"It's up to you, Lou." Jimmy leaned against the bunkhouse wall and watched her walk around the room, working through her thoughts.
Noah leaned back in his chair and sipped on his coffee. "Either way it's gonna be hard on him."
She looked up for a moment and shook her head. "He's all torn up because he thinks he killed Lambert."
"Yeah, but Lou... he thinks he did it defending you." Buck looked at Ike and saw his nod. "If he finds out that you did it..."
Lou hung her head, hearing Buck's thoughts clearly and giving them voice, "he'll feel even worse." She stopped just a few feet from Jimmy, reaching out to touch the soft black velvet of her dress where it was laid out on her bunk. She'd kept it… wanted it, because of how it made her feel. Powerful. The problem was she felt powerless to do anything about Kid. Either way she was going to hurt him.
"It's your secret to tell, Lou." Jimmy laid a comforting arm over her shoulders and turned her to him for a hug.
"Thanks, Jimmy, I-"
The door opened up and Jimmy caught Ike's expression, but he was damned if he was going to skulk away like he'd done something wrong.
"Let her go, Jimmy."
Louise poked her head around Jimmy's shoulder and smiled. "I just needed a hug, Kid." She stepped around Jimmy and laid her arms around Kid, giving him a welcoming embrace. "I just needed some help thinking through a problem."
It took a long moment, Kid's eyes still on Jimmy as he rubbed Lou's back. "I'm back now… we can go and talk things through."
She shook her head. "It's fine. I just have a few things to put away and then-"
Teaspoon stepped into the room for a moment. "Sorry to interrupt the party, boys… but ah… Jimmy, Buck, ain't you both got rides comin' up? Rachel's got some supper ready for you so you don't get hungry on the trail."
Looking at each other they both nodded and headed out. Buck gave a moment to consider Teaspoon's words, "With Cody on his way through, we should all eat." Ike agreed and wasn't far behind.
Lou moved toward her bunk as Noah stood up from the table. "You need any help, Lou?"
She gave him a smile as she picked up a couple sheets of tissue and laid them out on the bunkhouse table. "Thanks, but you go on ahead. I just need a few more minutes."
Noah took his time walking from the Bunkhouse and Louise was humming to herself as she laid the tissue out, overlapping the sides to cover a large area of the wood.
"You want to tell me what was going on?"
"I told you, Kid. I had a problem and I needed to talk it out." She returned to her bunk, carefully avoiding his eyes. She didn't quite trust herself not to show him how torn she was. "I want to get this put away before the bugs get to it." She lifted the black dress in her hands and held it gently against her chest, folding the velvet as neatly as she could manage before placing it in the middle of the tissue.
"That's the dress from the Saloon, isn't it?"
She folded in the tissue on two sides. "The girls were happy we found the killer and let me have the dress to remember them. I'm planning on going back someday and see how they are." Tucking in the tops and bottoms she lifted the whole parcel and made her way back to the open trunk at the foot of her bunk. "Rachel gave me a sachet to keep it soft and the bugs out."
"So you're really gonna keep it?"
Louise set the dress down in the trunk and turned back around. "I am."
He opened his mouth to say something, but closed it a moment later. "I'm gonna get washed up for supper. I'll see you at the house?"
"When I'm done."
He didn't comment on the fact that he thought she 'was' done, he turned on his heel and left the room. He didn't have to say a thing anyway; Lou had seen the disappointment in his eyes that was enough for her.
* * * * *
Kid would look over at the trunk every time he was in the room, and it was starting to interfere with his rest. The bunkhouse was supposed to be their sanctuary, but it was just another thing that he couldn't control anymore.
"Lou?" She didn't answer right away and Kid got up out of his bunk to lean closer to her ear. "Lou?"
Blinking, she rubbed at her face to wake up. "What's wrong, Kid?"
"I figured out what's been on my mind… about your dress."
She leaned on her elbow and blinked at him, still unsure that she was really hearing him. "What about it?"
"You wore… you wore that dress to catch Lambert's attention."
"I did it because I was a saloon girl. I couldn't exactly wear my pants."
"I know," he leaned in closer, whispering again so that she would lower her voice. "But while you were wearing it, he… he beat you in that dress, Lou. How can you keep it around knowing the pain… the bruises you had because of it."
She looked down and him and smiled. There would never be a time when she could tell him that she still felt tenderness around her eye and that when she laughed there was a still a slight twinge of pain in her cheek. He was right, but that wasn't all of it.
