Chapter 1

Rock Creek, Nebraska Territory, December 1961.

When Mrs Louise McCloud entered Tompkins’ store the customers’ chatter stopped abruptly. It was almost three months since she had dropped her disguise to marry Kid, but some people still couldn’t understand how she could deceive everyone and live in a such indecorous way.

Actually most of the townspeople didn’t care very much about it, but the ones who were in the store at that moment didn’t think that way. In the corner where Tompkins put the dresses and the other accessories there was a group of girls of about Lou's age. They observed her with a mixture of curiosity and fear. Lou could easily imagine what they were thinking: she’s that girl rider! The one who can shoot and who slept in the same room with a lot of men!

Lou noticed their narrowed eyes, but pretended she didn’t. She knew them superficially, she’d seen them during the few social dances she had attended. She never approached them and they never noticed her, but she knew a little about them: there were the pretty ones and the others who followed the pretty ones around like puppies.

She huffed while she began to pick the items she needed. These were the things that made her not regret not having lived as a ‘normal’ girl.

“Hey Lou, what can I do for you?”

Tompkins’ greeting raised some giggles. He addressed her like she was still a rider, but Lou didn’t care – she would have found strange if he’d called her ‘Mrs MCloud’ when she had once hit him in the head with a skillet!

“These, for now,” she said, putting her purchases on the counter. “Then I have to choose some underwear. For that I’ll be fine by myself, thanks.”

She made for the shelves, and passed the group of young women. Lou greeted them with a “good morning.”

They remained silent, staring at her, a that fact made her a little nervous.

In the end a chubby girl with a gentle face responded to her. “Good morning, Mrs McCloud.”

Lou smiled at her. ‘Well, maybe they aren’t all made the same way, then,’ she thought. She took what she needed, but when she continued to feel their eyes on her she grew angry. ‘They truly haven’t something better to do?!’

“Mr Tompkins?” she said, raising her voice. “Do you have any more longjohns? I need another pair for Buck.” Lou stressed the last word and heard the women suck their breath. A smirk painted her face.

“Look on the last shelf!” Tompkins answered.

She stood on her tiptoes and stretched to reach the shelf. ‘The boys never are around when I need them,’ she thought.

Suddenly one arm extended over her shoulder and some buckskin fringes tickled her cheek.

“Let me help you, miss,” said a well known voice.

“Cody?!” she exclaimed, turning.

“Lou!” The young man took a step back.

“Cody! I can’t believe you are here!”

She hugged him tightly. She hadn’t seen him since September, when he left as a scout with the Army. She hadn’t been able to stop the tears then, because she had felt like she was losing another member of the family. Cody returned the hug, lifting her off the ground, to the astonishment of the girls.

“I didn’t know I have this effect on you, Lou. Better not tell your husband!” the ex-rider joked.

“Don’t flatter yourself, now,” she chided him, playfully smacking his chest.

“Hey, your hair is longer,” he said then, picking up one dark lock in his finger “That’s why I didn’t recognize you. You was right, Buck,” he continued, addressing their Indian friend who had remained to the side. “She became a real woman!”

“Hey!” Lou glared the Kiowa. “What do you mean, ‘a real woman’? And here I was buying a pair of longjohns for you!”

“That explains why those girls are watching us with that expression.” Buck grinned.

They couldn’t help but laugh then, and when Lou went to pay Tompkins he greeted them with, “You guys are always the same.”

When they finally left the store Cody stopped and placed his hands on Lou’s shoulders. He observed her seriously for a moment and then he shook his head, disappointed.

“It’s a pity…”

Lou stared at him, confused. “What?”

“You still ain't pregnant.”

Her cheeks became scarlet, then she got angry. She suspected this was one of their bets.

“What the heck are you saying? We’ve only married for three months! Even if I was, I still wouldn’t be showing yet,” she added in a lower tone.

“Well, you two danced more’n three months ago, didn’t you?” Cody whispered mischievously in her ear.

“Cody!” Lou smacked his chest hard, while Buck laughed heartily.

“What are we standing around here for?” Lou said, trying to recover a little dignity. “If we go home I’ll fix you something to eat. You must be starving.”

Lou took their arms and steered them toward the waystation, while her friends looked at each other above her head, terrified.

“W-well Lou, I’m not very hungry now. I’ll wait until Rachel’s done at the school.” Cody remembered all too well the meal Lou had prepared for him before he left. He wasn’t able to refuse that time, and he wasn’t looking forward to a repeat of the experience. Maybe only Kid’s love could make something cooked by Louise McCloud edible.

“Don’t be silly. Rachel wouldn’t be back for a couple of hours…”

“B-but, don’t worry…actually, I’ve already eaten. Right, Buck?” Cody looked at his friend, hoping he would take the hint.

“Sure,” he responded. “When we stopped by to see Teaspoon he gave us some sandwiches.”

“And since when does Teaspoon keep sandwiches in his office?” The small but surprisingly strong woman tightened the hold on her friends’ arms. “What’s going on?” Her voice sounded quietly serious, but Buck and Cody knew it was the calm before the storm.

“Ah… Lou, do you remember the last time you tried to cook without Rachel?” Buck tried to explain.

“Why? What happened?” Cody said, he began to be afraid.

“Well, let's just say that…the chicken was a bit too cooked and the kitchen needed to be repainted,” Buck said with a smirk.

They could laugh about it now, but they'd been truly scared that day. Lou had been overcome by the smoke and Buck had had to carry her out of the house. Fortunately Kid wasn’t there, out for one of his last runs, otherwise he would surely have had the first heart attack of his married life.

Lou disentangled her arms and crossed them over her chest.

“Ouff! It was an accident, and it happened months ago. I've gotten better since then,” she pouted. She tried her best – it wasn’t her fault if her mother had never taught her how to cook and if Rachel was always too occupied with the school.

“C’mon, Lou, don’t get upset,” Cody said.

“You’re good at a lot of other things.” Buck tried to flatter her.

“Such as?” she wanted to know.

“You’re the fastest rider between here and Cottonwood,” Buck said.

“Yes!” Cody continued. “And I never saw anyone more determined than you to hold your own in a fight...”

“And with a gun in your hand,” Buck completed his friend’s sentence.

“In women’s things, I mean,” said Lou.

The two ex-riders fell silent and looked at each other, trying desperately to find something to say.

“Well...” The girl glared at them, but they could say nothing.

“Ha! So you do think I can't do it!” she exclaimed angry. “Fine, then I'll prepare a wonderful dinner especially for you two. And you’ll have to eat everything!”

She lifted her chin and stomped away. She would prove to them what Louise McCloud was capable of when she put to mind something. But soon she began to regret her promise. How would she do it? It was true, without Rachel she could do very little, and her friend was busy with examinations at school. But Lou would never surrender.

“Mrs McCloud…” a voice called her, distracting her from her thoughts.

“Yes?” Lou responded with a still furious tone.

“I’m sorry, ma’am. You forgot your purse in the store.”

Lou turned and saw the girl who had smiled at her in Tompkins’ store. She was a little taller than her, with a round face and sweet grey eyes. Lou blushed.

“Oh, thank you…”she said, embarrassed, as she took the purse she was giving her.

The girl outstretched her hand. “We've never been introduced. My name’s Penelope Barnes, but everyone calls me Penny.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Penny. Call me Louise.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you too, Louise,” she responded. “I don’t want to seem rude but… I heard you might have some problems cooking.”

‘Like half of the town, I was yelling in the middle of Main Street,’ Lou thought angrily.

“If you want I can help you,” Penny continued.

“Truly?” Lou asked with incredulity.

“Truly!”

Chapter 2

Finally, Lou decided to cook with Jimmy. He only knew how to cook one thing, porridge, but at least he did it well.

“Hey, Jimmy? Don’t you have to meet Rosemary for lunch?” she asked her fellow cook.

