Author's Note: This story falls between "Color Blind" and "Old Scores"

The town of Sweetwater bustled with activity. Harnesses jingled and wagons creaked as farmers came to town to stock up on supplies. The laughter of women exchanging the latest gossip rang from the boardwalks. A lively tune from a tinny, poorly tuned piano poured from the saloon even though it was still early in the afternoon.

Teaspoon walked down the dusty street oblivious to all this. Tompkins', "Good afternoon, Teaspoon" received nothing more than a wave of Teaspoon's hand in vague recognition that someone had said his name. Thumbs hooked into his belt; Teaspoon was lost in thought about one of his riders. Ever since Kid accepted Robert's challenge to a duel, he hadn't been the same. He had retreated back into the Kid that had arrived at the express months earlier- a loner keeping everyone else at arm's length.

'At least I arrived in time to stop that foolishness.' Teaspoon thought. He shuddered to think what might have happened to Kid if he had been just one minute later. Mounting the stairs to the Marshal's office, he spied Kid pacing back and forth inside. Teaspoon paused briefly, 'Maybe now I'll be able to find out what's been troubling Kid.'

He plastered a smile on his face as he opened the door to the office. Kid had stopped pacing and was now staring out the window not even acknowledging Teaspoon's presence. Teaspoon stared at Kid for a moment then cleared his throat to get Kid's attention. "Good morning, Kid."

Kid dropped his gaze to the floor, but said nothing. His body remained tense. "Something I can help you with, Kid?" Teaspoon prodded.

Kid didn't move. Teaspoon patiently waited seeing the internal struggle play across Kid's face. "I really messed up this time, Teaspoon," Kid blurted out.

Teaspoon raised one eyebrow as Kid plowed on, "I never meant to hurt her. First, I imply that what we had together meant nothing, and then I find myself preparing to duel a man I just met for a woman that I barely knew. I swore I'd never do that again. What was I thinking?" Kid's hands were clenched, and his face was full of torment.

'Again??' Teaspoon's mind raced wondering just what the boy had done before he joined the Pony Express. Of all the riders, Kid had revealed the least about himself. Teaspoon sorely wanted to ask just what Kid meant about 'again', but instead he reached out and placed a gentle hand on Kid's shoulder, his eyes full of compassion. "Son, you weren't thinking. That was part of the problem. Let's sit down and talk about this." It was a good sign that Kid didn't pull away, but he didn't sit down either.

Kid raised anguished eyes to meet Teaspoon's concerned gaze. "You're right. I wasn't thinking. I was doing. Doing anything to keep from thinking about Lou." He paused and shrugged Teaspoon's hand off his shoulder. "You know why I took up with Samantha? She kept me distracted from my pain."

Teaspoon opened his mouth to respond but Kid continued on, "That day in the bunkhouse when I told the boys that Lou and I were never meant to be, I…" Kid's voice trailed off as he turned away to stare out the window again.

In a voice almost too soft to be heard Kid continued, "I thought that if I said it out loud I could convince myself it was true even though every fiber of my being said it was wrong." Kid swallowed hard, his voice becoming louder, "I waited for the boys to tell me I was wrong, but they didn't. I felt more confused than ever. Then I walked out of the bunkhouse straight into Lou. I could see that she heard me. I stopped and waited for her to tell me that I was wrong." Kid's voice caught, "But she didn't."

He swung his gaze away from the window to look at Teaspoon again, "She didn't say I was wrong, and at that moment, something inside me broke." He rested his hand on the butt of his gun and once again dropped his gaze to the floor, tears threatening to fall.

Teaspoon took a step towards Kid, but Kid took a step backwards as he turned to look out the window once more. "I need to get away, Teaspoon."

Teaspoon inwardly sighed. In voice brighter than he felt he said, "Sure Kid, take a few days off. It would do you good."

"No, Teaspoon, you don't understand. I want a transfer to another station."

"Are you sure about that Kid? What about Rachel and the boys? What about your family?"

Kid sighed, "It doesn't have to be permanent, but, Teaspoon, as long as I stay around here I'm bound to do something stupid again that will hurt Lou, because you're right, I'm not thinking. And I don't want to hurt her anymore. I love her too much for that."

Teaspoon softened his voice. "Don't you think leaving will hurt her?"

Kid shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe not. But I need to time to think, time to figure out how I can live with Lou while living without her, and I can't do that here."

Teaspoon searched Kid's face and saw no trace of doubt. This time Teaspoon audibly sighed as his shoulders drooped. He turned away walking slowly towards his desk. Sitting on top of the pile of recent 'Wanted' posters he had received was a letter that the Army had asked him to deliver to Ft. Laramie. He fingered the worn envelope; his mind once again lost in thought. Kid watched Teaspoon's back, his whole body tense as he prepared further arguments for his leaving.

Teaspoon turned and surprised Kid when he said, "All right then, if you're sure." He paused staring at Kid. Kid merely clenched his jaw and gave a curt nod. "I've got a letter that needs to be delivered to the colonel at Ft. Laramie as soon as possible, and Peters at Scotts Bluff has been asking for some additional riders. I'll write Peters a note so that he understands that you are just on loan. After you deliver the letter to Ft. Laramie, take some time off before you check in at Scotts Bluff." Teaspoon reached out his hand, placed it on Kid's shoulder giving it a gentle squeeze. "When you're ready son, come home."

Kid swallowed past the lump in his throat, "Thanks Teaspoon. I'll be ready to ride in an hour." Quickly he turned and strode out the door. Teaspoon watched him go with a heavy heart.

*** ***

As Teaspoon headed to the station with the two letters in his pocket, he wondered if he was doing the right thing to let Kid go. Rachel would understand, at least he hoped she would, but the boys, especially Lou, wouldn't. All too soon he arrived at the station.

Kid was just walking Katy out of the barn, all tacked and ready to go. Teaspoon noticed that Kid seemed to be traveling light and wasn't taking most of his belongings with him. He ran a quizzical eye over Katy, "Change your mind?"

Kid stood firm. "No. I can send for my stuff later." He turned to check Katy's saddle, "Besides, you said I could always come home." Trying to lighten the mood, he turned back with a lopsided grin on his face, "And if I move my stuff out, Cody will steal my bunk."

Teaspoon chuckled, a small smile crossing his face. Perhaps, he thought, there was hope yet. He took the letters out of his pocket and handed them to Kid. Kid put them in the pocket of his coat. He looked around at the place he had called home for the past several months, a better home than he had left. Here he had found a family. He swallowed hard as he reached inside his saddle bags and came out with a letter. He hesitated a moment and then shoved it into Teaspoon's hand. "Give this to Lou for me." Quickly he mounted Katy before he changed his mind.

"Ride safe, Kid." Kid looked down at the only man he would willingly call father. He wanted to say so much, but the words stuck in his throat because opening his mouth would betray him. He didn't want to leave, yet he knew he must. Teaspoon's eyes searched Kid's face. "I understand, Son. It's OK." Kid let out the breath he didn't realize he was holding and gave a quick nod. Teaspoon slapped Katy on the rump sending them off. He only hoped that he was doing the right thing for all of them.

Lou rode up and dismounted. She looked quizzically at Teaspoon who was still watching Kid's disappearing figure, "Where's Kid going? He wasn't scheduled for a run."

"Scotts Bluff."

Unconcerned, she turned to grab something from her saddlebags. "Oh. When will he be back?"

Teaspoon sighed and said in a soft, sad voice, "I don't rightly know Lou."

Lou became alarmed and stepped in front of Teaspoon. "What do you mean, Teaspoon?"

Teaspoon looked sadly at Lou. "He asked me to give this to you." Teaspoon handed Lou the letter then turned and walked slowly towards the house to break the news to Rachel.

.

*** ***

Lou stood there bewildered, staring at the letter, then at Teaspoon's back and finally to the dust cloud which was all that was left to see as Kid and Katy disappeared over the horizon. Lou finally realized that she was clutching the letter so hard she was crumpling it. She forced herself to relax as she looped Lightning's reins around the hitching post.

Lou wasn't sure how long she stood staring at Kid's letter before she headed to the hayloft in the barn. It took her even longer to work up the courage to open the letter. Sitting with her back resting against a pile of hay, she drew her knees up, smoothed out the crumpled pages and began to read:

My dearest Lou,

Though you may not believe it, you are dearer to me than life itself. I can't begin to tell you how sorry I am for all that I have put you through recently. I wanted to tell you so many times but you turned away, shutting me out of your life. I love you so much Lou and never wanted to hurt you. Samantha was nothing to me but a way to drive away the pain of losing you.

