Prologue

The Stage was late, and Teaspoon Hunter had more important things to do than wait around for the prodigal son. He only stayed for one reason, Louise.

As her 'father', he guessed he should stay around to meet Mr. McInnerny Sr. Louise had received several letters in the last few weeks...all talking about the impending arrival. The other riders teased her to no end about the lengthy and impassioned letters she received.

Lou paced the wooden sidewalk. Her new boots drumming out a nervous little tune. She adjusted the collar of the rose colored dress. Everything she wore was new... in fact, almost everything the riders wore was new. Jordan had made a habit of sending gift after gift to the Waystation.

She stopped as a familiar figure walked out from the Marshal's office. Jimmy's lanky frame was easily identifiable from the other men in town. There was no one quite like James Butler Hickok. He turned and caught her eye. Stepping closer to the sunlight on the street he openly stared.

Louise shook her head and looked away. He had talked to her last night.. tryin' to get her to take her time with Jordan. "Take my time," she fumed.. "I've had nothing but time..."

She'd been avoiding him lately.. and Kid too. Kid and Jimmy were the only two who had not welcomed the gifts. They had avoided accepting any of the presents Jordan had offered. Lou had ignored the fact that they had a whole trunkful of shirts and pants that were collecting dust.

Pushing those thoughts to the back of her mind she stood on the balls of her feet, hearing the squeak from her boots. Still no sign of the stage... every positive thought in the world wouldn't take away the gnawin' feelin' in her stomach.

Chapter One

Two hours later...the stage was now hours late for its schedule. Louise sat on the sidewalk her head against one of the posts. Teaspoon had long since settled into a nap. The town seemed covered by the weight of uncertainty. The stage was nearly always on time... If it was this late, something was terribly wrong.

Louise stirred as a clamor began at the edge of town. A wavering cloud of dust swerved its way down the main road. Louise scrambled to her feet as the call came thundering forward, "The STAGE!! The STAGE!!"

Teaspoon woke mid-snore and coughed as the swirling dust had already reached the small party waiting for the errant stage. He stood and moved closer to Louise. There was only one rider atop the stage. Hat gone, he hunched over the reins and rode the team hard. The team was down a horse as well. Something was amiss.

Teaspoon was the first to react, "Barnett- get the doctor!" He clapped a hand on Louise's shoulder, "Don't you fret none Lou- it'all be fine. You'll see." Even he didn't seem to believe what he was sayin'.

Louise looked back as the stage clamored to a halt. The driver set the brake and nearly fell to the ground. Teaspoon scrambled up to his side on the perch, "What happened?"

"'bout ten miles out... thieves... a whole mess of 'em! They took the strong box and robbed the passengers... the old man put up a fight and..."

Louise tried to move the crowd out of the way. People appeared from nowhere and blocked her view. The door was opened and she could see a blonde head appear in the doorway. Relief was immediate, "Jordan! Jordan! It's me, Lou-"

The man fell to the ground. Several onlookers moved out of the way and Louise forced her way through the throng. "Jordan?" She reached the side of the stage as two gentlemen had picked Jordan up from the ground and laid him on his back on the wooden sidewalk. Louise fell to her knees at his head. There was blood on his face from a wound on his forehead. Dust from his fall caked the wound. "Oh God Jordan- what happened to you."

She lifted his head and laid it in her lap. She took his hankerchief from his pocket and did her best to clean of the dust and blood. His eyes were closed and his lips were soundlessly moving. Tears sprang to her eyes as she scanned the crowd, "Where's the doctor?"

More onlookers backed away as a body was taken from the wagon. Teaspoon cocked his head at the lifeless form, "Who's that?"

The driver bowed his head a bit, "Mathias McInnerny, businessman from back East. The boy over there is his son." He indicated Jordan with a wave of his hand.

Louise heard what the driver said and took a look at Jordan's father for the first and last time. An older gentleman, a cap of white hair covered his head. A fine white shirt and woolen vest marred by dried blood and spittle. A monocle hung from a fine golden chain that disappeared into his pocket. His face was nearly as white as his hair, but what struck Louise was the strikin' resemblance to his son.

She leaned forward and took Jordan in her arms... trying to shield the unconscious man from the sight of his father's body being' carried from the stage.

Buck and Ike had come into town to get supplies for Rachel and when they saw the stage and the crowd they tied their horses and found their way to Lou's side, "How is he?"

Lou looked up at Buck through tear filled eyes, "Dunno...the doctor isn't here yet." She looked down again. Hopin' for any sign that he was comin' around.




Louise awoke as the doctor entered the room. She had fallen alseep leaning against the desk in the room. Struggling to sit upright she realized her arm had fallen asleep - twisted under her the way it was.

"You really should go home-"

Louise looked back at Jordan and shook her head, "I don't know-"

"Well, stay if you like -" He rubbed a hand against the smooth skin of his head, " I'm turning in." He watched as she smoothed the boy's hair back and away from his face. The gentle movement broke through his exhaustion. "He's had a sharp knock to the head- but he'll be fine."

Louise settle back into her chair. Jordan's steady breathing helped to calm her nerves. She curled her knees up under her skirt and tried to get some rest.




The Bunkhouse was settlin' down for the night. Most of the riders were already asleep. Jimmy sat on the porch tryin' his hand at whittlin'. Kid paced the boards behind him. "Kid - you gonna make yourself dizzy with at that pacin'."