Rosemary Burke, widow of Isaiah Burke, had decided to stay in Rock Creek after her husband’s death, but during those months she had continued to fight for her cause, as well as her relationship with Jimmy. The Pony Express family didn’t like the situation very much. Kid had even fought with Jimmy and for that reason Lou had risked not being accompanied to the altar by her best friend. Fortunately in the end they were able to come to an agreement and now Rosemary lived in a little cottage at the other end of the town.

“Nah, I can’t risk you poisoning Cody, he’s just come back.” He smirked in her direction.

“Don’t start you too!”

Actually her inability to cook weighed on her. Kid was a wonderful husband and now that she finally decided to marry him, she wanted to be the best of wives for him. Instead she couldn’t even fix a meal. How would she do when they had their own home?

She smiled to herself; it wasn’t worthy of her to think in that way. She had changed, she admitted that, from the diffident and coy tomboy she had been when she signed for the Express. She had learned to trust others again, she had found a family and became the wife of the man she loved more than anyone in the world.

During those three months every day was better than the one before. After the end of the Express she and Kid had gone to St. Joe to pick up her brother and sister, and now Jeremiah and Teresa lived with them at Rachel’s house. What’s more they were able to buy a little ranch near ‘their’ pond – they had discovered it during one of their walks and she had immediately fallen in love with it. It was one of the first autumn days, the last sunrays still warmed the earth and the house was surrounded by bushes full of roses. When Kid found the owner and bought the ‘Rosebush Ranch’, as she called it, she couldn’t believe it. Sure, they had a lot of work to do, but in the spring they finally would have their own ranch.

Lou sighed; it wasn’t only the cooking that bothered her. There was something else that she couldn’t stop thinking about, a fear that made her lay awake at night even as Kid held her lovingly…

“Hey, Lou.” Jimmy nudged her slightly with his shoulder. “Now I understand why you can’t cook. You can’t ALWAYS be thinking about that blue-eyed guy who sleeps in your bed.”

She glared at him, but Jimmy continued.

“‘Oh, Kid’” he sighed theatrically, rolling his eyes.

“James Hickok, you stop that right now! I’ve every right to think about my husband. I tolerated enough from you all during the Express.”

The gunslinger couldn’t help but laugh. “Okay, okay!” he hurried to say, raising his hands. “But you can’t deny that those were wonderful times.”

“Yes,” she responded nostalgically.

They remained like that for a while, lost in their memories, then Jimmy suddenly broke the silence.

“Look who’s coming,” he said, pointing at the window.

Lou looked outside, and straight away her eyes lit up and her lips curved in a smile.

“What on earth…? Look at the size of the tree they’ve brought! It will never fit through the door,” she scolded, but her voice was full of mirth and kindness. “Those three…I can’t leave them alone even for a minute!”

She wiped her hands and bustled towards Kid and her siblings, who that morning had left to get ‘the most beautiful Christmas tree in the world’, as Jeremiah had declared.

Jimmy observed his friend run out the door, with her apron still on and sleeves rolled up. He couldn’t help the tightening of his stomach. Louise McCloud would always have a special place in his heart. There was a time when he would have done anything to have her by his side and hated the Kid for being so insensitive with her. But he understood that the two of them were meant to be together and that he could be only a friend to Lou.

In the last few months he had watched her bloom – the old Lou didn’t get lost, she hadn’t been tamed by the bonds of the married life; instead Kid with his love and devotion gave her a serenity she didn’t have before.

‘Could you ever have given her all of this, James Hickok?’ he chided himself. ‘No, you would have deluded yourself that you could make her happy, because with you she wouldn’t have lost her independency. But if she had chosen you, you would had denied her the life she had always wanted.’

To have a family, to settle down somewhere and have babies, all of that didn’t suit him, not now, at least. He envied Kid for being able to take a responsibility so big and he wished for them all possible happiness. He only hoped that one day he would have the luck to meet a woman who loved him as Lou loved the Kid.

The laughs from the yard distracted him from his thoughts. Through the window he could see Kid wrap his jacket around Lou as she hugged him, giggling.

“Where did you find a tree so big?” she exclaimed. “It’ll never fit inside the house!”

“Actually we’ll keep it outside,” Kid stated firmly.

“What?” She didn’t understand “Then why did you take it?”

He smiled. “It was their idea.” He pointed the children. “When Teresa figured out I was going to have to chop the tree down she stopped me.”

The little girl nodded. “He would have killed him, Luly!” she said with a hint of desperation in her voice. “A poor tree who never hurt anyone!”

“Then we decided to take the tree with all its roots and plant it in one of the old wash tubs.”

“Yes,” Jeremiah exclaimed excited, “and after the holidays we’ll plant it at the Rosebush Ranch.”

“They arranged everything, Lou, you can’t say no,” Cody said from the porch where he observing the scene.

Kid lifted his head. “Cody?!”

The blond scout stepped down to greet his friend. The two of them shared a brotherly hug and then Kid made the introductions.

“Miah, Tessie, do you remember Cody?”

The children nodded, remaining shyly where they stood. But it didn’t take long for William F. Cody and his jokes to win them over.

******

The lunch was less terrible than Cody expected; Rachel returned just in time to check on Lou’s cooking and correct her mistakes. Now the two women had sent the others outside to decorate the tree so they could do the dishes and tidy up the kitchen. From their spot before the sink they could observe them while they were trying to put the tree in one of the old washtubs which was too damaged to be used for washing clothes. They laughed, seeing the efforts the others made to put it in place, the action made more difficult by the ground being covered with snow. When they were finally able to achieve it, Kid lifted Teresa on his shoulders so she could place the higher up decorations, while Jeremiah chose and passed them to his sister.

Lou’s eyes pricked with tears. Her heart melted every time she saw how Kid took care of her siblings as if they were his own. When he asked her to marry him, she had not wanted to impose their presence on him, though she’d hoped he would take them. It was her dream to take them away from the orphanage, not his. But it was Kid who suggested they go to St. Joe to collect them when he returned from his last run.

Lou had been afraid that Jeremiah wouldn’t accept Kid – she knew how life had made him insecure and the boy still remembered how Kid had shot their father before his eyes. But Kid had been wonderful, he described the ranch they wanted to open and he told Jeremiah that he would have a horse all of his own if he wanted. And he meant every word he said.

When Lou saw him teaching Tessie and Miah how to ride or helping them with their homework, she found herself thinking that this was the life she always wanted… A place she could call home, her brother and sister near to her who finally had a real family… Lou even had what she thought could never happen to her: a man that loved her and who she loved back, a man to have children with. Children…

Everyone expected that she’d announced she was with child anytime now, and her only wish was to do just that. But she was scared – scared that she couldn’t give him the babies they longed for, that what Wicks had done to her had destroyed any chance of that.

“Lou?” Rachel said. “Louise, that dish is dry now.”

“W-what?” The girl turned to look at her.

Rachel smiled. “It’s time we got out there, otherwise they’ll finish the tree without us.”

Lou nodded, and they took their coats and exited the house. On the porch they stopped for a moment to fasten them against the bitter chill. Kid had put Tessie down and now he was crouched, talking at eye level with Jeremiah who was explaining to him seriously how the decorations had to be placed.

“Kid is very fond of your brother and sister,” Rachel said.

“Mmh.” Lou nodded, but she couldn’t respond to her due to the lump in her throat.

“I’m sure he’ll make a wonderful father.”

“Yes…” Lou’s voice trembled.

Rachel turned toward her friend and found her with cheeks wet from tears, and they weren’t tears of joy.

“Louise?” Rachel immediately she went to her. “What’s happened?”

She made her sit on the swing porch, so the others couldn’t see her and they could have some privacy. Rachel wrapped her arm around her shoulder while Lou continued to sob against her chest. Louise couldn’t stop now she had begun; she had held everything inside of her for too long and now she felt the need to open her heart to someone.

“I’m scared, Rachel,” she said when she had calmed herself.

“Of what, honey?” Rachel didn’t know what was bothering her friend, but to see her like that tore at her heart.

“I’m scared …I can’t have babies…” she finally managed to say.

“Why would you say that?”

