He had been the first one there. She'd received the letter only three days before. Kid had written it and entrusted it to a friend, and the friend, a Mr. Willoughby who Lou did not know nor ever would, had sent it when circumstances dictated. She had in turn sent a telegram on to Emma, first thing, before she even allowed herself those first hot tears. The telegram was simple, brutally so. She hadn't known how else to share the news but with harsh bluntness. Kid was gone.
She'd waited, in a sort of numb apathy, knowing that sooner or later someone from their family would arrive and would see to things. Would see that Theresa and Jeremiah ate and went to school, that the stock was tended, and then Lou would be allowed her grief. In the meantime, she kept up with the day to day, eating little if anything herself and sleeping less.
And then Jimmy was there. Not bothering to so much as tether his horse before running up the stairs and holding her. It had been a relief, at last, to cry and sob and curse the war, and the Yankees, and Kid, himself, for leaving her like this. And Jimmy had let her. Let her strike her fists against his chest, let her cry until nothing was left, no sorrow, no pain, no love, nothing but a vast emptiness where her heart had been.
The others had come and gone. Each offering a shoulder, and Lou had been thankful for that. But it was Jimmy who helped Jeremiah keep the farm going, Jimmy who puzzled his way through Theresa's homework, and Jimmy who stayed when everyone else had left.
It hadn't been the first time he'd helped her upstairs to her room. The nights were the worst, and she dreaded sleeping in that bed alone, though she'd been doing it for two years already. Before, the empty space beside her had been filled with hope, dreams. Now there was nothing. She couldn't sleep with that beside her.
But she had to sleep, she knew that. Could see the gray circles around her eyes as easily as everyone else. Jimmy would walk her to bed, sit beside her and hold her hand and listen to her talk about Kid until at last she slept. In the morning, he'd be gone to the loft he was sharing with Jeremiah, and Lou would wake up, reveling in the few moments, growing shorter each day, before she remembered that Kid was not coming back.
But the bed seemed colder and emptier every night, the minutes spent talking until sleep came stretched into hours and it wasn't long before Lou found herself clinging to Jimmy and begging him to stay. He'd hesitated and she'd persisted, for nothing, no betrayal, no morning regrets, seemed worse to her than the eternity of night spent alone in a bed so big it could have been a sea, and she alone in it, with nothing to hold onto, nothing to keep her from going under.
She was trying to forget him, and being with Jimmy seemed to be doing the job. If she closed her eyes she could not see the wedding portrait framed on the wall, if she let Jimmy keep kissing her perhaps even more painful memories would drop away like melted wax. Jimmy's hand swept the hair from her neck and he kissed the curve of her shoulder gently. Lou opened her eyes, looking over his shoulder into the darkness.
"I should have known this would happen," a familiar voice said and a figure stepped from the shadows, a face torn with sadness, blue eyes shining with tears.
"You're being unfair to Jimmy," Kid said, standing by their bedroom window and watching their friend make his usual and lonely trek back to the bunkhouse.
Behind him, Lou sighed in exasperation and sank into the rocking chair. "What do you want me to do, Kid?"
Kid turned around slowly, his eyes anguished as usual, "I don't know, Lou, I just know you can't keep treating him this way. Jimmy's never had any patience to spare, and he might be a good man, but he hasn't stayed on this ranch for three years just to help you out. He's expecting that one day you'll change your mind."
Lou rubbed at her eyes with exhaustion. She wasn't tired so much, as simply worn out by the conversation. She didn't have an answer for Kid, just like she didn't have one for Jimmy. At last she stood up and finished unbuttoning her dress, letting it fall in a puddle on the floor. She stood by the wardrobe, looking inside at her own nightdress and the night shirt that had long since lost the smell of her husband.
"I'm worried about him, Lou," Kid persisted. Lou didn't respond. "It ain't fair to ask him to work this place like its his own, make him stay out with the hired hands…I always thought you felt somethin' for him, Lou, and it's been some time now, nobody'd fault you for marrying again." Lou shook her head vigorously as if trying to dislodge an unfavorable thought and at last pulled her nightgown out of the wardrobe and over her head. Kid walked over to her and leaned against the wall. She hated when he stared at her. His eyes had always been intense in their focus and after the war they had only gotten more so, as if he could transmit the horrors he'd seen just by the energy of his gaze. She turned away from him and began to pull the pins from her hair as she walked towards the dresser. "Lou?" there was an edge of panic to his voice now and Lou grimaced in spite of herself.
"I ain't talkin' to you no more," she whispered softly, "You ain't really there. Kid's dead, Kid's been dead, and you ain't there."
"Lou…" his voice was breaking with pain, but Lou didn't care. She was breaking too, this illusion of him had been harder to bear than his absence. She had him, but she didn't.
She felt the strange chilly touch of him as he reached out and she rested her cheek against his cold palm. She could feel him; she could feel something. His touch was insubstantial, light as air, but it was there and it was recognizable as Kid, her husband. His icy thumb brushed away a tear that had escaped her eye.
She jerked away abruptly, turned her back, refused to look at him. "Just go away," she said, her voice stronger than before, "The Kid is dead and I'm a crazy woman just talkin' to the air. There's nothing there, you're not there." He reached for her shoulder and she wrenched herself away from him, "Don't!" They stared at each other. She was frightened and it showed in her eyes.
There was a timid knock on the bedroom door and Lou jumped. Teresa's meek voice called out from the hall, "Louise? Are you alright? I thought I heard voices again."
Lou took a deep breath to steady herself, "I'm fine, sugar bear, just thinkin' out loud is all." She waited until she heard Teresa's footsteps disappear down the hall before looking back at Kid. She stared at him, tried to stare through him, and then with a dismissive snort, turned to the bed and climbed in.
Kid returned to his post by the window, "I can't leave ya, Lou, not until I know you're gonna be alright," he whispered, knowing she chose not to hear.
Breakfast was stilted, as she knew it would be. She'd been late coming down and Theresa had everything done by the time Lou got to the table. She smiled at her sister, her beautiful, quiet, appallingly capable little sister. Lou sometimes wondered where in the world Theresa had come from, there was so little about her that Lou recognized in herself.
Jimmy was already there too, nursing a cup of coffee and avoiding her eyes. He was never talkative in the morning, but this morning he would have given Ike a run for his money. Lou sighed, not quite audibly. The years passed, Teresa and Jeremiah grew, the ranch got bigger, and still the most important things remained the same. Sometimes it was a comfort, but just lately she was beginning to feel like a caged animal, trapped by responsibilities and ghosts. What a relief it would be to cut her hair short now, to go back to being just another boy because, after all, boys weren't supposed to have hearts, weren't supposed to hurt quite so much. Jimmy hazarded a glance in her direction and Lou forced herself not to sigh again; it was unfair of him to look at her like that, his eyes reflecting so much hope and so much pain. She didn't want to be responsible for his happiness, she was having enough trouble with her own.
"Are you alright, Louise?" Theresa asked, handing her a cup of coffee. The young girl's face was so solemn and she even brushed Lou's hair away to lay a hand across her forehead feeling for fever.
Lou pushed her hand away in irritation, "Don't mother me, Theresa." The girl looked down at the harsh words and meekly found her seat at the table. Lou rested her head in her hands and sighed again, much louder this time. "I'm sorry sugarbear," she said when she looked up, struggling to keep the temper out of her voice, "I didn't get much sleep last night, but I'll be fine. Now, let's eat." She looked out from the head of the table to the others for assent and that's when she noticed. "Where's Jeremiah?"
