Another letter came from Taylor's sister, addressed to Lou this time. She was panicked, saying she still hadn't heard from her brother, and it wasn't like him to just up and leave. Lou sat at her desk and after reading it a third time, she shoved the letter into a crowded pigeonhole with a frustrated grunt. She felt like her world was spinning out of control, one thing after another collapsing around her. Her stomach growled and she remembered that Teresa was staying in town late, doing last minute studying for the entrance exam. She pushed back her chair in a huff and stomped into the kitchen. It was bad enough to have to cook for herself, and now she'd be late with the men's food too. Under her breath she cursed Jimmy and Kid equally, feeling certain that each of the disasters currently irritating her could be put at their feet.
The pots and pans rang and sang through the little cookhouse as she cooked and the sound was satisfying. It had been a long time since she'd felt the release of a good tantrum and alone with so many ladles to bang against lids and plates to throw, Lou felt a great temptation to hit the place like a tornado and leave nothing but broken dishes in her wake. But her stomach growled again and she contented herself with muttering curses under her breath and stirring the stew viciously as though it had done her personal injury.
It was into this atmosphere that Willie suddenly appeared in the cookhouse door, worrying the rim of his hat and looking terrified. "What do you want?" Lou snapped at him, upset that she'd been interrupted.
He worried the brim of his hat still more. "The boys was, well, we was wonderin' 'bout dinner, ma'am." She looked at him fiercely and he couldn't hold her gaze. He mumbled something about drawing the short straw and how he'd let the boys know it'd be a while yet.
Lou nodded at him curtly, dismissing him, to make whatever excuses he felt like. But as he turned to go she remembered the letter from Taylor's sister and called back to him. "Willie? Wait a minute and you can help me take this down to the bunkhouse. You and I need to have a talk."
"A talk?" Willie gulped. He was frightened of her, they all were. Lou's temper had a way of cowing a man, and you couldn't work for her without feeling its sting now and again. "Well, what we got to talk about, ma'am?" He was panicked now, darting his eyes to the right and left, searching for some possible means of escape.
Lou gentled her voice. "I just want to hear from you about what happened in Fort Laramie." Beneath his red hair, Willie's face went pale and he stammered, looking down and rubbing the back of his neck. Lou crossed her arms in front of her chest and took a sterner tone, "Willie, you know somethin' that Stokes maybe forgot to tell me?"
His eyes shot up at her and he answered immediately, shaking his head, "No, no, ma'am. I don't know nothin'."
"Then why are you actin' like you got somethin' to hide?" Willie sighed deeply and muttered something quickly towards the floor. "You what?" Lou asked, only catching a few meaningless words of what he'd said.
"I said, ma'am, that I wasn't payin' much attention when we was in Fort Laramie on account of I got a little distracted at the saloon."
His blush was enough for Lou to guess what sort of a distraction he'd encountered. She shook off her own disgust at the revelation and focused instead on what she really wanted to know. "Did Taylor really meet up with a friend and head out prospectin'?"
"Honest, ma'am, I don't know," the boy answered solemnly, "I was lookin' after the stock while Stokes and Taylor dealt with Captain Clark. Then we turned the horses over to the army and headed down to the saloon to blow off some steam, so to speak. Then like I said, I got distracted and I never saw Taylor meet up with nobody. Last I seen him he and Stokes was arguin' 'bout somethin', then in the morning he was gone and Stokes told me that Taylor'd left with a friend. And hand to God, ma'am, that's all I know."
Lou felt her anger dissipate as the fears that had been lurking at the back of her thoughts solidified. "I believe you, Willie."
He continued to stand there, awkwardly and she looked at his face to see that he was still petrified. "Uhh, ma'am? Dinner?"
Satisfied at last that they'd make it through the next few months, Lou shut the books on her desk with a thud. She leaned back in her chair and stretched her short legs out, propping her feet up on the desk. She let out a deep sigh and closed her eyes, the worry easing its way out of her shoulders and neck. She smiled a little smugly, proud that she'd managed to weather the storm without Jimmy.
Outside she heard a sudden commotion but dismissed it as the hands getting rowdy. She put down her feet and let her chair swing forward onto all four legs. She stood and started to meticulously organize her desk, cramming envelopes into pigeonholes and straightening the stacks of books into a perfectly aligned pile.
The noise outside got louder and she walked over to the window to see just what was going on. The men were standing in a loose group between the stable and barn. For the most part they stood uneasily, focused on the two men shouting at each other. Stokes' face was purple with rage as he yelled at a staunch Cassidy and Lou noticed with disapproval that Jeremiah stood at Stokes' shoulder. She wasn't about to get dragged into whatever they were feuding about and was turning away from the window when a sudden movement caught her eye and she saw Cassidy lunging for Stokes. She grabbed the rifle by the door and ran out into the yard.
A few of the men had a hold of Cassidy and Stokes and were just barely keeping them from tearing into one another. "Stop it!" Lou shouted in irritation, but nobody paid any mind.
"Don't think I don't know what the army thinks of you, Cap'n," Stokes sneered, still straining to elude the grasp of Jeremiah and Abel. "The Coward of Crow Bluff, damn Indian lover-"
Cassidy ripped free of the men restraining him and as he did Lou shot the rifle into the sky. The men in front of her suddenly froze and turned to look at her. "I don't cotton to fightin' on this ranch," she shouted, "now what's goin' on?"
Nobody seemed to want to answer. Most of them looked at their feet and shuffled nervously. Stokes shrugged off Jeremiah and Abel's hands. Lou looked around and found that Cassidy was the only one not afraid to meet her eyes. He spoke up with out further prompting. "Mr. Stokes said something I found offensive, ma'am. I rebuked him and he continued in a like vein."
"What'd he say, exactly?" asked Lou with a worried glance towards Abel.
Cassidy continued to meet her gaze evenly, standing as if at attention. "I don't wish to repeat it in mixed company, ma'am."
Lou rolled her eyes. "I'm a big girl, Cassidy, and I'm sure I've heard worse." Cassidy still said nothing. She looked at him, jutting out her chin stubbornly and letting her eyes blaze frustration.
"If you wish to dismiss me for starting a fight, ma'am, I understand," Cassidy said at last.
"He was talkin' bad 'bout you, Missus," Abel said abruptly.
Lou looked at the men and could tell from their embarrassed postures that he had told the truth. She felt a sudden burst of anger as her face blushed red. She looked at Stokes for a long minute, until he squirmed under her gaze. "Mr. Stokes, will you tell me again what happened to Jeff Taylor in Fort Laramie?"
The sudden change in subject took the man by surprise and he stuttered before answering. "I told you, ma'am, he took up with an old friend and cleared out. And that's the God's honest truth."
Lou's eyes narrowed. She was done being lied to. "Jeremiah, go get Mr. Stokes' horse saddled." Jeremiah hesitated and then reluctantly headed off to do as he was told. She waited until her brother had disappeared into the stable before continuing, "Taylor had a sister. She hasn't gotten any mail from her brother since the three of you set off and Willie told me that he never saw Taylor meet up with an old friend but he did see the two of you fightin' about something. I've sent a letter of inquiry to Captain Clark at Fort Laramie to try and track Taylor down. I should be getting a response back any day now." Stokes' face turned grey and he shifted his weight nervously from foot to foot. Jeremiah re-joined them, leading Stokes' horse. "Get off my property," Lou stated coldly, bringing the rifle up to her shoulder and leveling it at Stokes' chest. "Right now."
"Ma'am?" Stokes asked bewildered, looking at the assembled hands for help.
Cassidy had pulled his own Colt and prodded Stokes in the ribs. "You heard her, Stokes."
Stokes mounted in righteous indignation and pulled his horse close to Lou before leaving. "You better watch yerself, ma'am. You're gettin' too big for your britches and somebody might take a notion to take you down a peg or two." Lou stood her ground until he spurred his horse and left the ranch for good.
"Sure you did right, lettin' Stokes leave like that?" Kid asked worriedly, watching from across the room as Lou scrubbed her face of the sweat and grime of the day.
