Kid sat in frozen shock, his eyes locked on Louise’s slender frame, suspended from the cross Pike’s men had just raised over the edge of the Mission’s wall.
How? he wondered inanely, how had she gotten there? She was supposed to be safe at her new station!
Even as his breath was stuck in his chest from fear, his heart was leaping with joy to see her again, the competing emotions keeping him from moving or reacting in any discernible way. All told, probably not that bad a thing judging by Pike’s expectant look, which Kid caught out of the corner of his eye when the other man moved impatiently. But Kid never took his eyes off Lou.
She looked sooooo good to his eyes, starved for her as they were. Yet, he was scared stiff by her appearance. He’d forgotten how fragile she was, her slender body so easily bruised and broken. Usually her fierce personality overwhelmed her appearance, leaving people with the impression of a strong, sturdy individual. Having been separated from her for so long, her fragility was fully apparent to his eyes and heart. It didn’t help that her position, with arms stretched out on the cross, just pulled her skin tight over muscle and bone, exaggerating her innately petite frame.
Lou found her eyes locked on Kid’s face as soon as they raised the cross they’d tied her to up onto its end. But she couldn’t meet his gaze, looking quickly away in shame at her position. She’d come to help, but now she was just another problem they’d have to deal with, a liability to her brothers, just like Kid was always saying. The thought that she might prove him right infuriated her and she frantically tried to think of ways to rescue herself. She’d spent years learning to take care of herself, so she’d never have to scream for help again and be let down. It broke something inside that she might now have to wait to be rescued. She knew they’d try, but they shouldn’t have to endanger themselves for her. As she fingered the ropes that bound her hands together, feeling the weakness in her muscles that meant she couldn’t break free, a small part of her, deep down inside, broke instead. Who was she if she wasn’t ‘Lou McCloud, Pony Express Rider,’ the puny but spry youth who was as rough and tumble and tough as any of her brothers?
Unable to find an answer, her eyes wandered back toward Kid, almost against her will. She could see the tension in his body as he held himself back from charging the Mission gate singlehandedly. She closed her eyes and prayed, with every fiber of her being, that her presence here didn’t cause her brothers or, most especially Kid, to get hurt. The thought that she could be the one to injure them in some way was almost more than she could bear. The pain of that bit deep and a slight shudder ran through her.
Despite her pain and shame, she couldn’t keep from sneaking peaks at him though. It had been too long since she’d seen him, really seen him. When she’d run into him on that run a couple weeks ago she’d never gotten a good look at him. That had been a night of feelings, emotions, not appearances. So now she drank in the sight of him. While she felt small, puny as Teaspoon had once described her, he looked strong, vibrant in a way that drew her, heart and soul, to him.
His strength drew her, like a moth to a flame, and she found herself unable to look away. She could feel it wrapping around her, calming the fear and pain and anger warring inside her, letting her relax and think logically. She longed to fly down off the cross and throw herself into his arms, to soak up the strength he so freely offered her. He always seemed to be there when she was at her lowest, sharing his strength with her, helping her back to her feet. It was an effect she’d never realized he’d had on her before and she marveled at it. She only now realized just how tight the ropes that bound them together were, when she needed his strength so badly yet couldn’t quite reach out to him the way she wanted. She hadn’t really noticed it in his absence. Only now, when he was there yet still just out of reach,did his effect on her truly blossom in her soul.
“Oh, now I wouldn’t try that if I were you.”
Lou’s head jerked to the raised platform just behind the mission wall that Frank Pike stood on. She blanched as she saw him cock his raised pistol. Another swing of her head back to Kid and she saw his hand slowly, carefully move away from the pistol on his hip as Frank spoke again.
“You never know who might get caught in the crossfire.”
She knew who Pike meant. Her. He’d found her letters and figured out who she was to Teaspoon and the others. As she watched Kid wheel Katy around and gallop off she cursed herself for being so stupid, not only in getting caught but in carrying with her the evidence that made her a threat to those she loved. Had it only been three days ago she’d ridden out, so sure she was on the way to help her family escape this situation?
Three days earlier….
The small fire she’d lit to cook her supper over flickered merrily, casting valleys and mountains of light across her sharply carved features, the skin pulled taut over her bones with all the weight she’d lost in the last few weeks.