“W-Wicks hurt me so m-much…” she sobbed, still unable to think about that night without trembling. “And after I got away, when I was in St. Louis…o-one night, about a month later, I woke up in pain…I was bleeding, and I l-lost so much blood I thought I was going to die…I d-don’t know what happened to me, but s-since then I ain’t never been regular.” She blushed, to talk about these things that embarrassed her, even if Rachel was like a mother to her.

Rachel felt her stomach lurch, thinking about how Lou still suffered because of that monster.

“Darlin’... you can’t be sure about not being able to bear children…you’ve only been married three months,” she tried to console her. “It’s normal you aren’t pregnant yet.”

“But you know that we been… dancing… longer’n three months…” Lou smiled self-consciously. “And we've never been very careful…”

Rachel embraced her. “All right. Maybe you should see the doctor.”

“No!” Louise shook her head vehemently, pulling away from Rachel. “No doctor. I don’t want someone else knowing about it… touching me… I- I can’t,” she finished in a whisper.

“Oh, Louise.” Rachel kissed her forehead, “I’m sure the Lord won’t deny you the joy of a baby…”

“I hope not,” Lou said in a faint voice. She remained for some moments close to her friend, then she got up and wiped her tears. She felt a little better now that her worries had found an outlet.

“We’d better go or the others will come to looking for us,” she tried to speak lightly, as if nothing were wrong, but Rachel stopped her.

“Louise, you know you should talk to Kid about this.”

“I know, I just have to find the strength to do it,” she replied grimly.

Rachel watched her friend walk away. She understood what had happened to Lou. To bleed until she fainted, so much so that she thought she would die… Louise had conceived a child from that violent act, and then she’d lost it. That explained why her monthlies weren’t regular; it had also happened to Rachel after she has miscarried, for a while. She wasn’t a doctor but the fact that Lou still wasn’t all right made her afraid that her friend’s worries were true. Rachel couldn’t stop her own tears, then.

Chapter 3

Louise drew closer to the others – the Christmas tree was almost done and they were arranging the last of the decorations. She wiped her eyes, hoping they weren’t too red, and then approached her husband from behind and hugged him tightly.

“Lou!” Kid exclaimed, surprised.

When he turned and drew her closer she hid her face in his chest and inhaled his familiar scent. His embraces had always comforted her. Every time she felt sad or worried, all she needed were his arms around her to make her feel better. Only once he had not returned her hug, the day she refused his proposal, and she hoped she would never feel such pain again.

“Hey, you two! Stop with this sloppiness!” Jimmy shouted.

Lou turned to stick her tongue out at him and hugged Kid closer.

“My husband was gone all morning and I missed him,” she yelled, before sinking her nose in his warmth again. Kid gently kissed her hair.

“You truly missed me?” he whispered in her ear. “I gotta make you forgive me, then…” His tone made her knees tremble.

“Oh, God! And I thought it was bad before,” Cody exclaimed, rather disgusted.

“They’re even worse now,” Buck sighed. “We never knew how lucky we was, all that time Lou had to pretend to be a boy…”

Lou gave him a deadly look but didn’t stop hugging Kid.

“You were right then,” the blond scout said, “she really has gone soft!”

“What? Who the hell put such a ridiculous thought in your head?” Lou slipped out of Kid’s arms, ready to quarrel. Cody couldn’t waste such an opportunity.

“Well…” he began with an impish grin, “from what someone told me a certain young wife, when her husband was away for one of his last runs, slept in his bunk at the waystation because she missed him too much to sleep in their big, empty bed all alone.”

The cheeks of that young wife reddened instantly.

“You two!” she hissed toward the guilty parties. “You just couldn’t help yourself telling him that.”

Jimmy and Buck exchanged a terrified but amused look; it had been a while since they’d witnessed a Lou outburst. Life was beginning to be boring without her explosive fits of rage. The only problem was that this one wasn’t directed towards the Kid.

Kid, from his side, was smiling broadly, delighted by this unexpected demonstration of love from his wife and at not being the target of her ire, for once.

“Well, Lou, we just can’t miss this chance,” Jimmy teased her.

“So…you can’t miss this chance, huh?” Lou’s voice had a certain mischievous tone as she approached the two traitors. Teresa and Jeremiah looked at their sister with wide eyes, astonished by her behavior.

“Then I can’t miss THIS chance!” She suddenly dropped to the ground and flung a handful of icy snow in Buck and Jimmy’s faces. Within a few seconds a snowball fight had begun, threatening to damage the just finished tree and preventing them from noticing the approach of two people.

“Guys…” Rachel called them, but they didn’t hear her. “Guys…” she tried again but she had to take a backward step to avoid Jimmy’s snowball.

“Hey, Jimmy! Ain’t you supposed to be the best shooter in the Territory? What kinda aim you call that?!” Louise teased him, but tripped on her skirts and fell in the snow in a heap.

Jimmy came towards to her with an enormous snowball in his hands.

“What did you say again?” he bent down, lowering the freezing snow to her face.

“Noo!” The girl tried to escape but her dress hindered her movements.

Jimmy raised his arm. “Admit it! You have gotten soft.”

“Never!” she stated, and then she closed her eyes, ready to receive the icy shower…that was providentially avoided by the further call of their ex station-mistress.

“Jimmy? There’s Rosemary for you.”

Lou opened her eyes just in time to see Jimmy drop the snowball and turn to greet the woman, quite embarrassed.

The fight ended and Kid helped her to disentangle herself from her skirts and lifted her to her feet. He took his time to wipe away the snow from her clothes before it melted and soaked her, and to clean her face.

Three months had passed since their marriage and he still couldn’t believe his luck. Finally the woman of his dreams, the only one who he had ever really loved, agreed to become his wife. They had begun their life together and, with a little luck and effort on their part, by next spring they would have their own horse ranch.

Life couldn’t be better, but there was something that worried him – Lou sometimes became sad and thoughtful. He took her in his arms on those occasions, trying to give her all possible solace, but when he asked what worried her she made as if there was nothing wrong, and told him that she just missed him. Just like she had done few minutes ago.

Kid didn’t push the subject, because he had learned that it would make her withdraw even more... Just as he never asked her anything about the dreams about Wicks that began to torment her again and made her cry out and cling to him in her sleep.

“Kid, Louise. Good afternoon,” Rosemary greeted them.

Kid answered her politely. He didn’t like the woman very much, but his upbringing ensured he treated her like a lady. Lou simply nodded to her because she was still panting, and leaned in to Kid to catch her breath.

“Boys,” Rosemary greeted the others too. They responded, but not too warmly. Cody’s eyes became cold as ice.

“Well…” Jimmy said, “I should go now.” Rosemary took his arm, a bit too firmly than necessary. “See you all this evening.”

******

“What the hell is she doing here?” Cody hissed. Everyone turned to look at him. His eyes, usually merry and impish, were still cold.

Rachel was the first who responded to him, resting a hand on his arm to soothe him.

“She decided to stay in Rock Creek. She and Jimmy are seeing each other.”

Louise came towards him – she knew that Noah’s death had hurt Cody more than anyone else. Noah was for him what Ike was for Buck, what Jimmy was for Kid and her.

“How he can be so stupid? She killed Noah!”

Jeremiah and Teresa held their breath, scared.

“She really killed your friend?” the boy asked in awe. He never knew Noah Dixon, but his sister and the others had talked about him, just as they had talked about Ike.

Cody turned toward them, guiltily, knowing he shouldn’t have snapped like that. Not in front of two kids.

“No, Jeremiah, she didn’t kill him. It was because of the war,” Lou answered him.

And of her lies, Cody thought bitterly. If Rosemary hadn’t come to Rock Creek, if she hadn’t followed the Army, going after the Pierson gang, then Noah would still be alive.

Suddenly Lou’s arms encircled his waist, and she laid her head on his chest. Cody felt a sudden wave of affection for his ‘sister’. He’d begun to think of her like that ever since she’d taken care of him when the fear of a cholera epidemic exploded in town and he thought he was going to die after eating spoiled meat. She was the one in whom he confided problems with his love life, so he avoided losing face with the boys.