I know I pushed you. I tried so many times to explain why I worry so much about you, but you always changed the subject or became defensive and pushed me away. There's so much about me that you don't know, so much I wanted to share with you besides dancin'.

I hurt you, Lou and for that I am so sorry. But, Lou, I'm hurtin' too. I know you overhead me tell the boys that we were never meant to be. I didn't believe it then, and I don't believe it now, but it seems you do. You didn't stop me, Lou, that day at the bunkhouse. You didn't tell me I was wrong. You have no idea how much I wanted someone, anyone, to tell me I was wrong- to tell me that what we had was worth fighting for. No one did. Not even you.

I can't put in a letter all that I felt and thought at that moment. Perhaps someday when you are ready to listen I can share that with you. Perhaps someday I can learn to live with you as just a friend. But you aren't ready to listen anymore than I am ready to be near you as nothing more than a friend.

I hope that someday comes soon. I love you, Lou.

Kid

*** ***

Rachel stepped out of the house on her way to the bunkhouse when she noticed a dejected Teaspoon coming towards her. Seeing the faraway look in his eyes, she hurried towards him, her voice full of concern. "What's happened Teaspoon? Is one of the boys hurt?"

Teaspoon raised sad eyes to Rachel and gestured towards the house. "Let's step inside. I sure could use a cup of coffee."

"Teaspoon," Rachel all but growled.

"None of the boys is hurt. Now, can we go inside and talk over a cup of coffee?"

"Sure, Teaspoon." Rachel headed back into the house then stopped when she realized Teaspoon wasn't behind her. He stood staring at the horizon seemingly oblivious to the fact that he had just asked Rachel for a chat over coffee. "Teaspoon." No response. Exasperated, Rachel raised her voice, "Teaspoon!"

He shook himself out of his reverie. "Comin', Rachel."

Teaspoon plumped his tired body down into the chair in the kitchen. Concerned, Rachel placed a hot cup of coffee in front of him. He wrapped his hands around the cup but made no move to take a drink. "Alright Teaspoon," Rachel said as she poured herself a cup and sat down, "what has you looking like someone who lost their best friend?" She sipped her coffee waiting for his reply.

Teaspoon sighed for what seemed like the umpteenth time that day. "Kid's leaving."

"Leaving? As in going on a special run that may keep him away for a few weeks or leaving as in never coming back?"

"Yes."

She plunked her coffee cup down onto the table. "Honestly, Teaspoon. What kind of answer is that? Is he coming back or not?"

Teaspoon stared into his cup then softly replied, "I don't know, Rachel."

Rachel felt like yelling at him but forced herself to remain calm. "What do you mean you don't know? You are the station master. How can you not know?"

Teaspoon banged his cup on the table and stood up suddenly, clearly agitated, his voice raised. "Darn it Rachel. I don't know!"

Rachel was taken aback. "I'm sorry, Teaspoon. I didn't mean to upset you. Why don't you tell me what happened."

Teaspoon ran a tired hand down his face. He took a deep breath to steady his breathing and then sat back down. "Today Kid came and asked me for a transfer to another station. Said he couldn't stay here without doing something stupid that would hurt Lou. He said her loved her too much to do that again. I told him to take some time off, but he was bound and determined to get a transfer. So, I sent him to Scotts Bluff. I told him it was temporary and to come home when he was ready, but Rachel, I don't honestly know if he will come back."

Tears were standing in Rachel's eyes. "Oh, Teaspoon. Lou will be devastated. Does she know?"

"Sort of. Kid left her a letter. I have no idea what he told her. I was going to tell all the boys and Lou at dinner tonight."

Rachel reached out putting her hand onto Teaspoon's forearm. "I suppose it's for the best. I take it he was set on leaving one way or another wasn't he?"

Teaspoon merely nodded.

Rachel sighed as she shook her head. "Those two may be the death of us yet."

A slight smile crossed Teaspoon's face as he nodded in agreement. "Ya' know Rachel. Them boys and girl do a man's job every day. Hell, they do it better than most men I know. It's easy to forget that they are just boys though. Boys who didn't exactly have the best models of what loving is or means or how a man and a woman who love each other stay together. I've done what I can to try to create a family for them, but times like now; it just don't seem to be enough."

Rachel looked Teaspoon in the eye as she reached out to pat the back of his hand resting on the table. "You've done good, Teaspoon. You've created a home for all of us and when Kid is ready, I'm sure he'll come back."

"I certainly hope so, Rachel." Teaspoon suddenly felt old and tired. "I certainly hope so."

*** ***

Kid rode hard pushing Katy as much as he dared. The wind in his face, the pounding of Katy's hooves, the ground rushing beneath were an elixir that allowed him to forget all his troubles, all his pain, all his worries. Nothing else mattered when he rode.

He finally started to slow when he saw a creek up ahead. Stopping to give Katy a much needed break, he slid from the saddle. While Katy drank, his eyes scanned the ground until he spied a stone that looked just right for skipping. He picked it up, running his thumb across the surface and judging its weight. Then he pulled his arm back and let the stone fly, skipping it across the surface of the creek. A small smile crossed his face as he watched it skip three times before sinking to the bottom of the creek. As the stone sank so did his smile and his spirits. His mind was assaulted with images of him and Lou standing side by side at similar creeks skipping stones. Kid turned and buried his face in Katy's mane. "Aw, Katy, what am I going to do without her?"

Katy turned her head to look at him, stomped her hoof and gave an irritated snort. Chuckling, Kid raised his head. "You're not jealous are you?" He patted her on the neck and smiled. "Of course, you are still my favorite girl. No one will ever replace you." Katy playful nibbled on his shirt as she nickered in pleasure. Lovingly, Kid ran his hand down her face. "You'll always be there, won't you girl? And you know that I'll always love you no matter what." Katy bobbed her head.

Kid eyed the sun dropping lower in the sky. "C'mon Katy girl. We'd better get moving before we lose any more light." Swinging into the saddle, Kid pictured Rachel bustling around the bunkhouse preparing the riders' dinner. He could almost smell the stew she had promised to make. Sighing, he turned Katy and his thoughts away from the home he had left, hoping that he was doing the right thing.

*** ***

Kid arrived in Ft. Laramie in record time. He had driven himself hard allowing the rigors of hard riding to drive away thoughts of all that he had left behind in Sweetwater. He was tired, dirty, and thankful that the only thought in his mind was delivering the letter to the colonel.

After handing over the letter, Kid was looking forward to a bath, a hot meal, and a bed. His mind was on little else, so when he stepped out of the administration building it is little wonder that he ran right into a grizzled gentleman coming in who was just as dusty as he was.

Barely looking up, Kid muttered, "Excuse me," as he strode out the door.

The man he had run into stopped. "Well that's a fine way to greet an old friend, Kid."

Kid stopped in his tracks and spun around. His eyes took in the worn star before they came to rest on a face that had left Sweetwater with the woman that all the riders had come to think of as a surrogate mother. His face split into a wide smile. "Sam! It's good to see you! How's Emma? Is she with you?"

Sam chuckled. A smile lit his eyes, and he shook his head. "No, Emma isn't with me. She's doing well, and we are expecting our first child in a few months."

Kid slapped Sam on the shoulder. "That's great! How come you are all the way out here then? Doesn't being Territorial Marshall mean that you can have someone else do all the dirty work while you wine and dine all the important people?" he jokingly said.

Sam's face fell; his body becoming rigid. "Not this time."

Kid sensed Sam's rapid change in demeanor. "What's going on?"

Sam studied Kid remembering times back in Sweetwater when Kid and the boys had proven time and again that they were more than capable deputies. "I'm here to pick up a prisoner who has managed to irritate a number of important people, not to mention the Sioux. Seems a lot of people would be right happy if this guy never made it to trial. I'm supposed to make sure he arrives in Omaha in one piece." He looked pointedly at Kid. "This is one of the times when I miss having you boys available as extra guns. I sure could use one right now."

Kid didn't hesitate. "I'd be happy to ride with you, Sam. I'm transferring stations anyway. Teaspoon told me take all the time I needed before I reported to Scott's Bluff, so I'm yours as long as you need me."

Sam relaxed. Having Kid along would even the odds some. "Thanks, Kid. Meet me back here in the morning." Kid nodded as Sam turned to head into the building.

Kid descended the stairs then patted Katy on the neck. "Well, Katy girl, guess we won't have as much time to relax as I'd hope."

