Author's Note: This is an alternate timeline story. It takes place five months after Kid and Lou broke up. So, anything after the episodes 'In The Presence of Mine Enemies' and 'Survivors' did not happen yet, though some of the guest characters will be mentioned. A big thanks to my wonderful beta reader, Sameena.

Prologue

Louise McCloud stepped onto the porch, closing the door behind her. It was early October and there was already a definite chill in the air. She glanced at the two men sitting not far away on the porch then went down the stairs and started walking on the sidewalk, knowing the two men were not far behind.

The wind rustled some fallen leaves from the few trees along the road. Louise tried to wrap her wool coat tighter around herself, which was not an easy feat these days. It's ironic, she thought with a grin, she had spent so long trying to buy the smallest man's coat she could find and it had been too big for her, now here she was buying the largest woman's coat she could find and this one was too small for her!

The streets didn't seem too busy which was strange for a Saturday night in St. Joseph. I guess everyone's in the saloons or seeking out female companionship, Louise said to herself wryly, glancing back at the brothel she had just passed. She shivered as she recalled working there as a laundress, only to be put through hell at age fourteen at the hands of Ethan Wicks.

"Damn you, Wicks," Louise whispered as tears came to her eyes. She thought what he had done to her back then was terrible but that was nothing compared to what he was putting her through now. She had escaped him when she was younger with Charlotte's help but now, she knew she was in no condition to get away this time. All she had wanted was to come through town on her way to see her brother and sister at the orphanage and return to the way station four days later. Now it's been five long months since he got hold of her again, five months since she'd seen her family and felt safe and happy and all because of something she didn't even do.

She glanced back at Wicks' two goons, as she liked to refer to them. No getting away from them - she was lucky she could go to the outhouse without them following her. At least she was allowed this freedom: her nightly ten o'clock visit to Lightning at the livery. She thought of the only two things keeping her sane at this terrible time of her life. One was her beloved horse who would listen as she talked about better days and loved ones and the other was something that wasn't even here yet. Louise paused on the sidewalk as a horse went by, thinking about a certain paint mare and the blue eyes of its owner. She sighed then looked down and rubbed her expanded abdomen, thankful for what was growing inside.


Chapter 1

Eli Hawkins had been running the livery in St. Joseph for twenty years now and in those twenty years, he'd seen his share of colorful characters come and go and tonight was no exception. They were young but, he could tell, well experienced around horses. The blonde young man was shuffling his feet up and down the aisle between the stalls, sighing loudly, and kept looking back annoyed at the Indian who was standing still, staring at something.

Eli went back into his tack room, wishing the two boys would leave. It was almost ten o'clock and his nightly visitor would be on her way - she was never late; Wicks let her come to the livery at that time because most folks were elsewhere in town by then and there was less chance of her talking to anyone. He knew she would be constantly watched until they did leave.

"Buck!" Cody wailed, leaning heavily against one of the stalls. "Come on! I'm tired, sore and hungry. All I want is a hot meal and a soft bed ... and a pretty face and figure delivering my food wouldn't hurt either."

Buck still didn't move. "Cody, come take a look at this."

"Buck, it's a horse. The same type of animal we've been riding on for almost four days straight!"

"Will you just come and look at this particular horse, please!"

"If it means getting to the saloon to eat dinner just a little bit faster, I'll gladly look at anything," Cody said sarcastically and went to see what Buck was going on about. He stopped short and stared. "It's Lightning. That's Lightning. Hey there, girl, it's good to see you, too." He touched the horse who came to nuzzle him. "What the hell is going on here?"

"I don't know but I do know one thing, wherever Lightning is, Lou ain't far behind." They looked at each other puzzled then Buck got an idea. He called out, "Hey, Mister! Mister! You happen to know who owns this horse here?"

Eli had come out of the tack room when he was called and as soon as he realized which horse Buck was pointing to, he got very nervous. "Well, you don't so get away from it."

Cody looked at Buck, both knowing this man was covering up something. "Look, Mister, we're tired and hungry and we don't want to argue with you. We know this horse and we just want to know where the owner is."

All Eli wanted to do was avoid a confrontation with Wicks if he found out someone was asking about Louise, so he said the only thing he could think of, "The owner brought the horse in not too long ago then I think he went to one of the saloons."

Buck and Cody stepped closer to Eli, getting more frustrated. Buck was slowly losing his calm. "Trust me, Mister, we know horses and from the looks of her, she hasn't been ridden in quite a while. Now tell us where the owner is and we'll be on our way," Buck told him.

Eli didn't answer and started to turn away, when the next thing he knew, Cody had him thrown up against the tack room door with his arm across his throat and Buck had his pistol trained on him. "Now I'm getting real tired of all this dancin' around," Cody warned. "I'd suggest you tell us where the owner of that horse is or my friend's finger might just slip on that trigger and trust me, this Indian knows how to handle a gun."

Buck got an evil grin on his face and moved the gun closer to Eli while Cody tightened his grip.

"Alright! Alright! It's Louise's."

"See? Now, that wasn't so hard, was it?" Cody said sarcastically and released his grip.

"Where is she?" Buck asked, reholstering his gun.

"Won't do any good even if I do tell you. She's the kept woman of Ethan Wicks - no one goes near her without his permission and definitely no one touches her except him."

Buck gave Cody a puzzled look and argued, "You must be talking about the wrong person 'cause the Louise we know would never do something like that. She's tiny with short dark hair."

Eli took a quick look out the door, knowing she would be by any time now. "That's her. Believe me, I don't think she's a willing participant in all this," he explained. "I think Wicks has something on her, what I don't know. It's almost like he's obsessed with her. She's a sweet girl and shouldn't be messed up in something like this." It made him sick everytime he thought of what Wicks was doing to her. He couldn't help but think of her as a daughter but he was in no position to help her in any way. He had his own family to think about and Wicks was a powerful man. Maybe these two could help her but first, he had to make sure he could trust them. "How do you know Louise, anyway?"

