Author's Note: This is the 10th installment of the Whole Truth series, following True Colors. It takes place during Presence of Mine Enemy, Season 3 Episode 5.
“You don’t have ta come along every time I go to town fer somethin’, Kid,” Lou said, smiling as the tall, delight of her heart bounded toward her.
He just grinned, tucking her hand into the crook of his arm and slowing his pace to match her more laborious one. After guiding her cautiously up the steps to the boardwalk, he said, “I like it. We’re courtin’, remember? I’m s’posed ta escort ya around town any chance I get.”
Lou blushed, ducking her head to hide the sudden surge of hot color.
“’Sides,” he added, grinning unrepentantly, “I gotta watch out ya don’t stumble an’ fall. How many times’ve you tripped over them skirts today already?”
Lou punched him in the arm, hard, with her free hand.
“Ow! What’d ya do that fer?” Kid yowled in mock outrage. “I was just askin’!”
Lou ignored him, lifting her chin into the air and sniffing audibly. That was, until she felt fingers suddenly climbing up her side, as if counting her ribs. Then, a giggle escaped past her tightly pursed lips.
She pulled away from the offending hand and tripped over her own skirts, again, as she stepped through the door into Tompkin’s Mercantile.
“Whoa, there! You better watch where your goin’ a little better,” a soft, sweet voice warned in amused tones as a pair of chocolate dark hands caught Lou about the waist before she could fall over.
Lou gasped on a laugh as she looked up into Cassie Ellis’ warm, friendly eyes.
“Cassie,” she grinned. “Thanks fer catchin’ me. That rapscallion back there made me trip again.”
“Hm hm,” Cassie murmured. “And it had nothin’ to do with you runnin’ full tilt ahead and forgettin’ you were wearin’ skirts again.”
Lou shrugged. “Let’s see if Tompkins has gotten any more of that embroidery thread in,” she said, changing the subject. “I need some greens and yellows.”
“Still working on that christening gown?” Cassie smiled as they walked toward the tables with all the sewing goods.
“Yes. But it’s been so long since I’ve done any needlework I find myself pulling out half of what I do. You wouldn’t believe the piles of ruined threads I have. So much I’ve started using it for kindling.”
The two giggled at the word picture Lou drew. Kid smiled. It was so nice to see her relaxing into this new role of hers, making friends, getting out. A slight frown flitted across his features. If only she’d learn to take more care of herself and the baby. He’d tried to let it go, but he was still… irritated with her for the way she’d risked herself protecting Noah. He tried to see her side of things. He knew she had a bone deep need to protect those she considered family, not so different from his own need to protect her and their baby. But why couldn’t she find a way to do so without throwing herself in front of possible bullets?
Feeling his irritation rising to a head, he decided it was time for him to head back to the station. Cassie was there to keep an eye on Lou and, whether she realized it or not, she needed that right now.
“I’ve gotta go check on Katy,” he said quietly to Lou, dragging her attention away from her conversation with Cassie. “She was off her feed this mornin’ and I need ta decide whether ta take her on my run this evening.”
Lou frowned. “Katy was just fine,” she muttered. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothin’, Lou,” Kid sighed.
“Don’t tell me nothin’!” she hissed under her breath. Neither noticed Cassie shifting uncomfortably at their public spat. “You think I can’t tell when yer upset ‘bout somethin’ by now?”
“This ain’t the time or the place, Lou,” Kid said, looking about uncomfortably, noticing the disapproving looks from two matrons across the store and the frown Tompkins was leveling their way from behind the counter.
“I ain’t seen one better,” Lou half-growled. “You been ‘bout as stable as the prairie wind fer a week now, one minute blowing this direction, the next blowing that.” Her arms flung left and right with her words as she gained steam. “Why don’t ya come on out with what’s been eatin’ at ya!”
“Fine!” Kid practically stomped as he spit the word out. “I’m tired of constantly worryin’ ‘bout you takin’ stupid risks. That’s right, I said stupid. It ain’t like the rest of us can’t help protect ya right now. I get it. Ya wanna take care of yerself and the rest of the world at the same time. But sometimes you gotta step back and let others do the work. This,” he pointed savagely at her belly, “is one of those times.”
“I thought we’d settled this,” she sighed heavily. “I thought you understood my point.”
“But you never understood mine,” Kid said roughly. “I get it. You didn’t think you had any other choice. I’m sayin’, there’s always a choice. And I just wish ya’d take the time ta think about other ways of doin’ things. Fer all our sakes.”
Frustrated, Lou let out a huff. She’d talked and talked until she was blue in the face and he just didn’t get it.
