Author's Note: This story continues The Whole Truth saga, picking up where Moment of Truth left off. It takes place from the end of The Exchange through A House Divided and into Jesse.
Kid dropped his gaze to his hands as he continued fiddling with his hat, unable to continue watching Lou, waiting for her to say something and losing hope. Finally, he sighed and stood up, pushing his hat back onto his head.
He didn’t know how long they’d sat there, staring at each other in silence. But it had been long enough to leave a knife of pain vibrating in his heart. He’d thought when she’d come to help, and, though she’d been captured, that’s exactly why she’d been there – he knew her that well. But he’d thought her very presence meant she’d gotten his letter and at least taken the first steps toward forgiving him, toward coming home and trying to make their marriage work.
Evidently he’d been wrong. Maybe he’d hurt her more than he’d thought. Who knew? He certainly didn’t. Not anymore.
“I… I guess I was wrong,” he stuttered. “Guess you weren’t comin’ home…. Leastwise not ta me, after all. I’ll just leave ya in peace.” He paused at the door, not looking back. “I hope ya got my letter, Lou. I cain’t say things any better than I did there. I love you. But I won’t force myself on you.”
Still, she said nothing. His shoulders slumped and he reached for the door handle, turning it with dread and pulling the room door open.
“Kid!” she suddenly shouted in a hoarse whisper, throwing herself against his back. “Don’t... don’t go.”
He stumbled from the force of her weight as she rammed into him, wrapping her arms around his waist so tightly he doubted he could have pried her off. Not that he wanted to. Instead, he turned on his heel and looked down at her.
“I’m…. I’m sorry,” she muttered, her face now pressed into the cloth of his shirt, worn soft from so many washings. “I…. I was afraid I misunderstood your letter and you wanted ta talk about endin’…. endin’…. our…. our…. “
“Our marriage?” Kid whispered, reaching out to tentatively touch the hair on her head.
She nodded, her chin digging into his chest with each downward arc.
“I came back after ya left, intendin’ ta ask ya to go to the county seat and file our marriage certificate at the courthouse, Lou.” He reached down to slide his hand under her chin, lifting her face so he could see it. “Endin’ it was… and is… the furthest thing from my mind.”
“No buts,” he shook his head, interrupting her. “I love ya and I fully intend ta spend the rest of my life with ya. If ye’ll let me.”
A shudder of relief shook her body against his and he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her tight against him as he breathed in deeply the unique scent that was hers.
“That said,” he added slowly. “I cain’t… won’t keep chasing after ya. Either ya want this… us…. same as me, or ya don’t. Either yer willin’ ta work for it, or ya ain’t. Every time ya walk away, it just ‘bout kills me, Lou. I can’t handle it much more. Can ya do that fer me?”
She nodded again.
“This ain’t gonna be easy,” he said.
“I know,” she whispered. “I… I messed up. Big time. And that lost us our baby. I… I killed our baby, Kid.”
“No, Lou. You didn’t. I didn’t. Jimmy didn’t. It… it’s just somethin’ that happens. Somethin’ we gotta learn ta live with. All o’ us. But we can’t stop livin’ and lovin’ ‘cause of it.”
Suddenly, her hands slid up his chest to cup his cheeks. She stood up on tiptoe and began frantically kissing his neck, his cheeks, his lips, any part of him she could reach. One hand slipped to his shirt and began unfastening the buttons.
Kid relished the feel of her pressed so close to him, her mouth on his, her skin against his. It soothed his soul in ways nothing else could. But when he realized what she was doing he knew he had to stop her. It was almost painful, but he knew he had to do it as he pulled back from her embrace, stopping her motion with one of his hands over hers.
He shook his head sadly, wearily, fearfully. “No, Lou.”
Her big brown eyes started to fill with tears and she moved to pull away from him, to turn away from his rejection. But he didn’t let her, knowing he had to explain but unable to lose the comfort of her nearness.
