I've been trav'lin' this road for miles
Tryin' to get to where you are
I know you're tellin' me the way to go
but I just can't hear you over my heart
Lou was riding hard, dust swirling up from beneath the horse’s hooves. The sky was so big and blue overhead that she pulled her hat low over her eyes to keep the sun out. The trees were turning gold, their leaves shaking in the wind. With Lightning beneath her, enjoying the spectacular view of nature, Lou felt all her doubts slip away.
She was headed west. All she knew about Jimmy’s death was what she had read in the newspaper. It had said that he had died in a gunfight in Laramie; nobody had been able to say what had happened afterwards. Lou thought it wasn’t too much, but it could be enough as a start. Besides, Rachel had told her Noah had started a small ranch nearby; maybe he would be able to tell her something more. They had not been in touch very much lately, but she felt happy to get the chance to see her old friend.
Coming closer to the Wyoming border, Lou slowed down. The weather was rapidly changing; the clear sky had been replaced by a bank of dark clouds as the wide prairie had been replaced by snow-covered peaks. She steered Lightning down towards a small river and stopped, letting the horse drink from it.
The Wind River mountains soared above the plains, majestic against the gray sky. Lou put her raincoat on; a soft rain had started to fall. She heard the thunder crack down in the distance and she spurred her black mare into a gallop again. She knew she was not so far from Noah’s ranch and she felt determined to get there before the storm began.
Noah watched dark clouds slide down from the north. The sky was blue overhead but he knew that the rain would come soon. The ranch needed it, and he hoped they’d get it; only not yet. Not before they had taken the cows back from the pasture. He sighed and mounted a big piebald horse.
“Rain’s coming,” he said to the freckled boy who was fixing the corral’s gate.
The boy raised his eyes to Noah, shading them against the sun. He was tall and thin, with big brown eyes and blond hair. He had came asking for a job about six months before and he had looked so ready and willing that Noah had hired him even before he could actually ask for it.
He climbed the fence and turned to watch the clouds and then back to Noah. “They seem to be pretty far from here.”
Noah smiled wisely.
Look those thunderheads over the valley,” he explained to the boy, pointing at them with his finger. “It means we’ll get rain today.”
The boy stared at the dark clouds, very impressed by Noah’s prediction.
“Matt,” Both turned to look at Jimmy who was leading Sundancer towards them. “If Noah is calling for rain you can be sure we’ll get it!” He pulled on the reins, stopping near the corral.
“Where’re you heading?” he asked Noah, dismounting from his horse.
“Down to the east pasture. I’ll check on the herd.” Noah narrowed his eyes and gazed at Jimmy.
Matthew jumped down. Although he liked to stay with Jimmy and Noah, he was smart enough to know when it was time for him to go back to his chores. If they were going to end up talking about that girl again he didn’t want to be on the line of fire.
“Where have you been? Rock Creek?” Noah asked, still looking intently at Jimmy.
He hesitated, not really wanting to talk about it, then just nodded.
“And…” Noah went on. He wasn’t going to give up on him.
“Nothing to say.” Jimmy replied after a long minute.
“Nothing to say.” Noah repeated, teasing. It was plain as day there was much more to say.
Jimmy scuffed his boot in the dust, staring the ground. “She’s fine and she’s happy. That’s all.”
“That’s all.” Noah repeated, the same provoking tone in his voice.
“Jesus Christ, Noah!” he burst out “Ok, you won! I saw Lou. She was with her future husband and she seemed happy. No reason to tell her that I’m still alive. My life is not something she needs to be part of.”
Noah’s horse shook his head whinnying eagerly, but he ignored him, adjusting his weight in the saddle.
“So, she didn’t see you,” Noah said after a while, still staring down at Jimmy.
“No…” he looked away “… no, she didn’t.”
Noah didn’t miss that little hesitation in his friend’s voice and grinned. “She’ll show up soon.”
“What are you talking about?”
Noah seemed to ignore that direct question. “She will, Jimmy.” He pulled the reins to turn his horse.
“I told you she didn’t see me.” Jimmy insisted.
“Whatever you say.” Noah seemed about to add something more, but then he kicked his horse and rode away. He felt like pulling his friend right out of his misery, but if Jimmy wanted to be a martyr, far be it from Noah try to stop him.
