Jimmy shook his head when he saw Kid standing just outside the door, his hands in his pockets, gaze cast down.

"What now, Kid?"

Kid cast up a troubled look. "I know I ain't got no right to ask you for a favor-"

"No, you ain't." Jimmy dusted his hands on his pants, looking out over Kid's shoulder, "but it ain't gonna stop you from askin'."

"Look, I need for you to take my ride."

"Kid, I ain't scheduled for another day or so and...''

''It would mean a lot for me... and Lou.''

Jimmy drew in a long breath and ground his teeth. ''She don't know does she?'' He didn't wait for the answer, didn't need to.

Looking over to the hitching post in front of the stable, he saw Sundance saddle and ready. "Damn sure of yourself, Kid."

The younger man shrugged. "It's just that it’s real important to me."

Jimmy nodded. "Yeah, well, this ain't my doin' so don't get mad at me when things don't go like you've planned."

Kid gave him an impish grin. "Don't worry, this has to go right... I worked real hard on it."

"Rider comin'!" Cody jumped off the corral fence and ran toward them pointing off to the West. "You ready?"

Jimmy tugged on the hem of his gloves and grasped the horn of his saddle and swung up. "Better out there than here." He turned his mount toward the East and waited for the rider to break the edge of the property before he sent his own mount into action.

Kid and Cody stepped back choking on the dust of the two horses as they barreled past.

-----


The trail was blessedly quiet, the miles stretching out before him whooshed by with distracting regularity and he was soon nearly lost in the peaceful rush of solitude.

He was past it before he even realized he'd seen it.

A hat.

Left in the dust.

Now, if he'd seen that in town, it would have been less than worth his notice, but out on the trail, you lose a hat... You go back for it.

Someone had lost it and left it.  That was worth checking.

Swinging his mount around he rode back to check. It was grey, he could tell that from a distance, but the shape is what unnerved him. The brim was flat, not tweaked and turned and bashed in like a drover or other yahoo.

The trail was well travelled and offered no immediate information, so he slid from the saddle and looped Sundance's reins over a low tree branch before bending to pick up the discarded hat.

The instant it was in his hat he knew. "Lou!" There was no sign of her... Her horse. She was on her way home. "Lou!"

He hoped she'd just been careless... Not her, not Lou.

"Answer me, damn it!"

The wind howled past his ear and Jimmy hung her hat from the saddle horn, turning in a quick circle, looking at the ground. "Where's Buck when you need him?" he groused as he moved in an ever widening circle looking for any sign of her.

The wind buffeted his body, nearly throwing him off balance. He wondered if it had been as strong before, but on horseback he'd barely noticed it. Another gust pushed him up against a rocky ledge. "Whoa."

The impact had nearly knocked the wind out of him and the sharp pain in his side was probably the first hint of a cut. "I wonder if-"

He heard a horse, the distinctive plaintive whinny of a horse in pain. God help him, it was coming from somewhere below him.

Turning onto his belly he leaned out over the edge and looked down. "No."

Visible amongst a pile of pale limestone rubble was Lou's horse, barely moving her legs, her head lifting over and over in a sad attempt to stand.

"Lou?" Still no answer. He hoped and prayed that she'd done the unimaginable and left her mount behind.

-----


The rope hanging from his saddle got him most of the way down. He had to jump the rest of the way and he tried not to let it bother him that he'd have to figure out a way back up that didn't involve wings.

Jimmy tried again. "Lou?"

Lightning answered him with a pain-filled whinny.

"Sorry, girl... I know, it's got to hurt." And it should, from a quick look two of her legs were broken, one shattered. "Oh man..."

"She's in pain."

Jimmy's head swung around and his mouth went dry.

"Don't say it, Jimmy... Don't... Please."

He picked his way around the rubble and knelt down beside her. "What don't you want me to say? That I'm gonna get you out of here and back home? Why shouldn't I-"

They both looked over as Lightning pawed the air with her hooves. She was in distress and her sides were heaving with each desperate attempt to get air into her lungs.