Buck figured they wouldn't get the answer they wanted until they came clear with him. "She's like family to us. We're Pony Express riders out of the Rock Creek station. She works around the station," he told Eli, careful not to reveal too much.

"Are either of you named Kid?" Eli had spent months trying to convince Louise he meant her no harm and when she finally realized she could trust him, she told him about her new family but talked mostly about one young man in particular. Eli had a feeling the condition she was in might have something to do with him and not Wicks.

Buck looked at Cody and answered, "No, but we're close friends of Kid's. My name's Buck Cross."

"And I'm William F. Cody. How do you know about Kid?"

Eli nodded in recognition of their names. "I'm Eli, Eli Hawkins. It took me a while to convince Louise that she was safe with me and once I did, she told me some about the people she thought of as family and how she'd probably never get to see you again. It broke her heart everytime she mentioned one of you and would almost cry whenever she talked about Kid. She's real emotional these days - course it's understandable considering her condition." He went to the door to see if she was coming yet.

Buck and Cody looked at each other, both getting a sick feeling in their stomachs. They knew the type of man Wicks was and if he'd done what Eli said he did to Lou, then they knew he was capable of doing even more to her. "What kind of condition is she in? What else has he done to her?" Cody demanded. He and Lou were never extremely close but she was like a sister to him and he'd do anything to protect her, as would the others.

Eli had been standing in the doorway when he could just make out Louise turning the corner across the street. He explained, "Look, like I said, your friend's in a lot of trouble but maybe you can help her get away from him. She's on her way here now." Buck and Cody gave him incredulous looks. "She's allowed to come here every night at this time to visit with her horse but two of Wicks' men follow her then hang around outside to make sure no one gets near her. If they know someone's in here, they won't take their eyes off her. If you want to help Louise, I'd suggest you find a good hiding spot because they give the place the once over before they let her in. I'll try to keep them outside so you can talk - just try to stay out of sight."

"Thanks, Eli." Buck said then both men went to hide in their horse's stalls, knowing the horses wouldn't give them away.

Louise had been taking her time walking to the livery. This was her freedom of the day and she always tried to stretch it out as long as she could. It also helped that she couldn't walk as fast as she used to. She started to step into the livery.

"Hold on there, Louise. You know we have to check the place over first."

Louise looked behind her. "Hank, we've done this every night for at least four months now. Most of the time no one is in there and if anyone is, trust me, they've got more important things they wanna get to than wastin' their time talkin' to the likes of me. I don't know why you worry - you think I'm gonna ride off with someone? In my condition, I probably couldn't even get up on a horse if I wanted to. Now leave me be!" she reprimanded.

Stan had checked out the livery while Louise was going on to Hank. He gave a nod to Hank that all was okay then followed him out.

Buck heard Lou mention her condition, as he's sure Cody did, and was feeling more nervous. What was going on with her? - she sounded like the same old Lou. He wanted to sneak a look at her but didn't dare until he was sure the others weren't coming back in.

"Hey, Eli, how's it going?"

"How ya feeling, Louise?"

"Big." Louise gave a slight smile and headed toward Lightning's stall.

Eli knew Hank and Stan could be easily distracted with conversation so he went out to give Louise some freedom to be with her friends.

Louise had just passed the empty stall before Lightning's when a hand reached out and covered her mouth while another one grabbed her arm and pulled her into the stall. Louise instantly panicked and covered her stomach with her free hand, while trying to squirm out of the grasp her attacker had on her.

"Lou, take it easy! You make a sound and we'll have company real fast," Buck warned before he slowly removed his hands.

Louise stopped moving immediately. 'Lou'. She hadn't been called by that name in five months, and that voice...

Cody peeked out the door then he joined Buck in the stall. "It's all clear. Eli's keeping them occupied."

Louise's eyes started to fill with tears. Was it just wishful thinking that she was hearing two voices that she knew so well, two of the many voices she thought she'd never hear again? "Buck? Cody?" she asked, hesitantly.

"Yeah, it's us, Lou." Buck watched as Lou slowly turned around and that's when he saw it. Her profile had changed drastically. He just stared at her in shock.

Lou looked at them, unbelievingly, then broke into a big smile. Cody was the closest so she threw herself into his arms and exclaimed, "Cody, I can't believe it! I never thought I'd see any of you boys again!"

Cody thought for a brief moment that she felt different but didn't pay it any mind. It just felt so good to hold her and know they were going to help get her out of there.

Lou finally let go of Cody and turned to Buck. "Buck!" She put her arms around him but when he didn't return the hug, she broke away. "Buck? What's wrong?" She tried to read his face but couldn't.

Buck couldn't take his eyes off her stomach. He could only think of one thing to say, "You're with child!"


Chapter 2

"What?"

Lou held her finger up to her mouth to keep Cody from getting too loud, checked the door just to be sure no one heard him then turned back to Buck.

Cody couldn't be quieted. "Well, I'll be damned. I thought you felt different. I should have seen it - you're huge!"

"Thanks for the compliment, Cody."

Buck had one thought on his mind about her appearance and had to get to the bottom of it. "Is Wicks responsible for this, Lou? Did he do this to you?" He hadn't meant to be so forward but if it was Wicks, Buck knew he couldn't be responsible for what happened to him. He was sure Cody would feel the same way, as would Jimmy, Noah, Kid ... Kid - Buck didn't even want to think about what Kid would do to Wicks once he found out.

Lou's eyes got huge and she stepped away, suddenly feeling like she couldn't catch her breath. She folded her arms across her chest in a protective manner. "How do you know about him?" She couldn't help but sound like a frightened, ashamed child.

Buck knew he'd done everything wrong. "Lou, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to say things the way I did. We saw Lightning so we made Eli tell us what's been going on with you. Don't be mad at him, he cares about you and figured we might be the only ones who could help get you out of here." He looked to Cody for help when Lou refused to look at him.

"Lou, none of this is your fault; you got no reason to be ashamed. You don't have to worry about us feelin' any different about you. You're still the same old Lou to us - only bigger," Cody teased, grinning at her over her shoulder.

