Author's Note: This is the 9th installment in the Whole Truth series, following To Tell The Truth. It takes place during Between Rock Creek & A Hard Place, season 3, episode 4.
“What are you talkin’ ‘bout, Emma?” Lou asked, bewildered by the other woman’s growing anger.
Emma marched, more like stalked, across the room to Lou’s side and briskly moved the towel away from her to press one hand to Lou’s belly.
“This!” she exclaimed. “I know you didn’t get this way all by yourself.”
“Well, no,” Lou blushed a little to think of her recent indulgence in gluttony. “All the boys helped some. Teaspoon and Rachel, too, for that matter.”
“You aren’t telling me you and… all the boys?” Emma whispered in horrified tones, the blush of fury suddenly bleaching from her face. Then she shook her head as if to rid herself of the thought. “No, you aren’t that sort of young woman, Lou. I know you better than that. If it isn’t Kid, which one is the father?”
“Father?” Lou’s face scrunched in complete confusion.
“The father of your baby,” Emma sighed in exasperation. “Which one is the father of this baby? I know you didn’t put it there all by yourself.”
“I… I don’t know what Kid’s been tellin’ you in his letters, but… but I lo…lost our baby… weeks ago,” Lou stammered out, barely suppressing the sobs that always seemed to come when she thought about the loss.
She jerked away from Emma and walked over to the bed, where she’d laid out her clean clothes before bathing. Dropping the towel, she reached for the shirt and shoved her arms into the sleeves, rushing to close the buttons down the front, not bothering with her breast bindings in her hurry to get covered.
Emma watched her, confused herself now.
“Slow down, Lulabelle,” she finally said, breathing carefully to control her thoughts and emotions. With one hand held up, she walked over to Lou’s side as Lou slid into her trousers. “I think we’re talking at cross purposes here. Why don’t we go back to the beginning. You lost a baby?”
Lou nodded, refusing to meet Emma’s eyes. Sucking in her stomach, she struggled to fasten the buttons of her trousers and then sat down on the bed.
“How long ago? I haven’t been gone long enough for Kid to get you with child, you to lose the baby and end up with another one already? Have I?” Emma’s words came out wonderingly, as if she spoke her thoughts aloud unwittingly.
“Again? No, Emma, I ain’t expectin’,” Lou said, astonished. “There ain’t been…. well, it just ain’t possible.”
“Honey, it’s not only possible, it is,” Emma said with such deep assurance that Lou almost believed her. “I know the form of a young pregnant woman.” She rested one hand unconsciously on the mound pushing the front of her dress out in front of her. “And I’d say you’re more’n a third the way to giving birth. Just starting to show. By my figuring, this child should be born sometime October, maybe November of this year.”
Lou stood up, backing away from Emma, the sob she’d subsumed earlier rising to the surface as tears suddenly poured out of her eyes.
“Stop it, Emma! If this is some sort of joke, it ain’t funny!”
“Lou, what’s wrong? This is good news,” Emma soothed, walking toward Lou with hands outstretched to gather her into a hug. “Well, mostly. We still need to get Kid to own up to his responsibilities. “
“No, no, no, no…” The word, repeated over and over again, became an unceasing chant as Lou’s back hit the wall behind her and she slid down to the ground, clutching her knees to her chest.
“Darling,” Emma crooned, seriously worried, “talk to me. I don’t understand what’s wrong.”
“My baby… our baby… was s’posed ta come….” Lou paused to hiccup as she stammered through the explanation, “ta come in October, maybe November. That’s what the doc tol’ me. But then… then I lost her…. Kid says it was a girl cause he wanted a baby like me…. but I lost her cause I was too stubborn, too determined ta be a boy, I rode too hard and fought too much… and I killed my baby.”
“I don’t know what all happened, but I seriously doubt you did anything to kill your baby, Lou,” Emma said. “I’ve known women who rode ‘til the day they gave birth with nary a problem. Few women have the time to take it as easy as doctors say they should. Personally, I think it’s part of an effort to make women seem weaker, less capable, so the men can feel all manly taking care of us,” Emma ended with a slight laugh at the thought.
Lou just looked at Emma, the younger woman’s face covered in tears of grief that she still struggled with almost daily.
Emma hugged the distraught young woman tight to her side.
“You say there hasn’t been any… chance of a new baby since?” she asked quietly.
Lou nodded morosely.
“Well, what I saw says there’s a baby in there, so either the doctor you saw before was wrong-“
“But… all the blood,” Lou interrupted.
Emma nodded and continued, “Or maybe there’s something else going on. The best way to figure this out is to see the doctor here. He’s the best in the area, trained back East and everything. Sam won’t let me see anyone else. Doc Hopkins knows what he’s doing, Lulabelle. He’ll figure this out.”
“If…if you think it’s best,” Lou said in a small, weary voice.
“So, how’s our Lou?” Sam Cain asked with a smile when he saw his wife hurrying down the stairs. Then she turned to face him and he saw the worry and stress in it. He rushed to her side, wrapping one arm around her shoulders and pulling her to him. “What’s wrong?”
Emma shook her head. “We don’t know, Sam. I… I need you to call Dr. Hopkins, right away.”
“Are you alright?” he asked, pulling back so he could see her face and laying one hand gently on her rounded belly.
She smiled and placed her own hand over his where it rested. “We’re fine, Sam. It’s Lou.” She shook her head in instant reassurance. “Oh, it’s nothing life threatening. I don’t think. Get the doc, Sam. I’ll explain while he’s with Lou.”
Sam nodded, hurrying to the door, grabbing his hat off a hook by the entrance and slamming it down on his head as he went.
“So?” Emma asked anxiously as the doctor came out from examining Lou.
He shook his head. “Let’s wait until Mrs. McCloud gets out here, that way I don’t have to explain this all twice.”
“I’m here,” Lou said quietly, moving to sit next to Emma on the sofa. Emma reached over and grabbed her hand. Sam, standing behind the sofa, laid a reassuring hand on Lou’s shoulder.
“Well, young lady, you are most definitely expecting,” Dr. Hopkins began.
“But…. how?!” Lou asked, squeezing tightly to Emma’s hand.
“My best guess is that you did indeed lose a baby, but that it wasn’t the only one you were carrying at the time,” Dr. Hopkins explained with a comforting smile. “I’ve seen this before. It’s something called the ‘disappearing twin’. The long and the short of it is, you had two babies. You’ve still got one. And, Mrs. McCloud, despite your fears, I seriously doubt there was anything you could’ve done to prevent the miscarriage. Often when there’s twins, there’s something wrong with one of them. The baby most likely couldn’t survive and that’s why you lost it.”
“I… I’m goin’ ta have a baby?”
“Yes, yes you are. In about four, maybe five months, if I don’t miss my guess.”
Lou turned to Emma, joy suffusing her features. “I’m goin’ ta have a baby!”
“That you are, my dear,” Emma smiled, hugging her. “Not too much longer after me.”
The two men shared a smile as they watched the women celebrate, hugging, laughing, crying, talking the entire time.
“I’ve got to write Kid, let him know,” Lou said as she and Emma walked back upstairs, ready to turn in for the night. “He’ll be so excited.”
“I hope that letter will include plans for a wedding,” Emma said a touch acerbically.
Lou ducked her head and blushed.
“Um, there’s no need,” she practically whispered, talking to her toes.
“And just why would that be?” Emma’s eyebrows practically disappeared into her hairline with her disbelief.
“Um, cause we’re… well… we’re already married. Sort of.”