"I don't want him here no more, Kid. He's a liar and a bad influence on Jeremiah and the rest of the hands. Ever since he took over, things have been goin' to hell in a handbasket." She dried her face roughly with a towel, leaving it red and shining.
"You should have taken him into town to the sheriff."
"For what?" she looked out the window as she brushed through her hair, watching the lone figure sitting on the corral fence and wondered what ghosts pursued Cassidy in the night.
"You saw how his face changed when you mentioned writing to Fort Laramie. Whatever happened to Taylor, Stokes is to blame. And I wouldn't be surprised if he pocketed some of the money made off the stock."
Lou rolled her eyes at his continued worrying. Below her, Cassidy jumped down from the fence and started the stroll back to the bunkhouse. He stopped partway to look up at the stars and she followed his gaze, finding the big dipper and Orion's belt. When she looked down again, Cassidy had disappeared into the shadows.
"Maybe from Seneca too," Kid added when she didn't respond. He came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her, his cold skin sending chills down her spine. She closed her eyes for a moment and melted into his embrace. She'd always loved the way he smelled, the sweet, sharp smell of soap and grass and sweat. But now his familiar scent was twisted into something darker. Once she noticed it, it was hard to ignore, the smell of blood and wet wool, seeming to carry with it the sounds of screaming horses and dying men. And once she'd let herself notice one change in him, all of them came roaring into focus.
She stiffened in his arms. His cold touch felt unnatural; the absence of his breath in her hair unsettled her. For the first time since he'd appeared in her room, an answer to her pleading, Lou felt afraid, as though she were in the arms of a corpse. Her heart raced and she felt it rattling in her ribcage. She stared straight ahead, afraid to look down and see his hands, afraid to move, lest he hold on tighter.
"And Jeremiah's upset. I heard him yelling at you today. Stokes meant a lot to him." The paternal tone in his voice, the way his lecturing grated on her nerves drove all fear from her. It was just Kid. Annoying, self-righteous Kid and Lou had had enough of him.
She sighed in irritation, "Just leave me be, Kid." The chill in the room seemed to fade and she looked down to see that his arms were no longer around her. Whirling around she found he wasn't in the room at all. For a moment, the old sorrow gripped her heart and she reached out for him in a panic. But she was tired and he was getting to her like he used to, making her temper boil over, and she caught herself. "Fine, Kid," she called out to the empty room, "I can take care of myself for one night." She flopped onto bed alone and found herself asleep before she even had time to cry.
Lou spent the next day working with the hands, making up for the loss of Stokes as best she could. Mucking out stalls, Lou felt every muscle in her body protest, but her heart seemed stronger than it had in years. She realized she missed the rough work, missed the sweat and the filth and the sound sleep of exhaustion at the end of the day. She spread out fresh hay alongside Jeremiah and chose to keep silent rather than speak to him.
Her brother was sullen and quiet, though he occasionally shot black stares at her. He was struggling to keep up with the pace she'd set his own shoulders and back not having the same years of experience to call on. At last, all work done, he followed her to the water bucket at the stable door, waiting patiently until she handed him the dipper. Lou wiped her sleeve across her sweat drenched forehead and regarded her brother. They'd never quite managed to connect after she left the orphanage. Jeremiah didn't take to being mothered and truth be told it wasn't in Lou's nature to coddle or spoil him. But maybe, she thought, he could accept her as he had accepted Kid and Stokes, man to man. She'd held her own with tougher boys than he was. She clapped him on the back. "You did a good day's work today, Jeremiah." Out of habit she lowered her voice, as she had before Kid and the others had learned her secret.
The look that passed over Jeremiah's face was of sheer disgust. He shrugged off her touch and stalked out of the barn without a word. Lou let her shoulders sag and with a loud grunt of frustration she kicked at a nearby pail, the sound of it clattering across the floor jangling her nerves. The bags of feed were stacked neatly by the open door and Lou flopped down on them in a heap. She dragged her hand across her face a few times, flicking the sweat from her fingertips. She was worn out and it wasn't from the hard work. She leaned back against the stable wall and closed her eyes. Her thoughts strayed to Kid, as they had all day, any moment she hadn't been working herself towards blissful exhaustion. Maybe at last she was coming out from the grey fog she'd been living in the last three years. Maybe at last she wouldn't hold conversations with the empty air and see the figure of Kid, so long dead. The thought filled her with dread and emptiness and she snapped her eyes open, realizing that the only way to keep herself from drowning in grief and frustration was to work until the muscle aches and the blisters crowded out any other feeling. She could remember Kid's blistered palms after a day of chopping wood and the memory no longer held the irritation she'd felt at his worrying, it had tempered into affection and understanding. The memory made a hole open in her heart, so black and so wide that she pressed her palm against her chest, somehow hoping to staunch the sorrow that threatened to bleed out.
She sprang up at the sound of a floorboard creak; it wouldn't do to have any of the hands catch her indulging in a pity party. Cassidy looked at her kindly from just inside the door. "You alright, ma'am?"
She nodded pushing the tears from her face with the back of her hand. "Fine," she muttered her voice unnaturally low, "Just got some dust in my eyes." The words pulled forth yet another memory of happier times, of Kid returning to her from an adventure unscathed and she couldn't stop the sob that ripped through her throat and bubbled from her lips.
Cassidy stood awkwardly at the door, blocking her exit and Lou stood up and kicked the pail again, regretting the snorting of the startled horses. He said nothing and she rushed past him and towards the house, praying the entire way that when she opened the door to her bedroom Kid would be standing there, waiting for her.
And he was. Slamming the door behind her, Lou flung herself into his embrace, felt her hot tears disappear into the wool of his collar. He murmured her name against her hair and brushed his hand over her hair. She held on tight, daring him to try and leave her again.
The days passed. The sun rose and set. Lou spent her nights in Kid's arms, clinging to him. In the daylight she worked with a ferocity that sent her fears into hiding. Fall was running out and the bitter chill of winter was already present in the dead of night and in the early dawn. As the last brightly colored leaves drifted to the ground and the frost in the morning lasted longer and longer, Lou felt herself falling again into the grey grief of Kid's loss. She'd pushed it away for a moment, when Jimmy had left and concerns about the ranch crowded out anything else, but she felt now that the returning numbness was her permanent state and she'd only been granted a temporary reprieve.
The three cavalry men rode up late one morning, the breath of their horses a puff of smoke in the air. Lou heard the frost crunching beneath their hooves and left the barn to greet them, smelling of manure and shivering against the chill. Cassidy followed her and a grimace crossed both their faces when they saw the blue uniforms.
"Mrs. McCloud?" said the officer in charge, his back ramrod straight and his voice just as stiff.
"Yes?" asked Lou nervously.
With a nod of his head, the officer indicated to his subordinates that they may dismount and the three of them did so in eerie synchronicity. He handed his reins to one of his men and stepped forward, jutting out a gloved hand, his attitude formal and cold. Lou shook his hand weakly as he spoke. "Captain Clark sent us to speak with you, ma'am. Is a Jeremy Stokes still in your employ?"
Lou shook her head slowly. "No. Mr. Stokes left a little over a week ago."
"I see. Captain Clark said you had sent in an inquiry as to the whereabouts of Mr. Jeffrey Taylor."
"Yes, I did," Lou confirmed, feeling her skin go goose bumps.
For an instant the officer dropped his official gaze, as though the situation had suddenly become uncomfortable, but when he spoke, his voice dripping with carefully calibrated sympathy, it was clear that the entire conversation was a performance meant to communicate what a fine and gentlemanly fellow he was, a credit to his company and the United States Cavalry. "It's my unfortunate duty to tell you, ma'am, that Mr. Taylor's body was found a few days after Mr. Stokes left Fort Laramie. Captain Clark has reason to believe that Mr. Stokes was the killer."
Lou opened her mouth intent on saying something but quickly shut it again. The news was nothing she hadn't expected or feared, but it still had weakened her knees, and she had felt the tingling as the blood drained from her face. She felt Cassidy step up closer behind her and heard his voice, soft and hoarse as he addressed the officer. "If he had such suspicions, why didn't Captain Clark send someone out after Stokes when the body was discovered?"