Lou couldn't help but grin at his comment. Leave it to Cody to break the tension. She took a deep breath then turned to face them once more, knowing, as hard as it would be, that the only way they could help was if they knew the whole truth. "Everything that's been going on has to do with him ... except this." She touched her stomach.

Buck stared at her. "What do you mean, Lou?"

"I didn't know I was with child when I came to St. Joe. If I'd only known, I never would have came and none of this would have happened." Lou's emotions got the best of her so she sat down on a bale of hay and wiped at her tear filled eyes.

Buck started to move to her to comfort her but stopped when her words sunk in. "Oh, my gosh, it's Kid's, isn't it?"

Cody stared at him then Lou. "Kid's?!"

Lou looked up and confessed, "Yeah, I'm carrying Kid's child."

"How did this happen?"

"How do you think it happened, Cody?!" Lou looked at him like he'd lost his mind to actually ask such a question.

Cody got a little embarrassed when he realized what he had just asked her. "Of course I know how it happened and believe it or not, I don't want details. Not yet, anyway. What I meant to say was, are you sure it's his?" He hated to ask but he knew Buck was having the same thought.

"I'm almost seven months along. If it was Wicks', the most I could be is four months - of course, that's what he thinks I am." Lou hated talking about this because it kept bringing up the fact that Wicks had had his way with her.

"Why does he think that?" Buck asked, hating this conversation more and more.

"Because I had to tell him it was his," Lou said and looked at them. She broke their hearts when they saw the sadness in her eyes. "If he knew I was carrying another man's child, he would have caused me to have a miscarriage. I figured I'd never see the Kid again and the only thing that's kept me going each day is knowing that I'd always have a part of him with me, a part of him that no one could ever take away." She looked down at what she was talking about then back up at Buck and smiled. "I can't wait to see this baby," she admitted.

Buck crouched down in front of her. "Lou, why is Wicks doing this to you? How do you know him?"

"I worked for him when I was thirteen, right after I left the orphanage."

"You mean you were a ... a ..." Cody couldn't say that word and Lou's name in the same sentence - it just didn't fit.

Lou flashed her dark, angry eyes at him. "Don't you even think such a thing about me, William F. Cody! I could never be that type of person, even though Wicks sure made me feel like I was." She almost whispered the last part because she felt that way every time he touched her.

Buck touched her arm, causing her to look at him. "Don't even think that way, Lou. Like Cody said, none of this is your fault. He took and you didn't give - that makes him responsible and he's gonna pay but you gotta tell us everything."

Lou nodded then walked away from them as she prepared to tell about the nightmare that led to her becoming 'Lou'. "Wicks gave me a job as a laundress at the brothel he owns. It took me a while to realize that's what it was." She slightly laughed at the thought of how innocent she was. "I didn't really see much of him the whole year I worked there. The only one who did talk to me was his head girl, Charlotte Rowan; she kinda took it upon herself to take care of me but it didn't make a difference. What I didn't know was that Wicks had bigger plans for me. It seems that a lot of his girls started out workin' in either the kitchen or the laundry ... until they're promoted. He came into my room one night, locked the door and told me all about his big plans. It seemed he had a list of clients that liked their company young and pretty and that it was time I really started earning my keep, beginning the next night. There was just one catch, no one sees one of his girls until he breaks her in himself." She paused as that horrible night played itself out in her mind.

Buck and Cody each found themselves leaning against stall walls, trying to digest this unexpected information. Cody had never heard anything so sick. "You were a little girl, how could he do such a thing to you?"

Lou had never heard him sound so serious before. "He said he was making me into a woman," she explained. "Charlotte found me shortly afterward, helped clean me up then said she had to make arrangements to get me out of there. She told me Wicks was passed out, so we had to get out right then. Charlotte bought me a ticket for the stage to St. Louis then gave me some money. She said it was everything she had saved up but I told her I couldn't take it because it was too much - she gave my five hundred dollars! She said I deserved it for what he'd done and made me take it. When I got to St. Louis, I cut off all my hair and became 'Lou'. I was never gonna let another man do that to me again - I figured they were all the same. That is until I got to know Kid and the rest of you. You made me realize that not everyone wants to just take from a woman." She looked at them, thankful that she knew them.

"Lou, how did Wicks get ahold of you this time and why? We know you registered at a hotel on the other end of town, under Rachel's name, and that you never made it to the orphanage." Lou looked questioningly at Buck. "When you didn't make it back to Rock Creek, Kid and Jimmy came looking for you and that's all they could find out," Buck explained.

"That's 'cause I could never bring myself to tell Kid about what Wicks had done to me. If I had, I never would have came here alone," Lou said more to herself than the others. "I don't know how, but one of Wicks' men recognized me at the hotel so Wicks cut me off on the road to the orphanage. The minute I saw him, I knew my life was over, that I'd never see any of you again. He told me I owed him - a lot. Apparently, when he couldn't deliver the goods to the clients he had promised me to, they went elsewhere so he lost a lot of money because of me. I also never realized that once you worked for Ethan Wicks, you never left unless he let you and that usually only happened if you were dead. He actually told me I could've got away with that but there was no way I was not gonna pay him back for the money that was stolen."

"What money?" Cody asked. He didn't remember her mentioning any money.

"That's what I wanted to know. It seems that the same time I left, so did fifteen hundred dollars out of his private room, so he figured I took it. About a month after he got ahold of me again, Charlotte confessed that she took the money and let him think it was me. She wanted him to pay for what he had done to me and that was the only way she could think of. She said if she had given me more than five hundred I would have been suspicious and not taken any of it, even though she felt I deserved much more than that. She told me she's got the rest of it hidden in her room, said she hoped that someday, somehow she'd be able to get the rest of it to me."

Lou paused then continued, "I was so mad at her for letting me take the blame; she knew what he'd do to punish me if he ever got his hands on me again. Then one day I overheard her confess to him that she took it and offer to give it back. He wouldn't even listen to her. After a while, I forgave her 'cause I realized she was just trying to help me and he would have taken me anyway, even if I didn't owe him anything. Besides, she's always been like a big sister to me and I needed her friendship."

