"I will not get off the stage!"
 
The comically under-fed man in the full length woolen coat seemed to wilt even more.  "You cannot think that I would allow you stay!"
 
Louise McCloud adjusted her skirt with short jerking motions, better that than to break the irritating man's nose.  "Allow me?  Allow!?" She was trying very hard to keep her voice under a roar as she was too tired to waste the energy on a idiot like him.  "I don't need your permission to be on this stage... I have a ticket!"
 
"I am the Secretary of the Royal Duke, Gavril Ilya Vanechka, and I require the use of this entire conveyance!" The sides of his body seemed to stretch and contract with each shaky breath.  "Now if you will... kindly... exit-"
 
"Why you, sniveling little-"
 
"Sergei?" The softly spoken name had an amazing affect on the over-heated Secretary.
 
At once, the man's face changed from outrage to a schooled mask of compliance.  "Your Eminence?" He nodded toward the sound of his master's voice.
 
"I believe we have wasted enough of the young lady's time.  Should we not be on our way?"
 
Sergei gave another irritated glance in Louise's direction.  "Your Grace, I do believe she would be so inclined to leave if you would allow me to call Hedeon-"
 
A melodic baritone chuckle reached her ears.  "There is no need for violence, Sergei.  I believe there is ample room for everyone inside the coach."
 
Sergei whipped a lace edged handkerchief from the inside of his coat and wiped the moisture from his face.  "But really, Your Highn-"
 
"Step aside, Sergei, you are drawing a most unwelcome amount of attention to our plight."
 
With a speed Louise could only admire, the secretary backed out of the carriage and bowed low, hiding his face as his coat sleeve concealed his expression.
 
The man entering in the coach reached up and removed his hat as he settled into the seat across from Louise.  A lightly tanned hand passed into view as the newcomer slipped his fingers through his hair, shaking off the effects of the constricting chapeau.  With his other, he set an ivory handled walking stick against the wall of the stage beside his knee before tilting his face up to greet his companion.
 
Neither of them spoke.
 


 
The young duke was utterly charmed.  Staring at him with unabashed curiosity was a young, fresh faced woman in a dark green dress.  While the style and cut of the dress was simple, it was remarkable in the way that it complimented her sable colored hair to its best advantage.  However, it was her eyes that captivated him.  In his country, women his age would rarely dare looking at him directly, choosing instead the edge of a delicately painted fan or an embroidered handkerchief to hide their curious gazes.  Even here, in the Eastern states, ladies had watched and commented about him from behind the shoulders of their husbands or upraised hands.  To see the young woman's curious, open gaze was quite flattering.
 

 
 
Louise felt a blush steal over her face.  His eyes were an intriguing color of hazel and full of warmth as they studied her in return.  Realizing that the interior of the coach was nearly silent, Louise managed a quick, "Hello."
 
A wide grin stretched over his lips, "It seems you have shamed me, Miss." Bending at the waist in a decidedly elegant way, the well tailored coat stretched with his body as he offered a hand.  "Allow me to introduce myself.  My name is Gavril Vanechka."
 
Taking his hand in her firm grasp, Louise felt a distinct tingle in her fingers.  "My name is Louise... Louise McCloud.  Pleased to meet you, Gavril."
 
An outraged gasp came from the doorway.  The once again hyper-ventilating Secretary flopped down the seat beside his master.  "His name is Gavril Ilya Venechka, but you, Miss, will call him, his Grace.. or his Eminence... or his Royal-"
 
Releasing her hand, Gavril smiled at her with a decided gleam in his eye.  "She may call me Gavril, Sergei.  Such a charming young lady will surely make our travels much easier to endure."
 
While the secretary struggled to take in enough air to remain conscious, he could not seem to stop himself from chastising his young master.  "Really, Sir, you've allowed this wayward woman to take refuge in our carriage.  Her very existence is objectionable."  
 
"That is enough." There was a subtle warning in the Duke's tone, but everyone inside the stage heard it loud and clear.  Louise was trying to keep her mind on anything other than the handsome man sitting across the coach.
 
 
 
The stage driver called out a command and Louise steadied herself in preparation for the jolt.  By the slight tensing in Gavril's broad shoulders, she knew he too heard the sharp warning in the driver's voice, so it was no surprise that the two weathered the initial surge of the stage coach well.  The Secretary was not so fortunate.  With the mighty leap forward, the mumbling man was thrown into the opposite seat, one leg tangling with the other as he tried to right himself.
 
Louise tried to help the man up, but he waved off her hands.  "This is outrageous!" He dusted off his coat, doing more damage than good to the elegant pile.
 
An apologetic smile was framed by a sandy gold goatee.  "Please forgive Sergei, Miss McCloud, he does so value his .. independence."
 
 
 
The next few hours passed by quickly and with relatively few problems.  The Secretary had decided to ignore the conversation between his master and their guest.  Gavril and Louise continued to converse, or rather, Gavril continued to ask questions and Louise answered them.  She hedged as long as she could, for it seemed that he was determined to find out everything he could about her.
 
