The old waystation was fairly bursting with people even though it was still three days before the wedding. Louise had been an automaton... running on empty, and the groom had been nearly frantic when Emma and Sam arrived with children in tow.

For her part, Rachel had been near to pullin' out her hair over the wedding. Louise moved through it all in stride - marshalling the troops, but had taken little joy in the preparations. Worry was the overall feeling at the station.

Now the three women were closeted in Emma's old bedroom. A pot of Emma's favorite tea sat on the table. Both Emma and Rachel had become fast friends and the two whispered plans over steaming cups and cookies. They both chanced side-long glances at Louise, their unspoken worries set aside for the day... this was a chance to lighten the mood.

The flustered bride-to-be paced furrows into the rug, dusting everything in sight. "Loulabelle - I don't think there's a single bit of dust left anywhere in this room. I don't think even I kept it this clean!"

"I just want everything perfect," It was the first thing she had said all day. "It needs to be perfect."

Emma smiled and confided to Rachel, "I remember what weddin' jitters were like... I don't envy her at all."

Rachel arched her brow pointedly at Emma, "Really?"

Emma winked, "It's what happens after the wedding that I was waitin' for."

Rachel poured another cup of tea for both of them, blushing as she did. She took pity on Louise, desperate to give her something to do. Her eyes lit on the box Emma had guarded the entire journey to Sweet Water, "Honey, why don't you show us the dress again?"

The change that came over Louise was miraculous. The stoic expression on her face melted away as she moved to the box resting on the bench near the brass bed. Emma wiped at a tear as she saw the care Louise took in mere act of removing the lid. Tissues were smoothed away and Louise's eyes shone as she ran her hands tenderly across the folds of fabric.

Her fingers slipped under the shoulders of the dress and delicately grasped it in her hands, lifting it from the box. The heavy folds of ivory moire shook free and she turned to the cheval mirror.

One hand held the bodice to her and the other touched the delicate embroidered roses on the trim. As her fingers danced across the beautiful flowers she could hear her friends seated behind her. "Oh Louise," breathed Rachel, "It's just gorgeous!"

Louise smiled as she imagined what it would be like to finally wear this dress and pledge herself to - "We both knew you'd end up with him." Emma laughed.

Rachel reached across the table and grasped Emma's hand. Both women shared a look of joy. The woman they considered to be a daughter... was about to take the biggest step in her life.

Their conversation faded as Louise's eyes slipped shut on the present. The journey to this moment had been a long one.. dreams and fears had played their part. Now, as she grasped her wedding gown to her body she recalled the many things that had led to this day. Memories, like tender kisses, brushed across the back of her neck... drawing her back to:

the flirting

As they had done too many times before her thoughts drifted back to the day they'd come back to Sweet Water Station after visiting her brother and sister in St. Jo. Jimmy's words still stuck in her mind:

"...they way you and the Kid have been lookin' at each other... I even caught myself lookin' at you like that a couple of times... ....you're the best lookin' boy I ever seen."

Lou stopped behind the stable, a hand covering her mouth to stifle a giggle. Since the boys found out about her secret, she'd been able to be herself more, even flirt a bit. Now, this didn't sit too well with Kid... up until that day... he'd had her all to himself because of the secret. She found that when Kid was around, she could barely do a thing without him by her side. She began to look forward to the times he had to ride out overnight.

Today was just such a day, this mornin' Kid had left before daylight to deliver a package for Teaspoon. Lou woke up that morning with a huge grin on her face as she stretched under the covers. She turned her head and almost laughed when she saw Jimmy was awake and watchin' her. Her cheeks colored and she whispered, "Jimmy!"

"What's wrong Lou?"

"How long have you been starin' at me?"

"Awhile... you're right pretty when you sleep."

She turned over on her stomach and smiled into her pillow. A moment later when she looked back, he was still watchin' her. A smug smile settled on her lips, "Just when I sleep?"

His smile answered hers as he leaned toward her, "No, but it's the only time I get to look at you when the others ain't gettin' in the way."

Cody kicked the underside of Jimmy's bunk, "Are the two of you done 'moonin' at each other? 'Cause I can still get another few minutes of sleep before chores if you both shut up!"

Lou laughed as Jimmy slid out of his bunk to get dressed. She rolled over and covered her head with her blanket. She had a lot to think about.




Now, as she stood behind the stable replaying the morning in her mind, she couldn't help but smile... she'd been thinkin' about Jimmy all day, sneakin' glances at him durin' chores.

She realized she'd better head in and get some rest... she had a ride in the afternoon and she'd been workin' hard this mornin'. Well, when Jimmy wasn't on her mind.

Lost in thought Louise made her way to the bunkhouse... she heard the water running from the water tower, but it never occured for her to look up.

"Hey Lou? Where you goin'?"

"I'm headin' in for some rest before I-" She looked up as Jimmy ran his hands through his hair.. rinsin' out the soap. Her eyes glued on him, she missed the step up to the porch. Her ankle bent under as she grabbed for the post.

Lou turned away from Jimmy as her cheeks colored again... 'How stupid can I be!' She hobbled into the bunkhouse wishing she could disappear instead. She pulled out two chairs at the table, nearly fallin' into one. She propped up her ankle and was relieved to see that it wasn't swelling. 'That's somethin' at least. I acted like such a...'

The door opened and Jimmy walked in. He was dryin' his hair with a towel... his shirt tied around his waist and the top button of his pants still undone. Lou kept her head down tryin' not to look at him. "What's the matter Lou?"

"Nothin'-"

"Nothing? You just disappeared... I was worried." He tossed his towel onto his bunk and looked down at her.

Lou continued to stare at her ankle and poke at the tender skin. He walked closer and Lou cringed, too close... he was way too close for her comfort, "I tripped... hurt my ankle."

"Why don't you sit on Cody's bunk and I'll take a look at it."

Lou scooted back on Cody's bunk, keepin' her eyes on the floor. She could hear the scraping on the floor as Jimmy pulled a chair over.

Jimmy laughed, "Well - put your foot up here."