Feeling the tears gathering and unwilling to break down in public, she muttered, “And maybe ya just don’t like the responsibility we represent to ya now! Maybe that’s what’s behind all this ‘courtin’’ we’ve been doin’, a way ta avoid dealin’ with us.”
Pulling away from Kid, Lou stormed out of the store, pushing past the two frowning matrons on her way.
Kid sighed. He knew he’d mishandled things. Again. He just didn’t know how to explain his concerns to her. He’d seen what losing one baby had done to her. How could she ever recover from a second such loss? How could he? Yet that was what she courted with her headstrong, act first, think about the consequences second outlook on life.
Shaking his head in frustration, he trudged slowly out of the store after her, shoulders hunched, hands shoved in his pockets as he trailed a short distance behind to leave her some privacy while making sure she made it back to the station safely.
Lou sat on a log behind the barn, thinking about her spat with Kid. She’d known it was coming, but had been determined not to push things. She was trying to let him do his thinking first and then bring things up. But, well, patience wasn’t her strong suit at the best of times.
She winced as she remembered the conversation she’d overheard the day before coming out of Sunday services at the chapel down the street.
She and Cassie had been discussing plans for Sunday dinner, walking along arm in arm, when they’d heard the two women ripping them apart.
They’d called Cassie a whore, and worse, for letting LeBrand do what he’d done to her. Said no respectable woman would’ve allowed herself to live with the shame of it. Then they’d gone on to speculate which one of the riders was the father of Lou’s baby and to question if she even knew herself. One had suggested Kid, but the other said he was just Lou’s man of the moment. Both had questioned how Teaspoon could keep her on at the Express, even if she was his niece, given Mr. Major’s Christian beliefs and the oath they’d all signed when taking the job.
Cassie had laughed it off, saying she was used to talk like that from uppity white women. But it had hit home with Lou. She understood, to a certain extent, Kid’s determination to take things slow and get them right this time around. But she was starting to feel cornered. If they didn’t announce their marriage soon, it would be too late. No one would believe them.
Lou grimaced as she wiped at the tears streaming down her face with the edge of her apron. She’d been doing alright, taking her anger out on the wood that needed chopping for winter. That was, until she began to run out of breath and couldn’t keep chopping and breathing anymore. The baby was pressing up tight against her lungs now and she found herself running out of breath just walking across the station yard anymore.
A sudden kick against her ribs had Lou laughing shakily. One hand rubbed the sore spot briefly.
“It’s alright, little one,” she murmured tenderly. “I know yer Pa and I still go things ta figure out, but neither one of us will let anythin’ happen to you.”
It was a promise she meant to keep, even if it killed her.
Kid pushed his food around on his plate. He’d had a short run this afternoon, but had been able to make it back in time for supper. He’d been hoping to talk to Lou before they sat down to eat, but she’d been nowhere in sight. And she hadn’t shown up for the meal. No one could tell him where she’d disappeared to, either.
He feared he’d wrecked things, again, by opening his stupid mouth. Now, his stomach rejected even the thought of accepting anything that came by way of that mouth, turning once again as he looked at the food Rachel’d dished out for him.
“You might want to try looking for her out by the pond,” Rachel whispered in his ear as she passed by him with a fresh platter of biscuits. “She said she needed some time to think.”
Lou, thinking? Kid practically grinned at that idea. But he didn’t take the time to truly react, jumping up and heading out the door, barely remembering to grab his hat from the nail it hung on as he went. The time for thinking was up, for both of them. They needed to talk.
Kid watched as Lou stormed off, back toward town and the station. She hadn’t really let him say anything, just jumped down his throat with a ferocious fury, accusing him of not wanting anything to do with her and the baby anymore. She’d never let him get a word in edgewise. If she had, she might have learned that he wanted to discuss ways to move toward going public with their marriage.
He sighed as he watched her stomp away, slightly off balance because of the baby, and a slight smile began to spread across his mobile face. Her fire was sometimes, like now, frustrating. It was also a big part of what he loved so much about her. Life with Lou would never, ever, be boring. And he knew he’d never have to worry about wondering what she truly thought about something. But sometimes it had its downside, like now.
Shaking his head, Kid tucked his hands in his pockets and began a slow stroll back toward the station. He’d give her some time to cool off before trying to approach her again and begin planning their future as a family. In the meantime, he’d start scouting out local properties, see if there wasn’t something she might like in the area.
Kid’s patience was wearing thin. It had been a week and Lou was still giving him the cold shoulder. Not quite the silent treatment, but the next best thing. She’d been avoiding him at every turn, always seeking out someone else to pass the time with if he even looked like he was about to come talk to her. And she’d been scurrying off to bed the second his back was turned so he couldn’t walk her over to the house.
