Chapter One

“Rider coming!”

“Finally!”

Dust rose in rapid swirls behind Cody as he entered the station at a flat out run. 

“My goodness,” Rachel muttered, “I haven’t seen that boy move so fast since, well . . . I guess since supper last night.”

“Cody, hurry up,” Noah called, “We ain’t got all day!”

*I’ll take your horse,* Ike signed, *just be fast!*

“I’m going, I’m going!  Ain’t no way I’m gonna miss this!”  Cody shouted on his way to clean up, “You shoulda seen the way I rode!  I’ll bet that’s the fastest a letter’s ever been delivered this side of the Mississippi!”

“Cody, shut up and get ready!” The riders chorused, “We gotta go!”

“What in the world is all this ruckus about?”  Teaspoon’s voice was heard above the clamor, but, for the most part, the riders ignored him in their frenzy. 

“Hey Teaspoon,” Lou answered quietly, coming up behind him, “we’re almost ready.  We were just waiting on Cody to get back from his ride so he could get ready for the dance, too.” 

“Why, Lou, you look lovely,” Teaspoon said, smiling, taking in her simple blue dress, but also taking care to note the shadow of sadness on her face.  Lou was always quiet, so you had to really watch her if you wanted to be prepared for her moods, which, Teaspoon thought, he did.

“You look pretty darned good yourself, Teaspoon.” Lou replied with a smile. 

“Well, seeing as how we are all set and ready to go, while the boys are running around like chickens with their heads cut off, lets you and me go gather Rachel and head on ourselves?”

“I don’t see why not.”

“Ma’am?” Teaspoon said, offering her his arm.

“Thank you, sir,” Lou replied, grinning, placing her hand on his elbow while they walked out to the waiting buckboard. 

“Lemme just go get Rachel, and I’ll be right back, my sweet ‘niece’,” He said with a wink.

Lou settled herself in the wagon, secretly a little glad that she was being spared the scene inside.  Since she and Kid had broken up, things had been awkward around the bunkhouse.  Truthfully, she had to admit that it hurt just a little, seeing how eager he was to go to the dance.  He and Cody were the only one’s who were escorting someone to the dance.  Cody was taking a pretty blonde who was new in town, working at the hotel.  Kid was taking Susan, the brunette school teacher.  When Lou had found out she was stunned.  Not quite devastated, but not altogether okay either. 

She had done her damnest to not let it show, and she pretty much thought she had succeeded, but she had realized that this meant she would have to go to the stupid town dance, just to prove that she didn’t care.  And that made her a little mad.  ‘I don’t know what normal people do when they stop courting,’ Lou mused, ‘I just hope it is half as crazy as the things I been doing.’ 

Jimmy had nervously taken her aside and asked her if she wanted him to ask her so that she would have a date, too.  She had attempted a laugh, and managed to say no, even while realizing how much easier it would be to just say yes.  She’d explained, to Jimmy and herself, that this was just something she had to do by herself, and that it wasn’t worth him getting in the middle. 

“But, Jimmy?” she’d said when they were done talking.

“Yeah?”

“Thanks, Jimmy.  Thanks a lot.”

“Anytime, Lou.  You know that.”  The look he’d given her then was almost hungry, but she couldn’t think about things like that right now.  Right now all she had time or energy to think about was getting through this damned dance without letting Kid know he had managed to hurt her, yet again. 

“All right, ladies, lets get you to the ball,” Teaspoon announced as he arrived back with Rachel, who was looking gorgeous as usual. 

Lou smiled hello to Rachel, and let her gaze linger for a moment, feeling a pang.  She wished she could be pretty for once.  Just so darned pretty that everyone would look at her and admire her and Kid would notice her and regret that he didn’t have her anymore.  ‘Oh, stop it, Lou,’ she said to herself.  ‘You just do this.  You get through this.  And even if no one else wants you, at least you’ll have let Kid know that you don’t care about his stupid new girlfriend.’ 

“Are we ready?” Lou spoke aloud.

“I do believe so, Lou,” Teaspoon answered, and Rachel nodded.

“Well than let’s go, ‘Uncle Teaspoon’,” Lou said determinedly, steeling herself for the evening ahead.


Chapter Two

“Woooh!” Cody exclaimed running over to them after a dance had ended.  “Man I wish we could do this more often.”

“Yeah, it’s a whole barrel full of laughs,” Jimmy muttered.

“What, you’re not having fun?” Buck inquired teasingly, “I’ve seen at least five girls ask you to dance, Jimmy, what’s the problem?”

Jimmy just glared at Buck.  As tough as he was, relating to women was not his strong point, and the whole thing made him darned nervous.  Truth was, he could have backed out of tonight like he usually did, but he’d wanted to be here for Lou, in case she needed some support.  So far she seemed to be holding up okay.  She’d danced once or twice with all the riders except Kid who seemed otherwise occupied.  ‘I should kill him,’ Jimmy thought. 

Even Cody had taken the time to bow with a flourish and request Lou’s company for a dance.  She’d also danced a couple of times with Teaspoon, so she hadn’t been a wallflower, but if he knew Lou, she was starting to feel uncomfortable about how only Pony Express friends had asked her to dance.  Jimmy, even with all his problems with the opposite sex, could still have told her that the problem was the impression she gave off.  All the riders were used to her slightly defensive stance, but it probably intimidated the hell out of other men.  Just as he was thinking this, a man walked up to Lou, and smiled, they spoke and he led her onto the dance floor. 

‘Guess she don’t need my help,’ Jimmy mused and turned to talk to Buck, Ike, and Noah, who were also sitting this one out.  ‘Don’t mean I can’t keep an eye on her,’ he reminded himself.

An hour later, keeping an eye on her was what all of the riders were doing.

“She ain’t stopped dancing with that guy yet,” Cody said as he wove his way past the group toward the punch table.

“I know,” Buck said.

*She sure seems to be having a lot of fun* Ike added, with a doubtful expression on his face.

“Think we should do something?” Noah asked, hesitantly.

“Don’t know what we would do,” Jimmy stated, trying to act nonchalant, but everyone who knew him saw the danger in his eyes.

*Anyone know who he is?* Ike asked.

“Nope.  I asked around and nobody I can find has seen him round here before,” Teaspoon said as he came up behind them, “but that don’t mean we can go bustin’ over there.  Lou is a big girl, and we can’t always protect her.”

Four pairs of eyes stared back fiercely, “Says you.”


Chapter Three

“Why the hell doesn’t one of them save me?” Lou thought crossly. 

The man, who’d introduced himself as Carl Loren, had seemed handsome when he came over to ask her to dance, but he wasn’t much fun to talk to and he hadn’t loosened his grasp for more than an hour.  Lou couldn’t figure a way out of this without being rude.  She’d already said she was tired, thirsty, feeling faint, and even mentioned that her uncle might be getting worried.  She’d pointed out Teaspoon, thinking that the thought of making a marshal mad would intimidate him, but he hadn’t even blinked.  He’d closely escorted her to the punch table, then straight back out to the dance floor.  He’d responded to her complaints of fatigue with laughter, as if she were joking, and her complaints of faintness with assurances that staying upright and keeping moving were the best cure. 

His sheer persistence was beginning to make Lou a little uncomfortable.  In the back of her head, Lou was actually wondering why she didn’t save herself somehow.  Sure she might have made a scene, but when was the last time she’d been afraid to do that?   She realized that she was a little flattered at the attention Carl was showing her.  All night, no one but the other riders had even looked her way, and here was this guy treating her like she was something special. 

Besides, she had caught Kid looking at her since she’d begun dancing with this man.  Seems I‘ve finally caught his attention, she thought wryly, all I have to do is show that someone else wants me.  Stupid male territorialism.  She made a point of laughing and smiling for all she was worth whenever Kid was in the vicinity, but she was actually, really, really, getting tired.  The dance was winding to a close and she didn’t want to encourage this guy.  That could really make things awkward. 

“Mr. Loren, I have to go now,” she said, done with subtleties.

“Absolutely not, Louise, and I told you to call me Carl.  I’m not done with you yet,” he said, eyes twinkling.

Lou quickly quashed the flash of irritation that his words provoked.

“Look, I had a lovely time, but the dance is ending, I’m tired, my uncle’s waiting, and I want to go home.”  If there was a hard edge to her voice, Carl didn’t seem to notice.

“I’m not letting you go until you tell me when I can see you again.”

“Oh, I’m afraid that won’t be possible, you see, I’m only in town for a short while, and I want to spend that time with my uncle.  I’ll be headed back home soon.  It really wouldn’t be fair to lead you on.”

“Tomorrow for lunch?”

“Mr. Loren, you don’t seem to be listening . . .”

“A picnic on Saturday?”

The irritation had grown and matured into anger as Lou opened her mouth to answer when she noticed Kid standing there, watching them. 

“Fine” she snapped.  Oh, that’s convincing, Lou, real good show, she thought.  Trying again, in a sweeter voice, she said, “I would be very pleased to have you escort me to a picnic this Saturday.  Goodnight, sir.”  Right now, no kind of showing off for Kid could convince her to spend another minute in conversation with this man.  She spun, eager to get away, but he caught her arm, just a tad roughly.

“Wait.”

The grip he had on her arm left Lou breathless, frozen.  It reminded her of . . . no.

“What?”

“I don’t know where to collect you from.”

“I’ll meet you there.”  Suddenly Lou didn’t want this guy to know where he could find her.  So why are you going somewhere alone with him? Her mind whispered.  “I’ll meet you by Miller’s pond.  It’s a nice place.  Half past one.”  With that she wrenched her arm away from him and hurried back to the other riders.

As she walked up to the boys, some part of her unease must have shown on her face because Noah asked, “You alright Lou?”

Kid walked up behind her and placed his hand on her shoulder.  With eyes as cold as ice he replied for her, “She’s fine.  She’s going on a picnic with that guy.”  His voice was laced with disgust and Lou was filled with simultaneous feelings of guilt and fury. 

She shrugged his hand off and shot him a look of pure hatred as she strode off, snapping, “I’m leaving.” 

She didn’t really know how she was going to get home if no one followed her, but she just had to have faith that somebody would.  Right now, she hated Kid.  She was sick and tired of these games but she didn’t know how to stop playing them.  Who-can-hurt-who-the-most was not much fun, and now she had given her afternoon off to a man she’d rather not ever see again.  This is it, she vowed.  From now on Kid can just go live his life and I will go live mine.  Suddenly tired she took a moment to wonder, where does it go?  How does such a sweet love turn into such deep hatred?  Is this normal? 

“You got a plan on getting home?”  She heard this from behind her and turned to see Jimmy with a smile, hurrying to catch up.  “It’s just that I happen to know Rachel is staying after to help clean up, and Teaspoon is staying after to help keep order between those who drank too much, and seeing as how your rode in with them, I was just wondering how were you planning on getting back?

“Don’t know,” Lou said with a smile, her anger and confusion fading to let her just experience being with Jimmy.  “Maybe steal a horse.  Maybe your horse.” She teased, eyebrows raised suggestively.

“Why don’t we just share?”

Her smile widened.  “Sounds good.”

They rode back in silence, Jimmy holding her in front of him, embracing her.

         -----------------------------------------------

A pair of considering eyes watched them go.  Carl Loren, as he called himself these days, knew that he was good at watching people without being seen.  He also knew that it was inappropriate for a woman to ride double on a horse with a man, unless she was married to him.  Still, despite her scandalous behavior, something about this woman called to him.  Maybe it was her large, sad, eyes.  ‘She’s just like mother,’ he thought.  ‘Mother would approve.’ 

One other thing he knew: He knew that this woman would be his. 

Chapter Four

As much as Lou wished and prayed, Saturday managed to dawn bright and clear.  “Doesn’t matter,” she thought petulantly, “I’m not going.  He doesn’t know where to find me.  I’ll just disappear and this whole thing will be over.” 

Just as she had decided to put Lightening away, and forget about Mr. Carl Loren, Kid wandered casually over.  She stiffened, waiting for the predictable attack.  All week it had been like this; Kid provoked her mercilessly, ridiculing her and her “date.”  She had vowed not to let him get to her, but he was being so vicious lately that despite her best intentions she was having a hard time ignoring him. 