Her slender hands trembled slightly as she held the letters in front of her and read through them again. She’d carefully wrapped all of the letters the boys, Teaspoon and Rachel had sent her in an oiled cloth to protect them, Kid’s on top. Some of them she’d re-read so many times by now she had them memorized. This time, though, she set the others aside and opened Kid’s missive.
As she re-read the dear words, certain phrases jumped out at her this time, making her pause and purse her lips in frustration.
“Treating you like a proper woman… I flirted with her shamelessly…. I know you and you’d be right in the thick of things, trying to save Amanda, protect Teaspoon, help all of us. ….. But I would spend my time worrying about your safety and not concentrating on what I need to do.”
“How can someone so special be so infuriatin’ at the same time?” she muttered to herself questioningly. “I should be with ya, Kid. You and the others. Whatever yer goin’ thorugh, I should be goin’ thorugh, too.” She sighed and pressed the letter closed, holding it to her lips as she continued to mutter to herself. “Half yer letter is you tellin’ me how much ya still care about me. And the other half if you tellin’ me how glad ya are I’m not with ya.”
Even as she growled in frustration at the Kid’s pigheadedness, she could hear Rachel whispering at her from the back of her brain. It was something she’d told Lou during one of their conversations earlier when Kid had been getting on Lou’s nerves with his protectiveness.
“You know, the funny thing is, it’s only the ones that you really care about that can get to ya like that,” Rachel had half-laughed, her green eyes twinkling.
“But they’re all like that,” Lou’d argued. “Cody and Hickok and…” She’d let her words trail off at Rachel’s look, daring her to continue lying to both of them. She’d laughed slightly herself, shaking her head. “I guess yer right,” she’d admitted ruefully before heading off to make things up with the Kid.
Lou smiled as she put the letters away, tucking them into the inner pocket of her coat as she lay down to sleep. Rachel was still right. But that didn’t mean she could just stay out of things as Kid obviously wanted. They were family and she had to go help, in whatever way she could.
Lou leaned forward, shadowing her eyes as she watched the group of riders heading out of the fort at a gallop. The one in particular looked a lot like Jimmy, the way he hugged his palomino horse, brown locks flying out behind him. And there, that slender dark one could so easily be Buck, the stockier man next to him, Ike. She couldn’t see the man on the far side of the group very well, but he definitely had Noah’s height as he sat upright on his steed. But they hadn’t responded to her call, not even looking her direction when she’d given their standard owl hoot, something Buck had taught them all to do.
Shaking her head, she moved on down the street toward the Army’s main office, to see if the others had gotten here with Emory Pike yet.
“Do you think we fooled her?” Buck asked anxiously as they slowed to a stop on top of the hill overlooking Fort Laramie.
Noah shrugged. “She didn’t follow us, at least.”
“I still don’t see why we couldn’t stop and let her catch up,” Jimmy groused.
*That’d be a big mistake, Jimmy,* Ike signed wearily.
“Why? Cause it’ll make the Kid angry?”
“No,” Noah shook his head. “Because of where we’re going and the odds that we’ll make it out of there alive.”
“She’s family,” Jimmy persisted. “And she can carry her own.”
“Family or not, I say she stays out of it,” Noah said. “Besides, how do we even know she’s here because of us and not some special run?”
*We don’t want to scare her off so she never comes back,* Ike added.
“Yer right, Jimmy, Lou is family,” Buck continued. “And whatever her reasons for coming here are, I think we owe it to ourselves to make sure at least one of us survives this. I gotta side with Noah on this one.”
Jimmy grunted in frustration and pulled on his horse’s reigns, turning the palomino toward the west. “Still got a lot of ground ta cover between here and the mission, so let’s split up.”
Noah nodded. It only made sense to make the best use of their numbers.
Buck uncharacteristically chimed in, “I’ll trail Jane. She’ll be harder to follow than the buckboard and, the way she took off, she might have a better idea than us where Pike’s headed.”
Before the others could respond, he spurred his horse off at a tangent to their direction.
*Who’s Jane?* Ike asked, confused.
Lou sighed as she pushed the food around on her plate. The beans were unappetizing, only half cooked and overly salted. The perfect ending to a perfect day. Not. She’d ridden hard to get here in little more than a day, then spent all of this day first finding out she’d missed the others by less than an hour and not being able to find their tracks. The authorities said they’d hanged Emory Pike yesterday and didn’t see any reason to help her search. Now she was at a loss as to what to do next.
