Cody lifted the last sack of grain onto the back of the wagon and leaned against the pile as he whipped off his hat. "Pickin' up supplies don't get any easier." Pushing his hat back on his head he wiped at his brow.
"It's summer, Cody," Buck challenged, "or didn't you notice?"
He gave the half-breed a glare. "I was just expressin' myself, Buck. Somethin' wrong with that?"
Jimmy elbowed Lou and didn't hear 'his' grunt over Cody's grousing. "There's lots wrong with you, Cody, but who's got the time?"
Cody didn't argue. For once. "Let's get goin'… Emma's got her stew on."
Lou jumped up and sat on the back of the wagon. "She's been cookin' it since mornin', you know that."
Rolling his eyes to the sky Cody feigned a near swoon. "I've been dreamin' 'bout it all day."
Jumping to the ground Lou reached for the reins of her mount and swung up in the saddle. "Well if you stop moanin' and start ridin' we might be able to eat sooner than later."
Buck and Jimmy exchanged a look at the younger man's grousing and took up their own reins as Cody climbed up into the driver's seat of the wagon beside Ike. "Since I'm the one drivin' the wagon… I get first helping of the stew."
Buck watched Ike's gestures and laughed. "Ike's right. We let you get the 'first helping' there won't be anything left for us." Backing his horse up, Buck wheeled his mount around and cleared space for the others to come around.
Ike put his hand down and his head shot up in alarm. Lou caught the look first and saw Ike pick up a small package from the floor. "Emma's cookies," Lou sighed and slid from the saddle. "No, Ike… you go with Cody, keep him from gettin' lost on the way back." Lou looped the reins over the hitching post and tucked the package under her arm. "I'll take these to Sam and catch up with you on the way."
Jimmy shrugged as his mount pawed at the ground. "Suit yourself, Lou… Don't take too long." He nodded over at the wagon. "Cody may eat your serving too."
Lou nodded at the warning and pulled her hat down before starting her dash across the street.
Ike signed and waited for Buck to ponder his question. "I know, Ike… but Lou said he'd catch up. It's only cookies."
Ike looked concerned, but when Cody cracked the reins Ike grabbed the seat to keep his balance. They were on their way before Lou set foot on the walk.
The marshal's office was empty. The coffee on the stovetop smelled burnt and Lou made short work of setting the package down on Sam's desk before moving the pot onto the sill. The desk had several piles of paperwork: wanted posters in one, letters and court orders in another and notes written in bold print that caught her attention. Leaning against the desk she read through the first page, then the next, pulling her glasses down so the glare from the glass wouldn't interfere with the words.
It wasn't what she expected. He'd written about the job… the people that had died victims of crimes and the lengths that he'd gone to seek justice for them. It was… eye-opening. Lou lifted some papers, her fingers searching for-
"Stop your whinin' and put your feet under you. I'm tired of draggin' you, Early."
Lou straightened and a bunch of papers slid to the floor. She ducked down to pick them up and saw a pair of boots pedaling through the air, spurs gouging the floorboards. She reached up and grabbed the edge of the desk, pulling herself up as Sam adjusted his hold on the man's shirt as he reached with his now-free hand to swing open a cell.
"Come on, Cain… you ain't serious 'bout this… I barely laid a hand on her."
"Well that ain't what Hardessy says." His tone was full of distaste, but given the hard look Sam gave the man cowering on the cot in the cell, Lou couldn't tell if it was directed at him or the man who tended bar at the Wild Horse. "He says you were mad at Raven, that you-"
"She stole my money, Cain. I went there to get it back." The man swung his gaze at Lou and arched her a look. "What are you lookin' at?"
"Nuth-nuthin'… I, uh…" Lou set the papers in her hands down on top of the pile at Sam's questioning look and pointed at the package wrapped in one of Emma's embroidered kerchiefs, "I brought you cookies from Emma."
"Emma?" Early mocked her name with this tone and swiped his thumb against the corner of his mouth, stared down at the blood. "You spendin' time with that spitfire Shannon-woman?" His laugh was cold. "Maybe I'll take a few minutes myself if you think it's worth my time."
