A/N: Episode: The Pilot; this takes place during the time (in my mind) the boys are training to be riders.

“I do apologize,” Teaspoon said as he sat down at the table for dinner. “Things have been rather, um, busy in town.” He winked at Emma hoping to get a smile from the woman. She was none too pleased with the happenings going on so Teaspoon didn’t get his smile.

“I’ve heard,” Emma said, pursing her lips. “Sam was here earlier. Seems that new business is givin’ him a bit of trouble.” The boys’ attention was immediately drawn to Teaspoon so she nudged Cody and pointed to the plate of pork chops for Cody to pass.

Cody slowly passed Teaspoon the food and placed the plate in front of the stationmaster. “What’s it like?” the rider asked, in a hushed almost reverent way.

Teaspoon studied the pork chops and, after stabbing his fork into a large piece of meat, he noticed the quiet. He looked up and saw the eager expressions of wonder on the boys’ faces – all but Lou. Not exactly a surprise, since the boy usually kept his head down, but Teaspoon wished Lou would show some interest in the normal things that boys did. Unfortunately, the other boys would be interested in a place like this and Teaspoon wished they’d show a bit more decorum, especially in front of Emma. Not sure how to respond, or that he wanted to, Teaspoon cleared his throat and concentrated on filling his stomach. He plopped a heaping spoonful of potatoes onto his plate and reached for the greens. Jimmy’s hand was on the bowl, stopping Teaspoon from laying claim.

“Well?” Jimmy asked, keeping a firm grip on the vegetables so Teaspoon would have to acknowledge the question.

Teaspoon sighed heavily and looked up at Emma. She arched a brow at him. “Ya’ might as well tell ‘em or you won’t get any dinner.” She narrowed her eyes and added, “but be careful what ya’ say.”

Grunting his annoyance, Teaspoon glanced around the table and then looked heavenward for some guidance. It seemed to help because he slowly lowered his head wearing a self-satisfied expression. “Now, let’s see, y’all want to know what the place is like?” The vigorous nods definitely affirmed this; again, all but Lou who kept his head down, moving the food around on his plate. ‘He ain’t convincin’ no one he’s eatin’ a thing,’ Teaspoon thought, concerned with how the smaller boy was acting.

“Teaspoon?” Cody prodded, encouraging the man to continue. The other boys were as Cody was, on the edge of their seats – everyone but Lou. Cody ignored the small boy, paying more attention to the others, all wearing grins as big as his.

“Hmm, what’s the place like,” Teaspoon hedged, rubbing his hand thoughtfully over his stubbled chin. The chorus of grumbles made him laugh. “I’d say that the place was rather,” he grinned slyly at Emma, this time receiving a curious smile from the woman, “well, I believe *meretricious* seems to describe it purty good.” He took hold of the bowl and yanked it from Jimmy’s grasp. The boy grudgingly let go.

Teaspoon enjoyed using new words to expand his boys’ learning. As he spooned some spinach onto his plate, he eyed Emma from under his brow. She was covering her mouth with her napkin, trying to hide her laughter. Noticing Teaspoon, she nodded her approval.

He then watched the boys’ reaction. Kid and Jimmy immediately looked at Cody, since he seemed to be the one they always saw reading but Cody just shrugged, which Teaspoon expected. He doubted that the word was ever used in any of Cody’s dime novels, and if it was, he was sure Cody wouldn’t take the time to look up the meaning, skimming over a word like that for the good parts. Ike and, to Teaspoon’s delight, Lou looked at Buck, who at first seemed to be thinking hard on the word but he gave up and with a heavy sigh, shook his head.

The group eyed each other as if deciding which one would finally ask for a definition. Teaspoon continued eating, waiting for the decision to be made. It didn’t take long.

“Teaspoon,” Jimmy said, “um, what does –”

“I won’t have talk about that place at my table,” Emma stated firmly. She looked at each rider, making sure they understood. “Now, I believe we need to say the blessin’.” As the boys opened their mouths to protest and remind her that they’d already done so, she raised her hand. “Mr. Spoon wasn’t here.” She smiled at Teaspoon and asked sweetly, “Mr. Spoon, would you do us the honors?”

Teaspoon put his fork down, sighing inwardly so as not to annoy Emma any further. He’d truly been enjoying his meal. “Thank you Lord ….”

*~*~*~*~*

Late afternoon the next day, after the boys had loaded the supplies, they stood outside the hardware store. They tried to be as nonchalant as possible as they watched everything going on across the street. There were so many people milling about in front of the new business, Sadie’s Palace, that the riders would swear it was all of Sweetwater.

“I’ve got it,” Buck said as he walked over from Tompkins’ store. “It was in a dictionary over there.”

Ike pointed to the package in Buck’s hand and looked questioningly at his friend. Buck grinned sheepishly, “Figured I could use a dictionary anyway.”

