Episode Reference: Goodnight, Sweet Charlotte

Chapter One

The young man sat quietly in the marshal's office, staring out the window, with a dark expression on his face. From behind his desk, an older man studied him carefully for a long while before commenting.

"Kid, that glass is gonna melt if you keep blazing holes through it with your eyes."

Distractedly, Kid swung his head towards Teaspoon, his boss and friend, "What?"

Teaspoon met the young man's troubled blue gaze and wondered, "You been staring out that window like you're afraid the devil's gonna come through it if you blink!"

Kid attempted a smile, but it never reached his eyes, "Sorry, Teaspoon, I guess I ain't being real good company."

"What's on your mind son?" He wondered.

"A lot, really, but I can't really say much about it."

"Thinking about Lou again, I suppose. Have anything to do with that Wick's character that was shot today?" Teaspoon asked casually.

Kid shrugged evasively. Actually, as usual, Teaspoon was right on the money. The last few days had been hell on Lou. First, a friend from her past had showed up, troubling her with bad memories. Then, chasing behind her was a man named Wicks, who had driven the beautiful woman to kill herself. Wicks had then gone after Lou, convinced that she had the money Charlotte had stolen from him. Lou had gotten the upper hand during the struggle that followed, and pulled a gun on Wicks. Kid had ridden up just in time to stop her from killing him. Only after Wicks was brought into town and shot by the man in love with Charlotte did Kid know why Lou would have killed him.

Now, he wished he'd let her kill him. Hell, he thought furiously, I wish I'd killed him myself. "The doctor thinks he is going to make it?" Kid wondered suddenly through clenched teeth. After Wicks had been shot at point blank range, they'd assumed he was dead. When the undertaker had come to get the body, he'd had quite a scare when Wicks suddenly moaned.

Teaspoon nodded, "I'm guessing you are referring to Wicks. Yes, the bullet passed clean through. Amazing, he was shot just about the same spot as Ike, and from a much closer range, and he lived and Ike didn't. Not more than a few centimeters and Ike could still be with us."

Kid nodded sadly as tears filled the old man's wise eyes. He walked over to the rail by Teaspoon's desk and perched on it, reaching out to squeeze his shoulder. Next to Buck, Teaspoon seemed to be taking the loss of one of them the hardest.

Kid's mind was too filled with the image of Lou as she sat on a hay bale across the aisle of the stable from him, telling him what she'd kept to herself for so very long to dwell on Ike at the moment.

"Kid, I was very young and very stupid, I had no idea what kind of a man he was. I tried so hard to fight him, but I wasn't strong enough. When fighting didn't work", her eyes had misted with tears, "when fighting didn't work I begged him. But he didn't stop."

Kid's stomach had lurched violently as rage bubbled to his throat. He'd leapt up from the hay bale to strike a wall in fury. Seeing Lou withdraw from his anger, he'd quickly gone to her and sat beside her. She'd avoided his eyes, her own were swimming in tears of shame. Sensing she'd pull away from an embrace, Kid had resisted the urge to pull her into his arms and instead had reached out to grab her hand. So finally he knew why she'd done it, why she'd hidden her beauty from the world and taken such a hard road. She'd been too scared to be who she was. And yet, she'd found her true self again with all of them.

"I would have killed him on the spot if I'd known Lou, Oh God, I can't believe I stopped you! You had every right!"

She'd shaken her head, and finally glanced up into his eyes, "You stopped me from murdering a man in cold blood. You saved me from hanging."

Kid had swung his head in irritation, still feeling guilty.

"He's dead now anyway, it doesn't matter that I didn't pull the trigger, Kid."

Kid had smiled at her gently, and put his arm around her shoulders carefully, pulling her to him in a protective embrace and saying "Yes, he's gone, and I swear no one will ever hurt you again. Not while there's breath in my body, Lou."

"Hey, Kid, if you don't mind, you are about to kill my shoulder here," Teaspoon's voice suddenly broke through the flashback playing in Kid's mind.

"Huh?" Kid suddenly realized he'd never released Teaspoon's shoulder and his fingers had clamped onto it as he thought about his rage.

"Lou left before we found out Wicks wasn't dead, Teaspoon," Kid suddenly said, withdrawing his death hold on Teaspoon's shoulder and playing with his hat instead, "You going to lock him up if he makes it?"

Teaspoon sighed, "Kid, I can't really hold him for anything. Charlotte shot herself, Lou won't tell me whatever it is that has her running scared and jumping at her own shadow, and unless she's willing to testify that he held her up in the woods, which I have a feeling she won't be, I can't keep him here. Even if she did testify, he didn't hurt her, Kid."

"He could have. He would have if she hadn't pulled the gun on him!" Kid insisted, "And he might try again!"

"Would have, did and might are very different cases, Kid," Teaspoon commented, squinting at him, "Is there something you want to tell me?"

Kid looked Teaspoon squarely in the eyes and considered telling him what he knew, but realized that Lou would see that as betrayal, even if it was for her own good. She just wasn't ready to let everyone in on her past, and Kid couldn't do it for her. "No, Teaspoon, there's nothing I want to tell you."

Teaspoon might have pushed him, but suddenly the doors flew open and a dust clad Hickok strode into the marshal's office, beating at his dirty clothes."Well nice of you to remember us Jimmy," Teaspoon drawled sarcastically, "Did you forget that we moved to Rock Creek, or just decide to take a little holiday?"

"Aw, come on Teaspoon," Jimmy groaned, "I've had a bad week."

"And how is that?" Teaspoon wondered, hiding a smile. Jimmy held a special place in his heart, and he enjoyed tormenting the boy, although admittedly it had been more fun in the beginning when Jimmy was such a hot head.

"I found an Indian brave that had been shot. I took care of him, and was going to leave him after that, but he was helpless. I did all I knew how to do, but we were attacked by a few Indians of an enemy tribe, and he was hurt worse. He died, and I took him into the mountains to his village,"

Jimmy sighed wearily. Teaspoon clapped Jimmy on the back, squinting as a cloud of dust rose and swirled about them, "I'm sorry son, but I'm proud of you for what you done."

"Just wish he would have made it," Jimmy mumbled. "I know, I know. You did the best you could, I'm sure," Teaspoon nodded reassuringly.

"So how's Rock Creek been since I left?" Jimmy wondered.

"Ask Kid over dinner," Teaspoon grinned and slapped Kid on the back too,

"You boys go get washed up for supper and tell Rachel I'll be along directly."

Teaspoon watched as his riders walked from the office, smiling when Jimmy turned to Kid and wondered, "So what's he talking about? What happened here?"

Kid shot Teaspoon a dirty look before he turned the corner. Chuckling, Teaspoon made his way out the door and to the doctor's house.

"Is he gonna live, Doc?" Teaspoon wondered once he stood on the Doctor's porch. It occurred to him that just few weeks ago he'd stood in front of the same man asking the same question about Ike. He only wished the answer could have been the same.

"Yeah, he'll make it. Be on his feet by tomorrow, might want to send a deputy to watch him and bring him to the jail tomorrow."

"Not holding him," Teaspoon shook his head, "Just have him stop by my office to collect his belongings," Teaspoon muttered. It was damn hard thing to wonder if things would be better if a man died, but there was something about this Wicks fellow that had Teaspoon ready to put a hole through his heart, and he certainly knew Kid wanted to do the same thing. If he couldn't put a bullet in him, though, he could sure put the fear of God there instead. At least Kid had some idea why Wicks was better off dead. Trying to extract an answer from Lou had been dangerous.for him, at least.

"I need someone to take my run tomorrow," Kid announced over his roast.

"Now, Kid, everyone's been out. You're the only rested rider here," Rachel pointed out.

Kid sighed and nodded his head, "I know, I know."

"Something wrong Kid? I mean, I guess I could go if it was an emergency," Jimmy volunteered, though he had to hide a grimace. Only because he had a feeling the Kid would do the same thing for him.

"This Wicks fellow going to keep you from doing your job?" Teaspoon asked quietly, eyeing Kid disapprovingly.

Sighing again, Kid shook his head, "Thanks Jimmy, but they are right. It's my turn, and you've just had a bad ride."

Jimmy nodded and asked for the hundredth time, "Who is this Wicks fellow?"

Rachel glanced at her plate, for she was the only other one who knew about what the man had done to Lou. "He's someone Lou knew once."

"And?" Jimmy pried.

"Someone that was responsible for the death of her friend Charlotte," Kid supplied through tightly pressed lips.

"Well, I for one think something else must have happened, I mean Lou knew the woman really shot herself," Cody blurted out, drawing warning glances from all the other riders, who thought the same thing but were smart enough to keep their mouths shut.

"Cody," Teaspoon warned quietly, daring to hope the boy might take a hint for once.

"What? All's I'm saying is that she was acting down right strange and real jumpy, and I think she knows more about this fellow than she is letting on!" Cody persisted around a mouth full of food.

"That's enough Cody, it's Lou's business," Noah finally spelled it out for him. Cody's brow wrinkled as he finally caught the nervous stares of the others.

"Oh," he said meekly, "Well, whatever. Still don't see what harm it does to wonder."