Lou's response was lost in Sam's. He threw the door back open and stepped into the cell. "Early, I'm gonna tell you this one time and one time is all you get." Anger radiated off Sam's body in waves and Lou stepped back to escape the heat. "You speak about 'Miss Shannon' with respect." He cleared his throat, "better yet," he breathed, "don't say her name… ever."
Turning her head, Lou saw that the man was drunk, probably too drunk to realize how close he was to getting a worse beating than the one he'd already had.
Sam stepped out of the cell and swung the door closed with a clang. Sam pulled his key ring from his deep coat pocket and locked the door with a twist of his wrist. When he was sure that Early was locked up in the cell he turned back to Lou. "Supply day?"
Lou dragged her gaze away from the man in the cell and looked up at Sam. "Yeah. Emma sent the cookies for you; I just brought 'em by."
"I think they're-"
"Cain!" The bellow came from the street and Lou followed Sam to the front door.
"What's goin' on, Sam?"
The marshal held up his hand and Lou nodded even though she knew he couldn't see her.
To Lou, Sam filled the doorway, his hands planted on his hips as he faced the two men in the street, standing where one had been a moment before. "I heard you the first time, Thomas. There's no need to go shoutin' in the middle of the street."
"You got a murderer in there, Cain! Ain't no hidin' a man like that… you just let us have him and I'll buy you dinner."
Sam shook his head. "You know I can't do that, Thomas. Don't ask me to turn my back on the law."
Lou's eyes widened when she realized the two had grown to six. "Aw hell, Sam," came another voice from the growing group, "it ain't like he's innocent. You let us take care of it and you can take the night off."
Sam's hand shifted, almost imperceptibly, but suddenly his hand was over the butt of his gun. Lou wondered if any of the now ten men in the street even saw the movement. Instinctively she reached for her own pistol and felt the blood drain from her face as she came to the realization that she hadn't worn her rig into town.
Why? It was a supply run.
Emma stepped outside the house and held her hand up to shade her eyes. The sun weighed heavy on some of the clouds in the sky.
"Worried they'll forget somethin'?" Teaspoon stopped at the bottom of the stairs and hitched up his pants as he surveyed the land between the station and the town. "You gave 'em the list."
Nodding, Emma wiped her hands on her apron and turned her gaze to Teaspoon. "Gave it to Lou. I'm sure s-, I'm sure Lou took care of it."
"Well, I know what I could take care of right now," Teaspoon rubbed a hand over his middle.
"Really? Hmm… let me guess." With a wink she waved him up into the house. "You're more than welcome to come in and have a few cookies before the boys get back."
A light appeared in his eyes as he reached for the railing. "Well, I wouldn't mind havin' a few… jus' to tide me over."
Sam leaned against the window and looked out at the crowded street. "Bob should have been back by now."
"You worried, Sam?"
He turned around to see where Lou was and saw him still leaning against the desk his arms folded over his chest. Sam gave the boy a smile and turned back to the window. "Not really. Jus' wonderin' if Bob stopped in over at the saloon to get a dance with his girl."
Sam nodded. The boy had sense enough to see right through the lie. That was good. Maybe.
"You think," Lou stepped up behind Sam, his shoes scuffing the floorboards, "they'll just get tired and go on home?"
A cheer went up in the street and Lou leaned closer to the window. Some thoughtful soul had just produced a round of bottles to pass through the crowd. A gun fired and Lou flinched at the sound, dread settling in over his features. Sam clamped a hand down on Lou's shoulder. "Son?" Lou looked up at the Marshal, his face blank with growing fear, "you any good with a gun?"
Lou swallowed and nodded.
"Best we go with the shotguns. They'll give them somethin' to think about if they decide on pushin' their way in here. And with the scatterguns, all I have to worry about is makin' sure you point it in the right direction."
She knew the marshal wasn't trying to be mean. There was a hunger in the men outside and if they decided they were coming in after Early, they weren't going to be polite about it. "I hope it won't come to that."
Reaching into his pocket he pulled out a ring of keys. "Me too, Lou." Together they turned toward the side wall and the large double-doored gun cabinet.
Buck let his mare have her head and he rode up alongside the wagon. He watched as Ike turned around on the seat. "I agree."
Flicking the reins Cody angled a look past Ike and up to Buck. "What? He didn't say anything."
