would come galloping into view at any second.  But, he knew the wish was a waste of time.  Teaspoon said he’d had a report that she was settling in.  She’d apparently put the riders at her new station in their place right smartly her first day on the job, much as she’d done them.  Kid wished he could’ve seen it.  He was as proud of her riding skills as his own.  He wished he’d told her that. 
There were so many things he wished he’d told her.  So many things he’d done wrong. He’d spent so much time trying to hold on tighter for fear of losing her that he’d pushed her right out of his life.  So much so, that she’d never been afraid to tell him when she’d suspected she carried his child.
There was another ache he couldn’t soothe.  A family, children, they were things he wanted in this life more than anything.  He wanted them with Lou.  And he’d had it all in his grasp, only to lose it.  He just didn’t know what to do with himself.
The distant sound of the dinner bell roused him from his reverie and he turned to Katy, standing patiently at his side. 
“Time ta go home, girl,” he said softly as he mounted up and turned the horse in the direction of the barn.  “Hopefully she’ll forgive us and come back soon.”
The blank sheet of paper in her new journal glared up at her accusingly.  The pencil stub in her right hand twirled about absently, unused.  She’d bought the diary after her first week here, remembering how Ike would always be scribbling away in his.  He’d told her once it helped him figure out what he was thinking.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t working for her.  The things she needed to figure her thoughts out on were too painful to revisit, the regret too big, the losses too much for her to handle.  So her mind simply refused to go there.
She’d always known she’d never felt quite comfortable when spending the night at other stations, but had just put it down to her not being a regular member of that ‘family’.  Somehow, she’d assumed all Pony Express stations had developed the camaraderie and close ties she and the other Sweetwater riders had.
The last two weeks here had shown her otherwise.  Oh, they all got along well enough, but that was about it.  One couldn’t even really call them friends, although they lived, literally, on top of one another.
She reached up to brush the hair off her face and winced when the once again painfully short strands caught in the rough skin of her palm.  She missed the luxury of being able to relax and be herself around the others, never having to worry she’d be giving away her secret. She missed spending evenings talking fashion and cooking and boys with Rachel.  She missed the special soaps and lotions Rachel always held aside for her to mitigate the damage this job did to her skin.  She missed getting first crack at the bath and knowing no one would walk in on her. She missed being able to be Louise when she wanted. She missed-- 
Lou instinctively slammed the door shut on that last thought.  No. She wasn’t ready to go there yer. 
“Hey, Lou!”
She turned her head to look in the direction of the rough voice calling out to her.  George strode her direction, swaggered more like, followed by the twins, Ed and Benji. 
She quirked an eyebrow in question.
“It’s payday,” George said unnecessarily.  Her pay sat in her pocket at that very moment.  “We’re headed over ta Dobytown ta have us some fun.”
“Yeah, play some poker, drink somethin’ tastier than sarsaparilla,” added Ed.
“Maybe dance with so….so…some la…ladies,” stuttered the much more shy Benji.
Lou shook her head. There wasn’t a real lady to be found within a mile of Dobytown. 
“Come on, Lou,” George pushed.  “Don’t be a stick in the mud.  You never do nothin’ but ride, sleep and stare at that blank book of yours.  We’re startin’ ta wonder if yer a Nancy Boy.  Come be sociable fer a change.”
She sighed and nodded.  “Alright,” she muttered, more to shut them up than because she really wanted to go.  By now she knew George was stubborner than Ike’s donkey Samson.  Once he got something in his jaws he wouldn’t let up until he’d pushed and pulled it into precisely the position he wanted it.  Looked like she was the project of the day.
“I’m out,” she said, slapping her cards down on the table and pushing her chair back.  She’d probably had a winning hand, a full house, but just take another minute of the other boys’ talk.   Their chatter and laughter grated on her nerves.  It was like the worst of Cody, times three, without the heart of gold to mitigate the annoying excesses.

Walking away from the poker table, she pushed her way through the crowds of men determined to spend every last dollar of their pay before heading back to work on Monday.  Luckily, she couldn’t smell the unwashed masses, or the mess of sawdust, tobacco spittle and who knew what all else under her feet.  The cloud of tobacco smoke that covered everything in a grey haze filled her nose instead.
Reaching the bar, she winced as someone began pounding on the out of tune piano in the corner.  A frowzy blonde emitted a high pitched squeal that could almost be, in a gracious moment, called a laugh.  Then she proceeded to launch into the worst rendition of Auralea Lou’d ever heard.  She hated that song.  It reminded her of all she’d—
“Barkeep, pour me a whiskey!” she demanded, cutting off the unwanted thought, pounding on the bar in emphasis.  The tears she refused to shed anymore made any efforts to lower her voice unnecessary. “And leave the bottle.”
“Here ya go,” the tall, slender man behind the bar grunted, sliding a filled shot glass her way.  A little of the amber liquid sloshed over the top onto her hand.  “That’ll be six bits.”
