Author's Note: A Parallel Universe take on the episode "The Gunfighter"
Lou heard the hoof beats before she could actually see the rider, but by the sound it wasn't someone from the Express. The rhythm was entirely too lax and had a languid sort of sound that didn't belong to anyone she knew.
The hat silhouetted by the moon was a bowler, something too city for Sweetwater unless you were one of the town founders putting on airs. No, the set of the shoulders and the bowler told her all she needed to know. Longley.
Cody had spent enough time pondering the man at the table that even though she hadn't wanted to hear about him she knew the kind of man he was. Or thought she knew, because here he was riding up… alone.
She straightened up, letting Lightning's foot fall back onto the ground and she moved slightly to the side of the stall where she'd left the pitchfork. Being at home she hadn't bothered to wear her holster, something she was regretting more and more by the minute.
He ducked when he rode through the open double doors of the barn, not that he had to, but it made it look like he was nodding at her. "You the stable boy?"
Lifting her chin another inch or so, Louise looked up at him. "I work here, but I'm no stable boy."
His grin was little more than a slight upturn of one corner of his mouth. "Be whatever you want, boy." Leaning on the saddle horn he swung a leg over and stepped down to the ground. He let go of his reins and let them drop toward the ground. "Take care of my horse while I'm at the house." He grinned now as he looked over at Emma's and the warmly lit windows. "Don't bother rushin' through it either, my horse deserves a good rub down… somethin' I'll be gettin' myself."
The words were disgusting to Lou but the slimy twist his tone gave them set her anger boiling. "Emma ain't that kind of woman."
Longley heard the tone and turned back to Lou barely containing his laughter. "Son… I understand what you're sayin'… every man would like to think a woman's got virtues. It's the only thing that ever makes a man propose tyin' himself down to one and makin' a home." Longley let out a sigh and shook his head. "Then you get to be a man and you realize that the only thing a man needs from a woman is the few minutes needed to relieve himself of the pent up… stress that he's been buildin' up durin' the day."
A figure moved inside the house and Longley rubbed his hands together. "Now, son... if you'll excuse me... it's been awhile since I've had me a woman like Emma… I'm gonna enjoy tonight… probably a couple o' times."
Longley turned for the open doors of the barn and Lou reached out for the pitchfork that was within her grasp. She'd barely laid more than a few fingers on it when she heard the click of metal from a few feet away.
"Now, son… I don't know if you're just thick in the head… or a little slow…" Louise turned her head enough to see the barrel of Longley's gun aimed at her head, "but if you're tryin' to be Emma's protector, you're gonna end up dead either way. And if it's the same to you, I'd rather not have Emma cryin' during our 'time' together."
Louise felt the blood drain from her face and the warm air of the barn warred with the shivers up and down her spine. "Then you just ride out and we'll call it a day." She swallowed hard, she hadn't wanted to say anything but somehow her false bravado had gotten the better of her need to survive. "I'd rather not die and I'm sure you'd rather not have a couple of holes in your fancy suit."
That brought a laugh from him and gave Lou long enough to wonder where the other boys were. Weren't they ever coming back from wherever it was that they rode off to?
Longley's gaze watched her hand and his laughter quickly turned to a sigh and his lips pressed tightly together. "Let go of that pitchfork, son, and I just might wing you for fun. Otherwise if you try to use that on me, they'll be diggin' you a hole come mornin'."
Slowly, deliberately, she released the pitchfork finger by finger and then lifted both of her hands in the air in surrender. He'd have to leave her sooner or later to get to Emma and that's when she'd run and get her gun from the bunkhouse. She just had to-
"Aw damn but you're stubborn."
Before Louise could ponder the meaning of his words Longley was looming over her, his gun hand crossing his body to pistol whip her she tried to shy away and avoid the blow. The movement twisted her body enough that the hand he used to grab her shirt brushed against something else entirely.
His surprise showed clearly on his face. "Well lookee here…" holstering his pistol he grabbed onto the hand she'd raised, "and here I was beginning to think that you were just some young pup looking to protect Emma."
Louise blinked up at him her mouth half open to scream but the nearness of him, the smell of his cheap cologne and the whiskey on his breath, propelled her back into time when she was just a young girl who stuck her nose in the wrong mess. "Please."
"Please?" He seemed 'tickled' by the word, a broad grin on his face. "Please what?"
Her knees buckled as he drew closer and one hand grabbed for the front of his shirt to keep her from falling to the ground. "Please don't…"
Longley laughed as he brought down the hand he held captive and twisted it behind her back. "But you don't even know what I have in mind for you. How can you say you don't-"
"Get away from her!"
