“Where did this come from?” Buck spoke the question aloud, but to no one in particular. The little velvet pouch in his hands held his attention.
“What you got there, Buck?” Cody moved closer, pulling his chair with him.
The Kiowa pulled on the sides of the pouch, loosening the gathered edges Buck spilled it’s contents out into his palm.
“A ring?” Cody snatched it out of his hands, “What’s Ike doin’ with a ring?”
“I don’t know.” Buck sounded truly puzzled, “He never said anything about it.”
Kid leaned over the table, “Was it his mother’s?”
Buck shook his head, “Don’t think so, otherwise I would’ve seen it before.”
Taking the ring from Cody, Kid held it up to the light. “Whatever it was for, it sure is nice.”
Noah took it from Kid while he laughed, “I think we all know what it’s for Kid. Ike was planning on usin’ this for a weddin’.”
“Weddin’?” Cody ran his hand through his hair, “Sure is a surprise to me.”
Jimmy lifted his arm from his eyes. All the talking had interrupted his sleep, “Yeah well, I figure if Ike had wanted us to know about it, he’d have said something.”
Kid shrugged, “Emily?”
Cody leaned forward “Dunno, but it looks like it’s been in there for awhile, my bet is Annie.”
Buck’s expression changed, “Give it back.” Noah handed the ring back to him, “Whatever he bought it for, we shouldn’t be making bets about it.” The door opened behind him. “It ain’t fair to Ike.”
Chagrined, Cody sat back away from the table, “Sorry Buck, didn’t mean no disrespect by it. It's not everyday a man buys a ring, just seems funny that none of us knew about it.”
Cautious footsteps approached the table.
“What do you think, Lou?” Kid smiled up at Louise as she stood behind Buck.
“Think of what?’ She asked the question around the lump in her throat.
“The ring. We’re tryin’ to figure out who Ike bought it for.”
She couldn’t bring herself to look anyone in the eye. Reaching outwith a steady hand, she came within a hairsbreadth of touching the ring when she pulled back her hand like it was on fire. Clutching her shirt above her heart she eeked out the answer, “Ike didn’t buy it for anyone. I did.”
There wasn't a chance for anyone to question her, Louise walked outside before they could see the tears in her eyes.
Ike was gone… that’s it. Ike was gone and now the ring was coming back to haunt her.
Lightning shied away as Lou groaned out her embarrassment. “Whoa there, girl.”
The wild look in Lightning’s eyes dimmed for a moment.
Now it was her rider’s turn to balk.
Lou’s hand slid off the seat of the saddle and fell to her side. Taking a deep breath she turned to the door.
He took a few hesitant steps into the barn, looking around as he moved. “I’m ah... I’m glad I caught you before you left.”
She took a deep breath and launched into her excuse, “Look, Kid, I don’t have the time..”
“Lou.” His tone didn’t leave room for an argument. “I’ve gotta ask you a question and this can’t wait.”
Looking up into his eyes she saw the intent and knew she should let him have his say.
“Why?” He choked out the question before he could complete the rest of his thoughts.
She stared at him with a wary look in her eyes.
He took another step closer. “Why did you... I mean... you see... it’s just that...” The muscle in his jaw ticked an unsteady beat as he struggled with his thoughts. “I looked pretty foolish in there.”
Anger and hurt flashed in her eyes and instantly he knew he’d said the wrong thing.
“You? Is that what you came in here for? I made you you look like a fool in there?” She tried to relax her hands before her short nails started to draw blood from her palms. “Well, I have news for you, Kid, what happened in there was not about you! It was ...”
“Not about me?” He lurched forward to capture her glance before she could turn away, “You bought a ring. A wedding ring and I’m supposed to think-”
“Yes.. yes.. THINK!” Lou’s voice was full of warning. “You’re supposed to stop and think, not come in here and demand answers... ‘cause I’m not ready to give them.”
“Kid... I’ve got to go-”
He forced out a laugh, “Go? Don’t you mean run away?”
She turned back to him, her eyes blazing through the tears, “Don’t talk to me... just don’t. You ain’t looking for answers... you want...” she couldn’t think of a better word than the one on the tip of her tongue, “revenge.”