She slid three quarters out of her pocket and pushed them across the bar.  He pocketed the coins and turned to answer the next customer’s demands.  Only then did she realize he hadn’t left the bottle.
Not that it really mattered, she grimaced to herself at the taste of the rotgut he’d served her instead of actual whiskey as she licked the drops off her hand.  She couldn’t have drunk it.  She sat there, chin resting on her arms where they lay folded on the edge of the bar, and stared into the liquid, watching the light shimmer and dance off it and through it.  She couldn’t figure out what Jimmy found so soothing about it.  The taste was repulsive.  It made her feel out of control, something she didn’t like at all.  And it left her head aching the next day.  Yet, he always turned to it when things got tough.  If it worked for him, she’d thought it would work for her, too.  But that didn’t seem to be turning out so well for her tonight. The way the taste instantly made her stomach turn just drove home how different she was from the others, both here and back home, which is how she still thought of Sweetwater.  She’d never fit in, find her real place.
Angrily, she swiped her hand across the bar, knocking the shot glass over and spilling the noxious mixture of tea, tobacco juice, sugar and who knew what else into the sawdust at her feet.  She turned away from the bar and pushed her way toward the door.
“Buy a hardworking lady a drink?”
Lou stiffened as a heavily scented, overly lotioned arm wrapped around her shoulders.  She raised one hand and pushed hard on the working girl’s hand, shoving it away as if it were diseased.  She most definitely wasn’t interested in romance. Not even the joke she and the boys, the Sweetwater boys that is, had made of it when saloon girls came on to her.
“Save yer efforts,” she muttered, hitching up her pants.  “I ain’t interested.”
Damn, she thought as she finally escaped the saloon’s confines and paused to suck in some of the clear, sweet night air, cleaning out her lungs.   She knew she’d been off her feed lately. Food just didn’t seem to interest her. When she wasn’t working she was generally sleeping or staring off into space, trying to think.  She hadn’t realized she’d lost so much weight though.  Time to punch another hole in her belt.
She shrugged philosophically.  There were worse things in life, she supposed, as she set off on the three mile hike back to the station.  She didn’t know where the others had stabled their horses and wasn’t inclined to search Dobytown’s dubious businesses for them.  The walk would do her good.
“Kid, I hate to see you mopin’ around like this,” Rachel said softly, putting her hand on the tall rider’s shoulder.  “Why don’t you come up to the house for some tea. We can talk about it.”
“Ain’t much ta talk ‘bout,” he said morosely. 
“I think there’s more than your lettin’ on.”
“Like what?  Like I drove Lou away?  Like my whole life’s fallen apart right before my eyes?!” he demanded, pulling away from her to pace restlessly toward the barn.
“Like your mournin’, hard as she is, for what might have been,” Rachel said softly.
He stopped in his tracks.  Without turning around he asked, “What do you mean?”
“It was your baby, too,” Rachel said softly.  “Your child, Kid.  You think I don’t know you’re hurting over that?”
“Ain’t nothin’ I can do ta change it,” he muttered. 
“No,” she nodded, agreeing.  She walked up to his side and patted his arm consolingly, “But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let yourself grieve. When a loved one dies, you’ve got to find a way to say goodbye, or it eats you up inside.”
Looking up at her, he asked, “What did you do?”
“I cried.  A lot.  And I found a way, once I got settled here, to make my baby real.  I set up a memorial on that hill over there, next to where Emma buried her son.  She suggested it, actually, in a letter to Teaspoon.”  Rachel shrugged.  “It was real kind of her.  And it lets me visit my baby, when I feel the need.”
Lou contemplated her surroundings.  She’d taken yet another double run, anything to keep busy and silence her mind.  This time it had landed her at a station that was actually worse than Blue Creek had been. If that were even possible.
“Supper’s in an hour,” the skinny, dirt encrusted man standing over the stove said around the cigar clamped between his teeth.  “Don’t be late, or the other boys’ll leave ya nothin’ but the bones.”
Lou shook her head.  “Uh, no thanks,” she muttered.  “I think I’m gonna ride on inta town.  I’ll… I’ll get somethin’ ta eat there.”
“Suit yerself,” the cook shrugged, turning his attention back to whatever it was he was stirring.
Lou carefully closed the door behind her and skedaddled out of there as fast as she could.
“Kid, I’m tired of yer gloomy guss all the time,” Cody whined.  “We’re goin’ inta town and gettin’ a decent meal and a nice bed ta sleep in.”
“We need ta get back,” Kid demurred.  “Teaspoon’s expectin’ us.”
“Teaspoon gave us a week ta finish this delivery and we’re already ahead of schedule,” Cody answered, shaking his head.  “No, we got plenty of time ta take a break from the road.  And you need some cheerin’ up.”  He spurred his horse forward.  A moment later, realizing Katy was still standing still, Cody looked back over his shoulder and sighed in exasperation. “Come on!”
