Kid was not a big fan of nights like this. Only Lou was on a run, and with her gone, and just the males around the station, that usually meant the conversation turned in a direction that usually got Kid into a lot of trouble.

It had happened once already, with the boys trying to find out from him how he'd found out Lou was a girl. He'd narrowly escaped embarrassing himself and getting Lou mad at him by evading the subject. Only Buck had figured it out but then Buck could figure out the answer to any problem with no clues to go by; that was just how uncanny the man was.

The Southerner leaned back in his chair as he waited for the other riders to join him out on the bunkhouse porch. He wished with all his heart that Lou was around; not just because he would have liked to have spent some quiet time alone with her, but because he'd be with her somewhere that wasn't on this porch. Kid watched as one by one the other riders began to file out the door and take up positions all around him. He glanced out at the *open* land in front of him that suddenly didn't seem so open as the bodies surrounding him were causing him to feel suffocated.

Cody and Jimmy were the last two riders to leave the bunkhouse and take up positions on the steps, causing Kid to feel boxed in as the main source of escape was now cut off. As he watched the boys settle in, the Virginian knew by now that the first words uttered would dictate the direction of the conversation for the night. As he expected, when Jimmy began to speak, Kid was wishing he was on the most dangerous ride of his life instead of where he was right then.

"Cody, I can't believe you're sittin' here with us and not out findin' some pretty young thing that needs some lovin'." Jimmy laughed as Cody seemed to puff out his chest before answering.

"Jimmy, my good friend, I feel that it's only fair I leave some of the innocent ones for the rest of my fellow men folk to partake in."

"That means he couldn't get a date," Noah muttered in Ike and Buck's direction but loud enough that Cody would hear him.

"And the rest of you could?" Cody looked from one rider to the next. "The only one excused tonight is Kid 'cause his girl is out on a run but the rest of ya just don't try hard enough in my opinion."

Kid for once didn't argue about Lou being called his 'girlfriend' out loud because he knew the boys well enough to know that that statement would leave him free and clear from partaking in the conversation well, it should leave him free and clear.

"Cody, sometimes it's alright to just have a nice conversation with a young lady, or take her for a walk. Not all of them have to wind up losin' their innocence before gettin' hitched," Jimmy told the blonde rider.

"As if that thought would stop you from sharin' your bedroll with a person of the opposite sex and especially one who ain't broke in yet."

"We ain't talkin' about horses here," Buck reminded Cody and Jimmy, "it's women you're discussin' and most men think women should be pure when it's time for them to wed."

Kid bowed his head, definitely not liking where this conversation was going.

"We ain't tryin' to take anythin' away from anyone else," Cody told Buck. "My *philosophy* on the matter is that "

"Let's hear those wise words of wisdom you have for us, Doctor Cody," Jimmy teased, his grin getting wider as he saw Ike's shoulders begin to shake from laughter.

"What I was sayin'," Cody began after sticking his tongue out in Jimmy's direction, "is that it ain't the most pleasant of experiences to be with a woman who ain't done it yet. It takes a lot of hand holdin' and guidin' her along, things that waste time and words in my opinion. And it ain't the neatest of times either. I know it ain't her fault 'cause her seal ain't been broke through yet and it hurts and makes a mess but by us doin' it is helpin' her future husband so he can enjoy his weddin' night so much more." Cody sat up proudly as he finished his lecture.

"Another *stellar* performance from the mouth of the West," Noah quipped.

"You can't honestly feel that way. I ain't obviously done it as much as you have, Cody, but it ain't as bad as you make it out to be. It's like doin' it when it's their time and they're too embarrassed to tell you beforehand; you make light of it and move on to better things." Jimmy grinned at the group of men around him. "None of you would feel that way, would you? You don't, right, Kid?" Jimmy asked as he turned his attention to the Southerner who'd remained silent up until this point.

"Huh? What?" Kid hadn't been paying too much attention as he found the topic too embarrassing and for the most part something he really didn't understand. But when Jimmy starting talking, suddenly something he said caused Kid to realize he did know what they were saying. He now stared at Jimmy as he'd heard his name called.

"You're probably the last one of us to have been with someone pure. Did you feel that way that first time when you were with Lou or are you glad it was that way?" Jimmy questioned.

Kid glanced from one to the other as all eyes were on him. He quickly replayed Cody's speech in his mind, trying to make it relate to his first time with Lou. He knew Jimmy had figured out he'd never been with a girl before the way Cody and Jimmy had been with a girl; he wasn't sure if the others thought as much as he could only guess on whether any of them had been sexually active or not yet.

"Kid was probably so glad to be finally dancin' with Lou and bein' her first that he didn't mind none of that," Cody guessed.

The Kid stared at Jimmy and Cody. There was a difference? He'd never given it a thought and definitely never went so far as to wonder if Lou had been with anyone else before him. All her actions told him loud and clear that she'd never let a man do to her what he'd done that night at the Red Fern station and yet .