Theresa shuffled her silverware around nervously, didn't dare to look up from her plate. "He didn't come home last night," she whispered.
"He what?" Jimmy's head snapped up and Lou was for once thankful for her brother's misbehavior, it seemed to have knocked any thoughts of romance or heartbreak clean out of Jimmy's mind.
Teresa kept her eyes glued to the eggs getting cold on her plate, "He didn't come home last night," she repeated.
"Where in tarnation did he go?" Lou all but shouted. Jeremiah was nineteen now, and from first hand experience she knew what sort of trouble nineteen year old boys could get into. Theresa only shrugged, either she didn't know or wouldn't tell.
Jimmy was already standing up, strapping on his Colts, ready to start searching when Jeremiah suddenly came down the stairs. "'Mornin'" he said brightly, "Sorry I overslept. Smells good, Reese, and I'm starved." He stopped short as both Jimmy and Lou pinned him in place with glares. "Ah, hell," he muttered as he flopped down into his chair next to Lou.
Out of the corner of her eye Lou watched Theresa mouth the word sorry to their brother. It seemed as if she was always getting stuck in the middle and that didn't seem fair to Lou. "Theresa, why don't you take your plate out to the porch and go ahead and eat? You worked hard on breakfast and there ain't any reason you shouldn't get to eat it while it's hot." Theresa merely nodded and left. "You can go too, Jimmy," Lou said, sparing a glance down the table.
Jimmy shook his head, "That's alright, Lou; I'd just as soon speak my peace to this night owl if you don't mind."
"You don't have the right to tell me what to do," Jeremiah meant to sound indignant but it came out as a plaintive whine, an appeal for clemency.
Jimmy leaned across the table at him, "As long as you're working this ranch and I'm foreman, I sure as hell do."
Before she could ask Jeremiah where he'd been, Lou's nose wrinkled in disgust, "You smell like - " she stopped, she wasn't going to say what he smelled like, but the thick, sickening smell of heliotrope coming off him was turning her stomach. "Next time you spend the night at the Miss Diane's you'd best scrub that cheap scent off yourself before you come into this house."
Jeremiah's face turned bright red and Lou knew she had been right. Lord help her. She'd thought maybe he'd been in to the saloon, drinking or gambling; it wouldn't be the first time he'd been caught at either, and Lou suspected he did both more often than she'd care to know about. But whoring was a different thing all together. She looked to Jimmy helplessly.
"Jeremiah," Jimmy said sternly, sounding an awful lot like Teaspoon, "there's a passel of reasons why you shouldn't be visiting a place like that and I thought you were smart enough to know them -"
"You give this lecture to all the hands when they make a visit?" Jeremiah spit out, his own temper finally flaring up.
"Some of those boys, son, they aren't - " Jimmy began.
"I'm not your son."
"Some of those boys aren't what you'd call gentlemen. It's disrespectful to your sister to be carryin' on like that. And as long as you're livin' in her house - "
Lou interrupted him, "Jeremiah's right, Jimmy."
Jeremiah looked at her in shock before narrowing his eyes with suspicion, "I am?" He waited for her to explain the trick.
"Jeremiah isn't a child anymore. He's free to make adult mistakes if that's what he wants." The two men looked at her in disbelief. It wasn't like Lou to take things so calmly. Usually when Jeremiah got into trouble there was shouting and language ladies should not hear let alone use. The iciness in her tone was unprecedented. "Jeremiah," she continued, "If you don't want to live by the rules of this house, that's fine. Take the morning off to get your things moved down to the bunkhouse. If you want to be treated like just one of the hands, that's fine. You'll take your meals down there like the rest of them, you'll do your job, and what you do on your free time won't be any of our business. That suit you?"
Her brother looked at her, as if still trying to understand what his punishment was. "And you're gonna stop nagging me about every little thing?"
Lou's temper finally broke, "Jeremiah, I am tired, okay? I am tired of having the same arguments; I'm tired of watching Theresa's face every time she gets stuck in the middle. Something around here has got to change, damn it, or I'm going to break. Now go get your things and get out of my house!"
He left the table in silence, stomping his feet all the way up the stairs and slamming his bedroom door. Lou looked back at her plate but suddenly felt nauseated by the sight of it. She pushed it away with a groan and looked up to meet Jimmy's eyes, staring at her.
"Lou - "
"I made my decision, Jimmy."
"Alright," he said with a shake of his head, but knowing enough not to disagree. "If we're done with Jeremiah, then maybe we could talk about something else."
Lou couldn't keep the anger out of her voice when she answered, "Not right now, Jimmy."
This time, he wasn't deterred. "Alright, we won't talk about it right now. When?"
Lou sighed loudly and clenched her fists in her lap. It would be too childish to hit the table right now, to stomp out of the room, slam the door, scream at the top of her lungs. "I don't know when, Jimmy," she answered evenly, "I told you I had to think about it."
"Thinkin' about it and ignorin' it are two different things," Jimmy said between bites of egg. He seemed nonchalant, and his voice was casual, as if the topic was of no importance, but Lou knew better. She'd been dreading this day, when his patience finally wore thin, and now she knew the reality was going to be worse than she'd imagined. He cleaned his plate and looked up at her expectantly. "You know I'd wait forever for ya, Lou, if you were ever gonna change your mind and tell me yes. But if it's always gonna be no, then you'd be a friend to just say so."
"Jimmy," she shut her eyes against the look on his face, "I just need more time. I'm still grievin' for the Kid - " The words were routine, and the pain that stretched her voice thin wasn't for Kid anymore, it was her own despair, her own need for Jimmy to believe her one more time. Maybe it wasn't a lie, maybe it was true. Maybe one more year and she could fall asleep alone without having conversations with the air.
"Kid's been dead three years now, Lou," Jimmy said softly, "If you ain't made peace with that yet, I ain't sure you ever will." She sobbed, knowing it was true and willing it some other way. She kept her eyes closed and felt him come to her and hold her to his chest. She listened to the beat of his heart and tried to picture them together, picture Jimmy in Kid's place in her bed, see a portrait of their wedding on the wall. But it was a thing impossible. He kissed the top of her head. "It's alright, Lou. It just weren't meant to be is all."
"Don't leave me, Jimmy," she whispered raggedly, clutching his shoulders.
He sighed heavily and held her at arm's length, waiting for her to open her eyes before he answered. His eyes searched her face for a second and then he nodded slightly, "I got work to do, Lou." He leaned down and kissed her once, his lips warm against hers, tender, longing. He walked out the door and a moment later Lou's plate had shattered against it.
The day had worn on from there. Lou managed books and talked with Jimmy at length about which horses would be taken to auction in the next week. Lunch came and went. Jeremiah ate with the hands, and the mood around the house table without him was grim. Attempts were made to make the meal seem normal, but neither Lou nor Jimmy had ever been adept at keeping their feelings hidden and Theresa watched them through quiet eyes, every moment seeming to wilt a little more.
In the afternoon, Lou insisted on taking a ride alone. The ranch felt oppressive and she was exhausted by it, Jimmy, Jeremiah, even Theresa's quiet competence was getting on her nerves. She couldn't help but think of Kid as she rode. He had been better equipped to deal with family life than her. He'd only had a few brief months with Jeremiah and Theresa before he'd left for the war but Lou remembered them with a painful clarity. Jeremiah had accepted Kid's authority without complaint and Theresa had seemed like a happy child, one with hopes and dreams. Since Kid left Jeremiah had taken a special delight in disobeying Lou, in angering her. And somewhere in those first dark months after Kid died, Theresa stopped being a child, and started taking care of Lou instead of the other way around.