“We moved too fast, Lou,” he said hoarsely. “ I done a lotta thinkin’ while you were gone. We put the cart before the horse and we’ve been payin’ the price ever since. If we’re goin’ ta make this work… I think we gotta go back to the beginnnin’ and start over, proper. I think there’s a reason it’s called that, proper.”
“What do you mean, Kid?”
He didn’t need to drown in her wide brown eyes to feel her confusion and hurt at his actions and words. It practically thrummed through her entire body where it rested against his side. He rested his chin on her head wearily as he stared off into space, trying to find the words to tell her what he meant.
“I married ya ‘cause I love ya and respect ya and wanted ya ta know I never woulda…. done what we did…. if that hadn’t been the case. But ya weren’t ready for what came next. Neither was I, not really. Not with someone special as you, leastwise. We need ta go back… court proper…. take things slow…. so we can learn ta be married, the right way.”
She stared at him for a long moment and he held his breath. Had he gone too far? Would this be the restriction she couldn’t handle? She’d been the one pushing so hard to move their relationship to the next physical level. Would she see this as a rejection of all she had to offer, rather than an attempt to fix the things they’d broken between them? He bit his lip in fear, telling himself he had to stay strong, cause he couldn’t see any other way forward. Finally, after what felt like an eternity to him, she nodded, slowly.
“Alright, Kid. We’ll do it yer way,” she whispered, lowering her head so he couldn’t see her expressive face anymore. And she stepped back from him, pulling out of his embrace. “We’ll take things slow and I’ll wait ‘til yer ready ta move on.”
Kid sighed. She still wasn’t quite getting it. “It ain’t about me bein’ ready or you bein’ ready, Lou. It’s about us bein’ ready. That’s the point. Learnin’ ta be us, not you and me. Do ya see the difference?”
She shrugged. “I s’pose I will someday.”
“How’d ya figure all this out, Kid?”
“Like I said, I did a lot of thinkin’ while you were gone. And…. I talked ta Teaspoon. Though, honest to God, I’m still tryin’ ta figure out more’n half of what he told me,” he chuckled ruefully.
It was her turn to nod.
“Alright,” she exhaled. She still didn’t really understand where he was going with all this, what he meant about learning to be “us”, but she’d promised herself before coming back to get better at compromising.
She knew she tended to be stubborn and didn’t want that to ruin what she had with Kid, at least not more than it already had. Deep down inside her, there was a small part, that little girl longing for love and comfort and security, who wailed in anguish, deeply frightened this meant he really didn’t love her anymore. Lou mentally slammed the door shut on that part of herself, trying not to shudder at the sound of furious fists pounding on the door in desperation. Kid loved her. He’d said so. She would believe him. She would trust him.
“That don’t mean ya can’t kiss me goodnight,” he smiled, melting her heart. “Just one kiss. Like any other courtin’ couple.”
That had been four weeks ago. That one kiss had turned into a dozen before Kid had ruefully slipped out of her room to the sound of the others coming down the hall. They’d been ‘courting’ as regularly as their schedules would allow since then.
Teaspoon had kept both of them off the ride rotation for the first week after they’d returned, due to their injuries. They’d spent practically every moment of every day of that week together. Kid had taken her to see the memorial he’d built to their baby, near where Emma’s baby boy was laid to rest. They’d cried together over the loss and healing had begun. Since then they’d talked, they’d laughed, they’d argued and made up.
Once they resumed their regular ride schedules, they’d had less time together, riding off in opposite directions as often as not. And they had to be secretive when other riders were overnighting at the station. Rachel had helped there as much as she could, assigning them chores together and often sending them off to the big house together on some errand or chore.
But then Kid had drawn the short straw, along with Jimmy, and Teaspoon had sent him to the Rock Creek station a week ago. He’d promised to write, but nothing had arrived yet and she couldn’t believe how much she was missing him.
“What do you mean start packing up?”