That’s what Kid missed the most, their nightly walks across the yard, taking time to dissect the doings of the day and settle in for the evening before a sweet kiss goodnight on the porch. It had been just as long since he’d held her in his arms as it had been since they’d had a civil conversation.
If Lou didn’t simmer down soon, he was about ready to haul her off to Teaspoon’s sweatlodge and hog tie her in it until she cooled off. They couldn’t continue this way for much longer.
“He’s watchin’ you, again,” Cassie giggled. “When you goin’ ta take pity on that man?”
Lou harrumphed and continued to keep her eyes on the miniature nightgown she was sewing for the baby from some beautiful white linen Emma had sent her.
“I’ll talk ta him just soon’s he’s ready ta admit he cain’t have his cake and eat it, too.” She raised her eyes to meet Cassie’s and added, “Either I’m his wife and this is his baby,” one hand fell to gently run across her ever larger rounded belly, “or we’re not. There ain’t no in between. I just cain’t do it.”
Cassie sighed and let the lacy curtains Rachel had just put up in the bunkhouse window fall back into place. She walked over to the stove and gave the stew simmering on a back burner a quick stir before returning to the chair next to Lou’s and picking up the matching bonnet she was working on.
“You two can’t keep this up forever,” she prodded. “Noah says it’s been pure misery in the bunkhouse with Kid mopin’ around all the time.”
“Aw, ain’t like he’s Jimmy,” Lou muttered, using her teeth to sever the thread at the end of a seam. “He ain’t likely ta shoot ‘em. All’s they gotta do is ignore him.”
“Lou,” Cassie said, a warning note coming into her voice.
Lou sighed. “I know,” she said quietly. “I know. And we will talk.” Her voice hardened. “But it’ll do him good ta stew in his juices a little longer.”
Cassie shook her head. “You oughta do it soon, before the big summer dance next week. Just imagine it, walkin’ in on his arm, the whole world envyin’ you.”
“You sure yer talkin’ ‘bout me?” Lou asked with a teasing grin as she knotted the end of her thread and started the next seam. “An’ not you an’ Noah?”
Cassie blushed and ducked her head to escape the other girl’s all too knowing eyes. She shrugged. “I ain’t never been to a proper dance before, with a proper escort an’ everythin’.”
“Me either,” Lou admitted, thinking back to all the dances Teaspoon had forced her to attend as a boy and all the time she’d spent holding up the wall rather than lead some poor girl on, if they’d even have agreed to dance with her in the first place. A small blush edged her cheekbones as she thought of one particular social and a stolen dance out by the corral. Not to mention what had followed. A kick in the ribs had her chuckling as she ruefully rubbed the suddenly tender spot. That and other moments were what had led her to this.
“Then yer gonna straighten things out in time ta go?” Cassie asked eagerly.
Lou shook her head. “Even if I do, I ain’t goin’.”
“Cassie,” Lou sighed in exasperation. “I don’t know how ta dance like a girl. And somehow I don’t think Kid would like me draggin’ him out there and leadin’ him around the floor. Not to mention I hardly have a proper party dress that will fit over this,” she said, rubbing her injured rib again to indicate her belly. “’Sides, I ain’t exactly light on my feet no more.”
“I don’t think Kid would mind,” Cassie grinned, thinking back to the longing look she’d seen him throwing their way from across the yard. “Besides, I need ya there for support.”
Lou looked up at Cassie at the sudden note of shyness that entered her voice and then winced. Things hadn’t exactly been easy for her since that whole LeBrand affair. Many in town had blamed her for it, saying she’d asked for the attention, flaunting herself around town the way she did when picking up and returning laundry orders. Never mind that was her job and there wasn’t anything underhanded about it. Some of the old town biddies seemed to think Cassie should let herself starve rather than show up at a man’s door in the hotel to get paid for her work.
“I…. I’ll think about it,” she muttered, squirming in her seat. She didn’t want to go to the dance. She really didn’t want to. She’d had her own run ins over the last few weeks with the ‘right and proper’ folk of Rock Creek and wasn’t exactly eager to socialize with them. But, for Cassie she’d at least think about it.
Lou pulled the pan of breakfast casserole, full of yummy baked eggs, cheese, onions and oatmeal, out of the oven with pride. It was perfectly crispy along the edge and melty in the middle, just like Rachel made it.
One thing was for sure, her standoff with Kid had let her concentrate on her cooking skills, which had improved by leaps and bounds. Oh, she still had her battles with the temperamental stove, but at least she no longer forgot important ingredients.
Turning, she set the casserole on the table, next to the perfectly browned biscuits before wiping her hands on the pretty black apron with a ruffled border and shoulder straps, a recent gift from Cody. She turned to grab the porridge off the stove. Continuing to stir it, she stepped out the bunkhouse door to call the others in for breakfast.