“Sort of?” Emma shook her head as they reached the door to Lou’s assigned room. “Either you’re married or you’re not, young lady. Which is it?”
“Legally? We’re married,” Lou muttered. “Kid’s got the certificate. But…. well… .things got messed up for awhile. Real bad. So… for now… we’re courtin’.”
Emma sighed and shook her head. “You’ve always got to do things the hard way, upside down and backwards, don’t you child? Well, so long as the courtship ends and the marriage begins before this child comes, I s’pose I’ve heard of worse things than havin’ your own husband court you.”
Lou shrugged, still blushing furiously.
“I fully expect you to tell me exactly what’s been going on the last few months,” Emma said severely. Then she smiled. “But for now, get a good night’s rest. Sam’ll let Teaspoon know that you won’t be coming back right away, not at at all as a rider.”
Lou made a moue of distaste and Emma laughed. “Oh, I know what I said and the doc said. Neither of us thinks your riding would harm this baby. Look at how you’ve been doing it for months, non-stop, without a problem. But, you’re not going to be able to hide your condition for much longer. And once that happens, there goes your disguise as a boy. You’d know better than me, but I’d imagine there are some of those stations you wouldn’t last long at all without the protection of being a boy.”
Lou barked a bitter laugh. “Ain’t that the truth.”
“So… spend a couple weeks here with me. We’ll get you kitted out with the clothes you’re going to need soon anyway. And, when you join the others in Rock Creek, it’ll be as Louise McCloud, not Lou.”
“Well,” Lou sighed, “the Kid should be happy about that.”
The Kid was not happy. Not happy at all. He missed Lou. He’d really been looking forward to her arriving with the others. Except she hadn’t. They’d come instead with letters for him and Teaspoon that said she’d be along in a couple of weeks. Something at Emma’s was keeping her longer than expected. And, when she came, she’d be coming as Louise, not Lou. They had to hire a replacement for her as a rider.
Kid didn’t know what to make of that last, especially after the emotional turmoil of the last few months. What he did know was that he was very, very worried about her traveling cross country, on her own, without her disguise.
“Teaspoon, please, let me go get her. It ain’t safe fer her out there, not if she’s comin’ as a lady,” he’d begged.
“Son, don’t worry about it,” Teaspoon had told him, pounding him on the shoulder in a way that was meant to be reassuring, but in reality only left a growing bruise. “Sam’ll make sure she’s got all the escort she needs. And, dress or no, she’s still right handy with that six shooter of hers. That ain’t somethin’ she’s gonna change with her clothes.”
But now, finally, she was due to get here any day. Teaspoon had, mercifully, pulled Kid from the riding rotation to make sure he’d be here when Lou arrived. The new rider, Jesse, though young, was competent and happily handling Kid’s runs along with Lou’s, now his own.
Add to all that the way Teaspoon had been acting the last couple of weeks and Kid was pretty sure the older man’s letter had contained more of an explanation than Kid’s had. And not knowing what was going on was driving the Kid nuts. No, Kid was not happy at all.
“Dadblamed skirts,” Lou muttered as she climbed back into the saddle and the edge of the split riding skirt got caught under her leg. She continued muttering irritably as she jerked it loose and into its proper place. “Why am I wearin’ these things again?”
Sam laughed. “Um, cause I don’t think you could fit into yer pants anymore.”
Lou smiled at the reminder and looked down at her belly which had seemed to pop out overnight sometime in the last couple of weeks. What had been merely an annoying thickness of the waist when she’d arrived at the Cain’s was now, no denying it, a child well on its way to arriving. And she couldn’t wait.
In the end she’d decided not to tell Kid in a letter, but to surprise him when she arrived, wanting to be there when he learned the truth, to see his face. Now, she thought a tad nervously, she questioned that decision.
But it was too late to do anything about it.
“Well, come on,” she said. “We’re almost there and I’m hungry.”
“You sure that’s not Cody’s babe your carryin’?” Sam asked good-naturedly. “You’d be able to beat him in any eatin’ contest these days.”
Lou glared, but couldn’t really be mad at Sam. He was right. Now that the morning sickness had passed, she was constantly hungry and could, and did, eat everything in sight. She also had to relieve herself practically every hour on the hour. Both Dr. Hopkins and Emma had told her that was completely normal and not to worry about it.
In fact, the doctor had told her everything about her pregnancy was normal and she had nothing to worry about at all. He’d told her to check in with the local doctor, assuming there was one, once she got to Rock Creek, but otherwise to live her life the way she would anyway. Emma had also promised to come be with her for the baby’s arrival. Her own baby should be old enough to travel by then.
They’d both told her to live her life the way she normally would. As long as she felt fine, all was fine. The only problem was, Lou had no idea what normal was anymore. Not for her. She was about to enter not just a new town, but what was, for her, literally a whole new world.
Taking a deep breath, she urged Lightning forward, toward the future.
“Riders comin’! Two of ‘em!”
The shout rang out, bringing all activity in the Express yard to a stop.
Kid straightened from where he was nailing a new piece of the corral fence into place and looked with excited expectation in the direction Jimmy was pointing. Two riders trotted toward the Express Station from the main street in town.
Almost immediately he recognized the tall form on one horse. Sam Cain. But the smaller form was too small to be Emma. Not to mention she didn’t look to be a redhead. Kid held his breath, it had to be…. then she turned her head to say something to Sam that made him laugh, and Kid’s suspicions and highest hopes were confirmed.
“Lou!” he shouted, dropping his hammer on the ground and running toward the incoming riders. “It’s Lou!”
“Kid,” he heard her shout and then she was flinging herself off Lightning’s back and into his arms. “Oh, Kid it’s so good to see you.”
“I missed you,” he whispered, his nose buried in her hair as he hugged her close, glorying in the feel of her soft warmth pressed tight to him.
“We missed you, too, Lou,” Jimmy said from behind Kid, laughter in his voice.
“All of us,” Buck added.
“It’s great to be back,” Lou smiled from where she stood in Kid’s arms, peering over his shoulder at each one of the boys there individually, and then at Teaspoon who was rounding the corner from the Marshal’s office and Rachel who was coming around the edge of the barn, drying her hands on her apron.
“Um, yer lookin’ a mite different there, Lou,” Jimmy said gruffly, clearing his throat uncomfortably, eyeing her feminine outfit from head to toe.
“Yeah,” Lou’s smile faded a touch as she looked up at Kid nervously. “About that…”
Without another word she stepped back from Kid and placed one hand protectively over her stomach.
The boys stared at her, gape-mouthed, in uncomprehending silence for what felt like forever.
Jimmy was the first to speak, his voice a strangled question. But Lou had eyes only for Kid.
“This is why I was so long catchin’ up with y’all,” she said shyly. “Turns out… we only lost one baby, Kid. We’ve still got one on the way.”
Kid stepped closer to her, transfixed by the sight.
“Our… baby?” he asked, disbelieving, even as he reached forward with a yearning expression on his face, to hesitantly place one of his large hands next to Lou’s slender one on her belly. His touch carried a reverent gentleness that spoke of his deepest dreams coming true in one small bundle. She moved her hand to cover his.
“Our baby…” she repeated, then paused as they both jumped. “Alive and kickin’,” she added with an awed smile. “That’s the first time he’s done that. Leastwise, that I could tell.”
“She,” Kid corrected without raising his eyes from their two hands.
“But…. I saw… you lost….” Jimmy sputtered to a confused stop, not even knowing how to put his question into words.