A heavily perfumed working girl pushed past Lou, where she sat huddled in the corner by the stairs. She didn’t even have the manners to apologize as she continued to chatter and laugh with her companion. Lou steadfastly ignored the couple, turning her own problem over and over in her mind, trying to find a solution, until she heard the name Pike.
Her head jerked up as her eyes trailed the couple meandering up the stairs, her ears straining to catch more of their conversation.
“I was hopin’ you’d come out ta the ranch with some of the gals tomorra,” the cowboy grinned loopily. “It’s the boss’ birthday and we’re tryin’ ta get him somethin’ special.”
“Well, I’m that alright,” she giggled back at him, tapping her closed fan on his chest flirtatiously. “But ain’t none of us gonna be available tomorrow.”
“Why not? It’s a Sunday, ain’t like this place’ll be open fer business,” he whined.
“That’s why we’re headed out ta Pike’s place,” she murmured so low Lou could barely hear her. “And he thinks I’m somethin’ special, too. No tellin’ how long he’ll want me ta stay around, now that he’s back.”
The conversation continued as the couple turned the corner down the hallway toward the bedrooms upstairs, but Lou couldn’t make out any more of it. She didn’t need to, though. She knew how to get to Pike’s hideout and how to get inside without him even knowing he’d been infiltrated. A seraphic smile lit her face. This was something only she could do. None of the boys would be able to pull this one off.
“You sure you want ta do this, fella?”
Lou nodded as she grabbed the saloon girl’s hand and started leading her toward the stairs. Her other hand dipped into her coat pocket to finger the bottle of laudanum she’d bought off a China man down the block.
The girl, Diamond Lil’, laughed and skipped to catch up with Lou, wrapping one long, white arm around her shoulders.
“I can see yer eager ta get started,” Lil’ trilled. “But…well.. ya do seem a bit… ahem… young….”
“I’m older’n I look,” Lou huffed in her gruffest boy voice, trying not to laugh in Lil’s face at her concerns. She was obviously at least three years younger than Lou. “And it ain’t like I ain’t seen the upstairs of a saloon before.” Probably about the same age you first did, she thought.
That seemed to pacify the girl who was now content to lead Lou to her room upstairs. There,Lil’ immediately started trying to wrap herself around Lou. But Lou shrugged uncomfortably and peeled her off, saying, “I’m feelin’ a mite thirsty. You got anythin’ ta drink up here?”
“Sure!” the girl sang out, thrilled at the request, for it would mean a bigger payday for her. She turned and pulled a key out of her bodice to unlock a cupboard along one wall. “Whiskey?”
“Sounds good,” Lou murmured. “Get one fer yerself while yer at it. I’m feelin’ generous.”
Ecstatic at her good fortune, Lil’ poured two full tumblers of whiskey, then put the cap back on the bottle and turned to lock it away again. While her back was turned, Lou quickly pulled out the laudanum and dribbled several drops into the tumbler closes to the other girl. She just barely managed to tuck the bottle back in her pocket before Lil’ turned back around.
To cover her motion, she reached down and quickly grabbed the tumbler closest to her, the undrugged one, and lifted it in toast.
“To a fun-filled night,” she murmured.
“Bottoms up,” Lil’ giggled and suited action to words. Lou barely sipped hers as her eyes watched Lil’ avidly finish off every last drop of the pseudo-whiskey, no way would they sell the real stuff at a place like this, along with the sleeping draught Lou’d added.
“So, Lil’,” Lou said, reaching out to take the other girl’s hand, “Where ya from?”
“Oh, here and there,” the girl fumbled, her tongue already thickened by the drug Lou’d given her. “Mostly right here,” she giggled loopily pointing at the bed beside them.
“Ever wanted ta go anywhere special?” Lou asked, playing for time.
“Sure, don’t every girl?” Lil’ shrugged as she reached out to wrap her arms around Lou’s neck again, stumbling over her own feet in the process.
“Uph,” Lou grunted as she caught Lil’ and kept her from falling to the dusty floor. “Come on,” she muttered as she half led, half carried the quickly fading girl to the bed. “Let’s sit down.”