"He looked back… more than once." Pointing back behind them toward town he turned his gaze to Jimmy. "He's worried about Lou."
Brushing some dust from his face Jimmy didn't spare a glance behind him. "Hell, don't see why. Boy took a bullet in the side and rode with us to get his pouch back. Think he can't take care of himself deliverin' a bunch of cookies?"
Cody shrugged and pulled the reins sharply to the right to avoid a pock mark in the road. "Doesn't matter what we think. Ain't been enough time passed to think somethin' is wrong. Ain't be gone long enough to-"
"Get himself in 'trouble.'" Jimmy raised an eyebrow. "Heard there's a new owner at the Saloon. You think-"
"Oh hell no." Cody elbowed Ike and smiled back at Jimmy. "Lou's quiet as a mouse… I doubt he'd know what to do with a woman if he got himself one." He laughed at his own wit. "If he stayed behind… let him have fun."
The horses leading the wagon stepped up on their own, knowing they were heading home… and pretty close. Ike turned back again and Buck gently tugged on the reins and his mount dutifully stopped along the side of the trail.
Jimmy wheeled his horse around, stopping nearly twenty feet away with a huff and a stern look. "What now?"
Buck dragged his gaze away from the direction of town. "I think Ike is right. Lou said he'd be right behind us."
Cody looked back over the seat and swept his hat off with one hand while the other one sopped a kerchief over his brow. "Look, we're almost home and Emma's got stew on… STEW!!"
"Then go back, I'll go to Sweetwater on my own. "
"You headin' back for a little… shoppin', Buck?" Jimmy's grin was a little wistful. "Somethin' I should know about?"
Buck's expression was… expressive in a way that Jimmy couldn't just ignore it.
"Come on…" Cody was near to exploding with nervous energy, "I'm hungry."
Ike turned to Jimmy, pointing at Sundance and then his own chest.
Narrowing his gaze at Ike, Jimmy shook his head. "You ain't takin' my horse."
Swinging his head around Ike waved Buck toward town.
Turning his horse around, Buck called back over his shoulder, "Ask Emma to save me somethin' to eat."
Ike nodded even though Buck couldn't see him and Cody plopped his hat back on his head and took up the reins, unwinding them from the brake. "Good, now we can get on our way." Cody flicked the reins and started for home.
Sam set two shotguns on the table beside the rifles he'd withdrawn from the case and looked over to see Lou's progress on the pistols. "Those suit you?"
A smile flickered, brightening Lou's expression for a moment. "A bit heavier than I'm used to, Marshal." She saw the lawman's quizzical gaze and offered, "Got small hands."
Nodding slowly at first, Sam offered up his first smile in the last half hour. "Well, you're still a growin' boy. I'm sure you'll handle 'em all right. Got 'em loaded?"
Lou spun the cylinder to an empty chamber and looked down the sight at a target on the floor. A moment later she set the gun on the table. "All good."
Sam nodded, once, his eyes cautious. "Then let's get you a holster," he watched Lou kick back his chair and stand up from the table, "and pray we got this arsenal ready for nothin'."
The noise through the glass windows was growing, either from drink or added numbers. Inwardly Sam added a prayer that it wasn't from both.
Cody stopped the wagon again. "Where the hell are you goin', Jimmy?"
They'd only managed to go less than a quarter-mile since Buck had left them and now Jimmy was circling his mount around toward town. "I dunno, Cody… it just ain't right."
"What 'ain't right' is the fact that a man like me's gonna starve to death b'cuz you and Buck are more int'rested in playin' nursemaid than Express rider."
"I just don't think I should let Buck have all the fun."
"Lord, Hickok… just pull yer head out o' your backside and let's get home."
It took a long moment before Jimmy turned back to Cody and gave him a wolfish grin. "Tell Emma to save me some supper."
"You got a back door, Sam?" Lou looked up at the Marshal and saw the hard set of his jaw.
Sam didn't even look back when he responded. "You thinkin' of leavin' me alone with my 'friends,' Lou?"
Sliding her hand down the barrel of the shotgun in her hand she shook her head. "No, but I figure if you got one… someone out there knows about it."
"Got a door at the back, by the cells." Sparing a quick glance in Lou's direction Sam nodded. "Emma was right about you."
