Author's Note: A Letter of Separation

Time to Go

The table was crowded at the Rock Creek Station, nearly everyone was in from their rides and there were two extra hands at the table. Trainees.

Talk was plentiful, bad humor even more so, and although Teaspoon had seen fit to have his meal in his room off of the barn, the room still felt like it was brimming over with men. Louise felt like she couldn't breathe. The trainees were full of bravado, each trying to outdo the other one in riding, eating, and to see how long they could go without bathing.

"Tomorrow," Rachel had declared, "you'll both bathe before supper… or eat out with the hogs."

The taller of the two, a human string-bean by the name of Arnold, looked at Cody across the table. "You folks have hogs? I ain't seen 'em."

Cody, usually one in for a laugh or two, rolled his eyes heavenward. "Oh well, we got us a smart one."

"Don't be stupid, Arnold," chastised the smaller one named Ronald. "She's sayin' we're smelly like hogs." He looked at Lou, having to look up from an inch at his inferior height. "We ain't that bad, are we?" He lifted his elbow, opening his arm pit for her to smell. "What do you think?"

Lou stood up so quickly she nearly fell over when her heel caught on the bench. "I think if it was up to me, you'd both be out on your backsides." She didn't even pick up her plate as she headed for the door.

"Lou-" Rachel moved to follow her to the door but Louise's subtle shake of her head spoke volumes between the two women. "I'll keep your plate warm."

"What?" Arnold had a mind to grouse. "You told me if I didn't eat when food was on the table, I didn't eat." He watched the door swing shut behind Lou. "How come he doesn't have to?"

Rachel pointed at the door. "That's because 'he' doesn't smell like a swine."

"Pigs again," Arnold huffed, "why does it always come back to pigs?"

*** ***

Outside, Louise took in a deep breath, letting her lungs fill with the fresh evening air. The bunkhouse had become a painful place for her to be. It wasn't so much that the Kid was gone… that was a big part of the problem, especially with the new men training for the Express. Teaspoon had told her right off that they'd have to sleep in the bunkhouse, just like any Express rider coming in from the trail.

She'd lived through that countless times, always having the others to run interference for her. He couldn't justify making special rules on a count of her being a girl. Lou had agreed with him whole heartedly. She'd wanted a job as a man… she'd have to deal with it. There was always the other 'fix' of moving her into Rachel's house. Rachel herself had thought up the story that Lou was her cousin so that 'he' could live in the house with her. That didn't work either. Lou didn't want to be away from the others. Her world didn't have to change that much if she didn't want it to.

A soft desert wind blew in along the ground, the sound of pounding hooves reaching her ears about the same time. She didn't have to peer into the night to see who it was. She knew. Nor did she have to worry that he could see the trail. The moon hung low over the station, giving ample light for him to see where he was going.

She pondered calling out so the others in the bunkhouse would know that it was a, 'Rider coming!' It just didn't seem right. Jimmy was coming home and she thought it best to let him have a moment of quiet before facing the mob inside.

Riding through the silvery moonlight gave the mare beneath him a ghostlike appearance. Cotton had been trained to the saddle just a few weeks ago and Teaspoon had them alternating her with the riders so that she was used to the differing weights on the trail. The white appaloosa had a good heart and strong legs and quickly had become a favorite for the experienced riders.

Pulling gently on the reins, Jimmy brought Cotton to a prancing stop beside Lou. Looking down at her from the saddle he had to smile. "Waiting up for me?"

Lou shook her head at his over-confident words and pushed gently at the side of Cotton's long face as the mare tried to nibble on her hair. "Rachel's got supper on. If you hurry you can get it warm on the table."

Holding tight to the pommel, Jimmy swung a leg over and lowered himself to the ground as Louise took hold of Cotton's reins. "I'll wait." He looked at the barn door, open and warm with lantern light. "I want to get Cotton put up before I eat."

"I can take her, Jimmy." Lou realized as she said it that she had spoken too fast, sounded too eager to take over the chore that Jimmy was bound to notice.

"That's mighty nice of you, Lou," he walked beside her toward the barn, "but I've got somethin' for ya that you'll probably want to read more than you want to curry my horse."

That got her curiosity. Giving Jimmy a sideways glance she wondered aloud. "What is it?"

Jimmy reached across her body for the reins and Lou held them farther away. That got a laugh from her friend and he snaked an arm around her waist so she couldn't move that far and he managed to grab the reins from her extended fingers just about the time she caught site of the envelope in his coat pocket.

"A letter!" She snatched it up and moved toward the barn, leaving him chuckling behind her. "Told you you'd want to read that instead of…" it wasn't of any use to keep talking, she was already lost in her own world.

He led Cotton into the center of the barn and with a gentle touch to her nose had her standing still for him to unbuckle the cinch around her middle.

Louise, leaning against a post turned her joyous gaze to him and grinned. "It's from Jeremiah!" She saw Jimmy's answering smile and gave him a look. "You knew that."

He swung the saddle over one of the stall walls and set it down. "I didn't even have to read it, Jeremiah came to see me off at the Express station."