Louise gasped as Longley's hand tightened on her wrist reflexively.
"Ow, Emma careful, he's got his gun."
"So have I." Emma's tone was cold and sent shivers down Lou's spine but Longley's grin only widened.
"Now, Emma…" he drawled out the words, making them flow like liquor from a bottle, heavy and wet, "this isn't the way to greet an old friend."
The ratcheting sound of a bullet chambering into her rifle even made Longley freeze in his place. The only thing that made him take her seriously.
"You're no friend of mine, Longley… not after how you're treating my riders."
Longley stepped to the side and slightly away from Lou but he didn't let go of her wrist. He let go of her shirt but now her arm twisted further behind her. "Emma, don't," Lou pleaded through her clenched teeth, "don't let him draw…"
"What?" Longley's face was all surprise. "Why would I do that to the woman I once loved?"
That caught Louise's attention, turning her head to the gunman while Emma took a step forward. "Let her go, Longley."
"Why don't you make us all a pot of tea, Emma. We'll all sit down and talk… and then we'll have some fun, just like the old days. Is 'she' half as much fun as you used to be?" The look he gave Lou made her stomach turn over in her middle.
"I'll shoot you where you stand!" Emma's hand shook just a little bit and Longley turned his attention back to her.
"No you won't." Longley stepped closer, bringing Lou with him even though she struggled against his hold. "You won't cause no matter how much you hate me, Emma… you're not a murderer."
The barrel of her rifle dropped a fraction of an inch and Emma's expression crumbled. "Just let her go, Longley. Let her go and you can have me."
"No!" Lou struggled against Longley but he held onto her with little effort, even her free hand pounding on his chest had little effect and before she could kick him he nearly broke her arm where he held it behind her back.
Emma turned to reason with Louise but Longley had had enough of the young woman. One moment he was letting go of her arm, the next he used the same hand to knock her off of her feet and back up against the stall. "Louise!"
Longley pushed the barrel of Emma's rifle down toward the floor and took her shoulders in his hands. "Emma… Emma… my wild Irish rose. How I have missed you."
Turning her face away as Longley pressed his lips against her neck, Emma bit into her lip to keep herself from crying out. She didn't want the boys in the bunkhouse to hear her. They'd come… they'd come to help her and Longley would kill them. "Let's… let's go in the house."
"You're right," he breathed into her ear, "it's so much better with a be- aah!"
Emma bit back a scream as Longley's fingers bit into her arms. A moment later he let go of her and tried to reach an arm up and toward his back. Emma stepped back a few feet and lifted up her rifle pointing it at his chest.
"Don't..." it was Lou this time falling to her knees behind Longley, one hand held up to the back of her head, "he can't hurt you anymore." A moment later he fell to his knees in the hay and pitched face forward, the pitchfork buried deep in his back. "He can't hurt you anymore."
"Louise… are you… does your head hurt?"
"Hurt?" Louise tried not to laugh because it only made it hurt more. "Enough to let me know I'm alive." She looked over at the body as Emma knelt beside her brushing her hair to one side and then the other looking for an injury. Louise tried to bat away Emma's hands. "I'm fine."
"Fine? How can you say that?" Emma's voice held a harsh edge to it that was near hysterical. "When I think of what he could have done to you."
"No more than what he would have done to you, Emma." Louise regretted the words as soon as she'd said them as Emma's face lost all color. "Oh, Emma… I'm so-"
Approaching hoof beats had Emma on her feet and pulling one of the barn doors closed. She turned back to look at Lou. "Stay there."
Emma stood in the opening left by the absence of the second door and folded her arms over her chest and Cody, Kid and Jimmy rode up. "Just where have you three been?"
Cody was the first one to offer up the information. "Jimmy went to apologize to Longley."
Nodding, Emma looked at each one in turn. "And what happened when you found him?"
Jimmy leaned forward on the saddle horn, shrugging a little. "That's the thing, Emma. We didn't."
"Maybe he left."
Kid's words seemed to make sense to Cody. "Maybe he got a payin' job and didn't think it was worth stickin' around."
"I dunno," Jimmy's tone wasn't as sure as the others, "he thought I was challenging him. Why would he leave without comin' after me?"
"Well maybe it ain't about you, Hickok."
Jimmy turned to Cody but Emma couldn't see his expression.
"Either way, you boys have been out late… when you should be gettin' some rest."
Cody mumbled something at the Kid. "Thought I'd left my Mama at home."
"Really now, Mr. Cody?"
Rolling his eyes he shifted in his saddle. "I know, Emma… I'm sorry."