“Oooh, are we gettin’ to the fun part now?” Lil’ asked, slurring her words. She flopped backward onto the bed and flung her arms wide in invitation. “Come show Lil’ how much you love her.”
Her eyes fluttered shut, saving Lou the need to come up with a suitable response.
Lou sighed despairingly as she pulled the frayed and tattered quilt out from under Lil’ and used it to cover the girl warmly. Lil’ snorted in her sleep and rolled over, curling up like a child, one hand tucked under her cheek.
Lou reached up and gently pushed the light brown locks away from Lil’s suddenly frighteningly young face, covered by garishly bright cosmetics in an attempt to disguise it’s youth. She shook her head as she turned away from the now peacefully sleeping girl and began to ransack her wardrobe.
“That ain’t love, darlin’,” she whispered sadly. “And I hope someday ye’ll meet a man that can show ya the difference. And that you’ll have the courage ta accept real love when it does comes knockin’.”
Bam, bam, bam!
The sound of a heavy fist landing repeatedly on the door roused Lou from her light slumber in the chair next to the bed. She’d dressed in a skirt and chemise of Lil’s that she’d found at the back of the closet. It was the least revealing clothing she could find that still left her looking like the working girl she was impersonating.
“Lil’, up and at ‘em. We’re leavin’ in five minutes. You’d better have yer raggedy butt down here by then,” a rough, masculine voice called through the door. “You don’t want me havin’ ta come in after ya again.”
“I’m comin’,” Lou called in a slightly falsetto voice, trying to sound like Lil’. Apparently it was good enough because the sound of heavy footsteps moved away from the door and down the hall, followed by a repeat of the knocking and message she’d gotten obviously at the next room.
Lou quickly stood and checked on Lil’, who continued to snooze the sleep of the untroubled in her drug induced dreamworld. Lou straightened the covers over her and then reached into the drawstring pouch she’d tied around her waist to pull out a couple of coins. She’d kept Lil’ up here all night and the girl would be expected to give the majority of the money from the night to the proprietor. Lou didn’t want her in trouble because of what Lou’d done.
She started to lay the coins on the dresser, then looked back at the sleeping girl and, shrugging, pulled the pouch off and left the whole thing there. Maybe the extra would give the girl the courage to leave, find something else, somewhere else.
Wrapping a shawl around her head to disguise her shorn hair and shield her face, Lou took a deep breath and opened the door.
An hour later, she was sitting in an old red stagecoach, trapped between two other women as they all bounced and jounced their way across the prairie. Lou’d tried to get a window seat, so she could at least breath fresher air, but a last minute arrival had pushed her away. Now, she just caught glimpses of the outside world in the middle of the up and the down of each bounce.
One hand rested against her thigh, where she’d carefully hidden Kid’s letter inside the handkerchief she’d been embroidering for him, wrapped tightly around one leg. The rest of the letters and her other things she’d left behind at the livery stable with Lightning. The feel of the crackling paper as she moved brought her courage.
The sudden sound of a different set of galloping hoofbeats from the stagecoach’s horses had Lou straining to see through the window yet again. She caught a glimpse of a woman bent low over a horse, her long, dark hair flying out behind her.
Amanda? Lou mouthed silently. Had she made her escape? Then, another bounce brought the entrance of the hideout into view and Lou saw Amanda disappear through the same gate the stagecoach lumbered through minutes later.
Kid leaned low over Katy’s neck, pushing the paint to move as fast as she could, racing back toward camp almost as face as his own brain was racing. What had Lou been doing in Pike’s camp? How’d she gotten there? She must have somehow followed them, but how? When? Why hadn’t she come up to them instead of heading to Pike’s hideout?
Topping the ridge, he plunged down into the copse of trees where they’d camped and his gaze settled on Jimmy walking across the clearing. His eyes narrowed. He didn’t know how, but somehow, he knew Jimmy was responsible for Lou being in Pike’s grasp.
With no more thought, Kid launched himself from Katy’s back onto Jimmy, taking him down into the dirt. Even as he raised a hand to punch him, Jimmy rolled free and pushed away from his enraged brother.
“Kid! What the hell are you doin’?” Jimmy exclaimed.
