Chapter One

For once, Cody was at a loss for words. He had so much he wanted to say to her, so much on his mind that he just couldn’t put into words. Even if he could find the words, finding the right opportunity when it was just the two of them was nigh too impossible. There were always other riders around, rides to be made, chores to be done. It made having a social life difficult for one of the most handsome Express riders around…make that the most handsome Express rider.

‘Sorry, boys, but with William F. Cody around everyone else is just second fiddle.’ Cody thought to himself, grinning from ear to ear.

Just as he caught a glimpse of himself in the small mirror hanging lopsided on the wall, the apple of his eye walked into the bunkhouse…along with Buck and Jimmy.

Not being able to resist, Buck teased Cody about looking at himself in the mirror, yet again.

Jimmy snickered at Buck’s jab at Cody, but Lou just smiled…not at the joke, but at Cody, himself.

Lately, Lou had been having feelings for the blonde-haired rider. She saw a gentleness in him that the others just simply didn’t see.

She had once talked to Emma about Cody and her growing feelings for him as more than just a fellow rider and Emma agreed there was more to Cody than met the eye. The older woman advised Lou to take things slowly with him because he really was a sensitive person underneath his outward appearance and having Cody hurt was the last thing Emma had wanted to see.

Rachel had advised the same to Lou when she saw the feelings between the two riders.

Cody knew that if he ever could confess his feelings for the petite Express rider and she felt the same as he, they could have something very special together.

Whenever he looked at her, really looked at her, he felt he could see into her soul and saw his future in her eyes.

Of course knowing this and admitting it to himself was one thing, but gathering up the courage within him to actually say something to Lou about it was a totally different matter. He knew he had a penchant for messing things up once in awhile…yes, he could admit that much, but only to himself. And this was just too important to him and to Lou for him to mess it up.

Maybe he should ask Teaspoon for some fatherly advice. After all, he had been married six times, so he must have a vast knowledge of women, Cody reasoned.

*~*~*

Cody found his opportunity to talk with Teaspoon later that same day. The stationmaster was in the middle of checking some of the equipment in the tackroom when Cody approached him.

“Teaspoon, you got a minute?” He said seriously.

Teaspoon was instantly aware something was amiss if his most jovial rider had such a serious tone in his voice.

“Sure, son. Anything wrong?” He asked.

“Naw. Just girl problems.”

Teaspoon inwardly groaned. Everytime he turned around Cody was having girl trouble. The boy just didn’t know when to stop. He had more girls on his mind than a body could count. But seeing how he really didn’t want to tend to the task before him, Teaspoon was more than willing to make time for the boy and listen to his problems.

“So, is it Abigail Abernathy that’s got you all tied in knots this time or has some other young lady wormed her way into your heart?”

“Teaspoon, Lou is so much more than Abigail ever was to me.” Cody rambled out in a rush.

“Ah, so it’s Lou we’re talkin’ ‘bout.” He said with an arched eyebrow.

Cody instantly cringed, realizing his mistake of letting the cat out of the bag as to ‘who’ it was he was talking about.

Scratching his chin, Teaspoon pondered the situation. Come to think of it, he had noticed something brewing between his two best riders. A match between the two could be explosive with Lou’s temper and Cody’s instant attraction to the fairer sex. He wasn’t sure the blonde rider had it in him to be attached to only one female at a time…at least for any length of time.

Ever since Teaspoon had discovered Lou was a girl a few months ago, deep down his fatherly instinct had kicked in at that moment leaving him with the difficult task of wanting to protect her, but unable to let it show overly much. Knowing Lou’s temper and her need not to be treated any differently than the other boys, made it difficult for Teaspoon. But it was a duty he refused to shirk. Protecting his ‘daughter’ was one of his top priorities.

Other the other hand, Cody was like a son to him and deserved his own happiness. And the way he had been going about finding a mate thus far left much to be desired. In the time since he’d become a ‘father’ to these ragtag boys…and girl…he’d seen Cody become attached to so many girls that Cody reminded him of himself at that age. And not willing to have Lou become just another notch in Cody’s love life, he was more than a little wary to encourage Cody’s latest infatuation.

And yet, this was the first time Cody had ever asked his advice with such seriousness. Maybe there was more to this than just another quick infatuation. And after all, he had noticed Lou’s growing interest in Cody as well.

At one time, Teaspoon believed there was something going on between her and the Kid, but they seemed to be little more than just friends now.

Teaspoon also knew that if the boy could ever settle down, it would be for life. He saw how Cody was with the other boys and Lou and knew he would lay down his life to protect the others if the situation warranted it. He had a strong sense of family with his fellow Express riders and nothing anyone could say or do would change that. So he knew if his feelings for Lou were indeed true and not just a passing fancy, Lou would be one lucky lady to have such a devoted suitor.

Feeling himself between a rock and a hard place – wanting to protect his ‘daughter’ from the womanizer-in-the-making and yet wanting to see his ‘son’ happy, Teaspoon decided the time for some important questions had come. Pressing his rider further, Teaspoon asked, “So exactly how is between the two of you? Does she know how you feel for her?”

“That’s just it, Teaspoon, I can’t get up the nerve to even talk to her about it. She’s too important to me and I don’t want to screw it up by talking to her.”

Breathing a sigh of relief, Teaspoon saw Lou was indeed more than just another girl to Cody, and felt maybe the time had come for Cody to settle down with just one girl. But still he proceeded as if he were walking on eggshells. This subject was just too touchy for Teaspoon and he wanted to give the right advice. Never had he felt so unknowledgeable. Sure he’d been married six times, but he felt he didn’t know anymore about women than he did when he was Cody’s age.

Putting a comforting arm around Cody, Teaspoon said, “Son, sometimes all the advice in the world won’t be able to give you the courage you need to approach a problem, but if you truly feel for Lou what I think you do then it’d be a great loss to both of you to just do nothing and run the risk of letting her slip away.”

“I know, Teaspoon. That’s why this is so important to me. What am I supposed to do? What if I confess my feelings to her and she doesn’t feel the same way? What if she only thinks of me as just another rider?” Cody asked, growing concerned.

“Cody, nothing in this world is certain, ‘cept true love. And therein lies the problem. You have feelings for her, but you’re not sure how she feels about you. You can go on having feelings for her and never let her know, but you’ll surely lose her that way. Or you can come clean with her, get it all out in the open, and see what she says. Now before you interrupt me, listen to this one last thing…I know it’s gonna be hard, but I think you owe it to yourself and to Lou to at least let her know how ya’ feel. It wouldn’t be fair to either one of you to keep this locked up inside and let it eat away at ya’, son. Just find the right opportunity to let her know when no one else is around, when you won’t be interrupted. If’n ya’ want, I can rearrange some of the runs. But that’s the best I can do, son, the rest is up to you.”

“Alright, Teaspoon. I’d appreciate it. Would it be askin’ too much if the next special run you had, you could send us together?”

“That’d be fine. But I’ve gotta warn ya’, Cody, you do anything to hurt that little gal and you’ll have me to answer to. Not to mention Jimmy, Buck, Ike…”

“Alright, alright. I get it Teaspoon. But that ain’t my plan at all. Hurtin’ her is the last thing I wanna do. If I ever hurt her it’ll be my heart that will be breakin’, not just hers.

Satisfied that Cody meant what he said and that his work was done, for now, Teaspoon clapped the boy on the back and headed off towards Rachel’s for a bite to eat.

*~*~*

Two days later, Cody and Lou were asked to ride over to Lone Tree to help out the sheriff. He was short of deputies because the he had earlier sent them out in a posse to track down the outlaws that had robbed the bank the week before.

As they were getting ready to mount up, Teaspoon pulled Cody aside and told him, “I know this probably isn’t exactly what you had in mind for your chance to talk to Lou, but it should be easy work. All ya’ gotta do is hold the town in check while the sheriff goes out to find his deputies. Since the bank’s been wiped out, there shouldn’t be any more robberies any time soon. Word has it Lone Tree’s a pretty quiet town, shouldn’t have much ta’ do. But you just remember, son, what I said about hurting that girl.” And with that, Teaspoon let him go.

The ride to Lone Tree was slow going because Cody took every opportunity that was afforded them to water the horses and work up the courage he needed to talk to Lou. Should he do it on the way to Lone Tree or should he wait until they settled in as the new deputies? But then what if he waited and then something happened and their services were actually needed in Lone Tree? Then he’d never get a chance to talk to her.

Because of the frequent stops Cody was insisting they make, Lou had begun to realize there was something on Cody’s mind. He seemed too preoccupied on this ride compared to the other rides they had shared. Daring not to hope too much that this might be the time he brought up the feelings he had for her, Lou took matters into her own hands. At the next stop she decided to make it into a small picnic, even if all they had to eat was hardtack and jerky.

The location they stopped at was perfect, a small copse of trees stood in the distance and a large willow stood alone next to the pond, making it the perfect spot to lay out the blanket and still go undetected by the world around them.

When she dismounted and began releasing her bedroll from the back of Lightning, Cody wondered at her actions and asked what she was doing.

“You’ll see.” Was her only reply and she gave him a saucy grin.

She opened the bedroll and laid it out under the willow and began taking the meager rations out her saddlebag.

Realizing she planned on a picnic, Cody’s hopes soared, but he managed to tap them down remembering Teaspoon’s warning that Lou wasn’t like all the other girls and not to hurt her or he’d have the whole bunkhouse coming down on him.

Unsure of what he should do, he took care of the horses and waited for her…any sign from her of what to do next. Maybe letting her take the lead and seeing where it took them was the way for him to go…at least that way he wouldn’t run the risk of taking things too fast and hurting her.

When she was all situated with the picnic she called Cody over. The first few minutes were met with silence, neither one of them knowing what to say to each other. But soon the silence was broken by Lou…or broken by the sound of her gun going off.

Three feet in front of her lay the motionless rattlesnake that only moments before threatened to interrupt their peaceful picnic. Realizing in that moment that Lou could readily take care of herself, Cody released a sigh of relief. It was as if the heavens had opened and given him a sign, as surely as if Lou herself had said everything would be alright. She could handle anything life threw her way with or without someone beside her. But wouldn’t it be nice to be that someone standing next to her whenever life threw its curves?

At a loss for words, all Cody could think of to say was, “Sure was some good shootin’ there, Lou.”

“Thanks, Cody.” She said as she re-holstered her gun. “Cody?”

“Um?”

“Cody, look at me.”

He turned and looked at her.

“I get the feeling there’s something you’ve been wantin’ to tell me ever since we left the station.”

Squirming in his boots, Cody didn’t know what to do. Then a little voice inside told him, ‘It’s now or never’.

“Since you brought it up…” And he trailed off.

“Yeah. So spit it out already. We’ve been ridin’ for hours now, you musta had time to figure it out.”

“Figure what out?”

“What you wanted to tell me, silly.”

“Oh.” Was all he could say.

“So are you gonna tell me or should we get back on our horses and head on into Lone Tree?”

“No.”

“No, what, Cody? You’re sure acting awful strange. You sure you’re feelin’ alright?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” He pulled at the collar of his shirt, feeling it close in on him. “About what I wanted to tell you. I’m not sure…”

“Cody, it can’t be that bad.” She teased him. But when she looked into his eyes, she wasn’t so sure. She gulped. “It isn’t bad is it?”

“No, no. Nothing like that.”

Lou sighed in relief. For a minute there she wasn’t sure what was going on with him, but it wasn’t long before Cody revealed what he’d been holding back all this time.

“I care for ya’, Lou.”

“I know ya’ do, Cody. I care for you, too.”

“No, Lou. I mean I really care for ya’. Like a man cares for a woman.”

“Oh.” It was Lou’s turn to be at a loss for words. “You mean…”

“Yeah. Lou, is there a chance you could feel the same way for me? I mean I understand you may not right away, but…”

“Yes, Cody.”

“What?”

“I said, yes. I feel the same way about you, too. I just didn’t think anything would ever come of it with all your other girlfriends around.” She teased.

“About that. Lou, the way I’ve felt about all those other girls don’t hold a candle to how I feel about you.”