"Yeah, well, wonder about this!"

Buck smiled and tossed a biscuit for his head. Cody wasn't fast enough and it hit him square in the face. Before he could retaliate, a laughing Rachel held up her hands, "Billy! Don't even think about it!"

"Jimmy, can I talk to you for a second?" Kid asked later that night as he and his friend sat on the corral fence watching the sun set.

"Sure, what's on your mind?" Jimmy suddenly grinned, "No, wait, let me guess."

"It's Lou," Kid said, too worried to catch the humor.

"Now, I would have taken odds on that one," Jimmy laughed softly, "You finally going to spill it?"

"I can't tell you what all is going on, but there's more to all this than you think."

"Really?" Jimmy asked sarcastically, rolling his eyes and shaking his head.

"I was just wondering if, well, if you'd look after Lou for the next couple of days or so while I'm gone," Kid didn't meet Jimmy's eyes, and Jimmy knew that it took a lot of swallowed pride for Kid to ask him that. Not so long ago, he'd been jealous of Jimmy for no good reason and had warned him to stay away.

Jimmy shifted uncomfortably at his friend's blind trust now. He had a feeling that he did care a little more about Lou than he should.

"Is she in some kind of trouble?" His eagle eyes pierced the Kid's.

"I don't know," Kid answered honestly, "Could be."

"You have to give me some idea what I'm up against, Kid," Jimmy reasoned.

"Please, just watch her," Kid pleaded, "I know she'll be safe if you keep an eye on her."

"Kid, it goes without saying that I'll look out for her, but what am I looking for?"

"A man named Wicks, and that's all I can tell you," Kid replied, walking away.

"A man named Wicks," Jimmy repeated softly when Kid was gone, "Thanks for not a whole lot, Kid."

"Teaspoon, is Wicks going to go free?"

Teaspoon jumped in surprise and spun to face the door of his office. Rachel was standing there, hands clasped in front of her nervously.

"You snuck up on me, Rachel," he said calmly.

"Well, is he?"

Teaspoon sighed. His decision, although lawful, sure didn't seem popular, "I don't have any charges to bring against him, none that will stand up in court. Wicks is a powerful man, Rachel. I can't just throw him in jail like a drunk."

Rachel walked into the office and poured Teaspoon a cup of coffee from the small stove. Handing it to him, she wondered, "Teaspoon, what do you think is best? To do something for somebody that isn't your place and make them mad, or to not do something even knowing there is a risk they could get hurt worse?"

"Seems like a simple enough answer to me. Avoid the greater evil. Protect that person even if they don't seem interested in protection."

"Well then, there is something I've got to tell you in the strictest confidence that can't leave this room," Rachel said, "But I feel like you need to be aware of what is going on."

"Fair enough," Teaspoon nodded, "So who is this fellow to Lou?"

Rachel smiled slightly, "Didn't think for a minute you'd not know who I was talking about."

"I'm a pretty smart man, you know," Teaspoon grinned, "All right, what do you know?"

Rachel sighed, "Just doesn't seem right telling you this, but okay. Wicks was Lou's boss. She worked in a brothel."

"What!" Teaspoon exclaimed, nearly tipping over backwards in his chair.

"No! Nothing like that! She did laundry!" Rachel exclaimed laughing nervously, "She was too young to even know what kind of a place it was when she started. Charlotte was one of the girls that didn't do laundry. She was also the only one that gave Lou the time of day. Seems like Wicks let Lou alone for about a year, but then she caught his eye, and he broke into her room and raped her.
"Can you imagine? She was so young, so innocent," Rachel's eyes were teary as Teaspoon glanced furiously, and sadly at the floor, "Anyway, Charlotte helped her get away from him. When Lou did get away, she was so scared of being hurt again that that's why she cut her hair and started acting like a boy."

Teaspoon sighed and nodded, "Always knew there was something that made her do that, and I figured it might be something along those lines. But it doesn't make it any easier knowing that the man who did it is here, and there is nothing I can do about it."

"I just thought you should know, now that Kid does. Teaspoon, I'm worried about how he'll react if he sees Wicks again, now that he knows. And if any of the others find out, then there will be no stopping them. They'll kill the man for sure."

"Can't say I'd blame them, but of course I can't let them do that. I'm sending Wicks packing tomorrow, and I plan to put the fear of God into the man! Hopefully, he'll be gone by the time Lou gets back, and I can keep Kid away until then. I don't think Wicks will have any reason to try to get at Lou after he leaves, as far as he's concerned, he's won. She's too afraid of him to turn him in, and he gets off crystal clear."

"I sure hope you're right," Rachel said softly.

"Been known to be," Teaspoon smiled at her, "Now, it's late, and you must be tired. I'll walk you home."

"Why don't you turn in too?" Rachel wondered, "You could use some sleep too."

"I'm gonna walk the streets awhile, make sure everything is calm," he said, but he knew that she knew he was lying. He had a lot on his mind, and he wanted some time to sort out how he was going to deal with this disgusting wretch of a man who'd dared lay hands on a girl, no a child. And that child had been Lou, who he admired more than any young woman he'd ever met.

The next morning, Teaspoon sat at his desk again, awaiting the arrival of Wicks. His boots were propped up on his desk, with his hat tipped low over his eyes. To a passerby he would appear oblivious to his surroundings, but Teaspoon's sharp ears didn't miss a thing.

He was deep in thought about Lou when Kid and Buck strolled in his office.

"Don't you have a run in the not too distant future Kid?" Teaspoon muttered, not looking up.

"Don't worry, Teaspoon, Katy's ready to go. I just thought I'd stop by here for a minute."

"Why for?" Teaspoon asked, pushing his hat back, "You ain't planning on causing any trouble now are you?"

"Course not," Kid said.

Just then Jesse burst through the door, his bright blue eyes wide with excitement.

"He's coming!" He exclaimed.

"Would you care to be more specific Jesse?" Teaspoon asked in irritation.


"And how do you know anything about him? Eavesdropping again, I'd suspect," Teaspoon reprimanded him. Jesse had the sense to look ashamed.

"Kid, I want you to go now, Buck, you too."

"Not a chance, Teaspoon, I'm staying around in case there's any trouble," Kid planted his feet.

"Just you don't go starting it!" Teaspoon warned and shook his head. This wasn't a good idea at all.

Just then the door opened and all four of them swung around. A tall man in a well-cut suit strolled in the door, arrogance radiating from him.

"Kid," Teaspoon warned almost before Kid bristled and pulled himself taller.

"Marshal, I've come to collect my things," Wicks said breezily.

"Not before you and I come to an understanding," Teaspoon said flatly.

"Now, Marshal, I've already been unjustly shot for no reason."

"You drove a woman to kill herself and held up one of my riders."

"Louise? I'd hardly call that a hold up. Louise and I go way back," He chuckled softly.

Something that resembled a growl escaped from Kid's throat, and before any one of them knew what had happened, Kid had rushed Wicks, and knocked him to the ground, swinging wildly at his face.

Teaspoon, though reluctant to do so, quickly grabbed Kid hard, and with Buck's help drug him off of the man.

"I'll kill you! I swear I will!" Kid screamed as he struggled against Buck and Teaspoon's hold.

"Get him out of here, now!" Teaspoon growled at Buck, and helped push Kid towards the door, "Go back to the station, and go on your run. I want you in control by the time you ride back into Rock Creek, understand?"

"You can't let him go, you don't know what he did!" Kid protested when Teaspoon finally released his shirt.

"I know more than you think, son. Trust me to take care of this."

"If anything happens to her, Teaspoon, I'll kill him with my bare hands."

Teaspoon sighed, knowing there really would be no stopping him. He shifted his gaze to Buck, "Go back with him, keep him there until he rides out."

Buck, though his brow was wrinkled in confusion, was nevertheless too unobtrusive to demand an explanation for Kid's outrageous behavior.

Teaspoon found Wicks picking himself up off the floor and wiping at his bloody nose and lip with a too-clean white handkerchief.

"You should learn to control your riders better, marshal. What kind of misfits do you keep around here? Gunfighters, half breeds, blacks, maniacs, girls?"

Teaspoon found his iron control slipping, and his fingers rested on his gun. Wick's gaze flicked to it nervously, which didn't escape Teaspoon's attention.

"When you raped that little girl a few years ago, you got away with it without so much as a slap on the hand," Teaspoon's voice was dangerously quiet. "But I'm here to tell you, if you ever lay eyes, much less hands, on Louise again there are five men, six counting myself that will make sure you start taking tea with the ladies. Do we have a perfectly clear understanding?"

"Why, is this a threat Marshal? I don't think you realize who I am," Wicks growled back, licking his lips nervously.

"I realize you are a poor excuse for a man who took a child's innocence and honor.

Yes, it is a threat and by God, it is also a fact written in stone," Teaspoon took a menacing step towards the man.

"Now Marshal, why would I want to touch that girl again? She was quite a pretty little girl, if I remember correctly," Wick's eyes were glowing with reckless madness, "But now, she doesn't really catch my fancy. Spoiled goods, you know?"