Lou nodded her head, a little of the brilliance of her happy grin fading. “Yes, I lost a baby. Dr. Hopkins says that’s not too unusual with first pregnancies that are twins. Called it a ‘disappearing twin.’ Said there was nothing anyone could’ve done, you or me, to save the baby. There was probably somethin’ wrong with her and that’s why she died.” She turned back to Kid and added in a breathy voice, “But this baby, he’s hale and hearty.”
“She,” Kid whispered again, his eyes still glued to where their hands intertwined over her bulging stomach.
“So, which bunk’s mine?” Lou asked as she followed the rest into the new bunkhouse, looking around curiously. The layout was slightly more spacious than it had been back in Sweetwater, with room for seven bunks instead of six. One looked quite cozy off in a corner by itself. She half hoped that one was hers.
“Uh,” Kid started to answer but Teaspoon jumped in.
“You’re not in the bunkhouse no more, Lou. You said you wasn’t comin’ back as a rider, so we had ta give yer bunk to yer replacement. ‘Sides, how would it look, you sleepin’ in here with all the boys but livin’ like a girl?” He shook his head sadly at the thought. “Can’t have my girl gettin’ no reputation like that.”
Lou looked at her toes guiltily, one hand resting protectively over her stomach. He’d never worried about things like that before. What else was going to change now? What other things would she have to give up? She flushed in guilt at the thought, reminding herself she should be ecstatic over the coming child, not mourning over her lost independence. It looked like Kid was finally going to get his wish, after all.
“You’ve got the other room over in the manager’s house,” Rachel said, wrapping one arm around Lou’s shoulder and squeezing her close for a moment, smiling broadly. “Right next to me.”
Lou looked up at the other woman with a grateful smile, “Thank you.”
“Sam, ‘fraid yer stuck with me in the tackroom,” Teaspoon chuckled. “Unless ya’d rather try out the cot in the cell over at my office?”
“No thanks,” Sam shook his head with a grin, rubbing one hand across his scruffy jaw. “I’d never hear the end of that back in Omaha!”
The two older men wandered off toward the barn as Rachel pulled Lou toward the table, the boys pushing in around her.
“Sit yourself down, girl,” Rachel smiled. “You look tuckered out.”
Lou shrugged. She looked over at Kid and admitted, “I ain’t ‘xactly been sleepin’ well lately.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Rachel laughed.
“Why?” Cody asked.
“I bet it was the hard ground on the ride here,” Jimmy smirked, knowing how much Lou’d always loved sleeping outside on extended runs, not.
Kid glared at him, but didn’t move from where he’d seated himself next to Lou, one arm wrapped around her waist.
*No,* Ike signed. *It’s the sore muscles she’s got from tripping over her skirts all the time.*
“You better watch out I don’t ‘trip’ over you,” Lou growled at him, shaking her fist, but loving being back at the center of her brothers affectionate teasing. Even more, she loved the feel of Kid pressed tight to her side, his arm wrapped securely around her. As long as she didn’t let her mind wander, in this moment, at this time, all was right with her world.
“Um, Rachel, ya got anythin’ fer a snack?”
Lou turned to look at Kid in question.
“You had a long trip here, Lou,” he said quietly. “You never eat well when yer travelin’. It wasn’t that long ago you were so thin a good wind could blow ya away and now yer eatin’ fer two.”
His voice softened at the end and she couldn’t do anything but smile at his concern. And, truth was, she was starving. Again.
“It just so happens I’ve got a plate of oatmeal cookies here,” Rachel said, turning back toward the table to lay the platter in the center. She paused just before setting it down on the wooden table to glare at the others. “You’un’s can wait ‘til after supper,” she said sternly. “These are for Lou and the young’un.”
“Awwww, Rachel,” Buck moaned, snatching his hand back from where he’d been reaching out to grab a cookie off the plate.
“Don’t ‘Awww, Rachel’ me, young man,” she said, turning to snap a towel at Cody who was still trying to sneak a cookie while her back was turned. “Don’t you all have chores to finish?” she asked pointedly. “Lou’ll still be here come dinner time.”
“Yes, ma’am,” they groaned and began to shuffle back out the bunkhouse door.
Lou couldn’t help but giggle at the hangdog expressions each and every one of them wore as they snuck glances back toward her, cookie in hand, first bite already being eagerly crunched in her mouth. She leaned back with a contented sigh and snuggled into Kid's embrace.
“And you shoulda seen her face when she realized I wasn’t even the errand boy she thought I was when she first opened the door,” Lou giggled in remembrance.
“Emma with a maid,” Jimmy shook his head. “I just can’t credit it.”
“It wasn’t exactly her choice,” Sam smiled. “There was a lot of pressure from the other ‘Society’ ladies to have a proper staff. And when we found out she was expectin’, I gotta say, I joined in. Ain’t like we’re payin’ fer it,” he added with a smug grin. He plucked at the badge pinned to his shirt. “Perks of the job an’ all.”
“Wait a minute,” Teaspoon interrupted in mock outrage. “Yer tellin’ me they not only gave ya the house but are payin’ fer a staff, too?”
“Yup,” Sam grinned, leaning back in his chair with a satisfied sigh. “Cook, housekeeper, maid and gardener.”
“And all’s I get is this bunch of rapscallions, a cot in a jail cell and the tack room?” Teaspoon grumbled.
*Aw, you love us and you know it,* Ike gesticulated, grinning. *You wouldn’t change places with Sam fer nothin’. ‘Sides, what’d you do with a maid?*
Teaspoon tilted his head in rueful recognition of Ike’s words. “Still…
“And little Miss Abigail is still tryin’ ta figure out her place in things,” Sam said, bringing the conversation back to the spitfire maid Lou’d been telling them all about. “Emma agreed to hire a staff, but she didn’t precisely take the normal route.”
“What’d she do, hire the first three beggars to come to her door?” Teaspoon asked.
“Purt near,” Sam nodded. “Mrs. Peabody’s a widow lady who was about ta lose her home. Emma found her at church, prayin’ fer rescue. Abigail just aged out of the orphanage and had nowhere’s else ta go. Timmy, the gardener, is barely big enough to pick up the hoe. But he’s another orphan. Emma rescued him from …. well, let’s just call them some nasty folks.”
“Didn’t you say y’all had a cook, too?” Buck asked. “I can’t imagine Emma lettin’ someone else cook in her house.”
“She doesn’t much, despite his title. He’s a Chinaman whose store burned down about a month ago. He didn’t have nowheres ta go, so she offered him the job. Can’t speak a lick of English, but somehow they communicate.”
Lou smiled. It was all just so… Emma. But this talk of staff had her thinking.
“Teaspoon, now I ain’t a rider no more, what am I gonna do here?” she asked suddenly.
“Lou, you know I’ll--”
“Kid,” Lou said, interrupting him. “I’m carryin’, not helpless. I need ta be doin’ somethin’. I gotta carry my own wait or I’ll go crazy.”
“You’ll help me out in the kitchen,” Rachel smiled. “Cookin’ and cleanin’ fer this lot really requires two people anyway.”
“So, what’re ya makin’ fer breakfast, Lou?” Cody asked, grinning. “Porridge?”
The table burst out in laughter as they all looked at Jimmy, notorious for not being able to cook anything else but porridge.
“I wouldn’t laugh,” she said. “Leastwise, not ‘til ye’ve at least tasted my cookin’.”
Buck suddenly lifted his head and listened intently, then jumped up from the table, stuffing the last of his biscuit into his mouth as he grabbed his hat and ran for the door.
“Rider comin’,” he shouted over his shoulder as he ran out.