"Really? How did he look?" Her face was anxious but the tone of her voice was thrilled.

"He's almost as tall as you are," Jimmy laughed at her horrified expression, "and about twice as much trouble."

The protective older sister kicked in and Louise tilted her head to look at Jimmy. "What does that mean?"

He held up his hands in mock surrender, one hand filled with a curry brush. "Whoa, now… it's not anything bad, I was just about to say that he had a couple of girls following behind him waving their fans as they tried to look like they weren't talking about him."

"Oh no," Louise giggled, "and how was Jeremiah taking it?"

"He said he didn't have time for silly girls."

Louise let out a sigh of relief before her expression changed to one of worry. "Too bad that will only last for a day or so." She leaned her head against the post and watched Jimmy quickly brush down Cotton's beautiful dappled coat. "He's growing up so fast."

"Right," Jimmy agreed, "and soon you'll be an old maid on a porch swing with a bird buildin' a nest in your hair."

"Oh," she gave him a warning look, "you are such a sweet talker, Jimmy Hickok."

Cotton gave a saucy toss of her head as Jimmy put down the brush. He gave her a soft pat on her back. "Sorry, girl, I can't do that all night long." She nudged his hand. "If I did, you wouldn't eat and you know how much you like-" he laughed as she shifted her weight and nearly lifted her front hoof into his hands for inspection. "Fine, as long as we understand each other." He looked over at Lou. "Did you read the letter yet?"

"Read it?" She nearly jumped up in the air at the question and shook her head. "I was so caught up thinking about Jere, I forgot to read the letter." She shook her head at her own silliness and pulled open the envelope a split second before she pulled the letter free.

Jimmy went about his chores while she read the letter and had Cotton settled in her stall with a bucket full of oats before Lou uttered another word.

"He's leaving…"

"Jeremiah?"

Louise nodded and pressed the letter to her chest as though she was afraid that she'd drop it and lose it in the hay. "He's going to leave the Mission School and apprentice out to a blacksmith in town."

Moving closer, Jimmy leaned against the same stall wall, pushing absentmindedly at Cotton's nose as she tried to nip at his collar. "What about Teresa?"

"She's too young to go with him. He'll only have a room that's barely big enough to sleep in, but still she'll be the only one left at the Mission." She lapsed into silence, her eyes filled with sorrows and excitement all at the same time. The letter lifted slowly to her lips and she pressed the paper against her mouth as she thought through the words inside.

When her thoughts were able to rise above the tumult of her emotions she looked up and found Jimmy standing less than an arm's length away. "Worried about him?"

She shook her head. "He's almost a man, he'll be fine."

Jimmy laughed. "Don't let him hear you say that."

"Say what?" His laughter was infectious.

"That he's 'almost' a man."

Louise's face scrunched up a little as she realized how her words sounded. "You're right; he'd hate hearing me say that."

"Any man would." Jimmy folded his arms across his chest. "So if you're not worried, what is it that moving around behind your eyes? You've got some heavy thoughts circling around in there."

She set her hand to the side of her head and wondered aloud. "Is it showing?" She sighed as she looked up at her friend. "It's just been a hard few days and now after reading this."

"What are you thinking about doing?"

Louise looked back at the bunkhouse and Rachel's with a wistful smile. "It's not that I don't love it here."

Jimmy nodded his understanding.

"But I've been away for so long that I feel like I'm missing out on everything. If I don't go now, I'm afraid the next letter that I'll get is about Teresa getting married!" She let the words settle between them and then she looked up, half worried as what his reaction might be. "Well?"

He shook his head. "Don't look at me, it's your decision."

She smiled back at him. "You're right and I think I know what I have to do."

Jimmy considered her expression for a moment before he dipped his head and studied the hay strewn floor at his feet. "Well, just promise me one thing."

Louise looked at him, unsure of what he was about to say. "What?"

"That you'll write me from St. Jo once in awhile."

She hadn't known there were tears in her eyes until they spilled onto her cheeks. "Only if you write me back."

That seemed to be up for consideration and she ended up poking him in the middle to get him to agree to write her in return.

A few moments later the door to the bunkhouse banged open and the two Express trainees stumbled out of the door with towels in their arms. Louise paused at the door of the barn. Standing beside her, Jimmy looked at them with a questioning glance as they wandered by with Arnold grumbling about swine and women.

Louise rose up on the balls of her feet and whispered into Jimmy's ear. "I'll explain later."

He nodded, agreeing, "You better." Once the others had passed them Jimmy stopped Lou with a hand on her shoulder and once she turned around to face him, he pulled her into an embrace, pressing a kiss on the top of her head. "You just take care of yourself in St. Jo, Lou… you just take care of yourself."

"I will," she mumbled into his shoulder. "You too, Jimmy Hickok. I better not hear that you're calling out gunfighters without me to watch your back."

He stepped back, his hands held up in surrender. "Fine… fine… I've got my orders it seems."

Louise nodded in satisfaction and looked over at the bunkhouse. "Good, let's go get something to eat. I'm starved."

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