"I can't help it. I can't believe Teaspoon left her at the doctor's by herself."

Jimmy shrugged and tossed the piece of wood aside, "What's wrong with her bein' there?"

"She's alone with him. You know how he feels about her."

"Yeah, and I also know that the doctor is in the next room." He cleaned off the blade of his knife and tucked it in his coat pocket. "Lou's a big girl Kid. 'sides the condition Jordan was in - he ain't in no condition to try and sneak a kiss, let alone try anything else."

Jimmy stood and walked into the bunkhouse.

Kid stopped by the rail and pounded his fist into the wooden post above his head. "I still don't like it."

Chapter Two

First thing after breakfast, Rachel and Kid headed out to the doctor's office. Rachel dreaded the trip. The way Kid had acted the night before and the looks he'd given everyone that mornin'... she didn't envy Louise. In fact, in her own tactful way, she'd tried to talk Kid out of comin' with her.

He'd completely ignored her and hitched the horses up to the buckboard wagon. Rachel had refused his help with the food, afraid he'd throw it in the back without thinkin'. As they left the waystation she had to grab the wooden seat with her hands to keep from falling out. "Kid! Slow down!"

The horses, afraid of his heavy hand with their reins, tore out of the station and down the street to the doctor's office.

Buck and Ike watched as they sped down the street, *not good*

"Hmm.. I agree Ike, with the way he's actin' I wouldn't be surprised if Lou sends him packin'.




The door was open when they arrived. The doctor was bent over Jordan examining his eyes. "Sit up son," Rachel stood in the doorway holding the basket before her.

As her eyes adjusted to the light she could make out the slightly disheveled form of Louise standing by the window.. anxiously watching the examination, her lip stuck between her teeth. Rachel sighed as Kid craned his neck to see around her.

"Good, he's awake. Now she can come home."

"Kid!" Rachel hissed the warning, "Watch what you say...Louise is just watchin' out for the boy."

"That boy is nothin' but trouble, rich trouble."

Rachel turned to him, blocking the door, "You leave that attitude outside this door. By the look of her, she's been up most of the night. This is not the time to make demands or question her feelings.

Louise looked up and saw Rachel in the doorway. She walked around the bed and touched Jordan's hand before continuing towards her friends. Jordan's fingers closed around hers and she had to pull lightly on his arm to get him to let go.

"Rachel!" Her voice was happy and hushed as the doctor still had some tests to do, "Thank you for comin' over. It's been kind of lonely here.. Jordan was asleep all night."

Rachel felt Kid take a breath and she beat him to it, "We missed you too Louise... dinner wasn't the same without you at the table."

Louise blushed and looked at the floor, "I'm sure Cody was more than thrilled to eat my share."

Kid, finally convinced that she was fine, had finally calmed down. "No, we wouldn't let him." He felt better as she turned to him, her gentle smile shining on her face. "Heck Jimmy and I were gonna toss him outside in the trough if he tried to take anything off your plate."

She giggled, hiding her smile behind her hand, "So that's how Ike got that plate he brought over. I thought he must have smuggled it out when Cody wasn't lookin'"

Rachel reached out to hug her young friend, "Louise?!"

Lou turned as Jordan called out to her. "Jordan?"

"Louise.. please... come back.."

Louise looked back at her friends and shrugged, uncomfortable with their presence all of a sudden. "I've got to go."

She turned away and Kid made a move to follow, Rachel grabbed his arm, "Not now."

"Lou?" he called.

Louise turned, exhaustion already weighing down her features..."Yeah Kid?"

Kid reined in the comment that sat on his tongue. Instead he took the basket from Rachel and held it out, "Don't forget this."

She smiled and walked back over, "Thanks again.. both of you."

"Just let us know.. if you need anything... we'll be here." Kid handed her the basket.

With another smile Louise turned away. She set the basket down and walked back to the bed were Jordan lay, his hand grasped hers as she came within range.

Chapter Three

Louise was goin' stir crazy.

It had been three days and she'd been couped up in the doctor's home almost every minute. Teaspoon had come by the day before to see how she was. She had all but begged to be sent out on a ride, but the boys had already covered all the rides and Teaspoon, however misguided, was tryin' to be helpful.

After he left.. she had returned to Jordan's side. He had been awake more and more over the last day or so, but he still spent most of the day asleep . It was then that the nightmares came.

He called out for his father in his sleep and thrashed around. Lou had to call for the doctor several times, when she couldn't hold him anymore. Through it all whenever she would call to him and stroke his face he'd calm at the sound of her voice. The tears would always follow, hot and streaming across his face. Lou couldn't bear to leave him.




Today, he was goin' home... well, to the hotel. They'd kept his room and Noah was bringing the buckboard to take them over. Lou sat in the front room waiting for Jordan to dress. A clamor outside set her on her feet. "Noah!" she ran out to greet him.

"Well hey yourself, Lou. You're mighty pretty in that dress."

"Thanks.. I'm just glad to be outside."

Noah nodded, "Been stuck in there huh? We all know it's been hard on you... we've been coverin' for you .. "

"Thanks Noah.. and I'm glad to say I'll be back tomorrow.. Jordan's well enough to be on his own.. and" she leaned against the side of the buckboard and whispered, "I need to get back in the saddle."

Noah laughed, "Well you'll get your wish-"

"Louise! Louise!"

Lou looked up at Noah, "I'll be right back...I think Jordan's ready."