Lou felt flattered, but still wondered if he really knew what he was feeling was different or not. Too many times she’d seen him come home saying he was in love with some girl or another only to have him change his mind a week later, falling in love with someone else. She didn’t want to become just another one of his ‘loves’, she wanted to be the one love to end all others. But with Cody, she just wasn’t sure he was capable of something like that.

“But Cody, how can I be sure of that? Everytime a new girl comes into town you announce to the world you’re in love. What’s so different this time? What makes me so different from all the others?” Lou pleaded with him, not sure if she really wanted to know the answer, afraid maybe there was no answer because she wasn’t any different from all the others and she refused to give her heart to someone like that.

“Lou, you are different. I can’t explain it. It’s just…different…in here.” And he placed her hand over his heart. He looked deep into her eyes with a pleading look, daring her not to believe him.

When she looked into his eyes the intensity she saw in them startled her. In his eyes she saw all the love he had for her and it scared her. It was as if she could see into his soul. See into the future, her future and his…together.

“Cody, I don’t know what to say.”

“Say you’ll give me a chance, give us a chance.” Cody waited, unknowingly holding his breath in anticipation.

She answered him by leaning in and placing a kiss on his cheek. When she began to pull back, he leaned toward her and captured her lips with his. And the kiss was felt all the way to her toes.

How could a simple kiss, their first kiss, touch her so deeply?

“Did you feel that?” She asked him breathlessly.

“Yeah, I did. Gosh, Lou, I knew you were different, but I never realized…I mean…Can we try that again?” He asked, awe laced in his voice.

She nodded and leaned in for another kiss. Their second kiss left them even more breathless than their first.

“I had no idea it could be like this.” Cody admitted to her.

She tweaked his nose with her finger and teased, “Then you’re right, I must be different.” She curled her legs up, wrapping her arms around them, and smiled at him.

Following her lead, he smiled back. “I told ya’.”

“Yes, you did. I guess I just couldn’t quite believe it.” She admitted.

“Well believe it ‘cause it’s true.” Turning serious, he said to her, “Lou, you’ve gotta know I’d never do anything to hurt you.”

She nodded. “I know, Cody. I know.”

“Do you think we could give it a try? I mean, do you think there could be anything between us, a future?”

She gave a small laugh and said, “If the kisses are any indication I’d say damn straight.”

They both had a little laugh at her candor. But soon the laughter turned into something more and they both leaned in for their third, but-no-less-toe-tingling-than-the-last, kiss. As the kiss deepened and seemed to take on a life of its own, Lou moaned and Cody abruptly pulled away.

“Lou, we should stop before this turns into something neither one of us is ready for.”

“Cody, I’m a big girl, I can handle myself.”

“No, Lou, you don’t understand. We’re moving way too fast and if you really thought about it you’d realize it, too.”

Sobering up she finally realized he was right. “I know. It’s just…I’ve never felt this way before. It’s like coming to the end of a journey or beginning a new one. Does that make any sense?”

“Yeah, it does. I feel the same about you. After all the searching and all the other girls…” Cody’s face reddened when he realized what he was saying.

“Cody, it’s alright. It’s not like it’s a big secret, you and the other girls. I know there have been others before me and I’m alright with that.” She confessed.

“No, Lou, you don’t understand. There were no other girls, at least not in the way you think.”

She looked at him sharply and finally realized what he was talking about. “Cody, you mean you’ve never been with another girl before?”

He shook his head.

“But Cody, there were so many. Not once did you bed one of them?” Lou surprised herself at the boldness of her question, but all of a sudden it seemed very important to her that she find out.

“No. It just never felt right. I wasn’t going to do something like that unless it was with the right girl and she never came along…until now. But I’m sure not going to mess it up by jumping into something like that right off and I’m certainly not going to do it outside like this…at least not for our first time.” He grinned outrageously at her. “When the time comes, and that time will come I’m sure of it, we’ll be man and wife, in a nice comfortable hotel room on the biggest, softest feather mattress you’ve ever seen.”

Lou giggled with delight at the thought. And then realized he had all but said he was going to marry her. She liked the idea. Mrs. Louise Cody. It had a nice ring to it.

She was still taken aback by the fact that Cody had never ‘been’ with anyone else before. She had jumped to the conclusion he was ‘experienced’ just because he had been in the company of so many other girls. She had even overheard the boys one day taking bets on how long it would be before Cody would become a father and all the time he had been an innocent.

She smiled at the thought of Cody being innocent in the ways of a man and woman, thrilled that when they did make love she would be his first. She suddenly frowned inwardly. If only he could have been her first. If only her innocence hadn’t been stolen from her against her will. She worried what would happen the day she would tell Cody about Simon Wicks and his treachery. She was so afraid he would turn away from her and he’d be lost to her forever.

Noting the frown marring her features, Cody prodded, “Lou? Honey, what is it?”

She smiled at his endearment. Not wanting to spoil their day by bringing up Simon Wicks she lied and said, “I’m just thinking we probably need to be heading into Lone Tree before the sheriff sends the posse after us.”

Not quite believing that’s what put the frown on her face, he rose with her and began to put her things back into the saddlebags.

Still wondering at what was on her mind, but knowing with Lou it would do no good to push her into telling you what was wrong until she was good and ready to tell you, he let the matter drop. Although a nagging feeling in the back of his mind wouldn’t leave him. He just hoped he hadn’t been too forward in his talk with her. And did he actually say they’d be man and wife? Geez, the last thing he wanted to do was scare her off.

“Lou, listen, I’m sorry if I said something I shouldn’t. I don’t want to see you sad. If I said or did something wrong, would you be honest and tell me?”

“Cody, it’s not you at all. It’s me. I guess I’m just tired from all this riding.”

Not buying that excuse for a second, Cody instantly knew something was wrong. She was their best rider and nothing could slow her down when she put her mind to it. He vowed to himself to find out what was really bothering her before they returned to Sweetwater…if she’d let him.

Chapter Two

They arrived in Lone Tree a little after seven and both were starved, especially Cody. It was already dark, but they headed over to the sheriff’s office just in case he was still there.

And he was. Lying on the jail cell floor. His throat slit. Apparently with the carving knife that lie next to him.

Both riders went outside and lost their meager lunches in the bushes nearby.

They headed back into the office and the gruesome task that lay before them.

“Well he was married.” Cody said after some time had passed and the initial shock of finding the sheriff murdered had worn off.

“How do you know that? We never even met the man before.”

“The ring on his left hand.”

“Oh.” Was all she could say. Married. Just a few short hours ago Cody had been talking marriage and this man had been married. What if someday Cody ended up like this? She just couldn’t bear the thought.

“Lou, honey, don’t cry. It’ll be alright. We’ll get this all straightened out. Do you want to go back and I’ll stay here? You can send Jimmy, Buck or even Teaspoon back. You don’t have to deal with this if you don’t want to.”

“It’s not that. I’ll stay. It’s just…just…oh, Cody, I just couldn’t bear it if something like this ever happened to you.”

He gathered her into his arms and held her while sobs racked her body. He whispered in soothing tones that nothing like that was going to happen to him, all the while stroking her back.

When she finally calmed down enough and realized what a fool she was making of herself, she apologized to him.

“Lou, there’s no reason to apologize. It’s been a long day and no one should ever have to deal with something like this.” He said, indicating the sheriff. “Listen, there’s not much more we can do here tonight and there’s definitely nothing we can do for him, ‘cept maybe cover him with a blanket. Let’s pull the shades, lock up the door and contact the undertaker in the mornin’. We’re still gonna have to figure out who did this, but we’ll do some askin’ around tomorrow. Maybe we’ll get lucky and get some leads. But right now we still need to get a place to sleep tonight. Even though we haven’t eaten yet, under the circumstances I think food is out of the question. I can’t believe I just said that.” He added, to try and lighten the mood a bit.

And it worked. Lou smiled up at him.

*~*~*

They entered the hotel and booked two rooms, but at the rate they were charging they were both sorry they didn’t share a room. Maybe tomorrow they could move into the jail cells to sleep, but tonight that was impossible with the body of the sheriff still there.

They each said their goodnights and Cody sealed his with a kiss, then they both went to their separate rooms.

An hour later, Lou lay wide-awake thinking about all that had transpired that day. When the day started she had high hopes for the day, but never in her worst nightmare would she have thought it would have ended the way it did, finding the sheriff dead and now having to find his killer. She kept wondering how someone could do something so vile to him. And why not just shoot him and be done with it? Why was his throat slit, and with a kitchen carving knife? It just didn’t make sense. And what of his wife? Wouldn’t she be missing him by now or was it not unusual for him to stay at the jail some nights?

Questions and thoughts kept racing through her mind, not only about the sheriff, but about her and Cody as well. Could she really go through with a relationship with him when she wasn’t being entirely truthful with him? He had admitted his celibate state to her and yet she had kept silent about Wicks’ assault on her. Why? All at once she had her answer - she couldn’t bear to see the disappointment on his face when she told him. So instead she chose to stay silent, lying to him. But in this case, she reasoned, wasn’t withholding the truth better than hurting him and risk having him blame her for what had happened to her?

Lou was confused and didn’t know what to do about the situation. She didn’t want to risk losing Cody and their newfound relationship, but if she went ahead with it and they ended up marrying wouldn’t he notice she wasn’t an innocent on their wedding night?

And then there was the crying. She couldn’t believe she had broke down and cried in front of him. She tried so hard never to cry, especially in front of someone else. But seeing the sheriff like that and fearing something like that ever happening to Cody was just too much for her.

Before she knew it she found herself standing outside Cody’s room knocking on his door.

Instantly alert for danger, Cody pulled his gun from the holster hanging on his bedpost and he crept towards the door. “Who’s there?” He demanded.

A small voice from the other side replied, “It’s me, Cody. It’s Lou.”

He quickly pulled open the door and let her inside.

“Is everything alright? Are you alright?” He asked her.

“Yeah, I’m fine. I think. Oh, Cody, do you think you could just hold me for awhile?”

“Sure, Lou.” They both crawled under the covers and held each other as if they were holding onto each other for dear life. And in a way they were.

Not knowing what the future may hold for either one of them, except that they wanted to be together, made them cling tighter to one another.

“Cody.”

“Hmm.” He said as he absently stroked her short hair.

“I know you don’t want to do anything ‘til we’re married, but could I stay here with you tonight? Will you just hold me through the night?” She asked, uncertainty wavering in her voice. Scared that he’d say no, but hoping beyond hope that he’d say yes.

“Anything for you, Lou. Always.”

He sighed in relief. He, himself, had been having trouble sleeping thinking about his budding new love with Lou, something he’d never imagined would happen. He was still thinking about her reaction earlier this afternoon, how her mood had changed so quickly and it puzzled him.

Lou soon fell asleep with her head on his chest and he cradled her close to his heart. He felt blessed for the opportunity to offer her comfort when she needed it. It wasn’t long before he drifted off to sleep as well, languishing in feel of her next to him. A body could definitely get used to this. He had no idea how he was ever going to go back to sleeping in separate bunks when they arrived back home. And keeping their love a secret was something he just wasn’t willing to do. He was in love with Louise McCloud and there wasn’t a soul out there that would be in the dark about their true relationship.

*~*~*

Dawn shown brightly on the sleeping couple and Lou was the first to stir. A growling in her stomach completely woke her up and Cody wasn’t long behind her. They smiled at each other and Cody broke the silence by saying, “Good morning, beautiful.” And he lightly kissed her forehead.

“Morning, handsome.” The awkwardness Lou feared would be there in the morning after they had spent the night in each other’s arms just wasn’t there. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to wake up with him beside her. Yes, she could definitely get used to this.

Cody yawned and stretched and she took the opportunity to snuggle even more closely next to him.

He lightly rested his arms around her and asked, “Should we get breakfast before we start the day?”

“Now there’s the Cody I know and love.” She teased.

“Well we are gonna have a big day ahead of us with trying to find the sheriff’s murderer. I sure hope they have an undertaker nearby.” He said absent-mindedly.

They each slowly rose and dressed for the day, reluctant to leave their haven for the real world.

But life went on, and they forced themselves to leave the confines of their room for the small dining room of the hotel.