“Breakfast is ready,” she called, lifting the spoon from the pot to blow on it and take a taste to see if it needed anymore butter or salt.
“You know, I think it’s real nice, Rachel takin’ Jesse ta get his teeth fixed in St. Joe,” Cody grinned at her as he walked toward the porch. “But I don’t know if I kin survive another week of yer cookin’.”
Lou scrunched her face at his teasing. “I seem ta remember you eatin’ every last bite last night at supper without any complaints.”
“Are we havin’ porridge again?” Jimmy asked, coming around the corner.
Lou leaned against the edge of the porch railing, relaxing as the boys pushed and play grumbled.
“Yup,” Cody grinned, turning to him. “Has yer horse eaten yet?”
Noticing Lou’s growing glower, Jimmy hissed, “Enough, Cody! You don’t watch it, ye’ll be wearin’ breakfast ‘sted of eatin’ it!”
Lou suddenly straightened at the sight of a strange woman walking into the Express Station’s yard.
“Boys,” she warned, “we’ve got company.”
Jimmy and Cody turned to see who it was as Ike crossed the yard from the barn and joined the group.
“I’ll say we do….” Cody murmured, watching the pretty young brunette near them.
She came to a halt a short distance in front of the gathered riders and cleared her throat.
“Hi. I’m Emily Metcalfe,” she said, introducing herself. “My father and I just bought the Hatchet Place.”
Cody, predictably, broke the frozen tableau and stepped forward first, reaching out to grab the young lady’s hand and lift it to his mouth for a kiss. He beamed his most charming smile at her. “Well, nice ta meet ya, Emily. My name is William F Cody. “
Miss Metcalfe barely seemed to notice his presence, her eyes seeking out… Ike? Lou straightened as she realized where the other girl’s attention was at. What did she want with Ike?
“Ike, I was kinda upset before,” Emily said softly, a strange accent rounding her vowels. “I didn’t get a chance ta thank you personally for what ya did.”
Lou’s eyes flashed to Ike as Jimmy voiced her question.
“What’d ya do, Ike?”
“I don’t know,” Cody whispered not so quietly to Lou as he stepped up onto the porch next to her. “But whatever it was, I wish I did it.”
Lou chuckled. Ike continued to stand there, looking at the pretty young woman with a slightly dumbfounded expression.
“Well, if you’ll excuse me, the man at the feed store is loadin’ our wagon,” Emily said into the uncomfortable silence. “It was nice meetin’ you.”
She turned and started to walk away.
Cody leaned forward and pushed Ike’s shoulder none too gently.
“Don’t just stand there, Ike!” he hissed.
Ike jumped as if suddenly waking from a trance and bounded across the yard to Emily’s side. Lou and the others watched as he struggled to communicate with her, Buck eventually coming to the rescue.
Lou liked the look of the young lady. There was something sweet about her that made Lou think she wouldn’t hurt Ike, like so many before her had. All the same, Lou figured to keep a close eye on those two. She wanted to make sure Ike had a chance at a ‘normal’ courtship, something few of them had ever truly had. She found herself slightly envious of that as she watched the two of them chatting. But she’d do anything to protect this first blush of… whatever it was… for them.
Kid looked at the package in his hands. It had come in with the morning stage from Omaha. Lou’s name was scrawled across the front in Emma’s distinctive handwriting.
“Here,” he said, pushing the package into Teaspoon’s hands. He added with a mutter, “You give it to her. She’ll never get it if I try ta deliver it.” He didn’t give Teaspoon a chance to respond, whirling to walk toward the corral with a last comment tossed over his shoulder. “I got chores ta do.”
Teaspoon watched the boy walk away with a heavy heart. Those two would be the death of him yet. He’d watched them dance closer to each other, than jump back more times than he could count. He thought once they talked Lou into coming back things would all work out. But then there was the baby, and now whatever bee Lou had in her bonnet, er, hat. He shook his head and turned toward Rachel’s house to find her.
Moments later he was handing the package over.
“Here, Lou,” he said.
“What’s that?” she asked, wiping her hands on her apron before taking the brown paper wrapped parcel.
“I dunno,” he shrugged. “Looks like somethin’ from Emma.”
Lou walked over to the table and carefully sank onto the bench along one side, one hand supporting her back as she did so. She set the package on the table and grabbed a nearby knife to cut the twine holding it closed.
A moment later, she had the brown paper peeled back revealing a pile of beautiful dark blue calico sprigged with little white flowers, with occasional bits of frilly lace showing along edges. On top of it, lay a sheet of white paper.