“So, it looks like a beautiful day for your special date with your special guy.”

“Shut-up, Kid.”

“What?  I just wanted to congratulate you on blowing your cover and ruining any chance you had to continue working here.”

“What do you want from me, Kid?  What is wrong with you?”

“Wrong with me?  You’re the one making stupid choices.   I thought you would have figured that out by now.  I thought you would have had the sense to know you can’t go out with this guy.”

“Can’t?”  Lou’s resolve not to react to Kid was suddenly gone, and she swung up on Lightening, “Watch me.”

So here she was on her way to a date she was dreading because she was trying to prove something to someone who supposedly didn’t mean anything to her anymore.   ‘He doesn’t,’ she suddenly realized.  ‘I mean, not the way he used to.  I don’t love him anymore.  So why do I still care so much what he thinks?’  As she approached Miller’s pond, and saw Carl waiting for her she sighed, preparing herself for the afternoon ahead and knowing that any soul searching she was now ready to do would have to wait until she had shaken this insufferable man.

“Louise, you look lovely,” he almost purred, attempting to give her help she didn’t need dismounting.  “But you know, I’m really not sure this is proper, you riding alone and all.”

‘Oh for goodness sake,’ she thought, ‘do not start this.  I swear, to whoever is listening, Kid is not worth this and I will never do this to myself again.’  Out loud she simply said, “Fortunately, my behavior, proper or otherwise, is not your concern.  Let’s spread the blanket out and unpack the food.”

The afternoon passed mercilessly slowly, and Lou found her temper stretched thin.  This man, handsome or not, was not at all someone she was interested in knowing.  Apparently, he wasn’t at all interested in knowing her either because he didn’t even seem to be listening to her.  He talked about himself, and his ranch, and he admonished her manners, but he never seemed to hear the sarcastic remarks she made in response.  Finally, she just let him drone on alone, nodding occasionally, figuring it to be the easiest and least irritating thing to do.  When she estimated that two hours had passed she thought she could politely leave, but Carl wasn’t much for taking hints.  Eventually she just said, “I have to go now,” and stood up to begin collecting her things.

“I suppose you’re wondering why I asked you here today,” he said, addressing her for the first time in the past half-hour. 

“Actually, no I wasn’t.”  Lou wasn’t particularly worried about offending him at this point, seeing as how she never planned to see him again, and how he never listened anyhow.

“I saw you at the dance the other night, and you were the most beautiful woman there.”

“Well, thank-you,” Lou replied, flustered.  Damn it all, she hated blushing.  But people talking about her appearance had always done that do her.  Flattery was nice, if she could convince herself it was sincere, but she certainly didn’t need it, or anything else, from this man.

“And I knew, after dancing with you, that you were the one I wanted.”

“Wanted?” she said, confused, “Wanted for what?”

“Will you marry me?”

Lou’s face was a parody of incredulity, mouth hanging open, eyes wide.  All she could think of to say was, “Excuse me?” 

“Marry me.  I’ve been telling you all afternoon what a wonderful life we could have.  I took one look at you and I decided that you are the one that I want.”

“No,” she replied abruptly and vehemently.  “No.  I’m sorry, but, no.  You can’t have me.  I can’t do that.”  As far as Lou was concerned, this had all gone a bit too far.  She had to set this man straight before he got any other crazy ideas.  “I won’t marry you.  I’m sorry you thought I would.  I’m sorry you wasted your time.  I really have to go now.”  Lou practically leapt on her horse, galloping quickly away.  Confused and disturbed she raced back to the station. 

Maybe if she’d been a little less confused and disturbed, she might have noticed him following.  But Carl wasn’t worried about that.  He knew he was skilled at not being seen, even if she had been paying attention.  It had been part of what helped him leave home after the unfortunate accident with mother.  He chuckled slowly, absently.  He remembered how much he used to scare mother by sneaking up on her.  What fun it had been to see her eyes large with fear when he would pounce!  He sighed suddenly. 
He had missed her a lot lately. 


Chapter Five

When Lou had returned from the picnic the day before, all the guys had been there and ready to tease when she got back.  Unfortunately, Lou wasn’t in the mood for being teased. 

They stood there, encircling her, big idiotic grins on their faces.  She scowled at them, trying to send a silent message to let it be. 

Regrettably, the boys were never ones to understand silent messages.

“So, did ya have a good time, Louise?” Cody asked first. 

She didn’t reply

“Did he kiss ya, Louise?” Cody added, hopefully.

“Shut-up, Cody,” was Lou’s only response.

Kid’s tone of voice was distinctly unpleasant as he said, “Doesn’t sound like you had a very good time, Louise.   What happened?  Did lover-boy not show up?”

“Shut-up, Kid,” Lou said shortly.

“He didn’t show up!?” Jimmy exclaimed, looking ready to hunt him down and shove a picnic down his throat.

Exasperated, Lou said, “Of course he showed up.  What do you think I’ve been doing for the past two hours?  He showed up, we ate lunch, and now I’m home, okay?”  For reasons she didn’t quite know herself, she didn’t want to tell them all what had really happened.  She needed some time to think about things, especially about why this man made her so uncomfortable.  She shoved Cody aside, walking to the bunkhouse. 

“Aww, come on, Louise . . .”

Lou whirled suddenly, “Stop calling me that, Cody!  All of you!  Stop calling me that!”

Seeing a chance to pick at her Kid threw in with Cody.  “Why, it is you’re name, isn’t it?”

Lou looked at him silently for a moment, and then turned away again.  “It’s not who I am here.  And shut-up.”  She walked up to the house, leaving the boys behind to speculate about what had happened with Carl.

Today she was working alone in the barn, trying to avoid the incessant questions, cursing herself for the thousandth time for letting her anger at Kid get her into this situation.  She was mucking out stalls with a particular vengeance when she heard someone walk up behind her,

“Louise”

“I told you not to call me that . . .” Lou choked to a stop when she saw who it was.  “What are you doing here?” she whispered, shocked.  “How did you find me?” 

“I think a more appropriate question, Louise,” Carl said, “would be what are you doing here?  This is no place for a lady, and, quite honestly, those clothes are disgusting.”

Lou began to panic, seeing her whole life crumpling around her, “You have to go now.  You have to go and never come back.  I told you I couldn’t marry you.  I don’t even want to see you.  I don’t want to ever see you again.  Do you understand?”

“Louise, I’m not sure how you came to be in this situation, but you cannot continue to live like this.  It’s a sin, and I simply won’t allow it.”

“You don’t get to decide that.”  Lou pointed her pitchfork at Carl.  “You get out of here and don’t ever come back.  This is none of your damned business.”

“I’ll be back, Louise,” he stated, jauntily, as he turned carelessly away, seeming to ignore the fact she was holding a pitchfork aimed at him.  “I’m going to save you.”

He walked casually out of the barn and mounted his horse.

‘How did I not hear him riding up?’ Lou wondered, stunned.

“Lou!”

Shaking, she spun to face the voice, but it was just Kid.  She had enough time to take in the fact that he looked furious before he started in on her.  “I just saw that man leave here?  How could you be so stupid?  I don’t know what you’re trying to do here, but if you’re trying to prove that you don’t have a brain then you’ve done it!”

Weary and drained under the force of two sequential assaults on her character, Lou said simply, “Kid, you don’t know what you’re talking about, and I have neither the time nor the inclination to continue to listen.”

“What?  Look, Lou, it was really dumb to tell him where you lived.  He could report you to anyone, at any time!”

“Don’t you think I know that?!  I didn’t tell him!”  But Kid didn’t hear her and that was as close as Lou could come to telling him about her problems.  Seeing it was pointless, Lou just walked away.  Suddenly she realized that his anger wasn’t affecting her the way it once would have.  She was a little proud of herself, actually.  ‘Yeah,’ she thought, ‘all I needed to get over Kid was some crazy madman threatening my life as I know it.’ 

   -------------------------------------

Two days later Lou thought the suspense of not knowing would kill her.  She couldn’t even talk to any of the boys because they wouldn’t understand.  She had been pretty relieved that she had a ride, even if she didn’t know that she would have a job when she got back.  What will I do? She wondered to herself, what will I do if they make me leave? 
When Kid had told them all that she had told Carl who she really was, they all looked at her strangely and asked her why she would risk that.  One currently popular theme was that she was desperately in love with him, and couldn’t help herself.  Sick of the sounds of their voices, Lou hadn’t even bothered to explain the situation. 

She had packed a bag and left it in her trunk so that she would be ready to leave at a moments notice, but when she rode in a few minutes ago nobody had said anything about it.  As far as she could tell, nothing had changed.  There had been not one hint that Carl had told anybody her secret. 

Then, as she was walking to the barn she saw a rider coming toward the station.  Seeing as how the scheduled run had come in five minutes ago, and had been her, Lou automatically assumed that it was somebody riding in to tell her that they were on to her.  When the figure came closer and she saw it was Carl she didn’t know whether to feel relieved to furious.   She decided what she actually felt was a little helpless.  She had a death grip on Lightning’s bridle, trying to maintain some sense of composure.

“Well hello there, Louise!” Carl called as if nothing had happened, as if they were friends. 

‘Or courting,’ she thought. 

“I was just in the neighborhood so I thought I’d stop by.”

“I thought I’d made it clear that I wasn’t interested.” 

“And I thought that I made it clear I would not tolerate this kind of behavior from you?  Hmmm?”  His face was benign, even gentle, but Lou was beginning to suspect that there was some kind of madness lurking there.  How else to explain the way he was acting?

“What do you want?” she asked quietly.  She felt like that was all she had thought for the past few weeks, of everybody.

“I want you.  I saw you at the dance and I decided that I want you.  You’re going to marry me, and we’ll have a wonderful life.  It’s become clear to me that you are being held here against your will.  I’m going to save you from all this, Louise.”

“I don’t need saving!” She bit off.  “Just leave me alone.  Get the hell out of my life.”

“Louise, such language,” he admonished, “we’re going to have to work on that when you come to live at my ranch.”

Realizing that it was just wasting breath to talk to him, Louise turned to walk away.  He grabbed her arm then, and again she felt a flash of instant fear.  It felt like it had that night . . . no.  No she would not let this happen.  “Don’t touch me,” she hissed, jerking her arm away from his grasp. 

“I can see that I have a lot of work to do on you, Louise, but I’m ready.  I chose you and I’m willing to work for you.”

“Go away,” she said fiercely, feeling trapped.

“Well, I’ve got to be off now, sweetheart!  I’m a busy man, you know.  A whole list of things to do yet today.  I’ll see you later.”  It wasn’t a threat, but it felt like one to Lou. 
She stared at his receding silhouette for a moment, and then turned to walk slowly toward the barn. 

She was, she realized, no longer uncomfortable, no longer uneasy.  The situation was out of control and she was worried.  Actually, that was a lie.  To tell the whole truth, she was scared.

---------------------------------

Carl rode on, happy.  She was really a beautiful woman.  He had followed her on her run and she hadn’t even known.  He’d been delighted at the chance to get to know her; to watch her eat, to watch her bathe, to watch her sleep.  ‘But,’ he thought darkly, ‘she shouldn’t make me angry.  Just like Amanda shouldn’t have made me angry, and mother shouldn’t have made me angry.’ 
‘No,’ he shook his head, ‘this time will be different.  This time he wouldn’t have to hurt her, and then the townspeople wouldn’t get mad at him.  This time would be perfect.’


Chapter Six

As Lou reached the barn door, shaking slightly from her encounter with Carl, she noticed, for the first time, Ike standing off to the side, watching her.  She brushed past him, hoping that he would leave her alone.  But something in his face told her that he had seen her with Carl.

Lou walked Lightening to the stall, and began to brush the horse down.  The hope that Ike would leave it alone died as she heard his footsteps behind her.  She refused to turn to look at him, even knowing how much he hated that.  But he just walked around into her line of vision. 


*What’s going on?* he signed.

For a long time Lou was silent, but just when he though she either hadn’t understood his question, or was choosing to ignore it, Lou looked up and met his eyes.  Her mouth worked silently for a moment, until she took a deep breath. 