It had seemed then, when they'd first bought the place, planning only on farming at first, the ranch a dream to be built up to, that at last everything was falling into place. Lou had her family. Teaspoon and Rachel and Buck were but a day's ride away in Rock Creek, they had sent for the children from the orphanage, and she had Kid. There was little else that mattered then. The hard work, the worries over Cody and Jimmy as the war began, the mortgage payments that they could barely make, all of it seemed only like ripples across calm water, a momentary disturbance across the surface that would fade in time. But Lou had underestimated the war, underestimated Virginia's pull on the Kid, and somehow the worst of her temporary troubles had become permanent.
Still distracted by memories, Lou made it back for dinner and sat through the meal in silence, barely picking at her plate. Jimmy was teasing Theresa lightly and the young girl blushed and stuttered back at him. It was familiar, routine, as normal as the empty ache in Lou's chest and at last she excused herself and retired early. She had spent a full day holding on to herself, and it was on days like this that she did things she regretted. In the past she might have encouraged Jimmy, just to feel something other than lonely. But that was gone now; she knew she'd have to stop hurting him that way and face her own pain instead.
Upstairs, she flopped face down onto her bed and sobbed into her pillow. She reached out and grabbed Kid's pillow, the blanket from his side of the bed, and clutched them to her, trying to remember what it had felt like to hold him, imagining his arms strong and warm and heavy around her. As every night she begged and pleaded to see him one more time, to hear his voice, to feel his touch. And as always, he came. The icy breeze of his hand passed down her back soothingly, his voice whispered, "It's okay, Lou, I'm here. I'm not leaving you."
She hated herself for clinging to him as she did, for holding on to something that wasn't there. She could hear Jimmy downstairs as he and Theresa conferred in low worried voices. Jimmy was real. He was flesh and blood and he wanted her and she was hidden in her room with nothing but memories and this image she'd conjured out of grief.
"Maybe you should go to him," Kid murmured, "Tell him you've changed your mind."
"It's not my mind I'm havin' a problem with," she muttered into her pillow, "It's the change of heart I can't manage." Kid said nothing and she felt the cool caress of his hand against her hair until at last, exhausted, she fell asleep.
In the morning, of course, she awoke alone, with empty arms and eyes gritty from the last night's tears. Lou lay in bed and stared up at the ceiling, seeing nothing and wishing herself numb. The rattle of pots and pans as Theresa started breakfast echoed up the stairs and into her room, and still Lou lay in bed, thinking nothing, feeling nothing, imagining herself fading into nothing until only her empty nightdress remained between the sheets.
She was abruptly brought back into something by a gentle knock on the door. "Louise?" Theresa's voice barely made it through the door. Lou groaned grumpily before heaving herself out of bed and opening the door.
"I'm up, Theresa, I'm up," she snapped, "I'll be down in a minute, alright?" Her sister only nodded, her one long blond braid dipping father down her shoulder. Lou thought she could see the beginnings of tears in her sister's eyes and impetuously grabbed Theresa and hugged her tight. "I'm sorry, sugarbear, I don't mean to be such a grouch."
"I don't think you're a grouch, Louise."
"Well I do," Lou said with a bitter smile, "And it's about time I changed that."
Theresa shook her head in disagreement, "You're fine."
Lou laughed, "Honey, I am anything but fine." She kissed her sister on the cheek and shooed her down the hall. "I'll be down as soon as I'm dressed, and I'll have a smile on my face, I promise."
Lou turned her face to the sun as she left the house after breakfast. It was a beautiful day, and she was determined, as she had been many mornings before, that this was it, she was ready to put the Kid behind her. She marched out across the yard towards the barn, noting with irritation that the corral fence had been sloppily mended. But the rest of her little kingdom was standing sturdy. She felt a sudden burst of pride and picked up her pace. No one could say she'd left all the work of the ranch to Jimmy. She'd gotten her hands dirty quite a bit in the beginning and it was only because the books took so much time that she wasn't out in the stables as often now.
She could see through the open door of the main barn where the men were gathered, morning chores done, it was time to get down to the business of the day, which meant making the final selection of which horses would be going down to Seneca for auction. Lou ran through a catalog of the promising animals in her mind. She got closer and could hear Jimmy's stern voice, "And Jeremiah, you'll find some time to redo the corral fence. That kind of work don't fly around here." Jimmy's voice faltered as the men caught sight of Louise and a murmur coupled with a few smothered chuckles rose. Jimmy silenced the men with a look, though Jeremiah and an older man, Stokes, remained grinning and stared at Lou expectantly.
Lou couldn't help but notice the men's reaction herself. Jimmy met her at the door, which was unusual and it seemed to Lou that an occasional snicker still seemed to escape from the men behind him. Concentrated on turning over a new and cheerier leaf, she ignored the odd situation and smiled up at Jimmy. "You can finish up with the men; I just want to go over the stock for auction when you're done."
Jimmy cast a wary glance over his shoulder causing a derisive hoot from Stokes and a low rumble of whispers and laughter from everyone else. With a great sigh he grabbed Lou's elbow and started walking her back to the house. "That's fine, Lou," he said with irritation, "I'll be up to fetch you once I've put everyone to work."
Lou stubbornly resisted walking, "I'll wait out here, thank you very much." She looked up at him and saw the muscles of his jaw clenched and his nostrils flared. It had been a long time since she'd seen him look that mad. "What's going on, Jimmy?"
They had come to a full stop now and though she could not hear what the men were saying exactly she did not miss the teasing tone or the occasional burst of laughter anytime someone made a particularly good jibe. Jimmy looked back at the barn angrily, "Seems Jeremiah's been telling tales out of school."
"About us," Jimmy answered turning back to face her.
She hazarded a look back and felt the color rising in her face, "You don't mean they think that we - "
Jimmy cut her off quickly, "Don't worry, Louise, your honor ain't been put in question. Ain't you they're laughin' at, it's me." Lou took a small step back. Jimmy's infamous temper had never been turned on her and now she felt it massing its forces against her, brutal and unforgiving. "Seems that Jeremiah let everyone know that I've been a fool mooning over you for three years even though you won't have me, and that's why I've been workin' for a hand's pay on the Kid's ranch and he's damn near the truth of it."
"I've been offering you a share in the ranch for years, Jimmy, you never - "
"I don't want your damn ranch, Lou!" Jimmy roared and the crowd in the barn hollered encouragement at his sudden show of spine. "All I wanted was you and if that ain't happenin' then I'm not sure what I'm doin' here anymore."
Lou put her face in her hands in anguish, her resolve for the day melting, "I'm so sorry, Jimmy. Kid is right, I've taken advantage of you." He didn't respond and the silence felt discordant and when she pulled her hands away and peered up at him, she saw he wasn't angry anymore. The grim line of his mouth had fallen into a collapsed frown and his forehead was fretted with worry. Lou realized she'd said the wrong thing and let her shoulders sink into a dejected slump. She hung her head and stared at the dusty ground without seeing.