He was just swinging into the saddle when he heard Sam bellow, "He what?!?" Kid couldn't hear the reply, but he could hear perfectly Sam's tirade as could likely everyone in the fort. "What do you mean he escaped? This is an Army fort! He is, excuse me, was," Kid could hear Sam's voice dripping sarcasm, "surrounded by soldiers. How the hell did he manage to escape?!?" A few moments later Sam came storming out of the office muttering under his breath. "Of all the stupid ….. just rode out of here …. no one saw a god damn thing ….. unbelievable."

Despite the seriousness of the situation, seeing Sam lose his temper so thoroughly at someone other than himself made Kid want to chuckle. "Problem, Sam?" He tried his best to hide his amusement but failed.

Sam stopped abruptly. He gave Kid a hard stare. "Just what about this do you find amusing?"

Kid raised his hands in mock defeat, struggling to keep a straight face. "Why, nothing, Sam. Just never thought I would see the day when you would be talking to yourself like some old codger."

Some of the tension eased from Sam's face. "That bad, huh?"

"Yep." Kid lost the battle as a broad grin broke across his face.

Seeing Kid's amusement caused Sam to quickly regain his cool. Disgust evident in his voice, Sam filled Kid in on what he knew. "Seems the Army let my prisoner just ride out of here two nights ago, and nobody admits to knowing anything. They sent a detail out to try to track him down, but no one has reported back. The good Sergeant in there seems to think the prisoner couldn't have gotten far and is surely back in the clutches of the Army. I don't think so. By all reports this man is more slippery than butter on a hot summer's day and has as many friends as he does enemies."

"What are you going to do?"

"Right now the only thing I can do. Wait. Guess I won't be needing your help after all."

"Katy and I could use some rest. Mind if we wait with you for a bit?"

"Thanks, Kid." Sam cocked his head. "Sure I'm not keeping you from something important?"

The amusement that had been playing across Kid's face quickly disappeared. His face became unreadable as he struggled with his internal torment over Lou. "Nope." He hoped his voice sounded convincing.

Sam studied Kid for a moment wondering what had happened back in Sweetwater to make Kid leave. Kid's gaze never wavered hoping that Sam would let this line of questioning drop. Sam had never known Kid to do anything rash. He was convinced the boy's reasons must be sound, besides they were his own. Sam gave a brief nod. "Alright then. Let's get something to eat and then see if we can find someone," Sam swept his arm around in broad gesture, "around here that might have any information to help track this guy down."

*** ***

Kid stood on the porch of the bachelor officer's quarters and peered across the parade ground. The wind carried sounds of men's laughter as they joked with each other while they worked. Kid just stood there listening, staring at nothing as his mind drifted back to seeing Teaspoon rise out of the horse trough then slather himself with bear grease. Kid had to smile as he remembered thinking that Teaspoon was crazy, but would have to be tolerated. How wrong he was. Teaspoon taught them not only how to be Pony Express riders but how to become a family. The sounds of the fort faded to be replaced by the sounds of Jimmy shooting cans behind the bunkhouse, the creak of the windmill, Rachel hollering "Rider comin'", Cody regaling them with yet another unbelievable tale of adventure, the sounds Ike's hands made as he spoke, Buck's quiet chuckle, the crack of Noah's whip, and Lou's laughter. He could see them all- his family. The family he chose to become a part of when he left Virginia to start a new life. The family he had left just as Jed had left him.

His smile faded as anger welled up inside of him. He wrapped his hands around the porch rail, squeezing it so hard his knuckles turned white- Jed, who had left them to pursue his own selfish concerns; Jed, who didn't even recognize his brother when they met again in Sweetwater; Jed, who pointed a gun at Kid because he was in his way. Suddenly, Kid turned and hit the post of the porch. No! He wasn't like Jed. He couldn't be. He wouldn't be. Jed cared only for himself. Kid cared for everyone close to him, when he let them get close that is. However, he learned long ago that caring and pain went hand in hand. He struck the post again. Why did love have to be so hard?

He was startled from his reverie by the sound of a bugle blaring across the parade grounds. Slowly the sounds of the rest of fort began to register once again including the sound of rider coming fast towards the administration building. He noted Sam striding rapidly in that direction, and Kid hastened to join him.

Kid caught up with Sam in time to hear the last of the excited corporal's words. "We've got him cornered!"

Sam quelled the young corporal's enthusiasm with a look that sent a shiver down his spine. "Cornered. Did you hear that, Kid?" he tossed over his shoulder. "The Army has this man cornered. Son, how many of you Army types are out there?"

Swallowing hard the corporal replied, "Twenty, sir."

Sam's eyes continued to bore into the corporal. "And how many men did you find when you managed to 'corner' the prisoner?"

The corporal tried not to squeak. "Just the one, sir."

Sam struggled to keep control of his temper. "Twenty to one and you only have him cornered? Why in the name of all that is holy haven't you captured this man and brought him back?"

"Well, sir…" the corporal stammered, "he managed to find a cave. We've got the entrance surrounded, but he can pick us off if we try to rush him. It's sort of a stand-off."

"A standoff." Sam just stared at the corporal disbelieving.

The corporal's face grew red as he drew himself up. "The lieutenant is trying to avoid senseless deaths by waiting the prisoner out. Eventually, he will get hungry and thirsty and give himself up."

Sam scoffed. "Oh. Did ya'll ever stop to consider that he might have used this cave as a hiding place before or that there might be another way out?"

The soldier dropped his gaze to the floor as his shoulders sagged. He didn't have to answer. Sam could tell the possibilities had never crossed the lieutenant's mind. Sam's voice grew hard. "Get a fresh mount and be ready to ride in thirty minutes. You're going to take me back to this cave so that I and Kid can do what the Army can't seem to."

The corporal acquired a spine once again. "You, sir, are a civilian and can't order me about. I was sent here to get supplies and reinforcements, and that's what I intend to do."

Sam took two steps forward so that he was toe to toe with the corporal. The look on his face had caused men wanted for murder to drop their guns without hesitation. "I'm a United States Marshall sent here on express orders from the governor to bring this prisoner back to Omaha. The full cooperation of the Army is expected by both me and the governor." Sam narrowed his eyes. His voice deadly calm, he said, "You have thirty minutes to gather those reinforcements. Now move!"

The corporal stumbled backwards a few steps then ran past Sam and out the door.

*** ***

For once in his life, Kid was impressed by the efficiency of the Army. There was a column of cavalry including a supply wagon ready to move out in less than one hour. Kid suspected the speed with which they moved had something to do with Sam glaring at them all as if he would shoot them if they slowed down.

Kid patted Katy on the neck before swinging up into the saddle. "Change of pace, Katy. Maybe this is just what I need." Heading to the front of the column he passed the supply wagon and noticed that it contained a large amount of rope. Shaking his head, he wondered just what he was getting himself into this time.

Kid reined in next to Sam. "What's all the rope for Sam?" he inquired.

Sam merely shrugged as the column began moving forward. "I don't know any better than you, Kid. Maybe they hope it will keep them from losing this guy a second time."

Kid looked past Sam and saw the young corporal's mouth draw into a thin line. Kid wasn't sure who was more irritated at the moment, Sam or the corporal. "How far away is this cave, Corporal?"

The corporal kept his gaze straight ahead. His reply was terse. "About twenty miles."

Kid turned in his saddle to look behind him. The supply wagon was heavily loaded which meant that they couldn't go any faster than a walk. The men seemed focused on the task at hand as the jokes and easy going banter ceased the moment the sergeant had called out "Forward, ho." He looked over at Sam who sat rigid in his saddle; his face set. Kid sighed and thought that this just might be longest twenty miles of his life.

They stopped to make camp a little before sunset. Once the horses had been picketed, guard duty set, and fires made, the men relaxed once again. It wasn't long before stories began to be told, and laughter rang throughout the camp as the men began to settle for the night.

Kid sat staring into the fire allowing his mind to freely roam through memories of times spent around other campfires with the boys as they helped out Sam or Teaspoon. As often as not, he and Jimmy would butt heads over the best way to do something, but no matter what happened they would have each other's back. Cody would be putting his foot in his mouth. He did that so often Kid wondered that he had any feet left, but Kid did have to admit that he helped keep them relaxed with his banter. Ike would sit silently, not because his voice was gone, but because he tended to listen, taking it all in before speaking. Kid suspected it was also partly that Ike would get frustrated at not being heard as most of them were still learning the signs with which he spoke. Buck would sit back and let others take the lead but would always step in when tempers flared or someone wanted to go off half-cocked. His advice was always good, and nobody could hear or track better than Buck. Noah would sit just a little bit off by himself. Not so far as to be obviously apart but not close either. He still seemed reluctant to believe that they all accepted him, especially Kid. Lou would be sitting there rolling her eyes and getting mad as Kid tried to get her to go back home or to stay behind.