"You were in St. Joseph visiting your..." His expectant gaze was very endearing.
 
She smiled and wondered if she should start feigning sleep to save herself from his questions.  After quite a bit of thought she looked away from his eyes and toward the lightly covered window.  "Brother and sister," she supplied.
 
"So, you live apart from your brother and sister..." He seemed to ponder the answer for a moment.  "Younger?"
 
"What?" She looked back at him.  "Me?  Oh.. I'm the oldest."
 
"Ah..." he nodded.
 
Louise turned back to the window and pulled open the corner of the shade to peer outside.  Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew that he had asked her a question.  Dropping her hand back into her lap she turned toward Gavril.  "I'm sorry... what did you say?"
 
He leaned forward and smiled, "I asked if you were away from them because you were married."
 
Blinking back at him, Louise shook her head.  There was almost a stutter in her voice as she answered him.  "N-no.. not married... I work in Rock Creek."
 
"Work?"  They both turned to the Secretary and watched as he fanned himself with a newspaper.  "She works... heaven help us!  Next thing you know, His Grace will want a job."
 
Gavril gave him a look of warning and the Secretary turned to the wall of the coach in his attempt to once again shut out the wholly inappropriate conversation.
 
"A job... as?"
 
Louise found her attention drawn back to the window.  Even though she knew that Gavril was waiting for an answer, there was something bothering her.
 
Gavril lifted up his own shade and squinted into the sunlight.  "What is it?  What do you see?"
 
Pursing her lips together, Louise looked to the horizon.  "I don't see anything, it's more of a sound.  Something just beyond the noise of the coach.  Something I can't quite hear."
 
*SPLAT*
 
Louise turned toward the secretary as he triumphantly held his newspaper aloft.  He'd rolled it into a spindly stick.  "Blasted fly.  He'll bother us no longer!" His eyes finally settled on Louise.  "Nothing more to worry about, I have solved your problem."
 
Nodding as though she was placating a child, Louise turned back to the window.  
 
"Ho there!" A startled cry from the driver caught their attention.  "Keep a watch to the left!"
 
The shotgun rider called out an answer and Louise crawled up and over the dividing bench to look out the opposite window.  Sergei pressed himself against the thin cushion at his back, trying to avoid contact with the young woman stretched over the opposite  seat.  With an oath that caused the stuffed shirt secretary to gape with surprise, Louise climbed back over to her seat and quickly reached for her saddlebag.  No one noticed her little smile at the secretary's obvious discomfort at having her invade his personal space.
 
Picking it up from the floor, Louise plopped it on the empty spot beside her.  She didn't bother to unbuckle the strap, just shoved it aside and reached her hand into the dark interior.
 
They heard the shouts and gunfire right before Sergei began to scream.
 
 
 
Louise resisted the urge to press her hands over her ears.  She checked the number of bullets in her gun and tucked it into a pocket in the side of her skirt.
 
Seeing the action, Sergei began to shriek, "She'll get us killed, your Grace... just wait, she'll get us killed!"
 
Gavril held up his hand.  "Silence, Sergei.  You've set my head to pounding!  Surely the noise can't help any of us."
 
"But.. but.." The man was positively pale with fear, "She ... she..."
 
Stroking his right hand over his chin, Gavril considered Louise as she sat quietly in her seat.  "She seems to have her wits about her." The quiet comment brought a small smile to Louise's lips.  "Should the skill she showed in simply checking her weapon be any indication of her skill in using it... I believe we are in excellent hands."
 
The stage jerked several times as the driver halted the horses and it wasn't much longer before the door was pulled open and nearly off it's hinges.  A man, the lower half of his face covered by a soiled red handkerchief, waved a gun at each of them.  "This is gonna be simple.  Yer gonna give me yer money and expensive stuff and I'm not gonna kill you.  Got it?"
 
When none of the passengers made a move to challenge him, the man laughed and stepped back from the doorway.  "Come on out then!"
 
Gavril picked up his cane and stepped down, followed by a nearly hyperventilating secretary, who seemed overly concerned about the state of his clothing instead of the agitated robber holding them at gun-point.
 
Holding his hand out to Louise, Gavril helped her down the steps, lightly squeezing her fingers in trust.  She moved to stand beside him and he couldn't help but straighten his already impeccable posture.  Her calm demeanor reassuring, her courage inspiring.  "What an unusual woman," Gavril mused, his attention held by her impish face.
 
A rather inelegant snort interrupted his thoughts.  "I'll gladly second that thought, Your Grace."
 
The robber whirled on them, his gun shaking wildly.  "Quit yer yappin'!  This ain't no party, 'ladies'!"
 
Sergei swept his handkerchief toward his face to capture a few stray drops of perspiration.
 
Startled, the robber poked the end of his gun into Sergei's chest, causing the already excited man to squeak out a scream, "Yipe!"
 