After Cody ordered the largest breakfast she’d ever seen him eat before, she placed her order and they waited for the waitress to return with their food.

He reached across the table and took her hand. She meekly protested his action by saying, “Cody, I’m supposed to be a boy. A Pony Express rider. What are people gonna think?”

“I don’t really care what they think, Lou. I’m in love with you and I want the world to know it. ‘Sides, nobody knows who we are yet so we’re safe for now.” He brought her hand to his mouth and kissed it gently.

Soon the waitress was back with their food and they dug in heartily.

When breakfast was over and he paid the bill, they headed out into the sunshine in search of the undertaker. It wasn’t long before they found him, drunk at a table in the corner of the local saloon.

After they succeeded in waking him and told them the fate of the sheriff, he ordered some coffee to sober up and asked Lou and Cody to join him to fill him in on the details.

When they finished with their tale, the undertaker named Bill Wheaton just shook his head in sorrow. He explained Forrest Jackson had been their sheriff for the past 12 years and he would be sadly missed.

When Lou asked about Sheriff Jackson’s wife, Mr. Wheaton began acting odd, clearly wanting to avoid the subject of the woman. He related that she was a real harridan, constantly nagging at poor Forrest about quitting his job. She always avoided town as much as possible, preferring to keep to herself. She wouldn’t even attend the town functions, leaving it to Sheriff Jackson to attend the festivities alone. After all it was his job to keep the peace in the town, not hers, and she didn’t want anything to do with it.

Cody and Lou both made a mental note of the information on Mrs. Jackson. Not knowing if it would be helpful in their investigation or not.

Once the undertaker had finished his third cup of coffee and feeling somewhat sober, the trio headed over to the sheriff’s office. As Cody began to unlock the door, he noticed it had already been unlocked. As they walked in, pistols at the ready, the sight that greeted them was not at all what they were expecting.

Sheriff Jackson was laid out in new clothes, bathed and lying on a cot in one of the cells with the door open. His death wound had been wrapped with bandages and all the blood had been cleaned up from the floor. The carving knife was nowhere to be found.

“Did you two do this?” The undertaker asked.

“No. When we left him last night he was on the floor, blood was everywhere. Mr. Wheaton, someone came in here between last night and this morning and cleaned it all up. And the weapon’s missing. It was a carving knife about this long.” Cody indicated the length of the knife with his fingers.

“I don’t understand. Why would someone do this, and how’d they get in? We locked the door before we left last night. And where’s the blanket we covered him up with last night? That’s gone, too.” Lou said to no one in particular. She walked over to where the sheriff’s body lay and right away noticed something peculiar. His wedding ring was missing. “Cody, come here. Look. It’s gone.”

Even more confused than they were before this all began, they let the undertaker do his job. After Mr. Wheaton took his measurements and started to take his leave, Cody asked where Mrs. Jackson could be found. He gave directions to the house. “But you won’t find her there this time of day. She’ll be doing volunteer work over at the church. She does every day. The only time she leaves her house is for the sanctuary of the church”

“You seem to know an awful lot about the whereabouts of the sheriff’s wife.” Lou piped in. Not realizing the accusatory tone she had used, the undertaker took offense.

“Now listen here, I don’t know what you two are really doing here, but my business is my own. Mrs. Jackson is known all around town for her work with the church. She’s the most sainted woman around in three territories. This is surely gonna crush her and she’s not gonna need two young upstarts poking their noses in where they don’t belong.”

Lou tried to make amends with Mr. Wheaton by saying, “I didn’t mean to offend you, sir. But we were sworn in back in Sweetwater as deputies. We came here to help out the sheriff, but with the way things are now it’s gonna fall on us to figure this whole thing out. All we’re askin’ for is a little cooperation on your part. If you don’t want to give it, that’s fine. We’ll just have to find someone else to help us out. However, if you were to help us out and tell us what we need to know, I’m sure they’d be some great recognition in it for you when this is all over with.”

Drawing himself up to his full height at the thought of some recognition in town as someone other than just the undertaker, he rethought his earlier comments. “Well I s’pose I could help you out some. What’d you need to know?”

Clearly impressed with the way Lou handled Wheaton, Cody formed an even greater respect for her abilities.

“Well right now we just need to get some facts and sort them all out. Find out if the sheriff had any enemies other than the obvious ones. And then we need to try to figure out who broke in here last night and why they cleaned up the body. Could it have been the killer? But then why wouldn’t he have cleaned up after himself in the first place? Why risk coming back here and maybe getting caught in the act? It just doesn’t make sense.”

“Lou, if you don’t watch it the Pinkertons are gonna be recruiting you.” Cody only half-teased her.

She just smiled at him.

Speaking to the undertaker she said, “Why don’t we meet back at your office after dinnertime? We’ll probably have more questions than answers, but we can go over them with you and see what we can come up with.”

After Wheaton left, Cody asked Lou, “So what do you want to do first, sheriff?”

“Ah, Cody, cut it out. I don’t know what I’m doing here anymore than you do. It just makes sense to find out as much as we can about the sheriff and take it from there. The pieces should all start falling together sooner or later.” She shrugged.

“It’s just I didn’t know you had it in you to do something like this. Everytime I turn around you keep amazing me. I guess I never realized before how clever you are. Now before you take that the wrong way, all I mean is that in our jobs all we ever really have to do is ride safe and hard, outrun the Indians and shoot straight. It doesn’t take much brainpower. What I’m trying to say is you’re really smart, Lou. To come up with a plan and figure out where to go from here takes some smarts. I’m really proud of you.”

“Thanks, Cody, that really means a lot to me.”

Chapter Three

They found the sheriff’s wife right where Wheaton had said, at the church. She was kneeling at a pew praying.

Not wanting to interrupt her prayers, Lou and Cody waited until she was finished.

When she sat back, they approached her.

“Mrs. Jackson, ma’am?” Cody asked, hat in hand.

“Yes?” Came the shaky reply.

The sweetest looking woman looked up at them. She sat, hands folded in her lap, smiling.

Cody took a seat next to her and Lou remained standing. She was going to let Cody take care of the questioning and break the news of her husband.

“Mrs. Jackson, my name’s Billy Cody. I’m a deputy that was sent her to help your husband.” He paused and continued on. “About your husband, ma’am, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but he was killed last night.”

When no reaction came from her, he repeated the information about her husband. Finally she looked at Cody and replied, “I know.”

“You know? But how?” Lou questioned her.

The widow shot her a disapproving look and directed her answer to Cody. “I found him, last night. I…I cleaned him up and laid him out for the undertaker. I didn’t know what else to do.”

“It’s alright. You didn’t do anything wrong.” Cody consoled her. “What did you do with the knife?”

“Knife? There wasn’t a knife.”

“Yes, there was. It was lying right on the floor next to him. Are you saying when you found him it wasn’t there?”

“I didn’t see a knife.”

“What about his ring?” Lou asked.

Taking an instant dislike to Lou, Mrs. Jackson refused to answer.

After a moment Cody prodded the widow about the ring. “I took it.” She sobbed. She reached into the folds of her skirt and withdrew the ring they had earlier seen on the sheriff. “I wanted to keep it. To remember him by.” She smiled at Cody. “You’re such a nice young man. Thank you for coming to tell me about Forrest. It means so much to me. I don’t know how I’ll go on from here.”

“Do you have any family, any children?” Lou asked.

The widow ignored the question until Cody repeated it.

“No, we never were blessed with children.”

“Will you be alright by yourself?” Lou found herself asking.

Mrs. Jackson stiffened and again refused to answer Lou.

Clearly confused by the widow’s reaction to her, Lou tried a different tactic. “Ma’am, did your husband have any enemies, anyone you can think of that would want to do this to him?”

All at once she exploded at Lou. “How dare you talk to me, you little hussy. All dressed up as man, hiding who you really are. And in the house of God. How dare you.” The widow hissed at her.

Taken back that the widow had easily seen through her disguise, Lou was almost at a loss of words. Almost. But the words that came to her mind were indeed not fit for the house of God. So she kept her mouth shut. Instead she shot Cody a pleading look to get her out of there.

He took her cue and excused them both, leaving the widow alone.

Once they were outside the church and alone, Lou let it all out.

“How can she do that to me? How’d she see through my disguise so easily? And how dare I talk to her? How dare she talk to me that way. I didn’t do anything to her. For goodness sakes, all I’m trying to do is help the woman!” She stamped her foot in the dirt.

Cody waited until Lou was done with her little tirade before taking her in his arms and held her close. He stroked her back up and down trying to calm her. It wasn’t long before Lou had tears trailing down her cheeks and in an attempt to hide them she buried her face even deeper into his jacket.

“Honey, are you cryin’?” He finally asked.

She shook her head no, but her sniffling gave her away.

Ignoring her little lie, Cody led her back to the hotel and up to his room. He sat her down on the bed and knelt on the floor in front of her.

“Listen, Lou, I know what the Widow Jackson said to you hurt you, but don’t listen to her. You are who you are and that’s that. What she thinks and says doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that I love you just the way you are, no matter what. Nothing’s goin’ ever change that.” He cupped her chin within his hand, forcing her to look at him. The weak smile she gave him warmed his heart, but broke it at the same time. Knowing she was hurting was eating him alive.

Lou sighed loudly. “Ah, I’m sorry, Cody. I can’t believe I’m crying again. I never cry. I make a point of not crying. And here I am crying again for the second time in two days.”

Silently Cody wondered if the real reason she was crying after all this time was because she finally had someone to lean on. The thought warmed him because he knew he was that person and she trusted him enough to let go of her emotions.

“It’s alright, Lou. My shirt will dry.” His attempt at humor with her paid off and she gave a little laugh.

Quickly switching off her emotions and to another subject, Lou brought up the widow’s strange behavior. “Cody, why do you suppose when Widow Jackson found her husband the first thing she does is clean him up and clean up the floor? Why wouldn’t she go find the doctor to come help? And how on earth did she find the strength to lift him onto the cell cot from the floor? She had to have had some help.”

Cody just smiled at her.

“What?” She asked, a little irritated because she thought he wasn’t listening.

“That’s the Lou I remember.”

“Cody, I’m serious. Think about it, she had to have help, I know the sheriff had to weigh more than her. I know she’s not exactly a tiny woman, but to lift a completely limp person from the floor up to a cot? I’m not buying it. It would have taken two people to do that. And what about the knife? She claims it wasn’t there, but it was clearly there when you and I were there. It had to have been there when she found him. She’s lying. I just know it.”

“Lou, slow down. We’ll figure it out…or I should say you’ll figure it out. You seem to be half-way there already.”

“How do you figure that?”

“Well you already figured out she’s lying, now we just have to figure out why and who it was that helped her move the body.”

“Why don’t we go question the doctor? Maybe she did go to him for help when she found her husband and he was the one that helped her move him.”

“Good thinkin’, Lou. You’ve already figured out we can’t quite believe anything Widow Jackson tells us. And with the way she feels towards you, we probably won’t be getting any straight answers out of her anyhow.”

She hooked her arm into his and said, “But Cody, she likes you.” And she grinned.

*~*~*

“No, I’m sorry I didn’t know about Sheriff Jackson and I haven’t seen Edna in a coupla days.” Doc Small told them.

“Edna?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, that’s Mrs. Jackson. So he had his throat cut you say?”

“Mmm hmm.” Lou murmured.

“Shame, just a pure shame. He was a good man. Is there anything else I can help you with, Miss, uh, I’m sorry I don’t think I got your name.”

“McCloud.” Lou was stunned. Once again someone had figured out she was a girl. It was a darned good thing they hadn’t told anyone they were Pony Express riders or she’d quickly find herself without a job.

“I’m just curious, does your sheriff always hire women for deputies?”

“If a body can do the job, what does it matter whether they’re man or woman?” She countered, clearly getting irritated by the man.

The doctor cleared his throat at that, but said nothing, surprised that the girl was standing up for herself.

“Well, thank you for your time, doc.” Cody said, wanting to get out of there as soon as possible and avoid another ‘situation’ with Lou.

“Just one more thing before we go.” Lou said. “Did the sheriff and Edna have any children?”

“No. Why do you ask?”

“No reason, just curious. Thanks again.” And with that Cody and Lou took their leave.