Lou's reaction would have been telling had Sam seen it, but his gaze was already trained back on the growing crowd. Lou's face was shocked, bordering on fearful, all wide-eyed and girlish. "What… what did she say?"
"Said you had a good head on your shoulders. I thought you weren't long for the job, but she set me straight."
Lou felt a smile touch her lips and she stood a little straighter near the wall. "Thanks for tellin' me, Sam."
Sam nodded, distracted as the crowd seemed to move closer. "Just keep an eye on that back door."
Moving closer to the cells, Lou spared a glance for the man sitting on the cot and got an angry stare back. "What you lookin' at, boy?"
"Nothin'…" Lou gripped the shotgun barrel a little tighter, her knuckles whitening.
The man stood from the cot and stumbled forward, his legs unsure of their own power. Leanin' against the bars he lowered his voice. "You never seen a killer before?"
Lou stared back at him, clicking back the hammer on one barrel of her shotgun. "I've seen one before," she replied, her voice low and her eyes flat, "but I didn't have a gun in my hands at the time. You're nothin' more than a fish in a barrel, Early. Don't make me forget that the Marshal wants you alive for a trial."
The bluster seemed to bleed from the man's face and he nearly tripped over his feet as he stepped back toward the cot against the wall. "You better keep that pup under control," he barked at Sam. "You let a little 'un like that get in a man's gun in his hand and he gets to thinkin' he's got the right-"
"Shut it, Early!" Sam turned back to look at Lou and realized for a moment how small the boy looked standing next to the cell. If he had any other choice… if he had any hope of gettin' through this he was going to need Lou's help. He hoped he didn't get the boy killed in the process.
Still, Sam had heard some truth in Early's words. "Lou?"
"Yeah, Sam?" The younger man had turned from the back door with a little more of jump than Sam would have liked to see… but then the boy was missing something. Reaching over to the top left drawer on his desk, Sam pulled it open and watched the contents jumble themselves together with the sudden motion. Though the silver points were barely visible under the various items that Sam had tossed in over the last few weeks, it only took him a moment to find what he was looking for. The silver point visible under the various items that Sam had tossed in over the last few weeks but it only took a moment to fish it out of the depths.
Rubbing his thumb over the surface he managed to take a little dust off but the few specs of rust around the edges were going to remain. "Catch."
He watched as the Express rider shifted the shotgun to his left hand and deftly caught the badge as it sailed through the air. Sam watched Lou look down at it for a moment as if considering the ramifications of the tin star in his hand and then hook it to his vest with a resolute tug before taking up the shotgun with both hands again. "Thanks, Sam."
Nodding, Sam flickered a gaze back at the window. "Consider yourself sworn in. I'm afraid we don't have time to do things up formal."
Lou's answer was swallowed up by the crash of breaking glass. A rock that looked bigger than a man's fist splintered one of the windows at the front of the office.
Sam's rifle lifted up and sighted on a man's hat at the front of the group. A quick pull of the trigger and the man's hat flew back off his head. Stepping in behind where a window pane had been Sam leveled the rifle at the crowd, making a sweep of the assembled group as though he was just one breath away from shooting another one.
"What the hell are you doin', Sam?" Sy Mulligan stood up after rescuing his dusty hat from beneath the feet of the gathered crowd. "You shot my hat!" The man poked his finger through the hole near the top of the felt crown. "What if you'd missed? I'd be-"
"I don't miss, Sy… and if you folks don't go home before I lose my patience, I might drop my aim a few inches the next time someone thinks they need to toss something through my window."
From her vantage point at the back of the office, Lou peered through the slight gap between two boards near the door. The street looked empty from where she stood, but she still couldn't let go of the breath she'd locked away inside her chest. There was so much she couldn't see from her vantage point. There was always a chance that things could change… and fast.
Jimmy caught up to Buck near the edge of town.
Walking up behind the other Express rider Jimmy was surprised to find himself pushed up against a wall with a long knife at his throat. He hadn't even had time to reach for his gun. "Hey… I came back to help."
Buck's hold on his shirt relaxed a bit. "Don't sneak up on me." "I wasn't sneakin' up on you…" Nodding toward the street, Jimmy looked at the crowd in front of the Marshal's office, "I didn't want to make too much noise and spook the crowd."