"You!" The robber looked absolutely frantic, "Stop wavin' that thing, 'fore I shoot it... or YOU!"
 
Sergei stuffed the handkerchief in his coat and nodded.
 
While Sergei kept the robber busy, he unknowingly aided their cause.  Louise, in silent communication with Gavril, was ready to act.  She drew her gun, clearing it from her pocket with practiced ease.  Sergei took one look at the long barreled pistol and flew into vapors yet again.
 
"Oh good heavens!" His shrill cry was loud enough to frighten the horses and keep the robber's attention.
 
"I said, 'Shut your tar-"
 
Louise swung her pistol in a wide arc and was rewarded as it thumped upside the robbers head.  His face contorted into a crude mask of surprise and anger but his body crumpled to the ground beneath him.
 
Sergei whipped out his kerchief again and waved it before his face.  "That was.. that was.."
 
"Impressive.. fantastic... amazing!" Gavril filled in, his eyes captivated by her.
 
Louise was unimpressed at her praises from her fellow passenger.  She was trying to drag the gunman's body to the stage.  "A little help here, if you don't mind."
 
Sergei took a look, saw a line of blood on the robber's cheek and promptly followed him into a swoon.
 
Louise glanced over at him and rolled her eyes.  "Now I really need your help."
 
Without a thought Gavril jumped in to help.  Anything to be around the lovely lady that had saved their lives.
 


 
When the stage rolled into Rock Creek, there had never been a happier passenger than Louise McCloud.  She grabbed her bag and hopped off without any assistance from the driver.  She paused only to see Gavril torn between assisting his frail secretary and following her.
 
The crowd gathered quickly, as it always did when the stage came in with bullet holes and an injured driver.  Louise was relieved when Teaspoon stepped into the center of the crowd.  He'd cover for her and give her time to run, and run she did.
 
Sure enough, Teaspoon stepped forward to intercept the young man trying to follow Louise, but he wasn't able to catch the secretary.  Sent to do his master's bidding, he was able to squeeze through the crowd and follow after the disappearing woman.  He ran like he'd never run before, his lungs burning with need of oxygen and his feet cramping as his arches crashed to the ground beneath him.
 
As he ran, he prayed to God that he would survive the torture for his young master and complete his duty.  Moments later he was relieved to see the girl barrel through the door of a simple wooden building and slam the door behind her.
 
He was thrilled, excited to return with his task accomplished.  Just as he was about to turn back around he saw the most disturbing vision happen before his eyes.  Men.. no, not A MAN.. but men.. many of them head into the same building.
 
Sergei staggered on his feet, his vision began to darken, the world swimming around him.  He waited as men walked in and out of the building.. but no Louise.  She was kept inside the building and Sergei knew that she was being held against her will.  Of course she was, no woman would stay in such a hovel with so many scruffy unkempt creatures.
 
He waited for a few more precious moments, but when he saw no sign of her he had to act.  Reporting back to his master was imperative.  She'd saved their lives and as much as it galled Sergei to admit, they would have to do everything in their power to return the favor.  He only hoped it wouldn't be too late!
 


 
It took less than a day to gather the men Gavril needed.  The royal guards had arrived on the next stage and would have jumped immediately into action if their master had given the order.  Sergei had his hands full trying to keep Gavril calm.  The young duke was beside himself pacing in their 'suite' at the local hotel.  He couldn't go to the law, no, not that horrible Teaspoon fellow.  He'd sworn up and down that there was no "Louise" anywhere in town and none of the citizens of the town was at all forthcoming with information.  The horrible grump of a general store owner was worse.  He insisted that the duke continue to buy items if he wanted to talk to the man and then after they'd purchased nearly a hundred dollars of goods the man had said nothing of consequence.  This whole town was maddening!
 
Once they'd assembled the necessary equipment for the rescue mission, they made their way from the hotel under the cover of the early morning shadows and took up their positions.  It was most time consuming waiting for Sergei to get in position, for it was his job that was the most 'enlightening.'  
 


 
Cody stepped out into the morning light, his pants nearly fastened and his fingers raking his belly in an attempt to shake of the unsatisfactory night of sleep.  He yawned and stretched like a cat as he searched for the warmth of the sunlight.  He staggered out into the yard, his booted feet dragging rows of dust behind him.  The sun was visible, just over the town, a large bright circle of blinding light.  Cody help up a hand to block the painful sphere from hurting him needlessly.  It took a moment to adjust to the new sensations and another moment to focus on the dark shape against the sky.
 
It arose from the sleepy town like a Goliath, it's large head rising in the sky as it supported the box beneath it.  Cody gaped at the site.  He'd heard about something called a Hot Air Balloon, but he'd never seen one.  "Well, I'll be---"
 
Buck stepped out after him and grabbed onto his medicine pouch, his spirit warring with his mind as the large balloon floated closer.  Buck was struck speechless and elbowed Cody to sound the warning.  
 
"Hickok!  Ike!  Noah!  Y'all need to see this!" Cody bellowed.
 