When he spoke at last his voice was concerned but detached. "You scare me when you talk like that, Lou, like you and Kid just were talkin' a few minutes ago." He sighed and the despair in the sound seemed to rattle through Lou. "Stokes knows as much about the stock as I do. You best talk to him about the auction." He walked away and left her standing in the middle of the yard, little whirlwinds of dust picking up at her feet and nothing but her bones to keep her standing.
Jimmy didn't come to dinner. Lou went out later to the barn and spent some time brushing down Katie and Lightning, giving them sugar, leaning against them and taking comfort in their warmth and sturdiness. She noticed that Sundancer was gone and as the night wore on sat at her desk in the parlor listening for the sound of hoofbeats. None ever came. Lou's temper began to wear thin and she started to plan in exquisite detail the rant she would level at Jimmy when he dared show up. She stared at the ledgers before her, not seeing them, until at last she slammed them shut with a vehemence that made Theresa jump in her seat. Lou stalked to the window and stood there, looking outside just waiting for Jimmy to ride in.
At last Theresa went to bed, the lamp in the parlor had burnt very low, and Lou felt her anger slowly congealing into a cold, clammy fear in her chest. She'd finally pushed him too far and now Jimmy had left her for good. The house seemed to expand and she felt herself contract until she was tiny in the cavernous room, rattling around with nothing to hold her down.
She sobbed once and began to drag herself up the stairs to bed. Halfway up she stumbled and caught herself, straining her wrist and the sharp pain ran up her arm in an instant, but pain was something she was getting used to. Her ears heard the slow canter of a horse in the yard and her pain was forgotten. She rushed back down the stairs and out the front door, ready to forgive everything, pretend anything, just so long as he would stay.
Outside, Sundancer was antsy as the unsteady rider dismounted. Lou stopped short. Jimmy stumbled and fell. From the ground he looked up at her, peering from under the rim of his hat with a cock-eyed grin. "Hey, there, darlin'."
"You're drunk," Lou said dully, feeling the anger beginning to seep back in, hot and quick in her veins.
"Reckon so," Jimmy stated happily and with a great deal of concentration managed to stand himself upright.
"You missed dinner."
"Guess I did. That a problem?" He staggered toward her and Lou shuddered at the leer stretched across his familiar features.
She turned on her heel and started to march back to the house. "I am so mad at you, Jimmy Hickok, I could spit nails!" She spun around to face him again and continued, not caring who heard, "How dare you show up at my ranch at this time of night stinking drunk! What if Theresa saw you like this? She'd be terrified. And I know you, Jimmy, the only reason you drink is because you feel sorry for yourself. Well what have you got to be so sorry about, huh? You're livin', ain't ya? You could be dead in the ground just like Kid and you ain't, so you've got nothin' to feel sorry about."
She started to walk away again, but Jimmy grabbed her elbow and pulled her back to him. "You'd like that, wouldn't you, Lou? Well, guess what, honey, I'd do it, if I could. I'd walk into that grave right now and send Kid out to you. But ain't nothin' either of us can do to change which one of us is livin' and which of us is gone. You gotta face facts, darlin'."
"Let me go," Lou whimpered pathetically and struggled against his grip.
Jimmy tightened his hold and grabbed her other arm too. He leaned in until she cringed, his whiskey scented breath hot on her neck. "I can't do that. I can't let you go, Lou. I've been trying as sure as you've been trying to let go of Kid, but I can't do it. You're eatin' me up inside; I got nothin' left, Lou. And if that ain't reason enough to climb into a bottle…"
He trailed off as she started to cry and pulled her against his chest in a warm embrace. He brushed his lips across the top of her hair and swayed with her gently. After a moment she looked up at him, with the gentlest of touches she pulled his head down to her own and kissed him. He clutched her to him fiercely, and Lou let him, let him press liquored kisses against the hollow of her throat, let his clumsy fingers tug at the neckline of her dress. But after a moment, Jimmy pushed her away. Lou looked at him, trying to look the part, but he saw the truth in her eyes or he knew her heart too well. Jimmy sadly shook his head and turned away, trudging to the barn with Sundancer behind him, leaving Lou in the middle of the yard, alone.
She paid no mind to Theresa, who had come out to the porch when the shouting began. Lou just shuffled past her and up the stairs to her room, shutting the door heavily behind her. She let herself collapse face first onto the bed and allowed herself one shuddering sob into her pillow before forcing herself into a state of numbness.
"Theresa is very upset." The voice came from the darkness and Lou raised her head only enough to see Kid's familiar profile at the window before she flopped back into the pillow with a sigh.
"Just let it go for tonight, Kid. Theresa's upset; Jimmy's drunk; I'm crazy; we ain't, none of us, doin' well these days."
Kid was silent for a long time. Lou began to fear that she was alone and she looked up to see he was still there, standing at the window, pushing back the lace curtains and staring out into the darkness. "Theresa took care of Sundancer. She's talking with him."
"Good for her," Lou mumbled into her pillow.
Kid sighed and laying beside her and pulled her against the cold nothingness of himself. "Lou, you know I want you to be happy more than I want anything else." Lou made some garbled sound of assent into the linen and feathers. "If Jimmy's what'll make you happy, Lou, then you better head to that bunkhouse and have it out with him tonight, 'cause I don't think he'll be here come mornin'."
"Jimmy can't make me happy," she sobbed angrily, "only thing that'll make me happy is for you to come home to me and that's out of your hands now, ain't it?" She pulled away from him and turned on her side, her back to the Kid and her eyes screwed tightly shut. "Go away, Kid."
And maybe he did; she spent the whole night willing herself not to turn around and look for him on the bed beside her. And so she was wide awake when Sundancer rode out of the yard early that next morning, and Jimmy left the ranch for good.
If breakfast had seemed silent without Jeremiah, without Jimmy it was unbearable. Theresa picked at her food and ate nothing and Lou felt her own appetite wane after only a few bites. The eggs got cold and congealed in rubbery heaps. Lou found herself staring at the pattern of ivy around the edge of her plate for minutes at a time, doing nothing, saying nothing, simply lost in the thought that now she was truly alone. At last Theresa cleared the plates and began the dishes, still as silent as a grave, her face pale and pinched. Lou guessed her sister had slept as little as she did.
A knock at the door broke into her reverie and Lou dragged herself to the door to answer it. No doubt it was one of the hands, wondering as to Jimmy's whereabouts and what was to be done in his absence. Lou wasn't sure what answer to give. The hallway stretched before her and she squared her shoulders and pushed any grief, any regret to the back of her mind. Business had to be attended to and if that was all that was to be left to her, if all her life were to amount to was a successful ranch and a brother and sister who were fed and clothed and always had a home to come back to, then so be it.
She opened the door and saw Jarred Stokes, an older man who had been the first hand they hired. He was scruffy and little worse for wear in appearance but reliable, and knew everything there was to know about horses. Yet there had always been something about him, some unknown edge and hardness. The sight of him on her doorstep and the knowledge that Jimmy was not there, caused a momentary buzz of fright in her stomach. But Lou squashed the feeling down. "Mr. Stokes," she said politely, and tried not to stare as his jaw worked away at a chaw of tobacco, making room in his mouth for him to speak.
"Ma'am. I'm supposin' you know that Mr. Hickok lit out this mornin'?"
Lou nodded, not trusting her voice to speak.
"He say when he was plannin' on bein' back?"
Lou breathed in deeply, the unpleasant sweaty odor of Stokes filling her lungs. "No," she answered, her voice steadier than her knees, "I think we had best plan on him being gone for the foreseeable future."