The officer seemed to see Cassidy for the first time and his eyes narrowed at the challenge implicit in the words. "As I said, the body was found some days after the departure of Mr. Stokes' party. In addition Mr. Stokes had been less than honest about his destination after leaving Fort Laramie. It wasn't until Mrs. McCloud's letter-"
He was interrupted by one of the men standing behind him, a fresh-faced kid with a spattering of freckles and a crooked smile. "Captain Cassidy, that you, sir?"
Cassidy nodded curtly at the young man, "Hannity, how are you doing?"
"Well, sir, right well. Couldn't believe what they did to you, sir. Would have spoken for you at the trial if I'd known in time."
"Thank you, Hannity." Cassidy turned again towards the officer, "You were saying, Lieutenant?"
The Lieutenant eyed Cassidy contemptuously and instead of answering turned towards Lou again. "Mrs. McCloud, are you aware that this man was court-martialed by the United States cavalry due to the loss of several of his men in the battle of Crow Bluff? He was discharged as a traitor to his country, willing to sell out his own men in the interest of red savages."
"I was stopping a massacre," Cassidy argued.
The officer paid him no mind. "Ma'am, were you aware of his record of service?"
Lou lifted her head haughtily, "I don't see how his record of service matters, Lieutenant."
"Ma'am, you are taking a risk employing this man. He may very well be in collusion with local savages to raid this ranch. I trust you understand the risk you would be in personally if such an attack were to occur?"
"Lieutenant," Lou snapped fiercely, planting her feet and staring unblinking into the arrogant officer's eyes, "Do you have further business here?"
The officer clucked in admonishment, "Do you know where Mr. Stokes went when he left here?"
Lou shook her head. "No. He left and I was glad to see him go."
The Lieutenant nodded sharply and turned back to the horses, mounting up followed in quick succession by his men. "Mrs. McCloud." And with a brisk wave of his hand the three of them trotted out of the yard and off towards town.
"I should have told you, ma'am," Cassidy started.
Lou interrupted him brusquely, "Like I said, Cassidy, your record of service doesn't matter here." He stood there uncertainly and she looked at him crossly, "There's work to be done."
"Yes, ma'am," he answered with a bob of his head and returned to the barn.
Lou stayed where she was and watched the puff of dust behind the three officers grow fainter. She wrapped her arms around her shoulders and sighed. She felt strangely light, as though air was pushing through her veins instead of blood. She felt the sunlight warm her skin where it touched her and breathed in deeply the sharp crisp smell of autumn. She felt her lips begin to curl up into a smile; felt the cool air hit her teeth as it broke into a grin. She remembered the officer's offended face when she told him off and laughed softly. Balancing on her tiptoes she carefully arched her back and stretched out her exhausted muscles, closing her eyes as the sun caught her face. Kid was the furthest thing from her mind.
"Lou! Lou!" It was the Kid's voice, pulling her out of sleep. She opened her eyes warily to see Kid standing at the bedroom window, his face worried, "Lou, someone just snuck into the barn."
"What?" she still felt half asleep and wanted to roll over, curl up deeper under the blankets and start to dream again. Kid grabbed her arm, and his icy touch jolted her awake immediately.
"Someone's snuck into the barn. I think you should go wake up Cassidy to check it out."
She looked out the window but didn't see anything out of the ordinary except that one of the barn doors had come open in the night and was swinging in the night wind. "I'll go check it out," she said through a yawn and pulled her coat on over her nightgown as she slipped down the stairs.
Kid shouted after her, "Don't go alone, Lou! Get Cassidy first."
Lou shook her head; he was always trying to protect her and usually when there wasn't anything to be protected from. She grabbed the shotgun by the door just in case and ran out to the barn.
The minute she stepped into the barn she regretted ignoring Kid's warning. The barn was dark but she could hear the horses well enough to know they were unsettled. "Anybody in here?" she called out, trying her best to sound intimidating. Her voice sounded small and insignificant inside the huge barn. It floated up into the rafters and no one answered. She walked further into the barn, wishing she had a lantern and peering through the darkness with uncertainty.
A rough hand clamped over her mouth and she felt herself tugged into an empty stall. The shotgun clattered to the floor and she found herself pinned against the wall. A voice coated in whiskey and malice leaned in and whispered to her, "Sharin' your dinner table ain't enough for me anymore, Mrs. McCloud. Reckon I deserve somethin' more from you."
Lou squirmed in his grasp, too terrified to scream. The man leaned in close enough for her to recognize him as Stokes. She heard his breath wheezing in and out through his lips and felt the hot air as it brushed against her face. The door creaked and a voice called out in a loud whisper, "Stokes? Stokes? I got the horses that were in the corral waitin' in the pen. We should be able to drive 'em out real easy."
Stokes whispered back, his hand suddenly over Lou's mouth again, pushing against her so hard she felt her teeth break his skin. "That's real good, boy. Go ahead and lead these ones in here out too, alright? I got a situation here needs dealin' with, but I'll be with you directly."
"These ones?" the other voice stepped further in the barn and Lou could just barely make out a slim figure. The voice was nervous, fearful even. "We're not takin' these ones too?"
"You want 'em chasin' us down?"
"No," the voice sounded defeated, and Lou watched the figure walk further into the barn. The walk was familiar, the tilt of the head. "At least we can leave Katy and Lightnin', they're too old to ride after us, and Cinnamon belongs to Teresa. I'm not takin' anything of Reese's."
The figure trudged on and started to lead the horses out of the barn. He passed close enough for Lou to know for certain, it was Jeremiah. She struggled to cry out, knowing her brother would not let Stokes harm her, but Stokes' hand pushed against her mouth again and he whispered fiercely against her, "You make a sound and I shoot him, you got it?"
"That's all of them," Jeremiah whispered, standing nervously in the barn doorway. Lou could see him clearly outlined against the moonlight, but knew that she and Stokes were too lost in shadows to be seen.
"You get out there, boy, and you start herdin' those horses on out of here, you got that?" Stokes had pressed himself against Lou, effectively preventing her from any movement. "You head on out and I'll follow."
The silhouette of Jeremiah nodded and then left the barn. Lou felt Stokes lean even further into her. He kept his hand tight on her mouth and with the other pulled an wicked looking knife from the back of his belt. "Looks like we ain't gonna have enough time to get better acquainted Mrs. McCloud," his lips brushed against her earlobe as he spoke and Lou shuddered. Stokes chuckled lowly and quickly shifted his body and drove his knife into her belly. He backed up and let go of her mouth, just in time for a gasp of shock to squeak through her lips. Her knees buckled and Lou felt herself slide down the side of the wall, until she sat awkwardly on the straw her legs bent strangely beneath her. Stokes laughed as he wiped the blade of his knife on his pants and casually lit a match, throwing it on to the dry straw as he walked out of the stall.
Lou heard the sound of the horses walking out of the yard and the frightened whinny of Katy. She stared at the orange flames that were blossoming in the straw, crackling and expanding across the floor. She felt as though none of it could actually be happening and pressed her hand against the wound in her stomach just so she could see the blood smeared across her fingers when she pulled it away. It did not hurt. She merely felt as though she were emptying out, everything draining from the wound, cares, fears, blood, all mixing with the fire and straw on the floor.
She was vaguely aware of the shouting. Heavy footfalls running past the stall and then leading out the horses, which shied and whinnied in fright as calm voices guided them past the flames. More footsteps, saddles disappearing from stall walls, tack being pulled from the walls, bags of feed carried on strong shoulders walking to and fro past the stall door.
"Hey!" She tried to call out but as she pulled in a breath the pain in her stomach shot through her and her lungs filled with smoke. The resulting sound was pathetic, tiny, swallowed by the crackling flames and the shouts of the men. She staggered to her feet but collapsed again, her nightgown getting singed by the burning straw.
"Lou!" Kid's voice sounded desperate, and she started to push him away, to tell him she could handle it. "Lou, hold on!" He shouted again and she felt his arm around her shoulders and she leaned into him as he helped her towards the door.