Once outside the doctor’s office, Cody asked her, “Why do you keep asking about children?”

Lou shrugged. “Don’t know. Just a feeling I’ve got. Maybe I’m just trying to catch the widow in another lie. I’m just not really sure. What I want to know is how it’s so obvious I’m a girl underneath all these clothes. Two people have already made note of it.” The next part she whispered to him, “And what happens if they find out I really ride for the Express? Teaspoon would surely have to fire me if word got out a girl was riding for him.”

“Well I’ll just have to make an honest woman out of you and marry you.” And he squeezed her hand.

“Cody, will you be serious? I don’t want to lose my job.” Seeing the wounded look on his face, she realized what she said and apologized. “Cody, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that how it sounded.”

“It’s alright, Lou. I know you didn’t. But would it really be so bad if we got married someday?”

“Goodness, no, Cody. There’s nothing I’d like better.” And it was true. Being married to him would be wonderful, but working up the nerve to tell him about what Wicks did to her was something else entirely. Quickly pushing thoughts of Simon Wicks from her mind she said, “I guess I just don’t want to lose my job either, especially because I’m a girl. It’s so unfair they won’t hire girls. We can do the job just as well as any man.”

“You don’t have to convince me, Lou. You’re the best rider we’ve got, there’s no question about it. Next to me of course.” And he puffed out his chest.

“Cody, you crack me up. You really do. How you can take a serious situation and turn it into something funny is really something. I’m just glad you can do it because I sure could use a laugh now and then.”

“Anything for the fair lady.” He removed his hat and bowed low in front of her.

She laughed.

‘Mission accomplished.’ Cody thought to himself. From now on out, he was going to make it his mission in life to make Lou’s life easier and if a little humor was the way to do it then all the better because humor was his specialty.

Chapter Four

The time had come to meet the undertaker and they headed over to his place. When they got there, he was nowhere to be found. They waited around for awhile, but soon gave up and went back to the hotel.

When they entered Cody’s room, Lou saw right away her saddle bags lying on the floor next to the bed.

“Cody, why are my things in here?”

“Oh, I had the clerk move your stuff in here. I thought we could just share the room. If that’s alright. If it’s not we can get your old room back. I’m, uh, not expectin’ anything from ya’, Lou. I just thought you might like it better in here instead of alone across the hall.”

“Cody, you did fine.” She planted a small kiss on his cheek and smiled.

“I’ve also been doing some thinkin’.”

“Oh?”

“Well since it’s no secret you’re a woman around this town, then why not make the best of it? That is, I mean we can stop by the mercantile and see what kind of dresses they have. For awhile you can dress the way you want to.”

She began to interrupt, but he stopped her.

“I’m not saying you don’t dress the way you want now, but I saw how beautiful you looked the last time in a dress and I just want something special for you. If you want it that is.”

“I’d be honored to go shopping with you, Mr. Cody.”

And they did.

*~*~*

On their way to the mercantile they passed the dressmaker’s shop and stopped there instead.

Cody helped her pick out a pale green dress that fit her perfectly, just as if it were made especially for her. When it came time to picking out the underpinnings, Cody turned a shade of red and quickly excused himself. Lou agreed to meet him in the mercantile when she was finished.

Twenty minutes and three packages later, Lou was set. She had changed into her new clothes at the dressmaker’s and had her boy’s clothes and boots wrapped up instead. In her boots’ place, she wore a pair of dainty slippers that matched the dress.

She made the short walk to the mercantile without incident and when she walked in Cody barely recognized her. The dressmaker had helped her pin up her hair fashionably and she looked like a vision made in heaven to him. It made his own purchase for her all that more special.

“Um, Lou, I bought something for you.”

“Butterscotch. My favorite. How’d you know?”

“Huh?”

“The candy.” And she popped a piece in her mouth. “How’d you know this is my favorite?”

“Because it’s my favorite, too. But that’s not what I bought you. I mean you can have the candy, but I’ve also got something much better than candy. At least I hope you’ll think so.”

Before he could say more, the shopkeeper’s wife came out from behind the curtain and said, “Ah, so this is the young lady you were talking about.” She said to Cody. To Lou she remarked, “You are one lucky lady to have such a caring gentleman. You two will make a wonderful match.”

Lou looked at Cody and wondered what he’d been telling the woman about the two of them.

“It’s such a shame about the sheriff. Your young man here was just telling me about it. Such a tragedy. He was a really nice man. Not the most faithful man in the world, but real nice.”

“What do you mean not the most faithful? Was he seeing someone else on the side?”

Her face instantly reddening, she said, “Oh, I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead. And it was rumors only.”

“It’s alright. We’re trying to find out what happened and any information you might have could be really helpful.” Lou prompted the older woman.

“Well if it could help you, I guess it would be alright. There was talk that the sheriff had his eye on a certain saloon girl in another town. But we ain’t never seen her ‘round here so I really couldn’t tell you if it was the truth or not. The only girl I’ve ever seen him with was his daughter, Glennis.”

Lou practically choked on her candy. After her coughing fit subsided she asked, “Daughter? He had a daughter?”

“Oh, my yes. Are you alright, dear?” The shopkeeper asked.

When Lou nodded, she continued. “Yes, he had a daughter from his first wife. Poor dear died in a cholera outbreak, his first wife, not his daughter. Anyway, I’d say she’s about your age. Darnedest thing you ever seen though, won’t wear anything but pants. Couldn’t get that girl in a dress if her life depended on it. Don’t know what she’s going to do now. She lived with her father and Edna, but Edna can’t stand her. Poor dear. It makes no sense, a God-fearin’ woman like Edna holding such a grievance against a poor girl like that. And all because she wears pants. Can’t quite figure that one out.”

“Mrs…uh, I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.”

“Oh, dearie, you can just call me Mildred. Everybody does. And you’re Louise.” Mildred extended her hand and Lou shook it. “Your young Mr. Cody there has told me a lot about you.”

Again Lou looked at Cody. He just non-committally shrugged his shoulders and turned to look at some merchandise on the shelves.

“Oh, you poor dear. Don’t you worry none. He didn’t say all that much really. Besides I won’t tell a soul.”

Lou just mentally shook her head. She seriously doubted this woman could keep a secret for any substantial length of time.

Ignoring whatever ‘secrets’ Cody may have inadvertently revealed to this woman, she continued with her questioning. “Do you know of any enemies the sheriff might have had? Anyone who would want to do him harm?”

“Well he had those outlaws he’d sent the posse after, but they never caught them.”

“You mean the posse came back already?” Lou asked incredulously.

“Oh, dear, yes. Yesterday morning. Musta been before you two arrived.”

“But where are his deputies at?”

“You must mean Cletus? Oh, the poor dear was shot dead chasing after those bank robbers.” Mildred told her.

“So he only had the one deputy and he was killed. Then the same day the posse arrives back empty-handed the sheriff gets murdered. Interesting.” Lou popped another candy into her mouth.

“Oh, dearie, if you don’t mind my saying so, you’re gonna ruin your supper eating those butterscotch candies.” Then Mildred’s expression became serious and she whispered, “Your young gentleman let it slip that he was planning on takin’ you to the restaurant in town I told him about. It’s not much, but it’s a heap better than the hotel food. It’s the restaurant where my dear husband takes me on the special occasions. Although they’re becoming few and far between as of late.” She frowned.

Whispering back, Lou told her, “Thank you. I won’t let on that I know about it.”

“You’re such a sweet, sweet dear. I know I haven’t known you long, but I’m a very good judge of character.”

Lou believed her. What she had said about Edna Jackson seemed to be right on the money.

“Mildred, thank you so much for your help. If I think of any more questions I’ll be sure to come back. But right now I think I better be off. Don’t want to keep my, uh, Mr. Cody waiting.”

Cody waved goodbye to Mildred and the pair took their leave.

Once outside on the boardwalk, Cody held out his arm for her to take and she looped her arm through his. “So ‘my young Mr. Cody’, where are we off to now?” She teased him.

“Well ‘my poor dear’ I’ve got a surprise or two up my sleeve.”

She started to look up his sleeve and they both started laughing.

“C’mon, follow me. You’ll just have to wait and see until we get there.” He told her.

“Fair enough.” She told him and smiled broadly.

“You already know where we’re going don’t you?”

She nodded. “I’m afraid Mildred isn’t much at keeping secrets.”

“Lucky for us. You got more information out of her than any of the others combined.”

“Yes, she sure is a gossip and in this case it’s not a bad thing.” Lou said. Suddenly a thought popped into her mind. “Do you realize this town is completely without the law ‘cept for the two of us?”

“Kind of scary, isn’t it? Do you think we should get a message to Teaspoon and let him know what’s goin’ on?

“Yeah, I think we should. Maybe this is a little more than we can handle. After all we were only supposed to be here to help keep things in line, not solve a murder.”

“Why don’t we head over to the stables and check on the horses first and maybe we can find someone to take a message to Sweetwater. Sound good?”

“Sounds like a plan.”

*~*~*

“Sure, I’ve got a lad that I could send ta’ Sweetwater fer ya. He’s old enough now ta’ make that ride on ‘is own. He can leave in the mornin’ at dawn.”

Cody wrote down a few sentences for Teaspoon and handed the missive over to the stableman and thanked him for his help.

“Glad to help out a man of the law. You two be stayin’ on after all this is over? We’ll be needin’ a new sheriff.”

“Well, uh, the truth is we’ve already got jobs back at Sweetwater.” Lou told him.

When he looked over at Lou, he admitted aloud, “I have to say, missy, I darned thought you was a boy when ya’ two rode in yesterday. I’m real sorry ‘bout that, ma’am.”

“It’s alright. Happens all the time.” She looked to Cody and smirked.

“Wish ya’ both would reconsider takin’ over the sheriff’s job. Truth is there ain’t anyone ‘round here now that could hold down the job for very long. You both seem competent enough. Heard how you’ve been askin’ ‘round after the sheriff, trying to find his killer. After all, ya’ two are just deputies back in Sweetwater. Here at least one of ya’ could be sheriff.”

Eager to get on with his surprise for Lou, Cody simply told the man, “We’ll think about it.” He tipped his hat and bid the man a good evening.

*~*~*

They walked to the restaurant in companionable silence. Each being left alone with their own thoughts.

When they entered the quaint restaurant, all eyes turned toward the couple. The owner greeted them at the door, all smiles. “Welcome, Mr. Cody, Miss McCloud. I’m honored to have you at my humble establishment. Forgive me, my name is Ethan Abernathy. I’m also the mayor of Lone Tree.”

For the second time today, Lou almost choked. “Abernathy? You wouldn’t by chance be related to a Miss Abigail Abernathy of Sweetwater, would you?”

Pride clearly shown on his face as he said, “Sure am, Miss McCloud. She’s my niece, my brother’s daughter. Do you know her?”

Trying to be tactful, something that wasn’t her strong suit, she merely said, “I know of her. She’s very pretty.” Inwardly Lou felt she was slowly dying. All she needed was for Cody to get re-involved with the mayor’s niece. She looked over at Cody and he looked as if he had swallowed a frog. His discomfort was clear and for his sake she tried to change the subject.

“Would there be a chance, sir, that we could ask you a few questions about the sheriff?”

“Later.” Cody whispered in her ear. Clearly wanting to leave this man’s company, a man that reminded him of his old ways and of Abigail Abernathy.

Figuring the newly arrived couple must be hungry, the mayor agreed to meet with them later and ask any questions they may have. “Let me show you to your table. We have one all set up for you over here in the corner, out of the way.”

As they followed the mayor to their table, both had the feeling Mildred had somehow gotten word over to the restaurant that they were coming. It seemed too convenient that a table was already waiting for them in a private little corner of the cramped restaurant.

Cody pulled out Lou’s chair and waited for her to be seated before he pushed her in and then he sat himself. He instantly felt the need to apologize to her.

“Lou, if I’d have had any idea that the restaurant was owned by Abby’s uncle, I never would have brought you here.”