*He gave you trouble after all the stuff we bought?* Ike glared towards the man’s store. The Express had only been set up for a little over a week and Tompkins was already giving the riders a hard time, but mostly Buck.

“No,” Buck said, “he didn’t really say anything at all. I just figured I’d get the dictionary to be ready for any more of Teaspoon’s descriptions.” Everyone except Cody laughed. Cody only looked puzzled.

“Wait a minute,” Cody said. “I looked for the word and it wasn’t in there.”

“We figured Teaspoon made it up,” Kid added.

“Not the way Emma was acting,” Buck said. The others nodded at his point. Buck arched his brow as he eyed Cody. “How’d you spell it?”

“M-A-R-Y–”

Buck held his hand up. “That’s your problem. It’s M-E-R-E.” When Cody gaped, Buck quickly said, “But you did look it up the way Teaspoon said it so–”

“Who cares,” Jimmy groused, waving his hand for Buck to get to the important part, “this ain’t a spellin’ lesson. What does it mean?”

Buck blushed and looked down at the ground. Sensing something good, the boys all closed in on him. “Well?” they asked at once. Buck looked up to see the others had surrounded him so he took a step back. He glanced over and saw that Lou was standing a few feet from the group. ‘He seems really uncomfortable with all this. I wonder if he’s had –’

“Well?” Jimmy said again, forcefully enunciating the word.

Buck sighed. “It means alluring, flashy, or tawdry.” The boys giggled and exchanged mischievous glances as Buck leaned in and finished in a whisper, “Characteristic of a prostitute.”

Lou grunted and stomped away seeming to want as much distance from the boys as possible.

“What’s his problem?” Cody asked.

“Beats me,” Kid answered not paying Lou much attention. “He always acts funny when we talk about women.”

*He’s shy,* Ike signed.

“He’s jus’ weird,” Jimmy stated emphatically.

“Why’s that?” Buck asked, annoyed at the others’ dismissive attitude towards Lou’s behavior. Buck knew how conversations could affect people by bringing up uncomfortable topics or worse, memories of their past.

“He don’t act like no man I ever saw,” Jimmy said, turning to Buck challengingly.

“Oh and you have a vast amount of knowledge on the subject?” Buck wasn’t turning away, even though he felt Ike’s hand on his sleeve.

“Hey look,” Cody said, drawing everyone’s attention to Lou who was now across the street in front of the alley by the brothel. Lou was looking around as if for someplace to go.

“What’s he doin’?” Kid asked.

“I’m thinkin’ he’s tryin’ to dodge Marybeth over there,” Jimmy said, chuckling as he pointed to the right towards the lawyer’s office.

They looked a few buildings down the street and saw Marybeth Aberdeen standing outside talking to her father, Mr. Courtney Aberdeen, the town’s lawyer. Marybeth had taken a quick liking to Lou when Teaspoon had introduced the boys a few days before. Mr. Aberdeen had wanted to talk to Teaspoon about his concerns regarding the new business but Marybeth had just wanted to talk to Lou. This hadn’t been lost on the other boys, who had, since the meeting, taken every opportunity to needle Lou about the young woman.

“Who wants to bet that Marybeth catches Lou?” Cody said, looking around at the others with an impish grin.

“I ain’t never bettin’ against a woman who’s set her sights,” Jimmy drawled. Buck and Ike chuckled, nodding their agreement.

“Yer on,” Kid answered. “I’ll bet Lou gets outta this somehow.”

“Two bits?” Cody asked. When Kid hesitated, Cody chided, “Fine if ya’ can’t handle it….”

“Done,” Kid snapped.

The boys watched the scene with much interest.

*~*~*~*~*

“Great,” Lou muttered, backing into the alley as she watched Marybeth in front of Mr. Aberdeen’s office. Scanning the area for somewhere to hide, she spotted some crates and boxes at the alley entrance. She was startled by the sound of a door opening behind her and wasn’t able to get out of sight fast enough as a petite girl exited the building with a barrel of trash.

“What’re ya’ doin’ back here?”

“Nothin’,” Lou mumbled keeping her face turned away from the girl. Peering over the crates to gauge how far Marybeth was, Lou hoped that Marybeth hadn’t seen her.

“Why’re ya’ dressed like a boy?” The girl put the barrel down and eyed Lou curiously.

“I am a boy,” Lou grumbled, keeping her voice low. She saw Marybeth walking straight towards the alley and moaned softly, realizing she’d been spotted.

“No you ain’t,” the girl said, laughing.

“Yes I am,” Lou argued, anxious because Marybeth was just a few yards away.

“No-you-ain’t,” the girl said, hands on her hips.

“Oh Lou,” Marybeth called, “are you over here?”