Letting go of Hickok's shirt one finger at a time, Buck nodded but didn't lower the knife. "You're lucky I heard you coming."
"Heard me? Hell, I was quiet as a mouse."
"Mouse," Buck huffed with more than a hint of a smile in his voice. "Right."
The distinctive sound of breaking glass drew them both to peer further around the corner and flinch when a shot rang out startling the crowd into momentary silence. They listened in as Sam addressed the crowd.
They used Sam's threats to move closer, unnoticed by the half-drunk crowd gathered outside the office. Slipping into the alley across the street and behind the mob, Jimmy and Buck tried to see inside the office. "You see Lou?"
Buck took a long moment to search the dimly lit interior of the office. "No."
Looking back at the supply store, Jimmy saw Lou's horse still standing at the hitching post outside, her muzzle dipped into the trough for some water.
"That can't be good." Jimmy said it more to himself than Buck, but they both agreed. Sam facing off a mob was bad enough. The fact that Lou was basically missing didn't make it any easier.
Lou leaned up against the door, trying to hear the night outside. There was something creeping up the back of her neck. The wind whistled through the cracks in the wall and the intermittent noise coming from the cell behind her wasn't helping much. "Will you be quiet?"
The laughter she heard shook her to the core. "Afraid of what's waitin' out there? Nuthin' compared to what I have comin' to me."
"I don't care, Early…" Lou rose up on her toes to see if she could get a better vantage point, "I ain't your judge."
"That's fine by me. I'll put on a good show in the trial, might make folks believe my story." Lou refused to turn around and look at him. "But, I killed 'er… wrapped my hands around her throat and killed her 'cause she thought she was better'n me."
"I'm just here to help Sam, Early… But keep talkin' and I'll solve the problem for everyone with one pull on the trigger." She felt the wet splatter of spit on her neck and turned around to utter a few choice words. "Early, I aught-"
The back door folded in under the shoulders of two men who fell amongst the broken boards, stunned by the sudden change in altitude. It gave Lou a moment to save herself. She'd landed on the floor a foot or two from the cells and even though the fall had pushed the air out of her lungs she managed to bring the barrel around.
The first man up from the floor managed to pull his pistol from his waistband before she dropped him with a single blast. His muslin shirt was sprinkled with black marks from the shot and a haze of red seeped into the cloth. She turned the gun on the other man who wasn't as quick to rise. "Don't." The word sounded rough coming from her lips but the adrenaline coursing through her veins didn't leave space for her to care.
Sam called back, his voice nervous. "Lou?"
"Yeah?" She pulled the other hammer back and watched as the man's eyes widened at the distinctive 'click.' "I'm fine, but I've got one dead and one next in line if he doesn't behave."
The unmistakable boom of a shotgun deep inside the Marshal's office had Jimmy and Buck breaking into a run. Firing a few warning shots over the heads of the mob, they split up to cover the largest part of the group. "Sam?" Jimmy's voice called out over the hush, "these folks givin' you some trouble?"
Trying to hide his relief, Sam's wry tone was a bit too light for his words. "Nope, they all came to show me their support in upholdin' the law."
"Then I suggest, before me and my Indian friend here get to thinkin' they're doin' somethin' other than bein' friendly, they should go on home."
With an insistent jerk of his Navy Colt a few folks began to walk off into the shadows.
Buck gave an imperious look to a few toughs on his end of the group and some of the mob broke off from the pack to head home. The man who passed the closest to Buck drew his shoulder up as though expecting a blow and quickly moved around him.
Turning away from the window, Sam assessed the situation near the cells: one man flat on his face another backed up against the wall staring in fear at the young man with the shotgun. Lou for all intents and purposes was holding his own.
"We got some help outside." Sam gave Lou a smile as he turned to hear the news, "Looks like Hickok and- Lou!"
She saw the shock in Sam's expression and knew something was wrong. One moment she was holding a shotgun on the other man that had crashed through the door and the next she was fighting to breathe with what felt like a vise around her neck. She fought, fingers clawing at the fleshy arm around her neck she dug the heels of her boots into the floor trying to dislodge Early's hold.
"Let him go, Early."