Lou watched through the open door as Buck darted across the bunkhouse porch and flew onto the back of his horse, nudging it into motion with his knees. She gloried in the smooth handoff of mochila from a strange rider to Buck and kept her eyes on Buck until he disappeared down the street.
Oh, how she missed it already, she thought sadly, turning her eyes back to the plate in front of her. The conversation continued to flow around her as she began to push her food around on her plate, having lost her appetite with the reminder of what she could no longer do.
A soft nudge against her ribs pulled her out of her thoughts and she looked up just as the other rider came trudging into the bunkhouse.
Ignoring those seated at the table he moved straight to one of the far, top bunks and stripped his dirty, sweaty shirt off over his head.
“Hard ride, son?” Teaspoon asked kindly.
The boy ignored him and dropped his shirt on the floor. Then he walked across to the wash bowl and pitcher set on a counter by the window.
“You hungry?” Rachel asked.
He paused to look at her a moment and shake his head.
“Too tired to eat,” he said, pouring a bit of water into the bowl and using it to wash his face.
“Looks like it was a hard run,” Kid empathized.
“Too hard,” the boy grunted.
“Hard work builds character,” Teaspoon opined.
The boy slanted a devilish look at the assembled group as he walked back over to his bunk and pulled a fresh shirt out of his trunk.
“Just what this place needs,” he said, pulling the shirt on and walking over to the table as he buttoned it, “another character.”
Teaspoon laughed, then nodded at Lou and said, “Lou, this here’s yer replacement, Jesse. Jesse James. Jesse, this is Lou.”
“Don’t look like much of a rider ta me,” Jesse grunted as he grabbed a biscuit and plopped it on his plate.
“Let me guess,” she smiled. “I’m a bit puny? Ain’t that the kettle callin’ the pot black?”
“Don’t let looks fool ya, boy,” Sam smiled. “Lou here was one of the best in the business, ‘fore she found a new job.”
Lou sighed as the conversation once again began to ebb and flow around her. A new job Sam had said. She just wished she knew what that was, who she was.
Lou found herself staring at the pile of ingredients in front of her without the faintest idea of what to do. Rachel had told her to make biscuits. She’d even left a recipe for her to follow. But, how much was a pinch? And what was a dash? Lou sighed.
Rachel came trundling into the bunkhouse with a basket over her arm and a smile a mile wide on her face.
“What’s got you grinnin’ like the cat that ate the canary?” Lou asked.
“I think Noah’s got himself a sweetheart,” Rachel said, grinning even more.
“A new girl here in town,” Rachel explained. “He met her a few days ago. She’s real sweet. Her name’s Cassie, Cassie Ellis. Works in the laundry.”
“Tell me all about her,” Lou demanded.
Rachel laughed at the protective tone in Lou’s voice. “Well, she’s almost as new to town as we are. She’s got a younger brother, Quinn, who helps out at the laundry. The two of them are inseparable. From what I hear she raised the boy herself.”
“Sounds like a good choice then,” Lou grunted in provisional approval. “Just how serious is this courtship?”
“Give them some time and space, Lou,” Rachel said warningly. “They’re just getting started and need to figure some things out for themselves before we go interfering. You ought to know what that’s like.”
Lou ducked her head, blushing, and nodded.
“I can’t believe they managed to walk out without something so basic,” Rachel said, suddenly rifling through the box of supplies.
“The boys didn’t pick up the flour I needed when they got supplies yesterday,” Rachel sighed, shaking her head. “Guess I’ll have to run down to the mercantile and get it myself.”
Lou put her hand on Rachel’s arm, stopping her move to untie her apron.
“Let me do it,” she said. With a half smile, she added, “I am s’posed ta be yer helper now, ain’t I?”
“I guess you are at that,” Rachel agreed, smiling back at the smaller woman. “Do you know where it is?”
“Yep, passed right by it on our way here,” she said, nodding as she headed for the door.
“Just tell him to put it on our account,” Rachel called after her.
Rock Creek sure was a lot more crowded than Sweetwater, Lou thought to herself as she pushed past several people standing on the edge of the boardwalk. She heard a commotion down the street, but didn’t pay it any mind. She figured it was a couple of cowboys who’d had too much to drink and Teaspoon would take care of them.
Slipping past the last of the bystanders gawking at the fight, she walked into the mercantile and looked around. It was very similar to Tompkin’s store back in Sweetwater, but that wasn’t much of a surprise. Most general stores she’d been in around the territory had much the same look about them. Along one wall were the barrels of dried goods and fresh fruits and vegetables for sale. Another wall held assorted farm tools and weaponry. On tables down the middle were the fabrics, hats and shoes, along with various other sundries.
She paused to look at a beautiful white baby gown, carefully embroidered with a yellow and green edging. Reaching out she tenderly caressed the soft fabric and silky threads, her other hand coming up to unconsciously soothe her child. She realized she needed to buy materials for baby clothes, diapers, blankets. There were so many supplies they’d need before the baby came. Would they be ready in time?
“I tell you, that boy of yours is headed for trouble, Teaspoon,” a familiar voice rang out as heavy footfalls pounded down the boardwalk and into the store. “If you don’t keep a closer reign on him, he’s going to cause some serious trouble.”
Lou blanched as she turned and recognized the speaker.
“Don’t you be worryin’ none ‘bout Noah,” Teaspoon said. “I’ve already had a talk with him. He’ll leave Sgt. LeBrand alone as long as LeBrand leaves the Ellis girl be.”
Tompkins, Tompkins?, shook his head. “I don’t think that’s enough with that young firebrand, Marshal. I tell you, you gotta keep them nig…. black folks under a closer watch. They can’t hold their tempers’ as well as the rest of us.”
Lou started to slowly back out of the store, not really wanting to face the man. She’d had no problem appearing as a woman in Rock Creek so far. No one here really knew her. But, Tompkins? He knew her all too well, as Lou, not Louise. He could ruin her chances of a normal life here if he let one word spill about what he knew. And how had he gotten here anyway? she wondered.
Unfortunately, her efforts at making a stealthy departure were trumped when she knocked a large stack of dime novels off the table with her burgeoning stomach while turning around. She winced when she heard Teaspoon call out to her.
“Lou, that you? Come over here and say, ‘Hello,’ to our old friend Tompkins.”
She sighed, her shoulders slumping, as she turned back around and made her way over to Teaspoon’s side.
Tompkins raised an eyebrow as he looked her up and down, carefully noting every feminine thing about her, his perusal coming to a halt as his eyes reached her belly. Teaspoon wrapped an arm around her shoulders and hugged her tight to his side even as she put her hands protectively over her stomach.
“Tompkins, you remember my niece, Louise McCloud, dontcha?” Teaspoon asked jovially, with a slight warning note underlining the word niece
Lou stiffened, wondering what Teaspoon was up to now. Why claim her as kin?
Tompkins cleared his throat, then said, “Nice ta see ya again, Lou. I see you’ve filled out nicely since we last met. Who’s the lucky fella?”
Teaspoon shook his head, “Tompkins, you sure ain’t changed much.”
Tompkins shrugged, keeping his gaze on Lou as he answered, “Well, when I find somethin’ that works, I stick to it. Somethin’ I’d recommend for everyone in life.”
“So, what’re ya doin’ here, darlin’?” Teaspoon asked, changing the subject.
“Oh!” Lou started, tearing her gaze from Tompkins, though still trying to figure out what he was thinking and planning. “The boys forgot to get flour when they picked up supplies yesterday. Rachel sent me to get some.”
“I’ll have that right out,” Tompkins said, immediately heading toward the backroom, letting nothing interfere with a sale.