She hesitated and Jimmy picked her leg up and set her ankle on the chair between his legs. As he took her foot in his hands Louise grabbed onto the sheets next to her body. Jimmy looked up as her nervous laughter caught his attention. "Leave it to you to be ticklish Lou."

Lou wanted to tell him it had nothing to do with being ticklish.

Any lingering pain she felt disappeared as his thumb touched the in-step of her foot. Slowly his right hand moved over her ankle, moving across each inch of skin in careful examination. Louise looked over at the wall, afraid to watch what he was doin'. Turnin' her leg a bit to the side, his fingertips danced along the length of her foot, gentle pressure sending waves of relief and sensation through her. Her shoulders sagged and she leaned back against the pillow.

He watched her face carefully. Each time he touched a different part of her ankle or foot her expression would change. Now, as he trailed his fingers down the tops of her toes she almost laughed.

"What's so funny Lou?" a half smile of his own flared in reaction to her.

"Mmm..." Lou's lips parted slightly as his thumb rubbed against the arch of her foot, "It feeeeels so good."

His breathing changed at the sound of her voice, warm and languid in tone and feeling. It flowed over him, drawing him into her world. "You like that, huh?"

Lou's eyes slid shut and she nodded. His left hand never left her foot, instead carryin' on the blissful torture he had begun. His right hand pulled the cuff of her pant leg up to her knee and then moved back to her ankle.

Two fingers circled her ankle with room to spare and continued to slide along her calf, her soft skin driving him to distraction. He felt her muscles tense under his touch as his fingers rubbed across the back of her leg. Jimmy leaned forward, watchin' her face, seein' pleasure fall across her sweet features.

He was playin' a dangerous game - they both knew it - but neither cared. Jimmy leaned closer and felt her toes brush against his stomach. For a moment he was lost in the intimate touch.

Her eyes flew open and stared into his, "What are we doin' Jimmy?"

His infectious grin caught her up in its magic, "Doin'? Nothin'..... yet." Eyes, darker in the dim light of the bunkhouse, held a promise that made her breath stop in her throat. His right hand cupped the back of her knee and he moved closer, leaning over her legs.

"Hey y'all!" Cody stopped dead in his tracks as the two riders froze in their places. "Whoo wee! What do we have here?" Lou pulled her foot out of Jimmy's hand and sat up on the bunk, bumping her head on one of the posts. Cody stared at one and then the other, "Hot damn Hickok - looks like I interrupted you two-"

"It ain't none of your business Cody, drop it." Jimmy looked over at Lou - she looked like a cornered rabbit, tryin' to squeeze through the wall behind her. He wanted nothing more than to shield her from the embarassment he knew was heavy on her mind.

Cody pulled a chair around and straddled it, resting his elbows on the back. "I'm only havin' a bit of fun, looks like Lou was havin' fun too-" He continued to chuckle as Lou scooted off the bunk and padded ouside in her bare feet.

Grabbin' Cody by his shirt collar Jimmy hauled him up to face him. "Can't you take a hint!? I said drop it!"

Immediately contrite, Cody tried to save himself a world of hurt, "Sorry Hickok, no harm intended... it's just that you and Louise-" Silenced by a look, Cody shrugged his shoulders.

Jimmy dropped him back into the chair and started out after Louise.

the kissing

Days and days had gone by and Jimmy didn't know what to do:

Grab her and kiss her

Corner her and kiss her

Hell- he was ready to throw her over his shoulder and take her miles away from all the distractions and then REALLY kiss her...

He tried not to smile at the thought of how angry she'd be - or would she?

All the options sounded good, but one thing was certain, he was tired of this cat and mouse game they'd been playin'. Lou avoided bein' in the same room with him. Even at meals, she was sure to take her place before he did. She'd sandwich herself, usually between Buck and Ike, and avoid his attempts at conversation.

There was only one person who seemed to enjoy the tension and Jimmy was determined to leave that person alone.

Emma called to him from the porch, "Jimmy, your breakfast is gettin' cold!" He looked at the bunkhouse with a half scowl on his face. Emma settled one hand on her hip and thumbed at the door, "I mean now Jimmy."

Jimmy picked up his step and was crossin' the threshold when Lou brushed past him on her way out. Quickly he put out a hand to stop her. She jumped back like she'd been burned.

"Lou," he chided, "we can't keep goin' like this."

Lou's gaze flickered to Emma, who made a great show of not watchin' the two. "Not now-"

"Then when?"

"Don't push me Jimmy-"

"How can I? You won't even let me close enough... close enough to talk to you."

Lou looked down at her hands, "It's safer that way-"

Emma provided the relief she was lookin'for. "Rider Comin'!"

"That's my ride."

"Then when?"

She stopped at the edge of the porch and forced herself to turn around. The words all came out in a rush, "We'll talk when I get back." Her peace said, she turned and disappeared onto the trail.

Jimmy walked into the bunkhouse, avoidin' Emma's sympathetic gaze.




Mid-day, while the others were about their chores, Buck told Jimmy that Emma wanted him in the house. Jimmy knocked on Emma's door with an apprehensive rap. "Come in!" He thought she sounded all to happy for his likin'.

He swung the door open and pulled his hat off his head with his free hand. "Emma?"

She set a pot of tea on the table and swept back stray whisps of hair from her face, "Want some tea?"

Jimmy turned up his nose, "No thanks-" he paused and stared at the wall behind her for a minute, "Emma -" his mouth hung open as his thoughts tumbled over each other, all tryin' in vain to be the first one out.

Emma patiently set two cups on the table, "Maybe you better sit down and have a cup... we may be awhile."

Jimmy pulled out his chair and flopped into it, he set his hat on the edge of the table next to him. "You see.... it all started when Lou went to see her brother and sister in St. Jo-"




Louise rode back into the station as the day was slippin' away into candlelightin'. This usually was her most favorite time of day, when the light and day melted into each other and Emma brought out her candles and set about lightin' the lanterns that hung around the station.