Kid stood there, breathing heavily, hands fisted at his side as he uttered the damning words, “They’ve got Lou!”
“What?!” Jimmy responded, confused. “How’d--”
“Kid!” Buck interrupted urgently. “We’ve got bigger problems!”
“Like what?!” Kid growled, never taking his eyes off of Jimmy.
This earned Buck a quick glance, but then Kid’s head whipped back toward Jimmy.
“I don’t care if Pike died. I want ta know what Lou’s doin’ in the middle of this.”
*She showed up in Laramie,* Ike gestured, stepping between Kid and Jimmy.
“She showed up in Laramie?” Kid asked incredulously? “And you didn’t tell me about it? You didn’t tell her to go back?” The last was aimed at Jimmy, who looked away, unable to meet Kid’s probing gaze.
“Kid, we gave her the slip,” Noah said quietly, trying to calm the situation. “She was just getting into Fort Laramie as we were leaving. She never even knew we were there.”
“Well, that sure worked out,” Kid gritted out, stalking toward Jimmy. “Tell me the truth, Jimmy. Did you want her to go back ta Sweetwater, or wherever she’s been? Or did you want her go to with you?”
Jimmy looked desperately at Teaspoon for help, but Teaspoon just shook his head warningly at him.
Finally Jimmy shrugged and said quietly, “I just wanted her ta come with us. I wanted her ta come home.”
All the fear Kid felt for Lou’s safety combined in that moment with his longing for her he’d surpressed for the last few weeks, his grief over her loss, his guilt over not being there for her when she’d needed him most and his jealousy of Jimmy, who had been there to help her. Unable to think clearly anymore, he lowered his head and rushed Jimmy.
Jimmy grunted as Kid collided with his chest, pushing him to the ground. Trying desperately to free himself without hurting the other rider too badly, he put one arm up to guard his face, while pushing at Kid with the other, until the two of them rolled over.
At that point, he felt the others intervening, reaching in and pulling them apart and heaved a sigh of relief. He really didn’t want to have to beat Kid up, again. Especially not if Lou was about to come back to them. He shuddered to think what she’d have to say about him hitting Kid. Again.
“That’s enough!” Teaspoon thundered. “Kid, we gotta get inside that Mission.” He moved over to Kid as the others let the young man go and grabbed his arms tight. “We’re gonna get Amanda. We’re gonna get Lou. And I got the feeling you wanna help us. But you gotta set aside whatever you got goin’ on with Jimmy ‘til we get that done!” He paused peering deeply into Kid’s eyes. “ You understand?”
Kid nodded jerkily in acceptance as his rage cooled and he concentrated on the need to rescue Lou.
Seeing reason return to Kid’s gaze, Teaspoon nodded, too.
“You been closer ta that mission than anyone else. Can ya tell us somethin’ about it?” he asked.
“I’ll do my best,” Kid answered, looking nowhere but at Teaspoon.
“What’re we gonna do now that Pike’s dead, Teaspoon?” Cody asked, worry coloring his voice.
Teaspoon’s voice hardened as he answered. “Pike deserved to die. That don’t mean he still can’t help us.”
Lou shifted uncomfortably on the cross. She was starting to lose feeling in her arms, the way they were stretched out. And she had to breathe very shallowly, her position didn’t allow for anything else, leaving her constantly feeling out of breath.
Even more distracting than the physical was her mental frustration. Everything had been going perfectly. She’d gotten inside the compound without a second glance, even managing to evade the attentions of the saloon girls’ admirers as she slipped away. That was, until she’d run into Amanda.
She’d been so furious at her in that moment, when Amanda’s very presence wearing the same clothes she’d seen on the woman on horseback confirmed she wasn’t being held captive. Lou hadn’t been paying close enough attention, had let the confrontation with Amanda distract her and hadn’t noticed until too late the arrival of Pike and his men.
First Amanda had handed her over to them, giving away her connection to Teaspoon. Then they’d searched her thoroughly, embarrassingly so, quickly finding Kid’s letter. That had been all the confirmation Pike had needed to have her ‘interrogated.’
She tentatively probed at a loose tooth, wincing as her tongue hit a bruise inside her mouth. The wince itself a reminder of the growing black eye she sported. And she wasn’t sure but thought she might have a cracked rib or two. Pike’s man, Ramirez, hadn’t taken it easy on her because she was a woman.