Lou chewed her way through another bite of the steak on the plate in front of her.  In all honesty it was pretty good, but it wasn’t Rachel good and that’s what her mouth and heart were really hungering for.  She swallowed thickly and washed the morsels down with a swig of the beer she’d ordered.  She’d felt quite rebellious getting beer instead of sarsaparilla.  And, like so many decisions lately, it just wasn’t sitting right with her.
She set her fork down and wiped her mouth with the large cloth napkin that had come with her meal.  She started to lean back in her chair when a familiar sounding laugh had her whipping her head around.
There!  A slender man in fancily decorated buckskins with long blond locks dangling down his back stood at the bar, laughing animatedly at something the saloon girl next to him was saying.
“Cody,” she whispered, surprised at the piercing feeling of pain she felt darting through her heart.  She’d known she missed the others, but didn’t figure it would actually hurt to see them.  Then, another familiar figure pushed past some of the others crowded at the bar to reach Cody, clapping a large hand on his shoulder and saying something to him with a smile.  Cody, predictably shook him off, shaking his head and sending his blonde hair flying.  Kid laughed and said something else.
Lou could feel the pain that had begun as a single dart suddenly engulfing her from head to toe.  She couldn’t say anything as the flames of love, pain, regret, loss and other emotions she couldn’t name licked at her.  A whimper was all that escaped as she paled.
“Kid, you alright?” one of the older cowboys she shared the corner table with asked with concern.
The words broke the shell keeping Lou frozen in place and she suddenly stood up, not even noticing as her motion sent her chair flying backward, and exited the saloon as quickly as her heart and feet would move her.  She was racing not just from the man at the bar but from all the things seeing him made her feel again.
Kid shook his head at Cody’s insane insistence on spending the night here, rather than heading on home. He just wanted to get back and see if maybe Lou’d returned while they’d been gone.  The sound of a chair clattering to the sawdust covered wooden floor caught his attention and he swung his head around to see what was going on. You never knew what might turn a sociable night at the saloon into an all out brawl.
He quickly located the chair, rolling and rattling around on the floor where it had fallen.  He checked the table and saw three men, all older miners by the looks of them, staring toward the entrance in consternation.  Kid followed the direction they were looking just in time to see the form of a small young man with closecropped short hair stumbling out the front door.  He casually followed the odd sight through the pane glass window as the boy took off down the boardwalk at a half run.  Suddenly he straightened in shocked recognition.
“Lou?” he whispered, even as he sprinted toward the door, afraid he’d lose sight of her.
“Kid, where ya goin’?” Cody called after him, but Kid didn’t respond, too intent on catching up with her.
Lou could barely see through the sheen of tears in her eyes.  She kept her head down and walked as quickly as she could, determined to make it back to the hotel, where she’d taken a room for the night.
As she stumbled down the boardwalk, through the hotel’s front doors and up the stairs to her room, she thanked God for the dim lights that helped hide her from the notice of curious strangers. At best they’d think she was drunk.
Reaching her door, she fumbled with the key, dropping it twice before she managed to slip it into the lock and twist it to open the door.
Stepping inside, she quickly closed the door behind her with a determined thud.  Hidden from the public’s sight, she scrubbed the salty water leaking from her eyes off her cheek with her coat sleeve.  She couldn’t believe how much it had hurt to see him there, in the flesh, smiling as if nothing had happened.
Kid burst through the doors of the hotel lobby and looked around frantically, but, as he’d feared, Lou had already disappeared from sight. 
He caught a glimpse of the clerk in a back room behind the check-in desk and rushed over, pounding on the counter to get the man’s attention.
“Excuse me,” he asked, breathless from his race over, “I was… uh… supposed ta meet a friend of mine here.  But, I’m runnin’ a little late and it looks like he’s already turned in.  I was wonderin’ if ya could give me his room number?”
“And his name would be?” the clerk asked, his mouth flattening in disapproval of Kid’s rambling state of mind.
“Oh,” Kid shook his head as if trying to straighten out his thoughts.  “Lou… Lou McCloud.”
The clerk ran a finger down the register as he checked the names.
“We have an L. McCloud, room 210,” he finally said.  “That’s upstairs, second door-”  His words cut off as he looked up to finish giving the flustered customer directions, only to realize he was already gone.  “Crazy cowboys,” he muttered in disgust, closing the register book carefully and sliding it back under the counter.
“Lou, let me in!”
Lou jumped as a familiar voice shook the door behind her to the accompaniment of a vigorous pounding.
“Lou, we gotta talk.”
She stepped away from the door, moving back toward the bed against the opposite wall, staring in frozen fascination as the door handle suddenly turned and the portal opened to reveal the tall, sandy haired rider she still dreamt about.
“Lou,” he said, rushing up to her and grabbing her arms with both hands, holding on tightly as if afraid she’d run.  “You can’t disappear,” he said desperately.  “We didn’t know you were here.  I swear, we weren’t followin’ you!”
She stared at him in awestruck silence for endless moments.  Then all the barriers she’d worked so hard to build around her heart and her mind the last few weeks suddenly dissolved into dust, blowing away in the wind.