"She's in pain." Lou told him.

"Yeah, Lou, I know..."

"She's not going to make it."

"Lou..."

"Jimmy," she grabbed his arm, "You know what we have to do."

He looked at her resting against the rock, "I've got to get you out of-"

She shook her head once. "Not until you... Help me with her, I got the wind... Knocked out of me..."

Her gaze was steady and sure on him as he turned away to get to her horse.

Eyes bright with pain, Lightning tried her best to back him away with her hooves. He held up his hands and spoke softly to her, nearly crooning his words. Recognizing the familiar sound of his voice, Lightning quieted a bit and laid her head down onto the rocks, the barrel-like sides of her chest lifting with each shuddering breath.

Reaching out a hand he stroked the long side of her neck, steeling his expression at the first touch of her coat, slick with sweat. "Just you rest, girl... You take a deep breath and relax." He trailed his hand along her neck and continued to talk softly to her while he drew his hand back and removed his gun from its holster.

Keeping it out of her sight, he lifted it up out of her range of vision and aimed it carefully. "You've been a great friend, Lightning... Now you get to rest."

He turned away as the report of his gun echoed off the walls of the ravine.

Jimmy looked over at Lou and knew that the tears streaking her dusty cheeks were also on his face. They were more than just horses to them... They were family.  "Now, let’s get you out of here."

"Jimmy-" there was a warning in her tone, but it didn't stop him from crossing to her, "Jimmy, wait-"

Crouching down at her side, he slipped a hand under her shoulders and froze.

She offered him a tight apologetic smile. "I tried to warn you."

He leaned back, taking his hand out from behind her, his face blanching at the sight. "You knew?"

She tried to nod, but stopped. "I had... A feeling."

"How... How long have you been down here?"

"I've been in and out... didn't think anyone would find me."

"Your hat... You lost your hat, when..."

"The rockslide caught us by surprise... With the wind blowin' around, I didn't even hear it coming until it hit us. Swept us... *gasp* right over the edge."

Jimmy wiped his hand off on the back of his vest and tried to focus on the situation. "Can you move?"

She looked down at her arms and legs, giving each a moment of consideration. "I can't feel much past my waist, Jimmy... Lightning landed on me. She's not that light. My arms are goin' numb... Fast."

"Did you hurt your head?"

She gave a little laugh. "Why? Do I sound like it?"

"No," he paused then, a smile dying on his lips, "are you cold?"

"Now that you... A little, why?"

The blood drained from his face again. "I need to get a look at your back, Lou."

"Why? I told you what the problem was, what needs to happen." She didn't move as he approached her, her gaze staying on his face. She even tried to follow him as he grasped her shoulders and leaned her forward.

"What did you land on, Lou? When Lightning landed on you..."

"It hurt somethin' fierce at first, but when I felt the water I got myself over here, didn't want to drown..." she laughed a little, a tinny sound that seemed hollow to him. A chill ran through his body when the saw the damage and his eyes followed the trail of blood that had been nearly covered over by dust. The wind had hidden it from his eyes.

Jimmy hung his head. "Lou..."

"I know, Jimmy. I know."

When he looked up, she had her eyes closed; head leaned back against the wall of rock. "That's why I have to ask you another favor."

He shook his head. "Later... Right now, I have to figure out a way to get you out of here and how I'm gonna take you back home, boy, everyone's gonna fuss over you and-"

"I'm not going home... You and I both know that."

"I can get you help, I'll ride back-"

"Jimmy," she tried to sit up and started coughing Jimmy took hold of her shoulders and held her until it stopped.

"Oh God..." the words past his lips before he knew it and he saw her grimace. He tried not to draw too much attention as he swept his knuckle over the corner of her mouth.

"No use tryin' to cover it up. I'm coughing up blood, have been for awhile."