“Cody, it’s alright. You had no way of knowing. It’s just that…well, Cody, are you sure it’s me you want to be with? Abigail is everything I’m not. She’s beautiful, feminine, the total opposite of me. And with her uncle being the mayor of this town, you could easily become the sheriff if you wanted. You could have darn near anything you wanted in this town. Do you realize that? The possibilities could be endless. If you played your cards right you could someday end up mayor of this town.”

Cody knew he’d have to be careful in what he said next to Lou, knowing one slip of the tongue could mess up their relationship forever. He reached across the table and took her hand in his and looked her straight in the eye. “Lou, I don’t ever want you to think I’d prefer her over you. Yeah, she’s different than you, but it’s you I want – not her. She had her chance and it just didn’t work out. Now I know it didn’t work out because it’s you I’m supposed to be with. As for you thinking her beautiful, there’s no one more beautiful in this world than you, Lou. I don’t care if you’re in a dress or pants, it doesn’t change who you are inside. You’re mine, Lou, and nothing’s gonna to change that.” He brought her hand to his lips and gently kissed it. When he looked up at her, he had tears glistening in his eyes. He was so afraid he was going to lose her and was also afraid that no amount of talking on his part was going to convince her of his devotion to her. But he was wrong.

Lou felt the sincerity in his words and was touched to her soul. Why he would choose her over the beautiful Abigail was beyond her, but choose her and the hoyden she was he had. She was sure of it now. And she’d never doubt him again. Nor would she bring up the subject of any other girl again. Not only was it too painful for her, it seemed to be something Cody didn’t want to talk about either, as if he wanted to put his womanizing past behind him and get on with his life. A life that included her in it.

Inside Lou felt like a huge weight had been lifted from her. Her and Cody’s relationship was still new and uncertain for her, but he had solidified it with his words making her relax inside a little.

Not knowing what to say to him, she simply squeezed his hand and smiled at him. Relief flooded his features and he grinned like a cat with a fresh bowl of cream.

Feeling that now was as a good time as ever for her surprise, Cody reached into his jacket pocket and removed a red velvet bag. He worked open the drawstrings and poured the contents into the palm of his hand.

Lou watched him attentively, wondering what Cody was hiding. It wasn’t long before her curiosity was appeased.

Again he took her hand and slipped something cool on her finger. When he let go of her hand, she looked down and saw the ring he had put there. It glistened in the candlelight from the table.

“Cody, I…” She stammered.

“Before you say anything…I’d like it if you’d wear this ring, as a promise of what’s to come. I know once we get back to Sweetwater and start riding again, it wouldn’t look right if you were wearing a ring, so I bought a chain for you to put it on. That way you can keep it close to your heart.”

“Cody, I’d be honored to wear your ring.” She beamed at him. At a loss for what to say to him next she was almost relieved when their food arrived.

It wasn’t long after they finished their meal that their conversation landed on the topic of the sheriff and trying to sort through the information they had gathered so far.

“Don’t you think it’s odd that the doc never mentioned anything about the sheriff’s daughter, even though we specifically asked him if there were any children?”

Cody just shrugged, not quite knowing what to make of the doctor’s lie. “I wonder what happened to the undertaker today. We were supposed to meet with him this afternoon and he wasn’t there. Do you suppose he’s avoiding us, not wantin’ to answer any questions? He didn’t seem like he wanted to cooperate in the first place. I get the feeling he knows a lot more than he’s lettin’ on.”

“I think you’re right, Cody. Maybe we better make a point of lookin’ him up tomorrow and try to get him to open up to us. Although how we’re gonna do that, I have no idea. Maybe the mayor will be able to fill us in on what’s goin’ on.”

At the mention of the mayor, Cody cringed. He was still uncomfortable with the fact he was Abigail’s uncle.

“You know, Cody, if you don’t want to question him I can do it. Maybe you could go find the undertaker and question him instead of waiting until tomorrow.”

Relieved, Cody agreed with Lou’s plan. He rose from the table, kissing her on the cheek before he left. “I’ll meet you back at the hotel.” And with that he was gone.

Lou got up in search of the mayor, not only to ask him questions but to pay their bill as well.

When she found him and brought up the bill, the mayor smiled and said the meal was on him. He was glad to help out the local law enforcement, even if it was only to feed them.

“Miss McCloud, before we start with the questions, I just want to say I really admire you - a woman doing a man’s job as a deputy. I have to say you do it very well from what I’ve heard. I also want to tell you there’s no hard feelings on my part about Abby.”

Taken back by the mayor’s comments, Lou didn’t know what to say.

“I see you weren’t aware I knew about Mr. Cody and Abby. She wrote me several times about him. I also know that aside from being a deputy, Mr. Cody also is a Pony Express rider. And if I’ve missed my mark, I’m betting that you are as well.”

When Lou’s jaw dropped open, the mayor had the answer he was seeking.

“You don’t have to worry though, you’re secret’s safe with me. I’ve seen a lot of things in my life and I know life isn’t the easiest for an unmarried woman and they’re forced to do what they have to in order to survive. I admire you for your choice of an occupation. Teaspoon is lucky to have such a smart lady working for him.”

“You know Teaspoon?”

“Oh, yes. He and I go way back. I was a Texas Ranger for a spell, that’s how I met him. And of course I knew he was in Sweetwater through Abby’s letters.” Ethan studied Lou for a moment and then commented, “You don’t seem to be bothered overly much that I’m Abby’s uncle or that she was once involved with your young man. I was under the impression earlier that it bothered you somewhat, but not anymore. If you don’t mind my asking, what happened?

Feeling a bit uncomfortable talking to a stranger about her relationship with Cody, she merely said, “We came to an understanding about that. ‘Sides I’ve got a job to do, can’t let my personal feelings get in the way.” She was twisting her ring around her finger throughout the conversation and Ethan couldn’t help but notice it. Realization dawned on him them that the two must now be betrothed. He smiled to himself. Knowing Abby as he did, he knew Mr. Cody wasn’t the right man for her. But this slip of a girl standing beside him would definitely be a good match for him. Just the type to settle him down.

Keeping his thoughts on Abby to himself, he asked, “So what can I do for you in regards to your investigation?”

Lou asked him her standard series of questions and he provided what information he could, but in the end it wasn’t any more useful that any of the other facts she had already gathered.

She thanked him for his time, assuring him he had been very helpful, and took her leave. She hurried back to the dressmaker’s to pick up her packages before heading back to the hotel.

On a whim, she decided to stop at the sheriff’s office and look over his papers to see what kind of cases he had been working on before his death, other than the bank robbery. While she was there shifting through the paper work and wanted posters, a sharp bang on the door startled her. Thinking someone was simply knocking on the door, she went to it. But when she opened it, she was startled. The missing carving knife was lodged in the wood of the door with a note speared through it. Lou quickly scanned he area for anyone, but the street was empty. She then pulled out the knife out and read the note. It merely read, ‘Leave now if you know what’s good for you, hussy.’

Then suddenly in dawned on her, the sheriff’s wife, Edna, had called her a hussy. Now she proof she had lied about the knife. It was clear to Lou now that Edna was hiding more than they had earlier suspected.

Glad that her new dress had a pocket to hold her gun, she relocked the sheriff’s office and quickly made her way back to the hotel.

She was glad Cody was already there waiting for her.

Seeing the ashen look on her face, Cody took her in his arms and asked what was wrong. She sat on the bed and explained the incident at the sheriff’s office, showing him the note and the knife.

“She was definitely lying to us, Cody. But why does she want us to leave so badly? You’d think she’d want to know who murdered her husband. Oh, my God. Cody, what if she had something to do with it? It would make sense she’d want us to leave.”

“Lou, read the note again. It’s not ‘us’ she wants to leave, it’s you.” He let that sink in before adding, “Remember how Mildred told us how Mrs. Jackson hated the sheriff’s daughter simply because she wore pants, I think she’s transferring her hatred from the daughter to you.”

“But why?”

“Well it’s pretty obvious the woman isn’t in her right mind. Remember the undertaker first said she was a harridan and pestered her husband to quit his job, but then a little later he said she was the most sainted woman in town. Who knows why she does anything she does? Just promise me the next time you leave this room you’ll be extra careful. I don’t plan on letting you out of my sight ‘til we leave here, but just in case keep an extra eye open.”

“I can take care of myself, Cody, you know that.”

“I’m not doubting your abilities, Lou, it’s just I don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to you. You mean the world to me and I don’t want to see you hurt.”

“Cody, I understand how you feel ‘cause I feel the same way about you. You’re my future, my life. But I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let some half-crazed woman get in my way. I know she’s behind the note and the knife, but if she’s somehow connected with the murder of her husband I’m gonna take her down. I promise you that.”

As Lou began to calm down, she looked down at her feet. She bent down and took off her shoes and sighed in relief. “I don’t know how other women do it, Cody. These shoes are killing my feet.” And she tossed the offending foot-ware across the room. “Give me my comfortable boots any day.”

Cody chuckled at her antics and took her feet into his hands and began rubbing them. Feeling the intimacy the act of a massage was creating, Lou began to squirm. Everytime he touched a certain spot on her foot…ah, there…a jolt of pleasure shot through her body.

“Oooh, right there. No, no, over just a little bit. Oh, now you’ve got it.” She moaned.

Cody, seemingly oblivious to the true sensations he was creating within her, continued to massage her feet.

“Oh, Cody, have you any idea what you’re doing to me?”

“Making you feel good?” He remarked innocently.

“You have no idea.” Pleasure dripping from her voice.

“What’d you mean?”

“This is gonna sound strange, but every time you touch a spot on my foot…ah, there.”

“There?” And he rubbed the spot again.

She arched her back and moaned in pleasure. Cody grinned from ear to ear.

“What about it?” He asked innocently.

But something in the tone of his voice alerted her. She sat straight up. “You know exactly what you’re doing to me, Billy Cody.” She mockingly accused him.

“It’s called reflexology.” He grabbed one of her feet and began massaging again. “The Chinese believe that parts of the foot are directly connected to other parts of the body. For instance, here’s the spot you would rub if someone had a stomachache, here for a headache, here to relax the lower muscles of the back and here…” She moaned aloud. “Well I think you know what that does.”

“Cody you are something else. Where on earth did you learn this?” She squirmed again, heat pooling in her nether regions.

“I read it in a book. I do read more than just dime novels, you know.”

“Ah.” She sighed. “I had no idea.”

Switching feet he told her, “And before you ask, no, I’ve never done this to anyone before. I’ve been wanting to see if it worked, but the right person hadn’t come along…until now.”

As he began massaging up her ankle to her calf, Lou thought it prudent to say, “Um, Cody.”

“Yeah, Lou?” He asked with hooded eyes.

“Um, I thought you wanted to, um, wait until we were married to, uh, you know.”

“There are other things we can do. If you want.”

Even more heat pooled between her legs at the mention of ‘other things’. She nodded to him.

He rose from where he was sitting to the head of the bed where she was and he gently sat down. Caressing her cheek, he told her, “We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, Lou. You know that don’t you?” She nodded again.

He lowered his head to capture her lips in a brazen kiss and he began pulling the pins from her hair. As pin after pin dropped to the floor, their inhibitions began to melt away. He kissed his way down her neck and began working at the fastenings on the back of her dress.

Just as he released the third hook a knock sounded at the door. Groaning as if in pain, he drew back.

“Don’t answer it.” Lou whispered. “Maybe they’ll go away.” Another knock, more insistent this time.

“I can’t do this knowin’ there’s someone on the other side of the door.”

She kissed him quickly and let him go. She hastily ran her fingers through her hair in an attempt to tame it, giving it some kind of order so it wouldn’t look like they were doing what they were about to do. She rose from the bed and Cody answered the door.

A boy wavered there on unsteady feet, battered and bruised. He collapsed into Cody’s arms.

Cody brought him over to the bed and laid him down upon it. Lou began pouring water into a bowl and brought it and a cloth to the bedside table. As she washed the boy’s injuries and the grime off his face she realized who this probably was.

“Cody, I think this is Glennis, the sheriff’s daughter. Look. These features are too feminine to be a boy.”

As Lou continued her ministrations, the girl moaned and began to awake. “Water?” Was all she said.

Cody poured a glass of water and brought it over to her. She unsteadily raised her head and drank from the glass and then slowly lowered herself back down.