Warm candlelight had always been a thing of comfort for Louise, but tonight, the lanterns lay dark and there was not a single person to be seen. Louise dismounted and sent Lightin' into the stable as she quietly moved up to the bunkhouse, peakin' in the windows. Nothing amiss just strangely empty. Lou began to think back to the morning meal the boys had been eagerly discussin' something-

"They're all at the dance, if that's what you're wonderin'."

Louise didn't jump at the intrusion, her feet seemed to be rooted to the spot. She felt him walk up behind her like an approachin' storm, strong and wrought with pent up power. She'd be lyin' if she said it didn't thrill her... even the least little bit.

Jimmy was so worried about how she'd act that he watched her every move. He saw the tension creep into her shoulders and knew that she was afraid. He hated that and tried to take it as easy as he could, but if he waited much longer he'd go insane.

She turned slowly, settin' her hand on the sill of the window to steady her movements, "Where did you come from?"

He shrugged his shoulders a bit, "The stables, I was cleanin' up when Lightnin' came in." Louise looked to the stables, she thought that puttin' Lightnin' up would be the best excuse to get out of their talk. "If you're wonderin', I've already brushed her down and set her up for the evening."

If it wasn't for the stricken look on her face, he would've laughed.

"Well, " she took a step away from him, "I better start fixin' myself some dinner-"

"It's on the table."

Louise stopped, her head resting against the door, her hand on the knob... and her heart in her throat.

"You said tonight Lou-"

"I know what I said..." She looked up at him through a veil of hopes, "but I'm real tired-"

He reached out and took her hand from the wall and tucked it into his own hand. She looked down at their hands, pressed together and wondered if there would ever be a time that he would touch her and she wouldn't feel that instantaneous current shoot through her. "Lou, I need to tell you somethin'."

She was trapped by her own feelings, "Tell me what?"

He thought back to the aftermoon tea with Emma and tried to remember what he was supposed to say, "I ain't real good with words Lou, but I gotta tell you how I feel before I lose my nerve." Jimmy watched her face, but there was no reaction. He took his chances and continued, "It ain't right, avoidin' each other like this."

She stood there watchin' him, completely silent.

"You gonna say somethin'?"

"I'm waitin', you said you wanted to tell me somethin-"

"Fine." Jimmy turned around and grabbed the rail, "This ain't comin' out like I practiced-"

Lou almost giggled, "You practiced!"

His fist hit the rail, "Don't make fun Lou."

"I'm not makin' fun of you... it's kinda sweet."

"Sweet?"

"I like it."

"Like?"

"What's wrong Jimmy, what do you want?"

He whirled to face her, "I want you to -" He stared at her, "I want to know if you -"

"Jimmy?"

"Stop interrupting Lou."

She stared at him open mouthed and angry. "Wha-"

"I want you to like this-" Jimmy took her by the shoulders and hauled her up against him. His lips pressed against her with a driving need, only to be softened by the urge to draw her into the moment. Her lips seemed to blend into his, her mind following her heart into the embrace.

Her hands grabbed onto his shirt front, twisting in the fabric. Jimmy pulled back a moment, his breath quaking as he watched her face. Her lids, heavy with wonder, lay closed on her cheeks. Her lips, still parted, were glossy and slightly swollen. Without the pressure of his lips, her body swayed forward a bit.

"Lou?"

Her lids slowly lifted and she tried to steady herself, her hands still gripping his shirt front. "Yeah?"

"Did you like it?"

"Like it?

"That's what I said." There was a smile in his voice.

There was a bigger one on her face.

Lou reached up and linked her fingers behind his head, "What do you think." That was the last thing either of them said for the next hour.

the bickering

Lou and Jimmy were goin' to meet up in Blue Creek, not quite by accident. Lou knew the schedules better than anyone else, she'd been helpin' Teaspoon with the assignments and keepin' track for just a chance like this one. He'd asked for a volunteer to take an extra run and Lou jumped at it. If she rode like the devil himself were on her tail, she'd be in Blue Creek by nightfall and just in time to share dinner with Jimmy.

Rachel had to keep from tittering behind her hand as Louise threw together her saddle bags. "Louise?"

Lou jumped as Rachel's voice touched her mind. "Oh Rachel, I'm sorry, but I don't have time to talk. You see - "

"If you hurry you'll make dinner in Blue Creek."

Louise smiled and started to tie her bags closed, "Am I that obvious?"

"To me? Yes. To the boys... nothing would get through to their thick skulls." Lou looked like a scared deer. "Lou? Is there somethin' special about tonight?"

Louise gasped in a breath, "Well... you know Jimmy and I have been - gettin' closer lately."

"Yeah," Rachel led her along.

"Well, I've been wantin' to... get 'closer.'"

"Really? What about Jimmy?"

"I think he does too."

Rachel thought back over the last months and smiled. She doubted a rampaging tribe of Indians could keep Jimmy away if he knew what Louise had in mind for this evening. She left the bunkhouse and ran up to her room. She pulled a soft white gown out of a chest near the bed.

She returned to the bunkhouse smilin' like the cheshire cat himself. She set her hand on Louise's shoulder and waited a moment as Louise jumped from the touch. The two friends smiled at each other, "You've been planning this for awhile?"

Nodding, Louise rested her hands on the leather saddle bags and then pulled them back when she saw her fingers shakin'. She looked up and smiled at her friend, "does it show?" Rachel shook her head and handed her the gown. She watched as the young woman held it out to get a look and when she recognized what it was, she colored like a deeply blooded rose and hugged it to her chest, "Oh Rachel, I've never seen anything like it. I've never felt anything-" She held it out, as if she was giving it back, "I couldn't..."

"Nonsense," she slipped her arm around Lou and hugged her tight, "Don't worry..."

"What if.... what if I don't know what to do?"

Rachel resisted the urge to laugh at her young friend. "Don't worry so much Louise-"

"What if I don't...." Louise looked down, then quickly away, "measure up?"

"It won't matter to Jimmy." Louise looked less than convinced, "Besides," she set the gown back in Louise's arms, "things have a way of workin' themselves out."