Lou frowned and picked up the paper to read it.
I know you told the seamstress you didn’t have the time to wait or money to pay for a special party dress for while you were increasing. But I have a feeling you’re going to want something nice you can feel pretty wearing. If nothing else, it can be an extra nice dress for Sunday best. Wear it with all the joy I can wish you, my dear.
Let the boys and Mr. Spoon know I’m doing well and the baby’s healthy as an ox, according to Sam and the doctor. We’ll be there soon to see you all.
Say, ‘hello’ to Rachel for me.
“So?” Teaspoon asked.
Lou set the note aside and reached down to lift up the blue fabric, shaking it out to reveal the pretty dancing frock it was.
“It’s a party dress,” she said in awe. “Special. Just fer me and the babe. From Emma.”
Teaspoon nodded. “You’ll look real purty in that. Kid’ll be the proudest man at the dance.”
Lou let the dress fall back to the table and turned away from it.
“I already tol’ ya, I ain’t goin’.”
“And I already told ya, yes, you are. We’re all goin’. Gotta make nice with the townfolk here, get settled in right. And that includes you and Rachel,” Teaspoon said firmly. “Now you’ve got a proper dress, I won’t be hearin’ anymore protest from you, young lady.” He stood and stepped toward the door, pausing to look back at her as he opened it. “Is that clear?”
The dress was about the prettiest thing Lou had ever owned. Except maybe for that pink one she’d bought in Blue Creek once, with the French lace. But that had been consigned to the fire in an effort to wipe the memory of Tyler DeWitt completely off the face of the earth. This dress held none of those memories, just the beautiful soft fabric and flowing lace. Instead of the traditional lowered waistline, the skirt was gathered up beneath the bust, emphasizing its size. The skirt then flowed gracefully down over her belly to the floor, de-emphasizing its size. For once she felt beautiful again, not like a lumbering ox.
“Lou, hurry up,” Rachel called from the base of the stairs. “Remember, Ike wants to draw a picture of all y’all before we leave for the dance.”
Suddenly, all of Lou’s peace and contentment and joy with the dress evaporated. The thought of having to head out into public view caused her stomach to pitch uncomfortably. But,she couldn’t deny Ike’s request. With a sigh, she tucked one last curl back into the chignon Rachel had devised using a clever combination of her slowly lengthening locks and flowers and straight pins to at least give her the appearance of a full head of hair and walked out of her room.
“Teaspoon, why do I gotta go to this thing?” Buck was whining as Lou walked into the bunkhouse.
“I tol’ ya, we gotta make nice with the townsfolk,” Teaspoon said, tying his string tie into a neat bow. “Wouldn’t want them ta think my boys were nothin’ more than a bunch of scallywags.”
Buck grunted in annoyed disagreement.
*Would you go stand behind the bench?* Ike asked, pushing Buck impatiently to where he wanted him, standing behind the middle of one of the benches he’d pushed away from the table, right next to Cody.
“Is this goin’ ta take long?” Cody whined. “I gotta get there ‘fore all the pretty girls’ dance cards are filled.”
Lou glared at him as she sat down where Ike told her to, in the middle of the bench in front of Buck.
Cody just shrugged. “Sorry, Lou, but yer card’s already full.”
He looked pointedly at Kid.
Lou glared harder.
Jimmy slid onto the bench to Lou’s left and Kid, reluctantly, slid in next to her on the right.
Immediately, Lou began to feel flushed from all the body heat surrounding her. And, the baby was sitting on her bladder, making her squirm in discomfort. She tried to be patient, really she did. She carefully tucked an errant curl back into the pins on her head and waved the fan Rachel had given her vigorously in front of her face, trying to cool off. But, finally, it got to be more than she could handle.
“Ike. I’m gettin’ tired sittin’ here,” she said, trying to be polite.
Her voiced complaint increased the uncomfortable shifting of those around them.
“Ike, how long is this gonna take?” Jimmy muttered.
“I’ve been smilin’ so long I don’t think I can stop,” Kid put in as he tried to pull his heavy suit coat away from his body and let a slight breeze in to cool off.
Lou turned to glare at him. “That’s alright, Kid. I’m sure the girls’ll love it.”
Kid looked at her sharply, as if trying to figure out what she meant, then went back to using his handkerchief to wipe off the sweat trailing down the back of his neck. Lou continued to fan herself vigorously.
*Sit still,* Ike demanded of all of them. *Lou stop fiddling with that fan!* he added.
Lou carefully folded the fan and set it gently down on the table. “Alright,” she sighed. “Alright.”
“Ike, you sure you don’t want to come along, now?” Noah asked from behind her.