Knowing that this man was the reason that Lou didn't show the world what a little beauty she really was snapped the thread of control that Teaspoon had been able to maintain so far. Drawing his gun, Teaspoon jammed it under Wick's throat hard.

Wick's forehead broke out in a sweat, but he knew he succeeded in rattling the marshal and smiled, "Is she really worth hanging for, Marshal?"

"Yes, she is. And you'd be wise never to forget it. I'll cut off every limb protruding from your body if you come near her, Wicks. Don't think I won't. I'll hunt you down like a dog, mark my words! Get out of here!" He roared.

"As soon as you give me my guns," Wicks answered.


Wicks had the good sense to do just that, and was pale as he strolled into the winter morning. Teaspoon followed him out, making sure he headed for the livery stable.

Meanwhile, back in the Marshal's office, a very shocked, very white, Jesse moved out from the shadows. Not only had learning what had happened to Lou shocked him, but seeing Teaspoon become so unglued unsettled him greatly. Not sure what he should do with his newly acquired information, he slowly made his way back towards the bunkhouse.

"Rider Comin'!" Jimmy yelled out from the porch as he spotted Lou's big black horse, Lightning, coming fast.

"Kid, better mount up," Rachel said quietly from where she was washing windows.

"Give me a second to talk to her," Kid pleaded, looking at Lou.

"Kid, you know you are supposed to be out of here in a minute." Seeing the look on Kid's face stopped her cold, "Make it quick, Kid."

Lou scowled in confusion when she saw Kid lead Katy out to where they should have performed the hand-off. Wondering why Kid wasn't on Katy, she pulled Lightning up in a jolting, sliding stop.

"What's going on?" She wondered, stretching the mochila down at him.

"Lou, I gotta talk to you."

"Now?" Lou asked in amazement.

"Yeah, here, hop down," Kid told her, holding her blowing horse as she obediently slid to the ground and stood to face him.

Seeing her dirt streaked face, a face that should have been pale rather than sunburned, framed by flowing dark auburn hair rather than covered with a hat, reminded him of the sacrifice she'd made in order to protect herself. He didn't know how it was possible, but knowing her past had given him even more respect for Louise McCloud.

"What's wrong?" She asked, growing panicky at the look on his face, "Is it one of the boys or Teaspoon?"

"No, nothing like that. Lou.Wicks isn't dead."

The news hit her like a ton of bricks coming crashing down on her shoulders. For so long she'd carried such fear of the man, and when she thought he was dead, she had actually realized a chance for healing such an old wound.

"Where is he?" She whispered hoarsely, her eyes downcast.

"He's on his way back to St. Joe. Teaspoon couldn't hold him. He didn't know what I knew, and I just didn't think I should be the one to tell him."

Lou shook her head, "It wouldn't matter. It's been too long. And Wicks has way too many connections to stay anywhere for long."

"Kid!" Rachel warned him gently from across the station yard.

"Are you going to be all right? I'll be back tomorrow, and Jimmy's going to keep an eye on you."

"You told him?" Lou asked furiously.

"Of course not, I just told him to watch out for Wicks, that he was bad news. Nothing he didn't know all ready," Kid placed a hand on her cheek, "Will you be okay?"

"I'll be fine, Kid," Lou answered, but still didn't meet his eyes squarely. It was torture for Kid to gather Katy's reins and leap onto her, "Watch yourself, Lou."

"You too, Kid, see you tomorrow," Lou said quietly, stepping back as he kicked Katy into a gallop.

"Ride safe, Kid!" Cody and Jimmy chorused from the porch.

He lifted a hand to them as he moved towards the open country.

Lou stood very still for a long time, pondering the information Kid had just cast upon her. He was still alive. Damn you Wicks, she thought, and I'm still scared of you.

"Lou?" Jimmy called her name for the third time before she jumped and glanced at him.

"Hey Jimmy," She said softly, "What?"

"Want me to take care of Lightning for you?" He asked.

Lou sighed and shook her head, "No, I'll do it. Thanks."

Jimmy and Cody watched in confusion as she walked unsteadily towards the barn.

"Think she got thrown? She looks kind of weak in the knees." Noah asked, walking out in time to see Lou disappear into the barn.

Jimmy scowled, as he finished cleaning his gun. Whatever was going on was major, he thought.

Lou carried her saddle into the tack room slowly; eyes not really fixed on where she was going, and her mind not anywhere near what she was doing. That's probably why the hand that clamped on her arm surprised her so much.

"Don't scream!" A voice warned her, and a hand came down hard on her mouth, "Or I'll kill you right here."

The voice itself prevented her from screaming, for a lump of terror formed in the base of her throat. Even as the hands fell away from her mouth, she found herself unable to speak, to think, or to move.

"Why Louise, you look like you've seen a ghost!" Wicks hissed, "Is this any way to greet an old friend? I've come for my money Louise. I know Charlotte stole it, and I know she gave it to you. No whore is going to get my money. And after I get the money, you and I are going to talk about old times."

Suddenly, at the none-too subtle suggestion, Lou's body jumped to action and she whirled and darted from the tack room, dropping her saddle after realizing she was still holding it. A whimper came from her throat, but that was the only sound she was capable of.

She heard Wick's heavy footsteps from behind her, growing closer. Suddenly, her legs gave way, and the ground rose up to meet her hard. A soft cry of pain and fear escaped her, and she glanced up to see Wicks standing over her, pushing up his sleeves.

Just as he had the night he had attacked her so very long ago.

Chapter Two

Wicks had the upper hand again, and Lou was trapped, a prisoner of her own fear.

"You won't make it past the barn if you touch me," Lou said bravely, struggling to pick herself up.

Wicks kicked her hard in the side, effectively knocking her back to the ground, "That won't matter to you."

Lou watched, frozen in horror as he reached for her, flashbacks racing through her mind, a strange union of past and present that was clouding her thoughts.

"You reach one more inch and I'll put so many holes in you that the wind will whistle through you!" A deadly voice growled, and the quiet "click" of a gun hammer being cocked stopped Wicks cold. Lou closed her eyes and blinked back tears of relief at Jimmy's timely arrival.

"Oh, you'd better back away from her," Jimmy growled again, quickly closing the distance and standing above Lou protectively.

"She's got something that doesn't belong to her," Wicks said, "She's stolen from me."

"Lou, you okay?" Jimmy asked quietly, without taking his eyes off the man Kid had warned might hurt her.

"I'm okay," She said, but her voice trembled wildly, her composure obviously shot.

"Teaspoon might not have been able to keep you in jail last time, but I have a feeling that won't happen again," Jimmy said in the same dangerous tone.

Lou suddenly was struggling to her feet. Jimmy reached down to help her up with his eyes still fixed on the man in front of him.

"Let him go, Jimmy," Lou suddenly said.

"What!" Jimmy exclaimed, looking at Lou for the first time.

Unshed tears made her eyes glow bright, and her voice trembled when she repeated,

"Just let him go. He won't be back here."

"No, Lou, this is the second time he's caused trouble for you in the past couple of days. He's gonna pay!"

"Jimmy, listen to me. Let him go."

Jimmy again looked at her in utter confusion, "Lou."

"Jimmy, do it!" She snapped.

Wicks watched the whole spectacle with an interested expression. The girl was smart. She knew what kind of trouble would come down on her friends if they dared to hold him.

"Damn it, Lou," He snapped back at her, but as usual he couldn't deny her wishes. It was just that usually, he knew her judgment was good. This time, she wasn't making any sense. His eyes were on fire as he gazed at Wicks, "Ride out, now, and if you ever come back."

"Spare me the speech, will you boy? I've heard it," Wicks backed out of the barn. Jimmy holstered his gun when he was sure Wicks was gone and turned to Lou angrily, "What was that about? What's gotten into you?" He demanded.

When a tear finally escaped her eye, he was instantly sorry. His voice was gentle as he placed a hand on her shoulder, "I'm sorry, you just have me worried. You all right? Did he hurt you?"

Yes, Lou thought frantically, more than you know! She was shaking as she turned her head into Jimmy's shoulder and he put his arms around her.

"Thank you for getting here," She whispered.

Completely baffled by this display of vulnerability from Lou, Jimmy hugged her tightly and whispered, "It's all right Lou, any time."

He sighed, and inwardly thought in frustration, Why didn't you pull your gun on him Lou? You had time if he chased you. Does this man make you lose your wits to the point you can't even think to protect yourself?

Lou suddenly regained her control, and pulled away, wiping at her eyes. She looked at him with eyes that were a little too glassy and vacant, and said calmly, "We aren't going to say anything about this, okay?"

"What!" Jimmy exclaimed again, "I let him go for you, Lou, but you are asking too much!"

"Jimmy, this is so important to me. I'm begging you. Don't. You can't tell."

"If you can give me one good reason why I shouldn't tell, I'll think about it."

"I can't," Lou declared stubbornly.

"Well, then neither can I," Jimmy shot back. They stood faced off, toe to toe, glaring at each other with their arms folded across their chests and irritation in their eyes. It would have been a comical scene if it had been over anything else.