Lou looked pleadingly at the girl. “No I ain’t but she thinks I am.”

The girl giggled and grabbed Lou’s arm. “Get in here.” She closed the door quickly, just as they heard Marybeth call out again, this time much closer. She giggled again and motioned for Lou to follow her up the back staircase.

“These stairs are to get certain customers out – ”

“Without anyone in the main room seein’ ‘em,” Lou finished. She bit her lip, wondering why she’d said that. No one knew who she’d been or what had happened to her. She’d shed that life and created a new one.

“Yeah,” the girl said softly, glancing back.

Following the girl up the stairs, Lou felt so many emotions assail her. Anger, hurt, and fear, naturally, but some happy ones as well. Bittersweet thoughts of Charlotte and how the woman had tried so hard to take care of and watch out for Lou when Lou was a young girl. Who was to protect Lou now? Everything that had put her down this path, all the trials she’d been through and now, now she had to be someone else if she wanted to survive – to live in a world of pretense, wearing her façade like a new suit.

“Here we are.” The girl opened the door to a small room, not much larger than a pantry or broom closet.

“You stay here?” Lou couldn’t keep the condemnation from her voice. She looked apologetically at the girl. “Sorry.”

“I know it ain’t much but it gets me away from…well, anyway.”

Lou walked into the room and took a seat on a large pillow on the floor, leaving the only chair for her protector. “Um, I’m Lou.”

“I’m guessin’ it’s Louise?”

Lou looked at her and grinned for the first time in so many months. “Yeah. What’s yours?”

“Willow,” she answered. She giggled when Lou scrunched up her nose. “I know, but my real name is Sally. Not much better.” Sally plopped down on the chair, releasing a heavy sigh.

“I think Sally’s a good name,” Lou said softly. Sally looked at Lou as if for approval and Lou nodded, receiving a grateful smile from the girl. They sat in silence for a while so Lou took the moment of quiet contemplation to study Sally.

Sally looked to be a year or two younger than Lou. She wore a simple blue dress made of thinning gingham that was frayed at the hem and cuffs. Her hair was twisted up in a loose bun, and she wore a scuffed pair of russet work boots. The way the items fit, Lou figured that if this place was anything like the one Wicks owned everything was passed from girl to girl.

“So I’m guessin’ hidin’ in alleys from, um, girls ain’t yer normal day,” Sally teased. “I’ve seen ya’ ‘round those Express riders. What do ya’ do?”

“I am an Express rider,” Lou said, proudly. At first she regretted the way she said it, not wanting to insult Sally, but Lou was proud, very proud.

“Gosh,” Sally whispered, “really?”

“Yep,” Lou said, now feeling a bit embarrassed by the admiration in Sally’s voice. Uncomfortable with the attention, Lou looked around and spotted an odd shaped decoration on the trunk beside her, something like a sculpture. Sitting up on her knees, Lou peered closely at the item and reached towards it to touch it.

“That’s a whale’s tooth.” Sally laughed as Lou pulled her hand quickly away. “It ain’t gonna bite ya’! There’s no bite left.” Sally giggled some more causing Lou to look over her shoulder and grin. Sally nodded towards the tooth. “Go ahead.”

Lou carefully picked it up and ran her finger over the design carved on the front. “This is beautiful,” she said, softly. The scene was of a sailing ship with what must have been a whale rising out of the water beside the vessel.

“It’s *scrimshonting*,” Sally explained. Lou looked quizzically at her and Sally smiled wistfully. “I’m from New Bedford, that’s in Massachusetts, and my papa was on a whaler. He made things like that, carvin’ pictures on old teeth and bones, durin’ the long tours and brung ‘em back to us.” She dipped her head as she continued. “He died on one a’ the ships and that made times tough for Mama. I have four brothers and a baby sister so to take care a’ all of us she married quick.”

After a few moments of silence, Lou was about to change the subject knowing how difficult it was for Sally to continue but the girl spoke first.

“I didn’t like him a’tall and, well, he liked me nigh too much. And me bein’ the oldest and not bein’ able to help as much as my brothers, since I wouldn’t get paid as much in the factories and I couldn’t be on a ship. And not bein’ as helpless as my sister, I was jus’ another mouth to feed so Mama wanted me gone and sent me to live with some relatives of my pa in Benson.” She sniffed a few times. “That’s not far from here. But the man, supposedly my uncle, ain’t quite sure on that, wasn’t much nicer ‘an my new pa so I left.”

Lou gripped onto the whale’s tooth tightly. Though their stories were different, the outcome was the same; they were two young girls, alone, trying to make some kind of life. “Sounds familiar,” Lou said gruffly. The girls sat in silence, each left to her thoughts and memories.

*~*~*~*~*

The boys watched as the pretty brunette pulled Lou inside.