Lou turned toward the sound of Rachel’s voice out on the porch. She stepped out of the door from Rachel’s private parlor where she’d been waiting for the other woman to return for tea and saw Rachel looking at Teaspoon with a bewildered expression on her face. A strange man stood next to Teaspoon with a group of what were obviously riders, some of whom she recognized, ranging around him.
“What’s going on?”
Rachel voiced the question Lou was thinking.
Teaspoon shook his head. “Russell, Majors & Waddell are movin’ us all ta Rock Creek. They need someone steady ta anchor the station there. They’ve had too many problems, what with the fightin’ ‘tween the states and all.” He gestured broadly at the others standing around. “Ennis, here, and his boys are takin’ our place in Sweetwater startin’ now. We need ta be packed up and on our way in two days. I’m takin’ Cody with me and headin’ out tonight. That’ll leave ya Lou, Noah, Buck and Ike ta help pack up what ya need, household goods, etc. No more’n a single wagon. The rest stays here fer Ennis and his boys.”
Rachel nodded and turned distractedly toward the bunkhouse, already taking mental count of what she’d need to pack up.
“I’ll get my boys settled in,” Ennis said. “They’ll be ready ta start takin’ over the runs soon’s as yer’s start comin’ in. When’s the next run?”
“Buck’ll be back tonight. Noah in the mornin’. Ike’s in town coverin’ the Marshal’s office fer me this afternoon.” Teaspoon wearily scratched his sparse, grey hair as he considered what needed doing. “Why don’t ya come with me. I’ll show ya the schedules.”
Ennis nodded and turned to the five riders that had accompanied him. “Why don’t you boys go pick out yer bunks. Remember, they ain’t really yers till Teaspoon’s boys clear out, but ya can get started settlin’ in.”
“I want a top bunk,” called the tall blonde with a straw hat perched precariously on his jugshaped head.
“Not if I get there first,” shrieked a slender black boy who looked to be no more than 14, already racing toward the bunkhouse.
“You better leave the bunk closest ta the fire fer me,” growled another as he lumbered after them.
Ennis and Teaspoon watched them go, pushing and shoving the entire time, and shook their heads while sharing a beleagured grin. Then the two men turned toward the barn.
“Teaspoon?” Lou asked hesitantly from where she’d been listening on the porch steps.
Teaspoon turned back and quirked and eyebrow in question as Ennis continued crossing the yard.
“Why… why are you and Cody leavin’ early? Is everythin’ alright?” She paused, looking to be sure they were alone before asking, “Is…. is Kid alright? And Jimmy?”
“They’re fine, darlin’,” Teaspoon smiled at her. “Jimmy and the Kid both. It’s just a volatile situation back there.”
Lou stiffened and her eyes shifted frantically toward Ennis, now almost all the way to the barn doors. Teaspoon laughed.
“Don’t worry none ‘bout Ennis there,” Teaspoon reassured her. “He’s seen more unusual things than a girl rider in his time. And he ain’t much of a talker.”
As if hearing them from so far away, the other man turned back toward them and doffed his hat to her, winking charmingly.
“I think that about does it,” Buck said, tightening the rope holding an oiled canvas cover over the top of the heavily loaded wagon.
*Where’d you find all this stuff?* Ike asked.
Rachel shrugged. “It’s the stuff I didn’t find that worries me,” she muttered. “We won’t know we don’t have it until we need it and then it’ll be too late.”
“Don’t worry, Rachel,” Noah grinned. “I’m sure Rock Creek’ll have a mercantile where you can get replacements.”
They all laughed. It was a relief to have completed the packing in time for their departure the next morning. Lou would be sorry to leave the Sweetwater Station behind. It had become the home she hadn’t known she was looking for over the last few months. But she was beyond ready to see Kid, and Jimmy, and to reassure herself they were alright. The letter she’d gotten from Kid today had been worrisome.