“I’m scared of him.”  She said it quietly, honestly.  The look on her face, along with the words she spoke, were enough to make Ike feel like he’d been kicked in the gut.  In all the time he’d known Lou, she had never, ever, admitted to being afraid.  He stared at her, shocked. 

Sighing, Lou sat heavily on a bale of hay.  “Ike, have you ever wondered why I’m here?  I mean, why I dress like a boy, why I do what I’m doing?” 

Ike nodded.  Of course he had.  They all had.

“I had my reasons, you know.  I didn’t just do this for some kind of thrill.”  She sounded defensive, as if he had accused her of something with his quick nod. 

“I . . . there aren’t a whole lot of options out there for a girl.  I had to make some money.  I had to.  They were depending on me.”  She was talking as if she were in a trance, as if she had forgotten Ike was there. 

For his part, Ike sat quietly, amazed that he was finally going to find out what had caused Lou to take such drastic measures. 
 
“So when he offered me the job doing laundry, I thought it was a god-send.  It was twice the money I could get anywhere else, and that was even assuming that anybody would hire a 15-year-old girl from nowhere.  I didn’t know.  I swear I didn’t know.  I know you’re thinking, ‘how could you not know?’ but I really didn’t.  I guess I was just too young.  Or maybe I didn’t want to know.  All I know was that it was weeks before I figured out I was working at a whorehouse.”

Ike sat up, ramrod straight, not knowing how to respond to this, especially now that Lou was looking at him carefully, watching his reaction to her words.

“Truth is, even when I found out I didn’t care,” she said this like a challenge.  “It seemed to me that I was making a lot of money, he was nice, and the ladies were nice.  I just did the laundry.”  Her eyes took on a faraway look as she repeated herself, “I was just supposed to do the laundry.” 

She was quiet for a moment, and Ike let her be, sensing that something bad was up ahead.  Shaking herself, Lou continued briskly.  “Well, I don’t really know what I expected, working at a whorehouse.  ‘Just doing the laundry.’  What a joke.  So it was really no more than I deserved, when he came to me.”  She paused again.  “So I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was so young!”

Ike felt his heart breaking, each word a tiny arrow to his chest.  Wishing he had words to comfort her, but knowing she had to get this out now that she had started. 

“I was just so young.  I was so scared.  I know I should have, but I didn’t expect it.  He had always seemed so nice,” she said, as if to remind herself it was true.  “But when he came one night I was so scared.  I didn’t know what was happening.  I don’t actually remember it very well.  I guess I try not to.  I think I fought him, but I don’t know for sure because he got control so fast and he didn’t seem to have any trouble.  So I must not have fought him.  I must have just let him.  And I know,” she rushed on, “that it was nothing I shouldn’t have expected, but . . . I couldn’t handle it.  Any chance I had in a female world was gone.  And I was ready to not to be female for a while, anyway.  So I cut my hair and I wandered for a while.  It was much easier to get work as a boy.”  She smiled distantly.  “Eventually I came here.”

Ike looked at her, compassion flooding his gentle eyes.  He wanted desperately to touch her, to offer her some kind of comfort, but he wasn’t sure how.  Finally he just wrapped her in his arms.  But she didn’t cry.  That’s not why she had told the story. 

“I told you that so you would understand why Carl scares me.  He reminds me so much of that man.  Not all the time, but something in the way he looks at me, the way he touches me, it’s just the same.  And I’m scared because I don’t know if . . . if he tries anything maybe I won’t be able to fight him either.  Maybe I’ll just freeze up.  I hate feeling so scared.”

Ike looked at her seriously, *you are the strongest person I know.  I know that you fought that man.  You’re tiny now, so what chance did you have back then?  But that doesn’t mean you just let it happen.  And if this guy tries anything, I know you’d fight him too.  Because you are amazing.*

They sat for a while in silence, Ike trying desperately to absorb this new information, Lou contemplating her current situation.  Lou glanced at Ike, then looked away.  She continued absentmindedly brushing Lightening.  Finally she looked him in the eye again, “Thanks, Ike.”  The words were inadequate, but she thought he would understand how much it meant to her.  After a short pause she continued, “Ike.  Don’t tell anyone else this, okay?”

Ike did not respond, but looked at Lou with a question in his eyes.

“Ike, please.” She locked her gaze on his, not allowing him to look away.  “I need to take care of this myself.  I need to . . . I need to know that I can do this myself.  Especially now.”  She looked down, finally breaking their connection.  “Especially now.  I can’t ask for help this time. Not with him there.”

Ike knew she was talking, obliquely, about Kid. 

“You don’t have to ask him.  There are other people around here that . . .” he almost said, ‘that love you,’ but instead finished, “that care about you.”

She looked at him, almost knowing what it was he was really trying to say.  “I know.  I do.”

But Ike thought that maybe she didn’t.  She didn’t really believe.  Not really.  She had never really been able to believe in their devotion to her. 

“I’ll do it, Ike.  I’ll take care of it.  Maybe he scared me for a minute, but that’s how I know that I’ve got to do this by myself.”

Eventually, Lou put the brush down and began to walk out of the barn.   Ike clapped his hands to get her attention.  It took a minute for Ike to find a way to say what he was thinking, what he had been thinking since she began talking. 

*You don’t have to do this alone.*

Lou wasn’t sure whether he was referring to Carl, or the part of her past she had just told him.  Either way, her answer was the same. 

“Yeah, I do.” 

Agitated, Ike signed, *Why?  Why do you have to do it alone?  Why do you have to do everything alone?  Why can’t you ask me or Jimmy or any one of us for help?*

“Kid won’t speak to me since the dance.  Heck, we haven’t really been talking much for a while now.  Which shouldn’t affect things so much, but it does.  Things with him are complicated, and I can’t ask him for help.  I don’t think I could even stand for him to know that I had to ask for help.” 

*It’s not a crime to ask for help.  It doesn’t make you weak.*

Lou continued as if she hadn’t heard, “So that would make it hard to ask anybody.  But I don’t think I would anyways.  I don’t know if Jimmy could think straight if I ever asked him for help.  Really, this is just something I got myself into, and I’m gonna have to get myself out of it.”  She paused for a moment, “Ike, I need to ask you to respect that.  I don’t want you telling anyone about it.  I’m not sure what anyone else could do, but whatever happens, I want to do this myself.  Besides,” she smiled, “it really did help just to be able to talk about it.  I really think I can handle it on my own.”

Ike looked at her, considering.  He was uneasy about the whole thing, but this was the most Lou had ever opened up and he didn’t want to betray whatever fragile trust had been built that day. 

*Alright.  For right now.  But promise that you’ll let me know if you change your mind.  Really Lou.  Come to me, or anybody, if you want help.*

Lou nodded silently, then said, “come on, we’re gonna miss dinner.” 

Ike knew the conversation was over.  He hoped, desperately, that she was right.  That everything was going to be fine, because it really shook him to see her like this. 

Chapter Seven

Things had been quiet around the station for the past few days.  As far as Ike could tell, there had been no more visits from Carl.  He had started to dare to hope that it would all fade away.  He had been scheduled for a short run, had wanted to trade it, but Lou had told him to go.  Still, even with the quietness, and Lou’s assurances, it made him uncomfortable to leave her.  Now, minutes away from arriving back at the station, he felt a feeling of disquiet sweep across him.  

Ike rode into the station faster than was probably necessary, considering he wasn’t handing off a mochilla.  Immediately, and without thought, he looked around for Lou.  He didn’t see her.  ‘She’s fine,’ he told himself.  He walked toward the bunkhouse, entering, he found Kid, Noah, and Cody engulfed in a card game. 

*Where’s Lou?* he signed, after tapping Noah on his shoulder. 

“Don’t know,” he answered, looking over at Cody and then Kid.  Kid shrugged, as did Cody.

Suddenly too afraid to stay still, he ran back outside, noticing absently that Jimmy and Buck were returning from a supply run to town.  ‘Calm down, calm down, she’s fine,” he chanted to himself as he checked the barn and found nothing (noting that her horse was there), as he checked some of her other ‘hiding spots.’  Ike realized that he desperately wanted the ability to call out to her, to scream her name.  But also knew that that would embarrass her.  He didn’t care right now.

His concern growing almost to panic, Ike banged loudly back into the bunkhouse.  As he looked around he realized that he had held out some small hope that she would somehow be in here.  All eyes were on him, the entrance unusual for Ike.  He knew that they were looking at him strangely, but he was too worried to care. 

*Where’s Lou,* he signed, demanding attention.

“What’s your deal, Ike?  She’s probably with that Carl guy.  I saw him here again today,” Kid said with disgust evident in his voice.  Ike crossed to him and grabbed the front of his shirt.  He wanted badly to hurt Kid, but now wasn’t the time.  He released Kid and signed, furiously, *Where?*

Everyone was staring, motionless.

*Where?*  It’s hard for a mute man to shout, but Ike gave it his best right then.

Kid looked at Ike, shocked.  Ike glared back, unflinching. 

“He was driving a wagon away from the barn.  But, Ike, I didn’t actually see her with him.  I haven’t really seen her all day.”

Ike signed, *You haven’t seen her for longer than that, friend,* as he turned and strode toward the door, grabbing Buck’s arm and practically dragging him along. 

Moments later the pair entered he barn. 

Buck asked quietly, “What’s going on, Ike?”

*See what you can find* was Ike’s only response, his eyes darting around the space, trying to find something himself. 

So Buck began a careful examination.  To someone who didn’t know, Buck appeared quite calm, but Ike noticed, chillingly, how Buck’s face began to pale and his eyes became more agitated.  Finally, Buck looked up.  “How did you know?”

*He took her didn’t he,* Ike asked not responding to Buck.  It wasn’t really a question.

“How did you know?” Buck asked again.

*She told me.  Told me he scared her.*   Ike paused, distracted with guilt and worry; then he seemed to consciously gather strength.  *What happened?*

Buck stared at Ike for a moment, then, understanding the urgency evident in Ike’s face, started to describe the events he read in the barn. 

“Well, here, it looks like she was cleaning tack.  Look, you see she dropped those,” he said, pointed to some tools; a brush and a rag.   Ike stared at the brush lying, forlorn, in the corner, painfully imagining the fear she must have felt.

“I think he came up behind her and used chloroform,” Buck said as he pointed to Carl’s probable point of entry, and then briefly held up the handkerchief to his nose.  “He attacked her here, but it looks like she got in a couple of good ones, because he dropped the handkerchief here and there was some kind of struggle.”

Ike smiled slightly.  ‘Good for you, Lou,” he thought, ‘I knew you could do it.’

“You can see they were fighting, and there’s some blood here.”  At that, there was an electric silence.  “I don’t know who’s,” he said quietly, in response to the question Ike knew better than to ask, but couldn’t keep out of his eyes.

Looking away, Buck continued.  “Then it looks like he carried her out, because she didn’t walk out.  Probably between the chloroform and the fight she was unconscious. 

*So then he carried her out here, where he had a wagon.  Since Kid didn’t see her she was probably lying in the wagon bed,* Ike finished.

Silenced reigned for a moment.  *Can you follow the tracks?*

“Yeah, but we should go now.  Looks like a storm is coming pretty fast.  It depends on how far he went.” 

Not needing to talk anymore, they both hurried back to the bunkhouse to gather some supplies. 

In the bunkhouse, Ike went silently about, throwing some clothes and food in a bag.  He let Buck tell the others what they now knew.  When he turned back to the room he saw that the others were packing too.  Jimmy’s face was as cold and hard as stone.  Cody and Noah looked angry and determined.  Underneath it all was fear. 

“Ike.  How did you know?” Cody asked as he strapped on his gun belt.

Ike paused in his packing to sign, *She was scared of him.*

That statement brought instant stillness to the room.

“She was scared?” Cody said incredulously.  “Lou ain’t never been scared of nothing or nobody.”

*Apparently she had cause this time.*

Suddenly Kid spoke for the first time.  While the other riders had sprung into motion, Kid had sat, his face blank, at the table.

“Why didn’t she come to me?” he finally asked.