“We miss him too,” she said softly, without looking at him. “Just like we miss Ike.”

“Yeah…” Cody agreed with a lump in his throat. For some moments he returned her embrace, but then he continued. “Now I am sure of something…”

“What?”

“That you really have gone soft.”

“What!” She pulled away from him, angry, but the sweet look that Cody gave her revealed his gratitude. She continued, smiling. “I’m still the same Lou McCloud, William F. Cody, and I’m ready to show you any time.”

She bent again to pick up another snowball but Rachel’s voice stopped her.

“Hey! Stop that right now or you will all catch cold. And I don’t intend to take care of a bunch of sick folk this Christmas. C’mon, everyone inside.”

“Yes ma’am,” they responded jokingly as they went into the bunkhouse.

******

Jimmy and Rosemary walked arm in arm along the quiet streets of Rock Creek like a respectable couple, both deep in thought. The young man could feel the almost painful grip on his arm; he knew it was because she was nervous and he knew what the reason was: his friends. They had never accepted her completely. Sure, they were civil towards her, mostly, but they could never fill the distance that divided them. Kid didn’t hide it, he was convinced that she wanted to involve Jimmy in the Abolitionists’ fight so he could take the place of her husband as leader of the group, and in her bed.

Jimmy smirked wryly – Kid was right, their relationship wasn’t only platonic – and he couldn’t deny he appreciated her company. But there was something that wasn’t quite right between them. Rosemary was completely devoted to her cause, and he felt himself dragged into a fight that he didn’t feel was his. She wasn’t explicit in her requests but Jimmy knew that even though she was continuing her work there in Rock Creek, she wanted to return to Kansas with him.

He sighed imperceptibly, hoping she didn’t notice. He didn’t want to leave. He didn’t know what he was going to do now that he wasn’t an Express rider anymore, but he knew that he wasn’t ready to leave his friends yet.

“Jimmy, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he responded, “nothing.”

She nodded, but after few moments of silence she said, “Your friend Cody didn’t seem very happy to see me.”

“He hasn’t gotten over the Noah’s death. They were very close.”

“And he thinks it was my fault.” She sounded annoyed.

“I didn’t say that,” he responded her more harshly than he intended.

“But you think it was, don’t you?” Her black eyes grew hard like stone.

“No, I don’t. It was this stupid war,” he said, but in truth he wasn’t completely convinced. Those men had been chasing her… Jimmy had tried to dispel this thought, but it was tormenting him.

“Then prove it to me, James.”

She drew him to her and kissed him passionately. He responded to the kiss, but he didn’t feel the thrill he felt the first time he’d kissed her. He parted from her and smiled, but he was confused. He admired her passion, her resolve, the way she had dealt with the grief over the deaths of her husband and child. But did he love her? There has been a moment when he had been prepared to leave everything to be with her. Damn, he almost missed the wedding of the two most important people in his life! But he wasn’t so sure of his choices anymore…

Rosemary saw his sweet expression, but she couldn’t help but feel a fit of rage. His eyes weren’t looking at her; he was thinking about something else. In those last weeks she saw him distracted like this more and more often, like his mind was elsewhere.

Those damned Pony Express riders, his family as he called them. She could give him the opportunity to do something important, to become a real man. Instead he insisted on remaining there ‘because Kid and Lou need my help now’, ‘because I don’t know what I want to do with my life’, he had told her. Kid and Lou; a stupid southerner and his woman. She repressed her disgust; Louise McCloud, the perfect, brave Louise. Jimmy adored her, he told her he admired how she had run away from the orphanage when she was barely thirteen, and how she had disguised herself as a boy to find a job so she could take care of her siblings.

But as far as Rosemary was concerned Louise was only a woman who had abandoned her brother and sister, she’d lived as she’d wanted to and now she wasn’t able to face the consequences of her actions. Rosemary had heard her crying to Rachel about violence she’d suffered when she was a girl, and about her fear of not being able to conceive a child. But her tears didn’t move Rosemary… Louise didn’t deserve to become a mother.

Chapter 4

“Good morning, boys!” Lou exclaimed, entering the bunkhouse with a steaming coffee pot in her hand. Several semi-comprehensible grunts welcomed her, along with: “The door! It’s cold!” groaned by Buck, the only one who seemed to have the gift of speech at that moment.

“C’mon, it’s almost 8:30, sleepyheads!” she continued, ignoring their moaning.

Her words didn’t have the desired effect, so the girl went to their beds and, with three sharp strokes, stripped off their blankets.

“Noo!”

“Help!”

“Kid! Take her away!”

Those were the answers she received, but they didn’t deter her.

“Kid is getting Katy ready,” she said. “Cody, didn’t you want to see the Rosebush Ranch?”

“ I changed my mind,” he responded, curling up and hiding his head under the pillow.

“What if there’s an apple pie just come out from the oven for breakfast?” Lou said enticingly.

Cody removed his head from under the pillow, suddenly more interested. Jimmy and Buck had begun to dress, resigned to her morning wake up, but they stopped to look at her suspiciously.

“Did you say apple pie?” Jimmy ventured cautiously.

“Rachel made it. I only prepared the ingredients,” Lou said, annoyed. She had understood the implicit question.

The girl saw the hint of relief on their faces, but decided to not attach importance to it. Within a few days they would take back all their bad words about her cooking…at least she hoped so.

“How can you be so cheerful at this ungodly hour?” Jimmy whined while he was trying to make himself presentable. The night before all of them had gone to bed late, celebrating Cody’s return; and, knowing Lou and Kid, the two of them didn’t go straight to sleep when they returned in their room.

“It’s not so early.” The four of them turned toward the door, where Kid had just entered. A delicious smell emanated from the tray he was carrying. Their stomachs grumbled.

“I brought the pie. Miah and Tessie are at school and the horses have eaten and are ready to go.” He smiled at Lou and slipped an arm around her waist.

“Perfect,” she responded, giving him a peck on the cheek.

Cody exhaled behind his coffee cup, still unaccustomed to all this smugness; but soon his thoughts concentrated only on Rachel’s wonderful pie.

About half an hour later they were ready to go.

“Ain’t you coming with us?” Buck asked Lou, noticing she wasn’t wearing her pants.

“Nuh uh.” She shook her head no. “I’ll come for lunch. I have an engagement this morning.”

Three heads turned to look at her.

“What kind of engagement?” Cody began to ask. But the interrogation was interrupted by the arrival of Penelope Barnes.

“Good morning, Louise,” she greeted Lou, smiling.

“Good morning to you, Penny,” the ex-rider replied. “Boys, this is Penelope Barnes. Penny, this is Buck, Cody and Jimmy, and this is my husband, Kid.”

“Good morning, miss,” they said, tipping their hats.

“Good morning to you.” Penny smiled again with cheerful eyes.

“So, you must be Lou’s morning engagement!” Cody exclaimed.

“Cody, don’t be impolite!” Lou elbowed him.

“Ouch! I ain’t said nothing bad,” he whined, rubbing his side.

“Will you be giving her cooking lessons?” Buck asked Penny suspiciously.

“Buck, that isn’t any of your business. Go now, or you won’t get anything done this morning.” She pushed them toward the horses. “See you later!”

******

Penny was a big chatterbox, kind and merry. During her cooking lessons she talked to Lou about herself and her family. She was the town doctor’s daughter, the same Doc Barnes who had patched them up so many times.

“Doc Barnes!” Lou had exclaimed when she told her that. “I never imagined he had a daughter!”

Penny was his youngest child to be precise, the last after two brothers who had yet settled down elsewhere. And soon she too would leave her family. Penny blushed when she said it. She was engaged to a young man named Sullivan Brown. He was currently in Fairbury but soon he would return to take up a telegrapher job in the new Rock Creek office, and Penny and Sullivan would marry. The girl told Lou how they met – her father had treated Sullivan’s widowed mother – and that she couldn’t wait for his return.

When she spoke those words, Lou noticed that her expression saddened slightly.

“Penny, what’s wrong?” she asked worriedly.