“Ha!” Kid whooped triumphantly. “Pay up Cody!” Cody grumbled as he pulled his money-pouch from his pocket.

“I guess I’ve been wrong about ‘im,” Jimmy smirked.

“Jimmy, I doubt it’s what you think,” Buck said, not believing that Lou, the way he’d been acting, would go happily with a woman like that.

“And wha’d’ya’ think I’m thinkin’?” Jimmy asked, snidely.

Kid rolled his eyes and pocketed his money. “Would ya’ both jus’ –”

“Get yer hands off her, boy!” a gruff voice yelled from inside the saloon part of the bawdy house.

“Um, y’all don’t think ….” Cody murmured. The boys exchanged concerned looks.

“I said get yer hands off her, you scrawny thing! Ya’ ain’t a man, yer barely outta knee pants!”

*What should we do?* Ike looked around at his friends.

As they stood there, trying to decide how to answer Ike’s question, they heard, “I’m gonna blow yer puny head clean off!”

“Forget this I’m goin’ in,” Jimmy said. He was halfway across the street before Kid called out, “Me too.”

“Wait!” Buck called. “We don’t know if….”

Cody, Ike and Buck watched for a few more seconds and saw Kid and Jimmy disappear behind the batwing doors. Buck groaned. “This can’t be good. Come on.” The three riders started across the street.

“We’re goin’ in there?” Cody asked as he heard the loud commotion. He slowed his stride as did Buck and Ike.

*We can wait outside, in case they need help.* Ike grinned.

Since that was too much and Ike’s hands were too fast for Cody to follow, he looked at Buck for translation.

When Buck grinned, Cody relaxed. “Whatever ya’ said Ike, that’s a good idea.”

*~*~*~*~*

Jimmy and Kid walked slowly into the saloon. They looked around, waiting for their eyes to adjust from the bright light to the dim, smoky interior.

“Do ya’ see him?” Jimmy whispered. “Lou I mean.”

Before Kid could answer a bear of a man staggered towards him and yelled, “Where’d that scrawny boy go?”

Standing behind the man, Jimmy glanced around at Kid and grinned. Kid closed his eyes knowing Jimmy’s next move would probably cause them trouble. He watched as Jimmy tapped the man on the shoulder and the man turned around.

“*Tag*, yer it,” Jimmy said and punched the man in the stomach since he couldn’t quite reach the man’s chin. While the man bellowed, Jimmy jumped around, shaking his hand and moving his fingers to verify nothing was broken.

“Why you little,” the man growled and swung but Jimmy ducked in time.

Kid held his arms up to grab the man but the bartender gripped Kid’s arm and pulled Kid around, punching the rider in the mouth and pushing Kid back into a chair. As Kid shook his head trying to get rid of the ringing in his ears, he watched the bear punch Jimmy in the eye. Jimmy fell back into a chair beside Kid.

“Out now!” the bartender hollered, pulling Kid and Jimmy up by their collars. As they were dragged towards the door, they heard a noise and looked up to see Lou leaning on the railing upstairs, glaring at them.

“What?” Jimmy yelled at him. “We did it for you.”

*~*~*~*~*

“Now don’t you two look a sight,” Teaspoon said, as he walked into the bunkhouse. “Heard about the ruckus you both caused.”

“Aw, Teaspoon,” Jimmy whined, removing the cool cloth from his eye.

“I don’t wanna hear it,” Teaspoon said, holding up his hand. He eyed the boys in the room, each one having the good sense to duck his head when Teaspoon’s gaze fell on him. “I sent ya’ on yer own to get supplies, figurin’ ya’ couldn’t mess that up.” He smirked. “Guess that shows me, huh?”

“We wanted to help,” Jimmy groused.

“Without knowing what,” Buck mumbled. When Teaspoon’s head whipped around, Buck flinched, he hadn’t meant for Teaspoon to hear him. He needed to remember that Teaspoon’s hearing was better than most.

“You mean to tell me that ya’ jus’ barged in there without first assessin’ the situation?”

“But Teethpoon,” Kid mumbled.

“I said I don’t wanna hear it.” Teaspoon raised his hand again as he wandered over to Jimmy. “I tell ya’ I’m not sure you boys can handle this job.” As he looked around, he noticed the looks of fear that crossed the riders’ faces and he regretted his comment. “Well, we’ll jus’ have to see how ya’ do. I will say that you boys make me think they slapped the wrong end when y’all were born.” He was pleased the anxiety was replaced with self-conscious grins.

Standing in front of Jimmy, Teaspoon leaned down to get a good look at the boy’s eye. Pointing at the swelling, he murmured, “That’s a humdinger of a *mouse*.” He stood up and to Emma said, “Why it’s as large as a, a …a mouse.” He and Emma chuckled at his joke.