"What happened to the money, Lou?" Buck asked as he came to stand next to her.

"I only spent what I needed to. I bought everything I would need to become 'Lou', my gun, Lightning, saddle, some food and the occassional hotel room. The rest I saved - it's in my trunk back at the way station."

At that moment, they heard Eli come back in. He looked their way then went into the tack room.

"I better go before they come in here," Lou said, getting nervous.

"Lou, we gotta get you out of here now!"

"Buck, we can't do this alone. It's easy enough to take care of Hank and Stan, this place is far enough away from Wicks, but he comes by my place about eleven thirty every night to check in with them. If I ain't there, he'll be upon us before you know it. Believe me, I've tried. I think the only one who could help get Wicks out of the way is Charlotte." She told them where to find her then gave each of them a hug.

"We'll take care of it," Cody reassured her, hugging her back. "Still don't like leaving you here."

"I'll be all right." Lou turned to go then stopped. She had to ask what had been in the back of her mind the whole time. "Buck, how's Kid?"

Buck smiled at her, hearing the love in her voice. "He misses you something fierce, Lou. He was always afraid something might have happened to you, we should have listened to him. You'll be seeing him again real soon, I promise. What do you want me to tell him and the others?"

Lou paused only for a second. "Tell them everything; I got no more secrets. And Buck, tell Kid about the baby, tell everyone. I hope he'll understand how much this baby really means to me. Tell him how much I love his child ... and him."

Buck touched her cheek. "You can tell him that yourself when he comes to get you out of here - you know full well he'll be leading the way." He smiled at her.

Lou smiled back, gave each one of them one last look then left with something she hadn't felt in a long time: hope.


Chapter 3

The Silver Spur Saloon was bustling with activity. Buck and Cody could hear it was one of the more popular spots in town even before they walked in. They stopped just inside the door to have a look around. The bar was occupied with either half drunk customers or ladies waiting to serve the customers, in more ways than one, they figured.

Cody set his sights on a pretty blonde girl who gave him the once over, liked what she saw and smiled an enticing greeting. Cody smiled back, making the girl think she was going to get lucky when her shift of waiting tables was over.

Buck looked past the full poker tables and saw the smaller tables by the front window that Lou had mentioned for them to sit at. He tapped Cody's arm to get his attention but when he didn't respond by the third attempt, Buck finally noticed what had Cody's attention. He also noticed the tall woman standing next to Cody's desire. From Lou's description, he realized that had to be Charlotte.

"Cody, come on!" Buck didn't wait for a response, instead making his way to the tables up front.

Cody gave the girl one last look then followed Buck.

The blonde girl watched him walk toward her tables. "He's all mine, Charlotte, and I can't wait to get my hands on him," she said and pursed her lips in anticipation.

Charlotte watched her getting all excited and shook her head. Try doing it for seven years straight and see how much you look forward to it, she thought wryly. Charlotte turned back toward the blonde man and had to smile as she saw him join his friend at her station.

"Oh, it's just not fair! You always wind up with the young ones, Charlotte."

"Sally, just because he's sitting at my station doesn't mean he'll be visiting me next door later on. Besides he's not alone."

"Maybe you could put in a good word for me, you know, let him know I'll be in my room by the time he finishes eating. Just in case he gets lonely," Sally said, pleading with Charlotte with her eyes. She really wanted this one.

Charlotte smiled. "I'll see what I can do." She walked over to the two young men, knowing they weren't her type but she'd still put on the charm. "Evening, Gents, what are two fine looking young men like yourselves doing in a place like this? Food, drink or female companionship? If it's the third, you might want to try next door or you could always wait until someone finishes their shift here, since it is almost over." She looked at Cody then indicated Sally with her eyes.

Cody still couldn't take his eyes off the blonde. "Well, the third does sound real good, Ma'am, but right now, we'll just take the first two. How about two chilis and a couple sarsaparillas."

Buck was watching Charlotte. "Actually, a mutual friend of ours suggested we come check this place out," he told her.

"Now I know I've never seen you two before because I surely would have remembered so I really don't think we have any friends in common," Charlotte said then turned to head toward the bar with their order.

"Louise McCloud."

She stopped short, getting nervous. She paused to collect herself then slowly turned back to Buck. "I'm sorry, I don't know anyone by that name."

Buck wouldn't take his eyes off her. "Well, she knows you, Miss Rowan." He emphasized her name for effect. "We just spent the last hour talking to her at the livery. We need help getting her out of here and after what we've heard, I'd say you owe her."

Charlotte couldn't look at either of them, knowing they were right; she did owe Louise. She slightly nodded her head. "Let me get your food and drinks so no one gets suspicious. I'll be right back, I swear."

Cody nodded then they watched as she returned to the bar and talked to the bartender. She waited with their drinks until he gave her two bowls then she returned to their table.

Charlotte slowly set their food out, giving them time to talk. "How are you acquainted with Louise?"

"We ride for the Pony Express," Cody explained. "She's like family to us."

Charlotte looked away. "To me, too, only I let her down. I didn't take care of her the way you're supposed to look after and help a family member."

Buck could see she was hurting. "Miss Rowan, from what Lou told us, you saved her life the first time he attacked her."

"I did what I could. I only gave her that money because I thought Wicks owed her. He came to the conclusion himself that she stole it so it wouldn't have done any good to confess to it myself. I never thought she'd come back to St. Joe - I forgot about her brother and sister being nearby."

"You can make it up to her now," Buck told her. "We gotta get Lou out of here but we can't do it alone."

"I'll do whatever you need me to do," Charlotte assured him. "I just want Louise and that baby she's carrying to be safe." She started to feel better, thinking that maybe she could help Louise after all. "You need me to figure out a way to keep Wicks away from her, don't you?"