“I feel a little guilty,” the girl replied.

Lou didn’t understand. “Why?“

“Because the telegraph took your job away. The Pony Express ended because of it.”

“Oh no.” Lou shook her head, touched by her kindness. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault. The Express would have ended anyway.” She missed her riding days terribly, but now she had a new whole life before her.

Penny didn’t talk only about herself. She told Lou everything she needed to know about being a young woman in Rock Creek. Lou was never much interested in this issue before, worried only about not being noticed, but now she was happy to have a new friend, the first true female friend her own age after so long. In the days that followed the two of them became closer and soon Penny became a familiar figure at the waystation.

*****

Finally the big day arrived. Lou and Penny had cooked throughout the afternoon, helped by Rachel and little Teresa, and now all the Pony Express family was in the bunkhouse, waiting curiously and a bit worried about what they would have to eat.

“Well…it won’t be so terrible if Penny helped her, will it?” Cody whispered hopefully.

Buck smiled at him, but he wasn’t too convinced. He loved Lou as a sister and would eat all her dishes, as he promised, but he was afraid that dinner would ruin his holidays.

Lou finally brought out the first course. She was nervous when she began to serve, but Penny winked at her encouragingly. Around the table sat her entire family: Teaspoon and Rachel, Buck, Cody, Jimmy, Rosemary (who Lou decided to invite so she could begin to feel accepted), her siblings who smiled at her, and Kid. He wouldn’t have said a word to her even if she served him charcoal, she knew, but this time she wanted to make him something delicious.

After the first suspicious morsel the boys began to truly appreciate what she had cooked.

“Hey Lou, are you sure you did this?” Cody asked, chewing the roast chicken the girl had cooked as the main dish.

“Of course I did!” Lou exclaimed angrily. “Not alone though…” she continued in a lower tone.

“C’mon, Louise. Don’t be modest,” Penny intervened. “I simply told you how to…you were the one who never took her eyes off the oven until the chicken was ready.”

“You never moved?” Buck asked, amused. There was the hint of a smile on his lips. “Really?”

“Well…yes…” Lou admitted. “I didn’t want it to burn this time.” Her brow knitted as she silently challenged them to tease her.

“Lou, this is the best roast chicken I have ever eaten.” The young woman turned towards Kid who had spoken.

“Really,” he added when she glared at him in case he was only humoring her.

“He’s right, Luly!” Jeremiah exclaimed with a full mouth, appearing from behind his brother-in-law’s shoulder.

Louise looked at them tenderly. “Look how you messy you’re getting, you two,” she scolded them playfully. Kid and Miah had gravy-stained cheeks. She leaned over with a napkin to wipe the face of first her brother and then her husband.

“We have to teach them everything,” Teresa said, very well mannered with Miss Mumblepuss on her knees.

Lou giggled. “You’re right. I don’t know what they would do without us!”

Miah and the Kid pretended to be offended and the others laughed at the cute scene.

Rosemary frowned. She saw Jimmy look at them, smiling, while Lou got up to serve dessert; perfect Louise, always her. She felt the rage growing inside of her. How could it be that no one understood who that woman really was?

Lou returned to the table with her best creation – at least she hoped so – a cake with cinnamon and apples.

“You have done very well, Louise,” Rosemary told her suddenly.

Louise was a bit surprised, but accepted the praise with a smile. “Thank you,” she replied.

“Especially since your life hasn’t been easy…” the woman continued.

Lou didn’t respond this time. She couldn’t figure out where Rosemary was going with this. The others fell silent too, confused.

“It isn’t everyone who is raped and has to endure a miscarriage. It’s a terrible thing to deal with…especially if you were only the wisp of a girl – thirteen, right?”

Lou began to tremble, the colour draining from her face. “W-what are you saying, w-what miscarriage?”

“Well, what happened to you is quite clear, Louise, the blood, the pain…didn’t you figure it out yet? It’s obvious you are afraid you can have children now. But with the life you chose it’s been advantageous for you, don’t you think?”

Lou stared at Rosemary and saw only contempt in her eyes. The tray fell of her hands. Everyone was looking at her – Lou saw Kid’s sweet face upset, Miah and Tessie confused, Penny with her hands pressed to her mouth to cover her astonishment. She ran away without looking at anyone. Kid followed her immediately, throwing a look of pure hatred at Rosemary and Jimmy, but his friend appeared as confused as him.

Everyone sat motionless, frozen at their places, angry and grieved. Jimmy stood, his eyes two pieces of ice. He dragged Rosemary up too.

“Come on,” he said sharply to her. “Now.”

Without waiting for her answer Jimmy took their coats and left.

Chapter 5

“How the hell did he dare?!” Cody growled, furious. “How did Jimmy dare tell her what happened to Lou?”

“Wait, Cody.” Buck put a hand on his friend’s arm.

“What? What should I wait? I’m going to punch his face in! If I don’t, Kid will…and this time I don’t intend to stop him!”

“Jimmy couldn’t have told Rosemary, Cody, think…” Buck was as angry as him for Lou’s sake but his mind was more lucid. “Lou told us only about …Wicks.” The Kiowa couldn’t pronounce that name easily either. “Jimmy couldn’t know…the rest.” He swallowed.

“Louise didn’t know she had lost a baby until this evening,” Rachel said with a broken voice. “She only knew she had been sick…God, Rosemary probably heard us the other day, when Louise was talking to me…and she must have figured out everything…” The woman wiped the tears on her cheeks. “I didn’t have the nerve to tell her anything in that moment…instead that woman…” Teaspoon squeezed her shoulder to give her a little comfort.

That news had hit them deeply; it wasn’t enough that Lou had to endure such a terrible experience, now it had been revealed to her in a such a horrible way…

Suddenly the silence was broken by a sob. Teresa was crying, clinging to her brother.

“What happened to my sister?” Jeremiah asked. His eyes glistened with tears, but his expression was resolute.

Miah and Tessie! They had completely forgotten them. They had heard everything…How could they explain what happened to their sister? They were only children…

And there was Penny too, Penelope Barnes who had became a friend for Lou and now looked horrified.

“Cody, Buck, it’s best you two walk Penny home.” Teaspoon said, looking at his boys. They nodded and got up.

“B-but I have to help you, Mrs Dunne…” Penny tried to say. “The kitchen needs to be tidied up…”

“Don’t worry, dear,” Rachel responded. “Go home.”

Penny remained still for a moment, uncertain. She wanted to help, but she understood that they probably wanted to be alone. She nodded.

“Okay.” The girl took her coat. “Tell Louise I …I’m sorry.”

******

Rachel sat down near the children. Teresa was still weeping and Jeremiah continued to look at them with his clear eyes. The woman sighed and looked at Teaspoon, it was up to the two of them to explain Lou’s past to her brother and sister.

“A very bad thing happened to Louise when she ran away from the orphanage to find a job,” Rachel began to tell them. “She met a man who hurt her.”

“Did he beat her? Like what happened to our mama? Did Kid do it?” It was the first thing the boy thought, because it had been what he experienced.

“Oh no, darling, no!” Rachel exclaimed. “Kid could never do such a thing to Louise. He loves her! This bad thing happened before she met us, when she had just left you.”

Teaspoon caressed Teresa’s hair. “Children.” He cleared his throat, slightly embarrassed. “Do you two know where babies came from?”

Jeremiah nodded.

“Sister Catherine told us,” his sister responded. “It happens when a husband and a wife love each other very much.”

The old man smiled sadly, they were still so innocent…

“It’s true, when two people love each other as Kid and Lou do it’s a beautiful thing.” Teaspoon paused for a moment. “Unfortunately sometimes it happens that a man takes a woman even if she doesn’t want him, and he hurts her very much.”

“But Louise was thirteen when she left us, she wasn’t a woman…she couldn’t have babies…she was…”Jeremiah interrupted.

Teaspoon had a lump in his throat. “Yes, Louise was very young,” he said. “But that man hurt her all the same…” He couldn’t go on.