“I’m Glennis Jackson, the sheriff’s daughter.” She croaked out. “I’m here to tell you my step-mother murdered my father.” And with that, she passed out cold.

Chapter Five

After several hours passed by and Glennis still didn’t awake, Lou realized she must have fallen into a deep sleep. Her breathing was easy and calm, so they weren’t too worried about her. They thought of going for the doctor, but since they didn’t completely trust him they were afraid of bringing him into the situation. As long as Glennis seemed to be doing alright, they both agreed to leave the doctor out of it.

As the night stretched out, Cody and Lou decided to lay out their bedrolls on the floor. They could have gone to the jailhouse and sleep, but with Edna Jackson on the loose, neither thought that was a very good option. Besides, one of them would have had to stay behind to stay with Glennis just in case she woke up or became worse. Splitting up at this point was too dangerous, especially for Lou.

So they lay down on the floor, side-by-side, and fell asleep holding hands.

*~*~*

When morning came, they lay entwined. Somewhere in the night they had gravitated toward one another. Cody was the first to awake and when he realized the situation they were in he grinned. He could definitely get used to waking up this way. Yes, sirree.

Lou slowly awoke to find Cody watching her. She reveled in the feel of his leg covering her upper thigh…her bare upper thigh. She quickly rolled away and pulled down her dress.

Clearly embarrassed at her disheveled state, she attempted to apologize to Cody.

“Lou, there’s nothing to apologize for. Besides nothing happened. Your dress musta just moved up in your sleep. It’s alright.”

“I never should have slept in my dress. Now look at all the wrinkles in it.” She fretted aloud.

“Lou, come here. Listen, you look beautiful and never more than right now. Ya’ know I never liked waking up early before, but you sure are an incentive to do just that.” He confessed. He leaned over to kiss her on the nose, but she moved her head at the last moment and caught his lips with hers for a ‘good morning’ kiss.

“There, that’s better.” She sighed and rolled over on top of him. Resting her elbows on either side of him, she leaned down for another kiss. “Mmm, this is a perfect way to start the day. Even better than yesterday.”

“If that’s the case, then I can’t wait ‘til tomorrow mornin’.” Cody quipped.

“Just you wait Mr. Cody. Just you wait.” She said as she rolled off of him and rose to check on Glennis.

Glennis was still sleeping soundly, so they decided to go downstairs to get a bite to eat. But before they left Lou insisted on changing out of her wrinkled dress and into one of the others she had bought the day before.

“Now turn your back Cody or you’ll never get any breakfast in you.” She told him.

“Aw, Lou, why did you pick now to be so mean?” He mockingly complained as he turned his back. The urge to turn around was great, but Cody tamped it down, knowing her trust in him was too great to risk ruining it.

As Lou changed into her new outfit, she was wondering if Cody was peeking, but every time she looked his way he had his back turned. Trust Cody to do exactly what he promised to do. Not sure why she was feeling disappointment at not catching Cody watching her, she finished dressing. But she purposely left the top two hooks on the back of her dress undone.

“Cody, you can turn around now.”

She heard his breath let out in a rush and she smiled to herself. She was obviously having quite an affect on him.

When he turned around, she turned her back to him and asked him to fasten the remaining hooks for her. With shaky hands he tried to work the hooks, but they just wouldn’t connect. “Why was it so much easier last night to unhook these and today I’m all thumbs and nervous?”

“I don’t know.”

“Oh, geez, I didn’t realize I said that out loud. Sorry, Lou.”

“It’s alright.”

Just as she was about to fasten the hooks herself she heard Cody say, “Hey, I’ve got an idea. Turn around.”

After she turned to face him, he put his arms around her and reached for the hooks. In no time flat he had them fastened for her.

When she looked up at him in astonishment at the speed in which he worked, he shrugged and said, “It only makes sense to do it this way. After all this is how I unhooked them last night.” And he grinned from ear to ear, clearly proud of his accomplishment.

She gave him a kiss on his cheek and scooted out from underneath his grasp, heading for the door. She opened it and bowed low, “Breakfast awaits you, sir.”

“Why thank you, milady. But I have all I need right here with you.”

Just then his stomach grumbled. She laughed. “I think your stomach has other ideas, Cody.”

“Alright. I guess you’re right. But we’re not finished here, Miss McCloud.”

*~*~*

They took their seats in the dining room under the censure of hotel’s clerk.

“From the look of the clerk, I’d say he’s not very happy with our sleeping arrangements now that he’s found out I’m a girl.”

“Oh, don’t mind him, Lou.” Then Cody got really bold and added, “’Sides, if you’d let me, I’d be more than happy to make an honest woman out of ya’.”

Lou smiled for a moment and then her face fell. Fearing he pushed her too far too fast, he began to apologize, but she cut him off.

“It’s alright, Cody. It’s just me. I guess all the problems we’re encountering are taking their toll on me.” She said lamely.

“Lou, I know that’s not it.” He said getting angry. “And sooner or later you’re gonna have to talk about it, but I’m not gonna push you. When the time is right I hope you can trust me enough to tell me. Now are you ready to order breakfast?”

Knowing she hurt him, but also knowing now wasn’t the time to tell him about Wicks, she hung her head and just nodded that she was ready to order.

They placed their order and sat in silence until it arrived. Then they ate in silence.

Not knowing what to say to Cody, Lou kept her own company.

Cody was more than a little miffed that Lou couldn’t or wouldn’t trust him enough to confide in him about what was bothering her. In fact, now that he really thought about it, twice when the subject of marriage was brought up she clammed up and made some excuse. Maybe she didn’t want to get married. Or maybe it was him she didn’t want to marry. His heart sank. He’d moved too fast. He knew he’d mess it up. He always messed up the important things in his life. And here he was screwing something up again. Only this time it wasn’t just ‘something’, it was the most important person in his life.

He knew things had been moving fast between them, but there hadn’t exactly been a way to slow it down either. He just let things flow naturally between them and went where it took them. So why was she so skittish about the subject of marriage when her actions clearly told him otherwise? It just didn’t make sense.

Looking over at her toying with her napkin, she looked miserable. In fact she looked on the verge of tears.

That was another thing, her crying. He’d never known her to cry before now. She’d always been so stoic, keeping her real emotions hidden as much as possible. That much he knew for sure. But now, since they’d been alone together he’d seen her playful, passionate, sad and miserable. Her emotions were showing and they were all over the map.

“Lou, I’m really sorry if I’ve done something to hurt you. I never meant to. I wanted to make this work between us, but if it’s the wrong thing for you I’ll leave you be. In fact, I’ll transfer to another station and you’ll never have to see me again. It’s your choice and entirely up to you. But right now we’ve got to find Edna Jackson and arrest her. If you’re finished eating we can go up and check on Glennis before heading out to find the widow.” Cody knew the tone of his voice may have been a little harsh, but he was trying his damnedest to keep his emotions in check in front of Lou. He wasn’t going to give her a chance to hurt him anymore, but at the same time he didn’t want to hurt Lou anymore than he already had.

He rose from the table and headed toward the stairs to their room, Lou glumly followed him and trudged up the stairs. She was completely miserable and silently damning Simon Wicks for still ruining her life, even after all this time.

Her misery was interrupted by gunshot coming from their room. She hurried up the rest of the stairs, frightened that something had happened to Cody. Lou was in a panic when she finally reached the room, but she let out a silent sigh of relief at the sight before her.

Cody stood with his gun in hand and Edna Jackson lay slumped over her step-daughter on the bed.

“She killed her, Lou. I saw her do it, but I couldn’t stop her fast enough. I shot her, but it was too late. She used the carving knife again, only this time she stabbed her in the chest. How could she do something like that and why couldn’t I stop her in time?” He began to cry, but he abruptly swiped at his tears and in their place was a hardened feature. A look that was better suited to Jimmy, than Cody. Maybe he’d been taking lessons from him, Lou thought harshly to herself.

She walked over to each woman and checked for a pulse. When she found none, she slowly shook her head and announced, “I’ll go try and find the undertaker. I’m sure he’ll show up once he finds he has business to tend to.” And with that she left the room.

Cody left the room as well, after he was certain Lou was gone from the hotel. He walked out into the street and headed over to the sheriff’s office. He was still there well after dark, wondering how their relationship had gone sour so quickly. He wasn’t overly worried about Lou because he knew she could take care of herself. Besides she was the last person he really wanted to see right now.

But as luck would have it, she walked right in through the door. Dressed again in her boy’s clothing she plopped their gear onto the floor. When he looked at her questioningly, she said, “I checked us out of the hotel. I’m not staying there anymore, not when two dead bodies have been in that bed. Which one do you want?” She asked, indicating the cots in the cells.

“Don’t care.” He plainly said.

She shrugged and said, “Suit yourself.” She took the first cell and laid her bedroll out on the cot.

Cody rose from the chair, picking up his own bedroll and took the cot in the second cell. He laid down on it and sighed.

“Aren’t you hungry?” She asked him.

He shook his head. He didn’t know if she saw him or not, but it really didn’t matter. Nothing mattered to him anymore. He laid there staring at the ceiling for what seemed like hours when he finally said, “Lou?”

“Go to sleep, Cody.” And she rolled over on her side, aching inside for hurting Cody, but knowing it was the only way to get him to leave her alone. She silently cried herself to sleep.

Lou wasn’t as quiet about crying as she thought and Cody heard ever sob that left her body. He died a little bit more inside everytime he heard her cry, but he didn’t know what else to do. She wouldn’t talk to him and he didn’t know what to say. So he kept silent and eventually fell asleep.

Chapter Six

Cody and Lou awoke to a bright new day with heavy hearts. They both knew that Teaspoon or someone from the station would arrive some time today and they still had the unresolved feelings between them.

Maybe it was for the best, Lou thought to herself. She was so terrified of how Cody would react when she told him about Wicks. Terrified that he’d turn away from her or worse yet, blame her for what happened to her. She’d learned from Charlotte that the man blamed the woman for whatever happened to her, figured she was asking for it or somehow encouraged it. As a woman Charlotte knew that wasn’t true, especially in Lou’s case. She’d been victimized by a monster that liked to prey on innocents. But would Cody see it that way? Better to just keep her secret and not take that chance. If he’d blame her, the other boys would surely find out and if that happened she’d be forced to move on. She couldn’t live with them knowing they blamed her for something so vile that wasn’t her fault.

She looked over at Cody’s cot, but he wasn’t there. Must have been awfully hungry this morning after not eating the night before. She laughed harshly at the thought. That man and his stomach.

Her own stomach began to growl and she headed over to the restaurant, hoping that Cody was eating over at the hotel.

The moment she walked in, she was again greeted by Mr. Abernathy and his smile.

“Welcome back, Miss McCloud. I wasn’t sure I’d see you again when you didn’t come in with Mr. Cody earlier.”

“Oh, um, I had some things to take care of so I told him to go on ahead of me. Is he still here?”

He sadly shook his head no. “You just missed him actually. He said he was headed over to talk to the doctor about something.”

“Oh.” Was her only reply.

“Well, let’s get you some breakfast. Take a seat anywhere you like. Bacon, eggs, biscuits and gravy sound good to you?”

“Sounds lovely.” She took a seat at her and Cody’s table. Not only was it out of the way, but it reminded her of him and the good time they had that night. The night he gave her the ring.

The ring. She still wore it. Looking down at it, she wondered what she should do with it. She twirled it around her finger, dreaming about how different her life would have been if Simon Wicks had never found her. She would be free to marry Cody and when they made love he would be her first.

She mentally shook herself, telling herself, ‘You can’t change the past, Louise. You’re stuck with the cards life’s dealt you. It’s up to you to make the best of it.’

Her food arrived in short order and she dug in, hungrier than she thought. Once again when she tried to pay the bill, Mr. Abernathy refused and she thanked him for his generosity. Before she left, he told her he had offered Cody a job as the new sheriff but that he had refused. He wondered if she could talk him into it. She said she would try and headed back to the sheriff’s office.

When she arrived back, Cody had the doctor locked up in her cell. “Cody, what’s going on?”

“You were right not to trust him, Lou. He’s Edna’s brother and he killed Sheriff Jackson.”