"I was hurt, Kid… that's right." She reached out and fanned her fingers through his rumpled hair, "But I lived through it… and now I know I can." She yawned, her mouth stretching along with her back and suddenly she looked very young amidst the blankets on her bunk. "Now go to sleep. You have an early run."
* * * * *
The quiet was about to end. It wasn't so much the quiet of voices that was weighing down on them… it was the idea that their peace was going to be interrupted. Kid was coming back from his run within the hour and everyone was walkin' around on eggshells as Lou was trying to figure out the problem.
Cody was the first one to offer up his 'advice'. "The way I see it…" he pulled his hat to the side of his face like he was trying to shield the sound from the others, "it's eatin' him up… havin' killed a man. Maybe you should tell him what happened, Lou. Kid's a man like me… he can take the truth."
"He's a man alright," Noah chuckled, "but he's nothin' like you. Havin' a woman take up your battles for you… you'd see that as a good thing."
Buck nodded. "You'd let her do the shootin' and you'd have no trouble going to sleep?"
*I can see that.*
Cody waved them off. "Do y'all mind? I was talkin' to Lou, private like."
He gave Ike a snarling look.
"I dunno about tellin' the Kid. He wouldn't take it well. He has this way of makin' his mind up and when he does that-" Lou looked up and met Noah's gaze. He couldn't argue with her words, "there's really no way to change it for him."
"Rider comin'!" Teaspoon's age-old call echoed from the yard.
Everyone swiveled their gazes to Lou, but she was already up on her feet. "I don't know about you boys… but I agree with Kid… we spend too much time here in the bunkhouse. Anyone up for a trip to town?"
Ike waved off but Buck followed Noah to the door. "I don't mind goin'."
"Why not?" Noah agreed. "I've always had a fondness for a good drama, as long as I was in the audience. "
Lou turned on them both. "You're not helping."
The store was filled. Tompkins' store was stifling on a good day, but there were some new folks in town and it was mighty hard to get much more than a tiny breath into your lungs. Especially when you had folks pushed into every nook and cranny… and not all of them believed in taking baths.
Lou had tried to keep a smiling face even when a couple of young men jostled her near the cracker barrel up in the front of the store. She put a restraining hand on Kid's arm and quietly pointed out the new ready-made shirts that Tompkins had brought in from St. Joseph. It took a little bit of encouragement, but he found a few that he liked and was busy examining the seams when Lou slipped out of the front of the store to take a breath of fresh air.
The boardwalk was empty and Lou was glad of it. When she was trying to make up her mind about something it was better to be alone for a bit and this was her chance. She could understand how angry Kid had been when he'd seen her face. Heck, he'd waited all night wondering what had happened to her while she'd been finding a way out of town, barely able to see through the one eye that had taken a beating. When they'd returned to Sweetwater she'd avoided mirrors because every time she looked into Kid's eye she knew how bad it looked. Knew by the way he cringed or by the way his cheeks colored in anger how much of her bruises still showed on her face.
"Excuse me, boy… you know Jimmy Hickok?"
Lou half turned to the voice and answered without thinking. "Sure he rides for-"
"Is he here in town today?"
It wasn't the words that got her attention, but the pointed tone behind the words. "He's gone… on leave, don't know when he'll-"
The man all but picked her up by the front of her shirt and walked up backwards until she stumbled up against one of the bracing poles on the walk. "Don't play games, boy. I know you're hidin' him. A man like him ain't lived this long without folks watchin' his back."
"You're lyin' tryin' to keep me from findin' out when he's in town. How much does he pay you?"
Her fingers dug into the back of his hand and he grunted through locked teeth as he pushed her against the pole again. "Don't play them tricks with me, boy. I ain't one to give up easy. You see I come here to make a name for myself. You ain't gonna get nothin' but sore tryin' to lie to me. So just give me the answer I want or-"
The man froze, his breath catching in his throat as his eyes widened in surprise.
"Put my friend down."
"This is between me and the boy, so you-"
"Put my friend down." Slowly, the man's fingers released the front of Lou's shirt and she was able to step away and behind him. She stepped up beside Buck and touched him on the back to let him know she was fine. He slowly withdrew the point of his knife from the man's back and gave a nod to Lou. "I think you need to leave."
Lou added her own voice to the confrontation. "Now." She heard the wobble in her tone, knew that if the man was listening carefully he would hear the problem… hear who she was under the disguise, but like so many gunfighters before him he only saw the outside and didn't look any deeper than that.
