Chapter 1

Kid hated his life, hated his job, and hated the man he had considered his benefactor until few days before.

Wicks had hired him when he was nothing more than a simple boy just arrived in the West from his native Virginia. Kid hadn't been so naïve not to understand what kind of place Wicks ran, but he had been the first man to give him a chance and he had accepted it.

There had been generous tips, and wonderful stories of the West to hear, and then there had been the girls.

Kid felt guilty for what he did, his mother surely wouldn't have approved, but those women were so charming, so beautiful and so…available…that he couldn't resist. They had approached him first; his boyish face and his gentle, bashful manners were something they rarely saw so they gladly satisfied his curiosity and his needs about sex.

"You're so cute; it's a pleasure," they told him. "You don't even have to pay us."

They smiled at his embarrassment and Kid felt even guiltier, if it were possible, but he was a young boy full of energy after all, and he had surrendered to their seduction pretty easily.

In spite of everything he liked to work there, but then he discovered the real nature of that place.

One day, about three months after his arrival, Kid saw one of the girls with a black eye.

"It was an accident," she had told him, and Kid believed her.

But since then he began to notice how often one of the girls had a bruise or a scratch somewhere, and the hatred they harbored for Wicks behind their smiles. One day he found Sally lying on the ground in the alley behind the brothel. She was curled in a ball, crying with pain. Quickly Kid swooped her in his arms and he brought her in her room.

"Charlotte! Cora!" he had called the others, "Run! Sally is hurt!"

He had carefully laid the squirming girl on her bed.

"Go out, Kid," Charlotte told him while the others girls fretted over their friend.

"We...we have to call a doctor," he had tried to say.

"The doctor has already done enough," had been Cora's spiteful reply. "Go out now, boy," she ordered.

They shut him out of the room and Kid couldn't do anything else than wait, sitting on the floor with his head in his hands and listening Sally's moans.

The girl died that night. She was pregnant and Wicks had forced her to get rid of it. Sally wanted that baby, she had tried to keep her pregnancy hidden as long as possible. She hoped that if she was too far along, Wicks would be forced to let her keep the baby. But that man didn't have any mercy for her.

When Charlotte explained to Kid what had happened she had to restrain him, otherwise he would have burst into Wicks' rooms with his gun in hand.

"It's useless, Kid," she had told him, "you'll just get yourself killed."

But Kid couldn't understand how they could resign themselves like that. A friend of theirs had died, and who knew how many other girls had to endure a similar fate. He cried bitterly that night, and he swore to himself that he would leave that damned place.

But then he met Louise.

It happened only a couple of weeks after Sally's funeral. Kid was leading one of Wicks' horses back to its stall, when he saw Charlotte with a small girl. She must have been about the same age as he was, but she was so petite that she still looked like a child. Her long chestnut hair hung in a thick braid that reached her waist, and her big brown eyes were fixed on those ones of the woman with whom she was talking.

Kid felt his heart burst in his chest at the thought of Wicks or someone else laying his hands on a girl so small and delicate, and it made him feel sick. They went inside and Kid followed them. He couldn't find them, though, and he didn't dare to ask. When he didn't see her that evening at the saloon, he was relieved. The boy knew that many girls had begun to work there when they were not much older than the mysterious girl he had seen that afternoon, but he truly hoped that her destiny would be different.

°°°°°°

A couple of days later, entering in the barn, Kid saw some clothes hung up to dry in one of the empty stalls.

"What the heck...?" He was so surprised that he didn't see the chest of clothes on the ground and tripped on it.

"Watch your feet! You fool!"

Kid turned to see who had scolded him and remained speechless. The girl from the other day was glaring at him with her hands on her hips.

"I'm sorry." He was so stunned that he couldn't manage to say anything else. The girl quickly crouched and began to gather the scattered clothes.

"What a mess..." Kid heard her murmur. "Now Mr. Wicks will surely fire me..."

Her voice began to tremble. In a moment Kid was at her side.

"Wait, I'll help." He shook the clothes, removing the hay sticking to the fabric. Fortunately he had just cleaned that stall, so the mess wasn't irreparable.

"Done," he said when he finished cleaning the last petticoat. "If you want I can help hang them too."

He smiled. The girl returned his smile and Kid's heart somersaulted in his chest.

"Folks call me Kid," he said when he realized he was staring at her.

"Nice to meet you, Kid," she responded, taking his outstretched hand. "I'm Louise McCloud, the new laundress."

At her words Kid felt relieved. "Ah, so you aren't one of the, of the…" He didn't know what word to use so as not to upset her.

"One of the artists? No, I just take care of their costumes."

"Costumes?"

"Yes, these ones." She held out one of the dresses. "For the evening shows."

Louise thought that Wicks' brothel was a sort of theatre. How could she be so naive?

"Sorry, Louise, but... how old are you?"

"Fourteen," she lied, since she would only be turning fourteen in three months. "Why, how old are you?"

"Ah...oh...well, I'm fifteen," he stammered.

They continued to hang clothes in a companionable silence. When they finished Louise smiled again.

"Thank you," she said. "And sorry for having yelled before."

Kid shrugged. "It was my fault. It's only that I didn't expect to find a clothesline inside a barn!" He laughed.

"I didn't know where else I could put them, it's threatening to rain and I don't want to spoil all my work."

"So this means that you'll come here again?" Kid's voice sounded more hopeful than he wanted, but he couldn't help himself.

"Oh well, until the good weather, that's for sure," she responded, blushing.

°°°°°°

Louise McCloud was smiling broadly when she came back inside. She couldn't believe her good luck. Until few days ago she was begging outside St. Joe's shops and now she had a place to live, a job -hard but honest- and a new friend.

The boy had been the only one, besides Charlotte, to treat her kindly. She hadn't seen Mr. Wicks since the day he hired her and the other girls ignored or bullied her.

A sharp voice distracted her from her thoughts. "Louise! Have you finished my hem?"

"Yes, Miss Cora. Here's your dress." She quickly handed the dress to the woman.

Cora Murphy had seen the girl jump almost out of her skin when she had called her, but she ignored it; she just checked her dress.

"Good," she said and then she went away without another word. 'She's not bad with a needle,' the woman thought. 'If she were smarter she could find a job as seamstress.' Cora shook her head bitterly. Those were useless thoughts, now that Wicks had her.

She went outside into the backyard and saw Kid. The boy was whistling and greeted her, smiling. She noticed he was holding a chest of laundry and immediately understood the reason behind his happiness.

"Hey, Kid!" she called him, "From that grin on your face, I suppose you've met little Louise."

He nodded.

"Now I understand why you haven't shown yourself in our quarters lately," she replied archly.

Kid's face reddened. It was true, he hadn't slept with any of them since - he couldn't think of sex after what had happened to Sally.

"Let me give you some advice," Cora continued. "Don't grow too close to her. She belongs to Wicks. He loves pretty little things like her and doesn't like to share them. Not until he's had enough of them, at least. Trust me, boy, leave her alone if you don't want to suffer."

She left him then. She knew she had sounded cold and cynical, but she had seen too many young girls destroyed by that man, and she'd stopped to try to save them. Sally had been the last one. Now Cora had learned it was better to harden her heart than let another victim of that bastard break it.

Kid was shocked at what Cora had told him. He already feared that Wicks wanted to make Louise another of his prostitutes; he wasn't so naïve to believe he had hired her only to do the laundry. But Cora's words made him imagine something even darker and more terrible for Louise. Kid felt his heart constrict. He wouldn't let someone hurt Louise, he swore to himself. Even if it was the last thing he did.

Chapter 2

It was almost a year since Louise's arrival at Wicks' brothel and the girl and Kid had become close friends. Every time one of them had some free time they spent it together, helping one another with their respective tasks in the laundry or the stables. They took a walk every chance they got and they spent hours talking about their dreams for the future, or remembering their past.

