Author's Note: This one started off in one direction and veered off into...

Lou swept into the Hollings Creek Station with barely time to tip the brim of her hat, but Charlie, the station master grabbed onto the halter. "Hold up, Lou."

Quickly schooling her features into that of a concerned young man she leaned down taking the tin cup one of the hands gave her on the side. "What's the matter, Charlie?"

"Trouble by the feel of the wind." The older man with a tinge of Paiute blood looked to the mountain pass looming before her. "'Sides, we're missing Hep Taylor."

Lou downed the water and swiped at her chin with a bandana she pulled out of her pocket. "What do you mean, missin'?"

"Left Conway this morning, heading here. A rider that left after him has already been through."

Nodding, Lou queried. "Think he's lost?"

Charlie shook his head. "Nope. Boy's one of my best. He ain't lost… but he may be hurt or… worse."

"If I see him-"

"Yeah…" Letting go of the halter, Charlie nodded, "if you see him. Do what you can."

Lou kicked her mount into motion and headed for the mountain pass. She'd been this way before, a number of times, but just because she's been through before didn't mean that today was going to be the same. Out in the wilds like this… there was always a need to watch.

The open trail was easy, well-marked and clear, but as she wound her way up into the mountain pass it was like Mother Nature had thought to do some rearranging. A slide had brought down some boulders bigger than some of the packing crates they'd brought into Tompkins' store the other day.

There was already sign of a new trail ridden by the Express couriers and Lou maneuvered her mount to follow it. It would be easier for a man like Buck, but she'd learned to follow a track from him and with horses, they kicked up enough to see during the day.

There was a point where the path split in two, the left side was cut deeper into the dirt, wider by two than the one on the right, but rocks littered the trail, sharp and plentiful. Lou looked down at the small hearty mare she rode. It was the first time she'd drawn this mount and while she was an Express mount there wasn't the same trust she had with Lightning, Sundance or any of the other Rock Creek horses.

Making a last minute decision she veered to the right trail. It was clear and she could look up ahead and see it curving back toward the main trail. It would be a welcome break from the rocks and other debris and lessen her time to the next station.

A twitch of a muscle in her back had her leaning down along the neck of her mount, searching for a stretch and momentary release of from her pain.

A loud CRACK sounded over her head and the limb of a tree burst into a shower of splinters against the side of her face and her neck. "Hey!"

Knowing she was exposed she had no choice but to hide behind the only thing she had. Wrapping her right arm around the neck of her mount she slid down behind the chest of her mount and hooked her heel against her saddle as she rode.

The mare, skittish from the gunshot and unused to the odd riding style, sidled to the edge of the trail and lost her footing. Realizing her peril, Lou tried to right herself in the saddle and keep the mare going, but the sudden changes proved too much for the struggling horse and Lou suddenly found herself up in the air. Her horse sunfished, flipping over with her belly exposed to the sunlight and rolled in the air.

With one moment to act, Lou threw herself to the side and ended up with only one leg beneath the horse when she plummeted back to Earth. The wind was knocked out of Lou, but she still tried to reach for the mochila with one hand and her gun with the other.

Another crack sent dust and small rocks spraying into her face. She closed her eyes, a fraction of a second too late. Blinking wildly she aimed in the direction of the bullet and fired. "Stay away from me!"

For a moment everything was quiet and Lou was tempted to hope.

Then the laughter started. "That voice is a little high for a man."

"Stay away." Lou fired again, her vision clearing slowly, revealing boots and rocks in her line of sight.

"I'd stay back if I were you, Sonny."

The boots before her swiveled. "Don't use my name, Frank." The name was added in for spite and Lou heard the sharp retort coming from the right.

Sonny was moving closer. "I think this one might be a little more talkative."

This one?

Lou filed the information away in her head, just in case… just in case she made it home.

"Don't get too close, she's got a gun."

The one they called Sonny hunkered down a few feet away and peered into her face. Lou continued to blink even though the dirt in her eyes caused her pain. She was determined to get back as much of her sight as she could.

Sonny grinned at her. "She's got a gun alright, but I ain't never seen a woman that could shoot for sh-"

"You're gonna let me leave." Lou knew her words caught him off balance. And watched as his expression went from shock to interest. "You're gonna let me leave before my friends come after me."

Giving her a feigned look of shock, Sonny leaned a little closer. "We can handle your friends and a few of us would be happy to have them come after you. A few of our boys ain't killed a man yet."

"You're talkin' too much… ask her-"

"Who's in charge here, boy?" Sonny turned back to Lou and grinned. "We hear that Mr. Russell is sending a list along with one of the Express riders that details bank transfers. Lots and lots of money. Do 'you' have that list?"