Teresa sobbed even louder; she had shut her eyes tight and hidden her face in Rachel’s chest.

“I think it’s enough, Teaspoon, they understand, ” the woman said. “It’s best if I put them to bed.”

She wrapped her arms around the children’s shoulders and accompanied them out of the bunkhouse. Teaspoon sighed heavily; it hadn’t been the evening they expected.

*****

Penny Barnes walked silently, neither of her two companions had said a word since they left the way station. The girl couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened to Louise. When she was thirteen she had just stopped playing with dolls, but Louise… Penny couldn’t help the sob that escaped from her lips. Buck and Cody turned to look at her.

“Sorry,” Penny murmured. She felt a fool; she had no right to cry.

“Don’t say sorry, it’s a sign you care about Lou.” Buck said, handing to her a handkerchief.

Penny had never seen the two of them so serious before. Now she understood how they were so protective of Lou.

“Is it the reason Louise decided to disguise herself as a boy?” she asked.

“Yes,” Cody responded. “Please,” he added. “Don’t say anything to anyone. Lou seems strong, but her heart would break if other people knew about it.”

Penny nodded. She didn’t want to see her new friend as upset as she had seen her that evening.

*****

Jimmy and Rosemary walked along Rock Creek’s main street, but they weren’t a respectable couple this time.

“James, don’t pull me! You’re hurting me!”

Jimmy loosened his grip on the woman’s arm and turned to look Rosemary in the face. He was furious.

“Who told you?!” He fiercely grabbed her arms. “Who the hell told you?”

Rosemary got scared, she had never seen him so angry. “I…I heard her while she was talking to Rachel,” she hurried to say.

“Is it true? Is it true what you said?!” The woman noticed the hint of desperation in his voice. “…Is it true that happened to Lou?”

“Yes, it’s true,” Rosemary responded harshly. “She let herself get raped and then she lost the bastard she was carrying.”

Jimmy slapped her face. He, who had sworn to himself to never hurt a woman, hit her.

“Don’t you dare to talk about Lou like that never again.” Jimmy’s tone was deathly serious.

Rosemary held her cheek, astonished, her eyes wide. “You…you already knew!” she exclaimed, hit by a sudden thought. “You all knew!”

“Damn it, the children didn’t know! And neither did Penny! You have no idea how much you hurt her…”

“With all the men she’s lived with up until now, I don’t think it’s upset her so much!”

Jimmy closed his fist so as not hit her again. “Do you know how many nights she’s woken up crying? How much time it took her to be able to trust Kid?!”

“You know exactly, don’t you?” Now Rosemary was the furious one. “I bet you always stayed near her, didn’t you?” That little witch had allured him very well.

“Damn, Rosemary! Can’t you understand how much she had to struggle during her life? What she had to face when she was only a little girl?!”

“She made a choice! She could have stayed with her brother and sister, instead she abandoned them! She deserved it!”

Rosemary’s voice was pure hatred. She, too, was raised in an orphanage; she had also felt the sensation of being in a cage, of being powerless. But she had accepted her fate, she married the man who raised her and she obeyed him out of gratitude, even if she didn’t love him, even if she wanted to be free.

“No one deserves a thing like that, Rosemary.” Jimmy looked at her as if he was seeing her for the first time. “God…how could I think I was in love with you…” He turned and began to walk away.

“No, James, wait…” The woman grabbed his arm, but he brushed her hand away without even turning.

“Goodbye, Rosemary.”

Jimmy left her there in the street. His heart didn’t lose a beat for the woman he left behind; but it broke when he thought about Lou’s face in tears.

******

Lou had escaped to their bedroom, and now she was pacing, twisting her hands, unable to calm herself. She continued to see the upset faces of the ones who loved her, and to hear the frosty voice of that woman who said she had lost a child.

A child…she could be a mother now. She would have had a toddler of four or five years, but would she have been able to love that child? She felt relieved to have not had it, and she felt horrible for that; an innocent baby wasn’t born and she was happy, otherwise she would have never joined the Express, and she would never have met Kid.

Lou heard the door opening and Kid stepped in. For a moment she couldn’t move, she looked into his blue eyes, now clouded with worry. Kid stared her back. The words that hateful woman had said to Lou still lingered in his mind. He was angry at Rosemary for having told her those horrible things, and even angrier at Jimmy for having revealed something so personal to a woman who had always showed nothing but barely concealed disdain towards them. He was confused and hurt – Lou never told him about the baby she had lost, but then she seemed as shocked as him by what she had just heard. However, seeing his usually strong and determined wife so troubled wiped out any other thought from his mind, now he wanted only to hold her and erase all her pain. He took a step forward.

“Lou,” he called softly.

She threw herself into his arms and buried her face in his chest then. As always, Kid drew her closer, stroking her back and hair, letting her give in to all her pain and sadness.

“Lou…” he said after a while. “Lou, is it true what that she said?”

He didn’t want to have to ask, but he needed to know.

“I-I don’t know…when I run away from St Joe…I had just decided to disguised myself as a boy…one night I woke up in pain, and then I lost so much blood…b-but I never, I never understand what was happening…I couldn’t go to a doctor, I didn’t know what to do…” she cried against his chest.

“Shh, Lou, everything is ok…everything is gonna be fine…” he tried to soothe her. But his eyes were rapidly filling with tears.

“Oh Kid, I’m so scared,” Lou sobbed. “I don’t know if I will ever able to have a baby…” Her voice was broken by another sob. “I-I want our baby.”

Kid held her tightly, his heart was beating fast. He still couldn’t understand what he’d just heard. Lou had lost a baby; maybe she couldn’t have another one. What that man did to her could ruin her life forever. He couldn’t help the wave of rage that tightened his chest, and he tensed involuntarily. Sensing him, Lou crouched even more in his arms.

“I’m sorry,” she said in a whisper.

“It isn’t your fault, darling,” Kid murmured into her hair.

“But we won’t be able to have a family because of me…”

Gently, Kid took her face in his hands. “A doctor said that?” he asked, looking in her eyes.

“No.” She shook her head. “No… I never could let one touch me. When Charlotte took me to a doctor after it happened, I screamed and cried so much that she was the one who had to treat me.” She smiled shakily.

Kid was touched; she never had any fear or reticence with him after they had started to ‘dance’. He kissed her forehead. “Lou, then we can’t know if your fear is true or not. We could have ten babies or none, and it could be my fault just as yours.”

“But I …”

“No ‘buts’…” he said smiling. “It just means we’ll have to practice more.” He winked at Lou who smiled between her tears. “But not tonight, tonight Mrs McCloud needs only to cuddle and to sleep.”

Kid helped her to undress and put her in bed; then he laid down beside her and held her, continuing to stroke her until he felt her body relax.

“Kid,” she said after a while. “Do you think God wants to punish me because I didn’t have that baby?”

“Lou, I’m sure you would have loved that baby, in spite of it all. Maybe…maybe the Lord didn’t want you to have that baby because your life was too difficult…maybe it wasn’t destined to be born and He decided to keep it with to Him…”

Kid had a lump in his throat. Those were the words his mother told him when she lost a baby because of his father’s beatings. He still remembered the slight lump in her belly, and the tears and the blood of that fateful night. The thought that Lou, his Louise, had to endure a similar pain made him sick. He held her even closer, rocking her until they fell asleep.

Chapter 6

Kid woke up with his face buried in his wife’s chest, her loving arms wrapped around his head and shoulders. He had dreamed about his mother that night: how he had remained with her while Jed had gone to call the doctor; how, for the first time, his brother had responded to his father’s fists, beating him with rage and desperation until he passed out. Their father left as soon as he could stand, and none of them had ever seen him again.

“I’m sorry.” Lou’s lips brush against his forehead. “I didn’t mean to remind you of what happened to your mother.” She’d heard his cries and mumblings and she had immediately known what unpleasant memories the events of the previous day had stirred in Kid’s mind.

Kid shook his head, clinging in her small waist.

“It would have been about Jeremiah’s age,” he said without looking at her. He basked in her warmth a little more, then he disentangled himself from her embrace and sat up against the headboard.