"LOUISE!!!! I need you!"

Louise ran back into the house. Noah watched her go.. shakin' his head.




At the end of the short drive to the hotel, Noah was more than ready to rid himself of one of his passengers. Jordan had once been the epitome of gallant behavior and gentle manners. Now he'd made a reversal. With everything Lou did or said, there was a sharp criticism.. followed by prolific apologies. Soon, even he felt like a child's pull toy... he could only imagine how it was for Lou. She'd been with him day in and day out for the last few days.

Noah waited outside as Lou walked him in.

He'd been waitin' for the better part of an hour when Lou ran out of the hotel and fairly jumped into the seat next to him.

"Lou?" He rarely saw this level of fright on her face.

"Go..."

"Lou-"

She looked him hard in the face, "Just GO... please." She was meek as a mouse and Noah suddenly wanted to put as much distance as he could between them and the hotel.

Chapter Four

Lou woke before the other riders. She wanted to get a head start on her chores. She struggled with the pitchfork as she shoveled hay, her wrist was even more painful this mornin'.

She heard the boys callin' for her and set pitchfork aside. "Lou! Where the heck-"

"I'm right here!" She smiled as she walked into the light. She tugged down her right sleeve as she walked to the buckboard. Noah was back in the driver's seat, Cody beside him. "Where you boys goin'?"

"Supplies....Tryin' to get rid of us already huh?" Cody laughed as she blushed at the comment.

"Nope, just wish I could spend some time with all of you...It's been awhile." She hung her head.. not wantin' them to know how hard it had been.

She waved with her left hand as Noah, Cody, Buck and Jimmy headed into town. Ike stayed behind to do chores as Lou had the next ride. It took three tries to lift the saddle onto Lightning's back. She considered askin' for Ike's help, but how was she goin' to explain the fact that she couldn't do it herself.

By the time she'd cinched the saddle her temper was short as a burned candle wick. Lou took the reins in her hands and tried to lead her out of the stables. Lightning, unused to the rough handlin', stood her ground.

Lou tugged on the reins, "Come on girl!"

Ike paused outside the stable door.

"Come on .. we've got a run to do." Lightning pulled back farther... pacing backward toward her stall.

Her left hand still holdin' to the reins, she reached up and grasped the bridle. Lightning snorted and stamped the ground beneath her feet. She eyed the young woman who had been so gentle in the past. As Lou's grip on the bridle tightened Lightning lowered her head.

Lou turned to lead her outside and Lightning pulled back and away. Lou's arm pulled painfully as her fingers were tangled in the links. "Ow! Damn It!"

She let go of the reins altogether and backed up away from Lightning. She held her right arm against her chest, cradlin' it like a child. She was just about to take a look at it when a hand came down on her shoulder.

Lou 'bout jumped out of her skin. "Ike!"

He looked down at her *what's wrong*

She turned away, "Nothin'... Lightning was a little spooked is all." He tried to turn her around but she moved around him and out into the light. She wasn't ready for this confrontation.

Ike was.

He ran up behind her and spun her around. Her chin shot up in protest, "Leave it alone Ike."

*not until you show me what you're hiding*

"I'm not-"

*save the lies, i don't believe you*

"Ike-" she looked around for a way to escape. He took her right arm by the elbow and peeled back her sleeve. Her wrist was nearly twice its normal size. Swollen and purple it looked like it had been caught in a door.

Lou avoided his gaze - she had no idea how to explain this away.

*you haven't told anyone, have you*

"Tell them what? It was an accident! Jordan asked me to stay... I told him I had to come back here. He just got a little excited....I'm fine. Can we just leave it there?"

Ike stared right into her eyes, *you tell them - or i do*

"No... no dice. You know what Kid or Jimmy would do if they found out-"

His eyes never wavered *you tell them - or i do*

"Rider Comin'!"

Lou looked to heaven in gratitude, "I gotta ride-"

Ike moved past her and took Lightning's reins in his hand. *i gotta ride... you need to take care of that wrist*

She followed him to the door of the stable. He mounted up and looked back at the approaching rider *tell them*

Ike took the mochila and Lightning took off into the morning light.

Chapter Five

In town, the boys headed right past Tompkins' store. The tall man watched them ride past and shook his head. Ever since the McInnerny store opened at the other end of town, his business had suffered. Rock Creek was still growin' but it wasn't big enough to support two dry goods stores within the town limits.

They arrived at McInnerny's and spilled out of the wagon. Kid rode up from the other direction, "Shoppin' boys?"

Buck groaned as he waved the list in the air. "Rachel sent us in for 'everything'."

Kid tied Katy up at the rail, "I'll join you for while...I'm gonna take Lou out to dinner tonight."

Jimmy threw Kid a look, "She didn't say anything this mornin'."

Kid shrugged his shoulders, "I didn't ask her yet."

Jimmy shook his head and moved around Kid, his head hung between his shoulders. Each of the steps fell on him like a punch in the gut, he mumbled under his breath "It's your funeral."




Kid ended up stayin' longer than anyone else. None of the other riders said a thing as Kid pored over the jewelry case in the back of the store. Randall, Jordan's assistant, stood just beyond Kid's range of vision and waited for a chance to help the express rider.

Holding a delicate pair of earrings in his hand, Kid rolled them back and forth across his palm. The light that shot through them was amazing, "They're perfect!"