No, he hadn’t changed a bit. Though he hadn’t acted all that surprised at seeing her in a dress, just showed surprise at her condition. But what did that mean for her? Lou wondered uneasily.
“Ready?” Kid asked.
Lou nodded, hanging her apron on the nail by the stove. Teaspoon had added it yesterday, right next to the nail for Rachel’s apron.
Slipping her hand through Kid’s crooked arm, she allowed him to lead her out the door. She’d only been in Rock Creek a couple of days, but this walk across the yard had become a nightly ritual for them and she relished the few minutes of alone time it gave them.
“It’s been nice seein’ Sam again,” Kid said after a moment.
“Yes,” she agreed. “I’ll be sad ta see him go tomorrow, but I know he’s anxious ta get back ta Emma.”
“It’s hard ta believe she’s really expectin’,” Kid grinned ruefully. “Oh, sure, I can see her as a mother. But increasin’? It’s just hard to imagine.”
Lou laughed, the silvery notes carrying across the Express Station yard, causing Jimmy to raise his head from where he was working with Sundance and look their way. Her free hand came to rest on her own expanding girth as they climbed the steps to Rachel’s house.
“Can’t say I ever could’ve imagined myself lookin’ like this, either. I dreamed about family, a hu… husband, children, plenty. But, this?”
Kid turned toward her, one hand tilting her chin up so their eyes met as they stopped by the door.
“I could. A hundred times over,” he said softly. “And you’re just as beautiful… no, more beautiful, than I ever imagined.”
She blushed but he didn’t let her pull away.
“I can’t hardly wait for the day I can claim the two of you for my own,” he whispered, lowering his head to gently brush his lips across hers. “But for all of us, I can’t let this little one speed our courtship up too much. We still need ta figure us out before baby gets here.”
Lou nodded, as much to keep him kissing her as in agreement with what he was saying. She missed his presence, even on the occasional basis it had been before, in the bed next to her. She always slept better in his arms, even when he snored. She pressed herself closer to him, glorying in the strength of his embrace, the warmth of his muscles beneath her seeking fingers, the firmness of his lips as they caressed hers, again and again.
Finally, with a sigh, he pulled back. “I better go,” he said with tender regret. “Good night, Lou. I love you.”
He turned and began to head across the yard, her words wafting after him on the spring night air.
“I love you, too, Kid.”
Lou waited until she’d watched Kid disappear inside the barn to check on Katy before opening the door and heading up to her own room. There, she heaved a relieved sigh as she began to peel off the often times uncomfortable layers of her dress.
There were days she’d happily run around in her trousers and shirt, belly and all. They were so much more comfortable and lighter. But she just couldn’t get them fastened anymore.
Once in her nightgown, she moved over to the window to look out and see if she could catch a glimpse of Kid as he returned to the bunkhouse from the barn. When she’d shared the bunkhouse with them, she’d always been unable to relax enough to truly sleep until he’d turned in for the night. That hadn’t really changed. So, she kept a nightly vigil from her room.
This time, though, he didn’t head straight to the bunkhouse. He wandered over to say something to Buck, who was leaning on the edge of the buckboard. Then, Noah came stomping out of the bunkhouse.
She shivered at the look on Noah’s face. He’d been silently fuming throughout dinner, his face marked with cuts and bruises from his fight with that Army recruiter, LeBrand. She worried what he might do in this mood.
And she could tell that whatever Kid and Buck were saying to him wasn’t helping. Noah exploded over something, then turned his back on the others and stomped away. She watched him leave the yard, headed off into the night. Her eyebrows rose a bit as she noted he was headed in the general direction of the laundry and Cassie Ellis.
Lou sighed as she turned the page. She was bored and not even Cody’s latest dime novel was helping. She’d slept poorly the night before, worrying about Noah and Cassie and LeBrand. So when she’d come down this morning to help Rachel with breakfast, the other woman had insisted she spend the day taking it easy, instead. Only problem was, Lou didn’t handle having nothing to do very well. Cody had seen her moping around by the horse paddock and offered her his latest precious adventure story.
It was really very sweet of him, she thought. But she just couldn’t get into the account of an enterprising cowboy stopping a bank robbery in a small no-name town only to get accused of being part of the gang of robbers.
Maybe that had to do with their own mystery right here in Rock Creek and the accusations being flung against one of her brothers.
“I can’t believe anyone would think Noah was a murderer,” Cody said pensively.
Lou turned to look back at where Cody sat, leaning against the wall of the bunkhouse.
“From what I hear, no one’s given him a chance,” she said protectively.
“It ain’t gonna matter much if they find out we don’t know where he went last night,” Kid muttered.
They’d heard the news at breakfast. Jesse had found Sgt. LeBrand dead behind the mercantile last night while on his way back to the bunkhouse from the saloon. Everyone in town assumed Noah’d killed him cause of the fight the two had had over Cassie Ellis and the threats Noah had made then to kill LeBrand if he ever bothered Cassie again.
Suddenly, the bunkhouse door banged open and Noah came storming out.
“I went for a walk. I guess a man my color ain’t allowed ta do that around here, hunh?” he growled.
“You know it ain’t like that, Noah,” Rachel said, placing a placating hand on his arm.
He shook her off. “The hell I don’t. Teaspoon wants me ta hole up here like a caged animal!”
“Teaspoon’s got yer best interests at heart,” Kid said, moving to stand next to Lou, where she sat on the top step.
“Oh, that’s easy for you to say. ‘Cause you ain’t colored,” he sneered pointing at Kid, “and you ain’t accused of killin’ a white man,” he added pointing at Lou.
Kid bristled at the insult to Lou and started toward Noah with fists curled, but Lou grabbed his arm and shook her head firmly. The last thing they all needed was a fight inside the family.
Noah saw the interaction and sneered again, before jumping off the edge of the porch, deliberately keeping his distance from Lou, and storming away.
Kid wrapped both arms around Lou and pulled her tight against him. She rested her cheek against his chest and sighed in near contentment, despite her worry about Noah.
“You alright?” he asked in concern.
She laughed, reaching up to pat his cheek. “I think I can handle a few harsh words from Noah without breakin’ down, Kid. He didn’t even really mean them. He’s just under a lotta pressure right now. We’ve all been there at some point.”
Kid nodded and pulled her tight into his embrace again.
Neither of them noticed Cody’s not so discreet cough, or Rachel’s pushing the blonde rider back into the bunkhouse to give them privacy.
Across the street, two women huddled on the boardwalk, watching the goings on at the Express Station with concern.
“I don’t understand why the Marshal hasn’t put that nigger in jail yet,” the taller woman muttered.
“Does it really surprise you? Look at the lack of morals over there?” the slighter, darker woman hissed. “She’s expecting and there’s no sign of a husband. But she’s sure been real familiar with several of those riders. Why, look at how she’s shamelessly cavorting with that one right out in plain view of the street.”
Both women shook their heads in dismay before turning away sharply and walking down the boardwalk toward Tompkins’ store.
Lou desultorily moved the broom across the bunkhouse floor. Teaspoon had asked them to stay close to the buildings at the Express Station after the Army unit had arrived to investigate LeBrand’s death.
Her hands clenched, white knuckled, around the handle of the broom as she fought off another wave of fear and worry for Noah. Even if he had killed LeBrand, she knew he’d never do it by stabbing him in the back, like Teaspoon’d said the sergeant had died. But the rest of the town just didn’t know Noah that well. And as a black man… well, they weren’t willing to give him a chance. Not this town, not in this day and age.
“You got no right to do this.” Rachel’s worried voice came floating through the open window, accompanied by the determined tromping of at least two men.