A third voice caused them both to jump in surprise. Buck poked his head in the barn telling them, "Supper's ready."

Jimmy's eyes shifted from Buck back to Lou, who was gazing at him expectantly.

"Anything wrong?" Buck asked, "You both look like you've seen Death."

Jimmy pinched the bridge of his nose, shaking his head. The headache that had developed while dealing with the most stubborn, bull headed female he'd ever met didn't really surprise him. Again, she'd won.

"No, everything's fine. Let's go eat." He conceded, eyes slipping to Lou. Lou gave him the faintest smile before she walked toward Buck, who held the door for them both.

"And then Ben reached out to give Ron the pouch, and Ron leaned over to get it, and just tumbled right off his horse! Served him right too, not five minutes earlier he'd been bragging to everyone about how he'd never been thrown!" Cody laughed at his own story.

"Cody," Teaspoon sighed, "You ever heard of keeping your mouth closed, particularly when it's full of food?"

A small peal of laughter echoed in the bunkhouse, and Cody grinned, "Well, I figure I'm such a fountain of information, I owe it to the world to share at all times."

"Saw that Wicks fellow in town this afternoon," Jesse suddenly said. Lou and Jimmy, who'd been sitting silently the whole meal, glanced up for the first time at the mention of the name.

"What?" Teaspoon roared, "I thought I left no doubt in his mind what would happen if he stuck around!"

"Well, he did, I saw him coming out of our barn!" Jesse said.

All eyes shifted to Lou, who'd again gone white. Jimmy shifted uncomfortably as Teaspoon asked her, "Lou, has he bothered you?"

"No," Lou mumbled, and she saw Jimmy shake his head.

"Lou," he admonished her, "Tell them."

"Tell them what?" Teaspoon asked suspiciously.

Lou shot Jimmy a look that should have killed him, then with her eyes on her plate, said, "He just stopped by to bid me a farewell."

"He did what?!" Teaspoon roared again then calmed his voice when he saw how much it unnerved Lou.

The rest of the riders fixed their eyes on the small girl, who stared at her plate, "Did he try to hurt you?"

"No," Lou said again.

"Dang it Lou!" Jimmy finally snapped, "You got to tell him."

Lou's mouth set in the stubborn line he knew too well.

"Then I am," Jimmy said, knowing he was risking her wrath, "I walked in the barn and found Lou on the ground with Wicks standing over her, reaching for her."

"That's it! He's going back in jail!" Teaspoon declared.

"He's gone, Teaspoon, he won't be back."

"Lou, I ain't so sure about that, sweetheart," He said gently.

That angered Lou, "It's my business!"

"You could get hurt Lou! He could kill you! He might have done just that if I hadn't showed up, because you were too scared to pull your gun on him!"

Lou's eyes went wide in horror when Jimmy mentioned how she'd frozen in front of all of them. Just when she thought it couldn't get any more embarrassing for her, Jesse spoke up.

"What if he would have raped you again?"

The words that came out of his mouth startled the whole table into eerie silence. Glances flew between the boys, Teaspoon, and Rachel. Jesse suddenly realized his mistake and covered his mouth. Stunned eyes slowly turned to Lou.

Her eyes were fixed on her plate, her cheeks a glowing, fiery red. Tears of mortification rapidly ran down her cheeks. They all saw the trembling of her hands as she pushed herself up, and weaved on shaky knees. Her eyes grazed over all of them, looking for the traitor in the midst. Who'd given her away, Kid or Rachel? The thought of either of them betraying her was too much, and without a sound, she flew from the bunkhouse.

"Louise!" Rachel called after her, getting to her feet.

"Better to let her be right now," Teaspoon said solemnly. His eyes turned towards the figure cowering at the end of the table, "Jesse!" He snarled furiously, "Let me guess how you found out about all this!"

"Teaspoon, I didn't mean to be there, I promise. It's just that after Kid and Buck left, you laid into the guy right away, and I didn't have a chance to get out! I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hurt Lou! It just slipped out!"

"I know that, and I'm sure Lou even knows that, but the fact is, you did," Teaspoon sighed and relented. Jesse looked miserable enough without his help. His gaze shifted to see how the other riders were reacting.

All of them, even the fountain-of-information Cody, were speechless. They all had wrinkled brows and exchanged shocked and confused glances from time to time.

Jimmy seemed to be taking it the hardest. His hand covered his mouth and his eyes were closed as he said in a voice that didn't sound like his own, "I let him go. He was right in front of me, about to do the same thing to her again, and I let him go!"

"Easy son, it wasn't your fault," Teaspoon said.

"No wonder Kid tried to kill him," Buck said, his sharp, black eyes turning on Teaspoon accusingly, "He rapes a woman and you can't keep him locked up?" Buck's patience and respect for the law was wearing thinner and thinner. First, Teaspoon couldn't protect Ike, and now Lou was in danger.

Rachel sighed, deciding that since they knew the worst of it they might as well know what really happened. "Wicks attacked Lou a long time ago, when she worked for him. It's been years, and there wasn't anything Teaspoon could have done."

Buck's dark eyes still smoldered with resentment.

"I'm going after him," Jimmy announced, standing up.

"Now, hold on. I already had to consider tying down the Kid. You can't just go after a man and kill him in cold blood."

"I'll call him out," Jimmy growled.

"I'm going with him," Cody said. "Wicks won't face you. He'll let a hired gun back shoot you, and that ain't gonna help Lou."

Jimmy paced around the bunkhouse, too many bad memories stirring in his head. "I'm going to talk to her."

"She may not want to talk," Noah said softly.

"Let her tell me that," Jimmy shot back at them and opened the door. Jimmy grabbed his coat, and then thinking the better of it, picked up Lou's also, and walked out to a beautiful sunset. He found Lou sitting on the hard packed dust, facing the brilliant purple and gold sky, hugging her knees to her chest.

With a gentle smile that showed his true affection for her, he quietly walked towards her.

A rock crunched beneath his boot, and Lou instantly whirled around, fear on her face.

"It's just me, don't shoot," Jimmy smiled, holding up both hands.

Without saying anything, she turned back around.

Jimmy slowly set the jacket around her slim shoulders, and she glanced up at him with a strange cross of gratitude, embarrassment, and anger.

"A peace offering," Jimmy explained, not taking offense at her hot glare. When it came to Lou, he seemed to have all the patience in the world.

Lou didn't look at him again, but kept her eyes fixed ahead. They still swam with tears that she had instantly stopped shedding at his arrival. Her cheeks grew red again.

"Aw, Lou, I'm sorry I told Teaspoon. I'm just worried about you. Think you can find it in your heart to forgive me?" He sat down close to her on the dirt and gave her a nudge with his shoulder.

He was rewarded with a small smile, "I'm not sore at you, Jimmy."

"Well, that's good to know. So why exactly is it that you are sitting out here in this freezing night air if you aren't mad at me?"

Lou didn't answer, and Jimmy could actually sense her cutting herself off from him, even before he saw the set of her jaw.

"Jesse then? It was a horrible thing for him to say, and out of place, but you are the last person in the world he'd cause pain to."

"I'm not mad at anyone, Jimmy. I just can't go in there, and I don't know how I'm ever going to go back in there again, now that." She paused and flung her gaze to the dirt.

"Now that what?" Jimmy pushed her, "Now that we know?"

Lou nodded, turning even redder.

"Lou, it's nothing to be embarrassed about. The only shame lies with Wicks."

Lou shook her head, "You're wrong, Jimmy. It was my fault for being stupid."

"No, Lou, can't you see?" Jimmy sighed, "You weren't stupid, you were innocent. There is such a big difference."

"The end result was pretty much the same, wouldn't you agree?"

"But it wasn't the end, now was it? You made it, you survived, and you won!"

Lou shook her head, "I ran away, I hid. Hell, I'm still hiding, Jimmy. I'm still as scared of him as I was the night it all happened. You saw how I froze today."

"You know, Lou, I've never known anyone like you," Jimmy suddenly said, shaking his head, "I've never known anyone, man or woman, as strong as you are. You beat all odds, you defy all barriers. And you don't know how much that makes me admire you, Lou."

"I'm sure you admire me a whole lot after finding out all this," She mumbled sarcastically.

"Lou!" Jimmy cried out, taking her chin in his hands and turning her face up so that she was forced to look him in the eye and know he told her the truth, "So what, you are afraid of a man that hurt you badly. You have one weak spot. I have about a hundred. Hell, I don't know how, but knowing what you had to overcome to get to where you are today makes me respect you even more."

Lou pulled away from his grasp and again stared out at the sky.

"You know, I've never told anyone this," Jimmy said, taking his eyes from Lou's profile and turning his face to the sky also, "But when I was young, probably six or seven, a man rode up to our house. He asked to water his horse, and my mama agreed, of course. My pa was away with his abolitionist vigilance committee protecting run away slaves," Lou blinked in surprise at the bitterness in his voice, "So he wasn't there when that man turned on my mama. All I can remember is her screaming, and me running up and hitting the man as hard as I could, but he just knocked me down over and over. I couldn't protect her, and he raped her."