Kid reflected on that. He remembered times when Jed told him to stay behind because he was too small, too young, too inexperienced, too anything. He could understand Lou's attitude because he felt the same way at times. He too wanted to prove someone wrong, and it almost got him killed. Why couldn't Lou understand? Why wouldn't she let him explain? Kid sighed. He raised his eyes looking around at the men so at ease with each other. In his heart he felt an ache for all that he left back in Sweetwater.

Sam joined Kid beside the fire. Emma would be delighted to hear he had run into Kid and would kill him if he didn't bring back some news about her boys. Even though Sam and Emma would have a child of their own soon, they had adopted all of the riders in their hearts. "How's things back in Sweetwater? Teaspoon still trying to cure the world with bear grease?" Sam chuckled.

Kid joined in the laughter. "Just about. He took over the marshal's office when you left. Barnett drives him just as crazy as he drove you."

Sam smiled. "Barnett's got a good heart. He's just…" He searched for the right words. "Just…you know?"

Kid was amused at Sam's plight to describe Barnett. He knew what Sam was getting at but couldn't find the right word either, so he just nodded in agreement.

"Tompkins still as sour as ever?" Sam inquired.

The amusement left Kid's face. "Earlier this year the Army returned some white women who had been held captive by the Sioux for a number of years. One was Tompkins wife, and another was his daughter who is now a young woman."

Sam grew serious. "Tompkins daughter was really young when she and her mother were taken. He shared the story with me one night when I found him fumbling at the door of his store so drunk he could barely stand. It was so out character for him that I asked him why he had been drinking. Turns out it was daughter's birthday. I think I was the first person he had told the story to in a long time. How did he react when they came home?"

Kid was thoughtful as he remembered the days that followed. "Not good. His wife had a baby by one of the Sioux warriors she had taken as a husband. Tompkins was bitter and angry. He sent them away. By the time he came to his senses and realized he had made a mistake, it was too late. His wife was killed when she stepped into the path of a bullet meant for her daughter. His daughter vowed to never see him again." Kid began to feel uncomfortable when he realized that he didn't behave any better than Tompkins. When Lou turned him down, his pain caused him to become bitter and angry, blinding him to Lou's feelings.

Sam stared into the fire and prayed that he would never be like Tompkins. He couldn't image ever sending Emma away no matter what happened to her. He changed the subject hoping to lighten the mood. "Don't imagine you found anyone to replace Emma did you?"

Kid mentally thanked Sam for changing the subject. "Sam, no one could replace Emma. She was the mother we all wanted; that we all needed." Sam smiled knowing Emma would be pleased to hear this. Kid ticked off on his fingers, "First, we hired a stout German woman because we thought she would do all the chores Emma made us do like chopping firewood. She was only there one day when she had us not only chopping firewood but washing dishes, scrubbing floors, and cleaning every nook and cranny. Cody called her a 'force of nature'. Then Buck hired the sweetest little old lady. Unfortunately, she was so old that we spent more time taking care of her than she of us. Seeing Cody in an apron with a feather duster is an image I never want to forget." A broad smile crossed Kid's face and they both laughed. "Finally, Teaspoon hired Rachel. She's a good cook and keeps us in line just like Emma used to do. She immediately became part of the family and is like an older sister to all of us."

"Guess Lou's happy to have an older sister to talk to. Emma worried most about her when we left."

Kid's laughter died, and Sam could have sworn he saw a flash of pain on Kid's face before his face became worried. Kid lowered his voice. "Uh, Sam, how did you find out Lou is a girl and have you told anyone?"

Sam's voice became soothing. "Don't worry, Kid. I haven't told anyone. Emma told me one day when I was going on and on about how that puny boy Lou was going to grow up to be a good man someday. She just burst out in hysterical laughter. Once she calmed down, she told me about Lou and vowed me to secrecy. Lou's reasons for pretending to be a boy are hers. I'm not here to judge. Besides she rides and handles a gun as good as any of you. How's she doing?"

There was no mistaking the pain on Kid's face this time. He abruptly got up and strode away from the fire to seek solace from Katy. Sam watched Kid's retreating back. Recalling that Emma had mentioned how close Kid and Lou were when she left, Sam wondered if something bad had happened to Lou and that was the reason that Kid had left Sweetwater. After a few minutes, Sam got up and followed Kid.

He found Kid gently brushing Katy in long deliberate strokes. Sam had heard the other boys joke about Kid's devotion to his horse, but thought they were making things up. Now he was convinced. He didn't know many men who carried their horse's brush in their saddle bags. Sam placed a hand on Katy's rump so that she would know he was there then walked to her other side. "Kid, is Lou alright?" Concern filled his voice.

Kid continued the long slow strokes never looking up. He took his time answering. "I think so." He ran the brush along Katy's neck. "I mean, when I left she was alright as far as I could tell. Don't know what's happened since I left."

Sam pondered this response while watching Kid's stroke become shorter, harder, and faster. "Wanna talk about it, Kid?"

"Talk about what?" Kid snapped back.

"About what's got you so worked up you're ready to brush the hide right off this horse you love so much," Sam observed.

Kid immediately stopped and looked at Sam. Hesitantly he started, "I…" then changed his mind. "It's nothing Sam."

Sam looked at the Kid the same way his mother had when she knew he was lying. If it was possible, Kid felt even worse. "Hmrrph. I'm here if you want to talk. But come tomorrow your mind had better be focused on that prisoner holed up in the cave, or you're going to get somebody hurt." Sam started to walk away before he added, "And that someone might just be you."

*** ***

Kid slept fitfully that night. Sam's words ran through his mind over and over. He knew Sam was right. His body was here, sleeping on the cold hard ground and heading off to bring in some unknown faceless prisoner, but his mind was back in Sweetwater. Finally, he gave up trying to sleep. Dawn would be breaking soon. The soldiers would get up and break camp as smoothly as they had set up- each man knowing what needed done and trusting the others to do what needed doing. His Pony Express family was like that. They had come to know what to expect from each other and to trust each other particularly at times like these when you needed someone to watch your back. 'Why am I here?' Kid thought to himself.

Before the sun broke over the horizon, some internal clock stirred the men to rise and start the day. By the time the sun was fully over the horizon, they were on their way. Kid could sense the men were a little tenser today since they fully expected to arrive at the site of the standoff. Sam particularly was obviously more alert, his eyes missing nothing including the fact that Kid looked haggard from not sleeping well.

Sam reined in next to Kid. He looked intently at Kid who avoided his gaze. "Trouble sleeping last night?" When Kid didn't answer, Sam pressed some more. "What's going on in that head of yours?" Kid kept his eyes focused straight ahead and his mouth shut. "Look Kid, I'm trying to help, but if you won't answer those questions, will you at least tell me if you are here with me at this moment or are you back in Sweetwater? Because if your mind is back there, your body might as well be also because you're no good to me here."

Kid stiffened, taking a moment to reply. A thousand thoughts and memories ran through his head, but the one that was most vivid was when he stepped out of the bunkhouse and ran into Lou after telling the boys that they weren't meant to be. Her silence at that moment had been deafening. He recalled vividly why he was here. He turned to Sam; his voice devoid of emotion. "Yes, Sam, I'm here. There's nothing left for me back in Sweetwater." He swung his gaze forward once again.

Sam doubted that but had the good sense to keep his opinion to himself. "Whatever you say, Kid." Sam inwardly sighed and wondered if fatherhood was really something to look forward to.

*** ***

By early afternoon, they arrived at the site of the standoff. The lieutenant and his men were camped near the base of a cliff with a near vertical rise. There were some evergreens and scattered bushes around and on the cliff, but they didn't offer much cover. On the side of the cliff, about two thirds the way up, a small opening in the cliff could be discerned which was the cave in which the prisoner has taken refuge.

Kid surveyed the area with a practiced eye and appreciated the lieutenant's dilemma. The cave could only be reached by a slow deliberate climb which would make anyone trying it an easy target. He wondered how the prisoner had managed to find this cave much less make it up there. Sam was probably right in thinking that the prisoner had used this cave before.

The lieutenant came striding towards them as they came to a halt. They dismounted as the lieutenant barked, "Corporal, who are these men?" as his eyes came to rest on Sam and Kid.

The corporal sneered at Sam and Kid. "They are here to escort the prisoner back to Omaha after we apprehend him." He jabbed a finger towards Sam. "He's the territorial marshal."

Sam threw an irritated look at the corporal then swung back to the lieutenant. "I'm Sam Cain. This here is Kid, my deputy." Sam looked up at the cave. He had to concede that the situation was harder than he had imagined. He even felt a little sympathetic for the lieutenant's plight. "Have you looked for another way in?"