Lou let out a huff of humor at the irony. One of the few times she wished her gender had won her a little consideration and… nothing. Luckily, for all Ramirez’ admiration of her stamina, the damage he’d inflicted was no worse than a bad fall off a horse, something she’d had plenty of experience with.
But now she was nothing more than a tool, something Frank Pike could use to threaten her family into bringing him his brother.
“Why’re ya doin’ this?”
The sound of Amanda’s distinctive voice floating up from behind her, jerked Lou out of her contemplations. She turned her head from side to side, trying to catch a glimpse of the other woman, to no avail. But she heard everything.
“A demonstration,” Pike said. “She’ll be the first ta die if they try and trick us. And you’ll be the second.”
Lou shivered as a sharp wind slipped past the thin shield of her clothes with his words.
“What are you talkin’ about?”
The outraged confusion in Amanda’s voice, hinting at a suspicion of what Pike really meant sent the shiver to Lou’s bones.
“Comin’ back with my coin was brilliant. It was just brilliant,” Pike purred. “And turnin’ her over ta me. That was very good. Too good ta be true.”
“I’ve never met Teaspoon Hunter. But what he’s done in the past few days has made me respect him,” Frank said, his voice suddenly hard as flint. “And what she went through at the hands of Ramirez made me respect her. These people cannot be deceived easily. They know you. The real you. That’s who they’ve risked their lives ta rescue.”
Even Lou could hear the desperation in Amanda’s voice. Maybe she had been telling the truth when she said she was trying to warn Teaspoon.
“No,” said Pike. “Just loyal.” He grunted. “Like you. I’m a fool.”
Even as she strained her ears to listen in on the conversation, Lou was keeping her eyes glued to the horizon. So she saw the others riding toward the mission even before Ramirez, who called a warning to his boss.
“Riders! Four of them. One of them’s your brother.”
Lou narrowed her eyes as she watched them getting closer. There was something wrong with the fourth rider. She couldn’t quite peg what it was, but had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.
Then, as she flicked her eyes across the group, she realized Teaspoon had included Kid. She had not doubt the others were out there, sneaking in somehow, but wondered why Kid was there. She could see the brittle worry in his eyes as they lifted to meet hers when the riders passed by her on the way to the front gates.
Couldn’t Teaspoon see Kid was barely in control of himself? Why would he have brought him along like this? He was jeopardizing the entire plan, whatever it was.
Once they entered the mission, she couldn’t see what was going on anymore and had to rely on her ears again. Whatever was off with Emory Pike, it was clear Frank had noticed as well because gunshots quickly started peppering the yard.
Frustrated and worried about her family, Lou twisted against the ropes tying her to the cross, trying to get free.
“Kill the girl!
She heard the command and knew he was talking about her. She opened her mouth to call for help and the only thing she could think of came out.
She heard more scrambling and flinched at a rifle shot coming from above her, but opened her eyes again when she felt nothing. She hated getting shot!
A sudden sound of boots trampling across the wooden walkway just below the top of the wall had Lou looking down at her feet, hoping to be able to see something. When a pair of slender, feminine hands appeared, reaching toward the ropes tying her in place, Lou relaxed. Amanda.
Within moments, she was free and leaning against the other woman to half limp down off the walkway to the ground below. She frowns in concentration, trying to ignore the painful prickles of circulation returning to her arms and legs after so long up on the cross. She hated looking weak, especially after having to be rescued when she was supposed to be the one doing the rescuing.
As soon as she felt safe to walk on her own two feet, she pulled away from Amanda’s supporting grasp and took refuge inside the nearest tent.
“Thought fer sure I was gonna die,” Lou muttered, panting a bit at her recent efforts.
“So did I,” Amanda, equally out of breath, grinned at her. Then she turned and began exploring the contents of the tent.
“What’re we gonna do ta help ‘em?” Lou asked, determined to get Amanda back out into the fight and helping those who’d come to rescue them both.
Amanda turned back toward Lou from the back of the tent, holding up what looked like an odd candle she’d pulled out of a crate.
“How about a little fireworks?” Amanda smiled wickedly.
Recognizing the ‘candle’ as a stick of dynamite, Lou jumped to her feet and ran to inspect the box.