“Very funny Teaspoon,” Jimmy grunted, dipping the cloth in water and squeezing out the excess. Putting it back over his eye, he added, “We were jus’ tryin’ to help Lou.” Jimmy grimaced, realizing he shouldn’t have said that.

Teaspoon ran his thumbs under his suspenders. “Hmm, I heard somethin’ ‘bout Lou while I was there. What’s Lou gotta do with this?”

The boys looked nervously at each other, not wanting to give their friend away and get Lou in trouble.

“We thought the man in Sadie’s, er, that place was talkin’ ‘bout Lou,” Cody finally said. Buck elbowed Cody in the arm. Hurt by Buck’s actions, Cody said, “I’m jus’ tryin’ to help.” Buck and Ike sighed and rolled their eyes.

Teaspoon shook his head and said, “Naw, Lou wasn’t anywhere around …” he pursed his lips in thought, adding, “that is, I didn’t see Lou anywhere around. It was Barnett the man was yellin’ at.”

“We found that out,” Jimmy grumbled, removing the cloth from his eye.

The other boys laughed but again, Teaspoon asked, “What’s Lou gotta do with this?”

“Teaspoon, leave these boys alone,” Emma said, shooing the stationmaster away. She discerned bits and pieces of the boys’ conversation while she tended Jimmy and Kid. The boys thought they were being so sly but Emma figured it out and wanted to help keep Lou out of it.

“Now Emma,” Teaspoon said, trying to placate her, “these boys started a fight, possibly over a woman, and I’m tryin’ –”

“I swear if one a’ those women does a thing to any a’ my boys,” Emma threatened, “she’ll regret it so much that she’ll hear the *banshee* scream that’s for sure.”

Teaspoon nodded sympathetically. “I do believe our boys have learned their lesson. Jus’ look at these two.” He turned to Kid. “Oooo, that does look like it hurts.” He leaned forward to get a better look at Kid’s swollen lip.

“Yeth it doth,” Kid muttered, trying to pull away from Emma’s ministrations. Emma refused to let go of Kid’s face and pulled him forcefully back towards her. “Ow, Emma.”

“Kid, quit yer whinin’,” Jimmy teased. Kid glared at him but because Emma had a firm hold of his face, he was unable to retaliate any further.

“That really does look painful,” Cody said. “I’m surprised ya’ still got yer teeth. Why with a man that big, I’d think –”

The door suddenly swung opened and Lou stood there, primed for a fight. Not caring who was in the room, Lou growled, “Who spread all over town that I was in that, that place havin’ some kinda, uh, *clandestine* meetin’?”

“Clandestine?” Teaspoon echoed. He cleared his throat to keep from laughing. “I doubt any of the boys here’d say somethin’ like that ‘bout ya’ Lou.” Teaspoon stared at the boys with an encouraging look. “Would ya’?”

“Naw, Lou,” Jimmy drawled, “I’d a’ said it was more like secret or sneaky maybe.” Jimmy grinned slyly as Lou blushed. Cody burst out laughing, while Buck and Ike groaned to stifle their laughter.

When Kid laughed, Emma pinched his cheeks tighter. “Ow!”

“It’s what ya’ deserve,” Emma sniffed, as she applied the ointment on Kid’s lip.

“Lou, I doubt these boys would use a word like that,” Teaspoon said. “Don’t think they’d know what it means.”

“All I know is,” Lou said, through gritted teeth, “ya’ both should’a known better ‘an goin’ in there. Ya’ ain’t allowed.”

“Why’s that?” Jimmy prodded. He was enjoying this, seeing Lou riled up since the boy was always so quiet.

“Yer too young,” Lou sneered. Before the boys could ask questions, they heard a rider outside.

Teaspoon walked out the door and waved to the marshal. “Sam, what brings ya’ all the way out here?” Teaspoon grinned knowingly and was pleased by the blush that colored Sam’s face.

“I wanted to make sure Kid and Jimmy were okay,” Sam said, deflecting Teaspoon’s friendly jab. “And, uh, I’ve got somethin’ for Lou.” Intrigued, Teaspoon motioned for Sam to follow him inside.

Emma had already jumped up to straighten her skirts and smooth down her curly red hair. Bestowing the marshal with a bright smile, Emma said, “Sam, how’re ya’ doin’?”

“Fine Emma and you?” Sam smiled warmly at Emma.

“Good, good,” she softly responded. The two stared at each other smiling as the boys and Teaspoon shifted self-consciously.

After another moment of silence, Teaspoon cleared his throat. “The package for Lou?”

“I got a package?” Lou blurted out. Sam held out the small box wrapped in brown paper with a white ribbon tied around it. Not knowing why, Lou dreaded accepting the gift but she took it from Sam anyway. There was a card attached. As Lou read it, she turned crimson.