Cody nodded. "We have to get the others from Rock Creek to help out. Our best chance to get her is when she visits the livery like she did tonight. We'll take care of those two shadows of hers no problem but how do we stop Wicks from visiting her place like he does each night?"

Charlotte glanced around to make sure no one was nearby to hear them. "The only thing that'll keep Wicks in this saloon until all hours of the night is a good card game. One where there's lots of money on the table and it's real interesting, meaning, the winning goes back and forth but mainly winds up in his pocket."

"Are you sure that's all it'll take?" Cody asked. He thought it just sounded too easy.

"Trust me, I've seen it before. Also, make sure the drinks keep coming. Wicks won't refuse if someone else is buying."

"That shouldn't be a problem," Buck assured her. "If one of us comes here beforehand, is there anyway you can let Lou know to be ready? In her condition, I don't think we should be surprising her with this."

"You ask for me personally, either here or next door and I'll see to it Louise is ready." She turned to leave then thought of something. "Is that young man she calls the Kid going to be coming?"

Cody grinned at Buck and said, "Trust us, nothin' will keep him away where she's concerned."

"I don't know what she told you but she's still madly in love with him. She needs him and I just hope he doesn't let her down. She's had enough heartache as of late. I know I've been the cause of a lot of it but it would really break her if he wasn't there for her."

"Believe me, he will be. It's pretty safe to say he still loves her, too," Buck told her. He saw a tall, well dressed man come from upstairs and start talking to a man at the bar, all the while surveying the goings on around the saloon. "Is that Wicks?"

Charlotte picked up her tray, followed Buck's eyes and, as she started walking away, whispered, nervously, "Yes, it is."

Buck and Cody tried not to stare at the man who had done the unthinkable to Lou. They watched him walk up to Charlotte, take her arm not too gently, and whisper something in her ear. They saw the man Wicks had been talking to finish his drink, look at Wicks then leave. Charlotte then put down her tray and followed after him; obviously her night of waiting tables was over.

Buck and Cody got up to leave. "Hey, Buck, how do we tell Kid about Lou?"

"I'm hoping the ride home will give us some ideas 'cause right now, I don't have any." He walked out of the saloon.

Cody followed after him, sighing heavily. "I was afraid you were gonna say that. I'm not looking forward to this."


Chapter 4

Rock Creek

Jimmy leaned against the counter of Tompkins' store, drumming his fingers against his head. About every ten seconds he would glance at the person to his right then go back to his drumming.

Kid wouldn't take his eyes off the catalog he was looking through, turning the pages back and forth. He was chewing on his thumb like this was the most important decision he'd ever have to make.

Tompkins walked up to them for the third time. "You make a decision yet, Kid?" When Kid looked up, shaking his head, Tompkins said, "Well, I got some things need tending to in the storeroom. Call me when you decide what you want to order." He didn't wait for an answer as he went through the door to the back.

Jimmy had had enough. "Come on, Kid, we gotta get these supplies back to Rachel. Will you just hurry up and order something."

Kid still didn't take his eyes off the catalog. "It's not that easy, Jimmy."

"Yes it is. It's a sofa, chair and bed that you want. You're a single man who just bought himself a ranch, since the Express is almost over. And you want a few things so you can live in the house that comes with it, now that you've fixed it up. Just pick anything; it's not like it matters what they look like." He paused as a thought came to his mind, causing him to grin. "Unless you plan on having someone share them with you." He watched Kid for his reaction.

Kid ran his hand through his hair at the thought. There was only one person he ever wanted to share all of this with - the ranch, the house, this bed he was ordering. He shook his head to clear his mind. She was gone. He always had the feeling that something happened to make her not come back when she said she would; they had started getting close again after their breakup and she had seemed as excited about it as he was. Maybe the others were right and she just went to start over somewhere else - if it only made sense.

Kid didn't answer so Jimmy decided to prod him on further, "So who is it, Kid? Who do you want curled up next to you on the sofa or lying in that bed with their legs wrapped around you? Is it that proper Southern Belle girlfriend you've been seeing a lot lately or the former Pony Express rider you've already danced with? I'm sure it'll get cold and lonely in that big, new house of yours, Kid." He took the last couple packages off the counter and headed toward the door. "Just something to think about. I'm gonna wait outside."

Kid was thinking about it, a lot. "Jimmy," he called out, causing his friend to turn around. "Can you unload the supplies at the station without me? I'm gonna place this order then I wanted to head over to the ranch to figure out a couple things."

"Sure. My experience is either put heavy curtains on the window or put the bed on the opposite side of the room. The women I've known tend not to like the sun waking them up in the morning. Course now, I don't know the same type of women as you." He indicated the sidewalk with his head.

Kid looked past Jimmy and saw the blonde young woman he was referring to. Kid suddenly got very nervous; he was having all these thoughts and they weren't about her. He relaxed a little when he realized maybe they didn't have to be - he and Heather had only been seeing each other a couple months now and they hadn't gone beyond holding hands and good-bye kisses. Of course, he hadn't wanted to go beyond that and even if he had, Heather wouldn't have let him. It just didn't feel right anyway, not like before.

"How are you, Jimmy?"

"Hey, Heather," Jimmy said as he climbed onto the buckboard. "You're just in time - that boyfriend of yours just can't make up his mind. You might be just the person to help him out." With that said, he drove away.

Heather Fulmont looked after him puzzled then turned back to the store and entered. She saw Kid standing by the counter, looking at her and a big smile crossed her face. She felt like the luckiest girl in all of Rock Creek that such a kind and handsome man as the Kid would choose her to be his girlfriend. She knew he'd had a bad breakup with another girl before he and the others had moved to Rock Creek. She also knew it had hurt him real bad so she didn't mind that he was taking things slow. A proper lady didn't rush into anything or go too far before she was married.

Kid returned her smile. She always had a way of making him feel better and he did like her. What was there not to like: she was beautiful with long blonde hair, light blue eyes and a pretty smile; she was kind and sweet and understood him a lot since she was also from the South. "Heather, what are you doing here?"