Kid sighed and his arms sagged from his shoulders. All the smartretorts died on his tongue. Fighting for control of his warring emotions he could only utter, “This is not what I wanted-”
“Me either, Kid.”
He looked up at her, a hopeful look daring to creep into his eyes. “Then-”
She shook her head, “GO.... please... just let me go. We’ll... talk when I get back.”
Kid stepped forward, a plea about to burst out of his lungs. Instead, he shook his head and waved a dismissive hand, “I just don’t understand you.”
He left the barn, blind to the man who nearly brushed him out of the way.
Lou looked up and gave a weak smile.
“I’m sorry, Lou.”
She shook her head and turned away. Pulling the ends of her shirt from the waistband of her pants she dragged the tails of the fabric up to her face and swiped at the tears. “At least you’re not angry too.”
There was only silence.
Lou turned back and hissed out a sigh. “I suppose you want answers, too.”
“When you’re ready to give them.”
She considered telling him to leave her alone, but sometimes things just need to be said.
“It was for Annie.”
A nod was her only answer.
“He was going to give it to her the night her ‘husband’ came to get her. I didn’t even think he’d kept it.” She tried to shut out the pictures that flooded her thoughts. “I wasn’t going to ask for it back.”
Ike’s earnest face stared at her in concern. Her mind was a haunted place.
“Ike never even asked me why I had it. He didn’t even want to take it, but I insisted. Now, Kid knows I bought it and he wants answers.”
“What did you tell him?”
“That I didn’t have any.... and I meant it. I,” she looked up at her friend, “I didn’t even know why I bought it... until now.”
He stayed where he was and made no attempt to crowd her.
“I bought it for me.”
She didn’t meet his eyes and missed the questioning look on his face.
“I saw it.. and I bought it... and kept it, in the bottom of my trunk.”
Lou took a step closer, a foot or two from the head of his shadow.
“There was a couple in the store. Young and so very in love. Her hand never left his arm and his eyes... they never left her face. I couldn’t help but stare through the window. I had stopped to look in at the dresses and... dream a bit. Instead, I found something even more out of my reach. Love, the kind of real love that can happen between a man and a woman.”
The toe of one boot scuffed at the dirt and hay behind her, “I could see my reflection in the glass, fuzzy and out of focus but still there. I was dirty, caked in dust from a ride and still a ‘man’. I watched him pay for a ring and place it on her finger, kissing her in front of everyone.”
Her mouth went dry as the emotions flooded back. “They left and still, there I was, standing there on the walk, staring at myself in the glass. I wondered why. Why had I taken on this life? Why I hid myself behind these grubby clothes and useless glasses? Why I’d ever talked myself into this .... make believe game.”
Lou’s shoulders bobbed up and down with her uneven breathing. “Why I’ve let it go on so long?” She looked up again, a feral look receding from her eyes. “I took off my glasses and stood there, looking right into my own eyes. I took a deep breath and let myself see it.”
She stepped onto his shadow and made it to the center of its chest before she continued. “I saw the person behind the act. I saw me.”
“I am ... I am the oldest sister in a family of three orphans... I am a capable of making a life for us with ‘honest money’.” Her cheeks colored with some secret memory. “I am a Pony Express rider... and...I am a woman... always.”
Some of the tears had dried high on her cheeks and had survived the cursory cleaning and now, as she stepped closer, the light from the door reached her face over his shoulder. “I can have that kind of love one day. I can have a man to love me for who I am... because now, I know just who that is.”
Reaching into his pocket, he held the ring out, letting it flare with the sunlight.
She took it, her hands steady and sure, “I am Louise McCloud.”
Lou took in a deep breath and looked straight into his eyes.
Buck smiled and she stepped into his embrace.
He held her close to his heart and felt Ike’s presence in the room, strong and full of life. Looking down, he placed a kiss to the top of her head. “You are my friend.”
Sighing, Lou settled her head against his chest and held him. The memory, finally shared with another, grew stronger and look on new life inside of her heart. Clutched in her hand, the simple circle of gold warmed to her touch.