Randall moved to Kid's side, "Have you made your decision?"

"Yes.. I'll take-"

The door slammed against the wall and both men jumped apart. "Randall! What the hell happened to the store?!"

"Jordan, I-"

"It's filthy.. unorganized! My father would have a fit if he saw it like this!" Jordan stalked around the store, stopping at each display and shoving the merchandise around on the counters. He moved past Kid as if he was a coat rack, "Randall-"

"Yes sir?"

"anyone ever tell you how truly WORTHLESS you are?"

"No sir?"

"Why don't you just go home! The store is closed. You!" He pointed at Kid, "Leave."

"Jordan, he was going to purchas-"

"I don't care.. take whatever it is with you..."

He moved behind the back counter and searched through the shelves underneath.

Randall looked up at Kid, tryin' to salvage his dignity, "You can take them if you like.. but you should leave now."

Kid looked down at the sparkling gems in his hand and set them on the counter, "No thanks, I'll go somewhere else."

Jordan snorted, "You do that... see if I care."

Randall walked him to the door. Just a step outside, Kid turned and looked back at Jordan. He'd set a glass and whiskey bottle on the counter and was tossing back shots like it was water.

Kid shook his head and Randall struggled to make an excuse, "I'm sure if you would come back tomorrow-"

"I won't be back... and you should think about findin' something else too."

Chapter Six

Kid rode into the station a few minutes later, Lou was sitting down on the porch with Rachel. He dismounted and threw his reins to Buck, "Lou! Lou - I gotta talk to you." He rushed up and looked at Rachel... silently hoping she'd go inside.

"Kid?" Lou stood.

"I just came from the store -"

"What happened - is it Jordan?"

Rachel sat there watching the two.

"You need to stay away from him-"

"What!?"

"You should have seen him Lou- HALF a bottle of whiskey-"

"He's in a lot of pain-"

"... and the yellin' "

"He's had a tough time-"

"Will you listen to yourself!?"

"Will you give him half a chance!?"

Rachel got up and wisely walked away... just inside their vision.. the other riders had come into the yard. Kid touched her shoulder and tried to lead her to a place where they could talk.

She shrugged off his hand.

"He's bad news Lou-"

"Don't you understand... don't you -"

"You can't be alone with him-"

The other riders turned and walked away-

"I can't what? Is that what this is about?"

"No" he bit back, "That's not what it's about." He reached out.. setting his hands on her shoulders, "Lou, I care about you-" his eyes searched hers for understanding, "why are you tryin' to torture me with him? I just don't -"

"Torture you? Is that what you think this is?" She shook his hands off, "You don't care about me... or why I'm with him... it's just about what you want! That is so-" she threw up her hands and stalked inside the house, slamming the front door.

Kid stood on the porch staring at the door.

Chapter Seven

Louise ran into town. If half of what Kid said was true... she needed to find Jordan. Something was horribly wrong.

Jordan sat in the saloon, the table in front of him covered in bottles. He lifted a glass up, toasting something or someone. "I'd like another!"

Caroline, the petite blonde saloon girl, set down another bottle, "I think you've had enough.. you won't be able to walk if you have much more -"

"Just put it down.. and walk away!"

She balked and turned around heading back to the bar.

"Fine," he seethed, "leave.. that's what they all do-" Filling another glass he lifted it again, "See father? I'm all alone... you were right."

The glass slammed down on the table and an empty bottle swayed and fell off the table. A shower of glass spread across the floor.

"Hey!" The bartender started around the bar.

Louise ran in and looked around the room. Seein' the mess she moved to the table. She took the tray from Caroline and knelt in the middle of the glass and started to sweep the broken pieces onto the tray with a napkin.

"Louise!" Jordan was lookin' at her, "What in the blazes are you doin' down there."

"Jordan.. you knocked the bottle over... someone has to clean it-"

"Then let the whore do it!"

Louise looked up at Caroline. The young woman turned and walked out of the room.

"Jordan-"

"Look Louise, what did you come here for? I've had just about enough criticism-"

She stood and set the tray on the table, "I'm not here to -"

"Everyone does... I've never been good enough.. for anyone. Even on the stage-"

"You don't have to talk about it-"

"They wanted the money.. and I gave it to them. Father told me to stand up to them... I didn't see why... all they wanted was the money! Damn it!" He hit the table and more bottles teetered on the edge. Louise rushed to settle them. "Why couldn't he just let them have it.. He called me a COWARD!"

Louise reached over and tried to take the glass from his hand.

"What are you doin'?"

"You've had enough-"

"I wish everyone would stop tellin' me WHAT TO DO!" He threw his arm out and swept all the bottles off the table. They exploded on the floor in showers of glass. Louise turned on her heel and left the saloon without a backwards glance.

Chapter Eight

He followed her into the street, "Louise! Wait!"

She continued on.

He ran after her, tripping over his own feet. Determined to catch up with her, he ran faster and pulled on her arm. She turned and pulled her arm away from him. "Let go!"

"Louise! Don't go..."

"Jordan... leave me alone!"

"PLEASE.. I'm sorry .. It's just... and I feel so..."

"That's not an excuse-"

He fell to his knees in the street and wrapped his arms around her legs, "I'm beggin' you Louise.. don't leave... stay with me.. just a little while."

Lou was uncomfortable with the stares they were attracting, "Jordan, get up!"

He stared up at her, "Promise you'll stay for awhile."