Lou turned toward the door as it opened.
“With all due respect, ma’am,” said a kindly looking but determined older man dressed in Army blues. “I do have the right.”
Lou recognized him as the man Teaspoon had told them was Colonel Edwin Sawyer, head investigator for the Army.
Rachel turned to Teaspoon who had followed the two of them into the bunkhouse.
He sighed. “Rachel, I’m afraid we don’t got no choice. The Territorial Governor ordered me to cooperate with the colonel as much as possible.”
Colonel Sawyer stood in the middle of the bunkhouse, slowly surveying every corner .
“Which one is Dixon’s bunk?”
Teaspoon pointed to the bottom bed nearest the wash counter. Sawyer strode over to it and immediately began pulling the blankets back. When he found nothing there, he lifted the straw-filled tic that served as a mattress. Still nothing. Then he bent down and pulled a trunk out from beneath the bunk.
Lou started to say something, anything to stop him. She knew Noah had personal things in there he didn’t want anyone looking at, things that reminded him of the past. They all had things like that. Ike had his parents’ Bible, Jimmy his guns, Buck.. well, she didn’t know what Buck had, but she knew he had something. They were those little bits of a beloved past that none of them wanted to share with the world for fear the world would somehow snatch the reminders away just like it had the people they’d loved.
Teaspoon grabbed her arm and shook his head warningly.
“What do you expect to find?” she asked, instead of saying what she really wanted to scream at him.
“I don’t expect to find anything, young lady,” Sawyer said, never looking away as he shoved things around in the trunk. “But I’m going to look.”
“Well, you’re wasting your time,” she huffed, crossing her arms over her chest and tucking her hands into her armpits in the comfortingly familiar defensive gesture.
Suddenly the colonel’s movement stopped. Then he turned back toward Lou, Teaspoon and Rachel, holding something up in his open hand.
“Am I?” he asked heavily. He pointed to something engraved on the back of the pocket watch. “E. L. Earl LeBrand.”
Lou shook her head, denying what the colonel was saying without saying.
“Someone musta put that in there,” she maintained.
The colonel ignored her, striding toward the door and out to his aide, waiting outside.
“Get the rest of the men,” she heard him say urgently. “Find Noah Dixon.”
She, Rachel and Teaspoon shared a tense, worried look as they waited for the Army men’s footsteps to fade into the distance.
When she was sure they were gone, she asked, “Where’s Noah?”
Teaspoon shrugged. “I don’t know. He wouldn’t stay here, like I asked him to.”
Rachel sighed. “He took Cassie for a ride, down by the creek. Said they needed some time away from all this…” she waved her hand feebly to indicate the problems surrounding them. “Wanted to get to know her better.”
Lou nodded decisively. “I’m going after him.”
“What?!” Teaspoon exclaimed, reaching out to grab her arm as she pulled off her apron and headed for the door. “You can’t do that?”
“Then who will?” she demanded. “Rachel can barely stay on a horse. If you take off suddenly, they’ll know where you’re headed. Buck and Jimmy are off on runs. Jesse’s disappeared. And ya sent Kid and Ike over ta Fairbury ta pick up them new horses.” She shook her head. “That leaves me.”
She pulled away from Teaspoon and hurried toward the door again, pausing in the doorway, she put one hand on her belly and looked back at the two older adults.
“I’ll be careful,” she promised. “Don’t worry.”
“I feel so ridiculous,” Lou muttered to herself as she rushed to fasten on the gunbelt. Her own hadn’t fit anymore when she’d tried to put it on and she’d had to ‘borrow’ Teaspoon’s old one from the tackroom. But she didn’t feel right riding out without a weapon right now. “Finally!”
Relieved to have the thing finally wrapped around her hips and slung below her belly, as odd as that felt and looked, she heaved herself up into the saddle on Lightning’s back, the lead lines to Noah’s mount in one hand.
“Alright, boy,” she said, leaning forward to pat his neck. “Fast, but not too fast. Don’t’ ferget yer carryin’ two of us now. But we gotta find Noah before them Army men. Let’s go!”
Soon, all that could be heard was the pounding of hooves as the two horses and one rider disappeared in the distance.
Lou sighed in frustration as she pulled Lightning to a stop atop the hill. She looked around in all directions, hoping for some clue as to where Noah and Cassie might be. She’d already checked all the places by the creek where Kid had taken her on walks and rides since she’d arrived. But, apparently, Noah preferred something even more secluded. She’d now ridden further from Rock Creek than she had since the day she’d arrived.
The sound of creaking wheels and the jangle of leather leads, accompanied by the slow clip clop of horses’ hooves pulled her attention to the northwest. There! She saw Noah and Cassie coming into distant view in a buckboard.
She waved her arm frantically over her head, as she spurred Lightning into a gallop toward them.
“Noah!” she called. Then, as she got closer, she added, “Noah, you gotta get outta here!”
She panted as Lightning pulled to a stop next to the buckboard.
“Why?” the slim, dark lady seated on the buckboard next to Noah asked in confusion.
“What’s wrong?” Noah asked, worried about would make her ride so hard in her condition.
“Colonel Sawyer ain’t gonna listen ta reason and we ain’t got time fer a discussion,” Lou spat out as fast as she could. “Now get!”
Cassie gasped in horror and turned pleading eyes to Noah. “She’s right,” she said in her soft voice. “You have to.”
Noah grasped Cassie’s hand and held it to his chest as he said, “Cassie, I’ve-”
She lifted her hand to his lips to stop him.
“It’d kill me to see you in jail,” she said. “You’ve gotta go.”
“There he is!”
They all turned at the distant shout to see a group of soldiers galloping toward them.
“Do it for me?” Cassie pleaded.
Noah nodded and jumped out of the buckboard, headed for the horse Lou had brought him. Just as he landed a shot rang out and one leg buckled beneath him.
Cassie, seeing the blood blooming along Noah’s pant leg, screamed. But Noah nodded reassuringly at her as he limped quickly to the horse and threw himself into the saddle.
“Damn it,” Lou muttered, struggling to pull her revolver out of the holster while having to maneuver around her skirts and enlarged stomach.
“Go!” Cassie yelled after the fleeing Noah. Then, seeing the soldiers weren’t slowing down, she jumped out of the buckboard, too, and into their path. “No! No, please! Don’t shoot him! Don’t shoot him!”
The colonel pulled his horse to a stop and held up one hand.
“Hold your fire!” he called out to his men.
Lou, finally having her gun free of her skirts, held it up in a competent hand and cocked the trigger. “I wouldn’t go no further, Colonel Sawyer.”
“You will regret this,” Sawyer said through gritted teeth.
“Maybe so,” Lou answered. “But you won’t be hanging an innocent man today. Not on my watch.”
She didn’t lower her gun until the last sounds of Noah’s racing horse had faded into the distance.
Lou struggled to hide a grin at the looks from the town’s people as they took in the preposterous sight of an Army unit bringing back a pregnant woman in chains. They gaped at the sight like a school of fish suddenly flung up on the shore and unable to breathe.
The urge to giggle faded as they came to a stop outside the Marshal’s Office and she saw Teaspoon’s eyes widen at the sight. Suddenly, things didn’t seem quite so funny anymore. Teaspoon came storming out of the door, spitting epithets she’d never heard from him before.
“What in tarnation is goin’ on, Colonel?” Teaspoon finally sputtered coherently. “Yer never goin’ ta convince me this little gal killed LeBrand. ‘Sides, I know she’s got aley-byes. Several of ‘em.”
