The lonely figure leaned on the counter, clutching the filthy glass filled with what passed for whisky; apparently lost in his thoughts, in the truth he was scanning the rowdy room through (/t) the mirror in front of him.
He waited, patiently bearing the unwanted advances of the working girls (,) and the snide comments of the other customers. He wanted to keep a low profile and he was good at that. His unremarkeable appareance helped him to pass unnoticed and this is what he wanted, because he had a job to do.
He was looking for a particular man and, when he spotted him, a gelid smile crossed his thin lips. He found his prey.
He observed him while he descended the stairs that brought him from the second floor where the girls' rooms were, still fumbling with his pants. He fought the bile rising in his throat and followed him outside. He found him relieving himself in the dark, smelly alley behind the saloon.
"Morrison," he called.
The man turned, still with his hands in his pants. "What the hell do you want?!" He bellowed, annoyed at being disturbed.
The stranger stepped forward, raising the hem of his hat in the process. After a moment of confusion, Morrison's eyes squinted in an astonished recognition.
"You! It's not possible!…You're dead!"
The stranger raised his colt, "Wrong guess, Morrison. YOU are dead!"
"Are you sure we're on the right track?" a young man asked his companion.
He had been stronger, and handsomer, but the sufferances he went through still showed in his thin frame and the marks on his body. He had the look of someone who went through the hell and back and, unfortunately for him, it was just like this.
The man who accompanied him had a tin star on his vest and looked grimly at his friend.
"I'm sure as hell," he responded, "all the members of the Willobee gang are being killed and the description of the suspect…well it's unmistakable, don't you think?"
"You're right," the first man responded, "let's hope we'll be able to stop this madness. I miss her."
"Everyone misses her, my friend."
He gulped down the shot of whiskey without any apparent effort. His slim features grimaced for a moment but he extended his arm to ask for another drink as soon as the glass touched the counter again.
The barman looked perplexed at the young man in front of him, he was incredulous about the amount of alchohol that little stranger was able to drink. He had delicate features and he seemed very young, but his big dark eyes were bloodshot and lifeless; he had seen that dull expression too many times during the years, but that young fellah had something in him, something he wasn't able to identify, that made him feel strangely protective.
"It's better you stop now, sonny." He said, usually he wouldn't care less about what his customers did but he didn't want that stranger before of him to kill himself.
"Mind your business, barman." His voice was a low, strangled growl, "give me another shot."
Lou looked in the face of the barman with a scowl, that man talked too much for her taste. She asked for another whisky and she was going to pay for it, what does that man care if she wanted to finish the entire bottle?
She wanted to drink and to forget, nothing else mattered for her. There wasn't any reason she could think of that would stop her to drink until she passed out. Maybe, if she was lucky enough, she would reach the limit of the alcohol her body could stand and she would die.
It wasn't a bad death, after all. She would pass out and maybe she would dream of the ones she loved and lost until death came for her. There were worst ways to die, she saw worse ways a man could die. A sudden image of her beloved Kid flashed in her mind and she fought the nausea hitting her stomach and the pain ripping apart the very centre of her heart.
She sighed contentedly, a little puff of breath condensed in front of her. It was a cold day, but Lou didn't care about it; she snuggled to her husband while stroking the still invisible bump on her belly. Kid gave her a light peck on the head, and then he returned to look at the bumpy road.
They were slowly driving a wagon filled with all of their belongings. They were finally returning home, and they couldn't wait to reach Rock Creek where what remained of their Express family still lived. The previous years hadn't been easy for them. They had had to face the war, Kid's wounds, and also the death of Lou's siblings in a cholera epidemic.
But now everything was in the past, and the couple had finally been able to travel back to their beloved western plains and had the chance to start the horse ranch Kid dreamed so much about when he still was a rider.
Lou strangled a sob, no matter how hard she tried; she couldn't forget that moment. They were so happy, so hopeful. All they could think of was that they were finally returning home. They couldn't know that their lives were about to be shattered forever.
The memory danced in her mind. Long ago she he had locked down her emotions and feelings -trying to dispel the pain of her loss- and she focused all her energies now on only one thing: revenge. But she succeded only in part.
Her revenge; she did a hell of a job with it, it took her three years, but she was finally able to reach her goal. But now that her task was accomplished, that her revenge was completed, she felt utterly empty and the pain was still there.