"I see," Stokes took off his hat and scratched through his greasy yellow gray hair. "Well, ma'am, y'know the hands is awful young, some of 'em awful green too. Best to have a strong hand on the reins with 'em. I 'spect, with yer permission a'course, that I'd best be fillin' in as foreman…for the foreseeable future."
Lou nodded. None of the other men were ready to take on the responsibility, and she knew Stokes to be a good worker, whatever her personal misgivings might be. "Thank you, Mr. Stokes. I'll see that your pay reflects that as well. We've got that auction comin' up in a few days; we'll have to get the stock that's goin' ready."
"Yes, ma'am," answered Stokes with a finger to his hat, "Then I'll see you at supper, Mrs. McCloud."
"What?" Lou felt suddenly ill at ease. The conversation had gone well until that point, she felt that she had been in control and now she wasn't sure where things were going or what was next going to come out of Stokes' tobacco stained lips.
"The foreman eats up at the house not with hands, don't he? Mr. Hickok always did."
"Jimmy was a friend," Lou blurted without thinking.
She immediately realized her mistake, saw Stokes' eyes narrow as he nodded knowingly. "Oh, I see then. I'll be staying down to the bunkhouse with the other hands."
"No, I mean, you're right, Mr. Stokes, it has been that the foreman eats at the house and you are…" she choked on the words, "welcome, of course."
The old man smiled, a wicked, greasy smile, "No need to put yourself out, ma'am. I see the lay of the land now; I'll stay down to the bunkhouse." He tipped his hat again and sauntered away. Lou saw him meet Jeremiah in the yard and put his arm around the younger boy's shoulders in a fatherly way; instinctively she shuddered.
"Stokes said there just weren't many buyers, and the horses weren't fetching the sort of prices they did last year," Lou paced the bedroom floor in something near frenzy. The ranch depended on the annual auction in Seneca; bills were leveraged against it and even in a good year individual buyers couldn't take the excess stock off their hands. "What are we going to do?" she asked looking pleadingly at Kid.
Kid's face looked pained, as it so often did, and he rested his hands on her shoulders to still her. "We'll figure something out, Lou, don't worry."
"Don't worry!" She flung his hands aside and started stalking up and down the room again. "How can I not worry? I have to pay the hands, and with what I don't know, but I can't let them go, because we still have most of the stock."
"Damn Jimmy for leaving you like this!" Kid slammed his fist against the wall in frustration, but it made no sound.
"Kid, let's not start damning people for leaving," she said coldly, looking at him with empty eyes. They stared at each other for a moment before with a cry of frustration Lou turned to pacing again.
Kid sat down on the edge of the bed and studied the multi-colored rug on the floor and sighed. "It was bound to happen sooner or later. You have to risk everything to have enough stock to make Seneca worthwhile. You know the ranch was never supposed to get this big. Eight hands! The payroll alone…" His voice petered out as he looked up to see Lou glaring angrily at him. Knowing not to push his luck, Kid tried another tactic, "You could always have some of the boys take what's left up to Fort Laramie, you know they'd - "
Lou cut him short, "I don't sell to the army."
"Lou, don't be silly, the war is over. You can't let the ranch run itself into the ground just because of your stubbornness - "
"Don't you blame me," Lou hissed, jabbing her finger into the cold emptiness of his chest. "You're the one that chose to fight - " But the mention of the war seemed to bring her to her senses and she abruptly turned away from him, unbuttoning the back of her dress in silence as if Kid weren't even there. "Might let Stokes take half of 'em up there," she murmured as she struggled into her nightgown and hopped onto the bed, blowing out the lantern with a huff. Kid stretched out beside her and held out his arm until she snuggled up next to him. She leaned her cheek against his chest and toyed with the brass buttons down the front of his uniform. They were ice-cold but never seemed to chill her. His uniform was scratchy against her skin, but faintly, like the memory of wool instead of the reality. She sighed, "Sometimes, Kid, it's almost like you're real." She lay against him for a few moments, his fingers like a cool breeze, ruffled her hair. Eventually though the comfort of his presence was outweighed by what was missing, the rise and fall of his breath. Resigned she turned away from him and pulled the blankets over her shoulder, ignoring his chilled embrace as she slipped into sleep.
In the morning, she stared at the horses in the corral. They'd lost a little weight on the drive to and from Seneca, but they were still beautiful animals. "What do you think, Lou?" Jeremiah startled her, suddenly coming up to stand next to her.
She leaned against the fence, considering. "Dunno, Jeremiah. I'm not sure what to do right now."
"You'll figure somethin' out," he said assuredly.
Lou glanced over at him, or more accurately, up at him. He was a young man now, not a boy any longer and nostalgia for the child he'd been welled up in her. She reached out and squeezed his elbow, "How do you like livin' in the bunkhouse?"
He turned and eyed her warily. "I think it's better than stayin' at the house. Don't you?" His words weren't meant to hurt her, but the blunt statement made her wince.
"I don't like fightin' with you, Jeremiah."
"I know," he answered, "But you also don't like mindin' your own business." He turned away to watch the horses and Lou could see the veins in his neck throbbing with his pulse. "I'm a grown man, now, Lou, and you gotta let me make my own decisions."
"I just don't want to see you make the wrong ones," she said softly, reaching out to brush a stray curl off his forehead. He shrugged off her touch in irritation and Lou pulled back. "You gettin' along alright with the other hands? Stokes seems to have taken you under his wing right quick." Her voice twisted with jealousy on her final words.
Jeremiah nodded curtly. "Stokes treats me like a man and not his kid brother."
Lou laughed, "But Miah you are my kid brother." Lou leaned heavily against the fence, feeling splinters poke through her sleeves in a dozen places. She stared at her brother but he stubbornly kept his eyes on the horses. Lou took advantage of the moment to study him, the tight clench of his jaw, the fading freckles across his nose, the halo of sunlight through the ends of his hair.
"Jeremiah!" She turned around to see Stokes sauntering across the yard towards them, thumbs jammed in his belt, and a chaw of tobacco stretching out his right cheek. He spit a streak of brown juice out onto the dirt and nodded his head towards the barn. "You got work to tend to, boy."
Instead of rebelling against Stokes' command, Jeremiah complied readily, trotting off to the barn with a palpable relief at being able to leave his sister's presence. "Boy's spirited," Stokes said, spitting again and winking at Lou amiably. He joined her at the fence, looking out over the horses with her. "Well, Mrs. McCloud, what are we gonna do with them?"
Lou couldn't decide if he was being polite or condescending, but chose to believe the former. "I think," she chewed her lip for a second, still hesitant to fully commit. She took a great breath and with a sigh said, "I think you'd better take a couple of the hands and take half the herd up to Fort Laramie. They should take the whole of 'em, and for a hundred eighty a head."
Stokes rubbed his stubbled chin and spat again, through the rails of the fence. "They're worth more."
His own hesitation was enough to steel Lou's resolve and she pushed her self away from the fence. "We'll have to take what we can get," she started for the house, calling back over her shoulder, "I'd like you to leave tomorrow, Mr. Stokes. Two of the men; not Jeremiah."
At dinner, Teresa handed Lou the mail before sitting silently to pick at her meal. For her own part, Lou ate more enthusiastically than she had in weeks. She opened a letter from Rachel and scanned it quickly, her empty fork frozen in mid air. "How ridiculous," she scoffed quietly.
"Has Rachel heard from Jimmy?" Teresa asked softly, pushing potatoes around her plate listlessly.