When Kid didn't answer or protest what Cody said, which was very unlike him, Jimmy got the uneasy feeling that they'd hit a soft spot with the man. "It ain't as bad as Cody makes it out to be well, you know that. Not all of us agree that we're helpin' out future husbands by bein' with someone who's pure; sometimes it just happens." Jimmy shrugged when Kid still didn't say anything in protest.

"You alright, Kid?" Buck finally asked as he too couldn't help but notice the almost stunned expression on Kid's face.

When there was still no response, Ike slapped his thighs until he had Kid's attention then signed in his direction the same question of concern Buck had just asked.

"Um, yeah, I'm fine. I think you're all wrong; the important thing should be bein' with someone who wants to be with you as much as you wanna be with them. You make a choice and you move forward with it. What happened before ain't got anythin' to do with how you feel about them now!" Kid stood up in a hurry and stormed back into the bunkhouse without so much as a look back.

"He ain't lookin' so *chipper* all of a sudden," Cody noted as he watched his bunkmate disappear inside. "Think it's somethin' we said?"

"What do you mean 'we'?" Jimmy asked. "You're the one always comin' up with these conversations Kid winds up spendin' all his time tryin' to get away from."

"You started the conversation if you'll remember, Jimmy," Buck reminded him as he stared at the door that he'd never heard slammed closed so hard before.

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

After shoving the door closed with all his force, Kid quickly crossed the small expanse of floor until he was in front of his bunk. He threw himself down and folded his arms over his eyes. Who was he trying to convince out there? Him or them?

Why hadn't he asked more questions before taking Lou on that double ride? He knew the answer to that - it was hard enough letting Jimmy know he'd never been with a woman before but to actually have to ask for instructions on what should come naturally for him would have been mortifying! Kid felt humiliated. None of what Cody had described had happened with Lou. Yes she had cried but they'd talked about the reason why and it wasn't because she was in pain at least he didn't think he'd hurt her. He hoped he hadn't but was sure if he had she would have told him. But then she hadn't told him she'd been with someone else so maybe she was covering up the fact that he had hurt her.

Another thought suddenly struck him. She knew he didn't know she hadn't been innocent. Could she possibly think he had figured it out but hadn't wanted to embarrass her by asking her who it had been? After all it wasn't really his business? Or was it? If they were a couple now, was what had happened in their past supposed to come out into the open? Kid flushed as his whole life before coming to Sweetwater was a mystery to Lou.

The door opening caused Kid to sit up. As much as he didn't want to, curiosity got the better of him and he glanced toward the door to see who had come in after him. When he saw Buck standing not more than five feet from him he didn't know whether to be relieved it wasn't Cody or Jimmy or upset that he wasn't being left alone when he'd obviously indicated he was through with the conversation.

"You didn't know, did you?"

There was no teasing to the voice asking him that question, no pity. If anything he heard concern and a bit of compassion. Kid met Buck's eyes briefly before shaking his head no and leaning back against the wall by his bunk.

"There's only three ways to learn things in this life - by doin', by watchin' and by bein' told. But if there's no one in our life to do the tellin' and some things just aren't watchable, then we have to learn the hard way." Buck gave Kid a sympathetic smile as he moved a few feet closer to him. "We all got secrets; it's a part of what makes us who we are today. Don't ever be ashamed of not doin' somethin' that you think everyone else has done already because you just might be surprised to find out you have more in common with people than you think you do."

Kid glanced curiously at Buck but from his friend's calm expression, Kid couldn't tell one way or another if the Indian was just talking in general or was actually including himself in that category.

"A part of me wonders who he was but then I realize I don't wanna know." He gave a small chuckle. "She knew it was my first time and that I didn't know it was hers; what do I do now that I know I wasn't her first?"

"I can't answer that for you, Kid. You know Lou and you know yourself. You just gotta think about what's best for your relationship and not do anything that's gonna ruin it." He took the rest of the steps across the floor that put him in front of Kid. Buck reached down and patted the man on the shoulder. "You'll come up with the right thing to do. I'll tell the others you're not feeling well so maybe they'll let you rest in peace for a while." Buck then left the room, softly closing the door behind him.

Kid could hear his voice floating in through the open window as he spoke to the other riders. He was grateful for Buck's help as well as all his friend had told him but unfortunately, at the moment, none of that helped him. He felt like a part of him could *die*; the part that believed things were supposed to be a certain way. It was silly really: he knew not all fathers were good to their wives and kids, and that people broke the law on a daily basis, but now he also knew that regular women didn't always wait until they either were married or until they had found the man they loved.

He knew people did things for a reason. His last act before leaving Virginia was proof of that. But this told him that he knew nothing about Lou, other than what she wanted him to see. He thought he had her figured out but then he also had his secrets, one in particular that would make the others think they didn't know him at all. Kid sighed as he lay back down on his bunk. For once their bunkhouse porch conversations had proven very knowledgeable to him. A part of him would have preferred to still be in the dark about such things but like Buck said, sometimes you have to learn things the hard way. He felt more awake about life's lessons than he ever had before. Now he just had to figure out how he would feel the next time he saw Lou.

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