There was not sound behind them and Cody turned to hurry them along.  "Hickok!"
 
The dark and gravelly voice of Jimmy Hickok burst from an open window.  "I'm comin', Cody.. I'm comin'... just keep your pants on!"
 
Cody grimaced, "That ain't the problem, Hickok, we've got company.... "
 
That got action.
 
They spilled out of doors as all hell broke loose.  Men seemed to appear from thin air, surrounding the little station of Rock Creek.  All wore brightly colored uniforms dripping with gold braid and wore red sashes around their hips.  The riders had to scramble for their weapons while their minds were still clouded with sleep.  The man at the center was a richly attired gentleman.  His bearing and his demeanor was of a man born to royalty; even with the scowl on his face, his ornate military dress inspired a latent respect in the ragtag bunch of riders.  "You will bring out the woman or face the consequences."
 
Cody was having trouble understanding the rich rumble of the Russian accent.  "What?"
 
Buck watched the men approaching with a wary eye.  "What do you want with Rachel?"
 
The sandy haired giant stopped in mid stride, his countenance confused.  "Rachel?  Who is this Rachel?  I demand that you turn over Louise.. the courageous young woman that saved my life!"
 
The riders all looked at each other.  "Where's Lou?" whispered Noah.
 
Jimmy answered him in a rough whisper.  "Inside.. asleep I think.. she was pretty tired from the robbery yesterday."
 
Cody shook his head, "Or that bit of whiskey Teaspoon gave her to 'calm her nerves' hit her a little harder than we thought." 
 
Ike shook his head and alerted the others to the men approaching.  **we'll talk about temperance issues later**
 
Siting a man with his gun, Jimmy roared back, "Louise ain't goin' anywhere with you, Mister.  If you don't turn back now, you're gonna be in a world of hurt!"
 
There was an answering gleam in the Russian's eyes.  "Have it your way, blackguard!  I will liberate her from this prison!"
 
Cody pushed back his hat and gave a short whistle.  "Lord-A-mighty!  He talks even fancier than me!"
 
Noah groaned.  "Heaven help us all!"
 
Jimmy growled.  "Quit yer jawin'.. we've got work to do."
 
 
 
And work they did.  The next 10 minutes seemed to fly by as gunfire was exchanged. 
 
The hot air balloon floating overhead came into focus several times and the riders could see a spindly man waving flags over his head as if he was signaling ships on the open sea.
 
Bullets flew around them but the riders held to the bunkhouse guarding, their friend as she apparently slept through the melee.
 
Even with the invaders' superior size, the riders were able to subdue some of the strangely dressed men, the heat of the mid-west weighing down on their limbs.  The battle had taken its toll on the riders as well; they gasped for air and fought to keep up the fight.  It was then that Louise entered the fray.  Dressed as Lou, she stumbled out into the battle unaware of the dire situation, for her head was pounding with the after effects of half a bottle of whiskey.  Seeing the trouble her friends were in, she instinctively turned her spry little body into a whirling dervish, arms flying at their attackers.
 
Gavril saw the little boy at the door.  Realizing the ease of dispatching such a slight boy, he approached with the elation of success singing in his veins.  He pulled back a fist as his other hand grasped the boy's collar.  An instant before he landed the blow, he was shocked to see the startled face of Louise hidden under a floppy hat and thick glasses.  As much as he would have laid down his life to stop the blow, it was too late.  His fist connected with her cheek and her head snapped back, casting her into the black weightless space of oblivion. The rest of the battle crumbled around them as Lou's slight body fell to the floor.  Their enemy broke ranks with a single command ordered by their Royal master.  
 
The Russian ruffians backed away to give the riders space as they crowded around their friend, keeping their attackers at bay as they struggled to make sense of the situation.  What Cody would someday call a 'stray bullet' pierced the side of the hot air balloon.  It shattered the red star with excellent precision, exiting the other side before the target could move.  The hot air rushed for escape, eager to find freedom in the air.  The balloon careened through the sky, bouncing in large raucous curves from front to front, zooming through cloud banks and formations of birds.  No one saw the final destination of the balloon, for all eyes where turned to the area in front of the bunkhouse door. 
 
Lou was still on the floor.  Her glasses gone, flown off into some invisible corner of the world, she lay unmoving on the wooden planks.
 
The wild look in Gavril's eyes disappeared in an instant.  The soft part of her unconscious lips called to his memories and he felt the cold hand of reality grab him by the neck.
 
As Gavril tried to move forward he realized that the strangling feeling he felt was more than a figment of his imagination; the fingers trying to crush his windpipe were all too real.
 
The tall longhaired one had murder in his eyes.  His beige jacket paled against the blood smudged under his blazing gaze.  "Who the hell are you?"
 
Gavril gasped for air as he struggled to see what was happening to Louise.
 
Jimmy pulled him closer, his grip tightening on the Gavril's neck.  "I asked you a question!"
 