“Kid,” she gasped as the first sob overtook her, unsure herself if the single word was a question, an exclamation of welcome or an accusation.
Lou struggled to open her eyes, wincing at the pain that bounced around in her head.  That and the grit sealing her eyes closed were all that remained of the crying jag that had enveloped her at the sight and feel of Kid in the same room with her again.
As consciousness slowly returned, she reveled in the feel of his strong arms wrapped tightly around her and the solid, soothing rhythm of his heart, beating strongly under her ear.  She could feel his breath gently ruffling her hair with each exhale.  For the first time in weeks, all felt right with her world. 
That was, until she remembered something he’d said as she’d sobbed in his arms.
“Why, Lou? Why’d you do it?” he’d whispered into her hair as he’d picked her up and carried her to the bed, where he’d cradled her in his arms and rocked her back and forth as she sobbed out the last of her grief over losing him and their child.
What had he meant with those words? she wondered.   Did he still think she’d killed their baby.  She sniffled and the strong scent, a combination of the fresh prairie air, horse and something that was uniquely Kid, filled her nose.  A quite sense of purpose came with it.  There was only one way to find out.
Moving quietly, she gently extracted herself from his embrace.  She grabbed her coat and hat which he’d left sitting on the nightstand by the bed, buckled on her gun, and tiptoed out of the room.
Kid groaned as a crick in his neck woke him.  He’d fallen asleep with Lou nestled in his arms, his chin resting on her head.  But during the night, his head had fallen slightly sideways and his neck had stiffened up from the odd angle.
“Ow,” he muttered, reaching up to rub the sore spot.
A sudden quiet pounding on the door had his eyes opening wide as he struggled to sit up, still blinking the sleep from his eyes and brain. 
Where was Lou? was his first thought as he looked around and saw now sign of her.
The pounding continued, now accompanied by a quiet, accented voice.
“Sir?  Laundry.”
Kid wrinkled his brow as he stood up, stumbling slightly over his own feet.
“Comin’,” he muttered just loudly enough to be heard through the door.  Confused, he opened it to see a short, slender Chinese woman holding out a package wrapped in brown paper.
“Laundry, Sir,” she said, pushing the package at him.  When he reached out automatically to take it, she let go and scurried off down the hallway.
“But…”  Kid shook his head in confusion.  What was this?  Closing the door he turned back to collapse into a seat on the bed and carefully undid the string holding the package closed.  It came open to reveal a pair of Lou’s trousers, a rip in the back of one pantleg carefully mended.
He looked around at the empty hotel room and sighed.  For now, this was all she’d left him.  He’d give her some more time.  Time and space.  That’s what she kept saying she needed.
Two weeks later….
“Kid, why ain’t ya written Lou yet?” Teaspoon demanded in an exasperated tone.  “We’ve all been writin’ her fer weeks now.  Yer the only one that ain’t.  And ta my mind, yer the one should be writin’ her more than any of us.”
Kid shook his head. 
“I can’t, Teaspoon,” he said quietly, leaning wearily back against the wall of the Marshal’s office.  He’d come to help keep an eye on their new prisoner, Emory Pike.  The outlaw would only be there for a few days, until Teaspoon took him to Fort Laramie for hanging.  But in the meantime, Teaspoon wanted extra guns around, on guard at all times.  Unfortunately, Teaspoon was also taking advantage of the opportunity to grill Kid on things he’d rather leave unsaid. 
“She left ‘cause she needed more room.  I’d been crowdin’ her.  I didn’t mean to,” Kid added quickly, to clarify.  “I… I just wanted her ta be happy.  Instead I ended up makin’ her miserable ‘cause she couldn’t be… wasn’t ready ta be… who she thought I wanted her ta be.  So, I’m givin’ her her space.  When she comes back, then I’ll go ta her, try ta make things up, make things right.  Tell her I love her just the way she is.”
“She’s a right fine woman, our Louise,” Teaspoon mused.
Kid nodded.  “She’s so beautiful it hurts sometimes,” he said.  “Not in the common way, though.  It’s a beauty all her own. And I almost stole it from her.”
Teaspoon sighed heavily.  “Sounds ta me like ya ought ta be tellin’ her that, not me, young man.  How’s she s’posed ta know that’s what yer doin’, givin’ her her space, if ya don’t say so?  Especially the way things ended, her hearin’ ‘bout yer little flirtation with that schoolmarm.  She don’t hear from ya, she’s goin’ ta assume--”
He paused at the sound of hesitant footsteps outside the front door.  Putting a finger to his lips, he slipped into his chair at the desk by the front of the one room office, while Kid scooted back into a corner, hidden by the shadows.
A tall man in farmer’s togs strode through the door and straight to Teaspoon, who now had his nose buried in a pile of paperwork he’d never really do.
“My name’s Lucas Redfern,” the man started out.  “And I got a message for ya, from Frank Pike.”