More faces appeared to stare, "Fine.. fine.. I promise ... now get up!"

Jordan stood and took her in his arms. She leaned back away from him, the stench of whiskey almost unbearable. Her heart pounded in her chest... an overwhelming fear worked its way through her body.

"See... you stayed."

"Only for a little while... my father... he needs me home for dinner."

"Fine.. just let me hold you."

Lou cringed and tried to keep her distance. "Jordan.. everyone is staring-"

"I don't care."

"Well, I do.. my father does.. and you really should go lie -"

He shoved her back away from him, "I told you..I don't need someone else tellin' me what to do!" He ran away from her, heading back to the hotel.

Louise stood in the middle of the street unsure of whether to run or cry.. maybe both. No one was happy, especially her. Everything she'd done was wrong and she didn't know how to fix it.

Chapter Nine

Jimmy had been watching the exchange from the walk outside the marshal's office. His hand left his gun as Jordan ran off. He would never have let him hurt her. Never.

He stood watching Lou as she stood in the street, oblivious to the stares of the other people. There was something missin'. He couldn't understand her feelings, but he could try to understand why she cares so much.

She turned toward him as he stepped off the walk. She didn't seem surprised at his presence. "How long you been there Jimmy?"

"Long enough... you okay?"

Lou nodded, sending the ribbon in her hair to bobbin'. "Yeah.. I've never seen him like that."

"I've never seen that either. What do you make of it?"

"He's hurtin' .... he wouldn't be the first to turn to drink."

"No," Jimmy agreed, "but I heard him yellin' at you in the Saloon, you ain't scared of him?"

Lou considered his question, "Yeah I'm scared.. but someone has to take an interest in him." She looked over at the store, "I mean, everyone thought he was great when he sent over all those gifts. Helping Rachel with the supplies.. extending credit for the Waystation... never once asking for anything in return. Everyone told me how great he was..." She looked off down the other street, avoidin' his eyes. "We all owe him-"

"Lou... he didn't buy you!"

"I know that!" She bit back, "Don't you think I know that?" She tried to push him away and he moved closer, grabbing her arms.. he pulled her close and held on as she cried...

When her tears calmed he set her back and crouched down to look into her face... "Okay Lou... so fess up... what's got you so wrapped up in him?"

She swiped at her tears, trackin' dirt across her cheeks. "You don't get it.. none of you get it... I thought you'd be the very ones who'd understand this the most."

"Help me understand."

"He's alone..."

"He's filthy rich-" Jimmy adds in.

"and that makes it okay? He's alone Jimmy, no family left.. new in town... he's so much like us ... if we don't care... who will?"

Jimmy looked down at his boots.. 'damn if she isn't right.' A moment later he found her eyes again. "You've made your point Lou... but-"

"What now?" her voice had lost its bite.

"It doesn't excuse what he's doin'.... you watch yourself."

Her shoulders sagged as her first smile in days crept up to her lips. She reached out and touched his arm, "Thanks Jimmy, I will."

He watched her walk away... worried that he had just made the worst mistake of his life.

Chapter Ten

Ike rode in and brushed Lightning down in a hurry. He wanted to find out how it went. He noticed all the horses still in the stable and chuckled to himself. He'd half expected them to be stringing Jordan up in the middle of town. When Lightning had cooled down and fed Ike went into the bunkhouse and the middle of the wrong conversation.

"Ike? Where have you been?"

Ike shook his head.. they seemed entirely too calm, *i took Lou's ride - what happened*

"When?"

*when she told you*

Teaspoon squinted up at him, "Son, you ain't makin' no sense.... you forget to wear your hat in the noon-day sun?"

Ike threw his hat down on the floor *she said she'd tell you*

Buck picked up on Ike's frustration, "Tell us what?"

*jordan hurt her-her wrist was swollen*

"Lou?" they all asked at once.

Before Ike could nod they all stood. Kid reached for his gunbelt.

Teaspoon blocked the door, "Now boys!" he argued. "This is Lou we're talkin' about." He turned and stared at each rider in turn, "I'm sure if she got hurt bad, she have told-" Teaspoon looked at all the faces peering incredulously back at him, the wheels in his mind grinded to a halt... and started to back peddle. "Aw Hell! Grab your guns and saddle up boys...let's go get the bastard!"

Chapter Eleven

Lou had had about enough. The whole thing was tearin' her to pieces and it was about time she set Jordan straight. She planned on tellin' him who she really was... convinced that it would end his infatuation with her. She went to the hotel and stopped in the lobby. Some of the faces in the lobby were the same ones that had stared at her out in the street. A few ladies hid behind their fans and whispered to each other.

Louise straightened her shoulders and walked up the stairs.. determined to make her stand.

She knocked on the door... a slurred voice her only response... she turned the knob and walked in. "Jordan?"

"Mmm hmm?"

"Jordan?" Lou moved closer to the bed. Through the dingy light engendered by the soft discolored curtain she could see him layin on the bed. The sheets lay crumpled beneath his body and a days worth of whiskers tracked across his face. Lou took a cloth from the bar and wet it in the basin.

She handed him the cloth, "The least you can do is wash up."

Jordan groaned and threw the cloth against the wall- it hit the wall with a dull thud and slid down leaving a shiny trail in its wake.

"Get out Louise!"

"No- not until you stop this!"

"I ain't doin' nothin'!"

She stood staring at him.. hands on her hips, "That's the problem, you can't live like this."