Guards paced closer trying to save their master.  Struggling, Gavril held up a single eloquent finger and they stopped in their tracks.
 
Buck moved closer, keeping his peripheral vision on Louise.  "Jimmy..."
 
"He hit her, Buck.. just stay out of this."
 
Reaching out, Buck tried to touch Jimmy's arm.  "You're killin' him, Jimmy."
 
"Yeah... and?"
 
Cody stepped closer.  "Ya ain't gonna get an answer from a dead man, Hickok."
 
Buck tried to measure his voice as he worked to pull Jimmy's fingers from around Gavril's throat.  "Come on, Jimmy.... just let him-"
 
Gavril stumbled back across the boards, until the rock steady grasp of one of his guards touched his shoulder.  He touched his throat and felt the hot ridges of welts beginning to form.  Gasping in a breath he tried to speak.  "-- she --right?"
 
Louise lay still in the doorway.  Teaspoon was at her side, bent over the young rider with a concerned look on his face.  With a gesture, Ike ran off for the house.  Collectively the riders began to breathe a little easier knowing that help was on the way.  Jimmy's hands stretched and contracted at his sides.  Gavril looked away from the rider for a second and realized that it wasn't just one person that he had to worry about... it was the whole group.  They all looked at him in varying degrees of curiosity and anger.  "Talk."
 
"I thought... that he... I mean, she." Looking very much like a prized peacock in a hen house, Gavril seemed unable to form his thoughts into a single coherent sentence.  "I met... Louise on the stage...and she was entrancing."
 
"Oh Good Lord, he's in love with her!" Cody sounded like he was sick to his stomach.  "What is it with Lou and these guys that roll into town?"
 
"Shut up, Cody." Noah's clear baritone uttered a warning.
 
Cody stomped off muttering to himself, "Shut up, Cody.. shut up, Cody,...when is it going to be... shut up, Ike...huh?"
 
There was no time to answer him, for Louise picked that particular moment to regain her senses.  She sat up with a gasp and managed to fix her eyes on Gavril before her vision began to swim.  "Why....wha-" She stopped her questions as the horrible taste of blood in her mouth was a bit more than she could take.  She felt a fine line of it slip down her chin.   
 
Taking out a fine silk kerchief, Gavril set it in her hand.  "Use this."
 
Louise dabbed at the corner of her mouth while she watched him.  He looked horrible, his face drawn in lines of concern.  She wanted to be angry at him.  Wanted to shove the handkerchief back in his face, but he looked like he was really upset over the whole misunderstanding.  She hoped so, because she didn't feel like torturing him any more.  Louise flexed her jaw and winced at the pain.  "You certainly know how to throw a good punch, Gavril."
 
Jimmy growled under his breath, "You know this pain-in-the-"
 
"Jimmy-" Noah warned.
 
"You really know him?"
 
Louise tried to stand and Buck took one elbow while Ike took the other.  "He was on the stage with me."
 
"Louise- I want to make this up to you... somehow-"
 
Cody stepped in between the two.  "What are you going to do?  Take her on another stage ride?"
 
"Cody," Louise strengthened her voice, "Let him talk."
 
Rolling his eyes heavenward, Cody stepped away.
 
Gavril stepped forward but remained far enough away to ease the discomfort of the riders.  "I would like to take you to dinner and-"
 
"Dinner?" Jimmy couldn't believe his ears.  "No.. no way!"
 
"You think we're going to let you take her anywhere...alone?"
 
Louise cleared her throat, "Excuse me.. did I lose the ability to speak for myself?" She blushed a bit, "Sorry, Ike."
 
He waved off her concern.
 
"If he wants to take me to-"
 
"I can bring it here.  If that would be alright?"
 
Ike smiled.  **not much privacy**
 
Louise glared at her friends.  "Stay out of my-"
 
Gavril interrupted.  He was unwilling to lose the chance he had.  "It would be for all of you.  An attempt to mend fences, to make my apologies.  I would have the restaurant deliver it and we'd eat here, together."
 
"There's no need for that, young man."
 
They all turned to meet Rachel's arched look.  "I'll fix the meal, you just head on back to .. the hotel.." she waited for his nod, "and come on back in a few hours and we'll have a nice ..peaceful meal."  The last part of her sentence had been addressed to Jimmy and Cody who still looked a little angry over the whole event.
 
Gavril made a low bow to her.  "Thank you, my dear woman.  I am most grateful for your gracious offer.  We will be back in a few hours."  He turned to Louise and affected another bow, his one deeper and with more reverence.  "Until later, my precious one."
 
The riders managed to hold their laughter until Gavril was out of earshot, almost. 
 


 
Less than an hour later a small wooden jewelry box arrived for Louise, along with a number of other gifts.  Wrapped in expensive scarves with delicate embroidery bordering, the gifts seemed too beautiful and expensive to open.  Louise sat there for a moment as she pondered the gifts.  "I should send them back."  
 
Cody nearly hit the floor from shock.  "What?  Are you insane?"  
 