Teaspoon frowned in annoyance, not even looking up at the man.  He knew Kid was tracking the farmer’s every move anyway.  “The Frank Pike I’ve heard of don’t ride with farmers.”
Redfern shrugged minusculely.  “He crosses my land every now and then. I stay away from him.”  He hesitated for a moment, then continued, his words speeding up a touch. “But he’s seen me, seen my family. Told me if I didn’t come here somethin’d happen to ‘em.”
That caught Teaspoon’s attention and he finally looked up at his visitor’s face.
“Well, what’s he want?” he grouched impatiently.
“Frank Pike knows you got his brother and he knows yer takin’ him to Fort Laramie.”
“And how’s he know that?”  A suspicious note entered Teaspoon’s voice as he leaned back in his chair and took a closer look at this farmer.
“I don’t know.  But he wanted me to tell you he’s willin’ ta make….”  Redfern paused and looked around nervously, as if expecting someone to jump out of the shadows at him.  “An exchange.”
“An exchange, hunh?”  Teaspoon reached up and pushed his hat back a touch.  “Well, I know what I’ve got that he wants. What’s he got that I want?”
Redfern reached into a rawhide pouch hanging off his belt and pulled out a silver hair comb.  Handing it over to Teaspoon, he said simply, “Amanda O’Connell.”
Kid strangled the angry gasp that wanted to explode from his lungs.  His hands clenched around the rifle he held as he forced himself not to give his presence away. 
Teaspoon stood up abruptly and reached out with a remarkably steady hand to take the comb.  He stared down at it for what felt like forever to Kid.  He didn’t say anything.
“Knowin’ Frank, fer yer lady’s sake I hope she ain’t as pretty as that comb,” sneered the prisoner from his jail cell.
“Pike!” Teaspoon exploded across the room, grabbing Emory Pike by the collar and hauling him face first into the cell’s bars.  “You can shut up or yer hangin’s gonna be a waste of time.”
“Frank says if somethin’ happens to his brother, like bein’ hung or gettin’ shot while tryin’ ta escape, he’ll kill Miss O’Connell,” Redfern hastened to warn at the angry outburst.
Kid’s eyes narrowed.  There was something suspicious about Redfern’s use of Pike’s first name.  Not something a normal dirtgrubber would do when referring to someone threatening his family.
Teaspoon turned back to the farmer.
“You know where I’m s’posed ta bring him?” he asked, his voice tight with the effort it took to control himself.
“You’ll take me there?”  The question was more an order than a request.  But Redfern still demurred at first.
“I got a family ta think about.”
“So do I,” Teaspoon said.  “Amanda O’Connell’s like a daughter ta me.”
Redfern nodded reluctantly.  Teaspoon sat heavily back down in his chair.  “Go make sure yer family’s alright,” he said.  “Be back here first thing in the mornin’.  We’ll be leavin’ with first light.”
Redfern nodded and left.
“You heard?” Teaspoon asked, his voice suddenly cracking with fear and pain.
Kid stepped out from his hiding place.  He crossed the room and placed a comforting hand on the older man’s shoulder as he nodded. 
“I heard,” he said.  “We’ll find her.  We don’t let one of our family get hurt.”
Teaspoon nodded.  “Go get the others.  I’ll meet y’all at the bunkhouse soon’s I find Barnett.”
Kid matched Teaspoon’s nod and turned toward the door himself.
“And Kid,” Teaspoon called after him.  “I’d think ‘bout this if I was you.  I know yer young, but time still ain’t always yer friend.  Write ta Lou.  Before it’s too late.”
Kid leaned back against the bunkhouse wall, watching the others while Teaspoon explained what had happened.  The initial discussion slipped past him as he mulled the old man’s last words to him.  Should he write Lou? 
“We already said we’re in,” Jimmy’s voice broke through Kid’s reverie.
“Amanda’s like family ta us, too,” Cody added, as if the conclusion were obvious.
“So, what’s the plan?” Jimmy asked.
“Alright,” Teaspoon nodded. Not that he’d expected anything less from his boys. “Emory Pike’s supposed ta be hanged at Fort Laramie next week.  Jimmy, I want you, Buck and Noah to take him there. Dooley’s deputy will be ridin’ with ya.”
“And again and again,” Jimmy added morosely.  Kid wondered what that was about. How could this deputy have gotten on Jimmy and Cody’s bad sides that quickly?  They’d only just met the day before.
Teaspoon ignored the byplay and continued laying out his plan. “Kid,” Kid straightened at the sound of his name, “Cody, it’ll be up ta us three ta rescue Amanda ‘fore Frank Pike realizes I ain’t bringin’ his brother to him.”
Kid nodded.  It made sense, though it was by far the more dangerous of the two assignments.  Not that escorting Emory Pike to Laramie was going to be a cakewalk.
“But how’re we gonna know whether or not you got her before Pike’s s’posed ta hang?” Buck asked, concern weighing heavily in his voice.
“You won’t,” Teaspoon answered shortly.