"Morning, Kid. I needed to drop off a shopping list for Mama." She joined him at the counter. "Jimmy said you could use some help making a decision."

Kid blushed at the thought of what he wanted to order. "Well, I wanted to get some furniture for the ranch house. Since the Express is slowing down and it's only a matter of time til it closes altogether, I thought I'd get a sofa, chair and bed so I'd be able to start livin' there."

Heather blushed when he mentioned a bed. "I'd be happy to give you my opinion, if it'll help."

Kid looked at her and smiled. "Alright. I like the sofa in blue and the chair in cream and blue print." And so would Lou since blue is her favorite color, Kid thought, then shook his head to rid himself of the thought.

"Oh, the rose one sounds beautiful!" Heather said excitedly as she read the descriptions in the catalog, then quickly added, "Except I suppose it would look kind of funny in a single man's house so I guess the blue is a good choice. Now what about the bed? I figured you'd make yourself a headboard since you're so good with tools."

"Maybe someday but right now I need to build a corral. I'm just gonna get this brass bed. It's similar to one L ... I mean, I saw somewhere and liked." Yeah, Kid thought, the one Lou and I spent our first night together in at the Redfern Station.

"Well, that didn't take too long."

"No, it didn't. Heather, if you're not doing anything, want to come out to the ranch for a while?"

Heather smiled. "That would be nice. I'll tell Mr. Tompkins I'll be back in a few hours to pick up the order."

Kid placed his order and Heather gave Tompkins her list then they headed out to their horses and rode off toward Kid's ranch.


Chapter 5

Rachel stood on the bunkhouse porch as Jimmy unloaded the buckboard, telling him which crates or packages went into the bunkhouse and which into the main house.

Jimmy picked up the last two packages and handed them to her. "Tompkins said these are some of those new readers you ordered for the schoolhouse. Said the rest should be in next week."

Rachel took them, eagerly. "Wonderful! The kids are going to love to have something new to learn from." She placed them with the pile for the house then started carrying items into the bunkhouse.

Before Jimmy could bring anything toward the house, he saw a cloud of dust not far in the distance. "Rider coming! Looks like two of 'em."

Rachel came back out when he called. "Must be Buck and Cody. They made good time."

The mentioned riders stopped their horses in front of the bunkhouse. They nodded a greeting to Jimmy and Rachel then dismounted.

"Well, good afternoon, you two. How was your ride?" Rachel asked, smiling.

"Unlike any ride we ever took. Very eye opening," Cody replied, rubbing his eyes.

Jimmy scrunched up his face. "What do you mean by that?"

"We found Lou."

"Louise!" Rachel exclaimed, running down the steps to Buck. "You found Louise? Oh, thank God! Where is she? Is she alright?"

Rachel caught the look Buck and Cody exchanged. "What? Has something happened to her? Did she get hurt in any way?"

"That's an understatement," Cody mumbled, again looking at Buck.

Jimmy was getting tired of them avoiding Rachel's questions. He always had a soft spot for Lou, more so than the others because, at times, he felt that his feelings for her went beyond friendship; he never acted on those feelings because he knew she was still in love with his best friend, even if they had broken up. Now, if anyone had done anything to hurt Lou, he would make them pay any way he could. "Dammit, Cody! What do you mean by that? Where is she?"

"She's in St. Joe," Buck told him.

"But Kid and I looked there."

"Jimmy, take my word for it. Where she is, you two never would have found her," Cody said.

Buck looked from Jimmy to Rachel. "She's in a lot of trouble." He held up his hand before they could ask anything else. "I think we should tell everyone at once what's going on. Where are Kid, Teaspoon and Noah?"

"Noah's on a run - he'll be back tonight. We can fill him in then," Rachel answered, wrapping her arms around herself, shivering in fear for Lou.

"Kid's at his ranch and Teaspoon's at his office. I'll bring them back." Jimmy started off toward the barn to saddle his horse but stopped when he heard Rachel speak.

"Buck, just answer me one thing. Was staying away her decision?"

"No."

As tears welled up in Rachel's eyes, Jimmy cursed under his breath then ran even faster to the barn.

"You boys take care of those horses and I'll fix you up something to eat," Rachel said, entering the bunkhouse.

"Thanks, Rachel," Cody said and followed Buck to the barn. As they got to the door, Jimmy took off past them.

********************

As Kid finished replacing another rail on the front porch of his ranch house, he looked up and smiled at something Heather was saying. He'd actually had a very pleasant afternoon, just the two of them. She was good company, he thought. She even had her own opinions about things, unlike a lot of the other girls in town, though, every once in a while he had a feeling her mother was too much an influence on how she felt about certain things. Just because you were born and raised as a proper Southern lady from Georgia, it didn't mean those principles you were taught were thought of the same out West.

"Well, that's enough work for now. I think I'll ... " Kid stopped mid sentence as he saw a rider coming over the rise that led to the ranch. "That looks like Jimmy." He went down the steps to wait for him.

Jimmy had been riding so hard he was having trouble trying to come up with a way to tell Kid about Lou; not that he knew a whole lot to tell him, anyway.

"Hey, Jimmy, what brings you out here? Did you miss me already?" When Jimmy didn't respond to his teasing, Kid started to get worried. "Something wrong?"

"Buck and Cody just got back from St. Joe."

Kid looked at him, wondering what was wrong with that, but just said, "Oh, yeah? How was their ride?"

Jimmy shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. "Apparently very eventful." Kid gave Jimmy a puzzled look. "Kid, they found Lou."

Kid looked shocked then a smile spread across his face. "They did?! Is she alright? Where has she been all this time? Is she back at the way station now?" He felt like he had a hundred more questions he wanted to ask about her.

Jimmy was having a hard time meeting Kid's eyes. "They, uh, they couldn't bring her back with them."

"Why not?" Kid asked, starting to get worried. He tried to read Jimmy's face but couldn't get anywhere. "What aren't you telling me? Is she hurt? Is there someone else? Is she ... married?"