"Jimmy," Emma's gaze settled on the rider in the middle. "I want you to take the horses inside and get them bedded down." She swung a look at the other two. "Before you two start to think that you're gettin' it easy, tomorrow before the sun comes up you'll report to my front door for your own special chores."
"Emma," Cody made the first protest, "we went with Hickok to help him."
"And," her volume matched his, "you took Station Property with you, good night." Her tone and the look on her face didn't allow for an argument. Cody and Kid slid from their saddles and handed the reins to Jimmy.
The young gunman gave Emma a hard look as he walked up to the barn door. "Emma, it ain't-"
Emma put a hand on his chest to quiet him and waited while Cody shut the door to the bunkhouse. "We need your help."
Jimmy looked at Emma's face and saw the seriousness of her words. "Sure."
He followed behind Emma as she entered the barn, leading the three horses into the barn he stopped short when he saw Lou leaning against one of the posts, a hand pressed to back of his head. "What happened to you?"
He followed Lou's pointed look to the man lying in the hay on one side of the barn. "Longley."
Emma appeared at his side after she shut the door. "He came after me, but Lou got in the way."
"Who killed him?"
"I did." "I did."
Emma and Louise both looked at each other after claiming credit for killing Longley.
Swallowing hard Jimmy looked at Lou and then Emma. "You want me to go for Sam?"
Shaking her head, Emma draped her arm over Lou's shoulders and pulled the slender rider to her side. "I want you to help us bury the body."
Jimmy didn't understand why Emma didn't want to get Sam involved. Longley was bad, pure and simple. The man would've… the man would've… Jimmy didn't want to give voice to what he had planned to do to Emma. The thought still burned at the back of his throat and bit deeply into his heart.
"Sam would understand, Emma." He'd tried to reason with her back in the barn but she wouldn't budge. Lou, looking smaller by the minute, wasn't saying anything. "You only shot him to protect Lou. No way you'd get in trouble for that."
"No one will miss him." Emma's voice had been frosty, belying the anger in her eyes. "It's better this way. It'll be over. He won't bother anyone… ever again."
Jimmy flicked the reins again and the horses surged forward and off the path to town. They were going to find a nice quiet place to bury the body. Somewhere far enough away from the station that people wouldn't find him. If he didn't know that Lou was sitting on the seat beside him he wouldn't have known he was there. The boy had climbed up into the wagon readily enough, ignoring Emma's protests but as soon as they'd started out he'd wrapped his arms around himself and tucked his chin down to his chest until the only color Jimmy could see by the light of the crescent moon was the color of Lou's hat.
"You cold, Lou?"
"No." The answer was muffled as though whispered against the wool of his coat. "You?"
That brought a corner of Jimmy's mouth up in a smile. "You sure are a puzzle, Lou."
A moment of silence and then, "What do you mean?"
Jimmy shrugged, watching the road. "You face off Longley to help Emma and now… you're sittin' there lookin' like it was you that was hurt."
A moment of silence and then, "I ain't never seen a man killed that close up before." Another moment and then, "I ain't never been responsible for a man dyin' before."
That hit him right between the eyes. Lou was tough. He'd seen it before. Lou'd been shot and yet he'd ridden with them to get the pouch back. Still, this was a different side of Lou. The boy looked small, withdrawn… as though he was trying to disappear into the darkness. "Longley was a dead man already," he knew that would get his attention, "he was livin' on borrowed time and just didn't know it."
The wagon hit a bump and when they came down Lou's voice filled the void. "You're startin' to sound like Teaspoon."
Jimmy chuckled. "Don't tell that to the old man, he'd deny it."
Lou fell silent again as Jimmy pulled the reins and stopped the horses behind a copse of trees. He set the break and jumped down from the seat, grabbing a shovel as he walked to the back.
"I can help." Lou's voice reached him and he stopped, turning around to see that Lou was still sitting on the wagon seat. "I can help you dig." It was only a moment before Lou slid to the ground, walking around the back of the wagon in a wide arc.
With a heavy sigh Jimmy dug the shovel into the dirt, gritting his teeth as the he felt the hard ground give way before the blade of the shovel. "I can get it." He moved another few shovels of dirt before he looked up again. "'sides I think it's Emma's form of punishment."
"Because of Longley?" Lou's voice was a bit strangled.
"Yeah… among other things." Another few shovelfuls of dirt piled up under a tree. "I think she's got a problem with my… uh-"
The blade stopped dead in the dirt and Jimmy looked up and smiled at Lou even though he couldn't see the boy's face. "Ouch. You sure know how to hurt a guy, huh?"
"I didn't mean to… I just can't get anything right."