The lieutenant bit the sarcastic reply that raced through his brain. 'Why do people equate lieutenant's bars with stupidity?' Instead, he let he eyes rove over Sam and Kid taking their measure before replying. "There is a lot of ground to cover. The back side of this cliff has a much gentler slope, but it is also littered with boulders. The trees and bushes are much denser. My men could walk right by an opening and not see it because it was hidden behind one of those. I have limited men, but we have done our best to search."

He then pointed to the newly arrived soldiers and supply wagon. "That's why I sent the corporal back for more men and supplies. I also had him bring lots of rope so that if all else fails we can try coming at him from the top. I'll still lose some men but not as many as coming up from the bottom."

Sam looked back up at the cave entrance. "How can you be sure he's still up there?'

"Every so often I have one my men attempt to climb up. They are still getting shot at; so someone is up there."

Sam looked at the lieutenant with a new found respect and decided that his judgment back at the fort may have been a little hasty. Sam turned to Kid whom he knew had experience in rock climbing. "What do you think, Kid?"

Kid looked at the cliff and shrugged. "He's right, Sam. There isn't any easy way to do this. Caves are funny things. There might be another entrance somewhere on that cliff, but it may not be any bigger than a mouse hole. We could look a long time and never find it."

Sam looked back at the lieutenant. "How many men do you have that can climb this cliff from either the top or the bottom?"

The lieutenant let his eyes rove over his men. He looked over at the corporal who merely shook his head. "None really." It wasn't his fault, but he still hated to admit that the Army fell short at a task.

Sam looked incredulous. "I thought you said that you sent men to climb up the cliff?"

"I said 'attempt to climb'. I never said they made any progress." His voice was defensive.

It was Kid's turn to stare then he just shook his head in disbelief. He turned a questioning gaze to Sam.

Without another word Sam headed towards the base of the cliff staying behind cover whenever he could. Kid followed, trusting Sam's instincts. The lieutenant started to follow but thought better of it. 'Damn civilians. Going to get themselves killed,' he thought to himself. "Corporal, drive the wagon to the back side of the cliff and then get some men to start carrying the rope to the top."

"Yes, sir," the corporal smartly replied. Pointing at Sam and Kid he asked, "What about those two, sir?"

The lieutenant watched as Sam and Kid quickly made their way to the base of the cliff. He still wasn't sure whether they were going to be a help or a hindrance. Regardless, they gave him one more thing to worry about since his head would roll if any harm came to them. He feigned indifference. "As long as they stay out of our way, let them be." He only hoped they didn't get in harm's way.

*** ***

Once Sam and Kid found good cover at the base of the cliff, Sam hollered out. "Thatcher!" He waited a moment. "Thatcher, you up there!"

A voice bellowed from the cave. "Now that's a damn fool question. Who do you think has been shooting at these boys for the past few days?"

Sam shouted back. "You must be getting hungry and thirsty. Why don't you give yourself up?"

Laughter could be heard rolling down the cliff face. When it stopped the voice bellowed again. "I don't think so. I have no intention of hanging. You want me? Come get me!" He punctuated with a gunshot that chipped rock high overhead.

Sam looked at Kid whose face had a 'well what did you expect' expression on it. Sheepishly Sam said, "Well, I had to try." He studied the cliff face once more. "Think you could climb it, Kid?" he inquired.

Kid thought carefully before he replied. He knew that it didn't matter whether he approached the cave from the top, bottom, or managed to find a way to come in from the side; he would be an easy target. His chances of making it and apprehending the prisoner without getting hurt were slim to none. But then the odds had never been in his favor most of his life so why let it bother him now? He looked Sam square in the eye, his voice resolute. "Yes."

Like Kid, Sam knew the odds were stacked in favor of the prisoner, but he believed in Kid. He said a silent prayer that Emma would never learn about what he was asking Kid to do because she would have his hide. "Alright. Let's head back and see if any of the lieutenant's men can tell us more about the terrain around here." Kid just nodded his head in reply and said his own silent prayer that he would find an easy way in to the cave.

*** ***

Kid rose before the sun the following morning. While most people he knew liked to watch sunsets; he preferred the sunrise. When he was little, the sunrise usually meant that his father would be sleeping off his drunk, and peace would reign in the house again until nightfall. There was a quietness, a stillness, just before dawn as the earth waited to be woken up by the sun. At this time of day, all things were possible; the sun breaking over the horizon chased away the darkness bringing hope.

He took in his surroundings and wished that Ike were here. Ike could climb almost as well as he could. No matter how he looked at it, without someone up there to watch his back, he was fairly sure he wouldn't come out of this unscathed. He looked over at Sam. Perhaps he should tell Sam about Lou. Tell him all the things he would want Lou to know if he never made it home to tell her himself. Mentally, he chided himself. Now was not the time to be thinking about Lou. He needed to stay focused on the task at hand just like Sam said.

The light was now strong enough to see fairly well. Since none of the soldiers had anything helpful to offer, he wanted to make use of as much daylight as possible to find a way into the cave. He nudged Sam awake.

Sam sat up abruptly, instantly awake. Kid stood up and strapped on his gun belt. He pulled his gun from his holster double checking that it was loaded then put extra bullets in his pocket. He sheathed his knife making sure that it was securely attached to his gun belt. Sam watched Kid's preparations in silence. When Kid headed towards the picket line, Sam got up, strapped on his own gun belt, and followed.

He found Kid talking softly to Katy as he ran his hand down her face. "Kid?" Sam gently inquired. Kid turned to look at Sam but kept his hands on Katy. "Goin' somewhere?"

In answer, Kid inclined his head towards the cliff.

Sam followed his gaze. He knew perfectly well what Kid intended to do, but asked anyway. "Alone?" Kid gave a curt nod of assent. "You don't have to do this alone. I may not be able to make the entire climb, but I'm comin' with you."

Relief and gratitude flooded through Kid. An extra set of eyes and an extra gun were always welcome even if Sam couldn't follow the whole way. "Thanks, Sam. You ready?"

"Always," replied Sam.

Kid gave Katy one final pat then headed towards the cliff, Sam following in his wake.

*** ***

Halfway up the backside of the cliff Kid discovered a game trail that seemed to head in the general direction of the cave. Casting a backwards glance to make sure that Sam was keeping up, Kid started up the trail. It wasn't long before the trail broke from the trees at the side of the cliff. Kid could see the trail continued on a narrow rocky ledge that appeared to wind around to the face of the cliff.

Since Kid had no idea how close the cave might be from their position he said quietly to Sam, "Stay here. I'm going to see where this path leads."

Sam looked at the ledge that Kid was getting ready to traverse. It was just wide enough to put two feet side by side before it dropped off. With the rocky outcroppings, there would be portions where Kid would have to walk sideways with either his back or his front to the cliff face. Knowing words were useless; he slapped Kid on the shoulder and gave a confident nod.

Kid took a deep breath then stepped out on the ledge. Once he stepped onto the ledge, the rest of the world ceased to exist. All he saw were the safe places to put his feet and the spots where his hands would go to keep him from falling off the narrow ledge. The only sounds were those of his feet and hands moving across the rock and his breathing. Every so often he would risk a glance at where he believed the cave to be, hoping that his effort wouldn't be in vain. After five hundred feet the ledge widened enough for him to sit down. He was glad of the opportunity to rest his mind and muscles. This wasn't the most strenuous climb he had ever done, but it still required intense mental concentration. In some places the ledge was just wide enough for the toe of his boots.

He looked to his left and was just able to see where the ledge ended at the opening to the cave. It was about another two hundred feet from where he sat. He dropped his chin to his chest while a gentle breeze ruffled his hair and considered his options. He could continue on while it was light and hope that Thatcher's attention was so focused on the soldiers below that Kid could get the drop on him. Having no idea of the cave layout, Kid figured his odds were fifty-fifty. Alternatively, he could try a night climb. There would be a full moon tonight which would ensure ample light now that he knew the path. Further, Thatcher should be asleep, allowing Kid to at least reach the cave without Thatcher's knowledge. Regardless, the trip back along the ledge while trying to control a man who didn't want to be caught would be perilous. It was only a few moments before he made up his mind. He stood up and began to inch his way back towards Sam.

Sam had given up pacing while waiting for Kid and now sat perched on a rock. When he caught sight of Kid again, he jumped up. Once Kid had reached more solid footing Sam asked, "Well?"