When Jimmy turned to glance at Lou, her eyes were boring into his. He couldn't fathom the expression behind them, but at least he had her attention. "Afterwards I cried and cried, I was so upset because I couldn't protect my ma. I can remember perfectly her taking me in her arms and reaching for my hand. She put it against her face and said, `James, see for yourself, I'm exactly the same now as I was before. He didn't take me away, and he didn't change me a bit, did he?' Now, Lou, I know it's not the same for you, because you were so young, but he didn't take away who you are," He took her hand and raised it to her face, making her touch her own face, "See for yourself."

"Jimmy, yes he did change me. As soon as I got away from him I quit being Louise altogether."

"No, you stopped wearing dresses, Lou," He smiled, squeezed her hand and let it go, "I mean Louise. But he didn't change the brave, honest, smart, loving young woman you are "Lou didn't say anything, but her eyes were filled with tears of gratitude.

Jimmy set his arm around her shoulders, and she leaned her head on his shoulder. They watched the beautiful colors from the sunset fade into navy velvet in companionable silence.

"You are so wonderful, Jimmy Hickok," She said after a long time.

"No, I'm not," He said, forever modest about his generosity, "But, I am cold, so what do you say to us going in?"

Lou balked, "I don't think I can. How do I face them?"

"What, you expect them to throw things at you?"

"No, that'd be a normal reaction from them. What do I say?" Lou looked panicked, she couldn't remember ever feeling so ill at ease at the prospect of going into the bunkhouse; at least not since her first nights in there with the boys.

Jimmy smiled, "Now, when have you ever had to say something to break the silence in there? Leave that to Cody."

Lou wasn't nearly as confident. Would they look on her with new eyes? Would they turn from her in disgust? Pity her? Scorn her? She didn't think she could stand any of those things.

"Lou, I just have one question for you before we go in," Jimmy told her.

"All right."

"When Wicks said you'd stolen something from him, what was he talking about?"

Lou lied through her teeth, "I don't know, Jimmy. He never did make a lot of sense."

Jimmy seemed satisfied with her answer, but Lou's mind was filled with guilt for deceiving him. Yes, she had the money Charlotte had stolen from him and had hidden it away. She'd die before she gave Wicks the satisfaction of having it back. That money was meant to give Charlotte a new life, a life free of the hell Wicks had kept her in for so long. Charlotte had given Lou a chance to make a wonderful life, and had come to Lou looking for the same favor. Only, Lou had failed her miserably, and the beautiful woman was dead. For Charlotte, she'd make sure Wicks never saw the money he so wanted again.

No matter what the price to her could be.

Jimmy gently placed his hand on Lou's back and ushered her into the warm bunkhouse ahead of him.

At first, it was everything Lou feared it would be. Uneasy silence greeted her as every one of the boys stopped in their tracks. But, as Jimmy predicted, it was Cody who broke the strain. Without a word, but with a gentle smile that reached all the way into his turquoise eyes, Cody walked to Lou and put his arms around her in a bear hug.

Lou felt tears sting her eyes as his unusual display of affection for her. They still loved her, she was still one of them. Her eyes met Noah's broad smile over Cody's shoulder as he set her back on her feet.

She sighed with relief. Jesse came to face her, his big eyes very troubled, "Lou, I'm sorry, I mean, that ain't what I meant to say."

Lou smiled softly and hugged the boy who had such a special place in her heart, "I know you just said it because you were worried about me."

"All of us were, Lou," Noah pointed out gently, "And for what it's worth, we want you to know that we are sorry."

Lou smiled, feeling oddly at peace for the first time since she'd laid eyes on Charlotte a few days ago, "I know you are sorry. And maybe it's best everything is out in the open now. Wicks is just a ghost from the past is all."

"A ghost that ain't never gonna hurt you again," Jimmy promised.

"He'll have to go through every last one of us," Buck agreed.

Lou nodded, "You boys never cease to amaze me, you know."

"Yeah, we know," Cody grinned devishly and winked, "I for one, never cease to amaze even myself."

"At least someone's impressed with you that way," Noah muttered, hiding a smile.

"You wanted to see me Teaspoon?" Lou asked as she poked her head into the marshal's office the next morning.

"Yeah, come on in, Lou," He waved her towards a chair. Lou sighed, afraid of where this conversation was going already. Teaspoon perched himself on his desk and looked at her before saying, "I want to apologize for what happened last night. It was my fault."


"Lou, I pushed Rachel into telling me what you'd told her. Now, please don't go getting mad at Rachel, because she was worried about you. Everyone was. Anyway, Wicks had to stop back by here yesterday before leaving town, so I made it perfectly clear what would happen to him if we saw him around here again. I got kind of rattled at him, and lost my temper. I forgot that Jesse was still in the back of the office."

Lou nodded, glad to know that Rachel hadn't sat them all down and told them her secret directly. That had been a little too much to bear.

"It's okay Teaspoon. I don't know, maybe it's good that the boys got an explanation for my behavior the last few days."

"There's another thing I've been thinking about Lou. Now, I know I may be an old man, but I'm still pretty dang scary when I want to be. I know I scared Wicks yesterday, and I know he believed that I really would kill him if I ever found him near you again. So he knows the kind of risk he was taking coming to the station and laying hands on you. Now, I can't help but think he must have thought it was worth the risk to come back. So, I'm wondering, if there ain't something you have that he wants."

Lou found she couldn't meet his eyes and lie to him at the same time, so she looked at her fidgeting hands, "I don't have anything that he would want besides revenge for being humiliated by you. Jimmy put that notion out of his mind when he chased him off."

"Darlin', I'm sorry if I caused you more trouble. Still, I'm worried that he'll come after you again. Do I need to worry?"

"No," Lou lied, "I saw the look on his face when Jimmy held the gun on him. He knew then that you meant business."

Teaspoon sighed with relief, "Good, I feel better."

Lou didn't. She hated deception, but if she was to get on with her life, she had to let them all think that Wicks was gone for good.

She had to let herself believe that too.

Kid couldn't remember ever having made the run to Blue Creek in such record time. Katy was blowing hard when Rock Creek rose into view, but for once Kid didn't care. Wicks had plagued his thoughts since he'd ridden out, and he'd been uneasy ever since he left Lou standing alone on the hard packed dirt, eyes strangely vacant.

He slung the pouch at Noah and his buckskin, pulled Katy up, and leapt off in nearly one movement. After taking a few stumbling steps to keep from falling flat on his face, he glanced up at the bunkhouse porch where Cody and Jesse were gleefully waiting for him to do just that. They were disappointed when he found his feet again.

"Katy not fast enough for you? You gonna deliver the mail on foot from now on, Kid?" Cody asked innocently.

"Very funny, Cody," Kid smiled slightly, "Where's Lou?"

"Ran away, said something about joining the carnival," Cody shrugged.


Kid exclaimed, not realizing that Cody was kidding until the words were out of his mouth.

Jesse laughed out loud at him then, which just encouraged Cody, "Yeah, said something about doing daredevil stunts and leaping through rings of fire. Did you know Lou could do that Jesse? I had no idea!"

"Cody!" Kid hissed, making a threatening step towards him, "Where is she?"

"Hey, lighten up, Kid! She's out back with Buck watching Jimmy try to break the bay stud."

Kid shot them both dirty looks as they howled with laughter at him. Jesse finally had the good sense to shut up, and jumped off the porch, "I'll take Katy, Kid."

"Thanks Jesse," Kid grinned, "So, I guess nothing really exciting happened around here, huh?"

"Oh, no, you're wrong!" Jesse said, his gift of putting his foot in his mouth second only to Cody, "Wicks came after Lou yesterday right after you'd left and was going to attack her, but Jimmy found him and, oops." He said simply when Kid took off towards Lou.

"Way to go, Jesse," Cody sighed, rolling his eyes, "Poor Lou won't be able to peel him from her side now."

Jesse sighed, wondering if he'd ever learn to keep his mouth closed. Then he and Cody glanced at one another and knowing that a good show could be coming, they took off for the corral at the same time.

Lou and Buck laughed as Jimmy hit the dirt for the third time and groaned loudly."Where's Noah when you need him?" He gasped, rolling over to his back in the dirt and laying there.

Lou held the gate as a grinning Buck went into the corral to help Jimmy up again.

"You sure showed him," Buck commented.

"Yeah, I think so," Jimmy agreed, groaning again as he stiffly climbed to his feet.

Lou shook her head, "Yeah, you showed him how to get rid of anyone he doesn't care to have on his back!"

No sooner had the words come out of her mouth than someone grabbed her from behind.

With a gasp, then a yell, Lou instinctively spun around, her fists flying. Her fist found her mark, and it was too late to pull back as she realized it was Kid. Everything else happened fast. Buck pulled his gun, and Jimmy instinctively went for his, which of course wasn't strapped on. Cody and Jesse stopped cold not far from the scene, just as Jimmy and Buck started for Lou's attacker.

"Lou!" Kid yelped just before contact, then slumped to the ground with the force of the punch.

"Damn, Lou, remind me not to make you mad," Cody said, shaking his head and staring at the unconscious Kid.