Kid told her how he had to leave his home in Virginia after his mother's death, and how sometimes he missed what he left there; but he also told her how, on the other hand, he was happy to have moved West to start a new life there.

Louise felt somewhat jealous of Kid's attachment to his homeland and the friends he left back East; she never had a place to call home. Her mother had moved a lot from town to town after they left her father and she never had the chance to make real friends or to grow close to any place. But she had her brother and sister. They were her family and her dream was to take them away from the orphanage she had run away from, and they would live together.

When Kid found out that she had siblings and that they lived in an orphanage in the outskirts of the town, he offered to deliver her letters to them. He'd never forgiven himself for not having been able to keep in touch with his older brother Jed; and he was touched by the sacrifice Louise was making for her younger brother and sister, working in a place like that in order to make enough money to build a future for them. So every time Wicks sent him on an errand he found a way to go to the orphanage to see Jeremiah and Teresa. It wasn't a simple thing to accomplish, but Louise's smile repaid him for all of his efforts.

She was becoming more beautiful every day. Louise didn't realize the changes in her body, but Kid was fully aware of them. When she arrived at Wicks' place she was nothing more than a child, now everyone could see the young blossom of woman she had become, and this scared Kid. He knew that Wicks was waiting for the right moment to pick that blossom.

Kid had gotten into the habit of secretly looking after her. He knew that if Louise discovered it she would be mad at him, but she seemed not understand the place she was in. When he had tried to explain to her what Charlotte and the other girls really were, Louise had gotten angry.

"Charlotte is my friend," she had told him. "I know that this isn't the most respectable of places, but if you call her that I won't be your friend anymore."

Kid had stopped then, but he continued to watch over her; he would rather Louise detest him than someone hurt her.

Louise, for her part, was beginning to feel very uncomfortable in that house. She didn't want to believe what Kid had told her. She couldn't think about her friend Charlotte being a prostitute and, worse, that it would also be her fate if she remained there. But she couldn't ignore the men who came to the house, or the lustful glances they threw in the girls' direction. Louise could only imagine what they did behind closed doors and the thought that one of those men would do the same thing with her frightened her. For this reason she tried to spend as much time as possible with Charlotte or at the stables with Kid. That was the only time she felt safe.

One evening Louise found a drunken man in front of the door of the laundry.

"Mi-mister, you got it wrong. The girls' rooms are over there," she tried to say.

"No need to hurry, kitty. You're a girl too, ain't you?" he slurred, putting his arm on the wall and blocking her way.

"N-no, mister, I-I'm not…" Louise panicked. There wasn't anybody in the hallway and the loud music from the saloon would prevent anyone from hearing her.

"Please, mister." The first tears began to roll down her cheeks.

"Are you new, kitty? Don't worry. I'll explain how things work around here..." he smirked.

The man grabbed her face and kissed her hard. Louise tried to struggle, feeling her heart hammering in her chest, but he held her arms and pinned her against the wall with his body.

Suddenly someone grabbed the man and pushed him away.

"You bastard! Get your hands off her!" an angry voice bellowed.

"Calm down, boy. You can have your turn as soon as I've finished…"

Kid pulled out his gun.

"I said leave her alone." His blue eyes became ice.

"Okay, boy..." the man muttered. "She's all yours."

He staggered away, deciding that the girl wasn't worth his life.

Kid's attention went immediately to Louise. She was curled on the floor, trembling.

"Louise? Are you okay? Did that man hurt you?"

He took her in his arms, consoling her the best he could, though he himself was trembling from rage and fear.

"I was s-scared." She was on the verge of the tears, and kept her face hidden against his chest as she began to sob in earnest. Kid held her tightly, acutely aware of the closeness of her body, but he took a deep breath to regain his composure and focus his attention on her.

"It's okay, darling, it's all okay," he whispered, continuing to stroke her back and hair until she calmed down.

He helped her get up and then accompanied her to her room.

"Wait here, Louise. I'll go call Charlotte."

"No! Please, stay with me tonight."

Kid blushed, immediately thinking about the other girls and what it meant to spend the night with them. But Louise wasn't one of the girls, she was special. She made his heart beat faster simply by smiling at him, and his stomach twisted every time he saw her return inside that damned house.

"Okay," Kid whispered, unsure of his own voice.

He waited outside while Louise changed into a nightgown. When he came inside she was already in bed. He took a blanket and he prepared himself to spend the night on the floor.

"Kid," she called after a while, "can you hold me?"

She was bewildered at her own words, but she couldn't help herself, that man had really scared her and she needed Kid to be close to her. He climbed onto the bed and laid on his side. His heart was beating so fast he feared Louise would hear it. He stretched out to turn down the lamp and then he put an arm around her small shoulders.

"Goodnight, Louise."

"Goodnight, Kid," she responded in a whisper.

In the darkness Kid couldn't see her, but he felt her little body near him. She had crossed her hands in front of her chest, as if to protect herself, and she rested her cheek on his shoulder. The boy had never felt such emotion - his first time with one of the girls hadn't been like this. In that moment he felt he could stay forever like this, just embracing Louise.

The girl had cuddled up against his warmth. She felt her cheeks burning and her heart beating wildly, but at the same time she had never felt so good.

"Louise," Kid said softly, "would you go away with me?"

"W-what?" She had been beginning to doze off, but now she lifted her head abruptly to look into his eyes.

Kid hurriedly continued. "I have some money. If you go away with me we can find other work together, maybe at a ranch outside town, so we'll be near your brother and sister."

Louise was touched. "I'd like that."

"Really?"

"Really," she answered timidly.

Kid held her tightly, thrilled, and kissed the top of her head. When he realized what he had done he released her immediately, afraid of having scared her. But Louise smiled, cuddling against him once more. She gave him a quick peck on the cheek before hid her face again.

"Goodnight again, Kid."

°°°°°°

Kid was arranging the last detail. A week had passed since he had asked to Louise to go away with him, and tomorrow they would finally be leaving. They had pooled their money to buy two tickets for St. Louis. They thought it would be safer to go somewhere far away, at least for the first weeks. At the crack of dawn they would run away from Wicks brothel and then they would take the morning stagecoach. Kid hid a sack with his things in the hay and then he headed toward his bunk at the end of the stable.

"Hey, Kid," someone called him.

"Hello, Hank," he greeted one of Wicks' men who was leaning against the wall and looking at him leeringly.

"It's a bit early to be turning in for the night, isn't it? Come with me, the girls miss you." He passed a friendly arm around Kid's shoulders, but he tightened his hold until he prevented any movement from the boy. Kid was forced to follow him outside.

"I like you, boy," Hank said. "It's a pity you made the boss so angry."

"W-what?"

"Boy!" Another man came out from the shadows. "You've been very stupid."

Kid found himself surrounded by a third man.

"With all the girls around here, why'd you have to choose a girl Wicks hasn't tried yet? Such an insignificant little mouse like her…" Hank's voice sounded almost sad.

"But don't worry," he leered. "The boss is making up for that."

Kid immediately understood the man's words.

"Louise!" he exclaimed.

Kid tried to run to his friend, but the men were faster. Two of them held his arms while Hank punched his stomach so hard to make him fall to the ground, breathless. They kicked him hard in the ribs, the head, and in the back. Kid tried to protect himself the best he could but he quickly succumbed. "Louise…" he murmured before lost consciousness.

"Stop, guys," Hank said. "C'mon, let's get rid of this rubbish. Wicks doesn't want him around anymore."

They dragged him away, while Louise faced her worst nightmare alone.

°°°°°°

Kid came to his senses the next morning, with a mouth full of blood and dirt. They had thrown him into the nearby creek, perhaps thinking he would drown in the shallow water. Fortunately the weak stream had transported him to the shore and he remained there, half-submerged but alive.