They were merely a day away from Rock Creek. They had already sent a telegram to Rachel and Teaspoon and they were enjoying the last stretch of their journey across the familiar landscape they had crossed so many times when they were still riders.
They felt happy and a little homesick but, above all, they felt safe for the first time in a long while. They could never imagine that something bad could happen to them so close to home; but they didn't consider the scars the war left, even there in the West.
They were smiling and laughing while slowly proceding down a well know trail, joking with a bit of melancholy about how fast they used to ride down that very route. Suddenly, from nowhere, a shot resounded in the air, startling them.
Kid let out a strangled sound, instinctively bringing his hand to cover his abdomen, where a deep red stain was starting to widen. Lou's heart stopped in that moment, but she didn't lose her nerves, she took the shotgun lying on Kid's lap and turned around to see where the unknown attacker was; her heart was hammering against her ribs but her eyes were cool and determined. She would kill the bastard who dared to harm her husband.
"Ha!" Kid spurred the horses, his face was contorted in a grimace of pain, but he did know that the only chance they had was trying to outrun the attacker.
Suddenly a group of men appeared running down the hills like a herd of savages. Lou repeatedly tried to shoot at them but she was too distracted by Kid's ragged, painful breaths. His grip on the reins) was loosening, weakened by the loss of blood, so Lou threw behind her the now empty shotgun and took the lead of the wagon, trying to put as much distance as possible between them and the outlaws.
They were just some poor folks returning home, they didn't have anything valuable, why did thosen attacked them? Lou panicked; rage and fear warred in her heart while Kid was slowly losing consciousness.
Lou shut her eyes but, unwillingly, those dreadful images returned to assault her mind. She rose from her stool, left her money on the counter before staggering toward the exit. She felt like her stomach was inflamed and bile burned up her throat, but she kept walking until she reached the far end of the road, where the last building gave space to the prairie, and vomited.
The bullets kept buzzing near her head but Lou continued to spur the terrified animals. She knew a lot of ranches were scattered in the area, if she was just able to reach one of them, she knew they would be safe…
Suddenly one of the wheels hit a rock and the speed made the wagon tumble upside down and sent her and Kid flying in the air. Lou sat up on the grass immediately after the fall. Her body ached and her head was dizzy but the adrenaline made her react quickly.
What she saw made her heart sink, though. Kid lay under the wagon, with his left leg trapped . She scrambled to her feet and reached her husband; his face was pale and his eyes huge from the excruciating pain of his open wound and the crushing weight of the wagon pressing on him.
"Run, Lou!" he said through clenched teeth, "Run!"
She ignored her husband's plea and tried to pull him out, to raise the wagon, to do something to free him; but those were impossible tasks. Kid gripped her hand.
"Lou, please, go away!"
"I won't leave you here, Kid," she said vehemently. She didn't intend to lose him when they finally had a future to build together.
The thundering hooves of the approaching outlaws made the ground tremble.
"Lou!" Kid said with more urgency, "you have to go away. Our baby! You have to save it!" his eyes were already closing but he hung on and Lou unwillingly relented.
He was right, as always, she had to think about their baby.
"I love you, Kid." She said, brushing a kiss on his forehead, her cheeks streamed with ttears, and then she rose, her heart was screaming at the thought of abandoning her dying husband, but this was the only thing she could do.
The horses were pitifully neighing and kicking but apparently they were unharmed. With unseeing eyes Lou cut their reins, jumped on the most reliable one and ran away. She reached a safe point and then she saw the men, six deserters of the Union Army circling the wagon, raucously laughing. They started to plunder their small -yet treasured- belongings, Kid was there, dying, and those men ripped and destroyed all the memories they have. Lou couldn't stand that scene so, against her better judgement, she pulled out the gun strapped to her pants and fired.
She managed to hit one of the men in his shoulder, making him fall from his mount with a yelp of pain. The other men turned to look at her, surprised. She looked defiantly at them before firing more shots and spurring her mount in a gallop. If she was able to lead those beasts away from the wagon and toward the nearest town, maybe she would have been able to save Kid, she thought with renewed hope.
Her run lasted little, though. Her horse was shot and the animal collapsed under her. For the second time in a matter of a few minutes, she tumbled roughly onto the ground. This time she wasn't fast enough to get up. The man she had shot reached her before she had the time to gather. He cruelly grabbed her by the neck and shook her.