When Lou didn’t say anything, Teaspoon glanced at Sam curiously. Unaware of the situation, Sam said, “Seems Marybeth Aberdeen is determined to save Lou here from those horrible women.”

Gales of laughter and comments filled the room. Embarrassed by the cacophony at her expense, Lou threw the box at the boys, hitting Jimmy square in his hurt eye, and stormed out of the bunkhouse. The last sounds of Lou were of Lightning galloping towards town.

“Y’all should be ashamed of yourselves,” Emma scolded, ignoring the groans from Jimmy. “How could ya’ do this?”

Sam looked helplessly at Teaspoon. He’d thought the present from Marybeth would cheer Lou after the conflict at the saloon where the boy’s name was bandied about. Lou had seemed like the least troublesome of the lot. But Sam wasn’t only distraught at causing Lou such distress, the way Emma was reacting, he was sure she’d be angry with him. He looked pleadingly at Teaspoon, who subtly shook his head and winked at him.

As Jimmy moaned in pain, holding the cloth against his aching eye and everyone was talking at once, Buck picked up the box and the card fluttered to the floor next to Cody’s foot. Cody snatched the card up before Buck could grab it.

“Poor boy,” Teaspoon said, wiping his eye as the laughter died down.

“Poor boy?” Cody said, incredulously. “A purty girl and a box of toffee? I’d say lucky boy!”

“You would,” Buck said, shaking his head, causing a new round of laughter.

*~*~*~*~*

Riding behind Sadie’s Palace, Lou jumped off her horse and tethered him to the railing. She crept to the back door, hoping it would be unlocked. She turned the knob and was rewarded. Keeping her head down, she hurried up the stairs to the small room, praying that Sally would be there – and that she’d be alone. Taking a deep breath, Lou turned the knob and opened the door a bit.

“Who’s there?” Sally said, fearfully.

Lou pushed the door open. “It’s me, sorry.” It was odd that this was the first place Lou had thought to run to. How was it that here in a brothel was the only place Lou could be herself? The irony wasn’t lost on Lou.

Sally jumped up and pulled Lou into the room, closing the door behind them. “What’re ya’ doin’ here?”

Lou had to laugh but when Sally’s expression fell, Lou said, “That’s the first thing ya’ said to me out back today.” When Sally relaxed and smiled, Lou felt better. “I hope it’s okay,” she said, as she took off her jacket and hat.

“Well, I suppose,” Sally said. “Jus’ as long as no one sees ya’.”

“I was afraid I’d, um, well,” Lou hemmed, as she removed her gun, “that you’d be, um….” Lou looked down at the ground.

“With somebody?” Sally blurted out. She covered her mouth, startled by her own outburst. She tiptoed to the door and leaned her ear against it, listening for any motion outside. After a moment, Sally released the breath she was holding. “I ain’t one of them.”

Sally’s tone was bitter and Lou said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know. I ….” Lou sighed and plopped down on the pillow she’d sat on earlier. “I’ve worked in a …a place like this b’fore.”

“I thought so,” Sally said softly, walking over to sit by Lou. “But Lady Mable is nice to me. I do the mendin’ and the washin’ and cleanin’. She takes care of me.”

Fiddling with a frayed spot on the pillow, Lou couldn’t look Sally in the eyes for fear that Sally would easily see how much Lou believed in that care.

“Ya’ don’t believe me,” Sally said, the sorrow and defeat ringing in her voice.

Lou realized that Sally needed Lou to believe her; that the small hope Sally had built up inside would be crushed if Lou didn’t believe her. Knowing that feeling well, she looked into Sally’s eyes, and said, “I do believe ya’, I’m jus’ jealous ya’ have that.”

Sally scoffed. “I’ve seen that purty lady that takes care of y’all at that station.” Lou grinned sheepishly. “And well,” Sally looked down at the floor.

“Well, what?” Lou prodded.

“The boys ya’ have ‘round all the time,” Sally whispered, bashfully. Her eyes twinkled. “I mean, that one with the dark hair and the gun.” Sally blushed. “And the one with the hair so blonde it’s almost white.”

Lou giggled, as Sally gushed about her fellow riders. “That’s Jimmy and Cody.”

“I saw the one that’s got the sandy-brown hair and wears those Indian lookin’ skins,” Sally said, giggling. “He actually said ‘hello’ to me.”

Lou felt a twinge of pain for Sally that she’d be so excited for someone to say a simple hello. “That’s Kid.”

“What about that Indian?” Sally asked, cautiously. “I can’t believe they hired one.”

“He’s a lot better ‘an most white men I’ve known,” Lou said, defensively. “And he’ll do anythin’ to help ya’. I’d have him b’hind me b’fore any of the others that’s for sure …‘cept maybe Ike.”

“I’m sorry, please don’t be mad at me,” Sally pleaded. “I jus’ ain’t never met one b’fore.”