“Now hold on, Teaspoon!” Jimmy protested.  “We ain’t gonna let ‘em string up Pike before we know Amanda’s safe!”
“Jimmy, you got one job ta do and one job only.  You get Pike ta Laramie.”
Jimmy met Teaspoon’s eyes, pain lighting their centers but hardened with resolve to do the right thing.  He nodded slowly.  He understood.  Teaspoon wouldn’t be the man they all loved if he gave in and parleyed with this outlaw. “Alright.”
Having gotten Jimmy’s agreement, Teaspoon softened his gaze a touch.  “We got plenty of time before the hangin’. We’ll meet you there.”
“Teaspoon,” Buck tried again, not won over by Teaspoon’s silent exchange with Jimmy.  “If you don’t get to Amanda before Frank Pike knows his brother’s dead –“
“We’ll be there!” Teaspoon interrupted. Then, more slowly, more heavily, “We’d better.”  He looked away from all of them, losing his vision in the crackling flames in the fireplace. “We’ll leave at first crack of dawn.”
Teaspoon was right, Kid thought, as usual.  He’d been waiting for Lou to come home to talk to her, try to work things out.  But, what if she never came back?  What if he never came back?  This mess with the Pikes was almost as bad as when he’d gone spying against The Hawk and his gang.  It was very possible at least one of them wouldn’t come back, maybe more. 
If he didn’t write to her, how would she ever know how he really felt?  How would she know that the only thing stopping him, even today, from running straight to the nearest courthouse and filing their marriage certificate was not wanting to make any more decisions for her.  He’d learned his lesson there!
But, what to write?  Where to start?  He stared down at the paper in front of him, dipped the pen in the inkwell and started scribbling.
“ What’cha writin’, Kid?”
Kid looked up to see Jimmy staring at him curiously from the other side of the table in the bunkhouse.
“Nothin’,” he muttered.
“Probably his will,” Noah joked. “Hey!  Make sure you spell my name right.”
“Fer yer information I’m writin’ a note ta Lou,” Kid sighed.
“Took ya long ‘nough,” Buck said from where he was packing a saddlebag at his bunk.
“She’s goin’ ta be hotter than a pistol when she finds out we left without her,” Jimmy commented.
“Ain’t our fault she’s not here,” Noah said, glaring in Kid’s direction.
“It’s better this way, anyway,” Kid sighed.  “You and I both know that havin’ her along would just somethin’ else ta worry about.”
“I don’t think Lou would see it that way, Kid.”
“The trouble with Lou is that she’s always tryin’ ta prove herself,” Kid said shortly, wishing the others would let him alone to think.  He’d never get his letter written this way.
“She’s proven herself ta me, that’s fer sure.”
Kid’s head jerked up at Jimmy’s tone.  “What the hell’s that s’posed ta mean?”
“She hasn’t let any of us down in a fight, yet.  Unlike some others in this room I could mention,” Jimmy sneered. “What the hell d’you think I meant?”
“If memory serves, Kid, I thought that Lou said you shouldn’t treat her any different,” Noah put in, trying to smooth things over before Kid and Jimmy came to blows again.
“She can say whatever she wants, Noah,” Kid said, swinging his head toward the other rider. “But the fact is is that she’s different to me.  No matter what her or any of ya say!  I can’t watch my wife in danger without wantin’ ta protect her, and that’s a distraction in a gunfight.”
“Kid,” Noah said placatingly.
But Kid didn’t’ let him finish. He’d had enough. He jumped to his feet and practically shouted, “Listen, ever since Lou and I got together I’ve been havin’ ta listen to y’all tell me what ya would or what ya wouldn’t do.  What ya’d say or what ya wouldn’t say,” he spat out as he crossed the room toward the bunkhouse door.  Turning back to face the others, he added, “Now she’s gone and yer still givin’ me advice.  It’s between Lou and me.  I’d appreciate y’all just mindin’ yer own business!”  His head swung in Jimmy’s direction.  “Especially you, Jimmy.”
With that he opened the door, stomped out onto the porch and pulled it shut forcefully behind him.
Jimmy smiled grimly.  “Well, guess it ain’t over ‘til it’s over, hunh?”
“I need a volunteer for a special run fer the Army,” McKenzie announced as he walked into the station dugout. 
“I’ll take it,” Lou muttered before anyone else had really even registered what McKenzie had said.  She pushed herself up on her elbows, as far upright as she could get in her top bunk, and looked toward the barrel of a man who was her new boss.
“Lou, you just got in from a two day run,” McKenzie sighed.  “You gotta let yerself take at least sometime ‘tween runs ta recover.  No, not this time,” he added.  Looking around at the others, he asked, “So, who’s it gonna be?  Or do I haveta volunteer someone myself?”
Lou plopped back down onto her back on the bunk, her eyes already closing in exhaustion.
“Aw, let Lou take it,” George whined.  “He wants it.  No skin off my back if he don’t wanna sleep.”