"Who said I care-"

She opened the curtains to the room. The harsh morning light fell across the floor and the bed. She sat on the bed next to him - her expression softening, "Well Jordan... I care what happens to you."

"I don't give a damn-"

"You do!" she argued. "Or you wouldn't be tryin; to drown yourself."

He eyes her suspiciously, "Why'd you come up here?"

"I'm worried- Randall said you were sick and I came to help."

He touched a heavy hand to her cheek, "Ah Louise-"

His tone worried her, but she looked down at him - a smile in her eyes.

He stroked her cheek and she was suddenly embarassed, "Jordan, I wanted-" His hand moved to the nape of her neck and dragged her down.

You might have called it a kiss if there was any tenderness in it. This was violent possession - his other hand wound around her as she tried to pull away. Gone was his languid air, he was wide awake and hungry.

She turned her face away as she clawed at his chest, "Jordan! Stop- don't do this!"

He bit her neck - laughing as she cried out in pain, "Come on Louise- enjoy it!"

"NO!" She freed one hand from between them and swung at his face. It hit him below his eye and he barked out a curse.

He stopped his assault and stared at the squirming woman in his arms. "You don't want me either!" He shoved her away.

She fell off the bed and onto the floor.

He fell on his knees beside her... tears in his eyes, "Louise, I'm sorry."

She scrambled away from him. Her heart was pounding in her chest... her skirts falling open as she moved.

His eyes changed as they focused on the exposed skin of her legs. Louise tried to cover them with her skirts... his eyes continued to rake over her - she suddenly felt fourteen again.. cowering before Wicks, "Please.. no .....JORDAN!"

She continued to back up and bumped into the small table under the window. Water from the basin splashed out and spilled down her back.

Jordan reached over and grabbed one of her ankles - Lou kicked out with her other leg as he tried to pull her to him.

She caught him on the shoulder... he winced as her heel jabbed into his skin - but as she pulled her leg back to try again, he grabbed her calf and pulled her other leg straight and under him.

Louise reached backwards trying to grab something, anything to pull herself away from him. She tried to call out but only a whimper crept out of her throat.

Lou grabbed the sheets on the bed - pulling them down around her - she became tangled in the dirty mess as Jordan advanced. His teeth marked her thigh and Lou cried out in fear.

'Why did i ever come here?' she thought to herself.

She threw her arm out, hitting the table edge. It cut into her skin, opening a cut as her arm went numb... she remembered later the sickening sound of wood cracking bone.

The table toppled and the heavy ceramic basin and pitcher fell. The basin hit Jordan square on his back, momentarily stunning him and splashing water all over the floor. The pitcher landed on Lou's shoulder. Pain shot through her and made the entire arm useless.

As Jordan lay on the floor- his back bathed in pain, Lou saw her chance. She pushed back..and away from him. Her legs freed from his grasp.. the water from the fallen basin had made the floor slick. Lou scrambled to her feet, pulling herself up with the headboard. She moved quickly to the door.

Lou had no idea she was steps away from freedom. Other guests, hearing the scuffle in the room had gathered outside the door. No one had the initiative to actually check what was happening.

An arm around her waist pulled her back. They slid across the floor and fell against the open window. Jordan's elbow crashed through the glass and he bellowed - several people in the street below looked up.

Blood dripped down several shards of the cracked pane. Jesse was in the street heading to school. He saw the two people visible in the window pull apart.. His heart stopped, "LOU!" Her face was frozen in fear. He took off running - Lou needed help - and he was no match for the man he had seen with her.

"Damn you woman- " he backhanded her as she pulled away. She stumbled over the sheets on the floor, her boot caught up in the fabric.

He grabbed the front of her dress and pulled her up against him - her right arm swung useless against her side. She tried in vain to pry his fingers off her blouse with her left hand. Failing that, she dug her short nails into his skin and he released one hand - only to punch her across her chin.




Jesse made it to the Marshal's office, but Teaspoon wasn't there... neither was Barnett.. not that Jesse would've trusted him.

Jesse went behind the desk and took the gun Teaspoon had hidden behind the drawer. He made sure it was loaded and ran out the door.




She saw fireworks as his fist connected with her face.

Her legs almost gave way beneath her as she felt conciousness start to slip away. Jordan looked into her face... the stench of stale alcohol made her want to retch. He had a sickening grin on his face.. one she recognized, "I'll make you want me."

Lou prayed she would die first.

Chapter Twelve

He passed the saloon on the way to the hotel. There at the rail, Jimmy's Palomino!

As he raced up the stairs he called at the top of his lungs, "JIMMY! JIMMY!"

Jimmy was playin' cards in the back but looked up at the sound of Jesse's voice, "Jesse?"

"That man, Jordan! - he's beatin' her!"

Her name needed no sayin', Jimmy felt his stomach turn- he stood, upending the table and the chair he had been sittin' on.

He sprinted through the crowd and up the stairs of the hotel next door, Jesse hot on his heels. Frightened guests stared at the wild eyed man with Colt pistols in each hand.

It took all of a half second for the door to disintegrate under Jimmy's foot.

He howled as he saw the two people in the room. Jordan straddled Lou's limp body, her body hung from his arms.

Jordan, to his credit, looked in shock at the two in the doorway. He had a guilty expression cross his face, like a child caught in the act of stealin' candy from a store. He looked down at the battered woman in his arms and let go like she burned him. He started to cry, "Lou? Lou? Oh Lord... what happened?"