"You little bitch, you'll pay for shooting at me,!" he seethed with rage, he grabbed her by the chin, forcing Lou to look at him in the face.
"You're pretty enough to be my plaything, darlin'" He sneered and forced a kiss on her.
Lou fought the bile rising as his repulsive tongue invaded her mouth and bit him. The outlaw screamed out of pain and roughly pushed her on the ground.
"You're dead!" he shouted, outraged at the spunk that stupid woman was demonstrating. He pointed the gun at her head, ready to kill her, but he was interrupted by the man who apparently was the head of the gang.
"Morrison! Stop now! If you aren't able to stand up a silly female, shoot her and come here to give us a hand!"
The man named Morrison bristled at the insult and regained a bit of composture. He grabbed again Lou by the neck and held her at gunpoint.
"We haven't finished yet," he snidely said to her, but he didn't do anything else.
With the cold metal of the barrel pressing on the nape of her neck, Lou watched with her heart in her throat those…animals pass near the unmoving body of Kid. She hoped against hope he was still alive but at the same time, prayed that he wouldn't breath because the slightest movement from his part might make them decide to finish him.
No more than ten minutes must have passed when the head of the gang, a burly blonde man, ordered the men to go away; but before leaving he did something that still gave Lou nightmares: he poured the liquor he had in his flask on the wagon, then he lighted a match and dropped it on the splinted planks. Slowly the flames started to envelope everything.
Lou let out an inhuman, bloodcurling scream and freed herself from Morrison's vicious grasp. She wasn't going to let them burn her Kid when he might be still alive! She ran toward the flames, the loud derisive laughs of those bastards echoed in her ears but she kept running. She never reached the Kid, though, a bang reverberated in the air and a sharp, unbearable pain seared her shoulder. She fell onto her knees momentarily stunned by the intensity of the pain, and then felt nothing at all.
Lou curled in the high wild grass outside the town, sobbing. She couldn't do anything back then, she wasn't able to save Kid and, what was worse; she wasn't able to keep her promise to him: she lost their baby too.
She had woken up days later in an Indian Tepee, completely disoriented, with an aching shoulder and a even more aching belly. Some Indian braves attacked the outlaws while they were crossing their territory and rescued her.
She didn't have any idea of where she was or who were the people taking care of her, the only thing she was aware was the trobbing pain in her lower abdomen. The Indian women who had assisted her tried to do the best they could, but Lou had lost the baby.
When she understood that, she had wanted to die; she felt she lost everything it was worth to live for but, despite her infected shoulder and her miscarriage, despite her unwillingness at being cured, Lou survived.
She took a decision then, if the destiny wanted her to survive her husband and their unborn child, if she had to get throught all of this pain, there must have been a reason. There must be something she had to do, and in that moment Louise McCloud decided: her reason to live was revenge.
The first rays of the sun woke Lou, who still was curled up in the very spot where she cried herself to sleep the night before. She was achy and smelled of alchool and smoke. She was cold and damp but she didn't get up. For the first time in three years she didn't have to think about Morrison or any other member of the Willobee gang. It was the first day she didn't have to track them down, or plot a way to kill them; it was the first day she didn't have to do some odd job to scrape some money to keep her hunt.
It was the first day Lou was alone, without her thoughts of revenge and the immense pain she felt, to suffocate her. There wasn't anything in this world for her now, her task was accomplished and now what she wanted was to die, so that she could join Kid and their baby, but also her siblings and mother and everyone else she loved and lost.
She sat up, taking out her Colt. If she killed herself, she thought, all her pain would stop; but then she wouldn't be reunited with her beloved ones. She didn't think she would be in Heaven with them in any case, she reflected bitterly, not after what she did. Her soul was marred.
But suddenly the old teaching of the nuns came back to her. She had to do something to espiate her sins, only in this way she had a chance to be forgived and cleansed. No, she wouldn't end her life, she would go to the sheriff and confess what she did and then accept whatever punishment the law would decide for her. With a new resolution she got up and slowly walked back in town.
"So, are you telling me that this morning Eli Morrison was found dead behind the saloon?" the young marshall asked.