Covering her mouth with her bruised hand, Lou fell to her knees beside the Kid. Jimmy and Buck were instantly standing over them both. Kid mumbled and grimaced, as he quickly came to, bringing his hand to gingerly touch his swelling and purpling eye.

"Kid, I'm so sorry!" Lou gasped out, horrified.

Squinting into the blinding sunlight he saw Lou's pale face, then behind her Jimmy, Buck, Cody, and Jesse all trying not to laugh and failing miserably.

"I'm never gonna live this one down," Kid finally muttered, and shut his eyes again.

Not much later than that, Lou sat on Kid's bunk beside him, gently holding a raw steak to his eye, which was black by then.

"I'm so sorry, Kid," Lou said for the hundredth time in the last five minutes.

Kid reached up and covered Lou's hand with his, "I already told you it was my fault. I should have known better than to sneak up on you and grab you with all that's been going on."

Lou sighed and gently disentangled her hand, letting Kid hold the steak.

Kid turned his head so he could study Lou out of his good eye, "So when do you think you might tell me what happened?"

"Not much to tell, Kid," Lou sighed, "Wicks came after me one more time before he skipped town, and Jimmy ran him off."

"And that's all?" Kid asked, having already had the story from Jimmy, "The end?"

"What are you talking about, Kid?" Lou mumbled, staring at her hands which were clenched into fists.

Kid grinned as he followed her eyes, and again sought her hand, "Aren't planning on using these fists on me again, are you? I promise I'll be good!"

Lou smiled and blushed, shaking her head, "I'm not making any promises!"

"Okay, Lou, tell me what really happened, why Wicks came after you again."

"Because I caused him to get into trouble, because Teaspoon insulted his pride and he wanted to have the last laugh."

"And?" Kid persisted.

"And what. That's it!" Lou said, growing irritated.

"No it ain't, and you know it Lou. Jimmy told me, Wicks said you had stolen something from him."

"If Jimmy's already gone behind my back and told you everything, I don't know why I have to sit here and put up with this, with this.treatment!" Lou snapped.

"Jimmy's worried about you, in fact everyone is. Most of all, me," Kid said, knowing he would have to be careful or she'd shut up like a clam, "He told me everything, how you didn't pull your gun, how you made him let Wicks go, how you denied everything to Teaspoon's face, and then how the truth came out. Did you forget about all that Lou?"

Lou resented his overly patient tone and snapped, "Why everyone has to know every detail of my life is beyond me!"

At that moment the bunkhouse door came open and Jimmy, Buck, and Cody strolled in, "I've dealt with this alone until now, and I never needed any of you to watch over me! I never asked anyone to poke around in my business! I never should have told you Kid! I never should have trusted you!"

Buck quickly jumped from Lou's path as she let herself out of the bunkhouse. The slam echoed so loudly that all the boys jumped.

Jimmy sighed and seeing the look on Kid's face said, "Kid, she didn't mean that. None of this is easy for her."

"Don't you think I know that?" Kid snapped, then calmed his voice, "I just want to be sure that Wicks won't try to get her again."

"I don't think you can be sure of that, Kid," Buck sighed, "Not until he's dead."

Chapter Three

Lou sat at the corral fence, fuming as she thought of the scene in the bunkhouse. Her cheeks grew warm and she shook her head. She was so angry. Angry at them, angry at herself, angry at Wicks, angry at the world. She felt like something had to give soon, or she would explode.

A slight smile creased her lips. She'd pretty much just done that.

The longer she sat there, the more guilt riddled her. She'd said some pretty awful stuff to Kid. Especially the part about wishing she'd never trusted him in the first place. That wasn't true. She'd been so glad to take some of the strain of holding her secret in for so long off of herself. Of course, that was when she had thought Wicks was dead.

"And I wish he was," She growled suddenly, her hand closing on a rock which she pitched toward the side of the barn, "I really do."

"Hey Lou," came Jesse's voice as he poked his head outside of the barn.

"Hey Jesse," Lou smiled slightly, not able to be mad at him, even if she was ready to kill the others.

Jesse came to sit beside her in the dirt, "How come you're out here?"

"Needed a few minutes to think," Lou said softly.

"Want me to go away?" Jesse wondered.

Lou considered it, then shook her head, "No. You want to just sit with me a while and talk?"

"About what happened to you?" Jesse asked, looking as if he wanted to bolt, knowing that was one subject that was over his head.

"No, not that. Just about anything but that."

Jesse nodded, understanding Lou's desire to forget her trouble with the clarity of someone much older, "Actually, we are still talking about that book in school, and I have some questions for you."

"Ask away," Lou smiled, and gladly lost herself in the discussion of Alex Dumas' The Three Musketeers.

Later that night, Lou wondered out onto the bunkhouse porch after Kid, who'd been out there for awhile. She sat down on the step next to him and looked at her hands.

"I didn't mean what I said to you about wishing I had never trusted you Kid. I don't regret telling you about my past."

Kid's smile was as gentle as always as he said, "I know you didn't mean it. I just," he sighed and paused, looking for words, "I just know what a hard time you are having right now, and I don't know how to make it better for you. I don't know how to help you."

Lou blinked back sudden tears that leapt to her eyes and nearly whispered, "I don't know how to help me either Kid. I don't feel like me. I'm so mad at everyone and everything. I hate feeling this way."

Cautiously Kid reached his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close to him, wrapping her safely in his arms, "We'll get you through it, all right?"

Lou sighed, "You sound so sure."

He nodded, "I am sure. I know you, and I know me. You are gonna be fine, Lou."

Lou gazed up into his light blue eyes for long moments. Kid saw the doubt in her warm brown orbs and gave her a reassuring smile, planting a gentle kiss on her forehead.

"I trust you," She said so softly that he had to strain his ears to hear her.

"That's all that matters, Lou," Kid told her, and held her more tightly. But, he added to himself, it also matters to me that this man pays the ultimate price for hurting you."

Time passed with its careless regard of those around it, and in the next few days, Lou found herself smiling more and breathing more easily. The awkwardness she had felt around the boys and Rachel had gradually lessened, and things felt a little more normal. Only a small voice in the back of her mind spoke uneasy thoughts, warning her that something just wasn't right in her world and that a storm was coming.

"You sure you are ready to take this run Lou?" Teaspoon asked quietly as she stood by Lightning, tightening the girth of his saddle.

"Teaspoon, it's my turn. Of course I'm ready."

Teaspoon nodded, "What would you say if I sent someone with you?"

"Teaspoon!" Lou almost shouted, outraged.

He quickly held up his hands in a gesture of surrender, "That's what I thought. You win. Ride safe. Women!" He muttered at her, drawing a smile from her.

A few minutes later she was standing on the porch looking for signs of Noah. Kid paced nervously, afraid to say anything, but more afraid to let her go.

"Lou, don't you think you ought to wait a few more days before you go out? Give Wicks some time to really put some distance between you?"

Lou glared at him and snapped, "Wicks is in St. Joe. I'm heading toward Willow Springs. Now, I guess the trail could have changed, but last time I checked those two places were in opposite directions!"

"Leave her alone, Kid," Jimmy advised, "You ain't gonna be able to talk any sense into her."

Lou glared at Jimmy hotly, but he just grinned and winked. Lou had to smile and shake her head. Out of all of them, Jimmy at least was confident in her ability to take care of herself.

"Rider Comin'!" Buck called, from the corner of the porch, "Ride safe Lou!"

Lou jammed her hat down hard on her head and leapt on Lightning before Kid made a move to tie her down. "See you boys in a few days!"

"Watch yourself Lou," Cody advised.

"Lou, I really don't think" Kid began.

"Ha!" Lou cried to Lightning before he finished his predictable spill and grabbed the pouch from a dust covered Noah, disappearing from sight.

"Way to control your girl there Kid," Buck commented slyly, prompting Jimmy and Cody to burst into laughter.

"He could sooner control the weather!" Jimmy pointed out.

"Shut up," Kid muttered, but smiled in good humor.

The next morning Lou climbed off Lightning stiffly. The station master surprised her by coming out to meet her.

"Hey Lou, I have a letter for you here."

Lou pulled her hat lower and deepened her voice, "Thanks Horace."

"Want me to take your horse for you? There's a bath and a meal inside."

"Nah, I think I'll be heading out," Lou said, having long ago given up staying in other bunkhouses. Teaspoon had required that she do so when he'd found out she was a girl.

She took the letter from him and glanced at it. Her name was scrawled out, but the letter hadn't been posted. It had been hand delivered. There was no address and no name but her own marked the front.

She turned and began walking away from the station house, a bad feeling gnawing at her. When she was far away from the curious eyes of Horace, she allowed her trembling fingers to open the letter. She felt her previously flushed face turn ghostly white as she read the letter.