Jesse stood in the doorway, holding the gun aimed at Jordan's head. Jimmy crossed the floor and shoved Jordan back. Settin' his Colts on the floor next to her, he scooped Lou up in his arms, "Lou... Lou honey? Can you hear me?"

Wide brown eyes peered up at him - her mouth opened slowly. Dry lips pulled apart painfully, "Jimmy - you didn't - have to... break the... door-" she paused... "it wasn't - locked..." a smile warmed her face.

The floor behind him creaked and Jimmy looked up. "Jesse!"

The boy had been watchin' Lou and had not noticed Jordan tryin' to sneak away.

He trained the gun on Jordan and cocked the hammer back.

Jimmy reached for his own gun on the floor, but Lou set her hand on his. His jaw tightened as he saw her bruised and bloody knuckles.

"No Jimmy..."

"I swear I'll kill him Lou-"

"Don't."

Jimmy looked over his shoulder at Jesse, "Walk Jordan here to the Marshal's office and lock him up."

Jordan quietly stepped toward the door.

"Jordan?" Jimmy's voice was full of warning.

"Huh?"

"Jordan - you run - " Jimmy almost sounded hopeful, "You run - and I'll hunt you down. No one, law or otherwise, will be able to protect you."

Jordan nodded his head... realizing that after what he had just done... the other riders would all take turns exacting revenge.

Jimmy didn't notice when Jordan left... he had dismissed him from his mind.

Jesse followed him into the hall, several guests peered into the room as the tough young rider cradled the beaten woman that lay in the midst of destruction.

"I hope to God he runs Lou... just so I can kill him."

"Jimmy -" she chided, her face serious as she looked him in the eye," I don't think he meant to-"

"So you think he should get away with this?"

She shook her head slowly, "No, it's... I know he was wrong, but after his father's death.. " the look on Jimmy's face made her hold her thoughts.

"Lou, I near died when Jesse told me what he was doin'."

Lou swallowed around the pain in her throat. "I'm glad you were close by."

"Lou," he froze, afraid to say what was in his heart, "I'm afraid to let you go..."

"Then don't. A girl could get used to havin' you hold her." She smiled, but the pain that it caused her made her wince.

"Is that right?"

Lou nodded and Jimmy placed a kiss against her temple. Slowly, he lifted her in his arms and walked to the door. Guests flew out of their way and cleared the hallway for him.




Teaspoon and the boys caught up to Jimmy in the street. They all clamored for a look. Try as they could, it was hard for anyone to imagine that the broken rag doll in Hickok's arms was Louise.

She smiled wanly at them, hoping they wouldn't press her for details at the moment. Kid's reaction caught her eye, he stood the farthest from the group, his hand flexing over his colt. His eyes took silent inventory on every visible mark. His heart did the same for everything he couldn't see.

Teaspoon was the first to speak, "The boy, Jordan?"

"Jesse took him to the jail... to lock him up-"

"Jesse?" snorted Kid, "Jordan could get away!" Lou heard the furious tone in his voice and turned her face toward Jimmy, letting the rhythm of his heart soothe her own.

Jimmy's smile shocked them all, "If he does - he already knows I'll come lookin' for him -"

"Not by yourself you won't!" They all nodded their agreement to Noah's protest.

Jimmy watched his friends with pride filling his heart, "Together?"

Teaspoon set his hand on Jimmy's shoulder and looked down at Lou, his heart broken, "Like we always do."

Chapter Thirteen

Jordan was most relieved when the day of the trial finally arrived, two days in hell would've been easier to bear.

He'd seen zoos and menageries in the East... but the West had an entirely different reality. Here.. he was on display. Only this time.. the tigers were outside the bars. Day in and out for two days Jordan was watched by one man or another... each man would have been more than happy to rip him to shreds given the chance. He wondered what magical thing kept them all at bay, surely they could have killed him anytime they wanted.

He posed that question to the Marshal Hunter during one such watch. The man in question sat with his feet propped on the desk, reading a newspaper. Had it been anyone other than one of Louise's family he wouldn't have thought twice about the calm posture. Considering that the Marshal hadn't moved his eyes or turned a page for over an hour, he wasn't nearly as calm or collected as he looked. Jordan wasn't sure he should open his mouth, for fear he'd swallow a bullet instead of air.

"Well son," the word had a wealth of context behind it - none of it good, "What you've stumbled into a mess of trouble.. and the only thing keepin' the boys from rowing you up Salt River is the same woman you tried to destroy. You better thank your lucky stars, 'cause if she changes her mind... you're fair game as far as I'm concerned. All badges off."




The next day, Louise took the stand. She was walking on her own, but her arm was tied in a sling to keep her shoulder in place. Off to the side Jimmy stood waitin', measuring each precious step. At the same time, eight other pairs of eyes watched her with a mixture of concern and pride... she was a remarkable woman.

Louise took the stand and stared back at the row where they sat just beyond the railing. Tears threatened to well up in her eyes as her friends gave her the silent encouragement she so desperately needed. She knew they'd be by her side in a minute if she asked... they were the best of friends, they were family.




The riders gathered around Louise in a comforting circle as they awaited the sentencing. She'd been unshakable on the stand and now as they waited for news she sagged against Jimmy, "I just want to go home and forget this ever happened."