Lou didn't look up from the letter. "Yes. He's gone to Abilene. But she's worried about me because Jimmy was so upset and felt so guilty saying he'd taken advantage of me."
"I should think it was the other way around."
Lou looked up sharply from her letter. Teresa's eyes were on her plate and Lou took a close look at her sister's drawn features and pale cheeks. She folded the letter and laid it aside. "I'd agree with you, sugarbear. You okay, Reese?"
"I'm fine," her sister answered, but her voice wobbled and after a moment she dropped her fork, letting it clatter against the plate. She looked up at Lou with accusing eyes, but she seemed to falter at saying what she wanted and instead suddenly blurted, "I've been thinking I might help Miss Henry at the school some afternoons. That is if you don't need me."
Lou set aside the mail and patted her sister's hand. "If you'd like to help Miss Taylor out, I think that'd be fine. You shouldn't spend all your time on the ranch. You oughta be in town more." Satisfied that a little glow had returned to Theresa's face, Lou turned back to her meal, grunting in appreciation of her sister's culinary talents.
Theresa picked her fork up again and passed it over her plate as though trying to choose something palatable. Her hand trembled slightly. "Miss Henry said if I spent a few afternoons helping out she would tutor me for the entrance exams for the teaching college in Saint Joe."
In her mind, Lou was pondering the mathematics of their current position. Four horses sold at auction, six more up to Fort Laramie, eight hands at five dollars a week…suddenly Theresa's words penetrated the fog of figures. "Teaching college?" Lou started to sputter, staring at her sister and suddenly realizing how little attention she had paid to the young woman.
Any further conversation on the subject was put to an immediate end as the front door opened and closed with a bang. Theresa jumped, startled, and Lou hurried to put herself between her sister and the open doorway, calling out, "Who's there?" in her sternest voice.
Lou heard Theresa's sigh of relief as Jeremiah appeared in the doorway. His face was red with anger and he stared at Lou fiercely. "Did you tell Stokes not to take me tomorrow to Fort Laramie?"
Lou crossed her arms across her chest and jutted her chin out at him stubbornly. "Yes, I did. I need experienced hands on this trip."
"Experience?" Jeremiah spluttered, his voice livid, "You just don't like that Stokes respects me."
"That's not so."
"Did you tell him you wanted experienced hands? Or just not to take me?" Jeremiah mirrored her pose and glared down at her. Lou didn't have an answer and Jeremiah laughed bitterly, throwing his hands up in the air in exasperation. "Stop motherin' me, Louise! No wonder Jimmy lit out and Kid ran off to fight -"
"Get out of my house," Lou said evenly and coldly.
"Lou, I'm sorry, it's just -"
"Get out of my house," she stated again and with a resigned sigh and a shrug Jeremiah turned on his heel and left. Lou let out a ragged breath and felt her shoulders sag. Turning around, she saw that Theresa was gone, her plate still untouched.
Lou slammed her bedroom door and exhaled a burst of hot air in a huff. She thought back over the last few years, the nights of grief and cold comfort. Had she ever asked him? She'd always wondered, always wanted to know the answer, but she'd been too afraid to ask even when he was living, afraid that Jeremiah might have spoken some part of the truth. Why hadn't she been enough to hold him to her? She felt her knees go weak and she crumbled to the floor, leaning forward against the bed, her tears making a puddle on the quilt. Her hands gripped her own shoulders with a bruising ferocity as she sobbed.
She felt his touch on her hair, heard the quiet murmur of his voice as he sought to comfort her, but she cringed away from his hand and looked up to glare at him. She was determined not to be a coward any longer. "Why'd you leave me, Kid?" she whispered raggedly.
His face contorted with pain and he refused to look at her. "I thought I had to, Lou."
"But why?" she demanded, suddenly rising up on her knees and grabbing his face between her hands, forcing him to look her in the eye. "Why'd you have to? Virginia wasn't your home anymore and you said you didn't have people left there. Why wasn't I enough?"
Kid pulled her into his arms. "It wasn't about you, Lou. It was just pride. Stupid, blind, foolish pride." His voice was angry, as though he were chiding himself for his mistake.
"I don't understand," she whimpered against his shoulder.
Kid sighed. "There'd never been anybody in Virginia who had much use for me or Jed or my mother. We were just poor trash. And I thought I had a chance to prove to those folks, like Garth, that looked down their nose at us that I was worth something."
Lou pushed him away angrily, "Are you tellin' me you left me to go play hero?"
Kid wriggled in misery and embarrassment. "Everybody was goin' to the war. We were getting' harassed by both sides and folks callin' me a coward."
"So you'd rather get shot than be called names? You'd rather leave me here alone than stand up to folks?"
"No, Lou," he grunted in exasperation, "Look, I know it was a mistake and I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry, Louise. If I could change it, you know I would."
Lou stood at the window with her back to him. He reached out for her and Lou stood stiffly inside his arms. She stared out the window, trying to ignore her own reflection and the empty space around her.
The stranger showed up while Stokes was in Laramie. He rode in on a tall, dark horse, a fine animal that had been run hard. Lou went out to greet him, assuming him to be a buyer. He sat straight and tall in the saddle, and Lou caught herself staring before he finally spoke.
"'Scuse me, ma'am, I'm lookin' for James Hickok," he said in a gentle, almost timid voice, that made Lou believe this wasn't just another gunfighter looking for the infamous Wild Bill.
"I'm afraid Jimmy's moved on. If you had business with him, you can take it up with me; this is my ranch."
The stranger looked around the place grimly, and Lou watched the faintest pink blush bloom beneath his tan. "To be honest, ma'am, I'm in need of work. Last he wrote, Hickok was foreman here and I was hoping he might have something for me."
For the first time he met her eyes and Lou felt herself take a step back. His eyes were startling blue, in a way reminiscent of the Kid's, except that the stranger's eyes looked as if he'd seen ghosts and wished to forget them. "We could use another hand now that Jimmy's gone," she heard herself saying, "Why don't you head on down to the barn and - " she suddenly caught herself. "You spent time with the army," she accused, looking at his worn pants and the thin stripe down the side.
"Yes, ma'am, ten years of service."
She eyed him with a new suspicion, "My husband fought and died for the South." She'd never been comfortable hiring army men, though God knows since the war almost everyone was an army man. And though she'd never agreed with Kid's Southern conviction, she couldn't get over the thought that any Union soldier could've been the one that sent the bullet through Kid's chest. The very thought of it made her skin crawl.
He seemed to sense what she was thinking. "I never saw action during the war, ma'am. Was stationed out West at Fort Reunion,"
"So you've just been killing Indians, not rebels?" she spat back.
He hung his head in shame, "Only when I had to, ma'am."
Lou softened a little. The stranger looked worn out, his horse looked worse. She knew she couldn't turn him away, her conscience would eat at her all night. "Like I said, you'll find the boys in the barn. One of them can see to your horse, and Jeremiah'll show you to the bunkhouse."
The stranger nodded and lifted his hand to his hat, "Thank you, Ma'am."
Lou shook her head in irritation, "Don't call me ma'am." She offered him her hand, "Louise McCloud."
He dismounted and shook her hand lightly. "Joseph Cassidy, ma'am."
"Supper'll be down at the bunkhouse in about an hour, Mr. Cassidy," she said as a dismissal and watched as he led his horse down to the barn. Lou sighed and cursed Jimmy silently; he up and left and now she was having to hire Yankees.