Jimmy straightened up and set the shovel into the dirt before rubbing at his lower back. "What are you talkin' about?"
Lou shook his head, rubbing his palms along the legs of his pants. "I didn't have my gun."
That got a ghost of a smile from Jimmy. He left the shovel where it was and walked over to Lou. "It wouldn't have mattered, Lou." He shrugged when Lou looked up at him. "Longley was a hired gun. If you'd been wearing a pistol he might have shot you because you were dangerous to him."
"Dangerous." Lou gave a little snort of bitter laughter. "Me?"
Another shrug . "You've seen enough to know that misjudging someone can mean your life. Things out here ain't always fair. Folks, good folks, get shot and stolen from and just because you ain't got a gun doesn't mean you're safe either." Jimmy rubbed at one arm and then the other. "You stood up for Emma, I owe you for that." He looked up at the sky and then down at his feet. "I brought Longley down on us. Emma asked me to apologize, but I was too big for my own britches. I wouldn't let it go when it would've saved us all a lot of grief." He looked at Lou, his eyes dark from more than just the shadows. "I should be tellin' you I'm sorry."
He looked down at where Lou's hand rested on his arm and saw him swallow. The night was dark, but still he could see enough of Lou in the moonlight and when Lou pulled back, stammering an excuse he took the time to look. Really look.
"I'm sorry," Lou's voice wavered and nearly climbed an octave, "I wasn't-"
"How old are you?" The question dropped between them and he knew he'd shocked Lou with it.
"What… what d'you mean?" There it was a little bit of that chin in the air defensive tone that seemed to mark so much Lou's words. "I'm old enough."
"Right." Jimmy stepped closer, almost a foot and Lou backed up just as much. "You're old enough to ride, but you don't have any sign of a beard."
"My uh… my mother's family… they don't have-"
"Right." He moved closer and Lou backed up again. "And your voice ain't always as low all the time, like it ain't decided what to sound like yet."
"Maybe it ain't, but I ain't grown yet."
"Right." He move again and Lou backed up against the wagon bed, yelping in reaction. "And sometimes you don't look…" He couldn't quite form his thoughts at that moment; Lou was looking up at him with eyes wide open. Maybe it was fear, maybe it was confusion, but there was something soft and utterly-
"Jimmy." Lou stepped to the side and away from the wagon. "I don't know what you're thinkin' but, but let's just get this done and we can talk later and-"
"Longley scared you."
Lou stopped dead in his tracks, his head hanging down until his chin touched his chest.
"You weren't just scared for your life."
Lou's voice was muffled by his shirt. "I was scared for Emma. If you'd heard the things he said-"
"I can imagine. The man was evil… he didn't care if he hurt folks. Still, there was somethin' about the look on your face…" Jimmy's thoughts were dark, jumbled, and somehow he knew the truth was staring him in the face and he just couldn't see it.
"Come on, Jimmy," Lou's voice was pleading, "just let it go."
"Just let it go, Jimmy." His mother's voice slipped into his head, soft and paper thin like the moon light. His head snapped up and his gaze fixed on Lou's face.
Lou started moving for the shovel, her back turned to him so he wouldn't see the dread in her expression. "Leave it alone, Jimmy, it ain't gonna do any good to talk about it."
"Did he…" he couldn't finish the thought in his head. Just the hint of it had his heart pounding and his mouth dry. "Did he-" Jimmy's hand closed over the grip of his gun in a useless gesture.
"He didn't… but he was thinkin' it." Lou's soft contralto reached his ears. "I was stupid, Jimmy. I let my anger get the best of me and when he grabbed me he-," her voice caught in her throat, "he figured it out. I could see… on his face… what he was planning to do."
"If it would do any good, I wish I could bring him back just so I could-" he felt Lou's hand on his arm again and he lifted his gaze to hers. "Who else knows?"
"What?" Lou's expression cleared in a moment. "That I'm a girl?" She continued on before he could answer. "Emma… she just knew, and Kid. He found me after I'd been shot."
The information fell into place for Jimmy and he couldn't help the soft grin that lifted the corners of his mouth. "Bet that gave him a shock."
"Looks like it was for you, too." Lou's attempt at humor was tentative. He could see that she was worried.
"I won't tell." He couldn't understand why he rushed to reassure her, but he knew it was important. "I won't tell anyone."
"It's your secret," he told her and was rewarded with a small smile. "But you can expect me to be, um, lookin' out for you when I can."
He crossed over to the hole, picking the shovel back up in his hands. "For what? Diggin' the hole?"
She shook her head, folding her arms over her chest. "For understanding."