Hours later, Louise rode into Blue Creek. She put her horse up and the livery, payin' the man there to brush Lightning down and feed her. Lou hefted her saddle bags and hustled down the street, her chin tucked to her chest.

She was so intent on runnin' over her plans in her mind, Louise almost missed the bath house. She bathed and changed in record time, and if someone noticed that a 'boy' went in and a 'girl' came out, no one said a thing.




The restaurant was crowded, but it only took a moment to find who she was lookin' for. She took a deep breath and made her way to the table stoppin' just inside his vision, and set a hand on the back of the empty chair next to him. "Savin' this chair for someone?"

He looked up, a smile lightin' on his features, "Lou!"

"Teaspoon had an extra run... you mind?"

He shook his head and set his napkin down on the table beside his plate. Standing, he looked down at her, "You look real pretty."

She looked down at her dress so he wouldn't notice the blush stealin' across her cheeks. "Thanks Jimmy."

He moved around her and pulled out her chair, "You hungry?"

Louise nodded her head and sat down in the chair he offered, secretly thrilled he'd made such a gesture. Jimmy made his way back to his chair and waved the waiter over. The older gentleman nodded and set a menu down in front of her.

As she poured over the menu, Jimmy whispered into the man's ear and he disappeared as quickly as he had appeared.

The words on the menu seemed to blur before her eyes and the butterflies in her stomach kept her from makin' a decision on the food. It wasn't until the waiter set the wine glass in front of her that she look up and meet Jimmy's eyes.

The candles warmed the light surrounding them and Louise heard the pop of the cork as a heady scent filled the air. "Wine?"

Jimmy smiled a bit more, "Yeah... you mind?"

Louise's shoulders lifted and her head tilted to the side as she watched the golden colored liquid fill the glass before her. Her hand reached out and grasped the cool glass, bringing it to her lips. She watched Jimmy over the lip of the glass, he seemed totally at ease.

'Hah!' she thought, 'He wouldn't be so calm if he knew - if he knew -' she shook her head, 'Who am I fooling?' She didn't know if she would be able to act on her plan tonight, there was too much at stake. 'If only I knew what he was thinkin'.'

'If only I knew what she was thinkin'.' Jimmy watched her when her attention was focused elsewhere. He didn't think he'd ever seen her look so beautiful. The rose colored dress made her tanned skin glow with the flush of health and the sweet blush on her cheeks made his heart beat a bit faster. He wondered if she had any idea of the effect she was havin' on him.

Louise fingered the edge of her napkin and waited for the waiter to come back and take her order, the time seemed to drag and Louise wondered if Jimmy had any idea of how nervous she was.

"So Lou - where are you stayin' tonight... the Waystation?"

She shook her head, "No, I haven't thought that far ahead." 'Liar' she thought.

Jimmy smiled like he had a secret up his sleeve, "You could stay with me-"

Louise's heart froze against her chest, "You wouldn't mind?"

He leaned forward and set a hand on hers. "It ain't no bother, but you do realize that - "

"Mr. Hickok?" The waiter was bowin' beside their table.

"Yeah?" The interruption was NOT welcome.

"Sir, a gentleman left this for you at the front."

Jimmy took the envelope from the waiter and opened it up. A playin' card, the center pip shot out, fell into his open palm. He swallowed hard and put the contents into the envelope again and slipped it into his coat pocket.

He stood and took some coins from his pocket, droppin' them on the table along with his key. "You take my room when you're done with dinner, I need to go meet someone."

Louise stood and grabbed onto his arm, "Jimmy wait." He looked down at her, his carefully schooled mask stretched over his face. "Where are you goin'?"

"To meet an old friend, and I ain't takin' you-"

"You ain't takin' me with you!" She mimicked. "I thought we were a family-"

"Family protects family-"

"So let me come with you."

"This ain't a mail run, and you have a dinner to finish." He kissed her on the cheek, hopin' beyond hope that she would be satisfied with that explaination.

Louise took in a breath and prepared to let Jimmy have it. He took his chance. Pulling her by the shoulders into his arms, he kissed her hard right in the middle of the restaurant.

A kiss Louise could only describe as mind numbing stilled her protests. She stood there in shock as he left the dining room. Moments later when she recovered her thoughts she noticed the other patrons starin' at her. What they thought she didn't care... but there was something she needed to do.

She called for her bags and scooped Jimmy's key off the table. Louise read the numbers off the side, #205. The confused waiter stood by and handed her the two saddlebags and she made her way up the stairs to the room.




Jimmy stood out in the street at the far end of town. He opened the envelope and let the card fall out into his hand again. A three of diamonds, or rather it WAS a three of diamonds. The middle pip had been shoot out, leaving two red eyes starin' back at him.

"I was wonderin' if you'd remember me."

"Don't flatter yourself, I just didn't want you botherin' my lady friend."

"I noticed... believe me I noticed. A pretty little thing isn't she, but I don't think she'd last more than a day around someone in our line of work."

"Line of work? I ride for the express."

A derisive laugh cut the air between them, "The Express? Who'd believe that load of -"

"Tell me what you want and let's get this over, I need my sleep."

He tipped his hat and pulled the right side of his coat back and revealed his gun. Like Jimmy's it was a pearl handled Colt. "Well Wild Bill, are you ready to meet your match?"

"Sure, where can I find him?"

Another laugh, "Very funny Mr. Hickok, you're starin' at him. Deuce Malloy Esq., at your service."

"Cut the fancy talk, the night ain't gettin' any younger."

Malloy pulled his shiny pocket watch out of his coat pocket and opened it to his gaze, "You are correct Mr. Hickok... and if we take care of this matter in a timely fashion, I believe I'll be able to share a table with your lovely friend... perhaps even a room later on."

Jimmy felt anger bubblin' up inside of him. It took everything he had to resist the urge to rip out Malloy's throat and serve it to him for dinner. Rememberin' the words Teaspoon's been spoutin' to him these last few months, Jimmy fought for control of his temper. "You ain't goin' anywhere near her!"