"Kid, you ain't cold," she mumbled, tripping over her own feet, her head dropping with exhaustion as her vision narrowed to a pinhole.
"Don't give up, Lou," Kid shouted at her and half dragged her towards the stall door.
"Why ain't you cold?" she asked, and let herself lean into his arms closing her eyes, but it seemed as though he pushed her away and she opened her eyes in confusion, to see only flames and smoke and then suddenly emerging from the chaos, Cassidy.
"Mrs. McCloud," he shouted. Her body was swaying, Lou expected the impact as she fell to the floor but it never came. Instead she found herself hefted up into Cassidy's arms. They emerged into the night, the sudden burst of cold air snapping Lou into consciousness for an instant as she struggled to breathe the fresh air. She looked around confused, found two blue eyes looking at her with concern, but shook her head, knowing they were the wrong ones. "Kid? Kid? Where are you?" He was nowhere, he'd left again. She felt dizzy breathing the cold crisp air that burned her throat and she found herself burying her face against Cassidy's neck, letting sleep flow over her, giving up the struggle.
She woke up in her room, feeling light headed and with memories that seemed more like a dream than reality. "Kid?" the words came from her mouth automatically as consciousness seeped in and she turned her head to the side but saw someone unexpected in the chair at the side of the bed.
She'd startled him awake and his dark eyes flew open and he reached a hand out to hers, squeezing it gently. "Hey, you're awake," he whispered.
"Buck," she mumbled, furrowing her brow, trying to make sense of the jumble of thoughts crowding her mined. "What are you doing here?"
He chuckled, "Way to make a fella feel welcome, Lou."
"You know I'm happy to see you. I just-" she struggled to sit up but a sudden pain in her abdomen confirmed that at least part of what she remembered wasn't a dream.
"Whoa, there," Buck said gently, placing a hand on her shoulder. "Doc says you have to take it easy, Lou, that wound could reopen and you'd be in serious trouble."
Lou stared up at the ceiling and sighed as her memories tumbled, disjointed through her mind. "Jeremiah?"
He shook his head, "Don't know. Sam's got every marshal around here keeping an eye out and Jimmy and Teaspoon are doing what they can to track him and Stokes down. They haven't found much yet."
"All the horses…" she let her voice trail off.
Buck stared at her, his eyes so sad he didn't need to say anything, but he did anyway. "They left both Katy and Lightnin'," he was trying to be encouraging, "and Cinnamon. And Cassidy's already started on the barn. Won't take too long to get it fixed up." Lou nodded but she knew better. They had nothing left. Things had been rough already this was a storm the ranch wasn't going to weather. She screwed her eyes shut, feeling oily tears gather at the corners. She tightened her grip on Buck's hand, feeling as though it were her only anchor in the real world. "It'll be alright, Lou," he whispered feebly, bringing her hand up and holding it against his chest. She felt the steady beat of his heart and set her jaw, holding the sobs in her throat until sleep once again wrapped her in sweet oblivion.
She woke with a shiver and groaned softly as the movement caused a stab of pain in her stomach. It was dark and Buck's chair was empty. The quiet house seemed to breathe around her, as though it too were asleep. She started as she felt something cold brush the hair from her forehead. Two cold lips pressed against the top of her head and a familiar voice said, "You're alright. Go back to sleep, Lou."
Lou snuggled deeper into the covers and turned her face towards the Kid, expecting the warmth of his shoulder against her cheek. Instead she felt the rough wool of his uniform scratch across her skin. She squeezed her eyes shut and felt the tears slip out and down her face.
"Lou, you okay?" His voice was solicitous, comforting; it choked her throat with longing.
"No," she whispered, gently pushing him from her, "I need you to leave, Kid." She kept her eyes focused on her hand, pure white in the darkness, standing out against the grey coat on his chest like a star against the sky. She could feel his eyes on her, could imagine in excruciating detail the look on his face.
They stayed like that for what seemed an eternity. Lou felt frozen, unable to push him any farther away, fighting every instinct that wanted only to melt into his arms. "Lou," he pleaded, her name the only word he needed to say to break her. She sobbed a broken, jagged sound that felt as though it were pulled from her against her will. Her elbow buckled. He gathered her into his arms and she sobbed against his chest, breathing in the smell of mud and grass and rust that clung to him.
The door opened with a squeal, the yellow light of a lantern breaking into the dark room. Lou snapped her head up as though she'd been caught at something shameful and saw the outline of Buck in the doorway, rubbing his eyes sleepily. "Lou, you alright?" He padded the rest of the way into the room, his bare feet making no sound against the wooden floor. She nodded at him and he rubbed his free hand against his shoulder with a shudder. "It's freezing in here, Lou. Let me get you one of my blankets."
He left again, a silent shadow disappearing out the door and Lou quickly wiped the tears from her face. But it was no use; it was as though a dam had broken, and she felt her eyes fill with saltwater before overflowing onto her lashes and down her cheeks.
Buck returned with the blanket and he spread it over the bed before carefully tucking in her feet and leaning over to give her a brotherly kiss on the forehead. "Are you crying?" he asked, peering into her face. Lou could not answer, but he did not need her to. "Are you hurting, Lou? The doctor left some laudanum, if you want."
"No," she managed to croak, "It's not my stomach that hurts."
He nodded and sat carefully on the edge of her bed. "You want to talk about it?" She shook her head vigorously. Things were bad enough; there was no reason to make them worse by admitting she was seeing things. Buck sighed and stared out her window. "I know everybody thinks it's time you moved on, Lou. But maybe there's some wounds that just don't heal. Maybe sometimes all we can do is just learn to live with the pain." He squeezed her hand gently. "You don't have to be embarrassed around me, if you ever want to talk about the Kid."
She gazed up into his eyes, almost black in the dim light, and risked it. "Do you believe in ghosts?"
Buck wrinkled his forehead and nodded slowly, "Yes."
"Do you ever see Ike?"
He looked shocked for a second and then shook his head. "I know it's sometimes different for whites, but for the Kiowa, ghosts are never friendly. I'd only see Ike if I'd angered him."
"So you never see him? Not out of the corner of your eye or in the distance, or you think you see him in a crowd and when you get up close it's somebody else?"
"Have you seen something, Lou?"
She could see the concern on his face, the fear. She looked up at him, feeling helpless and weak, lacking the strength even to shut her mouth. But she wasn't ready to concede she was crazy just yet, and she rallied herself enough to answer in a firm voice, "No, of course not. I was thinking of Cassidy. He doesn't sleep well and he says it's ghosts."
Buck's face hardened, "I doubt it's ghosts that are haunting Cassidy. More likely a guilty conscience."
"What would Cassidy feel guilty about?"
Buck looked at her evenly and patted her hand again. "We'll talk about it some other time, Lou. Now get some sleep."
She grabbed his hand and kept him from leaving. "Let's talk about it now. What has Cassidy done?"
"Has he told you about Crow Bluff?" Buck asked, and Lou felt the muscles in his hand twitch and stiffen at the words. She shook her head. "An entire Shoshone village was massacred. Women, children, everyone. So much blood was shed that even the army balked and court-martialed Cassidy and some of his men."
Lou let his hand go. "I don't believe it; that's not what he said," she whispered.
Buck picked up his lantern, "Nobody believes it. The papers made the army out to be heroes fighting a savage enemy," his voice started to rise and abruptly he stopped himself. "It's nothing for you to worry about tonight, Lou. Just get some sleep." He ruffled her hair fondly and left the room, taking the light with him.
Lou lay beneath the covers, wide awake, her eyes scanning the darkened ceiling, trying to imagine a Cassidy that was capable of killing. She couldn't picture it but she kept trying, the empty space beside her in the bed forgotten. She tried to pull the strings of what Buck had said, the words of Stokes and the cavalry officer together to make some sort of sensible explanation. None of them had told her the complete truth, she was sure of that. But there were too many gaps, too many holes to fill. She felt herself lose the thread of thought as she drifted asleep. Her dreams were unsettling, a nameless battlefield, a faceless foe, Kid, Cassidy, blood and fog and the shattering boom of cannon. She woke with a scream as the first tendrils of sunlight crept over her window sill.