Dear Louise,
Interesting how life works. You have something I want. I need not go into detail, I'm sure. I have something you want. Two things actually. I guess I probably am the one who should go into detail now. Two small children by the names of Jerimiah and Theresa McCloud have come into my care. Strange, but the girl favors you as I remember you.Such a pretty little girl, just like you were. About the same age too, maybe just a little younger. The point is, Louise, that I'll make a trade. My money for your brother and sister. A fair trade, I'm sure you'll agree. Meet me in Sand Creek, a small town north of here by Friday, or I can't guarantee these kids' safety. Come alone or I'll not only kill them, but any one you bring with you. Don't assume I can't Louise, or that I won't. You, more than anyone else, should know my capabilities.

There was no signature to the letter, Wicks had no doubt she would know who he was. He was right. Tears rolled down her face. Dear God, she thought, not my sister! She would have let Wicks kill her before she'd have him lay hands on her sister. If only she hadn't been so stupidly proud and defiant! She should have known better than to cross a man like Wicks. He was right, she of all people should not have underestimated his capabilities for great cruelty.

Although she was trembling violently, Lou wound her fingers in her horse's mane and forced herself to think. She had the money with her, in her bedroll. Going to Sand Creek would be so dangerous, and she knew she would need help. However, the letter had said to come alone, and that is what she planned to do. She couldn't risk getting her brother and sister hurt. Wicks would do it. She prayed Wicks hadn't already done it.

She had been running from this man all her life.

Now, she vaulted onto her horse and ran to him.

Lou pushed her horse hard all day, and finally at sunset pulled him up. Sand Creek was stretched out below her. It was a pretty little town, nestled up against the base of a mountain. Windows from the town's new buildings glowed cheerfully, but Lou didn't appreciate the peaceful sight. Her stomach churned violently, and for the umpteenth time that day, she thought she might be sick. Placing a hand to her damp forehead, clammy even in the cool night air, she forced herself to take deep breaths. It wouldn't do to lose her wits now. Wicks had her brother and sister.

She allowed Lightning to walk down the hill toward the valley the town lay in. Her eyes scanned every passing figure on the street, looking for Wicks, trying desperately to remember what his men had looked like. There had been one hired gun that he'd been especially fond of. Lou's mind struggled for the man's name.

"Thomas Harley," She murmured to herself as it came to her. He'd be there, if he was still alive, and she guessed he was the way he preferred to shoot people in the back rather than in a fair fight.

In the livery stable, Lou took special care of Lightning. He'd had a hard ride, and she'd not considered his weariness. Rubbing his ears softly after she'd cooled him down and brushed him, she whispered, "I'm sorry boy, but you just may have to run again soon. At least I hope we will get the chance to."

Sighing, Lou realized that she wasn't going to get her brother and sister back by petting her horse. Carefully, she tucked the stolen money in behind a board in Lightning's stall. She'd make sure her brother and sister were safe before Wicks got his money back. She knew better than to trust the man.

For the hundredth time, she scanned the letter, but it hadn't amazingly developed a sentence that said where Wicks would wait for her. She had a feeling the hotel was her best bet, but she wanted the element of surprise to herself. Suddenly, she thought she might have the perfect plan to achieve that surprise.

Wicks would expect her to come as Lou, not Louise. Well, she wasn't going to give him either of the two. She quickly grabbed a bill from the money roll hidden in the stall, and then pulled her hat low. Staying in the shadows the entire time, she made her way towards the long row of shops. There was only one dress shop open, but that was all she needed. With the help of a kinder older woman who owned the shop, a while later a very clean, slim, beautiful young woman stood before the dressmaker, who wrung her hands in delight. In front of her stood not a young man or an orphan, but a well bred, wealthy looking young lady.

"How romantic!" She exclaimed, "Imagine, you braving riding over here all the way from Seneca to accept your beau's proposal! He'll be so surprised!"

A bitter smile almost reached Lou's lips, but she stopped it and instead nodded her head, "Yes ma'am, he sure will be surprised,"

She hated to lie to the older woman, but couldn't let any suspicions arise, "Now, you promise not to say anything to anyone? If my parents found out.."

"Oh, far be it from me to come between two lovers! I eloped myself, you know!"

Lou somehow gently disentangled herself from the seamstress and slid away. Anyone who had seen her go into the dress shop wouldn't recognize her now and many more noticed her on her way out. Lou walked out of the dress shop with her best lady-of-the-manor air. She, well actually Wicks, had bought her a dark purple velvet dress, with a fitted bodice and flaring skirt. The seamstress had gathered her hair and twisted it at the back of her head. She appeared a very refined, composed, serene young lady to all that looked on. Only someone looking very closely would have noticed the terror in her eyes or the pallor of her skin. Lou felt coldness close around her and steel resolve worked its way into her heart. Whatever he would do to her she would bear, but he would not hurt Theresa. Not while she was still alive.

She let herself into the hotel carrying only the small velvet handbag that contained her gun and a small amount of money. The man behind the desk was instantly interested, and eager to help her.

"May I send someone out to get your bags, Miss?" He wondered.

"No sir, that's not necessary. My things will be arriving on the stage in a few days," She said in her best southern accent, "All I will be requiring is a room for now, if you please.

The man's eyes lit up and he nearly broke his arm in his hurry to open the book for her to sign in, "I'm sure you'll find our accommodations to be satisfactory.

"Ah, yes" Lou said distractedly, for in the mirror that hung over the desk she'd watched a man walk in that looked vaguely familiar. She was certain it was one of Wick's men, and she struggled with her cloudy memories of Wick's brothel.


Lou jumped and gave her attention to the clerk, having the feeling it wasn't the first time he'd called her.

"Oh, excuse me, yes?"

"Just sign here, and I'll show you to your room," He smiled.

Lou picked up the pen, and tried not to hesitate as she signed the book 'Rachel Hunter'.

"Miss Hunter, this way, please," said the young man, "And if you require any thing at all, my name is Roger Miller."

"I won't be needing anything, but thank you sir," She breathed tensely as they passed the man Lou thought she might recognize. His eyes fell on her briefly in admiration, but when Lou met his eye, he looked away and blushed. She sighed with relief, he hadn't recognized her, he had simply been admiring. Maybe he wasn't one of Wick's men after all. Once in her room, Lou sighed with relief and leaned against the door.

"Now what?" She said out loud. She'd frantically scanned the book for Wick's name and room number, but hadn't seen it. She was sure he would use a different name, just as she did. She only hoped he didn't give her credit for being smart enough to do the same.

It wasn't much later she did the only thing she could do. She made her way back down the stairs, and discovered Roger Miller asleep behind the desk. Ever so quietly, she opened the sign in book, and began reading every name, hoping one would jar her memory. And suddenly there it was, Thomas Harley. Room 206, just a few doors down from her.

With a triumphant squaring of her chin, she headed back for the stairs. She crept up them, holding her skirts so that they would not make a sound and edged towards the door. She placed her ear against it, and held her breath. Low male voices came from inside. She longed to hear a child's voice, but there were none. Knowing she needed to load her gun and formulate some kind of plan so the kids wouldn't get hurt, she headed back to her room. It was pitch black inside, and she thought the lamp must have burned out. She groped around the unfamiliar room until she found the lamp, and fumbled with it for a few minutes before she was able to light it.

It was at that moment she realized something was terribly wrong. The hair at the back of her neck stood up and chills raced down her spine. She swung around just in time to see an arm swinging at her head. She yelped softly and tried to raise her arms against it, but was too late. The contact of the fist with her face was swift and severe, and she went crashing to the ground.

"I thought you'd see it my way," Wicks growled from above her. Lou blinked hard against the blackness that was swimming at the corners of her eyes, fighting it. She had a job to do, and Wicks couldn't get the upper hand.

She leapt to her feet and backed away from him, trying to appear fierce.

"Where are my brother and sister?" She demanded, "If you've touched them, I'll rip your heart out through your toes!"

Wicks surprised her by breaking into a laugh.

"Where are they?" Lou asked frantically, unnerved by his laughter.

"I never had them, Louise. I thought you would be smarter than that honestly, but I went along with Harley's idea to say we had them."

"Then how did you know their names?"

"Oh, because I looked for you after you left the morning after we got aquatinted. I remembered that you'd come from an orphanage in St. Joe, so I checked it out the week after you ran away from me. They said you used to live there with your brother and sister, and gave me their names. I have an excellent memory, you see."

"Why did you come looking for me?" Lou asked, a nervous pulse ticking along her throat.

"Because I had big plans for you, Louise. Big plans," He laughed coarsely, "I thought you had rare fight in you. Men like that."

"No they don't. Real men don't get pleasure out of hurting children!" Lou hissed.

"Mmm, no matter, I've got you now. And I'll get my money back. And after that, who knows?"

"You aren't getting your money back. I don't have it. I came to rescue my brother and sister. Of course you wouldn't have them," Lou said out loud, feeling weak with relief, "You never could have gotten from Rock Creek to St. Joe, to Sand Creek in that length of time. Stupid me for not realizing that sooner!"

"Yes, stupid you, Louise, and unlucky you, unless you get me the money right now."

"I told you, I don't have it. I never had it. Charlotte gave it to the man that shot you."

"You're lying," Wicks said after studying her for a minute. Without warning he crossed the space between them, and struck her again across the cheek.

Again Lou fell to the floor. Wicks laughed, "No matter, the money isn't important. I'll see ten times that amount next week alone. I think I'll take out my revenge other ways."