She hadn't stopped by the creek in years, not since Kid had left. As she lingered between the birches, staring at the way the sunlight dappled the ground, she couldn't help but remember happier times. She found the tree that Kid had carved her name in and slid down to sit at the base of it, leaning back and imagining she could still feel the warmth of his embrace. But the memories of then were hard to recall and she found that she could recall his cold touch much easier.
She remembered the picnic they'd had here. They'd just bought the place, were dirt poor, and waiting for Theresa and Jeremiah to arrive from the orphanage. They were happy, hopeful. She tilted her head back against the tree and closed her eyes, trying to relive those precious moments. She rarely thought of those good times, it was easier to pick at the scabs, thinking on the fight before he left, the empty years while he was fighting, and the way it had felt when she'd gotten the letter about his death, as though someone had pulled a plug and everything that made her had leaked out, leaving just her hollow skin. For once Lou pushed those dark thoughts aside and tried to remember Kid in the sunshine, his easy smile and the sparkle in his eyes.
"Mrs. McCloud?" a soft and unfamiliar voice interrupted her memories, "Are you alright?"
Lou opened her eyes and turned to see Cassidy across the clearing, leading one of the horses. "Oh, I'm fine," she answered quickly, scrambling up and dusting off the back of her pants. Cassidy nodded and turned to go but suddenly Lou felt the need for company. The warm memories of the spot were fading and she wasn't ready to go back to the dreary, empty feeling that would eventually take their place. "What are you doing out here, Cassidy?"
She had only meant to make conversation, forgetting for the moment that she was his employer. His reply made it obvious that he had not forgotten. "I was taking Major for exercise, ma'am." He jerked his thumb towards the horse behind him. "See how his stone bruise is healing."
Lou nodded and encouraged him to continue, "How does it seem?"
"He's not been favoring it, ma'am."
"Oh, stop ma'am-ing me, please. This is a ranch not the cavalry."
"Yes, ma'am," he cleared his throat awkwardly and Lou laughed at his mistake. Her laughter caught her by surprise and it turned to a wistful sigh as she turned to look out across the creek. "I'll be heading back, if you'll be alright on your own," he said, his effort to avoid calling her ma'am obvious.
Lou shook her head, the grayness had already seeped back into her heart. "I'll ride back with you." She clucked her tongue and Katie emerged from the trees and waited for her to mount up.
"Do you come out here often ma…Mrs. McCloud?" Cassidy asked as they set their horses towards home.
"No," Lou answered softly, "Very rarely. Too many memories." Cassidy nodded as though he understood and said nothing more. But the silence between them was uncomfortable and Lou felt herself searching for something to say. "Why'd you quit the army, Cassidy?"
"I didn't quit," he answered her stiffly.
Lou looked sideways at him. Everything about him was precise, the tilt of his hat, the gloss of his boots. It ought to have been annoying, but Lou was surprised to find something poignant about Cassidy's spit and polish. His face was impassive, stoic, but the effort was too clearly etched across it. Her attention was abruptly pulled elsewhere as the stables came into view and she realized that Stokes had returned from Fort Laramie.
"A hundred fifty?" Lou repeated, dolefully counting out the cash Stokes had handed her.
Stokes nodded, his eyes mournful. From behind him, Cassidy, his eyes locked on Stokes spoke carefully, "Washington authorizes every commanding officer to offer one hundred and eighty dollars a head."
"Maybe that was so when you was in the army, Cap'n, but looks like things has changed. Guess there just ain't much need for horseflesh now that the war's done," Stokes answered back, darting his eyes at Cassidy. He shrugged penitently at Lou, "I'm awful sorry, Mrs. McCloud, know it ain't what you were hopin' for.
. Lou ruffled the bills in her hand. She didn't like the whole situation, but she wasn't ready to call Stokes a liar. She pushed a hand over her hair with a sigh. "And Taylor quit too, you said?"
Stokes nodded. "Yes'm. Like we said he met up with an old friend in Laramie and the two of them took it in their head to try some prospectin'," Stokes studied Lou as she considered this. "Ain't that so, Willie?" he glanced over his shoulder at the young, gangly redhead that had returned with him from Fort Laramie.
Willie looked startled to have been consulted. "Yes, sir, guess that's right."
Lou scowled. Jeff Taylor hadn't been with the ranch long and she didn't know him well, but something about the story didn't fit. He was supporting a sister in Omaha and he would have known he had two week's worth of pay waiting for him at the ranch. Lou looked at Stokes face, at the deep creases in his worn skin and the careful squint of his watery green eyes. Her eyes flitted over to Jeremiah lounging against the fence next to him. She counted the money again and met Stokes' eyes, trying to plumb some truth in their wavering depths. "Thank you, Mr. Stokes," she looked up at the other men, who'd informally gathered round when Stokes had returned, "Best all be gettin' back to work then now that I've got money to pay you." The men laughed at her joke and dispersed, Cassidy pausing for a moment to exchange a hostile stare with Stokes.
The nights were getting cooler, and Lou snuggled under the bedclothes closer to Kid's still form. He wrapped his arm around her and stroked his thumb across her shoulder, Lou felt the movement like a chill breath and it raised goose bumps across her flesh.
They were silent for a long while as the night closed in and the stars blinked on in the black velvet of the sky. A raucous "Yeehaw!" floated in from the bunkhouse and Kid snorted in disapproval. Lou nuzzled in closer to him, speaking against his chest, "I don't remember the boys ever bein' so rowdy when Jimmy was here."
"That's cause they weren't," answered Kid tersely. He pulled away from her to better see her face. "Do you believe what Stokes told you about Taylor?"
Lou shrugged and mumbled back, "No. But I ain't sure what he'd be gainin' by lyin', and maybe I don't want to know the truth. I didn't really know Taylor, and people have pasts, Kid."
"You ask Cassidy about his past?"
She raised her head up to look at him in surprise, "Are you jealous?"
Kid's brow furrowed. "Got no right to be jealous. Just want you to be happy."
"Lou!" he cried out in righteous indignation, as though he were offended to have his good intentions questioned. A minute passed, and the sounds from the bunkhouse quieted down. "I mean Jimmy is one thing, but you don't know anything about Cassidy and just exactly why isn't he with the army anymore - "
"Kid, stop," Lou gently laid her finger across his lips. "You don't have to worry about Cassidy; I'm yours. Ever since that first day you found out I was a girl, I knew there weren't no one else for me but you."
Kid grunted in acceptance and his thumb moved up and down again across her shoulder. The room grew quiet and still, the dim starlight throwing strange shadows across the floor. "Have I told you how much I miss holdin' you, Louise McCloud?"
Half asleep, Lou answered him, "You're holdin' me right now."
"No, I meant for real, Lou." The room fell quiet again and the silence and the dark suddenly seemed empty and frightening. Lou shivered beneath the blankets and Kid's thumb retraced its path back and forth, back and forth across her shoulder.
Taylor's disappearance grated on Lou. As the days passed she felt more and more certain that what Stokes had told her couldn't have been the truth. When a letter came for Taylor from Omaha, Lou felt a cold shiver in her stomach. She tapped the corner of the envelope against her desk in the parlor. She may not have known him well but Taylor had seemed devoted to his sister and she couldn't believe that he wouldn't have taken pains to tell her where he'd ended up. Lou carefully bundled the backpay that was due Taylor and wrote a quick note to his sister outlining what she knew, or more accurately what she'd been told, and sent it to Omaha with the unopened letter to Taylor.