Teresa buttoned Lou's dress silently, only the grim line of her lips giving away her disapproval. They had already fought and Lou had been surprised at how tenacious her little sister could be; but in the end, Lou had gotten her way. Finished with the last button, Teresa stepped back and folding her arms across her chest fixed Lou with a stern glare.
Lou's knees felt shaky and she would have asked for help but the set of Teresa's jaw sparked her own stubbornness and besides if she let on how weak she really felt she'd be ushered back in bed before she could even protest. Deciding it was best to focus only on the first journey to the bedroom door instead of contemplating the entire journey from her room, down the stairs, across the parlor and out the door, Lou determinedly put one foot in front of the other.
She wavered, her balance off kilter, and righted herself with a grimace as a sudden jolt of pain emanated from her wound. Teresa's arm was supporting her in an instant. Her sister clicked her tongue like a matron and scolded Lou, "See. The doc said you weren't supposed to be out of bed yet."
"I'm going stir crazy, Reese. I gotta get some fresh air."
Teresa steadied her as she made her next step. Lou groaned aloud. Every step seemed to jostle the gash in her belly and send flames of pain flickering up her torso at lightning speed. "This is ridiculous, Louise," chastised Teresa, "If you are insistent on going downstairs, let me at least get Buck to carry you down."
"No," Lou snapped and stepped again. Her legs felt like jelly and she gritted her teeth to keep from crying out. She was already out of breath. "Alright," she whispered wearily, "Go get Buck."
Teresa kept one hand on Lou's back and stretched out until she could grab the willow rocker in the corner. She pulled it to the center of the floor and carefully sat Lou in it. Teresa looked down at her sister sternly, "Don't move, Lou, or when I get back with Buck I'm going to tell him to put you back in bed." Lou just nodded in agreement and with a sigh Teresa left the room.
Lou closed her eyes against the pain that welled inside of her, the throbbing in her stomach, the sharp stab in her heart. The wedding portrait on her wall drew her eye and she looked at the smiling couple with a grimace. It was only her sister's warning and the ache in her side that kept her from jumping up and flinging the photograph to the floor. She closed her eyes again and imagined his voice, or maybe he was there. Was it her imagination or his hand resting on her shoulder? She winced at the touch and opened her eyes just in time to see Buck walk through her bedroom door.
He shook his head at her, a slight smile stretched across his lips. "I know it's worthless arguing with you, Lou, but you sure are pushing yourself, you know. You ought to take advantage of the opportunity to get some rest."
Lou resisted the urge to laugh out loud. She would hardly call sharing a bed with a ghost restful. She reached an arm up and looped it around Buck's neck as he effortlessly picked her up. "Do you ever eat? You're light as air," he said teasingly, unsuccessfully hiding the concern in his voice. He walked out the door and down the stairs, Teresa following behind. Lou closed her eyes again and gritted her teeth against the pain that shot through her with every footstep.
At last Buck set her down on a chair on the front porch and she gratefully collapsed into it. She could feel the beads of sweat pop out on her face and dry in the winter air. Teresa tucked a quilt around her and Lou opened her eyes and looked over at Buck. He lounged back against the porch railing, his arms crossed in front of him and one eyebrow raised appraisingly. "You haven't changed a bit."
She smiled wanly. "I can't tell if that's a compliment or an insult."
He laughed. "A little of both, I guess." He crouched low to look her in the eye. "You let me know when you need to go back upstairs, Lou. And notice that I said when you need to go back, not when you want to." He patted her knee and looked over to the new barn and the men who were already starting on the morning work. With a grunt he got up and headed out to join them.
Lou watched the work with interest, noting that all too soon there were hands lazing about. Three horses didn't require much work and now that the new barn was up and the corral fence repaired, there wasn't much to do. One by one the men took to smoking or joking with one another, or leaning back on the corral fence with hats tipped low as they caught a quick forty winks. Lou watched them with concern, figuring in her head the payroll she'd be doling out for the time they spent lollygagging.
She must have dozed, because Teresa was suddenly shaking her shoulder gently. "Lunchtime, Lou." Lou blinked drowsily, trying to remember where she'd fallen asleep and accepted the warm bowl of soup placed in her hands. Buck sat on the porch steps with his own bowl, and Lou looked out across the yard to see a line of the hands trudging down to the bunkhouse where Teresa had taken their own meal.
Buck looked up from his bowl at the sky. "You ready to go back in yet, Lou?"
"No," Lou snapped back, irritable at having just burned her mouth with the piping hot soup. "I said I'd tell you when I was ready." She didn't miss the look that passed between Buck and Teresa and she cursed under her breath as she stared back at the steam rising from her bowl.
"If your wound is hurting, Lou -" Buck started but seemed to think better of it. He turned to look at her. "There isn't much left to do around here. I was thinking I might be more help if I rode out and met up with Jimmy and Teaspoon. Help them track Jeremiah."
"Don't let me stop you," Lou answered, still annoyed. "I don't understand why you weren't tracking him to begin with. Jimmy can't follow a trail for anything."
Buck shrugged. "Jimmy wasn't going to stay here - "
"Why not?" Lou interrupted him and Buck winced, clearly realizing he'd made a mistake.
"The way he left things with you, Lou, I imagine he didn't think he'd be welcome." Lou snorted angrily and slurped at her soup. Buck coughed nervously before asking, "What happened between the two of you exactly?"
"It sounds like he already told you," she snapped.
"Well," Buck said hesitantly, "he did, but I don't think he told the whole story. I have a hard time believing Jimmy would do something like that."
"Jimmy didn't do anything," Lou answered, perplexed. She wrinkled her brow as she thought back to his departure from the ranch. "What did he say he did?"
Buck looked away and seemed embarrassed. He hemmed and hawed before quickly mumbling, "He said he almost forced himself on you."
"He what?" Lou shrieked angrily, choking on a spoonful of soup.
"That's not what happened," Teresa said softly.
Lou looked up at her sister for a second. She was caught off guard by her sister's expression and a feeling of guilt seemed to rise up inside of her. "It sure as hell isn't," Lou agreed, "Why would he think something like that?" She glared at Buck accusingly as though he'd purposely made it all up.
Buck shrugged helplessly. "I don't know, Lou. He said he was drunk and - "
Lou interrupted him, "That's not what happened, Buck. Jimmy never did anything to hurt me. If we were on bad terms when he parted it was because I didn't treat him fairly. And you tell him that."
"Alright, Lou," Buck agreed, glad to close the subject. He finished his soup and let the spoon clatter into the bowl. "I should get going before it gets any darker."
"Guess you better." Lou looked at Buck over her spoon, her eyes still glittering. "I can manage alright."
Buck laughed and winked at her, "I don't doubt it, Lou, it's everybody else I worry about." He looked up at Teresa. "You be sure one of the hands takes her upstairs as soon as it gets dark out. She'll be mad as hell about it, but I'll take her mad over frozen."
He got up to go and Lou called him back softly, "Buck, if you find Jeremiah…how much trouble is he gonna be in?"
Buck tucked his hair behind his ears and adjusted his hat squarely on his head, "I don't know, Lou. You said he didn't know you were out there and he didn't help Stokes set fire to the barn. So I guess it just depends on whether you want to press charges for stealing the horses."
"But it's my choice?" Lou asked, "So if I wanted, I could forget it and he won't be in any trouble?"
Buck laughed, "Not in any trouble from the law anyway. He'd still have to face you and I don't think anything will stop Jimmy and Teaspoon from having their say too."
Lou smiled grimly back at him. "You have to find him, Buck."
Buck nodded and took off at a jog to the barn. A while later he was galloping to the west, and Teresa was taking Lou's empty bowl out of her sister's hands. She handed Lou the bottle of laudanum and Lou pushed it away grumpily.
"You take it, Louise, or I'll have Cassidy haul you upstairs right now."
Lou took a gulp and glared at her sister before going back to brooding as she looked over her empty ranch.