Kid slapped his hands together to wipe the rock dust off of them. He replied flatly. "It leads to the cave but is really narrow in several spots. I can get there, but if he's paying attention at all, I'll never make it into the cave. I want to try it at night when he's most likely going to be asleep."

Sam shook his head and sternly replied, "It's too dangerous. Even during the daylight it's dangerous but at night it's…" He was at a loss for words.

Kid continued on like he didn't even hear Sam's objection. "There will be a full moon tonight. Plenty of light, now that I know the way. It's getting back that's the hard part regardless of when I start out." He looked Sam straight in the eye and planted his feet in a little wider stance preparing himself for the objections he expected to be tossed his way.

Sam took note of Kid's defensive stance and the set of his jaw. His head knew that Kid's reasoning was sound, but his heart that had grown to think of this boy as his own was feeling constricted at the thought of a night traverse of the narrow ledge. He met Kid's eye as Emma's words rang through his mind, 'they're just boys.' In his mind he replied, 'Not anymore Emma.'

Resignation in his voice, Sam said to Kid, "You're right. Let's find a place for you rest up somewhere on the trail, then I'll head back to the camp to get some food and canteens."

Kid relaxed. "Thanks, Sam."

"For what?"

"Trusting my judgment."

"Kid, there aren't many men I would trust more." Sam turned and headed down the trail. Kid stood a moment watching Sam's retreating back as gratitude and a sense of acceptance flooded through him, then he too headed down the trail.

When Sam returned he found Kid lying down in the shade of a tree with his head resting on his arms. Sam was glad that Kid was finally managing to get some sleep. He softly set down the provisions before lying down to get sleep before the long night ahead.

*** ***

They both woke a little before sunset. Kid rose and stretched his sore muscles watching as Sam started a small fire so that they could cook some beans for an evening meal. He grabbed a canteen hanging from a branch and took a long drink. To ease the stiffness he felt from sleeping on the rocky ground, he walked around the campsite swinging his arms back and forth.

As he walked, his mind turned unbidden to Lou. Pictures flashed through his mind. Lou as the scrawny boy that Teaspoon almost fired before she ever started at the Pony Express. Lou when he first discovered that instead of being a scrawny boy she was most definitely a girl. Lou as she braced a Beckworth volley gun when they went after the men that shot her and stole Katy. Lou's beautiful smile and excitement as she put on a dress for the first time in a long time. The look on Lou's face as she knelt over her father that Kid had just killed. Lou dancing with him by the corral at the town dance since she had to masquerade as a boy. Lou riding like the wind across the plains. Lou never backing down from a fight. Lou's face in the moonlight.

A wave of emotion struck him causing him to stop walking and stare at the ground between his feet. He gritted his teeth as the wave hit- love, anger, awe, worry, excitement, sadness, despair- threatening to drop him to his knees. Sam sensed the change in Kid. He looked across the fire taking a moment before risking speaking. Gently he asked, "What made you leave Sweetwater, Kid?"

Kid continued staring at the ground working his jaw. Finally, he raised his head and slowly walked back to join Sam at the fire. He sat down staring into the fire. Suddenly, he felt cold so he raised his hands towards the fire to warm them. Without looking at Sam, he uttered one word. "Lou."

Sam suspected as much. "What happened?" He prompted.

Kid shrugged. "I asked her to marry me. She said 'no', that she wasn't ready."

"And??" Sam pushed.

"And what?" Kid said flatly.

"C'mon Kid," Sam continued in soothing tones. "My job is reading people. There is more to it than that."

Kid looked at Sam. Though Kid's demeanor never changed Sam could see the inner battle that was being waged in Kid's eyes. It took awhile, but Kid finally replied softly, "I hurt her, Sam."

Sam watched Kid and waited knowing there was more to come. "Not physically," Kid wanted to be clear, "but I hurt her heart. When she turned me down, I took up with Samantha, the new school teacher in town. She kept me from thinking about Lou. One day in the bunkhouse when I was trying to convince myself, I told the boys that Lou and I were never meant to be." Kid paused. "I stepped out of the bunkhouse straight into Lou. She had overheard every word." Sam gave a low whistle. "I expected her to lay into me about what a fool I was because we had something worth fighting for, but she didn't. At that moment I didn't really care whether I lived or died because Lou made life worth living."

Kid picked up a stick and poked at the fire. "Samantha's old beau followed her to Sweetwater. He was rude, overbearing, and physically hit Samantha's maid because she used to be owned by his daddy. I confronted him knowing full well what a Southern gentlemen like himself would do when he felt his honor drug through the dirt. Next morning I was facing him in a duel at dawn."

Sam raised his eyebrows. "That was a damn fool thing to do." He admonished.

Kid poked the fire some more. "I know. I just didn't care anymore. Lou thought I did it because I was so in love in Samantha. Love had nothing to do with it. I stopped feeling that day I ran it Lou at the bunkhouse. I tried to explain to Lou, but she wouldn't listen to me."

Sam stared hard at Kid searching his face. "Is that why you are so prepared to risk your life on that ledge tonight?"

Kid answered quickly. "No. I want to learn to live with Lou again even if it is just as friends. That's why I left. I'm here because you are more than a good friend, and it's the right thing to do." He chanced a glance at Sam and asked, "How did you learn to live around Emma when it didn't work out the first time?"

Sam turned his gaze to the fire, lost in thought. He carefully chose his words. "Well, it helped that I didn't live in the same bunkhouse with her," he said lightly. Despite himself, a small smile danced into Kid's eyes. Sam was glad to see that Kid could still laugh at himself and continued. "I decided to start at the beginning again. What we had was past. Before me was a new woman that I desperately wanted to get know." Sam shrugged. "I took it slow and was glad for each moment that I had with her. We both had to learn how to give a little."

Kid stared back into the fire mulling over Sam's words. "Thanks, Sam." He raised his eyes to the sky and judged that it was time to begin his journey to the cave. He tossed the stick into the fire then stood up. "Time to go." Without a word, Sam also stood and kicked dirt into the fire to kill the flame.

When they reached the ledge Kid turned to Sam and said, "I'll holler at you if there is better way to bring Thatcher back."

Sam nodded. "Take care, Kid." Kid smiled in reply then began his second journey across the ledge.

The full moon hung heavy in the sky providing ample light for Kid to make his way along the ledge. When he reached the cave entrance, he quietly drew his gun as he crouched down low. He peered into the cave and was surprised to see a faint glow coming from the back of the cave. After his eyes had adjusted to the light in the cave, he realized that the glow came from the dying embers of a small fire. Beside the fire he could just make out Thatcher lying underneath a blanket with his rifle by his hand. As his eyes rove around the cave, he noticed several small crates and a lantern. Knowing that Thatcher could never have hauled them across the ledge he had just crossed, Kid now knew that there was an easier way out of the cave.

Silently, he crept up to one of the crates keeping his eye on Thatcher's sleeping figure. Making himself comfortable on the crate he waited for the sunrise.

Thatcher began to stir when the sun just started to break over the horizon. Kid cocked his gun. At the sound of a cocking gun, Thatcher bolted awake and reached for his rifle.

"Hold it right there, Thatcher." Kid said in a low menacing voice.

Thatcher stopped and raised his hands in the air. "How'd you…" He sputtered.

Kid cut across him. "You're under arrest. Stand up slow and easy." Thatcher did as he was asked. "Now, back up against the wall of the cave." Once Thatcher was against the cave wall, Kid stepped forward, crouched down while keeping his eyes and gun trained on Thatcher, and picked up the rifle. He tossed it towards the front of the cave.

"Alright, Thatcher I want you to lead the way out of this cave."

Belligerent, Thatcher replied, "Why should I?"

Kid took a menacing step forward, his eyes boring into Thatcher's. "Because if you don't, we'll go back the way I came, across that little ledge out there."

Thatcher studied Kid and decided now was not the time to fight. There would be plenty of opportunities before they ever reached the Army camp. Resigned, he said, "There's another opening to this cave about halfway up the backside of this cliff. We'll need the lantern to light the way."

Kid nodded. While Thatcher lit the lantern, Kid hollered out. "Sam, there's another entrance about halfway up the backside! We're coming out that way!" He hoped that Sam heard him. Once the lantern was lit Kid barked, "Move." Thatcher did as he was bidden biding his time.

The path through the cave had a gentle downward slope before it leveled out. Thatcher kept the lantern high, and Kid wished he could enjoy the beauty of the cave rather than worry about this man in front of him. It wasn't long before Kid could make out the faint hint of sunlight breaking through some brush across what was obviously the end of the cave.