Lou sighed wearily. It was their third day on the road and she’d forgotten how slow a trip like this could be with a heavily loaded wagon.
“Lou, I been thinking,” Buck said quietly from where he sat on his horse at her side.
She snorted. “Well, ya ain’t Cody, so I ain’t got no idea what ya been thinkin’ ‘bout.”
“This trip is gonna take awhile,” he said. “That wagon’s slower’n molasses on a January mornin’. And it don’t exactly take four of us ta ride shotgun.”
“What else am I s’posed ta do?” she asked. “Teaspoon’d wring my neck if I showed up in Rock Creek without y’all. ‘Sides, even if we don’t need everyone on guard duty, how come I get picked fer relief?”
Buck looked around at the others before taking a deep, fortifying breath and answering her. “First off, Emma wouldn’t be upset if you stopped by for a visit. And…. we all know how much you’ve missed her since she and Sam moved to Omaha. You could easily visit them and catch up with us before we reach Rock Creek. And… we’ve all discussed it and we think you should be the one to go.”
“Buck,” she began with a warning note hardening her voice.
He held up a hand.
“It ain’t about you being a girl or nothing, Lou. It’s about… well, you’re still not up to full strength. We can all tell that. If any of us need more rest and coddling it’s you. And…. well, I figure there’s things you maybe can talk to her about that you can’t really share with the rest of us. We… wouldn’t understand.”
The haunted shadows in his eyes got his message across more effectively than any words he said. They’d all suffered losses, both before and during their time together with the Express. But none had experienced the sort of loss she had. None except Rachel, that was and things hadn’t been the same between her and Lou since the miscarriage. And Emma.
Wiping her hands nervously on her pantlegs, Lou gulped nervously as she stared up at the fancy house the man at the train station had told her belong to the Territorial Marshal and his wife. It was an imposing three story home with dormer windows peeking out of the attic and a wraparound porch that hugged the entire ground floor. It was so big Lou figured all of Sweetwater could’ve stayed there with room to breathe. What on earth was Emma doing in a place like this?
Finally, Lou raised her hand, forming a fist, to knock on the door. But just as she was about to, the door jerked open and a young lady in a black dress covered with a white apron stuck her head out.
“Deliveries go around back, feller. Don’t ya know no better?”
Lou stared at the girl, mouth hanging open in surprise.
“Um…. I’m not making a delivery. I’m here to see a friend of mine. Emma Shannon… uh, Cain.”
“Well, Mrs. Cain isn’t here right now,” the girl sniffed, starting to pull the door closed. “You’ll have to come back later.” She looked Lou up and down, from her dusty boots to her overly long, for a boy, tangled hair and the battered hat hanging down her back. “And somehow I don’t think you’ve got a card.”
She sniffed again. “A card. With your name on it, maybe an address or calling times? It’s what civilized people do.”
“Ain’t much room to go carryin’ around a bunch of useless cards in a saddlebag. Kind of need that space for food and such. How ‘bout I just tell you my name and where I’m stayin’? I’m Lou McCloud and,” she pushed against the door, knocking the impertinent girl back from her guard position and entering the grand house, “I’m stayin’ here. With my friend, Emma Shannon Cain. Who I’m visitin’.”
The girl gasped and Lou took great delight in how red her face turned as she struggled to find the words to respond.
“Abigail, what are you doing at the front door, girl? You know better than to answer the door!”
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” the girl suddenly curtsied deeply to an older woman dressed all in black, with a lacy, black cap on her head. “I saw this vagrant loitering on the porch and just opened the door to chase him off.”
“I ain’t no vagrant!” Lou ground out through gritted teeth. Stiffening her shoulders and standing as tall as her slight height would allow, she added, “I’m a Pony Express rider. And I keep tellin’ ya. I’m a friend of Emma’s, Mrs. Cain. I’m here ta visit her.”
“And just what would your name be, young man?”
“Lou. Lou McCloud.”