A knock at the door sounded, and Roger Miller's voice drifted to her, "Miss Hunter? I heard a crash and I just wanted to make sure you are all right."

Lou was about to scream for help when Wicks was suddenly on her, winding his fingers painfully through her hair and jerking her neck back.

"Tell him you are fine!" Wicks ordered her. Lou swallowed hard and closed her blackening eyes, seeing her only chance of escape without serious injury disappearing.

"Miss Hunter?" Came the concerned man's voice again.

Wicks wrapped his fingers around her neck at that point shaking her hard. Finally Lou gasped out, "I'm fine, I just dropped the water basin. I've already cleaned it up."

"Goodnight then miss," Roger said, and Lou closed her eyes tightly as she heard his footsteps retreating, every nerve in her body telling her to scream bloody murder.

"Quite the actress," Wicks commented and threw her back on the floor.

"Leave me alone," Lou growled, "You think Marshal Hunter was joking around with you? Do you really think you'll live if you lay your hands on me?"

"That washed up old man can't touch me, and neither can any of those two bit gun slingers you know."

"You are so wrong" Lou warned him.

"I'll take my chances, Louise," Wicks growled, and Lou knew he was fearless.

She, on the other hand, was afraid for her life.

It was many hours later when Lou stirred and opened her eyes. Searing pain went through her skull, and she realized she was still laying on the floor where she had fallen. Tears ran out of her eyes as she thought about the scene that had taken place. Wicks had demanded she give him his money, and Lou had denied having it. He'd beaten her badly, trying to extract the information, and finally in one last uncontrollable flash of rage had taken his gun and struck her on the temple. There had been instant and welcomed darkness for Lou then. Catching her breath in her throat, Lou quickly took stock of her physical situation, afraid of what could have happened to her while she was unconscious. She breathed a shaky sigh when she realized Wicks had left her alone after she blacked out. Slowly, she brought her hand to her temple, feeling warm, sticky blood on her fingers. Ever so gradually, she dared to make herself sit up, trying to ignore the sickening pain and the dizziness that was making the dimly lit room spin. It was morning already. She'd been out for at least eight hours.

After swaying unsteadily on her feet for a moment, she went to her door. Turning the knob, she discovered it locked from the outside. Sighing, she walked unsteadily to the window. The man who she'd thought worked for Wicks and noticed her yesterday was leaning against the sill from the outside of the balcony. He turned around and sneered at her when she pulled the curtain aside, so Lou instantly withdrew. She had to get out before Wicks came back.

She'd pick the lock, somehow. Wicks couldn't have posted a guard at her front door, that would have looked too suspicious. Taking a pin from her hair, which was falling all around her face, she went to work on the lock. It was rather simple to get out, and she was cautious as she moved into the hall. No one blocked her escape. With as much speed as she could muster without passing out cold, Lou gathered her skirts and made her way towards the stairs.

Roger Miller was behind the desk, and turned to her with a smile that instantly disappeared at seeing her bruised face. Lou pressed her finger to her mouth to stop his cry of astonishment.

"Please Mr. Miller, I need your help!" She gasped, "Can we go somewhere?"

Instantly he was taking her arm and leading her into a small office."Miss Hunter, what in the world?"

"I don't have enough time to explain everything," Lou said quietly, "But I am in serious trouble with a dangerous man who will kill me if I don't get away. I need your help getting out of town. It's dangerous, but please sir, you are the only soul in this town I can even consider asking help."

"Of course I'll help you miss, but what about the law? The marshal could help you."

"The man I'm running from is above the law, Mr. Miller," Lou said softly, believing it.

"That's right, I am!" Growled a voice from the door, and both of them gasped and swung around. Lou was horrified to see Wicks standing there.Wicks focused his attention on Roger Miller, who had bristled and was ready to defend Lou. Pointing his gun at the clerk, he closed the door behind him. Lou's eyes quickly scanned the desk for some sort of weapon. Her eyes fell on a sharp looking letter opener. When Miller suddenly rushed Wicks, Lou's hand darted for it, and she slipped it into the bodice of her gown, praying she wouldn't have to use it.

Everything happened fast after that, and yet for a moment time hung suspended. Wicks whipped out a knife and brought it up fast into Roger's heart. Lou shrieked in horror and started for the man that had just been killed because of her. Wicks caught her by the wrists and slung her against the wall. Lou closed her eyes as she felt the sharp edge of the letter opened pressing against her skin. She prayed Wicks wouldn't discover it, at least not yet.

"Running away, again, Louise? I leave you alone for an hour and you're ready to skip town? Only this time, Charlotte's not here to help you and now neither is this kind man. How does it feel to be responsible for the death of an innocent man, Louise? He was just a simple desk clerk, just beginning to live his life. He probably would have had a family and children, but now they'll never be born because of you. You killed a man Louise.

With tears streaming from her blackened eyes Lou suddenly screamed and struck out at him, fighting him because what he'd said was a truth that she didn't want to hear.

"Shut up!"

He roared at her, and slapped his hand hard over her mouth. Lou still kicked wildly at his legs. In one movement he grabbed her hair and snapped her head back against the wall, effectively knocking her into blackness. Effortlessly he scooped her up, cradling her head against his chest in what would appear to be a loving embrace. As he walked from the office, startled hotel guests stared.

"Someone go for the marshal, there is a dead man in there. He tried to attack my fianc,e, and then tried to kill me when I came to her aid. As you can see, she's been beaten quite badly, and I'm going to take care of her."

His eyes searched for, and found the sly face of Thomas Harley, "You there, sir, you go for the marshal!"

Thomas Harley gave him a black-tooth grin and started out the door. No doubt he was going to bribe the undertaker, not get the marshal. Wicks left Lou alone again, having no doubt that the girl wouldn't wake for some time, and left the same guard at the window, and another in the hotel lobby, effectively blocking both avenues of escape. He had a feeling she wouldn't be foolish enough to try it again.

Lou was lying motionless on the bed in blackness when she heard Wicks fumbling with the lock at her door. Night had fallen not long ago, and she had regained consciousness even more recently. Her head throbbed and her eyes wouldn't focus. She found it hard to move, and her mouth tasted like cotton.

At first, the sound of the door opening was just like the one in the nightmare she'd been having about the night Wicks had raped her, but the pain in her head suddenly reminded her that her present situation was quite ominous. Remembering the letter opener, she quickly withdrew it and slid it under her pillow, just as the door creaked open.

Lou squinted at the dim, but still painful, light that poured in the room around the looming figure of the man she so hated. She attempted to stir, but couldn't find the strength in her trembling limbs.

Wicks closed the door behind him, and Lou used all her control in not moving. Every bone in her body told her to run, but she knew she couldn't. Not only was she physically unable to do so, but there was no where for her to go.

So she trembled as he approached her, violence and contempt and cruelty radiating from him like something tangible.

He stopped at her bedside, and she could make out his silhouette in the dim light from the moon and the fires in the street. Her eyes glittered with tears in the darkness.

"Frank Wicks, I'm telling you now that if you touch me, you'll die," She said calmly, her voice very strong.

"And Louise, I'm telling you that it's been a long, long time, and I'll wait no longer."

Suddenly, he was on her, his hands cruel, his voice venomous, "This is what happens to little thieving orphans, Louise!"

Lou cried out in pain and struggled against him, her arms pinned down by his weight. She flailed at him as hard as her sore limbs would allow, but her blows were weak and he paid her no mind.

"NO!" Lou screamed when he tore at the front of her dress and she heard the material give under his strong hand. She brought her knee up hard, finding her mark. He gasped in pain, but did not lose his hold on her, and drove his fists hard into her stomach, leaving her wheezing for air.

He began to fumble with his clothing, and Lou fought the blackness that was swimming behind her eyes again. If she were to pass out now, Wicks would win. Suddenly with renewed strength she tore her arm from under Wicks, and reached under her pillow. Wicks was very close to raping her when her hand closed hard around the handle of the letter opener.

With a scream and every ounce of strength she had left in her, Lou plunged the sharp end of the letter opener deep into Wick's back.

The sound that tore from his mouth and the wild flash of his eyes was that of an animal or a monster, not a human. The look that he cast on her burned forever into her memory. His hand came raking across her bare chest with incredible force, and Lou screamed as his nails dug up flesh.

"I'll haunt you forever!" He rasped out, and suddenly his eyes rolled back into his head and the weight of him slumped against her.

Lou lay there for a moment, chest heaving as blood began to run from the deep cuts there. She realized that her hand was still clamped on the letter opener. She suddenly pulled back as if it had burned her, feeling the warm sticky blood that carried the life out of Wicks covering her hand.

A high whirring sound began in Lou's head, almost like that of rushing wind. She'd just murdered a man, she realized. Lou struggled vainly against the considerable weight of the man who'd just died by her hand, his sightless eyes boring into hers.

A panic began to seize her despite her best efforts to remain calm, as she lay pinned and trembling under the dead body of the man who had raped her, almost twice.

And in that moment, she didn't think she cared whether she lived or died....

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