Malloy chuckled, "Hit a nerve did I Hickok? How delightful..."




A small crowd had gathered and Jimmy pulled his own coat back on both sides, hands ready to draw, "I told you before, you ain't goin' anywhere near her."

Jimmy attention was solely on Malloy, standin' in the dim and flickerin' lamp light of the side street.

Malloy was enjoying the torture he was puttin' the young man through. Serves him right, a young upstart like him tryin' to make a name for himself." Mallory'd heard the stories and this young man always seemed to have an unfair advantage - he was ready to level the playin' field.

Two hired guns were in hidin' - one in the crowd, the second on the balcony of the Traildust Saloon.

He could see how close he was to the boy's boilin' point, "She may be fascinated by your reputation, but what she needs is a man of substance - like me for instance. I could teach her things-"

Jimmy drew, his anger gettin' the better of him. Five shots split the air and then a sixth called an end to the confrontation. He'd fired one and so had Malloy. A puff of dust settlin' near his feet announced the existance of other guns.

Malloy lay face down in the dirt as the crowd rushed to clear the street. Another body lyin' prone in the dust was the second gunman, a third slumped over the rail of the balcony. "You okay Jimmy?"

He cringed like he'd been shot in the stomach and turned to face the voice. Lou, dressed as a man in pants and shirt, moved in out of the shadows.

The urge to shake her real hard seemed like an overwhelming need, "Tell me I don't see you-" no answer... he repeated the order, "TELL ME I DON'T SEE YOU!"

Louise set her gun in it's holster, statin' the facts. "Family protects family."

"I told you not to come." Warring emotions tumbled over each other makin' him crazy with relief. "What did you think you were doin'?" His pulse throbbed in his neck, cuttin' off his air.

Lou faced him with a stoic gaze - but her jaw told the real story - juttin' out in defiance. "Savin' you."

Panic made him stupid, "I never asked you to."

Her gaze faltered, lids brushing over eye, glassy with hurt, "You didn't have to Jimmy, I ---- CARE---- for you." She was takin' an awful risk tellin' him that much.

He heaved a sigh and looked around, curious eyes peered out at them. Jimmy grabbed her arm and moved her down the street. Two buildings down she shook off his hand- "What do you think you're doin'?"

"Findin' somplace quiet to talk."

"To talk? That's a joke - you don't wanna talk and I'm not takin' orders from you or anybody!"

Jimmy watched her temper flare and felt like a helpless moth flyin' too close to a flame. Less than an hour ago, he was entertainin' thoughts of a night alone with her and now he doubted she'd want to be anywhere near him, 'I don't blame her,' he thought. 'Bein' near me could get someone killed.'

Hell - three men had tried to gun him down in the middle of a crowded street. Who knows how many people could have been killed. Had he not left the restaurant alone... well, he didn't want to think about it.

A touch on his cheek brought him out of his thoughts. Louise stared into his face, the back of her hand lightly brushin' against his skin. He felt a shattering urge to take her back to the room and hide in the circle of her embrace.

"Jimmy?" The sound of her softly accented voice threw him back into reality.

"I can't let you - I can't make you a target just because -"

"Just because what?"

"----because I love you!"

Lou's anger splintered in that moment, "Jimmy-"

She moved forward to touch him, and he stepped back - drivin' a wedge between them with his words, "It don't matter Lou-"

"How? How can you say it doesn't matter? I feel the sa-"

He placed a chaste kiss on her lips, sealin' off her words, "Don't say it."

"Jimmy - I -"

"Don't you understand Lou, I can't be worryin' about you all the time. Thinkin' that I've put you in danger because of who I am."

"Why don't you let me make that decision on my own."

"No, you're thinkin' with your heart and that puts you in danger... with me."

Lou felt it all slippin' away, "Don't say it... don't."

"It ain't gonna work with us Lou."

She walked up until not even an inch was left between them. "It ain't gonna work 'cause you won't let it. I'm not a child Jimmy, and when you can accept that, then we can talk."

Leaning up against him she touched her lips against him, capturing his heart again. She felt sobs buildin' within her and knew it was time to leave, "I love you Jimmy, don't take it lightly. I mean it - with all my heart."

His eyes closed on his own tears, her words ringin' in his ears, "I love you Jimmy-" Time passed and Jimmy reached out to touch her and found himself grasping air. Troubled eyes flew open and moved around the street, searchin' for her, but she was gone.

the makin' (up)

It had been nearly a month since their argument, and Louise was about to lose her mind. Rachel had spent the last few days hummin' carols and Louise couldn't stand another minute. She'd tried again and again to corner Jimmy and set things right between them, but it seemed that Russell, Majors & Waddell had other ideas. They seemed to think that the mail needed to be delivered during the holidays.

Christmas mornin' dawned and Lou was up before the sun. A thin layer of snow had fallen during the night but the only thing that mattered was Jimmy's bunk layin' empty. He'd gone on a run a few days earlier and should have returned the night before. It had been quite a scene that night... Rachel had made one of her prize turkeys and Lou smiled, even now, as she thought of the plate still waiting for him in Rachel's kitchen. It hadn't been easy savin' it, a poker game with Cody did the trick... the prize, one of the juicy drumsticks off the turkey. Cody had moaned his way to sleep the night before... well - at least until the other riders threatened to tie him up outside for the rest of the night.

Lou sat there staring at his empty bunk for the better part of the pre-dawn hours, and as the others woke up she felt completely separated from their fun. The boys all shrugged their clothes on and headed for the house, jostling each other like children as they filed out of the door. Louise slid off the bunk and dropped her clothes in a pile. She quickly stepped onto her longjohns to warm her feet. Lifting up the mattress of her bunk she slid out her dress.

It was a hand-me down Christmas present from Rachel and had required vast alterations due to Louise's lack of bust. She held the soft cotton to her cheek and rubbed it over her skin. There was little joy in her heart as she slid the dress down her arms and over her body, there was no one she wanted to wear it for more than Jimmy.