“Marshal, this woman is charged with aiding and abetting the escape of a wanted man,” Sawyer calmly responded as he dismounted. He motioned to his aide to help her dismount and take her on into the building. “I expect you to lock her up, just like any other criminal. Her condition is no excuse for violating the law of this land.”
Teaspoon gritted his teeth and glared as they escorted Lou into his office and straight to the first, empty, cell. Once she was inside, he walked up and sighed profoundly as he locked the door.
“What the hell were ya thinkin’, gal?” he hissed under his breath.
“I was savin’ Noah from a hangin’,” she answered tartly. “And I was right to do it. They never even gave him a chance ta surrender. Second they got within firin’ distance, they shot at him, Teaspoon. Noah, he’s hurt. I don’t know how bad.”
“Cassie?” he asked, worried.
Lou shook her head. “She’s fine. She was followin’ us back with the buckboard. She’s probably over at the barn, now.”
Teaspoon nodded and turned back to Sawyer, who had stepped back to the front of the office and was waiting with his aide.
“You had no right to shoot at Noah,” he stormed.
Sawyer shrugged. “He was fleeing from an officer of the United States government who had ordered him not to resist.”
“Did he draw on ya?” Teaspoon demanded.
At that question, the colonel looked a tad uncomfortable. “No,” he said. Then turned to glare at Lou, where she stood in the jail cell clutching the bars. “But she did.”
“And she’s locked up,” Teaspoon harrumphed. “She ain’t gonna do ya a lot of harm.”
“The harm is done. So from now on I don’t want to see you or your riders, or any of your other employees, male or female. And if I do, these cells are going to be very crowded.”
Turning, Sawyer marched determinedly out of the Marshal’s Office, his aide following along behind.
Teaspoon watched him go, glaring the entire time. When the door had swung shut behind him, he’d mounted up and the entire troop had ridden off down the street, Teaspoon turned back to where Lou stood in the cell.
“What the hell were ya thinkin’, Lou?”
“I can’t believe you did this,” Kid raged, pacing back and forth across the Marshal’s office, one hand running worriedly through his hair. He stopped mid-pace to ask,”What the hell were you thinkin’?”
But he didn’t wait for an answer, resuming his rapid movement back and forth across the room.
Lou sighed as she watched him. He’d been there for a good 15 minutes, railing at her without giving her a chance to say a thing. At first, she’d understood his upset and been willing to let him have his say. But she was started to get fed up with his attitude. If he asked her one more time….
“You coulda gotten the baby killed…. or worse,” he raged on. “Did ya even stop ta think about that?”
That did it. She’d had enough!
“What the hell should I have done? Sat on the porch and cried?” she returned, each word getting a touch louder until she was practically shouting at the top of her lungs. “Noah’s family, same as the rest of y’all! I couldn’t just sit back and wait for word they’d shot him, or worse!”
Kid came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the room, staring at her in astonishment as she finally let loose all the worry and fear she’d had inside.
“I…. I had ta do somethin’, Kid,” she finally said as her tirade slowed. “I didn’t take risks. I woulda put the gun down before I’d let them shoot us, but no way they was goin’ ta shoot a woman with child! I had ta help,” she said at last. “At least, I had ta try.”
Kid sighed and sank down into the chair Teaspoon had left next to the cell doors. He reached in and grabbed her hands.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I.... it’s just.. the thought of what coulda happened ta you tears me apart. I thought I’d lost ya once, you and the babe. I can’t go through that again.”
Lou ran a soothing hand along his arm in understanding.
“I know, Kid,” she said quietly. “And I am tryin’ ta be more careful. Believe me, our baby’s safety comes first. But that doesn’t mean I can stop bein’ me, stop carin’ about the others in our lives, stop tryin’ ta help and protect ‘em. Fact is… I feel stronger ‘bout that now, than ever before.”
“What now?” he asked.
“Now?” She looked around the jail cell. “I guess now it’s up to y’all. I’m sorta stuck.”
Kid half smiled at her jest. He thought for a moment, running his hand through his hair in another agitated gesture. Finally he said, “I’ll get the others and we’ll ride out, see if we can find Noah. Get him some supplies, let him know what happened.”
Lou nodded. “Sounds like a good idea ta me. But.... be careful, Kid. I don’t like y’all ridin’ out alone like that.”
Kid turned his boyish grin on her as he reached out to tweak her nose, “Well, it’s yer own fault this time. We didn’t clap ya in irons and put ya behind bars.”
Lou smiled at the memory. His reaction to her choice to go after Noah had been just as explosive as she’d expected, but once he’d had a chance to let off steam, he’d been able to see her side of things. It was an improvement over the way things had been for awhile before. He was learning to deal with his desire to protect her, just as she was learning to think about others concerns before risking herslf.
She sighed forlornly. She had absolutely nothing to do, except sit here watching the life of the town pass by outside the big plate glass window at the front of the Marshal’s Office.
At the sound of the backdoor creaking open, she turned to see who was coming in.
“Jesse?” she asked uncertainly.
“Hey, Louise,” he said despondently as he wandered into the room and slid into the seat by her cell. “You doin’ alright?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “A bit bored, but safe as a bug in a rug.”
“At least ya know why they left ya behind,” he muttered.
“What ya talkin’ ‘bout?” she asked.
“I thought I was startin’ ta make friends with the rest of them, Kid, Jimmy, Ike…. but soon’s trouble comes, they go ridin’ off ta the rescue and leave me behind ta ‘protect’ you.”
“Let me guess,” she smiled. “Kid?”
“I wouldn’t take that as an insult,” she said. “If he trusts you to protect me… well, that’s a right fine complement.”
“It’s just that they keep treatin’ me like I’m a kid or somethin’,” he near growled. “I do the same work they do, ride the same runs, face the same dangers, but they never quite accept me as one of ‘em.”
“Jesse,” she said softly, “we’ve all been together fer over a year now. It’s goin’ ta take more than a few weeks ta become one of the gang. But the fact yer here, now, tells me yer well on the way.”
He made a rude noise at that and she grinned a little. Boys were boys, no matter the age.
“Ya know, it took us all awhile ta get used ta Noah, after he joined us,” she said, smiling. “And did anyone ever tell ya how I tried ta chase Rachel off when she first come? Bein’ the new kid’s not easy, but if ya stick it out, you’ll find soon enough that yer just one of the boys. Give it some time. More’n I ever was!”
“Ya swear?” Jesse asked plaintively.
“Are ya a Pony Express rider?”
“Then I’m sure,” she said. Looking around, she leaned forward and whispered, “Listen, I been thinkin’ since Kid and the others left. I think I know where Noah’s at. If I tell ya, think ya could get some supplies and a message to him?”
Jesse brightened immediately and leaned forward eagerly. “Sure I can.”
Lou rolled over and sat up with a groan. She’d lain down on the cot because she was bored. But apparently she’d been tired, too, for she’d fallen asleep.
“Yes,” she said, blinking to make the world come into focus.
Standing in front of the jail cell’s bars stood the pretty young lady with the chocolate colored skin who’d been with Noah when Lou’d found him.
“Cassie?” she asked. “Cassie Ellis?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Cassie said, smiling hesitantly and nodding.
“Are you alright?”
“Oh, yes, I’m fine,” Cassie said. “And so’s Noah, thanks to you. That’s…. that’s why I came, to thank you. Ain’t many white women would stick their necks out for a black man.”
Lou shook her head. “First off, if he was innocent, I’da tried ta help no matter what. I don’t care about the color of his skin. And second, Noah’s not just any man. He’s family. And family takes care of family.”