Ike, already stretched taut, already furious with Kid, turned and signed with a sudden viciousness, *Because you’ve been such an asshole!  You were more interested in yelling at her than being there for her!* 

Despite his callous words, he knew that, partly, he was angry with himself and taking it out on Kid.

“She told you,” Kid replied coldly, “why didn’t you do anything?” 

It was a cruel thing to say, but the anger and the fear in the room was beginning to crowd out sense.

Kid had only said out loud the things Ike was thinking, and Ike abruptly slumped forward, the frenetic energy that had filled him draining. 

*She asked me not to,* he signed listlessly, *I should have anyway.  But she asked me not to.  She said she wanted to do it by herself . . .* Ike trailed off, his hands falling uselessly to his side, unable to find the words to explain why he’d done what he’d done.  Or how hard it had been.

“It’s okay, Ike,” Buck said, breaking the silence.  “This is not your fault.  But we do have to go.  Now.”  Buck was watching the dark clouds moving quickly from the south, knowing that when that storm hit there would be no tracking a herd of buffalo.

    -------------------------------------------------------

Two hours later Buck was running, racing the rain to find the quickly disappearing tracks before the rain washed them completely away.  The lightening silhouetted his flying body as he leapt over fallen logs and ducked branches. 

As the water fell faster and harder, the boys on horseback, slower because their mounts were frightened and fighting with the mud, caught up to Buck.  He was simply standing there, his eyes on the ground, rain pounding his bent head and back.

“Buck?”

Sharp thunder cracked the sky as the boys watched Buck sink to his knees and swipe the mud with his strong hand, willing his fingers to feel something his eyes could not see. 

“She’s gone,” he said, his voice hollow.  “Tracks are gone.”

They stood there, drenched.  Ike slapped his saddle to draw attention, the sound almost drowned out by nature’s fury.

*We have to do something,* he signed fiercely, but nobody responded.

“There’s nothing to do,” Noah said, finally, his voice hoarse and bleak.

Suddenly Jimmy grabbed up the reins of his horse and shouted, “We can try.  We have to try.”  He began to lead them down the trail they had been following.

It was desperation that drove them.  Each one of them knew that without tracks the entire world had become a potential hiding place.

Chapter Eight

Lou snapped back into awareness with the suddenness of a gunshot.  Her abrupt consciousness was quickly accompanied by the knowledge that something was wrong.  Her head hurt.  She tried to open her eyes, but the light seemed a physical thing, piercing into her brain.  To delay the eventual eye-opening, she took a moment to take stock of her body.  Yeah.  It hurt.  She lifted her absurdly heavy hand to rub her temple and heard a distinct rattle.  Oh.  Not just heavy, she realized, a flash of insight penetrating her cloudy mind. 

Chained.

“I’m so glad you’re awake,” a soft voice lilted.

Carl. 

And then the events in the barn came rushing back. 

She’d been cleaning tack when she’d sensed movement behind her.  She’d frozen, suddenly terrified, knowing instinctively that the person was trying to be quiet.   ‘This is not friend!’ her body, and her intuition, screamed.  Relying purely on instinct, she’d whirled and kicked, catching him unaware.  Her eyes confirmed ‘Carl’ though she’d really already known.  He’d fallen to his knees after she had kicked him, but as she tried to get around him he lunged and she tripped.  He dragged her back and clamped some kind of cloth over her mouth, his hand knotting in her hair in an attempt to keep her still.  She fought furiously, kicking and clawing, and managed to loosen herself with an elbow to his forehead.  Blood immediately trickled out.   

“You bitch,” he hissed as she wormed frantically away from him.  “I didn’t want to hurt you.”  The look in his eyes said that he wanted to now.  Lou understood that she had been right all along.  She cursed herself vehemently for not trusting her instincts when it might have made a difference. 

He grabbed a handful of her pants and with incredible, furious, strength yanked her back toward him.  He staggered to his feet, pulling Lou along with him.  She was thrashing, trying to make him let go.  He slapped her across the face and Lou felt her lip split.  Lou gasped at the sharp pain, but then felt her breath explode from her lungs as his fist flew forcefully into her stomach.  She crumpled, stunned, and felt him lift her.  Already woozy from whatever had been on that cloth she lost her grasp on reality.  As the blackness closed in she heard him whisper, “I’m gonna save you Louise.  I’m gonna make you a good girl.”


Lou was brought back to the present by the feeling of hands on her face. 

“I didn’t want to hurt you, Louise, but you made me.  I know it’s hard, but you have to learn to obey me, or I’ll be forced to punish you.  It’s for your own good.  I’ve saved you from that heathen place, but now you have to obey me.”

Her eyes, so reluctant before, flew open, “I don’t need you to save me!” she spat, her voice husky with pain.  And a little fear.  “You’d better let me go.  People will look for me.  The boys will be coming for me.”

“Oh, I don’t think so, darling.  Fortunately for us, there was quite a storm last night, and I think they’ve already found that nobody in town knows who I am or where to find me.”  He chuckled, then his features hardened.  “It’s just you and me now.  That’s a fact you’d better get used to.  No one knows you’re here, and no one ever will.  I think you’ll find it in your best interest to learn quickly to listen to me.”  His face relaxed from his lecturing, “I’m just trying to help you, baby.”

Lou felt sick with fear.  She been in tight spots before, but she had a feeling that this time was different.  She was beginning to doubt that he was following the rules of this reality.  His tone, the things he was saying, the way he said them, it all suggested that he was far more insane, and dangerous, than she had guessed.  ‘I’ve misjudged him,’ she thought. 

‘Please somebody come help.’

----------------------------------------

The bunkhouse was heavy and silent. 

Rachel came in, “Boys, it’s supper time.”

When nobody moved, not even Cody, she said softly, “Boys.  You have to eat.  Starving to death isn’t going to save Lou.”

“Well what the hell will, Rachel?” Jimmy snapped.  He stared at her with fierce and angry eyes, then lowered his head and whispered, “Just tell us what will.”

“Maybe I could go look for a trail again,” Buck said to the heavy silence that permeated the room.

You’ve tried three times already, Buck.  There’s nothing left,” Noah answered for the group.

“There might be something.  It’s worth a shot,” Buck argued.

“You have to stop doing this to yourself, Buck,” Noah said, tiredly.  “You’ve tried your best.  It’s not your fault.  The rain came.”  Oh, and how they all despised that rain with its blind malevolence, sweeping the earth clean of all traces of Lou.

*We asked everybody in town about Carl?* Ike asked.

“Yeah,” Kid answered shortly.

“Are we sure?  We didn’t miss anybody?  What about the ranchers?  They’re pretty spread out, we coulda missed some of them,” Cody added, hopefully.

“We asked.  Everybody.” Kid’s tone was leaden with hopelessness.

Teaspoon came in, looking as haggard as the rest of them.  “I sent Sam the picture Ike drew of this guy.  He’ll spread it around.  Maybe someone will recognize it.”

“So that’s it,” Kid said.  “That’s all we can do.”

Jimmy stood up abruptly, shoving his chair violently across the floor.  He walked out the door, slamming it shut behind him. 

Nobody followed, but everyone understood.  It was killing them all slowly.  The waiting, the not knowing, the helplessness. 

They didn’t know what else to do.


Chapter Nine

Lou thought she might have been here for three days.  It was really just a guess because he kept her drugged with sleeping powders, off and on.  She was being kept in a small one room cabin she had grown to hate for its insolent imprisonment. 

Day one, she’d woken up and he had stood before holding a dress

“Now, we have to get you out of those terrible things you are wearing, sweetheart.  It really is not appropriate for you to wear that.  Some people would call you a slut, but I understand.  I really should go back there and kill them for what they did to you,” he said, his face growing angry.

“Don’t touch them,” she said in a low, angry voice.

“Shhhh, don’t get upset.  They are not your concern anymore.  And those clothes are no long acceptable.  I will need you to wear more suitable garments from now on.”

“Thank-you,” she said coldly, “but I’m perfectly comfortable.”

Before she saw it coming he landed a hard slap on her face.  It was the suddenness that was so frightening.  She realized that the fact that he could do it with a smile on his face meant she could never be prepared.  Her already split lip began to sullenly ooze fresh blood. 

“Louise, don’t make me punish you.”

And then, for the first time she could remember, Lou gave in.  She was just so groggy and tired and so afraid.  At that moment, it just wasn’t worth any more pain.  She knew she was in no shape to fight him right now, knew that she had no hope of winning, and would only end up hurting herself worse.   So she silently held her hand out for the dress.

“Good girl,” he smiled and kissed her on her cheek.  She didn’t even flinch.

She waited for him to go, but it soon became clear that he didn’t intend to leave.

“I’m not going to leave you alone Louise,” he said, his voice filled with what sounded, for all the world, like gentle humor. 

‘Just do it,’ her brain whispered, ‘Just get through this.”  It was then, as she undressed in front of this man that Lou began to withdraw, just a little, from the world and into her head. 


On day two, or the second day she remembered, he chained her ankles to the cast iron bed post.  He was still keeping her mostly drugged, and she dozed a large part of the day.  He left her alone and spent the day reading in the corner.  She was too stupefied by the drugs to care much.

On day three she woke feeling alert for the first time.  She suspected he hadn’t drugged her. 

“Ah, you’re awake!  Today I have to work outside for a while.  It’s time for you to start earning your keep, darling,” he winked. “You will make dinner and have it ready when I come in around 1:00.  You will tidy the house, and then you will do the mending in that basket.  Other than that your time is yours.  You may read for today, or entertain yourself.  Later, of course, you will want to start to garden, but that doesn’t seem possible right now,” he said, gesturing to the chains with a smile.  “Any questions?”

Lou had been standing, listening with growing shock.  A night of real sleep had restored some of her natural spirit.  “What are you trying to do here?  I am not your wife,” she said, her voice beginning to rise.  She had started out trying to find some way to connect him to reality, but a slight hysteria was taking over her.  “I am your prisoner!  I don’t want to be here!  Do you understand that?  You cannot pretend that this is normal!”   She knew it was foolish to yell at him, knew it was useless anyway, but she felt a growing desperation to try to get through to him.  To try and make him understand what he was doing.

“Louise, I believe that I have had ample patience with you thus far.  I understand that you have been through a lot, but I saved you, and you will behave as I instruct.  It is for your own good.”   He walked to the door and grasped the handle.  “If your chores are not done,” he continued, “I will punish you.”  He shut the door behind him, and she knew that her small attempt to push him toward reality had been futile.

Lou suddenly grasped the fact that she was alone for the first time since this began.  Quickly she searched the small room, or as much as the length of the chains would let her.  They allowed her a fair amount of mobility, except that they kept getting tangled and tripping her.  The chain stopped well before the door, but she didn’t really think that made much a difference in her situation.  After all, they had ridden through what had felt like hours of lonely forest to get here.  She didn’t think there were neighbors to call for help. 

The chains provided free range of much of the room, except for one small cupboard in the corner she couldn’t reach.  She kept this in mind, thinking that he might keep weapons in it.  The chains around her ankles were uncomfortable, and the more she moved the more they rubbed.  When her ankles began to bleed she stuffed small pieces of cloth between the chains and her ankles as a buffer.
 
The room was small and square.  There was a rug in the middle of the room, a table with two chairs, and the huge heavy bed that she was attached to.  They must be sharing the bed, she realized, a thought which made her abruptly sick.  So far she had been too out of it to notice where or how she slept.  She wondered, suddenly, if he had . . . No.  She was pretty sure that she would know if he had done that.  Besides, that possibility was simply something she could not afford to think about right now.
 
She continued her exploration of the small room.  Lou understood, viscerally, that this could be the most important search of her life.  Knowing what was in the room could very well be her key to freedom, or save her life.  She turned slowly, taking careful stock of the contents of the room.  There was a stove in the corner and other assorted odds and ends.  A trunk which held only blankets, barrels which held food, a wooden shelf which held some dishes.  She searched them all thoroughly, but found nothing she could use as a potential weapon.  The two plates were a lightweight metal, and she couldn’t find any knives or even forks, only spoons.  She could hardly imagine defending herself with a fork, let alone armed with a spoon. 