Rachel had lamented over her present, wanteding to make Louise a new dress but times had been tough in Sweetwater and the riders had given most of their Christmas money to those families in town that had children. Gifts between their own family were heartfelt if not store bought. Louise slipped her hand under her mattress again and withdrew the little paper wrapped book.

She slid her hands across the paper and wondered if he'd like it. She'd bought this book right after he'd started learnin' to read - hoping to read it with him someday. It just never seemed like the right time. Now it was all she had to give him. That and her love. She hoped it was enough to save what they had found in each other.

She entered the house with the book behind her back and set it on the mantle next to all the stockings. Her first real smile of the morning came as she watched Cody take his stocking down. It couldn't have been his... the size was unbelieveable and looked like it was made for an elephant.

The boys reached into their stockings and pulled out their presents from each other. They all laughed and thanked each other. Rachel set a cup of mulled cider into her hands and sat down beside her to watch the boys. "Louise?"

"Mmmhmm?"

"Missin' him?"

"Mmmhmm."

Rachel raised her own cup to her lips to cover her smile, "You gonna open your presents?"

"Hmm?"

Louise sat up and looked at Rachel, "I'm sorry Rachel... I just can't seem to get into the mood."

"Well.. that's a surprise!"

Louise felt her cheeks burn and took a sip of her cider. Ike came over and kissed her on the cheek. She smiled back as he held up her present, the only thing she'd bought.. the newest copy of The Littlest Cowboy Rides Again. She'd saved a dime for that particular present and was glad he liked it.

Footfalls reached their ears and Louise flew to her feet, almost spillin' her cider on her hands. "Merry Christmas Boys... aaaaaaannnnnnddddd ladies!"

Teaspoon tipped his hat and snowflakes fell on the carpet. "Teaspoon!" Rachel chided

He bent over and kissed her cheek with great reverence

"It'll melt dear lady.. it'll melt away.. like all of your cares this Christmas Day." He reached into the sack he had placed on the floor and withdrew a delicate bottle. "For you dear lady."

Rachel inspected it and gasped, "Lemon Verbena! Teaspoon where did you get the money for this?"

Teaspoon eyed the room, "Well, I can't say that I can take all the credit for it. Thompkins was feelin' a bit sweet on us, 'cause of our charity and all. He had me pick out something for each of you." He continued around the room as Louise stared into her cup.

"Dang it, will ya look'it -" Cody peered across the room at the window.

The others stopped for a moment to look outside. The winter let loose with a new gale. Snow had begun to fall again.

Louise stood and moved to the window, she though she heard a noise outside. A tiny trinket box appeared in front of her face. "What?" was all she could manage.

"For you, Miss Louise." Teaspoon accentuated his presentation with an outrageous wink. Louise couldn't help but smile. She set her cup down on a near by table. Opening the lid she nearly fell over.

Nestled inside the box were a pair of delicate crystal earrings. "Oh my... Teaspoon! How did you ever get these past Thompkins? I don't think these are what he had in mind!"

"Well... they ain't from him!" The riders moved closer to her as she lifted the earrings out of the box and watched the light dance inside the multitude of facets. "They're from all of us." Louise looked up in shock, "Well we figure that you don't get enough chances to get all gussied up and act like a woman. Mayhaps those would make up for it."

The other riders walked up and stood around Louise as she gave them each a kiss on the cheek. She said a quick word of thank you to each, tears shinin' in her eyes. "It's the best present I've ever had! Thank you all!"

Rachel appeared in the door way of the kitchen, "Louise? I think I can top that one..."

Louise shook her head and kissed Teaspoon on the cheek again, "There couldn't be anything to top this!"

They all stopped as giggles could be heard behind the couch. Rachel let an elfin smile touch her features. "Ooooooh? I think I can."

Giggles continued behind the wall of riders before her. Louise could feel her heart slam against her chest. "It couldn't be." One foot in front of the other somehow got her around the couch. "Oh God! It is.. it is... it is!" She fell to her knees beside the couch, astonishment written across her face.

Two pint sized children launched themselves at her. Both excitedly chattering on about how glad they were to see her. Louise was cryin' and laughin' all at the same time. "I don't understand? How did you two get here? It's nothing short of a miracle."

Theresa pulled back and laughed as she kissed her sister's nose. "We rode here... in a wagon!"

Louise laughed with her, "Of course silly! I just don't understand-"

The door opened and Jimmy filled the doorway. Chilled gusts of wind followed him in. Snowflakes, fine and lacy swirled and sparkled in the heat of the room. He couldn't take his eyes off of her as he shrugged out of his coat and set his hat on a peg just inside the door.

Rachel took one child in each hand, "Now why don't we see if the gingerbread cookies are ready? Okay?"

"Gingerbread?!" The two sounded like they'd hit the motherlode. They eagerly dragged Rachel into the kitchen.

The riders stayed behind watching the looks that bounced back and forth between the two. Teaspoon, himself caught up in the moment, finally regained his senses. "Boys.. I believe we have cookies to taste in the kitchen."

Cody tried to wave off the hands of his friends. Buck grabbed him by the arm, "Cody? There are c-o-o-k-i-e-s in the k-i-t-c-h-e-n!" Cody's hunger instinct won out over his curiosity and he followed behind the others like a lap dog.

One by one they filed past Jimmy. With quick words and gestures he returned their greetings, but his eyes never left her. Finally they were alone. Jimmy still stood just inside the door. His eyes drinkin' in the sight of her like hot cocoa on the coldest night of the year. "Good to see you Lou."

"I'm glad you're home... I was worried."

"Worried?" Her heart twisted as he shared one of his little half smiles with her. "I wasn't gone that long. You sure there isn't something else botherin' you?"

Lou took a step closer, needin' to be near him. "What do you mean?"

"Well, we've hardly said one word to each other since - well since Blue Creek."

She suddenly couldn't meet his eyes, "I'm sorry... I just wasn't sure what to say." She took in a shuddering breath, her mind warring with her words. It was all comin' out wrong. "I never had a man mean this much to me."

He didn't touch her, but just the feel of him inches away was enough to take her breath. As he spoke she felt his voice rumble through her body, "And I never let a woman into my heart before."