She'd fallen asleep again. She woke up with her head still thick with the laudanum, her body swaying slightly in a pair of strong arms that carried her up the stairs towards her room. She looked up into a pair of blue eyes and murmured Kid's name before nuzzling in closer to his broad chest.
"It's Cassidy, ma'am," said a voice gently and Lou jerked away, causing a sudden spasm of pain in her stomach and Cassidy's balance faltered for a moment before he steadied himself. She felt confused. She shook her head once to try and dislodge the fog still clouding her thoughts. The house was dim, with her bedroom doorway alight from the lamp within. "Sorry ma'am," she felt his voice through his chest, "Doctor's orders…or at least your sister's."
Lou groaned as he set her down on the bed, and mumbled, "I thought you were my husband."
"Sorry, ma'am," he said apologetically. Lou shuddered from where she perched on the bed and Cassidy knelt beside the bed and looked up into her face with concern. "Ma'am, you alright?"
"Please don't call me ma'am," she snapped, a little of her usual fire returning. The laudanum had her feeling topsy-turvy, her stomach ached and fear was creeping in around her with the knowledge that once she was alone Kid would be beside her. She grabbed Cassidy's hand and clung to it desperately. "Don't go yet. I'm-" she struggled with the words, too many feelings pushing up through her throat, the queasy feeling of the laudanum seeming to magnify everything.
She realized belatedly that she was mumbling the thoughts that tumbled through her mind, "He left me, when he promised he wouldn't. And he never came back. And he's dead, he's gone…" She felt the words push out of her and stared at him with wide eyes, waiting to see how long it would take for him to call Teresa. Lou sucked in a quavering breath. "How come I can't let him go? He let me go so easy. Am I crazy, Cassidy?" She felt herself begin to cry, the heat rise into her face.
He bowed his head low and his voice seemed to catch as he answered. "No, ma'am. We all have things that haunt us."
Lou paused for a moment, afraid to ask the question perched on her tongue. She traced the pattern of her quilt and whispered, "Will you tell me about Crow Bluff?"
"I want to know the truth, Cassidy."
He turned from her to look out the window and the pallor in his face made her regret asking. He sighed. "It was a massacre. Too many men and all of them so accustomed to bloodshed after the war…they'd lost any feeling about taking a life. I ordered them to stand down; I ordered them out of the village. When it became obvious that most of them were not going to listen, I ordered those who would obey me to assist in protecting the women and children of the village. There were only five who listened, and three of them were shot by their own men." He hid his face in his hands and a rough sob ripped from his throat making his whole body jerk. "I was tried for the deaths of those boys and discharged. No one was charged for the Shoshone that were killed, not for the children or their mothers. The army discharged me and the others who had tried to help. If they hung us it would have drawn to much attention to the massacre. Too many people would have known the truth. So they sentenced us to living with those memories." He shuddered, "Ma'am, I was responsible for those men and I was responsible for that village and I failed in my duty to protect them. That isn't something I can forget. Not their faces, not their names, not their screams. They don't leave me for a second and there's not a damn thing I can do to fix it."
He was crying now, Lou could see it. He stared straight ahead and out the window as though he stood at attention and at last he risked a glance in Lou's direction. His eyes begged for forgiveness, for absolution. Lou stared back, her own sorrows forgotten. So this was what Kid had felt, this overwhelming need to protect, the intense desire to erase any pain or harm from a person's life. The feeling had hit her with an unexpected brutality, and Lou reached out to him and clutched his hand for a moment before with a gruff "Good night" Cassidy left the room.
"It wasn't ever easy, Lou," his cold breath whispered in her ear and Lou startled awake.
She turned toward Kid, her eyes swollen with tears and just as quickly turned away again. "Go away, Kid," she mumbled.
"Lou, please," he begged, one cold hand gently pulling her shoulder towards him.
Oblivious to the sharp pain in her belly, she jerked herself away. "I can't do this anymore, Kid. I've got to let you go."
"But Lou," he said persistently.
She turned back to him, tracing the line of his jaw with her finger. Her eyes were glossy with unshed tears as she stared hard at his face, seeming to drink in every detail. "I can't forgive you, Kid," she whispered. "You made your choice and I've got to learn to live with the results."
He grabbed her hand and pressed a chilled kiss into her palm. His blue eyes seemed to sparkle with saltwater and he started to apologize. Lou cupped his cheek in her hand and hushed him. "I love you, Kid. I always have and I always will, but I won't forgive you. I can't keep holding on, trying to understand…" her voice faded out and she turned away again, pulling the quilt up high over her shoulder and snuggling deeper into the blankets.
"Lou," he pleaded, "I'm sorry." But she ignored his words and soon a slight snore filled the room as she fell asleep. She rolled over in the night and leaned out towards him, eyes opening drowsily when there was no response and no cold arms wrapped around her. Beside her the bed was empty and Lou closed her eyes to sleep again, all her tears used up.
In the morning, Teresa came in with a tray of toast and a sad smile. "Hey, sugar bear," Lou greeted in what she hoped was a cheerful voice. "You didn't need to bring a tray up. Let me get dressed and then you can call Cassidy to fetch me." She pushed back the covers and started to sit up, groaning loudly when the wound in her stomach protested.
Teresa gently helped her sit up, fluffed the pillows behind her and pulled the covers back up. "You're not getting out of bed today, Louise," she said as she set the tray down. "You look awful and I know you were hurting yesterday. Just take some time to rest and heal up, okay?"
Lou hit her fist against the bed in frustration. "I don't like being cooped up like this, there's things that have to get done and Jeremiah-"
Teresa interrupted her, pulling the rocker up next to the bed and bringing an envelope out of her apron pocket. "Jeremiah sent a letter."
"A letter? Let me read it." Lou reached for the letter but her sister gently pushed her hand back.
"He asked me not to show it to you, Louise." Lou made a face, half angry, half hurt. Teresa continued, "He didn't want me to mention it to you at all, but I don't think that's very fair. Not when I know you're worried about him. He didn't know Stokes would hurt you; he didn't even know you'd come out to the barn."
"I know that," Lou snapped. She and Jeremiah may have had their differences but she knew he'd never let anyone hurt her.
"He didn't know Stokes would burn down the barn either," Teresa said softly. "He just wanted to get away and take the horses. I don't know why and he doesn't either. I don't understand why the two of you have to keep at each other - " Teresa stopped, sighed, and let the anger that had started to build in her voice fade away. "He's afraid you won't forgive him."
"Teresa, you write him back this morning and tell him everything's forgiven as soon as he gets back here. We don't ever have to talk about it. And tell him I won't nag as much and he can come back up and live at the house if he wants. Or he don't even have to stay here, if he doesn't want to."
"I can't. He sent the letter from Graton but he said he wasn't planning on staying there long. He's not riding with Stokes anymore and he's looking for work." Teresa reached out and squeezed Lou's hand. "As soon as I know where he is, Louise, I'll let him know that it's safe to come back. I promise."
Lou nodded and poked at her toast listlessly. "If he writes after you're gone, Reese, I can't promise I won't read your letters. If he's in trouble or something it'll take too long to get to you in Saint Louis."
"I'm not going to Saint Louis."
Lou's eyes snapped to her sister's face and the house echoed with her infuriated shout. "The hell you're not!"
"I'm not leaving you alone here when everything is falling apart and you're hurt," Teresa answered back, her own voice raised.
"I'm not dying, Teresa," Lou said with a roll of her eyes. "And in case you've forgotten I took care of myself for quite a few years before you were here to baby me. I'll be fine."
"Schooling takes money. Even with my scholarship there'll be books and things, and I know that we can't afford that." Teresa softened her voice a little, "It's okay, Louise, really. I'll be fine."
"Well I won't be." Lou shook an admonishing finger at her sister, "Look here, I haven't done for you or Jeremiah like I should have, Reese, but this is one time I ain't going to be selfish. You are going to that teaching-college if you have to be hog-tied and dragged all the way to Saint Louis." Teresa opened her mouth to protest but Lou shook her head viciously, "And that's all there is to it. Not another word." She looked away from her sister and bit into a piece of toast, crunching loudly for emphasis.