She was chilled to recognize that he must have been planning this for some time.  Why else keep chains handy?  Why else clear the cabin of anything remotely dangerous?  Why, for that matter, take such trouble to live in the middle of nowhere and ensure that nobody from town knew who he was?   Was his name even Carl?  Probably not.  But she did know, regardless of his real name, that he would not be easily found.  As the boys had all made a point of telling her, nobody knew who he was. 

She thought of the boys now, with an intense longing that would have been funny in different circumstances.  Even Kid.  She wished she had not wasted her time with him fighting.  Wished she had been able to find a way to friends with him.  She wanted them all to be here with her, but she had a terrible feeling that they couldn’t help her now.  They had ridden in to rescue her so many times before, and she realized that she had begun to feel rather fearless in facing the world, knowing they were at her back.  But she doubted that even Buck could follow a trail through the storm, and, besides, they would have been here by now.  She knew, in her heart, that the boys had looked for her, and felt a pang at the frustration they must be feeling at not being able to help.  She spared a small smile at the thought of Jimmy furiously shooting cans and Kid frantically chopping wood, both venting the frustration in their usual ways.

She wondered exactly how long Carl had been planning this.  From before he went to the dance?  Had he gone there with the intention of choosing a victim?  She suspected that he had, and felt a moment of impotent anger that their paths had crossed through such a series of coincidences.  It didn’t seem fair.

With a slight shock she realized that he would be returning soon.  She hadn’t done what he had told her.  Part of her was screaming, ‘hurry, just hurry and get it done!  He will HURT you,’ but the other part wouldn’t let her.  She was not ready to give in to him.  There was still enough of her left that she could refuse to follow orders.  She didn’t intend to make this easy on him, which seemed, unfortunately, to necessitate it being hard on her.  She hadn’t planned on following his instructions, but as time grew near, her hands grew damp and shaky. 

In the back of her mind she thought, ‘there IS a way out of this and, God help me, I’ll find it.’


Chapter Ten

She was sitting on the bed when he came in.  She was ready for him to beat her, but she was also ready to fight back.  When he saw that she had not prepared any food he simply sighed. 

“I thought you might do this.  But I wish you hadn’t.”  He walked toward her and she rose to her feet and tensed.  She was surprised when he only reached out and stroked her hair. 

“You poor thing,” he murmured, trailing his fingers across her cheek, and then he took a key out of his pocket and bent down to unlock the cuffs.  He stood and took her arm.  “I’m so sorry, Louise,”

For a brief wild moment as he pulled her outside she thought he was letting her go.  But then he led her to a tree and tied her hands together with the end of a rope that had been lying coiled on the ground.  She was confused.  Was he going to leave her outside?  She had prepared herself to fight back, but she’d been expecting him to hit her.  If punishment was tying her up outside instead of in, she wasn’t sure what difference it made.

He took the rope and flung it over a tree branch, then he grabbed the other end of the rope and pulled.  Before she understood what was happening, her arms were stretched straight over her head.  Still not knowing what he planned to do but pretty sure now that it was not going to be benign, she began to struggle.  It seemed, however, that it was too late, she was now lifted up so high that only her toes touched the ground, her shoulders, her wrists, and the rope, bearing most of her weight.  She had no leverage.  He walked toward her and she screamed, expecting him to hit her in this defenseless position, but he just walked behind her.  She realized that he was unbuttoning her dress.  She was filled with icy fear, unsure what he was doing, but sure that she did not want this man touching her in any way.  After her back was exposed, he ran his hand down the smooth expanse of skin.

“Don’t touch me,” she yelled.  Pleaded really, and hated him for the fear in her voice.  The feelings were so similar to that night with Wickes that she thought she would throw up.  But then he walked away.  Was he going to leave her here?  Already her shoulder joints were screaming in protest of the awkward position.

For a long moment Lou held her breath, struck suddenly by the absurdity of this fear and terror in the midst of the clear and gentle mid afternoon sunshine.  A soft wind blew, lifting strands of her hair and sending them dancing across her face, brushing across her bare back.  She tried to turn to face him, but again found her feet scrabbling uselessly, her toes could gain no purchase on the hard-packed dirt.  Her ears strained for a hint of his actions, her brain tried frantically to decipher the rustlings he made.

When the first lick of lash came it was almost a relief.  She understood now what he was doing.  It was the fear of the unknown that had crowded her mind so much these past few days.  She finally knew the worst.  The relief was quickly swallowed by a searing pain which engulfed her mind.  She didn’t cry out, but it was not pride that held her tongue.  It was simply ingrained in her.  Keeping pain inside was one lesson she had learned well.  If she had thought about it, she might have screamed, but her mind was well past coherent thought.  Minutes later, her back slashed bloody, Lou’s spirit retreated wholly into her mind.  She was gone from the world long before her physical body passed out.

             --------------------------------------------------------

Carl easily lifted her limp body after untying her wrists.  He really was sad that she had made him do this.  Her skin had been so wonderfully smooth, too.  He had imagined stroking it at night in bed.  And now she had ruined it.  He sighed heavily.  Why wouldn’t women ever just obey?  He had read and he knew how it was supposed to be.  Women were supposed to obey men.  But in his life, over and over, he had had to punish women for disobeying him. 

He was not an unreasonable man, and he judged his discipline to be fair and righteous, but he’d noticed that other, more short-sighted, people hadn’t agreed with his assessment.  After Amanda had forced him to punish her, people had said awful things to him.  He tried to understand.  He had to admit, it was hard to see a woman bruised, a woman cry, a woman lying still and limp on the floor.  Did they think it had been easy for him?  Of course it hadn’t been easy, but he had done what he had to do.  Amanda had disobeyed.  His mother had disobeyed.  And now Louise. 

It was frustrating really.  He had been quite clear in his instructions, and yet, lunch had not been made and the mending had not been done.  Still, he wasn’t going to dispose of her yet.  He’d had the misfortune of meeting a number of unsuitable women that he had eventually had to get rid of, but Louise was something special.  She reminded him so much of mother. 

He would help her to understand her place by rewarding her when she obeyed, and, yes, punishing when he had to.  He was willing to go the extra mile for her, had been willing from the beginning when he had had to follow her, and then save her from that place.  If she hadn’t looked so much like mother, he might have decided she wasn’t worth the bother.  But he had worked hard for this, and he was determined to make this relationship work.

He laid her motionless body on the bed and began to wash and bandage the wounds with gentle hands.  Sometimes he thought they were so much easier to love when they were like this.


Chapter Eleven 

Lou sat quietly in a corner of her mind, observing the world her body inhabited.  For a long time things had been black, then, slowly, she had begun to be able to watch the world around her from the safe place in her mind.  Occasionally, most often when her body rotely performed Carl’s commands, and when he would smile approvingly, she felt like coming out and reclaiming her body. 

But she wanted to be safe a while longer. 

He hadn’t hit her with his hands since the slap on the first day, but he had taken her to the tree twice more, that she could remember.  It surprised her, really.  She, or rather, her body, was obedient to him now.  It didn’t seem to matter.  He had done it when her numb and abandoned body had sat, useless, instead of jumping quickly when he commanded. ‘He did it,’ she thought, ‘whenever he felt like it.’  She wondered, distantly, if she could possibly have any back left to mark.

His face could still make her cringe, but only in the small part of her that watched from somewhere inside.  Carl saw only a blank face and empty eyes.  And if he occasionally saw what looked like a flash of rage in those large, unblinking, eyes, it was shuttered so quickly he found it easy to forget. 

It might have been a month later.  Heck, it could have been a year later.  She didn’t really know because time was meaningless from this vantage point.  But Lou supposed it had probably been something more like a week when it happened. 

He was standing close to her as she automatically, carelessly, stirred something that would pretend to be dinner.  His hand was on her shoulder in a proprietary way that rankled the inside Lou.  She thought maybe she was ready to come back out, but, maddeningly, she couldn’t quite make herself.  Still, she was awake more of the time, and could ignore Carl less of the time. 

Like now.

He was whispering in her ear, as if they were lovers, “. . . darling, you are so very beautiful . . . wonderful being here . . . soon . . . happier now . . . being so good . . . meant to be . . . lovely . . .” 

And then Carl made what may have been his first serious mistake since he’d started this whole nightmare.  He couldn’t have known, of course.  Couldn’t have known that this action more than any other would snap Lou from the fear and stupor that he had created and shock her back into an incendiary awareness. 

Sloppily, Carl moved his hand to her breast and squeezed, hard enough so that finger-shaped bruises would appear later.  It was an act that unknowingly mimicked a similar act from years before.  An act that Lou’s mind and body remembered with stunning clarity.  An act that reminded Lou, suddenly and vividly, of her fierce determination to always be in charge of her body. 

She gripped the handle of the spoon, and suddenly, it was her hand that gripped it, her breast he was touching, her ear feeling his warm and sickening breath.  She had slammed back into her body, back into consciousness, so abruptly that Carl noticed nothing but a small jerk. 

‘I will kill him,’ she thought, and it was not a desperate voice that spoke, or panicked.  It was cold and honest, and it was a promise.  Carl had made the dangerous mistake of underestimating the strength, spirit, and endurance, of Louise Mcloud. 
 
               --------------------------------------

Walking outside, taking a refreshing breath of the cold night air, Carl hummed an absent little tune.  This was all working out rather nicely.  Maybe tonight they could start work on a family.  She was his wife, and he felt ready to be a father.  He hadn’t wanted to do that until he knew that he wouldn’t have to get rid of her, but it looked like maybe he could start to trust that she was the right choice.  Louise hadn’t needed nearly as much discipline as he had originally expected.  In fact, she was behaving very well.  She was settling in beautifully. 

              ---------------------------------------

After Carl left Lou had stood, frozen.  She had stayed still while he was there, but it was more the extreme force of the rushing fury that had immobilized her, rather than any purposeful plan of deceit.  The instant the door shut, Lou sprang into action.  She searched the room with a new fervor.  She would find a way out of this.  Something in this room would provide the crucial link to freedom.  A plan to escape, a tool to break the chains, a weapon to hurt him with; it was here somewhere. 

The chains around her ankles had scratched deep since she had last noticed.  Apparently she had not cared enough to continue padding them.  Now, the wounds bleed freely as she traversed the room.  The pain was no more of a distraction than the constant ache of the lashes on her back.  Uncomfortable, yes, but certainly not important right now.  Not when she needed to think of other things. 

She stopped suddenly, struck by inspiration.  He had been keeping her drugged, using at least sleeping powders, maybe something stronger.  That must mean that they were somewhere in this room.  She could drug him and get the keys to the chains she knew he kept in his pocket. 

She bit her lip considering.  It wasn’t a great plan.  It assumed that she could find the drugs, and that he would succumb to the effects within her reach.  But how else to get the keys?  Maybe she didn’t need to get the keys, she thought, maybe he would unchain her soon if she continued to act obedient.  She shook her head.  She couldn’t depend on that.  She had enough mobility to suit his needs this way.  It could be months before he unchained her and now that she was back she wasn’t sure she could pretend docility that long. 

So it was back to the keys.  Maybe she didn’t need to drug him to get the keys.  Perhaps she could reach in his pocket while he was sleeping.  She didn’t know if he was a heavy or a light sleeper, she had never touched him voluntarily, so she couldn’t predict if he would wake up.  She breathed out in irritation as she realized that his sleeping wasn’t really an issue because he hung the keys up near the door before he went to sleep.  You’d have to be deaf not to hear her creeping across the floor in chains in the middle of the night, even if she could reach the keys which she doubted.  She started that direction now to test her theory, and was, as she had suspected, brought up short.  No doubt that was why he had hung them there in the first place.

Suddenly frustrated beyond endurance she whirled and attacked the bed.  She yanked the chains futilely.  She bent to examine the juncture at which the chain was attached to the bed.  The bed itself, being cast iron, was much too heavy for her to move by herself.  She doubted whether she could do it with the assistance of two of the riders.  The thought of her friends, her family really, had her almost choking on rising emotion.  She wished with sharp desperation to see them, to have them ride in to rescue her.  But she knew that that was not going to happen this time.  She was going to have to save herself. 