Suddenly, Thatcher stumbled and began flailing his arms as if he were falling. Instinctively, Kid dropped the point of his gun and reached out with his hand to steady Thatcher. Thatcher whirled quickly, grabbing Kid's gun hand while swinging the lantern forcefully towards Kid's head. The force of the blow caused Kid to step backwards. He could feel blood running down his face.

Before Thatcher could take another swing at him, Kid flung his free hand out knocking the lantern from Thatcher's hand. The lantern flew through the air and shattered when it struck the cave wall. Thatcher took advantage of the disorientation caused by suddenly losing the light to grab Kid's other wrist. He jerked Kid towards him causing Kid to lose his balance. Then Thatcher bent his knees going into a backwards roll. He planted his boot into Kid's middle. As they rolled together, Thatcher used the momentum to propel Kid over his head. Kid flew through the air for a few feet before landing with a sickening thud on his back.

Thatcher was breathing heavily when he stood up and began to clear the brush from the cave entrance. Kid had the breath knocked out of him, and he suspected he might have broken a rib or two. He looked over and saw Thatcher working at the brush. Quickly, he holstered his gun as he rolled onto his side. Thatcher was so intent on his task that he didn't see Kid rise off the floor of the cave and come barreling towards him.

He tackled Thatcher with such force that they both flew through the brush cover. The brush cut their faces and hands as they went through. They grappled with each other as they rolled several feet down the backside of the cliff, rocks and sticks contributing to their cuts and bruises. When they finally came to a stop, they pushed away from each and scrambled to their feet. As Thatcher got up he pulled a knife from his boot. He swung the tip of the knife upwards as he lunged towards Kid. Kid tried to roll his body away from the blow but was too slow. He felt the knife plunge into his left shoulder as he threw a right cross to Thatcher's jaw strong enough to snap his head backwards.

Thatcher released his grip on the knife as he stumbled backwards causing Kid to lose his balance. Kid pitched forward landing face first in the rocky soil. He stifled a scream as the knife was driven deeper into his shoulder hitting bone. He sensed Thatcher coming at him again. In one smooth motion he pulled his gun from his holster as he rolled onto his back.

He leveled his gun at Thatcher. "Hold it!" He growled.

Thatcher stopped mid-stride. Catching his breath, he took in the blood streaming from the cut on Kid's head and the widening stain of blood on Kid's shirt where the knife still protruded from his shoulder. Thatcher scoffed. "You're in no shape to take me in, Boy."

"He may not be, but I am," Sam said menacingly as he stepped from behind a boulder with his gun pointed at Thatcher. He raised his voice to a shout. "Lieutenant! Over here!" It wasn't long before several soldiers appeared. They put Thatcher in handcuffs and marched him back to camp.

Sam knelt down, concern filling his voice. "I can't pull the knife until we get back to camp. Can you walk, Kid?"

In answer Kid holstered his gun and gritted his teeth as he stood up. He took a few steps forward before his vision went black, and his knees buckled. Sam reached out and caught Kid before he hit the ground.

*** ***

Kid slowly opened his eyes and turned his head to take in his surroundings. Immediately he wished he hadn't as the room began to spin, and he fought the urge to vomit. His head was pounding; it hurt to breathe, and he couldn't move his left arm. The last thing he remembered was the worried look on Sam's face after the soldier's took Thatcher away.

He closed his eyes his again waiting for the feeling to pass. When he opened them again, Sam was standing over him.

Sam's face split into a grin at seeing Kid finally awake. "Glad to have you back with us, Kid. You gave me quite a scare out there. How are you feeling?"

Kid opened his mouth to speak but could only croak. "Water." He managed to get past his lips.

Sam poured a cup of water then gently raised Kid's head before putting the cup to Kid's lips. Sam saw Kid's jaw muscles tighten and small beads of sweat form on his brow. After Kid had taken a few sips of water, Sam lowered his head back onto the pillow. The smile left Sam's face. Quietly, he said, "I'm sorry, Kid."

"What for?" Kid asked.

Sam pulled up a chair besides Kid's bed and sat down. He rested his elbows on his knees. "For dragging you into this. For sending you out onto the ledge and into that cave alone. For causing you the pain you are feeling now."

Kid risked turning his head slowly so that he could look directly at Sam. "Nothing to be sorry for, Sam. Everything I did was my choice, and I would do it again. Like Teaspoon says, 'family is family, and family sticks together'. Actually, I should be thanking you."

Sam nodded his head then raised his eyebrows. "Still heading to Scott's Bluff once the Army doc gives you the OK to ride?"

"Nope." Kid paused. "I'm heading home. You helped me to see that what Lou and I had was wonderful, but it is past. I'll always remember it, but, thanks to you, I can put it behind me. We've both made mistakes. I'll do my best to learn from them so that I can change. Next time I see Lou, I'll try to see her with fresh eyes and begin again."

Sam looked at Kid and realized just how much he had grown in the short time that he had known him. Sam slapped his hands on his knees and smiled once again. "That's great, Kid. I'm looking forward to seeing Teaspoon and the boys again, and Emma will want a full report on her replacement."

Kid looked at Sam confused. "You're coming to Sweetwater? What about Thatcher?"

Sam gave a genuine laugh. "Seems the governor gave the Army a public tongue lashing for losing Thatcher in the first place and demanded that they escort Thatcher to trial with a company of soldiers. The governor apologized to me for sending me on a 'fool's errand' and told me to get some rest before coming back to Omaha. The doc says you can ride in a few more days but that you can't go slower than a walk. With your arm still bound up tight, you'll need someone along to give you an extra hand."

Kid's face filled with gratitude. "Thanks, Sam. I can't wait to get home."

*** ***

The late afternoon sun came streaming through the bunkhouse windows waking Lou from her sleep. She had gotten back from a long run earlier in the morning, and the boys were gracious enough to let her sleep. Lou sat up with her back against the bunkhouse wall, her feet dangling over the edge of the bunk. She strained her ears for any hint of sound, but there was none. As much as the noise the boys made could drive her to distraction, she hated the silence of the bunkhouse. It was so lonely.

She jumped down from her bunk and noticed a covered plate on the table. Silently she thanked Rachel's thoughtfulness before sitting down at the table to eat. Once her hunger had been sated she looked up; her eyes resting on Kid's bunk. As she sat staring, she realized that she had taken Kid for granted. No matter how much she pushed Kid away, he always came back like a fighter who wouldn't go down in the ring. When she turned down his proposal in the barn, she figured that he would do just like he had always done- come back to her. But he didn't. She hadn't meant to push him so far away, but her fears and insecurities overwhelmed her causing her to react like some caged beast.

Marrying Kid meant giving up the protection of "Lou" leaving her feeling exposed and vulnerable. As confident as she appeared to be, she wasn't that confident. Yet. She sighed and pushed herself away from the table. When she thought about all the things she put Kid through, she could understand why he finally went away. 'What's done is done,' she thought to herself. 'I can only try to do things different next time.' Lou really hoped that there would be a next time.

Hearing the sounds of an approaching rider, Lou grabbed her hat and stepped out onto the bunkhouse porch just as he rode into the yard. Lou looked over the lean, wiry rider trying to recall if she had seen him before.

He stayed on his horse resting his hands on the saddle horn. "I've got a message for Teaspoon Hunter. Know where I can find him?"

Lou narrowed her eyes and stood a little straighter. "Who's asking?" Her voice was wary.

The rider replied, "Name's Hoskins. Peters sent me from Scott's Bluff."

Lou's eyes widened, and she couldn't believe her good luck. She could finally get some news of Kid. Keeping her voice low she asked, "How's Kid?"

Hoskins drew his eyebrows together. "Kid, who? Don't know anyone by that name."

Lou started to feel a little uneasy but tried to hide her concern from Hoskins. "Kid. The rider that Teaspoon sent to ya'll a few weeks ago."

Hoskins firmly shook his head. "Haven't seen him. That's why Peters sent me to find Teaspoon and put a burr under his saddle about getting another rider. Now, do you know where I can find him or don't ya'?"

Fear took hold of Lou. Kid had never reached Scott's Bluff. She was just getting ready to holler for Teaspoon when he came calmly walking around the corner. Keeping his hand on the butt of his gun he asked, "Find who?"

Lou turned and strode rapidly to the end of the porch to meet him. "Teaspoon," she all but barked. Teaspoon saw Lou's face creased with worry and began to worry himself. Lou reached out grabbing Teaspoon's arm; her words coming in a rush. "This is Hoskins from Scott's Bluff. He says Kid never reached there."

Teaspoon gently brushed Lou's hand from his arm. "Calm down, Lou. I told Kid to take his time before reporting in. He's just taking longer than expected." He hoped his voice sounded more convincing than he felt.