Hope filled eyes flickered up, meeting his gaze for a moment. "I thought you were worried---"

"About trouble?"

"That's what you said."

"I know.... it wasn't right what I said to you. Didn't give you a chance to make up your mind for yourself, but it was the first time I let myself realize how much you meant to me. It ain't easy to love someone and think they've got a good chance of gettin' hurt or killed because of you."

He lowered his chin to his chest, the knot around his heart growin' tighter, "I can't say that I'll just sit back, I'll be right there by your side - so you better get used to it."

Louise smiled at his apologetic tone, "I ain't asking you to back off, I'd rather have you beside me." She waited for him to look up into her face, "That's where my man is supposed to be."

She felt a weight lift from her own heart. Quietly she moved a half step away and lifted her hand. She watched as her own hand settled against his chest, her palm right over his heart and through the thick fabric, she could feel the strong steady beat of his heart beneath her hand, echoing through her fingers..

He leaned his head closer, "So now what are you thinkin' about?"

"Hmm?" She roused from her own dreams, "Nothing much... you?"

A gentle laugh pulsed under her hand, "I'm thinkin' we're doin' all this talkin'... and we're standin' under the mistletoe."

Louise looked up at the green leaves and translucent white berries and laughed. Jimmy captured her lips with his and her heart danced in her chest. She leaned into his embrace as relief was quickly replaced with gentle passion. His arms wrapped around her, needing her warmth... her love. When they finally separated for a moment, Lou leaned against his shoulder tryin' to steady her legs. Leanin' down, his lips grazed the tip of her ear, "Darlin'?"

"Mmm... hmm?" She sighed in lazy bliss.

"Does this mean we've made up?"

Louise smiled and slid her hands through his hair. "I think s-"

"Louise! Louise!" They were attacked by two deliriously happy children. Each carryin' the remains of a gingerbread man between their fingers.

"Up Jimmy Up!" Louise looked down at her sister whose enamored expression shone across her face. Jimmy lifted Teresa up to his hip like a sack of potatoes and she giggled in response, clinging to him with sticky fingers trailin' across his shirt.

The other riders came back into the room. A few unguarded looks passed over the two, tryin' to figure out what had happened.

Cody's face was sour and Ike punched him lightly on the shoulder. The silent rider laughed as he recalled the picture of Cody, a drinkin' glass held up between his ear and the door, tryin' as hard as he could to listen in on the conversation.

Buck helped Rachel pour out another round of mulled cider and the conversation quickly settled into a dull murmur as the riders compared their gifts, each happy with the way the day had turned out.

From the area near the door, Louise stood beside Jimmy, watching as he captivated her little sister with some quiet secret. The two stared into each other's eyes as if they were life long friends and in that moment Louise marvelled at how gentle he could be.

Jeremiah sat on the floor with Cody and Ike, dealin' them a game of poker with an expert hand. Rachel reached down and took the cards out of the boy's hand and set another cookie into his fingers. The other riders passed the time with happy conversation until Teaspoon settled the two children on his lap to tell them the story of the birth of the Christ child.

Somehow the Wisemen rode Morgans and Mustangs, and the manger was more like a trough filled with hay. Once the angels made their appearance, with wings sparklin' like gunmetal, Louise had to work not to double over in laughter. Jeremiah and Teresa stared up at him in rapt attention, soakin' in every word of the story. When he finished, Noah leaned forward from where he sat against the wall. Into the still air of this wonderful evening, came the sweet tenor strains of 'O Holy Night'.

Louise looked over at her sibs, Teresa was completely asleep on Teaspoons shoulder and Jeremiah looked like he'd follow in a few minutes. True to his habits, Teaspoon was nearly asleep himself. She looked around the room, takin' in the sight of her family... all in one place. Louise felt Jimmy's hand wrap around hers, his fingers slidin' against her skin, sharin' his warmth. Gently, she squeezed his hand and looked up at his face glowin' warm in the lamplight. Nearly overcome by the moment Louise whispered to him, "Merry Christmas Jimmy."

His other arm snaked around her waist an pulled her to his side. Bendin' closer to her he whispered, "Merry Christmas Lou."

the asking

Lou walked the streets of Willow Creek, takin' in the sights. It had been sometime since her last visit and she was surprised how much it had changed. Children playin' a game of tag blew past her on the walkway. She laughed as they almost spun her around like a whirlwind. There was nothin' to spoil her mood today. She backed up out of the way of passin' townsfolk and leaned against the glass of the storefront tryin' to catch her breath.

The last few months left her breathless. Lou had enjoyed the merry cat and mouse game she and Jimmy'd been playin'. Each takin' a turn chasin' the other for awhile. Lately though, the games had become a bit more serious and neither one was puttin' much effort into runnin' away.

Two days ago Jimmy had pulled her to the side before his run. "Rachel said you got some time comin' to you."

"Yeah, why?"

"I'm takin' a dispatch to Seneca. I'll be gone a day or two..." He touched his lips to hers, not carin' who was watchin, "Meet me in Willow Creek."

She stared up at him, searchin' his face for an explanation, "What do you mean?"

Jimmy stroked her chin with his thumb, "I want us to have some time together... alone." Thoughts of Blue Creek ran through her mind, this time would be different.

The afternoon sun slanted through a broken board above her, slidin' across her cheek, wakin' her back to the present. The light shivered as a breeze blew through town, causin' it to light on something in a display case.

Louise turned to the glass, her hands spread out as she pressed closer to get a better look at it. The young woman behind the counter waved to her. Louise straightened up and stepped away from the glass. The young lady inside moved closer to the window and pointed at the case, a welcome smile gracin' her lips. Louise nodded and took a breath. She held for just a moment before turning and pulling open the door.




She returned to the hotel, her purchase burning a hole in her pocket. The door slammed open and she stifled a giggle. Jimmy lay sprawled across the bed. He'd obviously had a hard run. His boots lay next to the bed, his coat and shirt just behind. Louise knelt beside the bed and pushed Jimmy's hair away from his face. "Does that mean we're not havin' dinner downstairs?" She brushed a kiss on his shoulder, a soft snore her only answer.