‘So stop wasting time wishing for it, Lou,’ she told herself.

She went back to working on the chain.  If she could figure a way to free herself, or to at least lengthen the chain a bit, that would change everything.  Then she could find out what was in the cupboard she was now unable to reach.  Close inspection revealed that it was useless to work on the bed.  She grabbed a spoon, the closest thing she had to a tool, and began to test each link in the chain, as well as the loops around her ankles, for weak areas.  She almost didn’t believe it when she came across a link that seemed to have rusted.  She worked it feverishly, wanting very badly for it not to be delirious hope that made it seem as if the link might eventually give.  She spared a moment for a longing glance in the direction of the mystery cupboard.

Her eyes collided with Carl.

He was standing there, preternaturally silent, watching her.

Lou gave a little sob, unwilling to believe that he had discovered her the instant she let herself have hope.  The look on his face was unfamiliar.  He looked, Lou decided, both angry and betrayed. 

              --------------------------------------------------

One part of his head heard her little gasp and was pleased with her fear.  It meant she had learned something of him, at least.  She should be afraid right now.  She should be very, very, afraid, because she had done a very, very, bad thing.  She had tricked him, and that was the worst kind of disobedience. 

The kind of thing you had to be severely punished for.

              ---------------------------------------------------


She believed that he would behave as he had before, gently unlocking her chains to take her to the tree, and decided that this time she would run, she would fight.  That she was weak and injured only meant that she would have to rely on the element of surprise. 

She was so distracted by her planning that she wasn’t really prepared for the slap that sent her sprawling to the floor.  Lou lay there for a moment, stunned.  This was not like him.  He didn’t use his hands.  It was the most disconcerting thing about him, the way his anger was so large and easy to arouse, and yet so controlled. 

He kicked her, and then bent to drag her up and deliver a punch to her face.  His face was cold fury, and it lacked any semblance of sanity.  She knew, suddenly, that at that moment he was capable of killing her.  He had attacked so quickly and relentlessly that she hadn’t had a chance to fight back yet, but a slight pause, as he assessed his next move, allowed Lou to gather her wits enough to jerk her knee solidly up into his groin, where it landed with a satisfying force.  It was a subtle shift, but she knew that he was not just beating her now.  Now they were fighting. 

She took advantage of his shock and kicked at his knee, a weak spot on any person’s body.  But her exhaustion must have taken its toll then, causing her aim to be slightly off, or maybe her bare feet did not have sufficient force.  While he did cry out in pain, she didn’t hear the tell-tale snap, nor did he collapse.  He recovered quickly and threw himself at her.  She struggled ferociously, but he regained the upper hand.  She was lying on her side, and he was on top of her.  Her gaze narrowed and sharpened as he hit her around the middle and she began to lose consciousness.  The only thing she could see was the length of chain that lay bunched up next to her.  What had previously seemed almost alive with hope was now lying inert.

Wait.

A tiny idea niggled at her head, and then exploded into her mind. 

The chain.

Enough to move around the room in.

Enough to wrap around his damn neck.

In a flash she had heaved with superhuman strength, catching him off guard, and grabbed the length of chain.  For a heart-stopping moment it tangled in her hands but then, miraculously, it fell free.  Before he could comprehend her actions she had looped the chain around his neck and managed to wriggle behind him.  She took hold of both ends and pulled with all her might.  He began to choke, struggling mindlessly.  In a straight wrestling match, she wouldn’t have stood a chance against the much heavier man, but because she was behind him, and the links of chain helped her hang on, she had the upper hand. 

It was disgusting to watch.  If it was anyone else, Lou didn’t think she would have the stomach to continue.  But it was Carl and she had enough fear and hatred in her to take a deep breath and pull for her life.  Little bubbles of spit came out of his mouth, along with a steady stream of drool.  His face had turned a deep purple and he was making a strange whistling sound as his hands clutched at the chain around his neck.

Slowly, gradually, he stopped struggling.  Already she could see marks beginning to appear on his neck.  She let go suddenly, dropping the chains as if they had become hot.  Her hands moved to his pockets, and fumbled to get inside the folds of fabric.  She checked one, then the other, and her heart was in her throat when she didn’t feel the key.  In a flash, she imagined herself living, and then starving, in this room with a corpse.  As the scene flew through her mind her hand closed over a metal object.  Drawing it out, she saw it was the key and her hands began to shake with relief. 

Quickly she twisted the key in the lock, afraid she would have to fight with the old mechanism, but it popped open with an obliging snick.  The feeling of freedom was delicious, but, for an instant, she couldn’t think what to do next.  She hadn’t thought past this moment. 

Then she ran.  Ran without taking anything, without even putting on the shoes he had taken off her the first day, saying she didn’t need them. 

She ran to the barn, breathing heavily, and more frightened now than she had been before.  Now that she was so close to making her escape she had so much more to lose.  Hurry, hurry, hurry, her mind chanted as she threw a saddle on a horse, barely taking time to adjust the buckles. 

She realized with a sickening jolt, that she hadn’t checked to make sure he was dead.  He was, she was sure, but she wished she had just . . .
 
It didn’t matter.  God himself couldn’t make her go back in there.  She leapt on the horse and kicked it into a gallop.  She wasn’t quite sure she accurately remembered the ride, here, so she didn’t quite know what direction to go in, but that was not important right now. 

Movement was.

Chapter Twelve

The pounding hooves of her horse mimicked the staccato beat of her frantic heart.  Lou flew like she never had before, bent over the horse, slicing through the black night.  She rode with fear and desperation clawing at her insides, making her hands numb and her breathing ragged.  She imagined him behind her, closing in.  She imagined him in front of her, lying in wait.  A terror unlike anything she had ever felt before consumed her. 

                  ----------------------------------------------------

Rachel glanced out of the window as she cleared the barely touched morning meal from the table.  She was looking to see if the gray sky was planning on fulfilling its promise of rain, but what she saw was a figure on a horse, standing motionless in the yard.

“Rider . . .” she stopped, falling silent, trying to make her mind understand.

The boys, sitting at the table, watched as the platter Rachel was holding slid slowly from her fingers and tumbled to the floor.  The sharp sound of shattering porcelain filled the room, but for some reason nobody moved, least of all Rachel.

Until her lips struggled to form one short word.

“Lou,” she whispered.

In an instant all the riders were out of their chairs, pushing out the door.  They froze when they actually saw the unmoving figure.  For the same reason that Lou remained on her horse, the riders remained on the porch -- the sudden and overwhelming fear that the other would evaporate. 

Lou sat on her horse, not knowing how to enter back into a life that seemed so long ago. The boys stood, worried that she was some sort of mirage.

The first few light drops of rain drizzled down, and the coming of the rain seemed to release them.  With a loud whoop, Cody jumped from the porch and broke in a run to greet her.  The others were not far behind.

They screamed her name joyfully, racing toward her.  But as they approached, they slowed.  Something wasn’t right. 

Lou was sitting in the saddle, wearing a dress none of them recognized.  Her feet were bare except for the blood that covered them.

Lou didn’t move.  Didn’t smile, didn’t laugh, didn’t greet them. 

She didn’t do anything. 

The boys hesitated for the barest moment, unsure of themselves and how to treat her. 

“Lou?” Jimmy said, asking a question he couldn’t put into words.

She looked at them then and they saw her tired, empty eyes. 

“Are you okay?” It was Jimmy again, his desperation to touch her, hold her, feel her, forcing his tongue to move. 

After a moment he turned to Cody and commanded harshly, “Go get the doctor.”

“No.”  The threat of the doctor galvanized her when little else could.  One thing Lou was certain of at this moment was that she would never tell the boys what he had done to her.  She would never let them see how he had hurt her.

She slid stiffly off the horse, bearing the pain of his abuse and the frantic ride away from him with hardly a flinch. 

But she couldn’t hide her injuries.

“You’re hurt, Lou,” Jimmy said, reaching out toward her black eye, bruised cheek and split lip. 

“I’m fine.  I’ll live.  We’ve all had worse than this,” she gestured to her face with a faint smile. 

“But your feet . . .” he protested.

“I’m fine.  Really.  I’m just . . . tired.”  And she meant this with all her heart.  She began walking toward the bunkhouse.  “I just want to sleep for a while.”  Like forever.

She was having a hard time talking to them.  Lou was suddenly, inexplicable, confused.   She had thought that when she got away from Carl she would be fine, but she wasn’t.  Instead, she felt all filled up with emotions she couldn’t really understand or handle.  She knew the boys deserved more than she was giving them right now, but she felt all empty inside.  She couldn’t seem to do any more than remain upright. 

“Alright,” Rachel said briskly, “You’ll sleep in the main house tonight, okay Lou?” 

Lou nodded without comment, changing her course, putting one foot in front of the other.  

The boys watched her go, Rachel walking next to her.  They were filled with an immense feeling of relief, but it was dulled by a sickening worry that maybe Lou had been . . . broken.


Chapter Thirteen

It was early evening.  Lou had been home almost all day and said hardly one word in all that time.  Rachel had let her take a bath in private, and retrieved some of her old clothes from her trunk.  Then she had refused food and requested sleep.

As the rain began to fall in earnest, instead of dawdling lazily down from the sky as it had done all afternoon, Jimmy entered the bunkhouse, his face ashen. 

“I . . .” he started to say, but couldn’t continue. 

“What is it Jimmy?” Rachel asked, looking at him curiously. 

“I think I may be going crazy . . .” he said quietly, desperately.

“This has been hard for all of us. . .”

“NO,” he interrupted.  “I . . . can’t find her.  I think she’s gone again.”

The room looked at him in silent confusion.  The rain pounded on the ceiling.  For years many of the riders would fear and dread the rain for reasons they could never consciously explain.

“I wanted to check on her.  I know you said to let her sleep but I had to see that she was alright,” he explained.  “So I went to her room and the bed was empty, and then I thought I was confused so I checked the other room and she’s not there,” he paused, his face more distressed than any of them had ever seen.  “She was here, wasn’t she?  She did come home?  Why can’t I find her?  Where would she have gone?”

“I’m sure you just missed her,” Rachel assured him, but she was rising quickly and her voice was just a little strained. 

As a group they moved to go over to the main house. 

They probably would have missed her if Rachel hadn’t slipped in the mud.  As the boys helped her up, her gaze feel on a scene much like the one she had seen earlier today. 

‘Maybe we are going crazy,’ she thought.  Because she could swear she saw Lou, on a horse.  She was simply sitting there as before, and her feet were still bare.  But this time her freshly washed feet were shining whitely against the darkening surroundings and she was wearing her old clothes.  Except that somehow they looked wrong, like they would on a child who had dressed herself.  The shirt was buttoned crooked, and the pants looked bunched in odd places.   

Following Rachel’s stare, the others found Lou.

Perhaps it was because he had missed Lou’s homecoming this afternoon, and was not as shocked at the repetition as the others.  For whatever reason, Teaspoon found his voice first.  “You going somewhere?” he asked gently.

After a long moment of silence Lou answered quietly, “Don’t know.”

He reached his hand up and, blindly, Lou took it and allowed him to help her down from the horse.  She slipped down the side of the tall animal, slowly, carefully.  When her naked feet touched the cold ground it was as if she was shocked awake. 

She felt suddenly and wholly consumed with the rage she had refused to admit to until now.  She shoved Teaspoon away from her, and looked at them all with hot and angry eyes that darted from one to the next. 

They all noticed the change in her face, the sudden appearance of a startling rage. 

“Why didn’t you save me!?” she screamed, abruptly, without warning. 

Speechless, they stared at her.

“Why didn’t you come for me!?”  It was everything she had wanted to scream about for days.  About how she had started to depend upon them and they had let her down.  About how she had needed them, and they hadn’t been there.  About wondering for days how they could have let this happen to her.  All the terrible things she hadn’t even let herself think, while she had been chained in the cabin, now came tumbling, unbidden, uncensored, from her mouth.  Somewhere inside she was surprised at her own venom, her patent unfairness.  And also surprised that she could have concealed such thoughts from her conscious mind, and would now have no control over them.