"Cody, I shouldn't accept gifts from him..."
 
"Why not?" he answered back, "These are probably just a drop in the bucket for him.  'Sides, he nearly knocked your head clean off your shoulders!  It's the least he can do!"  
 
Louise smiled like a child on Christmas morning.  Hugging the box to her chest, she felt a little giggle rise up in her throat.  "All right.  I'll take a look first.. and then decide."  The riders all crowded around as she opened the box.  Louise gasped as she saw the contents.  Two perfect diamond earrings lay cushioned in a bed of soft amethyst velvet.  "Oh my."
 
Cody reached closer and pointed in the box.  "Read the note, Lou."
 
She opened the paper and read quietly, "They're from his family's collection."
 
"I bet he's rich," piped in Cody.
 
Jimmy smacked him on the shoulder.  "Of course he's rich, idiot."
 
Cody rubbed him arm.  "That hurt, Hickok."
 
"I didn't hit you that hard."
 
Turning the corners of his lips down Cody answered, "Yeah, well it hurt my feelings."
 
Noah interrupted.  "Shhhhh. You gonna keep them?"
 
"I shouldn't."
 
"Why not?" Cody shook his head.  "He clocked you a good one, Lou.  Keep em."
 
Louise laughed.  "I don't have pierced ears, Cody.  I can't wear them."
 
Buck stood and opened his trunk.  "I can fix that for you." 
 

 
 
"Just go ahead and do it." Louise steeled herself, waiting for the pain.
 
Buck chuckled deep in his throat and cuffed her on the shoulder.  "Tense up like that and it will hurt even more."
 
Her shoulders sagged as she admitted, "I'm just not one for the sight of blood."
 
Jimmy set down the coffee pot and tossed the hand towel to the side.  "You're not gonna faint on us, are you?"
 
Louise rolled her eyes in the mirror.  "Not likely, Jimmy."
 
He hissed as the coffee burned his tongue.  "Good, 'cause I'm not picking you up off the floor if you do."
 
"OW!" Louise glared at Buck.  "What did you do?"
 
Buck held up the needle in his hand.  "One side done."
 
"What?" Louise leaned closer to the mirror and watched as the sunlight from the window sparked within the crystaline gem dangling from her ear.  "You did it!"
 
Nodding with satisfaction at the other riders, Buck cleaned off the needle.  "Ready for the other side?"
 
Fingering the bauble, Louise felt a smile tug at her lips.  "You were right.  It didn't hurt that much."
 
With an indulgent smile, Buck leaned closer to Louise, the heavy needle poised and ready.  "I only speak the truth."
 
Cody guffawed around his sandwich, "Yeah, listen to the wise old Injun!"
 
Jimmy set his coffee cup down on the table.  "I swear you two are worse than my sisters!  Just get it over with and we'll get on with our lives."
 
Buck raised an eyebrow as his gaze met Louise's in the mirror.
 
Wiping at his mouth with a napkin, Cody swallowed an over-sized bit.  "Leave 'em alone, Jimmy.  A girl's got a right to look her best." Cody leaned his elbows on the table.  "Just look at her, our little bro- I mean sister, all grown up and courtin' royalty!"
 
The look on Louise's face seemed to indicate that Cody was lucky she couldn't reach her gun.
 
Jimmy stepped closer.  "I don't see what the big problem is.  Make a hole, put in the metal thing... and you're done!"  He leaned in for a close look as Buck pierced Louise's left ear with the needle.
 
No one seemed to notice the change in Jimmy's skin.  It went from his usual light tan to peach... then white... and finally to a sickly green.  "What is... that's just... wrong."  Jimmy's eyes seemed to roll back up into his head and before Louise could even try to steady him, Jimmy collapsed on the floor in an undignified heap.
 
Cody's chair hit the floor as he leaned over the table for a closer look.  "Did he just faint?"
 
No one said a thing.
 
A smile broke out on Cody's face, brightening his looks.  "He did!  Jimmy 'tough guy' Hickok.. just upped and fainted from a little bit of blood."
 
Still no one moved.
 
"A little ol' dot of blood." He began to giggle.  "'Wild Bill', shucks... he's more like 'Wussy Bill'."
 
Buck was beginning to chuckle, "Just be glad he didn't hear that."
 
Louise had her fingers over her ear, twisting the metal post in her ear.  "Shouldn't someone pick him up off the floor?"
 
Cody shook his head.  "I think he's fine, right where he is."
 
Wanting to agree, Buck decided against it.  "Why don't you try to get him to come around?"
 
Shrugging his shoulders, Cody looked around the room.  "Fine, but I ain't gonna run all the way to Rachel's for the smellin' salts." His quick perusal brought about Cody's idea of a brilliant solution.  Reaching out with lightning fast hands, Cody grabbed Louise's new bottle of perfume.
 
She whirled away from the mirror.  "Put it down!"
 