“Well, we gotta remedy that,” Lou said, smiling. She was happy she’d met a new friend but her smile faded as she realized that she couldn’t introduce Sally to the boys as her friend. Lou was a boy and had to act as such. She realized now how much she enjoyed being Louise and having a girl her own age to talk to and wasn’t sure what she’d do or how she’d handle Louise’s friendship with Sally.

“Um, I’d like that,” Sally said, shyly. “‘Specially the one that don’t talk.”

This pulled Lou out of her musings and she grinned. “Ike?”

“That’s the other one ya’ said you’d have b’hind ya’?”

“Yep, that’s Ike,” Lou confirmed. “He’s really sweet and really good –”

A bump from the hallway startled the girls. Sally put her finger to her lips and crawled over to the door. She leaned against it, listening for anymore sounds. Lou’s hand moved towards her gun. She wouldn’t let anyone near her, ever again. But when Sally smiled, Lou relaxed.

“It’s fine,” Sally assured Lou. “Ev’rythin’s startin’ downstairs. That means I’m done for the night.” Sally crawled back to sit by Lou. “So what were ya’ sayin’ ‘bout Ike?” Sally giggled.

Lou laughed and told Sally all about what it was like to live in a house full of boys.

*~*~*~*~*

“Lou, Lou wake up.”

“Jus’ a minute more Emma,” Lou mumbled. Rolling over on her side, it finally penetrated her sleepy mind that the voice calling her wasn’t Emma. And it certainly wasn’t one of the boys. She jerked awake looking around shakily.

“We fell asleep,” Sally said as she hurried to change. “I gotta get started on my chores and I’ll get tanned if they find ya’ here.”

Still trying to wake up, Lou looked at her curiously. “Why’d they mind findin’ me?”

“You ain’t a girl, remember?”

Lou’s face fell. She was back in her make-believe life. But with not going back to the station last night, would she still have that life? Jumping up, she picked up her gun and put it on. Grabbing her coat and hat, she followed Sally out the door and quickly, but quietly, down the stairs. She slipped her coat on and stuck her hat firmly on her head as she ducked out the side door.

Before Sally closed the door, she said, “I had fun Lou. I hope we can be friends.” Lou heard the doubt in Sally’s voice and felt it too.

“Me too.” Lou ran to the back of the building and pulled herself onto Lightning. As Lou sped off towards the station, she glanced back and saw Sally watching her.

*~*~*~*~*

Within sight of the station, she slowed her horse’s pace. She wanted to be quiet and hopefully sneak in. She chuckled dryly. She doubted that would be an option but all she could do was try. As she neared the edge of the yard, the bunkhouse door flew open and the boys streamed out.

“Wonderful,” Lou groaned but she held her head high and without a glance rode past the boys to the barn. As she swung out of the saddle, she heard footsteps behind her. Steeling herself, she readied for the barrage of comments and questions. Instead, there was just one voice – the one she dreaded most.

“Lou, when yer done here, come to my room please.”

Lou glanced around to answer but Teaspoon was already walking away. Lou knew he knew she’d obey, especially if she wanted to keep her job. She considered taking her time grooming her horse but then thought better of it. “Might as well get this over with,” she muttered.

Once done, she trudged over to the tack room, Teaspoon’s room and office and knocked softly.

“Come in.”

Lou opened the door a crack and peeked in, Teaspoon was sitting on a stool, braiding a rope. He looked up and Lou saw the disappointment in his eyes. Right then she knew she’d lost her job. Swallowing hard, she walked in. She stood there for a few moments as Teaspoon went back to braiding his rope. Finally, unable to stand it she decided to make the break.

“I’ll be packed and outta here b’fore breakfast.”

Teaspoon’s hands stopped and he gave her the most confused look. “Now why’d ya’ wanna go and do a dumb thing like that?”

It was Lou’s turn to look confused. “But…”

Teaspoon sighed and pointed to the stool facing him so she sat down. “Son,” he started, using his best fatherly tone, “I know what it’s like to be you.”

Lou snorted and coughed to cover her laugh.

Teaspoon eyed her but continued. “Yeah, I know, I seem like an old man, and I am,” he said, nodding his head, “as if I was never yer age.” He looked at her with such understanding that Lou hung her head and covered her mouth with her hand, hoping to look contrite.

“But I was yer age and it’s a difficult time, difficult to be stuck like ya’ are.” He leaned over and placed his hand on Lou’s shoulder. She bit the inside of her cheek, trying very hard not to let loose the laughter bubbling up inside. “Stuck between bein’ a boy and a man.”

Lou coughed hard, leaning forward propping her elbows on her legs.

“Son, you okay?”

Lou just nodded not trusting her voice.