The boy rose to his knees, spitting out water and blood. He was still confused and disoriented but suddenly the thought of his friend hit him.

"Louise!"

He got up, staggering, feeling sore everywhere but he had felt worse. He remained still for a few more seconds to regain a little stability and then he began to run toward Wicks' brothel, his bruised ribs making every breath painful. Kid reached the back door, at the time of day everyone was still sleeping so he continued undisturbed to Louise's room. He stopped before her door, his heart tightening into a knot of fear for what he would find inside. Slowly he opened it and what he saw made his blood freeze.

Louise was lying half-naked on the floor, unconscious.

"Louise," Kid whispered in horror.

When he got closer he noted her torn dress, the bruises on her face and on her body, and the blood. He had to suppress the bile rising in his throat. He hastily took a sheet from the bed and covered her, and then he leaned out of the door.

"Charlotte!" he yelled. "Charlotte!" He didn't care if someone heard him. At that moment he felt as if he could kill whoever stood in his way with his bare hands.

Charlotte arrived, still sleepy, and in the same clothes as the evening before. When she saw the girl on the ground she covered her mouth with her hands, silencing a scream of horror.

"Oh no, Louise!" Charlotte had hoped that Louise would manage to escape before Wicks decided to take her, but instead…

"I'll kill him." Kid's icy voice distracted her.

The boy had never felt a hate so powerful, not even his father had caused him to feel such a blind rage. He turned towards the door.

"No, Kid! Wait!" Charlotte stopped him. Her cheeks were wet from her tears but she blocked him firmly.

"What? Why do I have to wait! So he can take her again? So he can he kill her? I won't let him even lay his eyes on Louise again!"

"Kid!" Charlotte tightened her hold. "It's useless, Wicks'll kill you. Louise needs you now. You two were planning to go away, weren't you? Take your things and make yourself presentable. I'll take care of Louise and then I'll bring her to you at the stables."

"I... I can't leave her... What will happen if someone returns..."

"Everyone is sleeping. Nobody will disturb us. Please Kid, go now..."

Chapter 3

Kid observed his friend sleep leaning against the stagecoach's window. She was curled up in herself with her arms crossed on her chest, almost in a foetal position. He adjusted his jacket on her shoulder, hesitated a moment and then he caressed her cheek, grateful of the fact she didn't recoil from his touch.

Since that damned morning, when Charlotte had brought Louise to him, the girl had barely spoken to him, and she never looked at him in the eyes. Kid would have done anything to hold her tight and make her feel safe, but now the only thing he could do was to touch when she was sleeping.

The boy had seen the scared look on Louise's face, the way she tried to sit as far as possible from him and the other passengers. Probably she hated him because he hadn't been able to protect her, but Kid wouldn't abandon her, he would take care of Louise even if she didn't want to have anything to do with him ever again.

"St Louis!" the stagecoach announced.

They finally had arrived. Kid got off and took their luggage then he turned to help Louise, but she had already dismounted and now she was staring at him with her arms crossed in that way that had became customary to her.

"Let's find somewhere to stay, ok?" Kid had talked to her softly, he had noticed how she startled every time someone talk too loud or too harshly.

The girl nodded and followed him. Kid was the only one she could trust for the time being. He could have gone away from Wicks' brothel a long time ago but he chose to remain with her. Wicks' men had beaten him badly because of her and they would probably kill the both of them if they found them, but Kid didn't abandon her. He had brought her away from there and taken care of her. Even if she hadn't the nerve to tell him, the only thing that made her go through those days of pain and shame had been his blue eyes and his gentle smile.

"Narcissus Pook." Kid said to the hotel clerk.

Louise's eyes popped out of her head. That was the weirdest name she had ever heard. Despite her current situation she found herself biting her lips to not laugh and silently followed her friend upstairs.

"Narcissus Pook!?" she exclaimed when they found themselves alone. "What kind of name is that?"

"It is my real name." Kid shrugged, clearly embarrassed. "Jethro Narcissus Pook, after my father and my grandfather ... oh well I thought it would be better to use a name no one knows me by."

"Oh..." Louise was speechless at his revelation. No wonder he preferred to be called the Kid.

"I'm sorry ...Narcissus Pook..." she smiled impishly.

At that sight Kid's heart soared. For the first time since they left St Joe, Louise didn't seem the scared little bird she had become.

°°°°°°

Kid woke up suddenly; Louise was thrashing and moaning in the bed near his. It had already happened during their trip, but never in such a violent way. She was curled up in herself and her cheeks were wet with tears.

Immediately the boy approached her and lighted the lamp on the nightstand to get a better look at her. She gnashed her teeth from the pain and her hands clutched her belly frantically. Kid's heart skipped a beat, that was the way he had found Sally the day she died.

He brushed away a sweaty lock from her forehead.

"Louise." He called softly. "Louise..."

The girl cracked open her eyes to look at him. "It hurts."

"I know darling." He caressed her face. "I have to bring you to a doctor."

She shook her head terrified. "No! Please, no doctor."

"But you need help!"

"Please Kid..." she managed to say one last time, then she closed her eyes again, breathing in short gasps, trying to fight the pain that was tearing her inside.

"OK..." Kid muttered.

He tried to remember how the girls had taken care of Sally and hoped it was enough.

°°°°°°

The morning after found them asleep and embracing, Louise's face was resting on Kid's chest while his arms surrounded her protectively. The girl was exhausted and her lower belly and legs felt sore and weak, but the pain had disappeared. She didn't completely understand what had happened to her but she thanked God that Kid was with her. He had never left her, he had soothed her, rocked her and took care of her the best he could.

Louise observed his face lying on the pillow next to her. It was relaxed now, almost childish in his serenity. Her look fell on his slightly parted lips. She felt stupid now but, when she first met Kid, she had fantasized a lot about how would have been to receive her first kiss from him. But she didn't have a first kiss to give anymore, nor a first special time to share with the man she loved she thought bitterly.

The girl shook her head to chase away those bad thoughts and returned to look at Kid. She hesitated for a moment, and then she stretched out to brush her lips against his. Kid stirred and Louise hurried to lower her head.

"Good morning."

She heard his sleepy voice and raised again her eyes. He was adorable with that goofy half-awake expression on his face.

"Good Morning to you too, Kid."

°°°°°°

In the following days Louise stayed in bed for the most of the time. She felt weak for from the blood she had lost and also Kid feared moving her too much could hurt her. The boy continued to pay for the room they shared with his money. He knew that sooner or later they would use up his savings but he didn't know what else he could do. Louise wasn't well and she was still scared; she hadn't said anything but Kid could read the fear in her eyes every time he left her alone and the few times he tried to take her to the hotel's restaurant or out, for a walk, she grabbed his arm with all her force, and she was barely able to conceal her trembling. She still hadn't overcome what Wicks did to her, she needed time to recover, and Kid was ready to give it to her, even if it meant to spend all the money he had.

When he wasn't with Louise Kid looked for a job, but it wasn't easy. St Louis was a big city, but there weren't many people ready to give a job to a boy like him, this was the reason he had ended up with Wicks, the first time. Luckily the hotel owner had accepted his proposal to pay half-price for their room in exchange for his work at the stables; but Kid knew he couldn't go on like this, he needed to find a permanent solution.

°°°°°°

Louise put down the book she was reading and puffed. It was a nice book, Kid had bought it for her so she wouldn't get bored when he wasn't with her, but the girl couldn't bear anymore to stay closed in that room. The first days she didn't complain, she still was too weak and barely could get out of her bed; but now she was beginning to feel better, and bored. She had even yelled at Kid before. Now Louise felt guilty for that outburst but she wasn't used to twiddling her thumbs all day and that forced inactivity was making her crazy.

On the other hand she still wasn't able to leave the room, not alone at least. Kid tried to take her to the hotel restaurant sometimes, or out for a little walk, but she couldn't even go through the hall. It seemed to her that all the people were staring at her, and that they could see what had happened to her and how dirty she felt.