Lou did not argue that day about going downstairs. Truth was that her wound was troubling her and besides, she was annoyed at the thought of watching the men waste another day with nothing to do. She stayed in her room the next day as well and didn't come downstairs again until Jimmy, Teaspoon, and Buck came riding in the following afternoon.
She dressed herself, an agonizing process that wore her temper thin. When Buck came in to say hello and fill her in on their failure to find Stokes or Jeremiah, he found her struggling to walk to the door. There was no arguing with her when she said she was going downstairs, and he let her shout at him when he carried her down the stairs instead of letting her struggle on her own.
It was too cold to sit on the porch, the occasional fat flake of snow was drifting down from the sky and the gentle breeze chilled to the bone. Teresa wrapped Lou up in a quilt on the big armchair beside the parlor fire and brought in a cup of tea. From there Lou held court like an imperious queen, issuing orders to Cassidy about keeping the men busy with cleaning out the bunkhouse, grilling Buck about their attempts to track down Jeremiah, and asking Teaspoon about a position for Abel in Rock Creek.
Eventually, as dusk gathered, Buck made an excuse to leave and Teresa lit the parlor lamps before fading into another room. Lou felt a sudden anxiety tighten her chest as Teaspoon dragged his own armchair directly in front of hers and reached for her hands. She blinked back sudden tears that blurred her vision and kept her voice clipped as she spoke to him. "Is Jimmy going to stay out in the barn all day?"
"He thinks it's best he keep his distance, Louise, and I'm sorry to say he might be right," Teaspoon said softly.
She grunted dismissively, but her voice was strained when she asked, "Is he still mad at me?"
"Mad at you?" Teaspoon chuckled. "No, darlin', I'd say he's mad at himself."
She shook her head. "If he'd just come see me, I could apologize…" She faltered, the words fading into the crackling of the fire.
"Lou, I know you and Jimmy wouldn't do anything to hurt the other on purpose, but it doesn't mean you haven't hurt each other. He needs to do some healing and so do you."
Lou poked at the bandage beneath her dress. "I've had worse than this, Teaspoon," she said petulantly.
"Weren't a hurt of the body I was talkin' 'bout." He looked at her and Lou knew it was hopeless trying to hide from him. His eyes seemed to take in everything about her, from the rickety façade she'd been struggling to maintain all the way down to the endless pain at the heart of her. "Honey," he said, running his thumb over her knuckles, "we got some talkin' we need to do." The tears in Lou's eyes wouldn't be contained and one after another they slipped down her cheek. "All these other cowards left it to an old man to give you the bad news. You're gonna have to let the ranch go, Lou." She started to protest and Teaspoon held up a hand, silencing her and continued, "Now, maybe you can keep a hold of the property but you ain't gonna be able to pay the hands and you ain't got anything to build the stock back up. Now, there's an extra room in Rachel's house with your name on it - "
Lou composed herself with difficulty. "I know I ain't been myself, Teaspoon. And I appreciate that ya'll are worried 'bout me. But I've been on my own out here before. When Kid first left, me and Teresa and Jeremiah we got by just fine with a little farm out here."
"Jeremiah and Teresa won't be here, Lou."
"I'll be alright, Teaspoon, I promise."
"Lou," he said snapping his suspenders with his thumbs, "I'm askin' you to do this as a favor to me. Buck and Jimmy are goin' to give me hell if I let you have your way. I ain't supposed to take no for an answer."
"No, Teaspoon," Lou interjected, "I can't go back there. He'd be everywhere there. I'd see him in the barn and at the table -" She realized her mistake as Teaspoon leaned forward to hug her.
"Louise, you're a brave woman and you've spent a lot of time trying to shoulder that grief on your own, but even the strongest man has to admit when he's licked. You're licked, darlin', and you need to let us help you. That's what we're there for."
Lou let herself crumple against his shoulder and cry. She clutched one of his suspenders in her hand until her nails dug into her palm, leaving little half moons of blood on her skin. There was no anger to her tears this time, just grief, for all the wasted dreams and years. Teaspoon spoke softly, his rough hand catching on her dress as he rubbed her back. She caught the meaning of nothing he said, only the steady soothing rhythm of his voice. Her breath caught on her sobs in her throat and she hiccoughed with a violent jerk, causing Teaspoon to chuckle and even she smiled through her tears. At last her eyes dried up, she found her breath again and she pulled away. "I don't like giving up, Teaspoon," she said hoarsely, wiping away her tears with the back of her hand.
"I know you don't, honey, but everybody loses a fight now and then. Doesn't mean you won't win the next one." Teaspoon kissed the top of her head tenderly, and stood up with a stretch. "I best go tell the boys the news. Jimmy and I have to be heading out tomorrow. Buck says he'll stay around for awhile if you'd like, help you get things ready to go."
She shook her head. "He has a life back in Rock Creek, Teaspoon."
Teaspoon nodded. "Emily and Maddie'll be happy to see him come home for certain. You haven't visited in a long while, Lou. You won't recognize Maddie, she's so grown up these days, and she takes after her father something fierce. She's driving her mother to drink with the animal menagerie she's collecting." He peered down at her with a smile. "It'll be good to have you home again, Louise."
"Thanks, Teaspoon," Lou mumbled and with a nod Teaspoon left, shivering as he stepped out into the cold night. The door shut with a thud and Lou stared at the last spurts of fire and wondered if she'd made the right decision.
She'd insisted on walking up the stairs to bed, having had enough of being ferried through the house in Buck's arms. She'd put an arm around Teresa's shoulder and trudged up the stairs, feeling woozy and out of breath by the time she'd reached the top. She'd mumbled responses to Teresa's mothering and finally shooed her sister out of the room, intent on struggling into bed herself.
She cursed her height and the high bed frame as she tried to hoist herself up onto the mattress. She felt like a helpless child. The loss of blood had weakened her and it would take months before her full strength was recovered. In the meantime she couldn't even maneuver her weight up the extra two inches to the top of the bed. A cold hand grabbed her elbow and helped her finally clear the last half inch.
"You made the right decision," Kid said, bending down to press a kiss to her lips.
Lou lay back on her pillow and muttered, "Did I?"
Kid climbed over her to his side of the bed and lay back on top of the bedspread, his arms folded behind his head. "Of course you did. Teaspoon's right, Lou, this is too much for you to take on all by yourself. You need to let the boys help you out."
Lou pushed a hot puff of air through her nose and grunted with irritation, "I can take care of myself, Kid."
"Who said you couldn't?"
"You did. Teaspoon. Buck. Teresa." She kept her voice at a whisper, but the anger in it seemed to grow with every word. "You all just want me to give in and give up. I worked this place as a farm before, when you left and we didn't have any money. Things ain't any worse now."
"Lou, you ain't bein' reasonable." Kid rolled over onto his side to look at her face. Her jaw was set and her lips were drawn in a thin line.
"So what?" she spat, looking him in the eye. "Look what I've done, Kid. Jimmy's out sulkin' in the barn 'cause I broke his heart. Reese acts like an old woman and she ain't even twenty yet. Jeremiah's God knows where and probably in trouble and all 'cause I was too busy feelin' sorry for myself to fix things between us. How the hell did I let this happen?"
Kid reached out to hold her, whispering softly, "It wasn't your fault, Lou. Things'll get better once you're back in Rock Creek where folks can look after you - "
She pushed him away, "How's folks babyin' me gonna help Jimmy or Reese or Jeremiah? It ain't goin' to fix anything, Kid. It won't bring you back and it won't make me happy."
"Lou, you can't keep on here alone," Kid's voice was stern, giving the words the sound of a command.
Lou sat up in bed and glared at him, her dark eyes blazing with indignation. "I can do damn well what I want and don't you try to tell me otherwise." She flopped back down onto the bed and pulled the covers over her head, gritting her teeth to keep from groaning as the wound in her stomach protested the sudden movement.