“What?”

“It’s the truth.” The doctor told her. “He deserved to die, forcing my sister to care for his ill-bred daughter. She refused to wear dresses! It was a sin the way she dressed and it’s a sin the way you dress, little missy. God will get you for your bad ways. You’ll see, come Judgment Day you’ll be cast out, sent to Hell.”

When Cody would have come to her defense, Lou marched over to the cell madder than a hornet. “Let me tell you something, doc! There’s nothing wrong with the way I dress and there was nothing wrong with Glennis. You’re as crazy as your sister was!” But when she turned away from him and started to walk away, he reached through the cell bars and snagged her gun from its holster.

Furious at being taken off guard and fearing she had played right into the doctor’s hands, Lou berated herself six ways to Sunday. But instead of aiming the gun at either one of them and demanding to be released, the doctor held the gun to his head and pulled the trigger.

Stunned by the turn of events, Lou sank down onto the desk. Cody put a comforting arm on her shoulder and she let him do it. Taking what little comfort she could from him. After a few moments she announced, “Guess I better go get the undertaker. He’s been hiding out in the saloon again, drinking himself into oblivion. Now I think I know why.” And she left.

*~*~*

On her way back from the saloon, she briefly wished she could just drink herself away. But she’d seen too much of that in the brothel with the working girls. They drank until there was nothing left of themselves. Just a shell of a person to be used and then discarded. She’d made a vow to herself all those years ago that no matter how bad her life got she would refuse to turn to the drink. And so far she’d kept to that promise. She wasn’t about to give in and break it now.

Instead she decided to stop in the mercantile and say good-bye to Mildred.

Mildred could clearly see something was wrong with the young woman, but once she heard the story of what had transpired with the doctor she mistakenly took that to be the source of her distress. Lou said nothing to dissuade her of the thought. She hated lying to the woman, but she most certainly didn’t want to explain her problems with Cody.

When she was about to leave, Lou noticed a new dime novel on the counter and bought it for Cody. It could be sort of a peace offering between the two of them. A silent acknowledgement that they could return to being ‘just friends’ when they got home.

Lou wearily walked through the sheriff’s door and began helping Cody to clean up the mess the doctor had left. The undertaker had already been there and removed the body.

As they worked, Lou said, “I got you something Cody. I left it on the desk. It’s the latest dime novel from D. W. Williams. Thought you might like it.”

When he thanked her, she just shrugged. “Wasn’t nothing.”

“Lou.”

“Cody”

They said at the same time.

“You go first.” He told her.

“What I wanted to say is I think we ought to go back to the way we were before we came here. That is…I mean…oh, hell, this isn’t coming out right. It’d be best if we were just friends again, Cody. I’m sorry if I led you on, it’s just…”

“You didn’t lead me on, Lou. I thought what we were feeling was mutual, but I guess I was wrong. Don’t worry, I won’t make the same mistake twice.” His expression hardening against her.

After some minutes had passed, she quietly told him, “I don’t want you to leave the station, Cody. If anyone leaves it should be me, not you.”

“I don’t want you to leave either, Lou.” He choked back a sob, but held himself in check.

“Alright, then I won’t. But the moment it gets too hard on you, tell me and I’ll leave. I don’t want to hurt you anymore than I already have.”

“I told you I don’t want you to leave. You have just as much a right to stay as I do. We’ll just go back to being friends. Alright?”

“Alright.” She softly replied. She didn’t think her heart could break anymore, but with his simple acknowledgement that the romantic side of their relationship was over, her heart felt as if it had shattered into tiny pieces.

She began to frantically scrub at the floor, trying to scrub away her hurt more than anything.

After a few minutes, she felt someone shaking her shoulder.

“Lou. Lou.”

When she finally looked up, she saw Cody looking at her with concern.

“Lou, we’re done. It’s clean.”

She looked down at where she had been scrubbing and it almost sparkled.

Confusion marred her face. She must have completely lost track of time and what she was doing.

She let Cody help her up and for a brief moment their eyes met. She saw the anguish in his eyes but he quickly replaced it with a stony appearance. ‘The Jimmy look’, she was beginning to think of it as in her mind.

He had seen the pain in her eyes, but he quickly steeled himself against it. Knowing that where they went from here all depended upon her. But she had made it clear she wanted to go back to being just friends. So he had to let her go. She had given him no other choice.

They packed up their gear and went to the livery to get their horses. They headed out of town toward Sweetwater a few minutes later.

Chapter Seven

After traveling on the trail for about three hours, they met up with Teaspoon and Buck heading in the direction of Lone Tree.

“Headed back already?” Teaspoon asked.

Cody nodded and so did Lou, not saying a word.

Teaspoon instantly noticed the rigid set of Cody’s jaw and knew something more had happened in Lone Tree than just the sheriff’s murder. And it hadn’t been good.

When the pair of weary riders rode right on past them, Teaspoon and Buck turned their horses around to catch up.

“Wanna talk about it, son?” Teaspoon asked Cody. Cody just shook his head. Steadfast in his expression, Cody did go on to explain the events that unfolded in their investigation of the sheriff’s murder. Teaspoon and Buck listened attentively.

When the tale was finished, Buck commented, “Sounds like our Lou has turned into a real detective, Teaspoon.”

She smiled weakly at him and turned to stare straight ahead.

As Cody and Lou plodded ahead, Buck and Teaspoon dropped back to have a conversation of their own.

“What happened to those two?” Buck asked, but not really expecting an answer.

“I suppose we’ll find out in due time.”

“She’s wearing a ring, Teaspoon.”

“Noticed that did ya’? And yet they’re not talking to each other. Curious.”

*~*~*

The four of them made camp just before sundown. Teaspoon and Buck pulled out some biscuits from their packs and shared them with Lou and Cody.

“Rachel made these this morning just before we left. Mmm, still melt in your mouth. Don’t they, Cody?”

“Yeah.” Was all he said.

Knowing Cody’s penchant for food and hearing his one word remark about the biscuits concerned Teaspoon even more. But not wanting to press the boy, he let the matter drop. Besides, when they all got back to Sweetwater there’d be time enough to weasel the information out of him, even if he had to take him for a trip to the sweatlodge to do it.

When it came time to turn in for the night, Lou made her bed as far away from the others and still be safe. After she dozed off to sleep, Buck moved his bedroll closer to hers to keep an eye on her, but still afforded her the privacy she was seeking.

*~*~*

Just before dawn, Lou rose and started the coffee to brew. She wasn’t much of a cook, but coffee she could make.

The smell of coffee brought the others awake and they dined on day-old biscuits and jerky.

They broke camp soon after and headed towards home. The silence stretched out before them making Buck silently wishing for one of Cody’s off-key songs he was usually so ready to sing on a long ride. But there was no singing. Just silence and Cody’s stony face. If he wasn’t mistaken Cody looked even more serious than Jimmy did at times like this. He didn’t think it was possible with Cody, who was always quick to crack a joke to try and lighten the mood. But in his place was a Cody who looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders and a don’t-talk-to-me-attitude. This was even worse than Jimmy. At least when Jimmy was brooding about something you could still get him to make small talk with you. But with Cody there was nothing.

And Lou, she was just as bad as Cody, if not worse.

*~*~*

They arrived back home a little past noon. Rachel greeted them on the porch of the bunkhouse. “Supper’s still warm. I’m sure ya’ll are hungry.”

“No, nothing for me, Rachel. Thanks anyway.” Cody told her.

Rachel’s jaw all but dropped to the floor. “Cody, you feelin’ alright?”

“Yeah, fine.” But his expression said otherwise. “Where is everybody?”

“Well Jimmy and Kid are out on a run. It’s just Noah and Ike here, but I made plenty for everyone. You’re sure you’re not hungry?” She asked, concerned.

“No, really, I’m fine.” After he placed his things on his bunk, he said, “Well guess there’s chores to be done. I’ll be out in the barn mucking out the stalls if anyone needs me.”

Rachel was really concerned now. Cody not hungry and wanting to do chores? Something was definitely wrong.

She still hadn’t seen Lou, but if her guess was right she was going to be in a mood similar to Cody’s.

Rachel looked towards the barn and saw Cody walking in. A few moments later Lou walked out headed straight for the bunkhouse.

Lou washed up before she went inside to eat. She wasn’t really hungry, but she hadn’t a real meal since yesterday morning at the restaurant in Lone Tree. It seemed to her that a million years had passed since then and now. She had no idea how she was going to keep working side-by-side Cody without her heart breaking every time she saw him. Maybe she should leave. It’d be easier on both of them.

Her thoughts were interrupted when Rachel asked her, “So Lou, what happened between you and Cody? You both look miserable.” And then she noticed something shiny. “Oh, Lou, what a pretty ring. Did Cody give it to you?”

Lou just nodded, not wanting to say anything because she was on the verge of tears again. Since when did she turn into a spring? Was crying going to be a daily occurrence for her now? She sure hoped not.

“Oh, sweetie, that’s wonderful.” When no answer was immediately forthcoming, Rachel added, “Isn’t it?”

Lou shook her head. Rachel sat down next to her and put a sisterly arm around her. “Lou, I can tell you’re hurting. Why don’t you come over to the house and have a nice warm bath? That always helps me when life gets me down. Then maybe we could sit in the kitchen and have a little talk if you want.”

Unable to look her in the eye, Lou nodded. She followed Rachel into the house after gathering some clean clothes to change into. She sighed, maybe a bath would help her think more clearly.

*~*~*

So far the bath hadn’t helped one darned bit. She spent the entire time sitting there crying into the bath water. Miserable over the way she had treated Cody.

She still felt the only way to resolve the situation was for her to leave. She could start over somewhere, begin a new life…and let Cody get on with his. It wouldn’t be easy at first, but she knew it would be for the best – for both of them.

She’d still disguise herself as a boy, but this time she wouldn’t so careless as to let anyone find out different.

Working for the Express at some other station was out. It would remind her too much of Cody and of the family she would be leaving behind. Maybe she could get a job as a ranch hand up North at one of the ever-growing ranches up there. At least the chances of getting shot again and ‘discovered’ would be less if she were working on a ranch.

Having worked out a plan in her head made her feel better. Whether it would really work remained to be seen, but at least she had an idea and a plan.

She ducked her head under the water and sat back up, vigorously soaping her hair, trying to desperately wash away her past. She ducked under again to rinse the soap out. She emerged from the water feeling renewed. As the water dropped from her body, she imagined each droplet as a part of her past falling away.

Feeling renewed, she dressed and left the room.

See met Rachel in the kitchen and asked her for some string. When Rachel went to retrieve it, Lou looked down at her ring and smiled. This was one part of her past she would keep as a remembrance of what her and Cody almost had. It would sustain her on those long lonely nights that were sure to come. It would be a part of her forever and something she’d never forget as long as she lived, but it would also serve to remind her of what she couldn’t have.

Rachel returned with the twine and handed it to her. Lou cut off the length she needed and carefully slipped the ring off her finger and threaded it onto the string, tying it off behind her neck.

“Honey, why’d you take off your ring?” Rachel asked, still concerned for Lou.

“Oh, it’s what Cody and I agreed to. When we got back to the station I was gonna wear it ‘round my neck. It wouldn’t do for an Express rider to be seen wearing a dainty ring like this on ‘his’ finger. This way I’ll always have it, but I can keep it hidden away from the rest of the world.

Seeing the logic in what she was saying, Rachel said no more about the ring. She noticed the change in Lou’s mood and attributed it to her bath.

“So you want to sit down for awhile and talk? It seems there’s a lot to catch up on since you and Cody left for Lone Tree.”

“Oh, Rachel, could we do it some other time? I’ve got chores to do and I don’t want the others to think I’m slacking off just because I’m a girl.”

“Alright, Lou. But remember I’m here if you need to talk.”

“I will. And don’t worry, I feel much better after my bath.” She reached over and gave her friend a quick hug, knowing it would probably be the last. “Thank you, Rachel, for everything.”

Before Rachel could say anything, Lou left the room and walked out the front door.

*~*~*

It wasn’t too much later that Teaspoon came knocking on Rachel’s door.

“Did you get anything out of her about what happened?” He asked her.