They were all worrying about Ike who’d decided not to go to the dance if his new sweetheart, Emily, wasn’t going after having some problems out at her farm.
“Yeah,” Jimmy put in. “Just ‘cause Emily ain’t comin’, don’t mean ya can’t have a good time.”
Ike ignored them, pausing to stare at his drawing assessingly, his lips pursed in consideration.
“Is that it?” Kid asked eagerly.
Ike nodded consideringly, then looked up at the rest of them and nodded again, this time emphatically.
“Finally!” Cody sighed in relief as he took the lead toward the door.
Lou stumbled as she tried to stand up too fast and Kid grabbed her arm to steady her. She shook him off and moved over to Ike’s side.
“Let’s see!” she demanded. Ike pushed her away with a grin and hid the picture against his chest.
“See ya, soon, Ike!” Jimmy called as he trailed after Cody, the others all trooping along behind him.
Lou took one last look at Ike before they left and shook her head. There was something about the twinkle in his eye, the briskness of his movements that told her he had something up his sleeve. She just hoped it turned out alright.
Lou shifted uncomfortably on her feet. It hurt to stand on them so long these days and she knew when she got home tonight they’d be swollen again. But every time she tried to find a seat along the walls, where all the older and married women were seated, more than one of them as pregnant as Lou, the seat was suddenly full before she managed to get there. She knew it was deliberate on the part of some of the women and was getting fed up with the games.
She’d danced a couple times, with Jimmy and Teaspoon, but was avoiding the attentions of some of the other men gathered here tonight. There was something about the way they looked at her that just made her uncomfortable. She couldn’t pinpoint what it was, but she’d learned to trust her instincts with men. If they made her uncomfortable, she avoided them at all costs.
Seeing another one coming her way, she ducked behind a group of older girls talking about their sweethearts, headed for a corner with a large plant she could conveniently hide behind. A sudden tugging at her arm had her whirling about, ready to lash out at whoever had grabbed her.
“Sorry, Teaspoon,” she half laughed when she realized who it was. “I… thought you were someone else.”
“Whatcha doin’ hidin’ back here, gal?” he asked.
She shrugged, not willing to explain.
“Come on,” he said, taking her arm and pulling her toward the dance floor. “Purty young thing like you oughta be whoopin’ it up and havin’ fun. Can’t figger what Kid was thinkin’, leavin’ ya all on yer lonesome like this.”
“Maybe that I wasn’t in the mood fer him ta pretend,” Lou muttered as Teaspoon swung her out onto the floor, twirling her about to the fast paced music as if she weighed nothing. Soon he had her grinning and laughing like a loon, loving every minute of the dance.
Kid watched Lou’s face light up with joy as Teaspoon goaded her into having fun. The discomfort and unhappiness on her face earlier as she’d tried to hide from everyone, even him, earlier had near to broken his heart. He was glad Teaspoon had managed to drag her out of her shell.
“Who’s the pretty gal in the blue dress?”
Kid turned to see two youngish looking farmhands standing on the edge of the dance floor, eyeing Lou speculatively.
“Never seen her before,” the taller of the two said, hawking wad of tobacco juice into a cup in his hand. “Wonder if she’s that new one in town I heard about…. without a husband.”
The grin that spread across the shorter man’s face at that comment turned Kid’s stomach and he started toward the duo, to say what he didn’t know. But Jimmy grabbed his arm and pulled him back with a quick shake of his head. Best not to make trouble here and now.
Instead, Jimmy motioned for Kid to follow his lead and he pushed between the men to get to the table laden with treats and punch.
“She’s just passin’ through,” Jimmy said casually in answer to the men’s question.
“She’s the new Marshal’s niece,” Kid added as he leaned forward to grab a coconut macaroon, one of his favorites. He wondered if Lou’d made them. “Just visitin’.”
The two men shared bewildered looks, then shrugged and moved away from the table.
“Do you think they bought it?” Kid asked nervously.
Jimmy shrugged. “I dunno. I’ll keep an eye on them, though. You better go make up with yer gal,” he added more severely. “So’s we can all be done with this fuss.”
Kid ducked his head. He knew Jimmy was right, especially if Lou’s apparent solitary status was drawing this kind of attention. It was time to move forward.
“I need a breather,” Lou gasped, laughing, as the music ended.
“What? A young filly like you?” Teaspoon teased.
“Well, I am dancin’ fer two here, Teaspoon,” she shot back, resting one hand fleetingly on her belly as he led her off the dance floor toward the refreshments table. “All the cookin’ and cleanin’ Rachel’s had me doin’ lately don’t hold a candle ta this sort of exertion. Ain’t worked this hard since I stopped ridin’.”
Teaspoon laughed and patted her hand where it rested on his forearm.