But such behaviour was unlike her, she couldn't go on like this; she had to find the force to go out and face the world, and this moment was as good as any. She got up from the bed, she took her time to dress and brush her hair and when she finally felt she was ready she went to the door.

Louise leaned her hand on the door-handle, she took a deep breath and then she forced herself to open the door. She remained for a moment on the threshold, there wasn't anyone in the hallway and this calmed her a little. She exited from her room and rapidly closed the door behind her, before she could change her mind.

At the beginning she was so tense that even the slightest noise made her freeze on her spot, but little by little she began to relax. 'This is a hotel' Louise said to herself 'not the Wicks' brothel' She arrived to the hall, another deep breath and she went outside.

She stopped another time, observing the busy people on the street. Nobody seemed to notice her, but Louise had to fight the impulse of running away. 'You're in St. Louis. Nobody knows you. You're safe here.' she repeated. But still she felt as if she was watched, as if every man who passed could grab her and bring her away, without the chance for her to avoid it.

Suddenly she saw Kid in the alley that led to the back of the hotel. Her heart gladdened for the relief and she ran toward him. He looked as if he was talking to someone, maybe he had found a job, Louise thought hopefully. She slowed down not to run straight in his arms. When she was the expression on his face she stopped though. Kid was talking with the hotel owner.

"Boy..." the man was saying, "I'm not saying you aren't doing a good job, but I can't continue to keep a room tied up like this. If your sister comes to work for me, maybe I can let you have one of the bosses' rooms."

"Louise is sick, she can't work now."

"I'll see... but I've my business to think about so... or either you pay the whole price again, or I'll have to make you leave... you understand me?"

Kid swallowed and nodded.

"Are you really sure your sister can't work? A pretty little girl like her is always welcomed among my maids."

"No!" Kid responded vehemently. "No. I'll go back to paying the full price."

Louise heard the desperation in Kid's voice and a sudden thought hit her. Kid had spent his saving for their room and now he was working to pay it. She got angry, things should not have gone that way. Kid should have looked for a job for the both of them, not provide for the both of them as if she was an incompetent child.

But she had been just that for all that time, she hadn't been even able to go out of her room without trembling! Wicks had made her became a shadow of herself. How could she have permitted it?

The girl ran back to their room and took the pouch where Kid kept his saving(s): there was less than half of his money. That fool had spent it for her. It couldn't continue like that, it shouldn't be him taking care of the both of them. Louise felt she had to find the way to face the world again. But how?

Her glance fell on Kid's spare clothes...

°°°°°°

Kid came back to their room with a heavy heart. The owner had done all but drive them away. Sure, they didn't have to leave immediately, but soon the money would be gone and they wouldn't have a place to stay. He sighed and opened the door.

What he saw made him pale.

A boy was rummaging in their things, and Louise was nowhere to be seen.

"Stop!" he said coldly. He pointed his gun to him and cocked it. "Turn slowly with your hands up."

If he had dared to lay a finger on Louise...

He found in front of him a small boy with two wide scared eyes. It took a moment and then Kid's expression changed abruptly.

"Louise!" he exclaimed.

Kid dropped his gun and kept staring at her. For several seconds, his brain refused to form a coherent thought.

"Your hair... my clothes..." he babbled. He reached out a hand to brush the tips of her now short hair.

"Your beautiful braid..." he couldn't help but whisper, Kid loved her long hair, even if he had never told it to her.

"Why?" he finally managed to say. "Why did you dress like a boy?"

"To find a job!" the girl exclaimed.

"Louise, you don't have to do that. You still need to recover."

Kid was still trying to protect her, but this made her mad.

"You spent all your savings! You lied to me Kid! You've told me you were looking for a job for the both of us, instead you were working to pay the hotel!!"

The girl punched hard his chest, while tears of rage and frustration threatened to spill out her eyes.

"You didn't have to do that..."

Her rage was rapidly fading, "You should have told me there was a problem. We are in this together!"

She sat down on the bed, angrily brushing away the tears she couldn't hold back.

"I'm sorry Louise..." Kid sat near her. "It's only that I saw you so troubled and I didn't want to upset you further... I wanted you to feel ok..."

"I know." She responded after a while. "And I thank you for that... but I don't want to be a burden."

She raised her head to look at him in the eyes.

"If I can't go out of this damned room as Louise, I want to try as Lou."

Kid wasn't totally convinced of her decision. Even with his oversized clothes on she still was the prettiest girl he had ever seen, plus she still didn't look well. But if that was the first step to regain her trust in the world, then it was fine for him.

"Ok, Lou. Let's try to find something to do."

Chapter 4

Kid and Lou didn't have the luck they hoped for. After they left the hotel they looked desperately for a job, but nobody needed two young boys. They did odd jobs scraping together just enough to eat, but they couldn't afford to pay for the room they had, or settle anywhere else.

They had spent the last month sleeping in stables or liveries, but they couldn't go on like this. Louise wasn't well, Kid had noticed it. She got tired easily and often the boy felt her hot when they bedded for the night, some days her cheeks were flushed and her eyes glossy, but she stubbornly continued to say to him that she was fine. The warning glances the girl shot at him when he dared to say something more, prevented Kid from showing his worry about her health; but when he held her at night, he was frightened at her shivering.

They had almost lost the hope of finding a job in St Joe when finally they got their chance. An old lady who owned a little farm just outside the town offered a job, only to one of them though.

The widow Sutton had been generous, when she found Kid and Lou in the barn she had menaced them with her shotgun - and by hard expression there wasn't any doubt of the fact she was able to use it against them - but as soon as the woman realized that they were only two scrawny boys, one just about to faint for the exhaustion, she took them inside and gave them something to eat.

Lucille Sutton's house wasn't big, it was obvious that she wasn't wealthy, but she made her offer all the same. If one of them wanted, he could remain with her, helping around the small farm. She couldn't afford to hire two people, she said, but she was willing to help at least one of them.

When the woman left them alone to decide, Kid spoke first.

He told Lou he intended to leave. It broke his heart, but this was a good place for her, the boy told. The widow wasn't a tender woman, but she was honest and with her Louise would have a place to spend the winter.

"You told me we would remain together!" the girl yelled when he finished his talk. "You can't decide for me too."

"Lou, think about Jeremiah and Teresa..."

"Don't involve them, Kid! I'm the one who decides what's best for them!"

"I know that, but try to understand! You'll have a place where you can recover and you'll be able to save your money..." his voice broke "Please Lou, we won't have another chance like this..."

Louise tried to rebut but Kid was right... even if she denied it, she still felt weak, more than one time she had fallen asleep feverish, and often Kid had had to do her share of work. Her mind was telling that it would have been better for both of them if they parted, but her heart couldn't bear the thought of losing him.

She clutched his shirt.

"I don't want to lose you."

"Neither do I, Lou." He covered her hand with his own. "But... I don't know what else we could do..." he was helpless.

"I know."

Lou hugged him hard, burying her face in his chest. She needed to stay there, she realized. She couldn't fall ill. Her mother worked hard for her children, not thinking about her health, and she died in the end; but Louise understood that the first thing she could do for Jeremiah and Teresa was to take care of herself. For this reason she and Kid had to separate.

She couldn't restrain a sob; Kid's arms immediately rose to embrace her tightly, caressing her, soothing her silently. The girl felt him push her slightly and looked up at his face.

"This isn't a goodbye, Louise, I swear it to you." He said gravely looking in her eyes.

Then he lowered his head. One hand went to caress the nape of her neck, while the other surrounded her back and shoulders. When Louise felt his tongue gently sliding in her mouth she was shocked for a moment. Then slowly, timidly, she began to respond to his kiss.