"No! I mean, I don't think so. I really don't know. Look, Kid, all they would tell Rachel and me is that she's in St. Joe and in a lot of trouble. They'll tell us everything once you and Teaspoon get to the bunkhouse. I'm on my way to get him now."

Kid looked away feeling very confused. Lou was in trouble - what kind of trouble could she possibly be in? Finally, he nodded and looked around. "Alright. I gotta clean up then I'll take Heather back towards town. I'll be right there, Jimmy." He felt like he couldn't think straight anymore.

Before he walked away, Jimmy stopped him. "Kid, I don't know what kind of trouble she's gotten herself into but we're gonna get her out of it." He gave Kid a very determined look.

Kid returned the look and nodded. When it came to Lou's safety, nothing would stop either of them from helping her.

Kid watched Jimmy ride off then went to tell Heather he had to head back to the way station. He knew her enough to know she wouldn't ask a lot of questions. He was grateful for that because he didn't know how he would answer them.


Chapter 6

Kid rode Katy as hard as he dared, since Heather was trying to keep up. He waved bye to her as she continued into town and he made the turn toward the way station. As he tied Katy to the post in front of the bunkhouse, he could make out Jimmy and Teaspoon coming toward him but he didn't want to wait for them.

"Where is she?" Kid was barely in the door when he started on Buck and Cody.

"Good to see you, too, Kid," Cody said sarcastically.

"Sorry." Kid left the door open for Jimmy and Teaspoon and sat down. "Did you have a safe ride?"

"Safe for us, at least," Cody mumbled then regretted it as he saw the look Kid gave him.

While Jimmy sat next to Kid, Teaspoon moved around the table to be next to Rachel. He addressed the returning riders, "Boys, welcome back. And now that everyone's here who can be, would you care to dispense with your knowledge of where that little girl of ours has been for the past five months?"

Buck took a deep breath, getting ready to give all the unpleasant details. They looked at him incredulously as he told them about Lou being held by Wicks, who the man was and what he owned then mentioned how she knew him. Finally, he tried to say as delicately as possible what Wicks had done to her when she was fourteen. "Lou said that Wicks was promoting her from laundress but before he gave any of his girls to a customer, he would break them in himself." Buck couldn't look at any of them as he said this last part.

Everyone was looking at Buck, the same thought running through their minds. Kid tried to talk but nothing came out. Finally, Jimmy asked, "Are you saying he ... he... ?"

"Yeah. He took away her innocence, her trust in men, being Louise, everything," Buck answered.

Rachel had tears in her eyes. She looked over at Teaspoon, who grabbed her hand to comfort her. Jimmy closed his eyes to block out the thought of it while Kid just sat there, staring at his hands on the table.

"No wonder."

All eyes turned to the Kid.

"What, Kid?" Rachel asked.

"No wonder she didn't want me getting too close to her. No wonder it took so long to convince her I wasn't gonna hurt her. No wonder she kept backin' off." Kid finally looked up and met Rachel's eyes. She'd been through so much, he thought, and when she finally found someone she could trust, he let her down.

"That poor girl," Rachel said. "How did she get away from him?"

Buck went on to explain about Charlotte Rowan helping her escape; about the money and Charlotte stealing it then lying about it; about her going to St. Louis and becoming Lou; and all the reasons that Wicks has her now.

"Why didn't she ask anyone to go with her?" Teaspoon wondered out loud. "I recall, now, that she was never too thrilled when I scheduled her for runs to St. Joe and even then, I always scheduled two riders."

Buck thought a minute before answering, "I think it's 'cause it was a personal trip and she wouldn't be able to explain why she wanted company. I think she's feeling real guilty right now that she hadn't trusted Kid's feelings for her enough to tell him what had happened. If she had, he would have known where to look for her."

Kid got up and walked to the only spot in the room that might give him some comfort: the bed she used to sleep in. "I don't understand why he wouldn't take the money back when Charlotte offered it to him, isn't that what he wants? What does he get out of this?" He gasped as the meaning of what he had just asked sank in; suddenly he had the most horrible thought. "What is he doing with her now?"

Buck didn't turn around but he did know that Kid wasn't looking at anyone. "He pretty much picked up where he left off." He paused as he heard Kid punch the mattress of Lou's old bunk.

Jimmy got up to pace but ended up sitting on his bunk instead.

"Why?'' Rachel asked. "Why does he keep doing that to her?"

"Who can figure out a man like him, Rachel?" Cody answered. "It sounds like he's obsessed with her or just crazy because she's the one that got away."

Buck had one more piece of information he had to divulge and hoped it would make things seem not so bleak anymore. "There's something else you all need to know that's been going on with Lou, something Wicks don't even know the whole truth about. I think Lou should be the one to tell you but it's probably better all of you know before we go rescue her."

"Something else?!" Kid had tried to keep his emotions to himself but he couldn't contain them anymore. He rushed toward Buck, leaning across the table. "You tell us that man, no, that animal has violated Lou I don't know how many times, and that's not enough! You're now saying there's more? What else could there possibly be?" He searched the air with his hands then turned back toward her bunk.

"She's with child."


Chapter 7

The only sound heard in the room was a gasp from Rachel. She then covered her face as the tears came; Jimmy just stared at the floor, running his hand through his hair; Teaspoon was now up, pacing; and Kid had to lean against the bunk bed, feeling like his legs couldn't support him anymore. Suddenly, everyone started talking at once.

"Merciful God," Teaspoon sighed.

"Why her? She doesn't deserve this," Jimmy stated.

"This can't be happening," Kid whispered.

"How is she going to get through this?" Rachel wondered. "Is she sure?"

"There's no mistakin' it, Rachel, not with how big she is," Cody answered.

Buck knew Lou wanted him to tell everyone about this, even though he still felt she should have been the one to do it. He now looked at the others, listening to what they were saying, and realized where they're minds were.

Buck looked at Cody then stood up. "Wait a minute, I think you misunderstood me," Buck said, trying to make them see what he was getting at. " Lou felt all of you, especially Kid, should know this, but it's not what you think."