“We tried,” Buck answered in an agonized whisper. 

“We tried . . .”

“The rain . . .”

“We couldn’t . . .” The whispers came from all of them.

She was crying now.  Crying hard.  Crying for the first time she could remember, and for the first time any of them had seen.  She was beginning to realize that the anger she had just felt rush through her wasn’t, in fact, directed at them.  Instead it was a directionless anger, anger that this had happened to her.  But anger at fate is far less satisfying, so she tried one more time to make it their fault, despite the dying look in their eyes that was making it so hard to continue blaming them.

“Why . . .” but she couldn’t finish.  The look in their eyes, as if she was killing them, was more than she could bear.  So she stopped, choking back her angry, undeserved, recriminations.  But she couldn’t stop crying.

The boys, Teaspoon and Rachel stood, stunned.  That she should ask them this; that she should stand there crying because she had needed their help and they hadn’t given it, was unthinkable to them.  Each one of them stood, unable to respond.  They could say nothing.

Wanting to yell, needing to scream, but unable to hurt them any more, Lou simply accused, “You don’t know what it was like!” 

And, of course, they didn’t.  They didn’t know what she had gone through.  Every one of them would have died for her, but they couldn’t take away this pain.  Truthfully, each one of them had a small part inside that didn’t want to know what she had gone through.  Didn’t want to know what it took to make Lou cry like this.

“I don’t know how to stay here,” she said, her voice thick with confusion, fear, and desperation.  “I don’t know how live with this.  I don’t know how to look at any of you, because you don’t know . . .” she paused, and then finished, softly this time, almost a whisper.  “You don’t know what it was like.”

They looked at her, as she slid, hard, down to the ground, choking on her grief and sadness.  And still they could find no words to fix this. 

Until Jimmy, less paralyzed with guilt than Ike, Buck and Kid, who were buried in it, and more desperate with need than the others, went forward and kneeled before her, “You could tell us,” he said, simply.

“NO!” she cried, angry that she should have to say the words, that they would not know what he had done to her, that she had to do this alone.  She realized that she wanted to release some of it, wanted to unburden herself.  But she found she couldn’t.

“I can’t,” she said, pounding her fist repeatedly, violently, into the ground sending mud flying.  Until, on a downward strike, her fist fell open, as if broken apart by the hard ground.  As if letting go of the anger.

“I don’t know how,” she moaned, and fell forward, letting Jimmy catch her. 

He scooped her up and strode quickly to the house.  “We’ll help you,” he whispered in her ear, taking her into the house.

            -----------------------------------------------------------------

Rachel had dried Lou, dressed her in one of Rachel’s own nightgowns, and deposited her back into bed.  The riders, Teaspoon and Rachel had, with unspoken agreement, decided to settle down in the kitchen of the main house.  Just in case, they told themselves.  They didn’t mention in case of what.

Rachel was sewing, Cody was reading, Ike was pretending to be sketching something but spent much of his time staring off into space.  Kid, Noah, Jimmy and Teaspoon were playing cards, but they could have all been playing a different game for all the attention they were paying.

Lou saw all this from door of the room Rachel had left her in.  She was supposed to be sleeping, but all she could see were their eyes.  She had lain there, her body heavy with weariness, her mind exhausted, but she couldn’t fall asleep.  Gathering her strength she had rolled out of bed, knowing she had to apologize before she could rest easy.  Whatever she had to get through, on her own or not, they were all she had.  She couldn’t sleep without knowing that they forgave her. 

She had watched them, protecting her, for a moment, then slipped out the door and walked toward them.

“Look, I . . .” She had started bravely, but it dissolved quickly when everyone jerked violently with surprise. 

“Whoa,” she said with a little smile, holding her hands up as some of them gasped for breath from the adrenaline rush, and most of them slowly dragged their hands from their guns.  Typical.  But one could forgive them for being a little jumpy.

“What are you doing up?” Kid asked, staring at her.  She didn’t know it, but she looked startlingly small and fragile in the long white gown.

Finding, again, her interrupted train of thought, she continued where she left off.

“I had to say something to y’all before I could sleep.”  She paused.  “Before, out in the rain . . .”

“Lou, it’s okay.  You don’t have to . . .” Jimmy began.

“I DO have to!” she said forcefully.  “This is hard for me.  Harder than I thought.  I’m so . . .” She shook her head.  “I don’t know exactly what I was doing out there, where I thought I would go.  But I do know that whatever I’m going through, you guys don’t deserve what I said.  I’m angry.  But I’m angry mostly at him, and myself.  Not you.  Even when I was saying that, about how you should have helped me,” her voice broke, and she swallowed.  “Even when I was saying it, I knew it wasn’t true.  I just wanted to make something hurt the way I was hurting.  Just wanted to yell at him, and myself, and the world.  But he wasn’t here, and you all were. . .”  She trailed off.  “I’m really sorry I said that.  I was wrong to say that.”

Buck, finally able to forgive himself a little for not being able to find her, spoke for the group when he said, “It’s alright, Lou.  We understand.  It was hard to hear you say that, but only because you have to know . . .” He swallowed, remembering.  “You have to know we tried.  We tried really hard and it was so terrible when we couldn’t find you.”

“I do know.  I always knew that you were trying.  I never doubted you were trying.  That’s why I feel so bad about what I said.  It was just mean.  What I really want to do is thank you.  Thanks for that, and for being here.”  She smiled then, the tenseness flooding out of her was letting her know how tired she was.  “I have to go to sleep now.  I’ll see you later.”

It was so normal.  So weirdly normal and yet at the same time unlike any other night.  They chorused a good night and went back to what they were doing, a little more at ease with everything.  A little more able to feel the relief of Lou finally being home.

Eventually they all went to sleep that night, doing better than they had been that morning.  Hopefully tomorrow would be better still.


Chapter Fourteen

Two days later, things had fallen into a delicate routine around the station.  The boys fought ferociously against being sent out on a run, all of them feeling the need to be close to Lou.  It still felt a little bit like a miracle to have her back again. 

‘She seems to be doing much better,’ Rachel thought.  ‘Quiet, sure, but that’s to be expected.’

If they hadn’t been watching her like a hawk, they probably wouldn’t have noticed the way she winced.  But they were, and they did.  They all knew that she was still in some amount of pain, despite her protests. 

Jimmy saw it now, watching her from the window.  She had been adamant that she wanted to return to life as usual as quickly as possible, including doing work around the station.  It drove the rest of them half-crazy trying to get all the chores done so that there would be nothing left for her to do. 

A minute ago, Jimmy had happened to glance out a window, catching a glimpse of her repairing the fence.  This entailed, he well knew, some heavy lifting, and swinging a hammer.  She didn’t know that he was watching, so she wasn’t trying to hide the pain etched in her face.  Suddenly furious with her stubbornness, Jimmy strode quickly to the door.  Enough was enough

    -----------------------------------------------------

‘Something’s wrong,’ Lou thought.  ‘With my back.’  She wasn’t sure exactly what, but the marks weren’t healing, instead they had started to throb, painfully and constantly.  She felt weak and shaky almost all the time.  She went from cold to hot in minutes, and was having a hard time keeping food down.  Thank God she had managed to keep that private.  They would have made her see a doctor for sure. 

That had been the only bad moment since that night in the kitchen.  Someone had fetched the doctor, and she had flatly refused to see him.  A lot of hard words had been thrown, but Lou didn’t give in.  As long as God gave her the strength to stand she would not tell the boys what that man had done to her back. 

It made it hard, though.  She obviously couldn’t clean them very well.  And now she thought that they were starting to ooze, but it was really hard to tell, what with it being her back and all.

She was beginning to wish she knew how to tell them.  Her pride simply would not let her, but something inside was hurt, and tired, and wanted help.  ‘Pride,’ she sighed, ‘can be troublesome at times.’  It had helped her through a number of tough situations, but sometimes, like now, it was paralyzing.

She was so lost in her thoughts that she didn’t really even notice Jimmy walking determinedly toward her.

“Louise!” he yelled, coming to a stop directly in front of her

She stared at him.  As far as she could remember, he had never used her full name before.  Well, and certainly not in that tone of voice. 

“You put that down,” he said through clenched teeth.  As she started to interrupt he raised his eyebrows and overrode her, “and you get your butt into the house.”

She looked at him for a moment, thinking about arguing.  He pointed a long arm imperiously in the direction of the house.  “Go.”

Lou looked at him, and suddenly, she loved him.  She was hurt and tired, and he could see that.  She wasn’t going to fight with him.  With a weary little smile, she held her hand to her forehead in a mock salute.  “Yes sir.”  Then, letting the hammer fall to the ground she turned to walk in the house, with Jimmy following close behind her.  

When they entered the relative coolness of the bunkhouse Lou gave a little sigh of relief which she immediately regretted.  As if on cue, Jimmy, Cody, and Ike, were instantly by her side peering at her with concern. 

”I’m alright,” she groaned in irritation.  Even though she was beginning to suspect that she was not, in fact, alright. 

Jimmy sat on the table and turned her to face him. 

“Lou, why won’t you see a doctor?” 

“Jimmy . . .” she started, but didn’t really know how to finish the sentence.  Didn’t know how to explain what she was feeling, the shame, the embarrassment, the desire to pretend it had never happened.

“Yeah, Lou,” Cody said, “why don’t you just get yourself checked out, get a clean bill of health, and then we all get to stop worrying.  Never knew you were afraid of doctors,” he added, with a big grin and a heavy slap to her back.

Lou gave a mindless cry as the pain exploded in her body, so intense that it had become her whole world.  She collapsed to her knees, heaving with nausea.

“Oh, God.” Cody said, crouching next to her, “Oh, God, someone go get the doctor.”
Ike had already been moving towards the door when Cody said this.

Lou heard him though the fog in her mind and struggled clumsily to her feet.  “No!  I said no doctor!  I won’t see a doctor!”

Jimmy looked at her with hard eyes.  “Yeah you will.  One way or another, you sure as hell will.”  He turned to Ike who was standing, undecided.  “Go get the doctor.”  He said it with a finality that could not be argued with.

“Jimmy!” Lou cried in distress, “Why?”

“Lou, I’m sorry.  I know that you’re hiding something from us.  I know that you are hurt.  I don’t know why you’re trying to hide it from us, and, honestly, I don’t really care.   You don’t have to tell us.  But you do have to tell the doctor.”

She looked at him, and he could see some kind of longing in her eyes.  “I wish I could tell you.  I wish I knew how,” she said, quietly

“I know,” he answered simply.  “I know.”

The fever, and the lingering pain took over then.  Her eyes rolled back in her head and she fell limply to the floor.

  -----------------------------------------

The doctor walked into the room, raising his eyebrows at the sight of Lou lying on the bed, unconscious. 

“Found a way to make her cooperate have we?” he said, sardonically

Jimmy looked at the man and felt a huge relief.  Dr. Cooper was a nice man and a good doctor, but, more to the point, he had proven he could be trusted with Lou’s secret. 

“She passed out a while ago,” Jimmy explained. 

Rachel bustled into the room with the boiling water and extra towels she thought might come in useful. 

“I know she wouldn’t see you before, doctor,” she said, “kept telling us she was fine and wouldn’t see a doctor, but she’s gotten worse.”

“Probably some sort of infection,” the doctor murmured, holding his hand to her forehead, feeling the fever.  “Once we find the source we’ll have a better idea what we’re dealing with,” he said, rolling up his sleeves.

Glancing up at Jimmy he said, “You’d better go wait outside.”

“No,” Jimmy said, quietly, but determinedly.  “I’ll stay.”  He thought maybe there was something that Lou really wanted to tell them, but couldn’t.  He thought maybe, just this once, he could spare her that.  He would force himself to stay, despite the part of him that wanted desperately to leave the room, and let it all happen somewhere else.  He would find out what Lou was hiding, and that way she wouldn’t have to tell them.

The doctor looked at Rachel, who looked at Jimmy, considering.  “Let him stay,” she said finally, turning to finish.  The doctor nodded and began to undress Lou.  Modesty is a quality that a doctor cannot afford to possess, but for the sake of Lou and Jimmy, he tried to be quick, and keep more personal areas covered.  It didn’t take long for him to find the origin of the infection.  He simply followed one lash-mark that had snaked up to her shoulder, and turned her on her stomach. 