He didn't reach for his gun, didn't even flip the edge of his coat back to show the butt of it or the holster tooled to the style of a duelist. Instead, he kept his eyes on the two of them as he backed down the stairs and into the street.
"You tell him. You tell Hickok. I'm here lookin' for him. You tell him that John Collins is gonna stick around long enough to kill him."
A moment later he was gone, disappeared into the crowd, but not from their thoughts. Buck leaned over to the side and whispered quietly. "How bad are you hurt?"
She blew out a relieved breath. "A little sore in the head, but nothing to worry about." Stepping out to the edge of the boardwalk she peered around the post and scanned the crowd. "When is Jimmy coming back?"
"What's going on?"
Buck slipped his knife back into his boot and gave Lou a look, giving her the opportunity to tell him or not.
She swallowed and gave Kid a smile. "Just a little problem we took care of." She touched Buck's shoulder and gave her friends a smile before her hand rose up and touched the tender spot on the back of her head. Kid noticed the action and started forward.
She tried to shake it off with a smile. "Nothin' Kid," she winced as his fingers touched her, searching for the injury, "ouch."
"I ain't gonna ask again, Lou." He saw the ire in her eyes when he finished his demand and knew she wouldn't say anything… not now. Not when he'd made the demand in front of everyone. "Fine… don't say anything now… but you know," he looked up to include Buck in his statement, "I'm gonna find out."
Kid's fork hit the bottom of the plate through the piece of potato and Lou cringed at the song when the end of the tine ground against the tin. Everyone tried to pretend they didn't notice and continued on with their meal.
The main course was almost done and when Rachel offered up a pie there wasn't a single taker. Suddenly everyone seemed tired and more than willing to turn in for the night.
Ike gave Rachel a smile as Buck rose up from his seat on the bench. "Thanks for supper, Rachel and-"
"What happened today, Lou?"
She was halfway out of her seat and froze. "I don't know what to tell you, Kid."
"How about the truth?" He looked at her, his gaze passing over the others at the table. "Seems like that would be the easiest to keep straight."
"I didn't lie to you, Kid." She wet her lips and tilted her head to see him in the lamplight. "It weren't more than a little scuffle. Buck and I took care of it."
"Town ain't someplace for you to go alone if this is gonna happen."
"That's what I mean, Kid… it didn't just happen… the man heard that I knew Jimmy and-"
Kid's fork clattered to the plate. "When does it end?" He looked around the room. "Another man looking to gun down 'Wild Bill' and puttin' us in the middle of it all."
Buck held his plate in his hand and turned around. "Jimmy didn't ask for this, Kid."
"Yeah, folks in town know that Jimmy rides with us, so we're gonna get in the way every now and then." Ike's expression told Cody exactly what he thought of the other man's outburst. "What?"
Tossing his napkin down on his plate, Kid got up. "He didn't ask for it, Cody… but neither did we. It's about time we started standin' up for ourselves and let folks know we're not gonna take it, not anymore."
Kid left the table and everyone except for Cody stopped eating to watch him walk over to Jimmy's bunk. He tossed back the cover.
Buck turned around on the bench seat. "Kid, I don't think you should be doin' that."
"Well, you ain't me and I don't really care what you think. I'm gonna take care of things like I should have a long time ago."
Louise clutched at her middle when she saw Kid lift out Jimmy's spare rig and his suit. "Jimmy ain't gonna like you touchin' his things, Kid."
Anger bled from Kid's eyes as he looked at the assembled group. "I don't much like his life 'touchin' our lives. We never asked for this," he spun around and stared down the room, "ain't none of us asked for this." He gave them a grin that didn't quite fit the intense look of his eyes. "It's just about time I take matters into my own hands."
Kid dropped the clothes on the nearest bunk and started to unbutton his shirt. "He wants Wild Bill, huh…"
Louise froze and looked at Buck. This was getting out of hand, fast. "Kid, whatever you're thinking, don't."
He gave her a glare that stopped her in his tracks. "Jimmy's not around to 'protect' us, now is he? " He included the rest of the room in his statement and when no one could answer him he gave a resolute nod. "No. Every minute that man is in our town, waiting… he's drinking.. he's getting' impatient… and it doesn't matter what you want to think. He's here for Jimmy and he's gonna stay and cause trouble until he gets what he came for."
Noah gave him a disapproving look. "You ain't thinkin' of-"
"Actually, Noah," Kid cut him off with more than just words, he had conviction in his look and his tone, "I am thinking. I can take care of things like I always have, like I always will. I don't need any of you to tell me what to do. That's not your job," he directed the look at room, but settled his gaze on Lou, "no matter how much you think it's not my business. I'll do what I need to do."