Teaspoon was slightly put out by the direction the conversation was taking. He’d planned everything he was going to say and imagined how it would go, but this wasn’t quite it. “As I was sayin’,” he continued, “ya’ don’t have to go spendin’ the night with some woman to prove yer manhood to –”

Lou doubled over, laughing so hard that she did end up coughing for real.

Teaspoon sighed and managed to say, “…the other boys.” He poured a glass of water and handed it to Lou.

Gulping it down, Lou tried to think of what to say but nothing came to mind. Handing the glass back to Teaspoon, between coughs, she asked, “May I be excused?” She’d turned bright red from the coughing and the conversation.

“I suppose,” Teaspoon murmured, staring curiously at Lou.

Lou jumped up, thinking she’d just run out the door but Teaspoon’s hand on her shoulder slowed her pace.

“I’m glad we could have this here, um, chat,” Teaspoon said, as they walked out the door. Hearing a sound from the house, they looked up and saw Emma standing on the porch, her arms crossed over her chest. Lou’s heart sunk. Even if Teaspoon didn’t want her to leave, there still was a chance that Emma did.

“I talked to Lou,” Teaspoon said. “Do ya’ need to see him for anythin’?” Teaspoon pulled Lou to a stop at the foot of the steps.

“Jus’ that he needs to get washed up and ready for breakfast,” Emma said, softly. She winked at Lou and turned to go back inside the house.

Lou released the breath she was holding and felt Teaspoon’s hand lighten on her shoulder. She looked up at the stationmaster, knowing she’d narrowly missed being fired. “Thank you,” she said, ducking her head and keeping her voice low. “This won’t happen again.”

“Apology accepted,” Teaspoon said, chuckling. “But I’d hold onto that little proclamation.” He grinned and winked slyly. Turning back to his room, he added, “Do as Emma said and get cleaned up.”

Lou watched Teaspoon for a moment, silently giving thanks for being assigned this station with Teaspoon and Emma. Things could have gone a lot worse. Smiling she turned towards the bunkhouse, only to have her smile fade when she saw the five faces staring at her. Gritting her teeth, she straightened her back and marched towards the awaiting group. Again, not saying a word, she walked past them, through the door and to her bunk. She was tired and didn’t want to answer any questions or, particularly, fend off any teasing. Keeping her back to the room, she took off her coat and hat. She heard the others quietly come in, but none of them came over to her. Wondering who would speak first, she pulled out a clean shirt and her towel.

“So, um, Lou.”

It was Buck. She’d actually expected Cody so maybe this would be better. She didn’t answer.

“We were thinkin’ about goin’ into town later today,” Kid continued.

She stiffened, clutching the towel, ready to react to their snide remarks about Sally and Sadie’s Palace.

“Ya’ know, there’s that restaurant,” Jimmy said, quickly.

“And we thought we could, ya’ know,” Cody hemmed, “go out for lunch, maybe, that is, if ya’ want.”

Lou released her grip on the towel and turned to face the boys. Buck, Cody and Ike were sitting on their bunks, while Jimmy and Kid sat at the table, all staring at her intently. She looked at each one and saw, for the first time, respect and what she thought was admiration. She swallowed before she spoke, making sure her voice wouldn’t crack. “Sounds like a fine idea.” Her five new friends all smiled and seemed a bit relieved by her reaction.

She walked over to the table and, wearing an expression that combined concern with guilt, asked, “You both okay?”

Jimmy and Kid looked at each other. “It only hurths when I thmile,” Kid said, trying to smile. Lou laughed along with the others.

“This’ll prob’ly keep me from winkin’ at any of the girls in town,” Jimmy joked.

“And that’s prob’ly a good thing,” Buck countered. Again, they laughed.

“Well, I guess I should thank ya’ both,” Lou said, softly. “Ya’ did think I was in trouble and ya’ were willin’ to help me.” She looked up as Buck, Cody and Ike came over to the table. “Thank all of ya’.” The boys just smiled, no one knowing what to say.

She looked down at the table and noticed her package, with a slightly dented corner. She remembered throwing it and that it had hit Jimmy. “Sorry,” she mumbled as she picked up the package and turned it over in her hands.

“Nothin’ we didn’t deserve,” Jimmy said, softly

Lou unwrapped the package and sat the opened box on the table. Grinning she said, “I gotta go wash up or Emma’ll have my hide.” The boys looked from her to the candy and back. She grabbed her shirt and towel off the bed and headed to the door. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the boys staring at the box of toffee. “Help yourselves.” The boys whooped and clamored for the candy.

As she walked towards the pump, she thought maybe this wasn’t the make-believe life after all, maybe this was the real one and what she’d left behind was just pretend. Smiling, she pumped some water out and splashed it on her face. The chill was invigorating. It was good to be alive.

A/N: Thanks to my lovely friend Tracy for my yearly Reunion word list prompt! d;-)


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