Cassie nodded again, this time slowly, consideringly. “That’s what he said, but it’s hard fer me ta believe.”
“Well, it ain’t somethin’ that’s gonna change,” Lou grinned. “And things keep goin’ the way they are ‘tween you and Noah, you’ll be a part of this family soon enough.”
Cassie blushed and ducked her head.
“You like him a lot, dontcha, Cassie?
“He’s…. he’s a good man,” she said. “Maybe too good for the likes of me.”
In an effort to change the topic, she reached down to pick up a basket she’d set on the chair by the cell bars.
“Here,” she said. “I don’t know how long Marshal Hunter’ll make ya stay here. So… I brought ya somethin’ ta tide ya over.”
Lou sniffed and inhaled the enticing scent of warm zucchini muffins. She reached through the bars and eagerly grabbed one.
“Maybe it’s the other way ‘round and yer too good fer him, ever think of that?” Lou asked with a twinkle in her eye as she brought the muffin to her mouth. She took a large bite and moaned in pleasure as the flavors burst on her tongue. “Delicious.”
Cassie laughed. “Guess I was right ‘bout ya needin’ a snack.”
Lou shrugged, continuing to munch on the muffin. Cassie turned to set the basket back down on the chair. But Lou stopped chewing when she noticed Cassie freeze for a moment, wincing in pain.
Lowering the hand with the muffin, she reached through the jail cell bars with her other to gently touch Cassie on the arm.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“No…nothin’,” Cassie said quietly, shying away from Lou’s touch.
“No, somethin’s wrong,” Lou insisted. “Talk to me.”
“I.. I can’t,” Cassie whispered so quietly Lou could barely hear her.
An unsettled feeling sunk in Lou’s stomach like a stone plummeting to the bottom of the watering hole.
“He hurt you, didn’t he?” she asked, suddenly certain of her conclusion.
“No, Noah’s never hurt me,” Cassie whirled, fiercely protective. As she turned, her bodice shifted, revealing the edge of a purple, green and black bruise along her chest and neck.
“I know that, Cassie,” Lou said gently. “But it’s obvious someone did. Someone named LeBrand?”
Cassie deflated, sinking into the chair by the bars, hugging the basket of muffins to her chest.
“It was a long day. And I was workin’ very late. I was just about finished…. when Lebrand showed up,” she whispered hoarsely. “’So there you are!’ he yelled when he grabbed me, pushing me up against the wall.”
Lou shifted uncomfortably on her feet, then sank to her knees at Cassie’s side, reaching one hand out through the cell bars to settle it over Cassie’s hands on the basket.
Cassie stared straight ahead, not meeting Lou’s eyes, as she shared her horror story.
“He was drunk,” she said. “I… I tried to run, but he yelled at me to come back and then grabbed me and threw me to the ground. He had his mind on only one thing.”
Lou shivered, all too able to imagine the scene Cassie was describing.
“He kept saying things like he’d show me how to enjoy it. I guess he thought havin’ me was the best way of getting’ back at Noah.”
Cassie paused to gulp in a breath. She looked down at her hands and noticed Lou’s. Her fingers twisted to curl around the other woman’s, dark brown skin entwined with pale golden skin in shared pain.
“I tried ta fight him,” she said, each word getting a little bit quieter. But Lou didn’t really need to hear them. She knew what Cassie was saying. “But he was too strong. He forced himself on me. All I could see was Mama. She died tryin’ ta save me from this. And I wasn’t gonna let it happen.”
Cassie started breathing harder, as if fighting him off again, in her memories. Lou winced as Cassie’s grip tightened around her fingers, pinching them. But she didn’t pull away.
“I got my hands on some scissors. I didn’t think twice about…” She stopped, not completing the sentence, but Lou knew what she wasn’t saying. Cassie had killed LeBrand. “Quinn came out right after I killed him and helped me get rid of the body. “
“If Noah had known what LeBrand had done to you, he’d have killed him without a second thought. Any one of us woulda taken him on fer ya, Cassie,” Lou said.
Cassie nodded jerkily.
The two women sat quietly, connected by their hands and their own unique, yet quite similar, painful experiences. Neither said anything as they contemplated their own thoughts and experiences, how it had changed them, and where they went from here.
A sudden shouting outside the big window at the front of the Marshal’s Office, followed by the rapid stomping of boots racing down the boardwalk jerked them out of their contemplation.
“What’s goin’ on?” Lou asked anxiously, trying frantically to see out the window and through the crowd.
“I…. I don’t know,” Cassie murmured shakily. She stood up and walked toward the window to get a better view.
She gasped at the same time Lou heard a familiar voice floating through the window.
“I hear you’ve been lookin’ fer me.”
“That’s Noah!” Lou said unnecessarily.
“What’s he doin’ out there?” Cassie asked nervously, standing on tiptoe as she peered out the window, wringing her hands in front of her.
“What do you think?” Lou asked a bit shortly. “Tryin’ ta save you. He’s goin’ ta let the soldiers arrest him, take his chances on a trial.”
Cassie turned back to face Lou, her face stretched taut with fear, worry and inability to make a decision.
“You’ve gotta go out there, Cassie,” Lou said quietly, trying to keep the other woman from fleeing. “You gotta tell the truth.”
“But… my brother….. I can’t….”
“Yes, you can,” Lou said. “Ain’t no shame in what happened to ya. It weren’t yer fault. And what ya did, that was just self-defense. Teaspoon won’t let ‘em arrest ya fer that. He’ll… we’ll all… keep you, and Quinn!, safe. Like we shoulda done before this ever happened.”
Even as she was saying the words to Cassie, a part of Lou, deep inside, realized they were the truth for her as well. Rachel, Kid, they’d told her similar things, but she’d never quite believed them. Not until this moment, in this place, with this woman who’d suffered just like here.
“You can do it,” Lou whispered.
Cassie gulped back a half sob and nodded jerkily before pulling open the door and stepping out onto the boardwalk. Lou nodded with pride as she watched the slender woman push past several burly cowboys, farmers and soldiers to reach the front. Quinn came racing to her side, pressing close.
“Wait,” Lou heard Cassie call out, calmly, full of assurance. “Noah didn’t kill that man.” Then, a little quieter, “I did.”
“Looks like ye’ll get ta eat dinner at home with the rest of us tonight, after all,” Teaspoon grinned as he walked up to the cell doors and quickly unlocked them.
Lou breathed a sigh of relief as she stepped out from behind the bars and into freedom once more.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’d do it all over again, fer ya, Noah. You, too, Cassie,” Lou smiled. “But I sure am glad ta be shut of that cell.”
She rubbed her back a bit and laughed. “That cot is uncomfortable under the best of circumstances. It definitely ain’t made ta handle a pregnant woman.”
Everyone joined in as Teaspoon and Noah pulled her into a joint hug. Lou smiled, wrapping her arms around them as well and holding them close. Family. She loved having a family again. And she’d do anything, anytime, anywhere to keep them safe and together. As the others stepped back, Lou realized there was a new family member who maybe didn’t feel quite sure of her place yet.
Stepping forward, she reached out and grabbed Cassie’s hand, drawing it through the crook of her elbow, like a beau courting his sweetheart, and patted the back.
“Come on, Cassie,” she said, still grinning for all she was worth. “Let’s go see what Rachel’s cooked up. I guarantee it’ll be worth all this.”
Cassie grinned, snatching up her basket of muffins as she let Lou lead her out onto the boardwalk and toward the Pony Express Station. Noah and Teaspoon trailed behind them in bemusement.