Jimmy, seeing the infected mass of what were the unmistakable marks of a whip, felt his stomach rise.  Unable to fight it back down he hurried from the room, past the waiting riders, to the porch where he vomited over the side. 

Holding his head in his hands he began to quietly cry, rocking back and forth. 

The riders had followed him and watched silently, not knowing what to say, not really wanting to ask what he had seen.

“What kind of animal does something like that?” Jimmy managed to say. 

Buck reached out and put a hand on Jimmy’s shoulder, wanting to comfort him.

Finally, Jimmy took a deep breath of air and said, “I have to go back in.  I have to be there for her.”

The riders nodded, thankful that he had the strength for this task.

As Jimmy reentered the room the doctor looked up. 

“I wasn’t sure you’d be back.”  He had finished bandaging the wounds, so Jimmy was spared looking again at the hideous sight.

“She gonna be alright?” he asked quietly.

“She should be,” the doctor answered.  “The . . . wounds . . . just got infected.  If they are kept clean she should be alright.  She’ll need help,” he said, looking Jimmy in the eye, “can you handle that?”

Jimmy nodded mutely.  He would help Lou however he could.  He and every other person in the house.

“Good,” the doctor said, snapping his bag shut.  He left instructions with Jimmy and Rachel.  “Take care of her.  She’s been through a lot.”  With that he turned to leave. 

“Doc,” Jimmy called as Dr. Cooper reached the door.

“Yes?” he asked, turning toward Jimmy and away from the door. 

Jimmy hesitated for a moment, “Did he . . . did he . . . force her?” 

It wasn’t a real coherent question, but the doctor knew what he meant.

“There is no sign he abused her that way, so, no, I don’t think so.  But only she knows for sure.”  With that, he left, telling them to call for him if she took a turn for the worse.

Jimmy looked at Lou, sleeping the sleep of the weak and exhausted. 

“It’s gonna be alright, Lou,” he said, taking hold of her hand, laying his head down next to hers. 


Chapter Fifteen

Lou woke up to the morning sun.  She felt tired, still, but better than she had in a while.  She struggled to sit up, but found a hand pushing her gently back down.

“Rest a while longer, Lou.”

It was Kid, sitting beside the bed, looking exhausted.  Of all the riders, Lou had been most worried about Kid.  It wasn’t that he was avoiding her, because he was almost always close by.  It was just that he didn’t touch her, and didn’t often make eye-contact with her.  She wondered if he was st

He was holding his hat, worrying it with restless hands.  ‘Poor hat’s not gonna have any shape left,’ she thought absently.

“What happened?” she asked out loud.

“You passed out.  We brought the doctor.”

“Passed out, eh?  Never done so much of that in my entire life as I have the last month,” she said, smiling.

Kid didn’t smile back.  “Course,” he said, “you have a right.  You been through a lot.”

“So the doctor told you,” she stated, flatly.

“Jimmy,” Kid corrected.  “He stayed with you while the doctor was here.”

Lou knew she should be embarrassed, but that emotion paled in comparison to the huge and sudden relief she felt knowing that they finally knew.

“Sam stopped by.”  Kid said suddenly, breaking the silence.  He shot a quick glance at Lou, and then went back to his studious examination of his hat.  “Seems that a marshal in a town called Yellow Ridge recognized a picture of Carl that Ike drew and Sam sent out.  This marshal said he knew the man.”  Kid stopped, finding it hard to continue.  “Turns out his name was David Reedy, not Carl Loren.”

“I sorta guessed that wasn’t his real name,” she responded, her eyes distant.

“The marshal said that David’s father died when his momma was pregnant.  Of some fever that they both had.  She lived, he didn’t.  Well, the marshal said that David was never really quite right, and got into a fair amount of trouble, but everyone felt so sorry for his momma, the way she lost his father, that no one wanted to cause her more pain.  Turns out they probably shoulda. 

A girl disappeared one night, and people started pointing fingers at David.  Apparently, he had started following her around recently.  Her body was found in the forest a couple of days later, and there was some evidence that pointed to David.  There was talk of an arrest and a hanging, but there wasn’t enough for a sure conviction.  Until his mother came forward and said that he’d done it.  Well, the townspeople started looking for him straight off, and there was some confusion.  In the end, David’s mother was dead, and nobody ever saw David again.” 

Lou sat silently for a moment.  Then she softly said, “I guess I got off easy.”

“Wasn’t just luck, Lou,” Kid said, his eyes trying to catch hers.  “You should know that.”

“Still, a lot of it was luck.  I could very well be dead right now.”

“I’m really glad you aren’t.”

There wasn’t much to say after that.   They sat for a while, until Kid opened his mouth as if to say something. 

“Lou,” Kid started, faltered, continued.  “Lou, I don’t know how to say how sorry I am.  But I am.  I should never have acted the way I did.  I don’t know why I was.  I know that part of the reason this happened was ‘cause of me.  I never meant for something like this to happen.  I don’t know how it did.”  He paused, looking at her.  “Lou, I love you.  I never meant to hurt you.”

Lou knew what he meant.  She was beginning to understand how much the boys meant to her, including Kid, and even how much she meant to them.   She’d gotten visits much like this from all the boys.  Though it had taken Kid longer to come to her.  She’d had to assure Ike that he was not to blame for not telling the others, and Buck that he was not to blame for losing the trail, and Jimmy that he was not to blame for not killing the man straight off.  She thought she may never regret anything in her life the way she regretted what she had said to them in the rain.  They blamed themselves enough for not rescuing her.

“Kid, I understand what you’re trying to say.  Toward the end there, you and me were in some kind of competition.”  She reached out to touch his cheek.  “But what happened, that ain’t nobody’s fault but Carl Loren’s, or whatever his name was.  You ain’t anymore responsible than I am for what happened.  Ike helped me understand that.  I know I went with him on the picnic, that some would say I led him on.  But not one of us caused what happened.  I can’t blame you unless I want to blame myself, too, because I was equally involved with that little pissing contest we were having,” she finished, smiling wryly. 

Kid put his head down, unable to look at her for the moment.  “I still want you to know that I’m sorry.  I behaved . . . badly.”

“Yeah ya did,” she agreed.  “But so did I.  And neither of us acted as poorly as he did.”
Lou felt peaceful, more okay at that moment than any other moment since the whole thing had started.  “I appreciate you coming here.  And I hope that we’ll be able to be friends now.  I love you too.  I understand that a lot better now than I did before.”

She drifted out of wakefulness as she looked at his face.  On it she saw redemption, relief, and release.  The guilt was slowly fading, and the forgiveness was taking its place.  Whatever anger and petty arguments there had been between them was forgotten.  ‘It’s a better place to be,’ she thought, ‘than where we were before.’

Then she slept.  Slept deeply, and slept for days.  When she awoke, she felt like a new person.


Chapter Sixteen

It had been almost two weeks since Lou had returned.  Things were largely returning to normal, except for an extra watchful eye on Lou.  The boys had finally started going on runs again, and, provided she took it easy, she was ‘allowed’ to do chores again. 

“You know, if you want to so bad, you can do my chores too,” Cody teased as they walked to the barn together.  Lou had just been fighting with Jimmy about whether it was too tiring to muck out the stalls.

“No thanks, Cody.  I wouldn’t do your chores before, and now ain’t no different.”  They continued their light banter, laughing in the warm afternoon. 

Suddenly they heard the sound of a gun cocking behind them.

“Hello, Louise.  I’ve missed you.” 

It was Carl.  It was impossible, but Carl stood there, deep bruises circling his neck. 

Lou froze, unable to comprehend the sight of this man, alive, with a gun.  For a moment she almost didn’t believe it was true.  She’d woken from nightmares like this every night since she’d escaped.  But the hand that reached out to viciously grab her neck was all too real. 

“Doesn’t feel good, does it sweetie?” he said from between clenched teeth. 

“You let go of her!”  Cody shouted, lunging toward them.

He pointed the gun at Cody.  “I’ll kill you first, so she can watch.  If I can’t have her nobody can.  Do you love him Louise?!” he screamed, shaking her.  As Lou struggled for breath she also prayed somebody would hear and come.  She didn’t respond to his question, knowing from experience that her responses didn’t matter.  He would think what he wanted anyway. 

“Louise,” he said, softly, releasing her neck and grabbing her hair, “you did a very bad thing.  I am very, very disappointed in your behavior.  I’m just not sure that I can be with you, after what you did.  I’m not sure we’re gonna work out.”

Carl moved toward Cody, dragging her, stumbling, behind him, waving the gun in his face, enraged again, “Why did you do this!  Why take her from me!?  I’ll kill you!  She was good without you!”  He spun then, and flung her to the ground.  “I thought you were the one!  You were a gift from mother, and you were supposed to be my wife.  You were supposed to be good, but you’re not!  You are very, very bad.”  He turned back to Cody, gripping the gun in his hand. 

As he advanced on Cody, Lou’s mind raced even as she took advantage of his distracted attention and pulled her gun from the holster that had rested on her hip almost constantly since escaping.  She knew Cody wasn’t wearing a gun, but then, he hadn’t just been kidnapped by a madman.  When Carl had appeared, she had thought he would take it from her, but it was clear that Carl had lost whatever relationship with reality he had once managed to have. 

It made no sense for one person to attack two people like this.  In terms of guns, they were evenly matched, and in terms of strength, Lou and Cody together would beat Carl alone.  If he was sane, he probably would have shot one or both of them from long distance.  But he wasn’t and that’s why this whole thing had happened.

Lou cocked her own gun, then, and pointed it squarely at Carl. 

“Carl,” she said.

He turned and seemed surprised and confused at her gun.  “Put that down instantly.  You must not be such a bad girl, Louise.  It is highly inappropriate for you . . .”

He was stopped short when Lou fired, pointblank.

And fired and fired and fired until her gun was empty, the gunshots echoing into the afternoon air.

“I think you got him, Lou,” Cody said as the sound died away.

‘Come back from that, you bastard,’ Lou thought, not responding to Cody.

Jimmy and Buck, the only riders at the station, had come running at the sounds of shots. 

Jimmy looked enraged, like he’d like to kill him all over again, but he softened when he saw her, pale and shaking.

“It’s okay, Lou,” Jimmy said, moving to hold her.  “It’s over now.”

“No, it’s not,” she said bitterly, tucked in Jimmy’s embrace, still holding her gun.  “It will never be over.  He will never be gone, because he’s in my dreams, and my back is covered with a reminder that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

There was silence, until Buck spoke.  “Actually, Lou, maybe, if you wanted, I could try to help you with part of that.”


Epilogue

A sudden intake of breath caused Buck to stop. 

“You okay, Lou?”  Buck asked, stroking a hand lightly over her bare shoulder.

“I’m fine, keep going.”

“I’ll stop if you want.”

“No.  Keep going.”

So Buck moved over her again.  A few minutes later he moved away from her.  “I’m done,” he said. 

Lou got up and walked toward the mirror.  She turned around and looked at her back in the mirror.  “Oh, Buck,” was all she’d managed to say.

Onto her back he had used a needle and ink to paint a picture of a bird breaking free from entangling vines.  The lash marks had ceased to be scars, and had been transformed into vines that sought to hold the bird.  But it was clear the bird was about to take off.

“It beautiful, Buck,” she breathed, finally. 

“It tells a story like one I heard a long time ago.  I don’t know where I heard it, the mission or the village, and I don’t remember a lot about it.  But you reminded me of the story.  It tells of a bird that is killed, I think, burned somehow, and then rises from the ashes.”  He looked at her.  “You reminded me of the story.  About how you’d think something might kill the bird, but it just turns up stronger.  See, like you.”

Lou smiled at him, still admiring her back.  “Thank you, Buck.  I don’t really know what else to say.”  The twisting scars had been something ugly, shameful.  Now instead of carrying scars she carried a permanent reminder of her own strength, and of people who loved her.

She was going to be okay.  Because of her family.

The End
Many thanks to Karen for beta-ing.

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