Sheriff Tanner nodded, "Damn straight," he responded, "and nobody is going to miss him. If we find who did it, he'll get the reward he deserves. I don't know who is killing the members of the Willobee gang, but in my opinion he's doing a favour to everyone. Those men were the worst scums I've ever meet since I started to wear the badge."
The couple of men who arrived at his office asking for Morrison looked at each other. "So, the rumor about the mysterious killer reached this part of the Territory too," the second man asked.
"Sure it has! They say there's this little fellah, who goes around killing the remanining members of the gang."
Tanner's words made them hopeful, if the rumors were so wide spread maybe there was some truth in them, sure they could be wrong too, maybe there wasn't any killer -and those men were dying because of the many enemies they gained- or maybe the killer existed but wasn't the one they desperately looked for: Lou.
In that moment the door opened and someone entered.
"Do you need something, sonny?" the sheriff asked with some concern in his voice.
The boy who had just stepped in looked as he had just spent a hellish night. He was so young he didn't look as if he had started to shave yet and Tanner worried about what might have happened to that kid. Also the Marshal) Hickok and the other turned to look at the boy and, when they were able to look at each other in the face, they all froze in shock.
The boy started to tremble, and his already pale face turned so white(,) that Tanner feared he would faint at any moment.
"It's…it's not possible… you were dead…"his voice was so full of raw pain and astonshiment that the marshal didn't catch the clearly feminine nature of it.
"Lou," the gaunt, blue eyed stranger extended an arm toward her but, unexpectedly, she bolted out of the room, with tears streaming on her face.
"What are you waiting, Kid?" Jimmy exclaimed, "She's in shock! Run after her!"
Kid nodded and exited, following her down the street with a distinct limp , but determined to not let her go away.
Lou aimlessly ran down the small alleys of the town, incapable to understand what she had just seen.
Kid, her Kid was alive. He looked pale and painfully thin, as someone who had just went throught a terrible illness, but he was him. An overpowering wave of guilt overcame her. Her husband was alive, somehow he survived his terrible ordeal, and she had abandoned him.
She crumbled on the ground, sobbing. She could have returned to Rock Creek after she left the Indian camp, and she probably would have found Kid there. Instead she chose to turn her back on her family and friends to pursue her revenge. She should have been with Kid, helping him to recover, and instead she became someone she was ashamed of; she had let the hate she felt swallow her up, and she had lost all this time she could have with Kid to kill other human beings.
She heard some steps approaching but she didn't turn, she didn't raise her head. She remained huddled in that corner, hiding from the man she loved, because she didn't want him to see what she became.
Kid crouched beside her, he raised his hand to touch her shoulder but then he hesitated. The memories of her last moment with her were hazy, he remembered the excruciating pain of his wounds and the dizziness caused by the loss of blood. He thought he was going to die and he was filled with regret because he would never get the chance to know his son or daughter, and rage toward those men who brought away from him his dreams and hopes; but -above all- he was terrified for Lou.
The last thing he remembered clearly was his wife's anguished face as she had told him that she loved him and then nothing, until he woke up again in some farmer's home. When he found out they didn't know anything about Lou he almost went crazy with worry. Thanks to his saviours he was able to reach Rock Creek and then he started the slow, painful process of recovery with only one idea in mind: to find his wife.
And now Lou was in front of him, she was thinnier than he had ever seen before, pale and looking so little and fragile in those oversized, unfitting clothes she wore.
"Lou," he called. "Lou…"
Without waiting for her response, he took her in his arms. She stiffened for a moment but then she hid her face in his chest. The arms encircling her were wiry, but as strong as she remembered, as his unique smell was still comforting and arousing at the same time.
She started to sob in earnest, uncontrollably, while clinging to him for dear life. She didn't want to ever let him go for fear that he would disappear again, if he escaped from her grasp. She felt Kid get up and bring her up with him.
"All is finished, Lou, everything will be fine…"he murmured soothingly in her ears.
He was dying to know where his child was, how Lou had lived in all the years they had spent apart, but above all of that, all he wanted to do was comfort and soothe the woman in his arms.
"Carry me home, Kid," Lou sobbed, "I wanna go home…"
And Kid started to walk. His wounded leg cried in pain but he didn't put her down. He would carry her 'til the end of the world if it was necessary, and this time anything would prevent them to build together the future it was robbed to them.
Written for the 2011 Title Challenge - Original Title given by: Dee
Author's Note: Thank you to Wendy her help!