“Um, Marshal Hunter, Mrs. McCloud, good to see you two again.”
Lou turned toward the speaker with a frown. What was Tompkins up to? His raised voice made her think he was putting on a show for someone. But who?
“Tompkins,” Teaspoon said with a nod and a smile. “I see you haven’t forgotten my niece here.”
“No, sir,” the normally taciturn storekeeper grinned broadly. Then his grin faltered a bit and he turned a serious look Lou’s direction. “I been meanin’ ta tell ya how sorry I was ta hear ‘bout Danny’s death. We all miss him. Too bad he didn’t have any other family.”
Lou’s frown of confusion deepened. Danny hadn’t died. The slightly slow boy had gone to live with some friends of Eli’s back in St. Louis, after the bad meat had killed his guardian.
Tompkins allowed his grin to broaden again as he added in an even louder voice, “But I’m sure Kid’s doin’ a fine job watchin’ out for you like he promised Danny he would. Are you planning on naming the little one after him?”
Lou shrugged, not quite sure how to respond.
Tompkins reached out and patted her on the shoulder. Continuing in the booming voice meant to carry across the room, he said, “I’m sure you’ll find the right name in time.”
Lou nodded, still not sure what to say, confused by Tompkins words. Teaspoon nodded at the other man as well and began to lead Lou away. Leaning down he whispered, “That oughta take care of the gosspin’ ol’ biddies!”
What had Tompkins been saying to them? Kid wondered. To Lou? He’d better not have said anything to upset her, the rider thought.
Squaring his shoulders, he began to push his way through the crowd of townsfolk toward where Teaspoon and Lou were exiting the dance floor. Luckily they were headed in his general direction and he didn’t have to chase them down.
“Kid, you havin’ a good time?” Teaspoon asked.
Kid shrugged, not quite knowing how to answer the man’s question. He turned his attention to Lou and asked, hesitantly, “Can… would you do… may I have the pleasure of this dance?”
“You may,” she reluctantly answered, knowing Teaspoon wouldn’t let her say no, anyway.
Moments later, she found herself back out on the dance floor being gently whirled in circles to a familiar, slow haunting tune. It took her a bit to figure out the band was trying to play a version of Auralea.
“Ah…. Lou,” Kid finally said, clearing his throat slightly.
“Are ya still mad at me?”
“Are ya still avoidin’ me?” she asked a tad acerbically.
“I wasn’t avoidin’ you,” he said. “I was givin’ ya time ta cool off. So’s we could talk.”
“What’s there ta talk about, Kid?” She sighed wearily. “I think it’s pretty obvious the blush has worn off the flower and ya ain’t interested no more.” She paused, then added, speaking to her toes, “Not that I kin blame ya.”
“I ain’t got no idea what ever made ya think I didn’t care no more,” Kid huffed. “I love ya, Lou. More’n ever. I thought ya promised no more runnin’ away? What happened ta that?”
“I wasn’t the one runnin’,” she hissed, trying to keep her voice down. Then her shoulders slumped and the anger left her. “But who’d want ta stick around this, anyway? I’m bigger’n a cow, cain’t ride, kin barely buckle on a gunbelt, am only now learnin’ how ta cook proper. Who’d want me fer a wife and mother, anyway?”
“I do,” Kid said quietly.
“Yeah,” she muttered. “That’s why yer tryin’ ta hide ever’thin’ between us away from the world. Cause yer proud of me.”
Kid suddenly stopped dancing, oblivious to the crowd around them, and reached down to tilt her chin up, so he could see her face.
“I couldn’t be prouder,” he said with a quiet seriousness that spoke directly to her heart. “But, I gotta be sure I’m what you want an’ need. That ya ain’t choosin’ me first just ‘cause I was there when no one else was, and now,” he glanced down at her stomach, “’cause ya feel like ya have to, like it’s the right thing ta do.”
“You ain’t never been convenient, Kid,” she half-laughed, half-sobbed in relief.
“Hey, dance already, or get off the floor!”
Kid looked up and blushed when he realized they’d come to a complete standstill in the middle of the room, blocking other dancers’ way.
“Come on,” he muttered, tucking her hand into the crook of his arm and leading her off the floor. “Let’s find someplace a bit more quiet, where we can really talk.”
Lou nodded and let him lead her out the front doors and on a slow stroll down the boardwalk. For a bit they walked in silence.
“Did you really mean that,” Lou asked, breaking the quiet.
“What? That I was just tryin’ ta give ya a choice?” Kid asked. He didn’t wait for her response. “Yes. Like I tol’ ya, I did a lot of thinkin’ while you were gone. And one thing I know is, much as I want ya in my life, I want ya there, cause you want ta be there. Not cause ya feel like ya have ta be.”