°°°°°°

Louise didn't see Kid ever again. She stayed with the widow for almost six months. With her help the girl recovered and the old woman taught to her how to ride, how to shoot, how to behave as a boy. The old woman had done something similar to survive when she was young so she was willing to give Lou a hand, in that gruff way that the hardship of her life made her acquire.

During that period Louise had kept in touch with Kid. She learned that he had returned to the orphanage, to tell her siblings that she was well. The girl's heart swelled with love thinking about the risks he had taken, returning to St Joe only to reassure her brother and sister.

She responded to all of his letters, even if it was difficult since he never stayed too much in one place. The last one Louise received said that her friend had begun to work for the railroad. That news scared her, often it was heard of accidents in the railroad's building sites. Louise wrote him a worried letter, asking Kid to come back to her, but she never received an answer.

A couple of weeks after Louise sent her letter, Lucille Sutton died of a heart attack. She was buried with a small ceremony near the husband and the son she lost too soon. Few people took part in her funeral, since she was quite a gruff and lonely woman, but Lou cried sincerely at her death.

The girl left St Louis with the horse the widow left her, a young black mare called Lighting. She never again was able to settle somewhere. She accepted every honest work she could get, always carefully hiding her true identity.

Louise had never felt so alone: she missed Jeremiah and Teresa, whom she had never written, since she was still scared of Wicks, and she missed Kid.

She missed his blue-sky eyes, his sweet smile, his bashfulness that made him irresistibly cute sometimes. She even missed his worry, his will to protect her and to make her feel good at any cost that almost suffocated her and made her want to whack him on the head.

After Lucille's death, Louise went to the place where Kid worked, a site near the North Platte River. When she asked of him to the foreman, the man shook sadly his head, telling her about a sudden flood that had brought away seven of his men, and that Kid's was one of the bodies they never found again.

That man was nice to her, he made her eat and rest and then he gave her the Kid's little belongings: few photos, some small things that reminded him of Virginia, the letters she wrote to him. At that sight Louise's knees gave way and she burst into tears, heedless of the fact that it might give away that she was a girl.

Louise left that place the next day, with the Kid's last salary in her pocket and death in her heart. She would never see again his gentle face, she would never again wake up in his arms with her heart beating fast, she would never feel again his lips on hers, in that only sweet kiss they shared.

The girl wandered without a direction for a week, she didn't know what to do now that there wasn't Kid anymore. Then she found a letter among Kid's stuff. It was addressed to her brother and sister and in it Kid said that he would visit them soon and that her sister Louise loved them and always thought about them, even if she didn't write to them.

Teresa and Jeremiah.

During all that time Kid had continued to think about them too... and what did she do, instead? Lou had forgotten that all she did was for them, that she had decided to run away from the orphanage and leave them behind, because she didn't want them to be separated and to assure them a better future.

Lost in her pain, blocked by her fears she had thought only about herself, but since that moment everything would change. Kid had saved her and helped her as much as he could; now it was up to her to react.

Her brother and sister were the only thing that remained to her, and now she had to move on, for them and for herself.

Chapter 5

Louise McCloud spurred her horse, heading towards the windmill she saw at the horizon. Her destination was the Pony Express station outside Sweetwater, what she hoped would be her home for quite a long time.

When she arrived she took her time to observe the ranch before dismounting. There was a small house surrounded by a little yard and a wooden fence, a barn with a wide corral and a bunkhouse. Lou grimaced, she knew that she would be expected to sleep there with men; she didnt the idea too much. Usually the girl tried to avoid situations like that, but it would appear too strange for her to sleep in the barn when there was a bunk for her.

There already were other boys, her future fellows. Only two of them already had a horse with them. She made out a palomino and a paint, whose owner was crouched to check its legs. A sudden shiver ran through her spine at that sight, a fleeting sensation, as a butterfly flap, that boy was familiar to her.

Finally she dismounted and went to introduce herself to those boys. There was a blonde guy with twinkling blue eyes and an impish expression, he tipped his hat and grinned in her direction; then there were what obviously was a half-blood Indian and a strange guy with a bandana that covered his bald head who sat close and greeted her with a nod. The owner of the palomino horse, a dark haired self-confident guy, looked at her dubiously.

Louise knew that face too well, he was thinking if a boy so small could work as hard as them. She didnt let him intimidate her, though. The girl squared her shoulders and outstretched her hand.

Lou McCloud. She said with her best masculine voice.

While the boy responded, presenting himself as Jimmy Hickock, Lou noticed the boy with the paint mare stood up. He turned abruptly and went to her. She saw his astonished expression, his blue eyes, and immediately she recognized him.

Kid. she breathed.

Louise wanted too cry, to hug him tight, to laugh, yell at him and punch him hard for making her suffer so much, all at the same time. But she couldnt do anything like that, so she simply stood here, immobile and shocked, with her knees that threatened to give out. She resisted, though, it wasnt smart to faint in front of everyone and give away her masquerade on the first day of her new job.

Youyou are alive those were the only words she could manage to pronounce before Kid crushed her in a bear hug.

Lou! he exclaimed warmly, as if he had met an old friend.

Louise he murmured at her ear with a low and husky tone that told her so much more; he held her tight for a moment more than necessary, then he let her go.

I thought I would never see you again. He said, holding her by the shoulders. Kid was smiling, and his eyes were glistening, but he didnt say more, he couldnt in front of the others.

You didnt think youd see me again?! The girl exclaimed. Damn Kid! I thought you were dead!

She pushed away his arms roughly and she glared angrily at him, with the arms crossed before her chest. Lou was really mad at him, for two years she thought she had lost him forever and she had made every effort to go on without him and now he was in front of her, smiling as if nothing happened.

Youyou moron! she shouted, punching him hard.

Kid doubled for the pain, the small but surprisingly strong fist of Lou had hit him exactly at the pit of his stomach.

Hey! Youve got spunk for being so small! the blonde guy exclaimed then.

The others laugh heartily. All the initial diffidence among them had now disappeared.

At the end of that first day the newly hired Pony Express riders were so exhausted that they barely could stand up. That morning they had gotten to know the weirdest man they had ever met; Teaspoon Hunter was his name and he had welcomed them from a water trough where he was taking a bath. But, despite his odd appearance and his predilection for bear grease and onions, Teaspoon had been a capable and inflexible teacher.

Lou, who thought she was used to sitting on a horse for all the day, almost didnt feel her legs. Kid and that Indian boy called Buck seemed the only ones still able to stand up, even if their backsides must be quite tender. The blonde guy, Cody, and the other two, Jimmy and Ike, were as tired as her.

Fortunately the dinner their station-mistress Emma prepared repaid them for all the hard work of the day. That woman had immediately taken them under her wing and Lou was happy about that. For a long time, Lou had missed having someone to take care of her and she was glad not to be the only woman around there.

After the dinner Lou exited and went to the barn looking for Kid. During the day they hadnt had the time to talk alone. She couldnt smile at him, nor observe him as much as she wanted. They told the other riders they were old friends, but this didnt give her the opportunity to be with him as she would have wanted.

Louise wanted ask to him so many things that she didnt know where to begin but, above all, she wanted to understand if the years apart had changed what existed between them.

Kid wasnt the boy she knew anymore; he was almost a man now. Taller, his shoulders broader, on his cheeks the shadow of a beard that he didnt have before. With her heart in her throat, Lou had watched Kid accept a challenge Jimmy threw at him and she had been so proud of him when he beat the dark haired guy without losing his calm.

Hickock was shooting at some cans he had put on the fence; he was deathly swift and accurate, hitting all the target in less than five seconds. He was pretty haughty of his prowess and of the respect and fear that his action has elicited in the others; but he got irritated by the fact Kid seemed unaffected by his performance, so he challenged him to do better, and Kid did so. Without losing his calm he hit all the target twice, one time when the cans were on the fence and the second when they were up in the air. Louise had been amazed by Kids skill, her heart bursting with pride, but the only thing she could do in that moment was to flash a grin in his direction, and now she longed for some moments alone with him.