“I think you should go, George,” Hiram Perry said.  “Lou leaves won’t even put a dent in the offerin’s at dinner time. You go and there’ll be enough fer all of us ta have seconds.”
Benji wheezed laughter at Hiram’s jab at George.
“I do believe it’ll be you going, this time, Hi,” McKenzie said.  “Grab yer bags and go report to the Captain fer orders.”
McKenzie waited for Hi to leave before walking over to the tower of bunks where Lou was rapidly falling asleep.  He reached up and slipped an envelope into her hand.
“You got more mail, Lou,” he said softly.  “Might want ta think ‘bout answerin’ them one of these days.”
Lou’s hand clenched around the letter, even as she sighed and settled into a true slumber.
Dear Lou,
I hope you are better.  Please come back.  I promise not to baby you.  We miss you.
The first letter she’d received was less than a page long.  Scrawled out in painfully careful handwriting, she could just imagine how long Jimmy had worked on it.  She’d long since memorized the words.  But, as with all the others, she continued to go back and re-read it almost every day.
A few days after Jimmy’s letter, she’d gotten Billy’s.  Where Jimmy’s had left her wondering what was going on, Billy’s had left her no room for questions.  Three pages long, it had described in detail how Cody’s life was falling apart because she wasn’t there.  He had too many chores, now.  He had no one to sew up his coat when it got ripped.  He missed his poker partner.   Who else would stake him when they went into town to play at the saloon?
Buck, Ike and Noah had all made their own contributions. 
Buck wrote about Ike’s encounter with a man who’d been part of the gang who’d massacred his family.  He told how the man had changed and Ike had decided he wasn’t the same person.  He wrote how Ike had forgiven both the man and himself for not being able to save Ike’s parents.
Ike wrote about the animals.  He described Samson’s latest antics, told her all about the new foals born since she’d left, even described how Katy was languishing because, other than runs, Kid never rode her anymore, just stood around, staring off into the horizon.
Noah wrote about helping Teaspoon answer a call for help from a friend at a Mexican village.  He told her all about how Teaspoon’s friend, the priest, had been just as strange as you’d expect from someone who would call Teaspoon for help.  He explained how they’d helped the villagers fight off the outlaws determined to steal their silver.  He’d commented again and again on how much they’d needed her gun in the fight and her brain in the planning.
Rachel and Teaspoon had been more explicit in their letters.  Both had told her the family was falling to pieces without her there, called her the heart of the family.  Jimmy’d been hurt, again, in a gunfight.  He and Kid continued to be at each other’s throats all the time, fighting over anything and everything, neither willing to admit their argument centered around someone who wasn’t even there.  Cody spent more and more time off on his own, chasing women and losing money in poker games at any handy saloon.  Ike often would go for days without talking to anyone but Samson. They begged her to come home.  Her bunk was waiting for her.
The one person who hadn’t written was the one person she really wanted, needed, to hear from the most.  Did he want her back?  Or was he just as glad not to have to think about her anymore?  Kid had remained nothing more than a mention in the other’s letters.
So, though she’d read and re-read them so many times they’d already become tattered at the edges, she hadn’t responded to any of them.  How could she tell her family she couldn’t return to the site where all her dreams had died once and for all? 
Until now. 
She looked back down at the latest letter.  She’d recognized Kid’s handwriting the second she’d woken up and read her name on the envelope, though the address was written in Teaspoon’s distinctive, cramped scrawl. 
Skipping out on breakfast, she’d rushed through her morning chores and then taken off for her favorite spot, high in a tree along the edge of the Platte River.  There she’d slowly re-read the others’ letters one more time, putting off the moment of truth.  But the moment of truth had come.  What would Kid have to say?
Practically holding her breath, she picked up his letter and carefully slit it open, pulling out several sheets of paper covered in his familiar scrawl.  Unfolding them, she realized there were actually two letters.  The first was from Rachel. 
Her hands shaking, Lou set Rachel’s missive aside to read later and slowly opened the second letter.  For a moment, her eyes caressed the belovedly familiar, careful, looping script.  Then she focused on the words and began to read.
Dear Louise,
I miss you and I love you.  I think that’s the most important thing to say.  That and I’m sorry.  I’ve tried writing this letter so many different ways, but Teaspoon says always start at the beginning.  Well, that’s the beginning, middle and end for me.  I love you.
I know I messed up.  I was just trying to show you how much I respected you by treating you like a proper woman, the way my Ma would have wanted me to treat my wife.  I forgot you aren’t my Ma, or any of the other women I grew up around. 
That’s not a bad thing.  What makes you different, what makes you unique, Lou not just Louise, is what makes me love you.  I’ll just have to figure out a way to treat you with respect in a way that truly respects you.  If you’ll just give me a chance.
I know your job is important to you and you take great pride in doing it well.  As you should.  You’re one of the best.  No one can deny that.  But, just remember, the road doesn’t love you, it doesn’t care if you leave or stay, or how often you come to visit.  We, your family, do.