“You know, I always thought your brother and sister were my second chance, God’s way to repay me for my little brother or sister never being born.” He glanced shyly at her for a moment, then returned his gaze to his hands.

Louise was touched. She never thought about how much Tessie and Miah meant to him; he didn’t love them only because they were her family, but because he wanted them to be his own family.

She entwined her fingers with his.

“I don’t know if we’ll have children, Lou,” he continued to say. “It would be terrible if we don’t; but if it’s what God has decided for us, there will be always children like me and you, like Tessie and Miah, that need someone who’ll love them. We can take care of those children, if you want...” Kid turned to look in her eyes.

Lou nodded. “I want to,” she said in a whisper before kissing him tenderly. As always Kid had found the right words to soothe her heart and calm her fears.

******

They arrived in the kitchen hand in hand. Lou was a little nervous; their friends had known something of her past but to have heard her fears and nightmares exposed like that had hurt her, and now she didn’t know how to face them. What she saw made all her embarrassment disappear though, Buck and Cody were dealing with what remained of her cake.

“What are you doing!?” she exclaimed.

The two of them turn to stare at her with a funny, startled look on their faces.

“Well…we promised, didn’t we?” Buck said. “We had to eat everything you cooked.”

“But it fell on the floor…”

“We just cut off the ruined part,” Cody answered her.

Lou smiled. There was no embarrassment; their familiarity, their way of treating her as if nothing had happened warmed her heart, and made her understand that nothing would ever change between them. She took a seat near her friends.

“Well…is there some for me too?”

They had their breakfast, eating what remained of her cake along with the usual morning coffee. Lou, though, wasn’t completely relaxed; there was something she hadn’t resolved. She still hadn’t talked to her brother and sister. What would they think of her now? Suddenly Lou lost her appetite. They were only children; she had tried to protect them in every way she knew, but maybe she couldn’t protect them from her past.

“Are Tessie and Miah at school?”

“No, they’re with Teaspoon,” Buck responded.

“How… how are they?”

“We don’t know. We walked Penny home yesterday, and when we came back Rachel had just put them to bed,” Cody explained.

Lou sighed. She wasn’t cheered by his words and they only served to remind her that there were others she had to talk with.

“Excuse me.” She got up and went outside, feeling the worried eyes of Kid and their friends on her.

She seated herself on the porch swing, and for some minutes she observed the people on the street, deep in thought, then she spotted Jimmy. He was leaning against the corral, watching the horses. He didn’t eat with the others and, knowing him, he was terribly guilty for what had happened. She stood and went to him.

“Hi, Jimmy.”

“Hi.” Jimmy looked at her briefly before returning his gaze to the horses, but the glance was enough for Lou to understand just how much Rosemary behavior had affected him. Louise had known for some time how Jimmy Hickock, her friend and confidante, felt about her. She couldn’t return his feeling and it hurt her. There had been moments when she thought that maybe it would have been better if she had fallen for Jimmy instead of Kid. But those had been only fleeting thoughts, caused by the pain of their break up and by her sense of insecurity. A relationship with Jimmy would have been easier, but as much as Lou loved him, what she felt for him couldn’t compare to her love for Kid.

When Jimmy had begun his relationship with Rosemary, Lou had been happy for him. The widow Burke was a decent woman and she could have been a new beginning for him, but now Lou understood why she had never be able to grow close to her. The look that woman gave her was something Lou wouldn’t forget easily. Hate, disdain, and a complete lack of compassion… Rosemary’s eyes were two black holes, cold and hollow.

“I should never have brought her here.” Jimmy’s bitter voice interrupted Lou’s thoughts.

“It wasn’t your fault,” she replied, and she truly believed it. It wasn’t Jimmy’s fault if he had fallen for someone who didn’t deserve him.

“She had no right to say those things to you!” he exclaimed and Louise became aware of the tears in his eyes.

Lou put a hand on his arm. “Jimmy, what happened to me couldn’t be changed. It hurt me to find out about the baby in that way…” She stopped for a moment, the pain still intense for her. “…but it doesn’t change anything. I have to face my fears; and my brother and my sister have the right to understand why I left them for so long.”

He nodded awkwardly, still not looking at her. Lou smiled at him.

“Well, why don’t you give me a hug now? Or don’t I deserve it?” she said softly.

Jimmy looked in her eyes and he knew he had been forgiven, or better, she never considered him responsible in any way.

“Are we sure your husband won’t shoot me?” he half joked.

“Don’t be silly, Jimmy.” Kid’s voice startled him. Jimmy turned to see him approach the corral. Hickok looked at his friend with a hint of fear, but Kid smiled at him warmly, there wasn’t resentment in his blue eyes. Jimmy’s heart gladdened at his expression, he had been truly afraid of having messed things up with his two closest friends once and for all.

“Jimmy, I’m waiting…” Lou said with a mock annoyance. He turned to look at her again, and she opened her arms to him and Jimmy hugged her close. Those moments were all he would ever have from Lou, but he had accepted it now. He had yearned for Lou in the past, more than she never knew, because she had seemed to him his only chance to be really loved and to escape his fate. But Jimmy knew better now, Lou couldn’t be his salvation, she needed to be with the man she loved and he needed to find his own way… and now he was ready for that.

*****

“Here they are,” Louise murmured.

She was sweeping the porch, trying to keep herself occupied, while she was waiting for her siblings’ return. Kid exited from the stable and came to her side. Neither of them had gone to the Rosebush Ranch that morning. They couldn’t think about their future if they hadn’t resolved that one remaining issue. Kid took her hand to give her a little comfort. Lou squeezed it gently and gave him a thankful smile, before returning her gaze to the street.

Teaspoon and the children were coming. The old marshal had tried to explain to them with all possible delicacy why their sister was afraid she couldn’t have babies, and he had reassured them she never stop loving them.

Lou was scared. She approached them, stopping a few feet from them, afraid of their reaction to her. But Teresa left Teaspoon’s side and ran to her, hugging her around the waist.

“Luly…” she sobbed.

Lou kissed her forehead, rocking her little sister until she lifted her face up.

“Luly…you still love us, don’t you?” Teresa’s voice was almost a plea.

“Oh Tessie, of course I love you, nothing can change the love I feel for you, nothing… I’m sorry I had to leave you alone for such a long time…”

“You’ve been stupid!” Jeremiah burst out.

Shocked, Louise lifted her head to look at her brother.

“That was stupid…” His voice cracked and his eyes welled up with tears. Miah rubbed them away with a sleeve. “You didn’t have to go through that alone, you didn’t have to leave… I could have helped you…”

In that moment Louise realized what had been at the heart of her brother’s anger and his silences – he felt guilty. Teresa was too young, but Jeremiah remembered very well how Louise took on all the responsibilities, taking care of them all alone even if she was only a little girl; so when she had left he had been angry at her, because once again she wanted to do it all alone, not letting him help her.

“Miah, please come here…” Lou opened her arms to her brother and he went to her, hiding his face in her slim shoulder; finally giving in to all the regret, frustration and rage he had held inside until that moment. The three of them hugged each other close. Finally all the painful knots that separated them had been untied.

After some minutes Jeremiah looked at his sister. “You’re okay now, aren’t you?” he asked worriedly. Lou ruffled his hair. At twelve years old he was almost as tall as her.

“Yes, now we’re together, and I have a loving, wonderful husband and the best friends I can ever have. I can’t want for anything more.” She smiled at Kid and Teaspoon, stretching a hand to her husband.

Kid had remained aside, but now he came towards her, entwining his fingers with hers.

“Kid,” Jeremiah said, his face serious. “Swear to me you’ll never hurt Louise and you’ll always take care of her.”

“I swear,” Kid responded gravely, looking into his eyes.

“Perfect,” Lou puffed, “thank you very much, Jeremiah. Now nothing will stop his fussing over me.”

“Hey, I’m not as bad as before!” Kid exclaimed, hurt.