Holding out his hands to calm her anger, Cody tried to reason with her.  "Now, Lou.. this is for Jimmy."  He indicated the prone rider on the floor, "The poor boy, laid out like a sacrificial lamb." Cody tried to hold back his laughter.  "You don't want to see him layin' there all day, do ya?"
 
Louise narrowed her gaze.  "Be careful with that, Cody... or I'll have your hide!"
 
Shrugging off the warning, Cody opened the bottle of perfume and waved it beneath his nose.  "Whooo wee!  Either I done died and gone to heaven or little Lou here's got herself quite the suitor.  This stuff smells so good, it's got to be expensive as all get out."
 
"Cody?"
 
The blond rider looked up at Buck.  "Yeah?"
 
"Hickok?"
 
Remembering the unconscious rider, he offered up a goofy grin.  "Oh yeah.. him."  Cody knelt beside his friend and began to wave the open bottle just before his nose.  For a long moment it seemed as though the idea wasn't so brilliant as Jimmy continued his unconscious sprawl.
 
"Better get that bucket of water outside-" Lou began.
 
Cody waved off her suggestion.  "He's comin' around." He continued to wave the open vial under Jimmy's nose.
 
Buck looked over at the two and gave a quick warning.  "Step back, Cody."
 
Again, Cody waved off the advice.  "He's not quite there." The bottle flowed back and forth, almost a blur before their eyes.  "Keep it comin', Hickok!  Don't be a baby about th-"
 
Jimmy popped up like a daisy in springtime, and Cody wasn't able to back away nearly fast enough.  The shock jerked Cody's arm and sent most of the contents of the perfume bottle down the front of Jimmy's shirt and the length of Cody's arm.
 
"Hickok!" Cody bellowed.
 
Looking down at the front of his sopping shirt, Jimmy held it away from his body and sniffed suspiciously.  "What the hell did you do, Cody?"
 
Cody scowled, "Don't blame this on me, Hickok!  You really outta give a man warning before you pop up like that... I almost died of fright!"
 
Waving his hand before his face, Jimmy grimaced.  "Speakin' of dyin', Cody.  If this fancified smell don't come out in the wash, you're gonna be the one six feet under by my hands!"
 
Cody sniffed at his arm as he walked away mumbling, "Some people ain't got a grateful bone in their bodies."
 

 
 
Much later that evening, when the group had set aside much of their anger and confusion, they sat down to a meal together.  They had been joined late in the morning by the Secretary, Sergei, who had staggered into the station from what he claimed was nearly a hundred miles in the desert.  "It was horrible I tell you.. I awoke in the middle of a barren landscape.  I was terrified to realize that there were creatures picking at my flesh.  Their large red beaks tugging at my hair-" 
 
"What's left of it."
 
Rachel gave him a harsh look.  "Cody."
 
"Sorry," mumbled the rider.
 
"It will give me nightmares.. for days... for months.."
 
"Good Lord, he knows how to milk this!"
 
"Looking in the mirror hurts, don't it, Cody?"
 
"Keep it up, Noah."
 
"I'll have these nightmares for years, your Eminence!"
 
"Yeah," chuckled Cody, "I can hear him now.. in the middle of a peaceful night in the palace, 'Holy Crap, the vultures are eating my head!'"
 
"Cody!" Rachel looked like she wanted to kill him.
 
The Secretary held his hand over his heart and stretched a sad expression over his face.  "I am glad that I may bring some joy to this gathering.  Even if it is at my expense." 
 
Rachel laid her hand on his shoulder and he shuddered at her touch.  "Ahhh... the golden touch of an angel!"
 
Openly blushing, Rachel attempted to move back to her seat.
 
"We must stay, Your Excellency, for if Ms. Dunne is any indication of the quality of women in the American West, I can, in all honesty, say that the untamed beauty of..."
 
Jimmy clanged his cup onto the table top.  "Will someone please shut him up before I do?"
 
Teaspoon shook his head with a wry little smile behind his words.  "Now, Jimmy-"
 
"Come on, Teaspoon, if these Russian men stay around much longer and the women get used to all this fancy talk, what will straight shootin' men like us do?"
 
Cody smiled a wicked little grin at Louise.  "Eat my dust!"
 
"I agree with Jimmy-" Kid moved beside Jimmy.
 
Jimmy looked less than thrilled at the show of solidarity.
 
Kid continued on.  "Smooth words and fancy talkin'... all the girls in town will stay far away from us."
 
"Speak for yourself," Buck chuckled, "They always stay far away from me."
 
**and me** signed Ike.
 
"Heck," started Cody, "I don't see any problems on my end."
 
Ike rolled his eyes so far back into his head Buck thought he had fainted **you wouldn't**
 
Gavril set his glass down and leaned closer to Louise.  "Is it always like this?"
 
Louise hiccuped from the giddy effects of the wine.  Swiping her fingers over her lips she whispered, "Worse."
 
Rachel smiled at the compliment and sipped quietly at her coffee.  The table certainly was lively tonight.
 