Rachel shook her head no, but then added, “But she’s in a much better mood now. Have you been able to get anything out of Cody?”

It was Teaspoon’s turn to shake his head. “That boy’s workin’ harder than I’ve ever seen him work. He’s trying to work out his demons, seen it too many times with the other boys. ‘Sides, I find myself doing it from time to time. I’ll let him go a couple days and if there’s no change in him I’ll take him for a visit to the sweatlodge.”

Rachel wrinkled up her nose at that thought, thankful that all it took for a woman to feel better was a nice long bath.

Chapter Eight

A dance. ‘Great!’ Cody thought to himself. All he needed now was to stand around all night long with the towns girls wanting to dance with him when there was only one woman he wanted to dance with and she wanted nothing to do with him. He decided he wasn’t going to go. Let the others go and have their fun, but he was going to sit this one out. Maybe all the other ones, too, if things didn’t get back on track with Lou. How could he ever be happy again without her?

Jimmy and Kid arrived back in time for the dance. They had already been filled in by Buck that something was up between Cody and Lou and it wasn’t good. So they both knew to stay out of their way.

Lou sat on her bunk writing in her journal and no one knew where Cody had gotten off to. Lou was under the impression he had already left for the dance, eager to get away from her and off to some other girl…maybe Abigail Abernathy? They’d only been back half a day and it hadn’t taken him long to go back to his old ways. At least that’s what she thought.

In reality, Cody was hiding up in the loft of the barn, sulking. He still didn’t understand where he had gone wrong with Lou. He knew sooner or later he’d have to talk to her, but he was opting for the later than sooner. Maybe she just needed some time to work things out in her head. Maybe he had moved too fast for her, but at the time she seemed to be moving just as fast as he had.

The more he dwelt on it, the more it didn’t make any sense. He thought of talking to Teaspoon about it, but the threat of the sweatlodge loomed before him and he quickly changed his mind. Besides what happened between him and Lou was private, if not confusing, and the less people that knew about it the better. It was something for the two of them to work out together. He was just puzzled as to how to go about talking to her.

After the others had all left for the dance, Lou tore out the paper she’d been writing on in her journal, neatly folded it and placed it on Cody’s pillow. It wasn’t much in the way of an explanation of what had happened, but it would leave him with no doubt that she wanted him to get on with his life and not to try and find her.

She gathered her meager belongings, what little cash she had stashed away and packed them into her bags. She straightened her bunk and quickly wrote another note that she left for the others on the table. Taking one last look around the bunkhouse to commit it to memory, she opened the door and stepped outside into the crisp night air.

There was a full moon so she’d be able to travel tonight quite a ways before anyone noticed her gone. She knew Buck would be able to track her, but she hoped he wouldn’t. She’d only leave again when she got the opportunity.

Lou walked into the barn to saddle up Lightning, crooning softly to him. “It’s alright, boy, we’re just going for a little ride.” She tied her bags and bedroll to the horse’s saddle and quietly began leading him from the barn.

Cody, sensing that something was amiss below him, could just barely make out the figure of someone stealing a horse from the barn. Seeing his chance, he leaped from the loft down onto the thief. As he wrestled with the intruder on the ground, it wasn’t long before he realized who he was wrestling with.

“Lou, what are you doing? I thought you were at the dance.”

“And do what, chase off all the girls? Please. What about you? I pictured you in the arms of Abigail Abernathy right about now, waltzing her across the dance floor.”

He helped her to her feet and they stood toe to toe with each other. “I don’t want Abigail.”

“Oh, then some other girl perhaps?” She knew she was intentionally being cruel to him, but she had to get away from him, she had to leave.

“I don’t want anyone else. There’s only one woman for me and she’s standing right here.”

“Cody, don’t.”

“Why, Lou? Why not? Tell me.”

When she tried to turn away from him, he grabbed her, turning her around and kissed her, hard. Branding her with his kiss.

When she moaned low and began to respond to his kiss, he pulled away from her. “I knew you still wanted me.” He accused her.

“Of course I do. But…”

“But what, Lou? What else is there? I love you and I know you have feelings for me. So tell me, Lou, what’s keeping us apart?” He demanded.

“I’m used goods, Cody!” She screamed at him.

“What are you talking about? Lou, you’re not making any sense.”

Trying to recover from her outburst she calmly said, “It doesn’t matter, Cody. It won’t work between us. Just leave it be.”

“No, Lou, you can’t kiss me like that and then just say it won’t work. And what do you mean you’re used goods?”

“Never mind. Just forget I said it.” If she didn’t get away from him she was going to start crying.

“No, I won’t. You said it, now explain it.” He wasn’t backing down, not now when he felt he was getting so close to what was going on with her.

Seeing the tears rolling down her face in the moonlight, he gently caressed her cheek, wiping the tears away. “Tell me, Lou. Please? Can’t you trust me enough to tell me?”

Feeling trapped, she didn’t know what to do. Trust. It was such a simple word, and yet held such an enormous responsibility behind it. She knew she could trust Cody, but could she hurt him any more than she already had?

“Cody, I can’t. I’m leaving. You can get on with your life and forget all about me. Maybe settle down with Abigail Abernathy and become sheriff of Lone Tree.”

“So you’ve got my life all planned out for me, is that it? What if I don’t want Abigail? I already told you, you’re the one I want in my life, not some bit of fluff like Abigail.”

“That bit of fluff as you call her would be far better for you than someone like me, Cody. I’m no good for you.”

“How can you say that? You’re the best thing that’s happened to me, ever.”

“You just don’t understand.” She protested weakly.

“Then help me understand. If you still want to leave after that I won’t try to stop you.”

Feeling her resolve melt away and seeing no way out of the situation, she sat down on a bale of hay in the corner and Cody sat across from her.

Reaching out, he took her hand in his and patiently waited for her to begin.

Taking a deep breath, she began. “When I was 13, after I had left the orphanage, I went to work as a wash girl. I was too naïve to know at the time exactly where I was working. All I knew is I had a paying job, a roof over my head and food in my belly so it didn’t much matter. But it didn’t take long for me to figure out I was working at one of the most popular brothels in town.”

She looked up at Cody, expecting to see condemnation staring back at her, instead she saw him nod, encouraging her to continue.

“For the first few months everyone left me alone. I did my job and tried to stay out of everyone’s way, especially out of the way of Simon Wicks. He was my employer and a nasty drunk. But one night he came into my room, he demanded it was time I started earning my keep. I already did the laundry and mending for everyone so I didn’t understand what he was talking about. But it wasn’t long before he showed me exactly what he meant.”

Her grip on Cody’s hand tightened as she tried to gather the courage to continue. He squeezed her hand back and in that moment she knew had to go on.

“He raped me, Cody. Just as if he had every right to do so. He beat me around some and raped me again. Before he left me he said to borrow a dress from one of the other girls because the next night I was gonna really start working for him.” She took a deep breath and continued on. “Not long after Wicks left me, another girl, Charlotte came in to see me. She had heard through the walls what had happened. She was spitting mad when she saw what he had done to me. She gathered me up, gave me what little money she had and some boys clothes to change into and she spirited me away from there to catch the stagecoach early the next morning. Before I left she cut my hair and gave me the spectacles to wear to help hide my features. She created ‘Lou’ and Louise quietly disappeared. I’ve been Lou ever since.”

She looked at Cody and saw the tears shining in his eyes. She hated hurting him like this, but the story had been told. She only feared now what he was going to say or do now that he knew. She waited for him to start blaming her, but it never happened. Instead he hugged her.

As he held her, she could feel the wetness of his tears on her neck. After some time went by he pulled back and said, “You were just a little girl. How could somebody do something like that to you?”

“Cody, it’s over. Now you know why I can’t marry you.”

“No, it’s not over. It’s still eating away at you. What did Rachel say when you told her?”

“I haven’t.”

“Emma?”

She shook her head no.

“You mean you haven’t talked about this with anyone since it happened?”

“Not even Charlotte. There wasn’t any time.”

“Lou, no wonder you’ve been hurting so much. Why didn’t you tell me in Lone Tree? I knew there was something wrong, but I had no idea it was this bad.”

“I was afraid, Cody.”

“Afraid? Of me?”

She nodded.

“But why?”

“I was afraid you’d blame me for what happened.”

“Blame you? My God, Lou, why would I blame you?”

“Charlotte said all men blame the woman when something like this happens. They all think she did something to encourage it.”

“Honey, as much as I appreciate what Charlotte did for you that night, she was wrong. No woman ever deserves to be raped and it certainly wasn’t your fault.”

“But Cody…”

“No, listen to me, Lou. You did nothing wrong. You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. You were a trusting young girl and that creep took advantage of that. I’d kill that bastard with my bare hands if I ever caught sight of him.” He said with conviction in his voice.

Taken back that Cody was actually placing the blame where it belonged, on Wicks, she began sobbing with relief.

Cody gathered her in his arms and let her cry it all out. When the sobs subsided, he asked the one question that was nagging at him.

“Lou, why’d you think you couldn’t marry me? Because of this?”

“I’m not pure for you, Cody. You deserve somebody that’s been untouched. You don’t deserve somebody’s used leftovers.” She admitted miserably.

“Don’t you ever think that way of yourself. Do you hear me? You were attacked, against your will. It wasn’t your fault. And you definitely aren’t someone’s leftovers. Lou, as far as I’m concerned you’re just as pure and innocent as the day you were born. I love you. Just the way you are. It doesn’t matter to me what happened before, what matters is what we do from here on. If you’re not ready to get married, I’ll wait. But get married we will. I’m sure of it. You and I are connected, in here.” And he placed his hand over her heart.

She smiled at him and thanked her lucky stars she was blessed with such a man in her life.

Chapter Nine

Three weeks later, Teaspoon married Cody and Lou in a small ceremony in Rachel’s parlor.

True to his word, Cody had gotten them a room at the Sweetwater Hotel for their wedding night and had an extra mattress brought into the room to make it extra soft.

The moment Lou noticed the bed, she giggled.

“I believe I promised you the biggest, softest featherbed mattress, Mrs. Cody.”

“That you did, Mr. Cody. Now just what on earth are were going to do with such an inviting bed?” She asked innocently.

“Oh, I believe we’ll think of something.” He said as he advanced toward her.

He grinned broadly at his wife. His wife. He still couldn’t believe they were actually married. He had been so afraid they would never make it this far. He had been so close to losing her the night she had told him about her attack all those years ago. If he hadn’t leaped down upon her that night thinking she was a horse thief, she would have disappeared from his life forever and taking his heart with her.

Luckily for the both of them fate had intervened. And now here they were, man and wife, about to embark upon the rest of their lives together.

He took her in his arms and kissed her with all the passion he felt for her and she felt it all the way to her toes.

“I love kissing you.” She confessed to him.

“Is kissing all you love about me?”

“Oh, I can think of one or two more things.”

“Just one or two?”

“Well, if we make use of that big, soft bed over there, I might be able to come up with a few more things.” She said as seductively as she could.

“I’ll have to see what I can do then.” He swept her up into his arms and carried her to their bed, tenderly laying her upon the featherbed. He lowered his lips to hers and seared her all the way to her soul.

Lou grabbed him around the neck and pulled him closer to her, never wanting to let go. As he lowered himself to the bed, she began working at the buttons of his shirt. Cody gently pulled her up into a sitting position, kissing her all the while. He starting working at the tiny buttons on the back of her gown. Lou smiled inside, knowing this was the only way he could undo the buttons with her facing him.

Her thoughts soon fled as other sensations began taking over her body. She shed herself of her gown and was touched by the enchanted expression she saw on her husband’s face.

As the night progressed, they sanctified their love for one another, each reveling in the sensations they created.

After extensive ‘dancing’, they fell into an exhausted sleep, holding one another close.

During the night, Lou had dreams of blue-eyed, curly, blonde-headed children, their features a combination of her and Cody’s. They were precocious, jovial youngsters always getting into mischief. The apple of their father’s eye, they got away with much.

The children filled their parents heart with joy, solidifying their love for one another in a way they never thought possible.

When dawn broke, Cody and Lou snuggled in closer, taking pleasure knowing that they would always be together…forever.

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