"I'm goin' back for help. I'll bring... A wagon... And the doc." He lurched to his feet and headed for the rocky face.

"Jimmy, stop."

He pounded on the rocks and whirled around to face her. "What?" He couldn't understand the anger that rolled off of him in waves. "This isn't supposed to be happening."

“That’s why this isn’t… going to be easy for either of us-”

“No.”

“But it has to be done.”

“Lou, I-”

“You know I’m not going home… don’t let me suffer like this.”

Jimmy looked away as blood flecked her chin. “It’s not the same.”

“You saved her a lot of suffering, Jimmy…”

“Lou-”

“Do the same… for me.”

“A horse, Lou… I put down a horse. I can’t do it-”  She was coughing again, shoulders shuddering with pain and he found himself on his knees beside her. “I’ll get you help, we can fix this.”

“A bullet…” she let him wipe away the blood sliding down from the corner of her mouth, “will fix this.”

-----  


An hour later and Jimmy was still trying to figure out a way to get Lou up top and avoid her pleas.  “Sit down.”

Her voice barely reached him; it was the intensity that pulled him back around to face her. “I can’t…”

“Then just sit down… with me.”

How could he argue… how could he deny her that?

“…so tired…”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“…talk to me…”

“About what?” The blue tinge of her lips was too much to ignore and the subtle shuddering of her shoulders was too painful to watch. Jimmy lifted her onto his lap and wrapped his arms around her as she leaned against his chest.

“… just talk…”

“Right now, everyone’s worried about where you are and Rachel’s tryin’ to get them to settle down to supper, but you know them, the only one sittin’ down is Cody and even he’s worried, but his stomach can’t be ignored that easy.”

“… food…”

“Yeah, food. You know, Cody… and Buck, I bet he’s sendin’ Cody some nasty looks, tryin’ to keep up enough for me and him.”

“… Buck…”

“Don’t forget Teaspoon. He’s probably checkin’ out the window every minute or so, ears trained on the sounds outside, waitin’ for you.”

“… Rachel…”

“Rachel, too. She’s got her hands full makin’ sure they’re all usin’ their manners, but she’s worried about you.”

“… Kid...”

Jimmy let out the breath he’d been holding since he’d begun his little story and touched his cheek to her temple, cuddling her closer. “He’s the reason I’m even out here.”

“…Kid…”

“He wanted to be there when you got home, so I traded…”

She leaned her head back to look up at him. “…sorry…”

Brushing back a length of hair that had fallen in her face, Jimmy gave her a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I’m not. I… I can’t do what you want, Lou. I ain’t gonna sit here and pretend like I can put a gun to your head and live with it.”

“…but…”

“You make me do that, Lou, and I might as well put it up to my head next. Then no one will ever know what happened.”

“…Jimmy…” She turned and her head tilted down, her gaze drifting off toward the rocky landscape before them. “…sorry…”

“Don’t, Lou… don’t apologize to me. Not about this. I’m just glad I’m here… you shouldn’t be alone… not now… not when-”

There was a shift. Of the world. Of the universe around him. Of the heart in his chest. “Lou?”

The wind blew cold around him ruffling the hair around his collar, shivering down his spine. She didn’t move and he wasn’t eager to… to confirm, but the seconds ticked away, the whispers of the wind driving him to distraction.

Biting his teeth into his bottom lip to keep from crying out he gently shifted her in his arms to see her and squeezed his eyes shut as her head lolled back on her neck, her lips parted in a soundless sigh.

Her eyes were closed as though she’d just fallen asleep, the pain that had marred her features erased with the passing of her life. Ignoring the sticky press of his shirt he gathered her close to his body and whispered into her ear. Whispered things that he’d never had the ability or cause to say while she’d been alive. Now, with nothing left to lose he allowed them voice and while he released those thoughts, he let the tears bathe his face, but knew they’d never touch his soul. That was empty and left him no rest through the night as he sat there with her, waiting for the sunlight to peek over the horizon and show him the way to let go.

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