The other four laughed at his pout and Lou draped an arm around his waist, kissing his cheek, showing him she was only joking and making him see the funny side.

******

After dinner Lou and Kid had retired in their bedroom. It had been a long day for both of them and now they felt the need to be alone. They were lying in each other’s arms, deep in thought.

During the afternoon Lou had visited Penny. Buck and Cody had told her how the doctor’s daughter had been upset after learning of her past. Lou had been afraid to see her after that; Penny was a nice and kind girl, but she had been raised by a loving family, she hadn’t had to fight a day in her life. Would she ever be able to understand what Louise had had to face?

Lou’s doubts disappeared as soon as she looked in her friend eyes. Penny didn’t judge her, nor did she pity her. On the contrary, she had cried for Lou and she had been the one afraid to face her friend. She thought Louise wouldn’t want to see her ever again, considering what Penny knew about her past.

“Penny really is a nice girl,” Lou said softly, resting her head on Kid’s shoulder. “I’m lucky to have met her.”

“She’s the lucky one.”

Lou smiled, her husband had always a way to make feel special, when she herself felt anything but.

“I decided to go to Doc Barnes,” she said without looking at him.

Kid bowed his head to catch her gaze. “Lou, you don’t have to do that if you don’t want to.”

“I want to,” she answered. “I thought about it. I can’t go on like this, or it’ll be like Wicks still has some power over me.”

“Are you sure?” he asked worriedly.

“Yes, I’m sure.” She caressed his cheek. “I wish you’d come with me, though.”

The young man took her fingers and kissed them. “Anything for you, Lou.”

*****

Louise squeezed Kid’s hand before entering the doctor’s office. She knew it wouldn’t be easy. She would have to let the doctor touch her where only her husband had her after Wicks, but she had to do it.

Kid kissed her forehead. “Ready?”

“Ready,” she replied and opened the door.

Edward Barnes had the same sweet smile and clear eyes as his daughter. He listened with a heavy heart to the young woman before him who, with eyes downcast and her hand clasped in her husband’s, was telling him how a man stole her innocence when she was a young girl and how she was afraid that act of violence prevented her from becoming a mother.

Lou was reassured by his kind gaze and she answered his questions without too much embarrassment; but when the doctor asked her to lay down on the examination table she felt panicked. She closed her eyes when the doctor placed a blanket over her bended knees and she tightened her grip on Kid’s hand when he began to examine her.

Doc Barnes’ hands were gentle and his voice was relaxing while he talked to distract her, but Lou began to tremble. It wasn’t Kid who was touching her, those were strangers’ hands and, even if the doctor did the examination as gently and rapidly as possible, she couldn’t help the tears escape from her closed eyelids.

The examination ended and Lou dressed again quickly, then she and Kid waited expectantly for the doctor’s response. When he turned toward the young couple he had a smile on his lips. Lou’s heart skipped a beat at the sight.

“Doc…?” she asked.

“My dear, from what I saw there’s nothing that could prevent you to become a beautiful mama one day.”

Lou couldn’t believe what she had just heard. “Really?” she said “And then why haven’t I, I’m not…?”

“Louise, your life hasn’t been easy until now, you are a petite woman and have worked so hard and made your body suffer. Maybe it’ll take some more time before everything will be all right again, but with a little rest and tranquility I bet in a couple of months you’ll return here with good news… with a bit of effort from you two, of course…” The doc winked as Penny sometimes did and Lou felt her cheeks burn.

“Thank you, thank you Doctor Barnes!” She hugged the man close, and that time it was Edward Barnes who blushed.

******

Kid and Lou exited the doctor’s office with hearts swelling with joy.

"We should the boys know the news. I know they're ready to start making bets," Kid said…

“Yeah, and this time I don’t mind at all!” Lou answered, joining his cheerful laughter.

Kid loved seeing her so happy. He took her in his arms and swung her around, not caring about the people who passed, until her protests convinced him to put her down. In that moment they became aware that Penny and a man who they supposed was her fiancé were looking at them. They blushed but couldn’t wipe the silly grins from their faces.

“Louise, Kid, good morning,” Penny greeted them. Seeing them so happy she knew that what her father told them had been good news so she didn’t ask anything, instead she introduced them to the young man next to her.

“Sullivan, this is Kid and Louise, my two new friends,” she said. “Do you remember the Pony Express riders?”

A tall man with a mane of curly dark blond hair and a friendly expression smiled at them.

“Sure,” he replied, stretching his hand. “I’m Sullivan Brown. You must be the Kid, right?”

“Right,” Kid answered. “Kid McCloud.”

“McCloud? Wasn’t there a rider called McCloud? A small boy…”

Louise smiled and took his hand. “Louise McCloud, nice to meet you.”

“What…?” Sullivan exclaimed, surprised by her transformation, but then he laughed and shook her hand.

Sullivan Brown was a nice man, Penny couldn’t be luckier; Lou thought happily when she and the Kid left them. But not all the encounters they made that morning were so pleasant.

They had stopped by the marshal’s office to tell Teaspoon the good news when they saw Rosemary Burke. The woman was going to the stagecoach stop, she was leaving the town. She glared at them and Lou instinctively drew closer to Kid who passed an arm around her waist; but Lou didn’t want to let her leave without knowing why that woman detested her so much.

“Rosemary,” she called to her, “why did you do it?”

Rosemary answered with a derisive laugh. “Why? Are you asking to me why?! What was I supposed to do, stand by and watch you take James away from me?! What, is your perfect southern husband not enough for you?!”

“I didn’t take anyone away from you!” Lou responded vehemently. As much as the venom of Rosemary’s words hurt her, Lou had no intention of being overwhelmed by that woman. “Jimmy can decide for himself. No one ever prevented him from seeing you!”

“You all can barely stand my presence. I know what you think about me: she’s the woman who killed Noah…you couldn’t wait I went away from here. But remember, little witch, you can’t deceive this people forever. Sooner or later everyone will understand who you really are.” Rosemary seethed these words and then she went away, not giving anyone the time to reply.

“How… how dare she!” Kid growled, ready to go after her, forgetting his usual polite southern manners for once.

Lou restrained him. “No, don’t go…” she said, looking in his eyes. “I don’t care…”

He stared at her. It wasn’t true that she didn’t care. He could see how she was trying to hide the pain.

“But Lou…”

She took his face in her hands. “Truly Kid, I don’t care what that woman thinks of me. I care only about what you and our friends think; and you made me realize I never did anything to be ashamed of.”

Lou was smiling, looking at him with her big, brown eyes that always burned into his soul. Kid kissed her softly and hugged her close, while Teaspoon made as if he wasn’t there. In his arms Lou continued to think about Rosemary. She pitied her, because she knew she was alone, but on the other hand she was afraid of her. A woman like that could be dangerous…

“At least something good came from all this,” Lou sighed. “I was finally able to explain to Miah and Tessie why I left them alone for so long. This way I can put the past behind me.”

“And Jimmy knows what kind of person Rosemary really is…” Kid added bitterly. He felt sorry for his friend, because once again a woman betrayed his trust.

“Come on now, enough with these long faces!” Teaspoon scolded them playfully. “You two came here because you have to tell me something, don’t you?” He gave them a sly smile. “And from the expressions you wore when you arrived here, I bet it’s something real good.”

“Doc Barnes said it’s all okay…” Lou said shyly.

“Oh sweetheart! I’m so happy for you.” The old man gave her a big bear hug. “Now you two have no excuses …I want to be a grandpa!” he joked, patting Kid’s shoulder.

They blushed at his joke but then they laughed heartily. Lou was right, thought Kid. What had happened had allowed them to bury all the bad things from the past and now there was only the future before them, bright and full of expectation.

“Come on,” Teaspoon said. “What are you waiting for? The boys are at the way station waiting for you, you can’t keep them hanging!”

The young couple looked at each other and smiled as they took each other’s hand.

“Of course not!” they exclaimed. “We have to tell them to start making bets!”

THE END


An huge thanks to my wonderful beta-reader Broedy!! And thank to Gipsywitch who make notice some imperfections.

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