She was awake and struggling down the stairs long before breakfast. Teresa had only just gotten up herself and caught up with Lou halfway down the stairs, helping and scolding her the entire way. Lou ignored her sister's admonishments as she left the house and walked across the snowy yard towards the barn, her weakness somewhat slowing her determined and purposeful march.
She flung open the door to see Teaspoon and Jimmy already saddling their mounts as Buck leaned against the far wall sipping from a cup of coffee. All three of them looked up at her in alarm, their concern that she was up and walking around reduced by a sudden fear as they noticed the grim look on her face and the clench of her jaw; they'd seen that face before and they had all cringed before it when Lou let loose.
"Jimmy, we got to talk," she said.
Jimmy hesitantly stepped forward, casting a glance back at the others, a silent plea for help. Buck shrugged and Teaspoon averted his eyes and with no other recourse, Jimmy stiffened his spine and braved a look directly at Lou. "What'dya need, Lou?"
"There ain't no reason for you to hide out here from me. You never hurt me, Jimmy." She ignored him as he started to speak and kept right on talking, "Don't argue with me. You were a real good friend to me and if there's any bad blood between us it's 'cause I was too stubborn and selfish to be a good friend back. So stop blamin' yourself for somethin' that weren't you're fault."
"Lou, you aren't selfish," Jimmy protested.
"Don't you act like you know me better than I do myself," Lou reprimanded hotly. Again Jimmy looked back at Teaspoon and Buck, only to find both of them suddenly extremely interested in the floor, too engrossed by what they found there to meet his eye. Lou waited for him to look to her again before she continued. "If you can forgive me, Jimmy, I have a favor to ask you."
"Anything, Lou, you know that."
"Jeremiah wrote Reese and said he's split with Stokes. He didn't say where he's goin' next and I'm worried about him. I want him to know he's got a place to come home to. I'd try to find him myself, but I ain't up to riding yet - "
"At least she'll admit that much," Buck muttered and quickly found something of vital interest in his coffee mug as Lou looked away from Jimmy long enough to glare angrily in his direction.
Lou continued, "I ain't up to riding yet, and besides Jeremiah and I can't talk to each other civilly and I don't want to fight with him until he knows I don't blame him for this."
Jimmy nodded. "I'll find him, Lou."
"And you'll forgive me and we can be friends again?" Lou asked before letting go of the letter.
"There ain't nothin' for me to forgive." Jimmy saw Lou's eyes flare and knew she was about to go into another tirade. Quickly he added, "And we're friends again, Lou, always will be. Everything else is water under the bridge."
She nodded briskly and turned towards Teaspoon next. "Teaspoon, I thought things over, and I'm not going to Rock Creek."
All three of them cried out at that, their own tempers breaking. But Lou's shout drowned them out, "I'm not! I can get the ranch going again, just like I did before. And I'm sellin' off some of the property to pay for Teresa to go to teaching-school in Saint Louis. I love you all, but I don't want to sit around moping in Rachel's house. So that's what I'm doin' and if you want me to do different you'll have to tie me down and drag me back to Rock Creek."
Teaspoon looked at Buck. "You want to risk that?"
Buck shook his head. "I'm not ready to die yet, Teaspoon," he answered with a grin.
With a smile Teaspoon hugged Lou tightly. "It's good to see you feelin' yourself again, darlin'."
Lou just nodded briskly and turned on her heel to leave, "Come up to the house and have some breakfast before you leave."
Teresa wandered in with a cup of tea. "Thanks, sugar bear," Lou mumbled, and her hands shook as she took the cup from her sister. Teresa just nodded and slipped back out of the room. Lou knew she didn't want to risk being there when the first of the men came up to the house for their paycheck. Lou didn't want to be there either, but it didn't look like she'd have a choice.
There was a hesitant knock on the door. Usually Lou just shouted for the hands to come on in, but today her mouth was dry and her voice had deserted her. She opened the door for Willie and left it open. Some of the better hands usually did their morning chores before coming up to the house for their pay. But Lou wasn't counting on that today. She knew the others would be up to the house the minute they heard from Willie what was going on.
"Willie," she croaked, going to the desk and grabbing his pay like she did every Friday. "Willie," she repeated as she handed the money to him, "I'm afraid…I'm afraid there isn't anymore work for you here. I've uhh, I've got to let you go."
Willie's eyes got big; clearly he hadn't been expecting this. "Ma'am?" he asked slowly, "I do somethin' wrong?"
Lou squeezed her eyes tight, keeping the hot tears from spilling out. "No, Willie, you've been a good worker, I just don't have the money to get the ranch started again. Now that's full pay for this last week, but that cleans me out - "
Realization dawned on Willie's face, "The other fellas?"
Lou sighed, "I've got nothing left, Willie. I have to let everybody go."
Willie nodded and left with slumped shoulders. Just as she'd predicted, the other hands were at her door in a matter of seconds. Lou gave them their money, made her apologies. A few of them were angry, but most were only sad. Lou had lived in a bunkhouse herself, she knew that the boys had made friendships that felt like family; she knew there was more on their minds than where their next meal was coming from.
One pay packet sat untouched on her desk. An hour slipped by and one by one the men had finished packing their things and set out and still Cassidy had not come for his pay. At last he appeared, his face shining with sweat and dust gathering in the creases of his forehead. "Mrs. McCloud," he said as always, grabbing his hat and nodding his head slightly in her direction. As usual, he kept his eyes on the far wall and did not look at her.
"Thanks for seeing to things this morning," Lou murmured. She had been dreading this most of all, saying goodbye to him, turning him away. Unlike the others he had no family out there, nothing to go back to. She hated setting him wandering again and she hated the thought of the place without his steady presence. She handed him his pay and waited for him to drag his eyes to her face before she spoke again. "I 'spect you heard the boys sayin' that I have to let you all go."
Lou realized she was still holding on to his pay. Unable to actually touch him, she was linked to him by the money they both clutched and she rapidly let go and withdrew her hand. "I'm sorry, Cassidy," she could not look at his face and found her own gaze aimed at the floor. She waited to watch his footsteps as he left, but his worn boots held their ground, standing at attention before her.
"Beggin' your pardon, Ma'am, but I'd rather not go."
Lou's head snapped up and she looked into his eyes for a moment uncomprehending, "I…I…the money's all gone; I can't pay even one hand. There aren't any horses and I'm selling off some of the land; there's nothing for you to do…" Lou faltered. She wanted him to stay, but it was asking too much. Even Jimmy hadn't stayed on the ranch forever, and she'd still been able to pay him.
"Selling some of the land, ma'am?"
"Yes. The acres on the other side of the creek. Still leaves me with enough for a little farm - "
Cassidy interrupted her. "How much are you asking for it?"
Lou shrugged. "I was going to talk to Mr. Talbot at the bank before I set a price, but four dollars an acre seems fair."
"I've got some money saved up, ma'am, would you consider selling it to me?" He wasn't looking at the floor now, and Lou looked at him, his spine straight, his clear gaze trained straight ahead, as though he were waiting on orders. "I don't have anywhere else to go; just need a place to settle for now," he added softly.
She nodded curtly in agreement and without thought reached out to squeeze his hand. "It's yours."
He met her eyes. "Thank you, ma'am." At last his eyes dropped to the floor and Lou took her hand from his. Lou watched as he walked to the door and felt the first hints of a smile pull at her mouth.
"So Cassidy stayed," Kid murmured, looking over Lou's head and out the window. She was staring at a yellow square of light in the darkness, the bunkhouse lit by a lamp and empty except for Cassidy.
"He did," she answered softly, not turning from the window, nor saying anything more.
Kid nodded and watched her reflection in the window. "You're gonna be alright, now, Lou," he repeated, more to himself than to her.
Lou didn't answer; she had hardly heard him in the first place. The light in the bunkhouse went out and she turned in the darkness towards Kid. The room was empty and she climbed into bed alone, stretching her small arms across the wide space of the mattress, leaving no space for memories or grief. "Goodbye, Kid," she whispered into the night, "Ride safe."
Author's Note: Thanks to Ellie, Wendy, and Dede for helping me get over my bad self and submit this already!