Lou just stared at him, for the moment at a loss for words. Teaspoon took the opportunity to address Hoskins. "Is he right? Kid never reported in?"

Hoskins nodded his head. "That's right. That's why Peters sent me here. He thought you had forgotten about his request. We really need an additional rider."

Teaspoon turned his gaze to the horizon, and then his face broke into a grin. He swung back to Hoskins; his voice light. "Well, you are in luck. I just hired a new rider to replace Kid. He's all yours. Why don't you head into town and rest up for the night? We'll sort it out in the morning."

Hoskins was relieved that this was going so easily. Peters had prepared him a verbal battle that might last several days. Now he had a new rider and some time to himself. He smiled as he turned his horse. "With pleasure. See you in the morning." He kicked his horse into a trot and headed into town.

Lou finally found the words and angrily whirled Teaspoon to face her. "Teaspoon, you and I both know Kid would never take so long. Something's happened to him." She started to pace. "He could be lying somewhere hurt or worse." Her voice caught.

Teaspoon looked over his shoulder then back at Lou. "Didn't think you cared anymore what happened to Kid?"

She stopped in her tracks. She choked back the tears that were threatening behind her eyes. "I love him, Teaspoon. He drives me so crazy sometimes that I want to kill him, but I love him all the same. I only want the chance for us to try to figure out how to live with each other. We've got to find him, Teaspoon."

He placed a gentle hand on Lou's shoulder. Smiling widely, he said, "That won't be necessary, Lou." Keeping his hand on her shoulder, he swept his other in wide arc as he turned on his heel to face the horizon behind the windmill. Lou saw two riders approaching, and one was riding a paint mare that she would know anywhere. She gasped then turned on her heels and ran to the barn. Teaspoon just shook his head. He figured hoping for something and having it come true were two different things, and Lou was going to need some time to sort this out before Kid arrived.

Kid couldn't remember ever being happier to see the windmill at the station than he did at this moment. Whenever he saw the windmill, he knew he was almost home. As excited as he was though, he was also nervous about seeing Lou again. He turned to Sam, anxiety in his voice. "Sam, what if…"

Sam cut across Kid and said in reassuring tones, "Stop worrying, Kid. It will be fine. Just keep thinking of Lou as someone you never met before and let things go from there." Sam had to smile as he heard Kid blow out his breath.

Teaspoon kept his eyes on the horizon and wondered why they were coming in so slow. He narrowed his eyes, and the smile dropped from his face to be replaced by concern as he noticed that Kid was sitting a little too straight in the saddle and appeared to have one arm bandaged up in a sling. His face became even graver when he realized that the other rider was Sam. As glad as he was to see Sam again, his presence couldn't mean anything good.

He shook himself then walked out to meet them plastering a smile on his face. With a voice full of warmth he said. "Welcome home, Kid." Inclining his head towards Sam, he said, "Good to see you too, Sam."

Kid's eyes were scanning the yard for any sign of Lou as he dismounted. Teaspoon raised an eyebrow as he noticed the large cut on the side of Kid's face, the bruises, the shallowness of his breathing, and a limp as Kid took a few steps forward.

Sam said quickly, "Here, Kid, I'll look after Katy." Teaspoon put a restraining hand on Sam.

Teaspoon looked pointedly at Kid. "Go on, Kid," he said softly. "She's in the barn."

Kid looked gratefully at Teaspoon. "Thanks, Teaspoon." He paused then added, "For everything."

Teaspoon tried to keep his voice from catching. "No worries, Son. Now go on. She's missed you something terrible." Kids face split into a grin. He reached out taking the reins of Sam's horse into the same hand that held Katy's. Glancing at the barn, he took a deep breath then limped across the yard trailing both horses behind him.

Teaspoon watched him go as he said a silent thank you for his return. Then he wheeled on Sam, his voice hard. "What the hell happened, Sam?"

Sam could fully understand Teaspoon's anger. He knew Teaspoon cared for these boys like a father. Trying to diffuse some of the anger, Sam slapped Teaspoon on the back and said lightly, "It's a long story Teaspoon. I sure could use a cup of coffee. How about we head inside so I can tell you everything?" Teaspoon didn't say a thing but strode towards the bunkhouse beckoning Sam to follow. Sam shuddered as he thought, 'If Teaspoon is going to be this difficult, Emma ought to be impossible.' He squared his shoulders and followed Teaspoon into the bunkhouse.

*** ***

Kid stopped when he reached the doors of the barn. Lou was brushing Lightning with as much fervor as he brushed Katy when he was trying to release pent up emotions. The setting sun cast rays of light through the barn that highlighted Lou's face. She was more beautiful than when Kid had left. His breath caught at the sight of her.

Lou heard his approach. Heard his intake of breath, but she couldn't bring herself to look up. She was scared. So she kept brushing Lightning waiting for Kid to make the first move. She could feel her heart pounding in her ears as she heard him move into the barn. Even though she could sense his presence near her, she didn't turn but continued her rhythmic brushing of Lightning's coat.

"Pardon me, Ma'am," Kid said gently. Puzzled Lou stopped her brushing to look at Kid. She gasped as she saw Kid's bruised face with the cut on the temple. Had he lost his memory she wondered? She then let her eyes travel down his body. The short shallow breaths and the heavily bandaged arm in a sling caused her to bite her lower lip. Her eyes filled with concern.

He reached out his hand as if to shake her hand. "My name's Kid. It's a pleasure to meet you."

She was thinking the worst when she noticed the smile on his face and the amusement in his eyes. She heard his low chuckle that was music to her ears. Playfully slapping his hand away, she replied, "You already met me, Kid."

He got a faraway look in his eye as he remembered the first time he heard those words. Lou was sitting on bed rubbing a bullet wound after he had just discovered that she was a 'she' and not a 'he'. He fell in love with her at that moment. Coming back to the present he said, "Well, yes and no, Lou. I've certainly met you and shared wonderful times with you that will stay with me forever. Now I want to get know you, and it seems the easiest way to do that is to start at the beginning."

Lou searched his face seeing sincerity and love in his eyes. She reached out and tenderly touched his cheek. Kid closed his eyes leaning into the touch as his heart skipped a beat. Lou lightly brushed her thumb along his cheek bone before dropping her hand to her side. Kid opened his eyes to see Lou with a slight smile on her face and a sparkle in her eyes. "Well then, I'm Louise, but everyone round here calls me Lou. Nice to meet ya. You look a little worse for the wear. Need help with your horses? I'm good around horses. Ride for the Pony Express, just don't tell anyone that I'm a girl." She giggled.

That was the best sound that Kid had heard in a long time. He broke into a smile. "Thanks Lou. I would appreciate the help." Together they got the horses cooled down, combed, fed, and settled in their stalls.

Lou couldn't help noticing the tiny beads of sweat that appeared on Kid's brow even though it was cool, nor did she miss that his breathing was starting to sound a little ragged. Worry filled her voice. "Kid, you need to rest. Let's head back to the bunkhouse."

Kid hobbled over to a pile of hay and sat down. "Not sure I could make it to the bunkhouse right now. Let me rest up here a bit before going in." He sank back into the hay closing his eyes waiting for the pain to go away.

Lou hesitated, indecision causing her to stay rooted to the spot. She looked at Kid's pale face then at the bunkhouse. Slowly she walked over to Kid and sat gently beside him. "I'm sorry you hurt so much. Anything I can do to help?"

Without opening his eyes Kid responded. "Talk to me. It will take my mind off of it."

Lou picked up a piece of hay and twisted it in her fingers. "'Bout what?"

"Anything and everything. What's happened at the station since I left, what new excuses Cody has come up with for getting out of work, Tompkins' rant of the week, what your favorite game was when you were five, the name of your best friend at the orphanage, and everything else. I want to get know you, Lou. And I want to share with you where I've been, what I've done, where I come from, and what I did before I joined the Pony Express."

Lou picked up a handful of hay and tossed it away from her. "That's a tall order, Kid. I'm not sure I'm ready for all that."

Kid opened his eyes to look at her. "When you're ready, I'm here." He reached out his good hand towards her.

Lou didn't hesitate to slip her hand into his. She sat in thoughtful silence for a few minutes before a smile crossed her face. Chuckling she began, "Well, Cody…"

They talked through the night about the events that happened to them both since he left. Lou fell asleep resting her head on Kid's good shoulder. Kid reveled in the warmth of Lou's head on his shoulder and her hand in his. It was a good beginning. As the sun broke over the horizon, he was once again filled with hope.

Author's Note: Thanks to my beta Karen who was willing to take on a long story from a first time writer

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