“Kid,” she said softly, “there ain’t nothin’ I want more.”
“Then, marry me,” he said, a hint of urgency in his voice. “Let’s go to the courthouse and file our certificate.”
“Um, Kid, I don’t think I’m up ta a ride back ta Wyomin’ Territory right now,” she said, laughing as she patted her belly.
“Well, we can’t keep goin’ on the way we have. It ain’t good fer you an’ the baby and.. well, there’s been some talk.”
“I know,” she said quietly. “But, I… .I don’t think we have ta worry ‘bout that anymore.”
Kid gave her a questioning look and she smiled, then told him what Tompkins had said, making sure everyone could hear him.
“Then… then let’s do it all over again,” Kid suggested impulsively once she’d finished.
Kid dropped to one knee and pulled something out of his jacket pocket.
“Lou… Louise… McCloud.. will you do me the honor of -“
She squealed and leaped into his arms, almost toppling him over as she peppered his face with kisses.
“Yes,” she finally whispered against his lips. “Oh, yes.”
Lou rounded the corner from the outhouse at the back of the school building, heading toward the front door. She flushed slightly as she thought of how her body’s changing needs had interrupted her reunion with Kid. She looked down at the small ring now riding on her third finger and couldn’t help grinning at the sight. Kid hadn’t given her her wedding ring back yet. Instead, he’d gifted her with a promise ring, a promise that they’d figure things out and be a real couple.
She felt like hugging herself with happiness.
“I see yer feelin’ a mite more pleased with yourself tonight.”
She turned to see Tompkins leaning against the wall of the schoolhouse, puffing away on a cigar.
“Mr. Tompkins, just the man I wanted to see.”
“Somehow I doubt that,” he grinned at her.
She flushed and looked away shyly, then looked back at him, determined to have her say.
“I… I wanted to thank you,” she said. “For what ya done in there, I mean.”
“No problem. I heard what the so-called upstanding ladies of this town were saying about ya and figgered I’d better do something. It’s nobody’s business but yer own how ya live yer life.”
Something about his words and his looks told her he was talking about more than the baby.
“You knew?” she asked incredulously.
Tompkins laughed heartily. “From the moment you hit me in the head with a fryin’ pan!”
She joined him, remembering the fight in Tompkins store over his insults to Buck.
“I’ve got ta say though, I’m relieved ta hear you and the Kid are going ta be making things right.”
She cocked her head at him. How had he learned about their plans already?
“There was always somethin’ squirrelly about you two,” he smiled, patting her on the shoulder. “But Teaspoon assures me everything’s been done right.” He paused a moment to look down at her sternly. “Although I expect you two to make things right publicly before that child’s born. He or she doesn’t deserve to suffer from your antics.”
Lou nodded. Tompkins was right. And she knew he was speaking from his own experiences as a parent. Yes, it was beyond time for her and Kid to finish growing up.
“There you are!”
She turned to see Kid walking out the front door of the schoolhouse, a big smile on his face.
“Ready for another dance?”
She smiled and nodded back, walking up to him and tucking her arm through his. Just before disappearing through the door into the party, she looked back and said one last, “Thank you.”
“Guess they must’ve patched things up,” Jimmy said, nudging Buck to turn his attention toward Kid and Lou coming back into the schoolhouse, where the dance was being held.
“Again,” Buck chuckled.
“Wonder how long it’ll last this time,” Jimmy pondered.
“With those two? Who knows!”
Kid smiled, enjoying the feel of holding Lou in his arms as they swayed to the tune of a slow waltz. All was right with his world once again and he could see a bright future for them.
Catching a glimpse of Noah twirling Cassie around the dance floor, he chuckled.
“What?” Lou asked, not raising her head from where it rested on his chest.
“That’s right,” he mused. “You missed it.”
“Ike’s grand entrance.”
At that she did raise her head to check and see if Kid was pulling her leg.
“With Emily on his arm,” Kid smiled. “I guess he waited ‘til we’d all left, then got dressed up and headed out ta her place ta persuade her ta come after all. Last I saw them, he was grinnin’ like a loon and dancin’ the night away.”
Lou smiled as she pressed her cheek to Kid’s chest once again. It was a scandalously close position, but she didn’t really care. It felt so good to be back in his arms. She was considering ways to lure him up to her room after the dance. It wasn’t like they could do any damage by renewing a closer relationship, she thought with a grin, a more personal dance, so to speak.
The sound of gunfire from the streets had her stiffening and looking around, instinctively trying to locate all the members of her family. She found Teaspoon and Rachel, Buck, Noah and Cassie, Cody and Jimmy easily enough. But…