 
Near to the close of the evening, the group had separated into several factions, each finding their happiness in various past times.  Cody had coerced the royal guard into a card game and was currently winning all their money.  A few of the riders had found their bunks, readying for a ride the next day.  Teaspoon had bunked down in the tack room with a nice bottle of vodka from Gavril.   
 
Louise and Gavril had gone out for a walk around town, away from the prying eyes of her friends.  
 
Sergei had found his own respite.  Even at night the air around the station was heavy with the heat of the day.  Suffering from a headache, the insects and all the uncouth people of the west, Sergei took his rest in a chair out on the porch.  Rachel had left him with a cool cloth placed on his forehead before she'd returned inside the house to make some Sweet Tea.  
 
The approaching sounds of night seemed to lull the ache in his head and soothe the fiery feel of his skin.  When he felt the soft and gentle touch on the crown of his head, Sergei relaxed into the touch.  Delicate fingers moved with infinite grace over his weary brow.  The picture immediately in his head was of the Titian-haired beauty that ran the station.  Miss Rachel Dunne.  Her many and overwhelming... charms... had caused his old heart to beat again in wild rhythms of forbidden... a gentle swipe against his ear caused him to giggle like a school boy back in Volgograd.  
 
With a curiosity and brazen affection he reached up to touch her hand.  Unsure of how to express his feelings in words, he longed to touch her delicate hand.  He caressed her finger, wincing when the skin felt a bit coarse.  Quickly he reminded himself that a woman of the west was constantly occupied with menial tasks and certainly her hands had suffered from the servitude.  Sergei vowed to take her back to Mother Russia as his wife and introduce her to the delicate joy of a wealthy woman.  He felt for her hand but found nothing.  Again, he moved his hand but felt nothing.  Surely, her fingers did not detatch!  
 
Sergei bolted upright in his chair and brought his hand into his lap.  It felt as though he still held her finger in his grasp.  Sergei brought his hand up before his face and opened his clenched fingers.  He found himself staring into the unblinking gaze of a scaly lizard.  "AAAaaaahhhhh!!!"
 
The shrill cry brought most everyone running, some with guns drawn.  They stopped stock still as Sergei, his visage a very dark shade of green, ran past the group making hysterical sounds and clutching a scared little lizard in his grasp. 
 
"He looks like he's gonna die of fright," Rachel mused as the secretary nearly hung himself on her clothes line.
 
"Yeah," agreed Cody, "I ain't never heard anyone scream that loud before."
 
Jimmy shook his head and leaned on Buck's shoulder.  "I think she meant the lizard."
 
Satisfied that the poor harried Secretary was going to survive the night, they all retired for the evening.
 


 
Gavril and Louise turned back toward the station, walking a half a foot apart from each other as they had on the first half of their moonlight stroll.
 
Clearing his throat, Gavril attempted to make polite conversation.  "The earrings look beautiful on you."
 
"Thank you," Louise managed to stutter the two words over her tongue, "I meant to tell you earlier, but the room-"
 
"Yes," he agreed, "the room was quite... noisy."
 
"And so many people trying to listen in."
 
He laughed quietly.  "You noticed that too?"
 
Louise smiled up at him.  "They wouldn't be the family I know and love if they didn't."
 
"They are quite... interesting."
 
Again Louise laughed.  "That is the nice way to put it.  I'm sorry you misunderstood-"
 
"Misunderstood," he scoffed, "I thought you were being held captive by them!"
 
"I'm sure they'll be telling that story forever and a day."
 
Gavril stopped and composed his thought.  "I am sorry... especially for .. for... hitting you."
 
He sounded so distraught Louise almost forgot the aching pain in her jaw.  "It's not the first time," she ventured.
 
Gavril looked shocked and utterly horrified.  "Life in this country is surely different from Mother Russia."
 
Louise looked up at him with a thoughtful expression.  "I'm sure that it's happened in your country, but living in a palace, I'm sure you've had little chance to see it."
 
Nodding, Gavril couldn't help the smile that touched his face.  "True.. true... You do make me think, Louise McCloud."
 
She walked on.  "That's a good thing.  Kid always said that I make him crazy."
 
He caught up a moment later.  "I will be leaving in a few days, attending to diplomatic concerns in other cities."
 
Louise continued to walk.
 
"But after my business has been concluded-"
 
"Yes?"
 
He touched her arm and she stopped to look at him.  "I would like to return here and ... continue our friendship."
 
Louise felt a little laugh bubble up inside.  "I'd like that, Gavril."
 
He sighed out a relieved breath.  "Good.. then I will definitely be back... soon." He bent over he hand, his lips gently brushing over her knuckles.  Louise blushed and felt a breeze tickle the back of her neck.  'It's amazing,' she thought, 'A Russian Duke calling on me, here, in the middle of Rock Creek!  Not bad for a wayward woman.' Not bad indeed.
 
  
A low bow of fealty to the ladies that made this freaky story possible....A big ol' thanks to my beta trio... all for one.. and one for crazy fic! 

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