I know the world hasn’t treated you fairly, especially certain men in it.  Sadly, I became one of them when I accused you of trying to get rid of my, our child.  I know you’d never do that.  I know you.  I just didn’t stop to think about you in my shock over thinking you were with child.  I felt my own panic and put that on you.  I’m sorry.  I can’t ever take those words back, but, if you’ll come back, I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to make them up to you.
I love you.  Have I said that yet?  I want you in my life for the rest of my life.  I came back from my last run planning to ask you to go to the courthouse with me and file our marriage certificate, make things official.  But you were gone.  And, to a great extent, I think that’s my fault.  I’m sorry.  I beg of you, please, forgive me.
As for Miss Edgars, I flirted with her shamelessly when I wasn’t free to do any such thing, not in my eyes nor God’s, let alone yours. I hurt you horribly with my actions.  I can only say I was hurting from your rejection and seeking relief from the pain.  Yet, I still found myself always comparing her to you.  And she, my darling, was no Louise McCloud and never will be.
I’m waiting for you, here in Sweetwater, whenever you decide to return. Rachel’s including a note about what’s going on here.  I’m glad you’re not here right now.  I know you and you’d be right in the thick of things, trying to save Amanda, protect Teaspoon, help all of us.  That’s what you do.  It’s who you are.  But I would spend my time worrying about your safety and not concentrating on what I need to do.
Besides, you need time to rest and heal.  Jimmy told me what happened and I will bear the sin of that for the rest of my life.  If I hadn’t been such an ass, you wouldn’t have been under all that stress and lost our baby. 
I’m sorry, sweetheart.  I know I keep saying that, but what else can I do except apologize, over and over again and beg your forgiveness?  I promise to wait until you’re ready to come home.
While I’m waiting, I’ll be here, tending our daughter’s grave. I know it was really too early to know for sure, but I truly believe she was a darling baby girl, perfect in every way, just like her mother.  I’ve set up a memorial cross up on the hill, next to Emma’s baby boy’s grave. I visit her everyday I’m here, bring her flowers, tell her about her beautiful mother and our lives.
Take your time, get healthy.  When you’re ready, please, please, please come home to us.  We’ll all be back, safe and sound, by then. 
You and I can talk, figure out how to make things work between us, then.  I’ll be here waiting until then.  I promise not to crowd you ever again.
Your Husband, the Kid
The last words Kid had penned answered so many of her questions and fears about their relationship and where it stood.  He hadn’t written her, or their marriage, off.  She couldn’t begin to describe how much that meant to her.
Lou didn’t even realize she was crying until the sound of the first sob burst out.  But this time, the tears were tears of relief as much as grief.  They were healing tears.
When the tears slowed after only a couple minutes, she reached for Rachel’s letter with shaking hands.
Dear Louise,
I don’t know how to tell you this, but Amanda O’Connell’s been kidnapped.  She’s being held to blackmail Teaspoon into not delivering a prisoner for hanging.  I’m sure you know Teaspoon well enough to know he won’t stand for that.  The boys are all riding out to help rescue her or to take the prisoner, a certain Emory Pike, to Fort Laramie for hanging.  Everyone’s going except you and Ike, who’s on a run to St. Joe. 
Lou, this is a dangerous mission and I think they’re going to need every bit of help they can get.  If you still hold some love for us, please, come home.
Lou’s heart lurched.  She’d heard of the Pike brothers, same as most others in the territory.  Suddenly, she felt an incredible urgency to get home.  Her family needed her.  In a rush, she folded the letters back up and slipped them into her saddlebag.  She practically ran the rest of the way across the fort grounds to the Express station dugout.  There she shoved her clothes into the bags with the letters.
“You ain’t got a run fer another two days, Lou.  So why’re you packin’?”
She didn’t pause in her motions at the sound of McKenzie’s voice, just nodded as she kept packing.  He couldn’t peg it, but there was something different about the rider that afternoon.
“I’ve gotta go.  It’s… a family emergency.  They need me,” Lou said.
Despite the words, McCloud’s entire being thrummed with an energy, a vibrant life force, McKenzie had yet to see out of him.  To date, he’d been doing little more than going through the motions, with no enthusiasm for life.
“How long will ya be gone?”
“Don’t know,” she said, shrugging as she tossed the stuffed saddlebags over her shoulder and reached up to grab her hat off its hook on the wall.
“I can’t hold yer job forever, Lou,” he said, shaking his head.  “Hell, I only made room fer ya ‘cause Teaspoon begged me to.  That, and yer better’n any two of the others put tagether.”
“Don’t worry ‘bout it,” she said.  “I doubt I’ll be back.  I’m goin’ home.”
Brushing past him and out the door, she hurried toward the stables. She had an appointment in Fort Laramie.

McKenzie shook his head, watching the rider practically bounce out of the dugout bunkhouse.  He didn’t know what it was that had brought that child back to life, but he couldn’t wait to write Teaspoon and let him know, Lou McCloud was back.

Moment of Truth

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