Darkness flooded the sky and Louise changed her shirt behind a screen. One more look at Jimmy passed out on the bed and Louise headed downstairs. The clerk raised an eyebrow or two when a bottle of wine and two delicate wine glasses were ordered. 'I guess he figured two boys have no need for glasses.' Louise resisted the urge to wink at him, thinkin' he'd most likely faint dead away.




Over an hour later, two plates, covered in food and totally untouched lay under dark green napkins. Louise poured herself another glass of wine and sat back in a chair near the bed. She hefted the bottle in her hand and watched as the dark liquid swirled inside the glass. 'Time's a wastin' and so is this wine. It just ain't the same when you drink by yourself.'

Jimmy cracked an eye open and watched her down the glass. He decided to watch her for awhile before he let on that he was awake, he liked this game.

She reached into her pocket and and slid out a small velvet bag. Slowly opening the drawstring she let its contents settle into her hand. Jimmy resisted the urge to jump out of bed and kiss her. Obviously, Louise was plannin' something, and he was gonna let her 'have her way' with him... that is, if he was lucky enough.

Louise rubbed the rim of the glass against her lip and held the ring up to the lamplight. Fear was startin' to take over, "maybe this just ain't the right time," she whispered to herself, her worries were beginnin' to shake her resolve.

Jimmy had decided enough was enough, and 'sides that wine looked awful good. He stretched out his achin' muscles and shifted loudly on the bed, "What you got there Lou?" Startled by his question, Lou lost her hold on the ring.

It slipped from her fingers and made a delicate little splash as it fell in her wine glass.. "Dammit!"

Jimmy stifled a laugh. He turned over and stuffed another pillow behind him. He sat up in bed and rubbed his face, "What's the matter Lou? You lose something?"

Louise tilted the glass in her hand and reached into the glass with her fingers, tryin' to fish it out. Unwillin' to give up her secret she tried to turn her back to Jimmy and tried to fish it out.

The glass nearly tipped over and a splash of wine stained her shirt. "This can't get any worse," she grumbled to herself. As she tried again to reach the ring, her fingers seemed to take on the color of the wine the longer they swam around in it.

Decidin' he had enough of a show, Jimmy reached out and slipped two fingers into the waistband of her pants and pulled her over to the bed. Spannin' his hands around her waist he lifted her onto his lap. He settled her in his lap and took the glass and set it on a side table.

Embarassed, she looked away... wishing she could disappear. Unwilling to give up the moment, Jimmy tilted her chin up and looked into those startling eyes. Lifting her hand to his lips, he could see that her fingertips were covered in delicate burgundy stains.

His eyes never left hers as he took one finger between his lips and licked it dry. The next finger followed and Lou silently swore that she'd die happy if she never felt anything like it again. By the third, her eyes drifted shut, lost in the sensations.

Jimmy watched the passion flicker across her features and was nearly undone himself. He reminded himself there was something he had to do before he allowed himself the luxury of burying himself in her arms - something cool and smooth slipped over her fourth finger as Jimmy's lips left it. It took but a moment to come to her senses - her eyelids, heavy with passion, flew open and Jimmy fought against the childlike smile that played on his lips.

"Jimmy?" she breathed.

He allowed himself a moment afore he answered. "Lou?"

She stared into his eyes.

"I was just wondering if what you were lookin' for looked like this?" His fingers traced along hers until comin' to rest on the cool band of gold around her finger.

"Oh Jimmy! How did you know? I mean... I was thinkin' the exact same thing - it's so perfect, I mean - I had no idea - "

He set a finger across her lips, "Is that a yes?"

She seized his face in her hands and kissed him breathless, "Yes... oh yes... oh yes..." He'd beaten her to the punch, his ring was forgotten for a few moments as they lay in each others arms.

the new beginnin'

All the memories flooding through her mind did something no tea or reassurances could do. It gave her peace. Her eyes still closed she brought back the same moments again and again... takin' her breath away with each sweet kiss.

Shivers followed the memory of their first christmas together. A warmth filled her at the thought of his 'proposal' and what had followed. Now, as she held her wedding dress against her body she felt the heady sensation that he was there beside her.

....she felt his breath on her neck before his kiss... her eyes flew open as she whirled around.. hiding the dress behind her....

"Jimmy!" Louise looked around the room for Emma and Rachel, they had both gone... for how long, she didn't know. Her cheeks flushed with embarassment and a little anger, "How could you? It's bad luck to see the dress before-" vHe smiled at her reddening cheeks and reached out a hand, slidin' it through her hair. He felt her relax instinctively at his touch.

"Jimmy, stop tryin' to distract me... you shouldn't be here!"

"It's our house darlin'... or at least that's what the deed says."

Louise remember the look on his face when he read the names on the deed to her. They'd both worked so hard on his readin' and now he needed no help at all. She shook her head, "Don't try to get out of this.."

"I can't believe you're so superstitious about this... maybe I oughta hunt down every black cat in 50 miles... or hide all the mirrors in case you break one!"

She shoved him playfully, but with enough force to set him back a step... "That ain't funny Jimmy." She said it, but there was still a hint of a smile on her face.

Jimmy pulled her closer, huggin' her against his body. Instantly the jokin' mood fell away. "Tomorrow," he said quietly, "You'll be my wife." He felt the words catch in his throat, he couldn't believe the day was almost here.

"That's why I want it to be perfect. You shouldn't have seen the dress."

He leaned down and kissed away her tears, "Darlin' after all we've been through... nothin' can hurt us."

the next day, the riders and their extended family of townfolk gathered around the yard and listened as Louise McCloud and James Butler Hickok bound their lives together in the eyes of the law. In their own hearts and in the eyes of God they had already been bound for quite sometime.

lifebonds don't happen suddenly, and they can't be proclaimed or made lightly... they happen over time, when hearts are full and lives are bound by more than fancy and whims... it happens when love is strong and true...

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