Kid tugged at the collar of Jimmy's shirt as he walked toward the Saloon. The starch in the shirt had been a good idea for a look, but it itched every time it slid along his neck. Concentrating on the sometimes uneven walk before him, Kid barely registered that he made his way past the hotel, his gaze reserved for the path ahead.
When his purposeful stride ate up the wide walk before the Dark Horse he didn't even pause to wonder what was going on behind the walls, or think to meet the curious stares that peered out at him.
The growing crowds following behind him hampered his friends from catching up as each had to move through the crowd avoiding elbows and curious craning necks.
Louise, still the smallest of the group, found herself free of the crowd just outside of the Saloon, her fear making her weak in the knees and stealing her breath. "Kid… wait…"
He waved her off. "Get back to the Station, Lou… I got business to do."
"Well so do I."
She grabbed at his arm but he shook her off his gaze cast aside toward the Saloon doorway. "If you can't be here to support me, Lou, I'd rather you head on back home." He looked down at his borrowed clothes and laughed. "Never thought I'd wear duds this fancy outside of Sunday church."
"Kid, please… I got somethin' to tell you and it can't wait."
"Tell me later, Lou." He grabbed the arm of a man headin' out of the Saloon. "There a man in there named Collins?" The man shrugged him off and stepped out into the late afternoon sunlight covering his eyes.
Louise stepped up behind him and set a hand on his shoulder. "You can't do this Kid, I-"
Kid grabbed the next man out the door. "You got a man named Collins in there?"
When the older man nodded Kid pointed back inside. "Go tell him Wild Bill Hickok's waitin' to teach him a lesson."
When the man stumbled back he was still looking over Kid's shoulder, but still carrying the rider's message. Louise swung Kid around to face here. "I'm tryin' to tell you, Kid… you can't do this," she held up a hand to still his arguments but it didn't work.
"You might not understand this, Lou, but I've got to do it. It's the same thing like when I went up against Lambert. He'll never do that again, Lou… he'll never hurt-"
"No he won't," she answered, everything in her screaming with reproach, she'd waited too long, "he won't hurt no one anymore… not since we killed him."
"We?" Kid paused for a moment and turned from the Saloon to look at her.
"We, Kid," she sighed and looked up at him from over her fake spectacles, "you took your shot and hit him in the arm, cause you were lookin' away at the others. You took your eyes off him," she knew his look well, "and I had to kill him 'fore he got you."
"Don't." The word was filled with more pain than anger. "You don't got to lie to me Lou… this ain't gonna do anything 'sides make me angry that you don't trust me to know what I can take on." He gave her a look when he heard her indrawn breath. "No, I don't trust you to know, Lou… if you think I'm wrong, then remember what Lambert did to you… what he could have done." He touched her face with a gentle brush of his fingertips. "You don't have to lie to save me."
"It ain't no lie, Kid."
The batwing doors to the Saloon blew open and John Collins filled the void. "Hickok?"
Kid straightened up and stared at the new arrival. "That's what I said."
Collins stepped out between the doors and let them swing shut behind him, his eyes steady on Kid. "You ain't as big as they said… but you'll be just as dead once I'm done."
Louise felt a shiver of cold shoot down her spine and she reached out a hand to touch Kid, but he stepped closer to the gunfighter. "Seems to me you've been doin' too much talkin', son. Let's get to it."
The gunfighter gave the fancy suited man a cautious look as he stepped down into the street. He was smart; he wasn't going to turn his back on the man he was challenging. "Let's just get this straight, Hickok. I'm the one callin' you out. This ain't gonna happen no other way."
Kid moved toward the stairs but Lou's hand on his shoulder stayed him for a moment. "I'm on your side, Kid… even when you're too bull headed to see it.
With a smile he stepped out into the street in his borrowed attire.
The boys spilled into a circle around her, staring after Kid.
"What's goin' on with Kid?"
Wiping at sudden tears she couldn't shed in front of Kid, Louise looked up into Buck's worried gaze. "He's going to… face him for Jimmy."
Cody's blistering words said enough for all of them.
Opening the buttons to his coat, the taller man slid the worn fabric back over the butts of his pistols and raised his voice so that everyone heard him speak. "I want all of you here… to know who it is takin' down Wild Bill Hickok…"
There was a little moment when the air in the open street seemed to lift and take their breath away. Those living in town for any bit of time looked at the scene before them and knew something with absolute certainty. The man standing opposite of the challenger wasn't Wild Bill.