"No, I don't think so, Sam…" Early's voice slumped around her ears like tar, "I think I've got me the upper hand here and really, you don't wanna tell this boy's mama that he ain't comin' home to-"
Smoke exploded from the barrel of Sam's handgun and the hold on her neck loosened until Lou was able to pull out of Early's grasp. Rubbing at her neck, she whirled around so that she could see him. The murderer has lying on the floor of the cell, a pool of blood blossoming from his neck.
Jimmy and Buck stepped into the office. "Everything all right, Sam?"
Sam recovered his smile, relief flooding wild through his veins. "Glad to have you boys stop in. Lou and I had our hands full."
Jimmy moved closer to Lou, above the rider's collar his skin was already flushing an angry red. "You need to see the doctor, Lou?" He reached out to touch the welt but Lou moved away, eyes darting to the ground.
"I'm - I'm fine." Lou rubbed at her throat; the pain from Early's strangle hold slowly disappearing.
Jimmy's confusion bled into shock as he saw the star pinned to Lou's chest and gave a whistle. "Just think, we left you here to deliver Emma's cookies and you get sworn in?"
Buck shouldered Jimmy aside to see Lou for himself. "What happened?"
Sam stepped forward his hand extended to Lou. The young Express rider shook the Marshal's hand. "Lou came to see me just as I brought Eustace Early in. Folks say he killed a saloon girl at the Golden Garter."
Dusting off her clothes, Lou looked at the others. "He told me he did it… while I was watching the back door… he told me he did it." She absentmindedly rubbed at her throat. "He told me how he did it… and then after I… I shot on of the men that busted in the door, Early tried to kill me."
"I'm glad that you and Jimmy came back." Sam clasped both Jimmy and Buck on their shoulders before he moved passed them too. "I knew that Lou had the back door covered but it was good to have a few more guns show up."
Sam was right.
She looked up at them. Three men she trusted with her life… but who didn't know her secret. She wanted to have someone… one of them hold her and tell her it was all going to be fine. Tell her that killing the man who'd tried to lynch Early had been a good thing… or at least the right thing. But that was what a 'girl' did and she'd left that behind her. Or at least she'd tried to leave it behind her.
Lou reached down and picked her hat up off the floor, brushing the dust away with one hand before slapping it back on her head. The sudden movements kept her focus so that she wouldn't let the tears fall down her cheeks. The quick brush with death had scared her… more than she'd liked to admit, even to herself. "We should be gettin' home." Her voice with rough with unvoiced emotion.
"You up to ridin' home, Lou? You look like y're tired." Sam's voice was full of concern.
"All in a day's work, as Teaspoon would say." Jimmy elbowed Buck. "I think it should be noted that even though Lou's wearin' the star, we helped out too."
Lou paused as she walked up to Sam. Reaching up to her shirt she unhooked the star and held it out to Sam. "I should probably give this back to you now."
Sam started to reach for the star and stopped. "You could always keep it and come work for me." He saw the flicker of thought in Lou's eyes and knew that he was thinking about it. "Pay's not bad."
Lou offered it again, a smile instead of thin-pressed lips. "Sorry, Sam. Can't say that it wasn't a good offer, but with Emma cookin' for us and doin' the wash… I think I've got the better deal."
A soft smile turned into a grin. "Well, I think you've got that right, Lou. Emma's takin' good care of you boys out there at the Station." He scrubbed his hand over his face. "If you would… tell her that I'd like to come out and take her to dinner sometime next week."
Swallowing past the subsiding pain, Lou nodded. "Sure will."
The three Express riders started walking to the door, Jimmy making one last visual note about the state of the broken front window. They all stopped when Sam called out one last time. "Lou?"
She turned, but not before giving a quick look to the two that flanked her on the way out the door. "What is it, Sam?"
"You were good tonight, Lou." He smiled. "I didn't worry about my back."
Lou couldn't seem to find the words so she nodded once and continued walking.
"We'll see you later, Sam! We've got to take the hero home." Jimmy slung his arm over Lou, nearly buckling the smaller rider with his added weight. Buck followed behind shaking his head.
Author's Note: Thanks to my betas, there have been multiple betas on this as its taken me over a year to get my act together on this one... sigh