"Forget it? How can you..." Kid bit his tongue as he found himself alone in his feelings.

Louise turned to him, "I don't think I could...but as soon as the judge passes the sentence... I can think about happier things." She reached out and took Jimmy's hand into her own. He squeezed her hand and placed a kiss on her cheek.

The judge re-entered the courtroom and they turned back to the front. Kid slipped out the door, unable to watch another moment. He should have stayed. The judge sentenced Jordan McInnerny to five years of hard labor and to pay restitution to Louise McCloud for pain and suffering. The riders didn't hear anything past the words 'hard labor'. They all felt a weight lift off their shoulders.. they could breathe again. The chances that a man like Jordan would survive five years was little more than a dream.

As Barnett led him past the gallery, Jordan came to a stop as they reached the riders. "Louise... Louise.. could I talk with you for a moment."

She stood, her hand on Jimmy's arm to keep him in his seat. She moved forward slowly... keeping a safe distance between them.

Jordan laughed, "My hands are bound Louise, there's not much that I can do to hurt you."

"What do you want Jordan?"

He motioned for her to come closer.

Her hand left Jimmy's arm and she leaned in until her face was a foot away from his. "Louise... five years..." his eyes hardened in desperation, "I'll make it... if only to hold you again."

"No," she whispered, "no..."

"It'll happen... just wait."

Barnett shoved him past Louise and back towards the jail. Louise backed up blindly and all but fell into Jimmy's lap. Jesse, who had listened into the conversation all but ran out of the court house. Louise saw him go and leaned closer to Jimmy.

"Damn it-" he handed her to Buck and followed Jesse into the street.

"Jordan!" Jesse had reached the steps. "Jordan, you face me like a man, you hear?"

Jordan came to a halt in the middle of the street. Barnett tried to get him to move, but soon gave up as Jordan seemed rooted to the ground.

"A Man? How can I face you like a man... BOY!" He turned.. a smirk scrawled across his face.

Jesse drew a pistol from his coat, just as Jimmy reached his side, "Jesse, you put it down-"

He shook his head, "No way Hickok, he's gonna pay."

"He's got five years comin' to him."

"It ain't nearly enough - Lou -"

Jimmy set a hand on his arm. "Lou sent me after you.... don't do this."

"Well boy, I'm running out of patience-"

"Wait just a damn minute Jordan, or I'll shoot you myself!" Jordan balked at Jimmy's tone, and held his tongue. "Jesse put it down."

Jesse looked up into Jimmy's face, his own written with emotion. "You didn't see what happened in the window, the look on her face.. she knew she was gonna die... I'd never been so frightened in my life. Just now.. whatever he said to her... she had that same look Jimmy! I had to do something!"

Jimmy turned back to Jordan, who didn't have the sense to look contrite, "What the hell did you say?"

"I told her I'd survive it... only cause I'd be back to make it up to her."

Jesse lunged at him, only to have Jimmy hold him, "Jesse," he whispered. "It's killin' me too... but Lou wants him gone. Havin' you in jail won't help her." He paused to make sure Jess heard him. When Jesse gave up fightin' him, Jimmy let go. "Barnett, you better get him outta the street before someone takes a shot."

Jordan was nearly jerked off his feet by the deputy.

Jimmy kept his eyes off of Jordan, he didn't know how much more he could take of the man's snide attitude.

"Jimmy?" Lou stood in the doorway, Buck's hand supporting her arm. "Jesse?"

Jesse turned and ran to her. He threw his arms around her and cried, "I tried Lou...I tried... but "

Lou ignored the pain and hugged him back, stroking his back and whispering again and again, "It's okay... it's okay...it's okay..."

Epilogue

Late that night, Jimmy sat up waitin'. Louise was asleep on his bunk and he was on his third pot of coffee.

The door to the bunkhouse opened and the other riders feigned sleep, "Jimmy?"

"Where have you been?"

"Ridin'... I needed to clear my thoughts."

"It work?"

Kid hung up his gun belt, "No.. not really. I still want to kill him."

"Same here..." Jordan's words crept into his mind again.

"She asleep?"

Jimmy looked over. "Finally. She sat up for hours waitin' on you."

Kid hung his head, "A lot has happened in the last couple of days... I don't know what to make of it." A look passed between the two, an unspoken acceptance of the place Jimmy had assumed in her life. "I just hope it all works out."

The door swung open again, Teaspoon stood in the door way half dressed, "Boys? Thank goodness y're up... I need you both to come down to the jail with me."

Kid and Jimmy headed for the door, Kid shakin' Buck awake to tell him where they were goin'.




Barnett stopped before they got to the jail.. he'd already run the length of the town once.

Teaspoon arrived as Jimmy threw a chair against the bars, shattering it into hundreds of pieces. He clicked his tongue.. "Well at least it was clean. Son you okay?"

"How could he do it? How could he cheat us like that?"

Teaspoon stood starin' at the dangling feet, "Coward til the end Jimmy - there's no accountin' for a man like Jordan. No tellin' what set him off." He clapped a hand on Jimmy's shoulder, "It's over Jimmy."

"For him at least...maybe now, Lou can stop lookin' over her shoulder every time she steps into town."

"So much for the 'Perfect Gentleman' act, he died like the dog he was, tied to a leash." Kid leaned up against the wall of the jail. "Can't say the ending don't make me happy, I just wish we'd had a hand in it."

"You and me both Kid... you and me both."

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