What will Kid think of me after so much time?the girl wondered worriedly. Physically she hadnt changed so much since she was fourteen. Small and thin, she surely wasnt the kind of girl that made boys heads turn. Plus her manners werent improved; being always among men, working and hiding, had made her gain attitudes and movements that were not very feminine and ladylike.

The girl sighed, she had never cared about those things before, but now she regretted not having a nice dress on or being prettier. She couldnt blame him if Kid had found another girlfriend during those years apart; Lou continued to repeat to herself, even if her heart sank at that thought.

When she entered in the barn she didnt find Kid in the box of his beloved Katy, as she imagined, but in Lightnings. He was rubbing her softly, talking to her low, as she had seen him do many times with Wicks horses.

Kid, she called him.

He turned and smiled sweetly at her.

Hey, he responded.

For some minutes they werent able to say anything else. They stood there, silently looking at each other, lingering their glances on every little detail, as they couldnt do before. Lou began to blush under his warm and attentive stare.

H-here. she blabbed out to break the silence. Since when did she feel so embarrassed with him?

I brought your things; the foreman gave me them the day I went looking for you. She didnt continue the sentence; she didnt want to remember that day. She lowered her eyes but Kid caressed her cheek and the girl returned her eyes to look at him.

Thank you Louise. His voice was thick with emotion. He thought he would never see the only keepsake of his childhood he had.

Kid took the photos of his mother and brother stroking them with his fingers for some moments, and then he passed to the letters Lou wrote to him. The girl blushed, reading them again she realized how silly and sentimental they were, but Kid observed them tenderly.

I have something for you too. He said.

The young man took out of his pocket a letter; it was all wrinkled, because he had kept it there all the day, waiting for the right moment to give it to her.

The letter was written by Jeremiah and Teresa and it was addressed to Kid. In his clumsy childish writing Jeremiah told him they were fine and that they couldnt wait until he came again to visit them; there were also few uncertain lines written by Teresa; the child asked him if he would bring Louise with him the next time.

The letter was dated few weeks before.

Louise sucked her breath, during all those years Kid had never lost touch with her brother and sister nor he stopped looking for her. She began to weep; nobody had ever showed her such devotion

Lou, Im sorry, I didnt want to upset you he said, alarmed by her tears. I just want to let you know that Miah and Tessie are fine and miss you

Please dont get mad, the boy continued when she remained silent I didnt want to take your place with your brother and sister. I just wanted to help you, thats all.

Lou didnt answer, but she hugged him hard, while her sobs became heavier. Only in that moment she realized how desperately she had missed Kid. He held her, rocking her slowly.

Promise mepromise me you never leave me alone againpromise she said, raising to him her wide, glistening eyes.

I promise, Louise he responded in a whisper.

The young man kissed softly her eyelids, her cheeks wet with the tears and then, hesitantly, her lips. Lou abandoned herself against him, all the initial awkwardness was disappeared.

I missed you Louise, God how much I missed you Kid whispered against her hair when he went back to hugging her.

Chapter 6

In the following days the six boys and girl - continued their training and, a couple of weeks after, they were ready to start the first runs. In that period, though, they didnt learn only how to be Pony Express riders, they also began to know each other, to become friends.

Lou and Kid told part of their story, because Cody didnt stop nagging them. They said they were old friends, that they had to separate, and that Kid had been believed dead after an accident. The couple didnt tell anything more and the boys seemed to accept their story without any further question. They got used to the close friendship Kid and Lou shared, considering it as the one existing between Ike and Buck, who came from the same orphanage, and accepting Kids protectiveness toward Lou as the kind one has for a younger brother.

It didnt take long before they found out the truth, though. It was when Lou decided to go visiting her brother and sister.

It hadnt been an easy decision to take, the girl had never returned to St. Joe since she and the Kid had escaped from Wicks. The thought of coming back to that city still disturbed her but all Kids talks about Jeremiah and Teresa made her longing for her siblings strong as never before. To hear him talk about how much they had grown in the last years, or what was their favourite dish, or some silly anecdote about the life at the orphanage, made her heart ache with sadness and a bit of envy toward Kid.

For this reason Louise made up her mind to take the first scheduled run towards St Joe. She asked Kid to help her to pick some gifts for Tessie and Miah and, one day when both were free from their duties, Kid accompanied Lou to the nearest town to buy a dress. The girl didnt want her siblings to see her in her masculine disguise; it would be hard enough to explaining them what she was doing without them seeing her dressed as a boy.

Louise arrived at the orphanage with her stomach tied in knots, Kid told her that Teresa had asked about her every time he went visiting them, but she hinted that Jeremiah, instead, was pretty angry at her, because he thought she had abandoned them. However, her worries about the meeting were replaced by fear when the nuns told her that a tall, slender man called Boggs had threatened them and brought away Jeremiah and Teresa.

Her father had found them.

She returned in Sweetwater with the fear gripping her heart, she didnt know what she could do since she had no idea of where Boggs could have brought them. She was lucky, though. If being lucky was to discover that her own father was behind a gunrunning business that caused, among the other things, an attack to an Express run and Ikes severe wounding.

When Sam Cain, Sweetwaters marshal and Emmas sweetheart, asked to the riders to investigate about those attacks, Lou took her chance to go and rescue her brother and sister. The girl didnt want to involve anyone, not even Kid -who had already hinted something- because she knew how dangerous the man she spent her childhood with could be. So, once they were on the trail, one night she sneaked away from the camp and went to her fathers base.

When the riders discovered she disappeared Kid was forced to reveal part of the her story, telling how Lou was afraid that her father was the man they were looking for and that he had abducted her younger brother and sister.

Lou was captured while was trying to sneak into the camp, her father beat her, since he hadnt recognized the small boy sneaking in his camp as her eldest daughter, but Lou refused to reveal the truth and tell him who she really was. She was in really big trouble but Kid and the boys came to her rescue.

While Jimmy, Cody and Buck provided some diversion, setting on fire the gunpowder stocked in the camp, Kid got into the main house, freed Lou and together they went looking for Jeremiah and Teresa.

Louise would never forget the joy on her siblings faces when they saw Kid. Jeremiah was reluctant to follow her but he immediately listened to the Kid. That hurt her, but she couldnt blame her brother. He hadnt seen her for almost five years, nor had she sent them a letter or anything. Kid, instead, had kept his word and he never lost touch with the children. Now it was up to her to make up for the time lost.

Unfortunately the boys plan didnt work as they hoped. Jimmy had arrived to help them out of the house, but he was caught off guard by Boggs, who held him at gunpoint, and this forced Kid, Lou and the children to stop.

In the tense moments that followed Boggs reappearance Lou revealed her true identity, telling Boggs she was his oldest daughter. Poor Jimmy was stunned by her revelation, amazed and astonished that the small but fierce boy that had been living with them for a month was instead a young girl.

Boggs wasnt moved though, he didnt care too much about his daughters, but he wanted Jeremiah and he wouldnt let them go away with him. He was ready to shoot at Louise when she refused to leave his brother with him.

Jimmy sprang into action, then.

He distracted Boggs and, since he was disarmed and he couldnt do very much, he called out for Kid. Boggs fired but Kid was faster and hit the man squarely in the chest.

Boggs died in Lous arms few moments later.

I had come for you too. Those were his last words; and now Louise would never know if it was the truth or another of his lies.

That night she looked for comfort in Kids arms. He stayed by her side when she revealed her true identity to the boys, ready to comfort her if they rejected her; and he talked to Jeremiah, trying to make him understand why her sister had stayed away for so long. But Kid barely looked Lou in the eyes, upset and guilty over killing her father.