Lou quickly weighed her options, deciding between the truth and a bald-faced lie. "They don't tell us what we carry. Most times we just ride through and pick up the pouch." She looked up at Sonny, her vision nearly cleared. "I guess Hep didn't have the list, did he?"

"Hep?" Sonny leered at her. "Didn't know his name until now… he didn't answer too many questions with a bullet in his gut."

Her hand closed around the butt of her handgun, the smooth wood cool against her palm. "I doubt I'm carrying much of anything besides letters to and from family and-"

"Too bad, then…"Sonny gave his friend a big grin over her shoulder, "if you had something to bargain with then maybe we'd let you live long enough to join us."

Lou gave one last frantic blink to clear her vision. "Too bad for you that I like my job." The gun cleared leather and spat a lead ball from its barrel taking Sonny square in the chest.

He clutched at his chest as he fell backward onto the ground, the dust billowing up around him as he held one hand up before his eyes. "Good God, Frank… she shot me."

There was a scrambling sound around the curve of a boulder and Lou struggled to pull her feet out from under the mare, managing to free both she looked up in time to see a fist descending and she didn't have time to do anything but let it happen.

*** ***

It was the crack of a piece of wood splitting in the heart of a fire that woke her up. The first thought in her cloudy head was to nag Cody to put it out… the bunkhouse was warm enough.

"Who's Cody?"

The strange voice pulled her out of her stupor and Lou grabbed at her waist for her pistol.

"It ain't there," the voice was nearer this time and Lou couldn't hide the yelp of pain as she tried to scoot away from the voice, but ended up bumping into a rock behind her.

"Stay… stay away."

He leaned over the coffee pot balanced on a few rocks in the center of the fire and gave her a look that seemed oddly bashful. "I ain't gonna hurt you, miss."

It was her turn to look at him oddly. She knew her face must plainly read the confusion… the speculation she was feeling. "Right…"

Looking over at Sonny, laying out a few feet away Frank sunk his chin down on his knees. "It was all Sonny's idea, really. He thought it would be easy. Catch one of you riders and put a gun to his head and get the information. It sounded good."

Lou licked her lips to wet them; the harsh wind cracked the tender skin too quickly when she was on the trail. "But it wasn't that easy." Maybe it was the firelight… or maybe it was the memory, but Frank looked a little pale. "And Hep didn't tell you anything."

Frank shook his head a little too hard and stared at the fire. "I ain't never heard no one beg like that… Sonny smacked him good with his pistol, busted open his cheek and there was blood drippin' down his… his face." The outlaw looked at Lou and she could see how young he really was. "I tried to get Sonny to stop, but he told me if I didn't shut my mouth… I was gonna… I mean he was gonna-"

"So you didn't stop him from killing Hep."

Frank looked as though she'd hit him across the face. "No one can… well, no one 'could' have stopped Sonny when he had his mind set on somethin'… "

"So if I hadn't shot him he'd have done the same to me."

"Worse," he shrugged, "once he figured out yer a girl. He didn't like women much and if you didn't give him what he wanted… well, there ain't no accountin' for what he woulda done."

Lou swallowed the thought and found her way to her feet. She could tell the movement startled Frank but that's what she was hoping for. "Give me my gun."

He gave her a resigned look and reached into the shadows beside his leg. He held up the pistol and frowned when she took it from his hand. "You gonna shoot me too?"

Pulling back the hammer with a decided click Lou nodded toward the night. "Where's Hep's body?"

"I put a marker on it. I hung his kerchief from a stick and set that at the head, it's mainly a pile of rocks, but it'll keep the coyotes off of his body."

Lou felt the bottom of her stomach sink down into her boots. It might have been her fate… just a few hours earlier… and it could've been her. "Get up, Frank."

The young man got up and stood with his hands at his side. He looked up at her from under pensive eyebrows. "You could shoot me dead like Sonny and there ain't no one to miss me." He watched her hand carefully, looking for anything to tell him how long he had in the world.

"You went through his mochila?"

Frank blinked at her. "The what?" He followed the flicker of her gaze to the leather mail bag near the fire. "That thing? Sure… we wanted the list… didn't find much though… maybe fifty dollars. Wasn't worth it if you ask me."

"Get the horses, Frank… I'll be watching." She watched him move, tentatively at first almost as though he expected to be shot through the back as he moved, and then when she didn't kill him outright he hurried to saddle his horse and Sonny's. Lou shook her head. Two Express mounts gone… a rider killed… one criminal dead… all over fifty dollars. It wasn't worth it. Wouldn't ever be.

Author's Note: Thanks to Liz and Cindy for beta reading

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