Somewhere from the outskirts of the crowd came a nervous little laugh.
Once given voice, it spread through the crowd and curious onlookers were craning their necks to make sure they hadn't gotten it wrong.
Anger flushed through Collins' pale complexion and he nearly reached for his gun. "This ain't funny… just you wait… I'm gonna shoot him dead!"
The laughter continued and from the walk the riders knew what was happening.
"They think it's a joke."
Ike nodded at Buck's assessment and set his hand on Lou's shoulder to give her a comforting squeeze.
"This ain't right." Lou set her hand on Ike's and squeezed back. "They're only making him angry."
** * ***
Kid swallowed another lump down his throat. Tompkins stood on the walk outside his store smiling like it was the Founder's Day parade and he had a ringside seat for the festivities. Kid wanted to change his mind and side with the townsfolk lining the street. This wasn't right… it was time to call an end to it… take back the joke that everyone seemed to understand except the gunman and himself.
Noah's voice cut through the fog of his thoughts. "Don't do this Kid!"
He should've taken the moment. Called out that he wasn't Hickok… that he wasn't the gunfighter in the dime novels, but damn his silly moniker… it got him into it neck deep again.
John Collins turned a sneer to the stairs fronting the Saloon. "I ain't no boy… and this is gonna prove it!"
Kid held up his hands. "He ain't talkin' to you, Collins, I-"
"You think your friends are gonna distract me?"
"Is that how you're gonna do it, Hickok? You gonna cheat 'cause you can't beat me one on one?"
"That ain't it, I-"
"Then to hell with you!" Collins drew his pistol, fanning the back as he freed it from his holster as a shocked Kid reached for his own gun.
The silence was part of the mass confusion on the street. Mouths dropped as hearts leapt… or just stopped as both guns spat fire and then let loose clouds of smoke that seemed to envelop both men for a moment.
For Louise, it was almost as those each individual grain that made up the clouds fell independently to the dirt street and while she waited for them to fall, the body of John Collins fell into the void.
Her knees weak with relief she clutched onto the hands supporting her and gave them a smile that told them the weight that was lifted from her shoulders.
The Kid was on his feet, his back to his friends, his head angled down at the fallen man. He hadn't turned. Hadn't made any move to join them. Louise was ready to call out to him, turn him around to see how happy they all were… when Mrs. Armistead screamed.
Screamed as though she'd seen a ghost.
Swiveling on his heels, the Kid faced them… head down… looking at the steady fall of blood from his middle like beer from a leaky tap.
In a moment, the riders surrounded him, reaching out to lift him into their arms. Voices buzzed around them… calling for a doctor… calling for help… calling for some semblance of order. While in the middle of the storm, the riders could barely see through their tears.
"Did I get him?"
"Yeah, Kid… you got him… just hold on."
"Hold on…" his voice drifted away as he lost consciousness in their arms.
Teaspoon slipped from the saddle before his horse came to a stop outside the doctor's office. He counted heads as he moved to the door… counted heads and prayed. "Where is she? Where's Louise?"
Buck looked at him and unclenched his jaw long enough to answer. "She's inside with… the body."
The cemetery was full, folks nearly stepping on each other and mounds of dirt just to pay their respects, bleeding out around the fence just to say they'd been there.
Hickok, just returned that morning, stood behind Teaspoon, his arms wrapped tightly around his middle. The aging station master closed the Bible in his hands and looked out at the crowd. "There ain't nothin' that seems to make sense on days like this… even in the word of God I feel an emptiness that I can't seem to fill up. I think of all the good times with the Kid and just knowin' that we won't ever get another memory… it seems to take all the joy from this world. "
He looked up and addressed the crowd directly. "Thank you all for comin' to say good-bye… now, if you'll let us… uh…"
Noah turned to the assembly and nodded off toward the gate. "We'd appreciate a moment or two…"
Louise felt the solid wall of support that Buck offered and knew she couldn't find words to thank him, just as sure as she was that she didn't need to… they were still family, even if they'd just lost one of their number… they'd hold together.
They lowered the casket down into the hole, cringing as the box met the hard-packed dirt beneath it. Teaspoon tossed a coin to the gravedigger who stood by, ready to fill the hole. "Take care of him, Bob."
"I will Teaspoon… I'll treat him like one of my own."
There was a moment of understanding between the two caretakers before Teaspoon turned to leave. "He'll always be one of mine."