She was still sitting at the desk, pen poised above paper, trying to decide if she should send an inquiry to Fort Laramie when a knock on the door startled her. She answered the door absent-mindedly, still half thinking of the blank paper on her desk.
At the door stood Abel, a hard-working boy that had been at the ranch since the war ended and he'd finally left the fields of his one-time master. He'd always been disarmingly shy around her, but she knew he was fiercely loyal to her and the ranch. The look on his face now was anguished and Lou's attention immediately snapped to it. "Come on in, Abel, you alright?" she asked, opening the door a little wider for him to come in.
Abel came in and stood shuffling his feet and staring at the carpet. "I come to tell you, Missus, that I guess it be about time for me to move on."
"Move on? Abel, why?" Lou heard the strain in her own voice acutely even if he did not.
He worried the brim of his hat in his hands and didn't answer at first, merely shifted his weight from foot to foot and contemplated the fleur de lis on the rug. At last he mumbled, "Tell truth, Missus, tain't the same workin' for Mister Stokes as it was workin' for Mister Hickok." He hazarded a quick look up to her and continued. "I sure thank you for the work, but like I said I got to move on."
Lou nodded slowly, "If you think it best." She looked out the window and saw Jarred Stokes looking at the house from his perch on the corral fence. He seemed to look straight through her and his eyes did not waver as he ejected a thick stream of tobacco juice out onto the dirt. She looked back at Abel. "If Stokes or any of the men have been giving you trouble, you only have to tell me, Abel. I don't need the help bad enough to employ folks like that."
The boy stared at her for a long minute and then slowly shook his head. "No, nobody give me trouble."
Lou stared at him for a moment, certain he wasn't telling the whole truth. He offered nothing more and she walked over to her desk, speaking over her shoulder as she went, "You got somewhere to go?"
He shook his head no.
"Then do me a favor. Stick around for just a while longer. I know the marshal in Rock Creek. Might be there's a job there for you. Think you can stand to wait until I hear back from him?"
He bobbed his head in assent, "Yes'm" He suddenly looked at her with his quick bright eyes. "Ma'am, I ain't one for tellin' tales, but Mr. Stokes…" he faltered as though looking for the right words, "You be careful with him and you watch him. He's got a powerful mean streak and he…he don't much care for you, ma'am." Lou felt chilled by the warning and as Abel left the house she found herself hazarding another glance out the window and saw Stokes still staring through her.
In the evening, Lou finished her letter to Fort Laramie and looked over at her sister, who sat reading a book in the lamplight. "I ain't seen much of you around, Sugarbear," Lou said sitting next to her sister on the sofa.
Theresa looked up and set her book down. "I'm sorry, Louise. I don't have to spend so much time helping out at the school."
Lou shook her head and patted her sister's arm. "You spend as much time there as you want, Sugarbear." She took in a deep breath and looked out the window as dusk settled over the ranch. "We still haven't talked much about you going to teaching school like you wanted."
"I know it's a lot of money, Louise," Theresa said quickly, "But Miss Henry says that most girls can get scholarships and I wrote a letter to Cody and he says I can stay with them and pay for my board by helping out with the children - "
Lou interrupted her, "I'm not worried about the money, Theresa. If you want to go we'll find a way to work that part of it out." It was a lie, of course. Money around the ranch was becoming increasingly scarce and Lou couldn't bear to think more than a week ahead for fear of what was coming around the bend. "I've just been wonderin' why you're so set on leaving all of a sudden. You never mentioned school teachin' before."
Theresa dropped her gaze to her hands and answered in a soft voice that Lou had to strain to hear. "I don't have much reason to stay, do I?"
"You can always stay here, Reese."
"I know that," Theresa uncharacteristically snapped. Her voice softened as she continued, "But I don't want to be your spinster sister that just cooks for the hands."
Lou furrowed her brow in confusion, "I can cook if you want, Reese, you don't have -"
With a sudden groan of frustration, Theresa sprang to her feet and started to pace the floor. "You don't understand, Louise, I don't mind the cooking. I just don't want to be…" Her hands danced around the air as she struggled for the words she wanted. "I'm just going to dry up here. I'll be like Mrs. Carter's sister with the way she giggles and prods at babies and everyone just looks at her and shakes their heads at how sad it is that she never married, she would have made such a good wife, such a loving mother." Theresa stamped her foot and glared at Lou, "I don't want their pity, Lou. It's going to be bad enough being alone without also being pitied." Suddenly her eyes overflowed with tears and Theresa ran up the stairs two at a time, slamming her bedroom door at the top.
Slowly Lou rose and followed her, knocking on her door and calling her sister's name in soft tones. She could hear Theresa's crying through the door but her sister would not open the door and Lou almost felt relieved. She turned and went to her own room, chewing on her lower lip thoughtfully as she slowly shut the door.
"I don't want to talk to you, tonight," Lou muttered grumpily as she noticed Kid sitting on the edge of their bed. He didn't say anything in response and his silence made Lou angry. "This is your fault," she said to him as he continued to stare at her impassively. "I've been spendin' so much time thinkin' on you, I've been ignoring the living."
"You're probably right," he said quietly, "I'm sorry."
His easy acceptance of the blame made Lou really furious. "If you were sorry, you'd stop showing up every night."
He looked at her sadly, "I wouldn't be here if I weren't invited."
"What's that supposed to mean? Are you saying I want to be crazy?" Lou fought to keep her voice down, not wanting Theresa to hear her down the hall.
Kid stood up and backed away from her, "C'mon, Lou, ain't you ever wondered why I'm not around outside of this room? How come we never see each other during the day time?"
She flopped onto the bed with a groan, "Kid you're makin' my head hurt."
He sat next to her and gently took his hands in his, "Lou, it isn't easy for me, but I've been trying to let you go and you won't let me. You don't know what it's like Lou, watching you put yourself through this."
She pulled her hands away from him. "Don't you blame this on me, Kid. This ain't my fault. And don't you dare say that I'm choosing this." She choked on her words and sobbed. She stood up and shakily walked to the door, "And don't you ever fault me for loving you too much." She slammed the door behind her and ran down the stairs in tears.
She didn't think much about it, just opened the front door and headed towards the stable to cry against Katie's neck. In the deep blue darkness a familiar husky voice called out to her from the corral, "Mrs. McCloud? Are you alright?"
The figure leaning against the fence might have been any of the hands, but the voice was unmistakable. "I'm fine, just couldn't sleep," she whispered.
"Me either. Too many ghosts," Cassidy said quietly.
Lou stopped in her tracks. "Ghosts?"
"Memories. Nightmares. During the day you can keep busy and forget things; it's tougher at night."
"That's my trouble exactly," Lou agreed, finding herself changing course to stand next to him.
Up close she could see his profile outlined by the moonlight as he leaned his elbows against the fence and looked out across the horizon. "I had a friend once who told me that in life you only have to make one decision. Whether you're gonna live through it or whether you're going to give up and die. It's a decision I can't seem to make anymore."
Lou looked at him and wondered exactly what sort of ghosts were chasing him. The dark seemed to be a license to tell the truth and Lou opened her mouth without thinking. "I gave up a long time ago, but I keep on living all the same."
"Me too, ma'am," Cassidy said softly and the crickets sounded deafening as they stood together in silence.
Author's Note: Thanks to Ellie for patiently betaing.