“Of course! Come in, come in!” The woman suddenly smiled at Lou. “Mrs. Cain has told us all about you and your friends, Mr. McCloud. Her ‘boys’ she calls you. You just come with me and I’ll get you settled in one of the guestrooms upstairs. You must be tired after your journey.”
Lou found herself following the other woman down the hallway, unable to get a word in edgewise. A quick glance back found Abigail glaring after her as she left.
“I’m sorry Mrs. Cain isn’t here right now. She’s out at a Lady’s Aide meeting. She’ll be back in a few hours. The Marshal is out of town on a case right now. Here we go, the Blue Room. I think you’ll be plenty comfortable here.”
She guided Lou into a room the size of the bunkhouse with a giant, four poster bed situated against one wall. Everything, from the thick rug on the floor to the coverlet on the bed and even the paper on the walls, was in shades of blue. Lou’d never seen anything like it.
“Are you sure?” she ventured, looking from the room to her own dusty, dirty, bedraggled self. “Ain’t there some place a little less… fancy? Where I could at least wash up?”
“Oh, I’ll have Timmy bring up the tub and send Abigail with hot water for you. And I wouldn’t dare put you anywhere else. Nothing but the best for Mrs. Cain’s boys.”
Lou shook her head in disbelief.
“You just sit back and relax. I’ll have that bath up in no time. And… if you need anything else, just ask for me. I’m Mrs. Peabody, the housekeeper.”
With that, the woman, Mrs. Peabody, darted out of the room, leaving a blessed silence in her wake.
“Hmph,” Lou grunted as she struggled to unfasten her trousers. “Guess I’d better stop eatin’ all that food the boys’ve been pushin’ on me.”
Finally, she managed to undo the buttons by sucking in her stomach and holding her breath. She’d gotten her appetite back, finally, after returning to Sweetwater. But before that she’d lost so much weight the boys, and Teaspoon and Rachel, had all been worried about her. Every time she turned around one or the other of them had some tempting treat for her. And she’d been more than happy to accept. But it looked like she needed to stop or she’d need a new wardrobe. Not exactly something she wanted to spend a bunch of money on right now.
Finally shed of her clothes, Lou stepped up to the bathtub and ran her fingers through the steaming hot water before climbing in. She sank down into the deep tub and sighed in bliss.
Although the boys generally gave her first dibs on the tub, it was only a hip bath and, even as small as she was, she couldn’t really relax and enjoy the opportunity. And that was before one considered all the dips she’d taken in cold creeks and rivers while at other stations where she didn’t dare disrobe near the bunkhouse for fear of being discovered.
A smile crossed her face as she felt the heat from the water seep into her muscles, tight from the hard riding she’d done to get here. She’d pushed hard to get here as fast as she could, but she’d still only have one full day before she’d have to leave again to catch up with the others before they got to Rock Creek. No way she wanted to explain to Teaspoon why she wasn’t arriving with the others. And she still worried about what Kid, and Jimmy, were getting themselves into in Rock Creek. If it weren’t for concern about what Teaspoon would do to her, she’d have headed on to Rock Creek instead of coming here.
After a quick wash, Lou simply sat back and enjoyed the experience, until the water began to cool. Eventually, she sighed forlornly and reached over to grab the towel. Standing, she used it to rub dry her short hair. Already it was starting to grow out, but it hadn’t really gotten back much of the length she’d chopped away yet. It was still at the shaggy stage. But she was looking forward to it getting long enough she could actually do something with it again.
Lou looked across the room in surprise at the sound of Emma’s shocked voice. She’d been so caught up in her thoughts she hadn’t heard the door opening. The look of shock and growing anger on Emma’s face confused Lou.
“You tell me you’re here to invite me to your wedding. Cause if it ain’t already scheduled, I’m about to schedule it with my shotgun.” An angry fire lit in her eyes as she added. “I thought better of that boy than this!”