When Lou approached Noah’s ranch the rain was still falling, making her shiver in her raincoat. She felt exhausted and chilly as she rode towards the corral to leave her horse. Glancing around, she noticed that the place seemed deserted. Lou made for the house, still looking around, when a noise caught her attention.
“Noah,” she called loudly, walking towards the barn.
“Noah, it’s me, Lou. Are you in there?” she tried again.
The barn’s door was half-open and she slowly slipped inside.
“Noah,” she called once more, waiting for her eyes to get used to the darkness. The barn felt cold and as she watched her breath showed in the air. Finally used to dim light, Lou took a few steps forwards, peering into the dark side of the barn looking for Noah’s presence. She noticed a couple of empty stalls before to see a buckskin mare who’s staring at her, her ears pricked.
“Dusty,” she broke out, recognizing Noah’s horse.
The horse whinnied at her approach and tossed his head as she made her way down to him. Lou touched her head to his to say hello.
“Why aren’t you out with your cowboy?” she whispered to him, caressing his muzzle. Dusty backed off, shaking his head vigorously.
“Ok,” she joked, “that can be an answer!”
She spent a little more time with Dusty, patting his neck, then she turned to leave the barn. Lost in her thoughts, she didn’t notice the boy who was walking towards her. He must have not noticed her either because at the sight of Lou he jumped in surprise, dropping the bucket of water he was carrying.
“Who are you?” he asked, backing off.
Lou didn’t miss the fear in his voice and she raised both hands to show him she wasn’t holding any weapon. She thought he could be fifteen or sixteen at the oldest. The fright in his big brown eyes proved he wasn’t used to finding strangers in the barn.
“I’m a friend of Noah’s,” she said softly. “I was looking for him.”
The boy’s face got a little more relaxed but he kept staring at Lou suspiciously.
“Why are you looking for him in the barn?” he finally asked.
Good question, she thought. Lou wasn’t sure why, but she felt curiously uncomfortable. Ashamed, mainly. She put her hands down.
“When I got here I thought that no one was home, then I heard a noise came from here… so I thought…” she began to feel stupid. “... Look, I’m here only to see Noah. I’m sorry if I scared you, I didn’t mean to.”
He seemed to study her very carefully for a long moment and then a big smile appeared on his face.
“You must be Miss Louise.”
Lou opened her eyes wide and stared at him in utter confusion.
“Mister Noah told me that you’d come,” he added still smiling.
“He… he told you that I… I… “ she stammered, her mouth dry.
“Yes, he told me that you’d come to see Mister James.”
At his words Lou’s throat ached and she felt weak in her knees. A turmoil of thoughts came into her mind and she reached for one of the stalls’ door so as to not fall. She needed to go outside, she needed fresh air. Noticing her shocked face the boy came closer.
“Are you ok?” he asked, softly touching her arm. “You’re shivering. Let’s go inside, I’ll make you a cup of coffee.”
Wrapped in a blanket, sitting close to the fire, Lou felt immediately better.
“I’m Matthew, by the way,” the boy said giving her a cup of coffee.
“Thanks,” she said taking the cup from his hands “and I’m Louise, but you already know that.”
Matthew just smiled.
“I’m sorry…” Lou started “I’m just a bit confused. I haven’t seen them… him… in years and…” she struggled to control the trembling in her voice.
“I know,” he stopped her gently “and you believed he was dead.”
Lou quickly glanced down as she felt her eyes filling with tears. They both kept quiet for a moment then Matthew cleared his throat loudly, a little uncomfortable.
“So…” he began, putting his empty cup down on the table “... you were an Express rider.”
At his admiring tone Lou couldn’t help but smile. Matthew smiled back pleased to have stolen that quick smile from her lips. She had looked so frantic earlier in the barn.
“I’ve got work to finish out there” Matthew told her finally, taking his jacket from the hook behind the door. “Mister James will be here any minute.”
He opened the door but he didn’t move, kept staring at her tiny figure for a while. She still looked shocked, her face exhausted in the firelight. Matthew seemed to change his mind and moved few steps towards her.
“Are you sure you’ll be ok?” he asked kindly.
“No, but…” she answered honestly “... go, don’t worry. I’ll be fine.” Despite herself she smiled.
Matthew nodded, turning to go outside.
Author's Note: As always, many thanks to Liz for being my beta.