In the dim light of the fire, after everybody had turned in for the night, Lou crept in Kids bedroll. He didnt say anything but hugged her tight, her tears mingled with his own while Kid held her tight against his chest.

I should behave as you do!?

Louise heard the Jimmys upset voice arguing with Kid. It seemed that the two of them couldnt get along on anything but, by now, their explosive relationship didnt worry her anymore. Everyone had understood that, whatever they said to each other, they could count on each other when they needed.

What do you mean by that?? she heard Kid respond.

The girl sighed; she had understood the reason behind the fight. Jimmy had met a girl he liked and Lou told the others not to make fun of him and invited her friend to act upon what he felt.

And Lou told Jimmy that also for Kids sake.

Their relationship wasnt simple; sometimes he seemed to push her but then, when she was ready to follow, it was the Kid the one who would hesitate, leaving her uncertain and confused.

Why couldnt always it be as that evening during the Social Dance?

Kid noticed how Lou was suffering, observing all the other girls dancing in their pretty dresses, so he brought her outside to get some fresh air. They danced under the stars, he looked at her in that way that made her knees tremble and then they kissed breathlessly.

The young couple was so engrossed in each other that it was caught by a grinning Emma and a very embarrassed Teaspoon. The woman had understood Lous true nature from the first time she had looked at her, but the grizzled stationmaster was completely unaware of it.

Louise had been frightened because she thought that Teaspoon would fire her, and Kid was ready to leave with her, because he didnt want to lose her again. The older man, though, after a first moment of confusion, assured her he would keep the secret.

We are family, and family sticks together.

Lou smiled, she remembered the way Teaspoon had looked at her, the first days after her revelation, it was the same way with the boys: a mix of bewilderment and admiration, compassion and worry. But now for everyone she was again simply one of the riders.

Dont involve Lou in this! Kids angry voce distracted her from her reverie.

It wasnt his usual tone. She ran into the barn.

Dont get mad at me! What is it? Lou doesnt like to dance?? Or you cant give her what she wants?

Lou saw Kid punch Jimmy hard, throwing him on the ground. He was furious. On her part she was violently blushing, having sensed the real meaning behind Jimmys words.

You dont know what youre talking about. Kid seethed.

Jimmy shivered, he had never seen Kid like that; Lou arrived and grabbed him by the arm.

Kid! she called, but he didnt loosen the grip on Jimmys shirt.

Kid, stop!! Lou half-shouted, half-sobbed, grabbing him by the waist.

The sound of her voice finally seemed to wake up the young Southerner and he let Lou bring him away from Jimmy.

The girl had hidden her face in his chest and Kid automatically hugged her, he was still trembling for the indignation but Lous presence calmed him and he slowly lowered his face on her shoulder.

Jimmy remained on the ground, embarrassed. He had gone too far with his words, he realized that now. His friends tone had irritated him and he had wanted to hurt him. But now, observing the couple embracing, he realized he had crossed a line he shouldnt and he regretted what he said.

Please, Jimmy, go away. Lou told him behind Kids shoulder.

The young man nodded sheepishly and exited from the barn, leaving them alone.

Why did you say those things? Kid asked after a while.

What things?

You know what, Lou. He stepped back to look at her in the eyes. About me taking things too slow. Why did you have to say that?

He looked slightly hurt and confused, but this irritated Lou. How could he talk in that way? Did he really not understand that his behaviour was making her crazy? One moment he was sweet and loving, the moment after he treated her as if he had forgotten she was a girl at all.

They didnt have the chance to enjoy a real courtship, and this made the things between them quite complicated, but on the other hand they had gone through so much together that she didnt care about the flowers and the treats he couldnt bring her, or the dances they couldnt share at the balls.

What hurt her was the way Kid sometimes seemed to avoid her, that when they have the possibility to be alone, to get closer, he seemed awkward and uncomfortable and more than one time he took the first chance he got to leave her.

Lou screamed at him all what she felt, letting go of all her repressed emotions. Kids unawareness of all the turmoil he was causing her hurt and irritated her at the same time.

Whats it Kid? Im not enough for you? she said with a trembling voice, Would you prefer one of those pretty girls that are always around you boys?

The young Southerner had remained silent during all her angry tirade, but at her question he promptly replied.

You are the prettiest girl Ive ever met, I never changed my mind from the first time I saw you.

Am I? it was Lous sarcastic reply. Then why you dont want to be with me?

Kid reddened. I I dont.

Damn Kid! Sometimes I think you prefer your horses company than mine!

Thats not true, Lou. I love to stay with you.

Really Kid? Then why you are always on pin and needles when you are with me? And when we start to kiss it always ends with you backing away from me? her voice was breaking but she continued. Is it because you know what Wicks did? Is it because Im dirty?

No Louise! Dont think even for a second something like that!

Then why Kid?

Lou stared at him in the eyes, but Kid didnt respond not even looking at her.

OkIve understood her voice was barely a whisper. Ive always known that Wicks will come between us sooner or later she added bitterly.

II think its better we part now a tear fell down her cheek and she turned to leave.

Kids heart stopped at her words.

Lou! he exclaimed, scared.

He took the girl by the arm and made her face him again. He held her tight against him and then he kissed her hard, pushing her lips open and sliding his tongue in her mouth.

Louise was shocked; he had never kissed her so passionately, so thoroughly. His left hand went on the nape of her neck; the other was holding her tight against his hips. The girl was feeling dizzy; overwhelmed by the sensation he was giving her. This wasnt one of the sweet kisses they used to share.

Suddenly she began to feel his arousal against her stomach and pushed him away roughly.

Kid stared at her panting, his eyes burning with a myriad of emotion.

This is the reason Lou, he said I want to make love with you, Louise. Every time we are alone, every time we get close, It gets harder and harder not to sweep you off your feet, kiss you like that and make you mine.

Lou stared at him wordlessly, one trembling hand covering her lips.

Kid saw her scared expression and immediately regretted what he did. That was the reason he kept restraining himself when he was with her. The young man would never forget the look she had when they ran away from St Joe, when she couldnt come close to anyone without trembling; and to see again the same look, even if for less than a second, broke his heart.

Ill never do such a thing ever again, Lou, I promise you.

The girl nodded, she felt like she was melting inside under his heated stare, and this scared her.

Its betterits better you go away now, Kid.

It was the only thing she could manage to say. She watched him exit and then her knees gave way and she sank on the ground.

Chapter 7

Kid wanted to make love with her.

Lou sank on the ground, stunned by that unexpected revelation. She never imagined that her Kid could desire her in that way.

How could have been so nave?

She had lived enough time among men to know what most of them usually look for in a girl. Damn! She had learned it in the worst way possible! Still she never thought of him wanting to make love with her.

She had fantasized a lot about marrying him one day; but it was something very far away. One day, when the Pony Express ended), Kid would ask her to became his wife and she would accept with all of her heart; then during their wedding night- he would show her what it really meant to be loved by a man. But for now she was content with the kisses and the embraces they shared, and she thought that it was the same for Kid.

Instead he wanted her, wanted her now.

Louise felt almost betrayed by the young mans feelings. She had always felt safe and protected being in his arms. And now, thinking that in those same moments Kid was fighting his own arousal made a rush of shame redden her cheeks.

Everything was so confused.

She always thought she was not ready to be intimate with Kid. But then, what was that sweet pain she felt inside of her? That quivering that had made her want to lose herself in his arms, even if only for a moment?

Overwhelmed by those strong emotions, Louise burst into tears, unable to comprehend the turmoil in her heart.

When she finally returned to the bunkhouse, she was relieved to find that her bunkmates had already turned in for the night. She undressed quickly and then she climbed on her bed, careful not to disturb the Kid.

In the dark she could make out his back, he was sleeping facing the wall. More probably he was only pretending but Louise feigned to believe him, because she couldnt face him now.