Kid felt like a fire was raging inside him. "Not what we think? Not what we think?! You tell us that he has been forcing himself on her repeatedly and when you see her, you find her heavy with child. It's bad enough she's gonna have to live with the memories for the rest of her life but now she's always gonna have a constant reminder with her ... and you say it's not what we think! What the hell are we not supposed to think?!" Kid ended up face to face with Buck, totally out of breath.

"It ain't his," Cody says quietly from his seat at the table.

Kid slowly looked at Cody. "What did you say?"

"The baby. It ain't his."

"How can that be, you just said ... "

Buck interrupted, "She was already with child when she went to St. Joe - she just didn't know it."

"Oh my gosh!" Rachel said, realizing where Buck was going with this.

Kid looked at Rachel then back to Buck, not comprehending what he was saying.

"Are you hearing what I'm saying, Kid? She's almost seven months along," Buck explained.

"Seven months?" Kid asked puzzled.

Rachel couldn't stop grinning. "Kid, do you know what this means?"

Cody looked at Kid, who was just staring at Buck, and mumbled, "Apparently not."

Buck ignored Cody, instead starting to get amused at Kid's reaction. "Kid, the baby is yours. She's carrying your child."

Kid gave him a shocked look. "My baby? Mine?"

Rachel got up and gave him a big hug. "Kid, this is wonderful! You're gonna be a daddy!"

Kid wanted to hug her back but felt like he couldn't move his arms; was he hearing them all right? "A daddy? Me?" He tried doing the math in his head - she's been gone for five months and the last time they were together was just before they broke up and that was about two months before she went to St. Joe. We made a baby that night? Kid asked himself.

"Well, I'll be damned," Teaspoon said, relaxing. "Our Lou's gonna be a mama?"

"Kid and Lou made a baby?" Jimmy asked, puzzled, standing to look at Kid.

Cody just sat, taking it all in. "I don't know why you're so shocked, Kid, considering how many times you and Lou used to go at it. Should've known it'd happen sooner or later."

"Cody!" Rachel and Teaspoon admonished him.

"Well, it's true! Just ask Jimmy and Buck. They heard them sneakin' out just as much as I did!"

Teaspoon noticed Kid hadn't said much about this revelation. He imagined he felt uncomfortable about it being discussed so openly and he, himself, was slightly surprised by what Cody had just revealed about the activities of his two riders but didn't Kid realize what this meant? "You alright, son?"

Kid looked at him then sat at the table. "I don't know." It really happened, Kid thought, the one thing I was most afraid of actually happened and were they thinking it was good, my compromising her that way? "Buck, is she mad at me - you know, for getting her in that condition?"

Buck sat down opposite him and assured him, "Kid, it's just the opposite. Even though all this bad stuff has been going on, something good was going on, too. We could see it in her face when she talked about it - she's very excited about the baby; she just hopes you'll understand the real reason why. She said for me to tell you she loves your child as much as she loves you." He watched Kid to see his reaction.

Kid looked at him then finally nodded in understanding. He was feeling so confused right now, he was having trouble looking at anyone.

Cody noticed and tried to make him feel better. "Kid, you ask me I'd say Lou's just thankful you did what you did to her 'cause if you're child wasn't already inside her, more than likely it would be Wicks' by now!"

Kid's head shot up and he slowly rose from the table, as all eyes turned toward Cody. Kid slowly walked around the table in Cody's direction.

Cody saw Kid's reaction and getting up, stammered, "Kid, I didn't mean it that way. I ..."

"The hell you didn't, Cody! Is that how all of you feel? Never mind about the fact that we actually made this baby, I should just be thankful I got to her before him?" Kid started to feel sick at the thought and knew he had to get out of there, but not before he set things straight. "Is that it? You think Cody's right? Maybe I should just be glad I couldn't keep my hands off her considerin' how many times that bastard was on top of her. I'm sorry but I can't think that way. You're forgetting the most important thing: Lou and what he did to her."

Kid walked to the window and continued without looking at them. "I always thought finding out I was gonna be a father would be the happiest day of my life. And what about the baby? I know Lou and I know what she meant when she told Buck why she wants this baby, it's because it's ours," Kid explained. He turned to look at all of them then crossed to leave. He paused at the door and almost whispered, "You should know her well enough to know there is no way she would only be happy about this because of who's baby it isn't."

Rachel watched as Kid walked out in pain and just wanted to help him so much. "Kid, honey, please don't go. That's not what we meant at all."

Teaspoon softly put his hand on her arm and said, "Rachel, he has to go. You know as well as I do that he's right, that's exactly what we were thinkin' and we should be ashamed of ourselves. He needed us and feels like we let him down."

Rachel looked at him then nodded, knowing he was right.

Jimmy still couldn't believe everything that was going on. He knew how upset he was so he couldn't imagine what the Kid was feeling. "I'm goin' after him." He started toward the open door, in time to see Kid ride away.

"Jimmy," Teaspoon said sternly. "Let him be."

"He's in pain, Teaspoon. And right now, he thinks we don't care about that baby and we're questioning Lou's feelings toward it. He shouldn't be alone at a time like this." He started for the door again, only to be stopped once more by Teaspoon.

"That's exactly what he needs. The boy's got a lot of emotions he's gotta work through right now; he just found out he's gonna be a father and he learned the woman he made that baby with has been taken by another man; I'd say that's more than any man can handle in a day. 'Sides, he don't need to hear any more more comments on the subject from the rest of us."

Cody felt like he wanted to crawl into a hole. "I didn't want to upset him - I just wanted to make him feel better."

"Well, you didn't, Cody," Jimmy reprimanded him. "If he ain't back by dinner time, I'm goin' out after him." He stepped onto the porch.

Teaspoon followed him. "I wouldn't expect nothin' less, son. When you find him, you tell him we'll meet here first thing tomorrow mornin' to come up with a plan to bring our girl back home." He gave Rachel a quick look then mounted up.

Jimmy watched Teaspoon head back to town then led his horse to the barn, needing something to do.

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