Her heart ached for that situation, she never felt uncomfortable with Kid, not even in the worst moments; but now, his revelation made her feel as if she didnt know him anymore.

The thirteen year old Louise was curled in a ball in a corner of her little room. The voice of Mr Wicks was becoming more insistent and menacing. Her eyes darted from the small window her only chance to escape- to the rattling doorknob, that the man outside was shaking furiously.

Suddenly the door burst open. She gulped, terrified, but the man who came in wasnt Wicks, it was Kid.

Louise was stunned; she began to raise herself from the floor. The young mans gentle hand helped her and the girl was engulfed in his warm embrace. His blue eyes shone with such love and passion that her heart began to beat fast in her chest, and when he claimed her lips with his own, Lou felt a wave of heat starting in her lower belly and spreading all over her body.

Kid lowered her on the bed; Louise felt his weight pinning her on the bed and a soft sigh escaped from her lips. His hands crept under her clothes, burning her bare skin.

I love you. Kid said.

Lou woke up suddenly, her heart beating wildly in her chest. She found herself looking at the wall in the dim light of the first morning. She felt unreasonably hot and again there was that feeling of melting inside.

The bed swayed a little, Kid was getting up, and Lou shut her eyes close.

She heard him dressing silently, careful not to make too much noise. At a certain point the girl sensed him looking at her. Usually he gave her a quick peck on the head when he had a run early in the morning and they couldnt kiss goodbye properly, but this time he simply kept staring at her and Lou forced herself to stay as still as possible.

Cmon Kid, Emma left some breakfast for us in the main house. Cody whispered.

Kid sighed and followed his friend outside.

Lou opened again her eyes, drawing a deep sigh. She rolled on her back and stared at the ceiling.

Kids proximity had unnerved her, filling her stomach with butterflies, the memory of her dream still fresh on her mind. It has begun as a horrible nightmare and then it changed into something very pleasurable.

She was so terrified at the beginning, reliving the horrible night when Wicks stole her innocence, but then she enjoyed feeling Kid touching her, and this scared her.

She still could feel that tingling sensation on her skin and a soft liquid pain in her belly. What was happening to her? She felt those things because she was good only for one thing as Wicks told her that night? Because she wasnt a decent girl ?

Lous eyes filled with tears for the umpteenth time since the evening before. What was wrong with her?

The girl spent the remaining last hour of sleep tossing and turning in her bed, and she woke up with a bad headache and an even worse temper. Her bunkmates immediately acknowledged her mood and wisely- they decided to let her be. By now they had learned that Lou can be the most caring girl ever but also that when she was in a bad mood she could bite your head off just for saying Hello in the wrong way.

Buck and Ike shook their heads.

Women Ike signed when Lou wasnt looking at him.

The two friends grinned, amused, thinking that the cause of Lous scowl was Kids absence; but Jimmy didnt share their mirth. He was still guilty for what had happened the evening before and he sensed that his nasty words were somehow the cause of Lous bad mood.

Emma sent the two of them into town to take back some supplies but the girl barely spoke a word during the entire trip. Jimmy was very uncomfortable with the current situation. He knew he hadnt showed the respect that his female friend deserved, but Jimmy never thought that his remark would cause such a commotion.

Lou had always seemed to him perfectly at ease living with the guys and, considering the times they disappeared to check the horses or take a walk and the times they all caught Lou sleeping in the same bunk with Kid, Jimmy had supposed things that probably werent true.

The young man threw a glance to the small brunette near riding near him. She was wearing her usual surly expression that signalled to all of them that she wasnt in a talking a mood, but her eyes were sad and red-rimmed and she had dark circles under her eyes that spoke of a bad night.

Suddenly a wave of affection rushed over Jimmys chest. He never gave a thought about how hard must be for Lou living as a boy when instead she was very much a girl, a girl in love indeed.

Lou he called softly.

The girl merely glanced at him.

Lou, Im sorry for yesterday. I didnt want to make Kid so upsetyou know how heated things can get between me and your guy, but really, I didnt want to offend either of you.

Lou didnt say a word and Jimmy stopped, unsure.

Rationally Lou knew that what happened wasnt Jimmys fault; but she couldnt help but think that if he hadnt said those words that she and Kid wouldnt have had that fateful argument.

Its Ok Jimmy, she said dismissively.

The gunslinger wasnt convinced though.

You dont look ok to me, Lou. Did something happen between you and the Kid?

Look Jimmy, I said Im ok and anyway- whatever else happened yesterday is not your business.

She rebutted irritably and then she spurred her horse, leaving an astonished and angered Jimmy behind.

Do as you like! I was only tryin to help! he shouted at her.

Louise heard his shout but she didnt turn. What could she say to him, anyway? That Kid wanted to make love with her and this scared the hell outta her? Or maybe she should talk about the feeling that his revelation had stirred inside of her?

How could Louise say to him that she was raped when she was only a little girl and that she still felt terribly guilty and somewhat responsible for what happened?

Later that day Lou went to Jimmy to apologize, but still she didnt say anything. She appreciated his concern; she got to learn that under his tough appearance Jimmy Hickock had a caring soul. But she didnt feel she could talk with him about that issue.

Actually Louise didnt know with whom she could talk.

Teaspoon? All the boys went to him for advice but, as much as she cared about him and trusted his judgement, he was a man and he couldnt understand her.

Emma? The station-mistress was like an older sister and a mother to her; but she seemed so decent and proper that Lou felt ashamed to talk to her about her past and about her confused feelings.

Charlotte, dear Charlotte. Lou thought that a bit of sadness that her friend would probably comprehend her better than anyone else. But the woman still worked in Wicks brothel and Lou couldnt write her.

The following days were quite trying for the girls poor bunkmates. Lous mood was awful and the boys couldnt wait for Kids return. Their blue-eyed sweet-talking friend would be able to calm her or at least- he would be the target of the girls flaring temper.

Lou, on her part, knew she was acting horrible but she couldnt help herself. Irrationally she was angry with the boys, and envious of them.

Boys hadnt so many problems as the girls, especially about issues like sex. They were supposed to have some experiences in that matter, and nobody blamed them for that; the girls instead, must be pure and unsoiled.

Those were the girls who got married and had peoples respect, but girls like herspoiled girls, they were the ones the men used. Was it the reason Kid wanted her? Because he couldnt see her as a proper lady?

No! Her Kid wasnt like this! The pained look he gave her that evening, told her that he would prefer to die than to hurt her, and that having scared her had broken his heart. Kid would wait for her until she felt ready, Lou knew that, but this didnt change the fact that he desired her, and she didnt know how to deal with his feelings.

Louise sighed heavily and leaned on the bale of hay she was sitting against. The girl was in the hayloft where she took refuge. Kid and Cody were supposed to come back in the morning but it was almost dinnertime and they still hadnt arrived. The girl was a jumble of nerves and she wanted to spare her fellow riders her temper, at least this time.

In fact, despite all the uneasiness existing between them, Lou was worried sick about Kid. Since the day they met again, the girl felt the need to have him around or to know exactly where he was, and now he was late and the area where he and Cody had gone was one they seldom visited and they knew very little about, and she couldnt stop thinking of all the bad things that could have happened to him.

When she finally heard the usual Rider Comin! Louise sprang on her feet and leaned to the haylofts open door to see the upcoming riders.

There was something wrong though.

There were two horses but only one rider. Cody was leading Katy and Kid was nowhere to see.

Lous felt as if her heart was squeezed by a vise. She scrambled down the ladder and ran where the others were gathering around Cody. Everyone turned to look at her but she held her gaze on the blonde guy who was looking at her helplessly.

Im sorry, Lou. he said. Kid is missing.

Continue On...

If you want to kill me now, remember that this is a HAPPY Kid-Lou story!!!

Many thanks to Broedy and Ellie for their help!

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