February 2010 Volley Challenges:
The snow blanketed the ground covering everything with a fine white powder. The cold that accompanied it cut through the threadbare clothing of the people as they walked about the trading post attempting to do business.
The lone rider was moving slowly, searching for the person he was told would be here. Just as he was about to give up, he saw him standing just inside the last building of the post. He was looking out the window.
The rider pulled his horse to a stop, dismounted, secured it to the hitching post. He took a deep breath and opened the door.
"May I help you?" the man said as the rider entered.
"I hope so," he said. "My people are in need of food."
The man at the window turned. "Red Bear?" he asked, as he moved out of the shadows toward the door.
There was a nod in response. "Running Buck said you would help."
"How is he?"
"He is fine. He said to tell you he sends his love and wishes he could have made this trip with me, but his woman is with child."
Teaspoon nodded. He moved across the room. "Tell me exactly what you need."
It was a crisp fall day when they left the mission. They walked in silence for a while before Buck spoke. "You think we'll be safe in town?"
Ike nodded. *No one there has ever bothered us before. Why would they start now?*
"We were always with the group before," said Buck. "We've never been in town without the sisters."
Ike stopped walking. * I hadn't thought of that. Do you think we should make camp here and go into town in the morning? *
Buck shrugged. "That's why I was asking. How do you feel about it?"
Ike stood thinking. Finally, he started walking once more. *I think we should be fine. If they won't let us stay at the hotel, we'll just keep going. We should be alright.*
Buck simply nodded, and once more the pair walked in silence. On the edge of town, Buck once more stopped. "You should just go ahead and leave me," he said softly. "You'll be able to find someone to work for without me."
Ike shook his head. *Sister Ruth told me I needed to hold tight to you. She said you were my lucky charm. *
Buck laughed softly. "She told me the same thing," he said.
Ike smiled. *I don't know about you, but if I learned anything at that place it was that it's always wise to listen to Sister Ruth. *
Buck nodded. "That was one of the first lessons I learned." He smiled and started walking forward. "Then I guess we go see if I'm allowed in the hotel."
The new band was practicing for the dance that was to be held in honor of the mayor's nuptials. Teaspoon grimaced every time he walked by the room. "Sounds like they're torturing a herd of cats," he said when he entered Sam's office.
"What does?" asked Sam.
"The band," said Teaspoon. "They keep playing on top of each other. I've a good mind to go in there and shoot the director. It's like he don't know the importance of silence."
Sam laughed. "What do you mean? It's not music if it's silent."
Teaspoon shook his head. "No, it's music because of the silence. Without the silence, it's just noise. Sort of like what's happening over in the dance hall." He shook his head. "Hopefully, they'll learn." He smiled at his friend. "At least I don't have to stay here and listen to them all week. If I'm really lucky, I get sick and won't be able to make the wedding."
"Aren't you officiating?" asked Sam.
Teaspoon shrugged. "Not if I'm sick," he said. He then left the office and headed back out of town, wincing as he rode past the dance hall.
Unfortunately for Teaspoon, he didn't get sick and had to attend the wedding. As he walked with Sam and Emma from the church to the dance hall, Teaspoon tried to think of an excuse to leave early. "Maybe things have improved," said Emma with a smile.
"Maybe," said Teaspoon. "If not, I'm going home early." Teaspoon was genuinely surprised when a week later the band played an excellent dance. "They learned," he said with a smile as he made his way across the room to the eligible ladies.
Author's Note: This is a sequel to my response to the Quick Fic #75 (Guilt): "Innocent Until Proven Guilty".
"This is crazy, Jimmy," Kid muttered at me as he slapped the reins against Katy's neck.
If he was looking for a reaction, he wasn't gonna get one from me. Not this time. Wasn't it enough he'd been right about her the first time? Wasn't that enough to satisfy him?
He kept talking, so I figured it wasn't.
"Jimmy, I'm just saying. You don't owe that … that woman … nothing. She set you up, almost got you killed, you forget that?"
Dammit, he was a persistent son-of-a-gun.
"You ever get tired of knowing it all, Kid?" I spat at him. "Sarah wants to see me one last time, before she hangs. It ain't that much to ask, and I …"
I . . . what. I what? I wanted to see her one more time, if only to convince myself that I wasn't a total fool. That she felt somethin' for me, somewhere deep down in whatever passed for a heart in a woman like her.
"It won't lead to nothin' good," Kid said. "She's up to something. You can't trust a woman like that."
"From where I sit, Kid, looks like you just don't trust nobody. That's why Lou's about ready to start lookin' elsewhere, if'n you don't stop tellin' her what to do like you do everybody else." The best defense is a good offense, the Judge always tol' me, and sure enough, mention of Lou's name got that good ol' boy's attention off the topic. He started blusterin' and huffin' about how this wasn't about him and Lou, and such like. Kinda like that line in that play Emma read to us once, about a lady who protested jest a little too much.
He was still on it when we pulled up in front of the jail, and I interrupted him to get back to the business at hand. "If you don't mind, I'll be handlin' this part of things myself," I said, and I hoped he'd get the hint and stay the hell outside.
"Jimmy, I'm telling you -"
"Listen, Kid . . . is your real name Russell, Majors or Waddell?" I finally exploded. "Because that's the name on my pay vouchers every week . . . and they're the only folks I answer to, got it?" Kid was a good friend, always there when you needed him, but just as often sticking his nose in and pushin' his advice where it wasn't wanted. Enough was enough, I could handle Sarah Downs . . . or Sarah Gentry . . . whatever her name was. I didn't need him warnin' me . . . she broke my heart hard enough that I wasn't likely to forget it and do nothin' stupid.
Not this time, anyway.
Kid sat there looking put out and like he had all the answers, like usual, but he shut up and I nodded, tossing him my reins. I pulled off my gloves and headed in where they were holding her.
She looked up at me with them big ol' eyes, that took up half her head even back when we knew each other, and it seemed impossible but they were even bigger now, with dark smudges around 'em. She swallowed hard, so hard I saw it in her thin neck when the lump went down it. "You came," she said, like she was about to cry. But I'd seen her crocodile tears before.
"Yeah, I'm here. What you got that's so important to say to me, you couldn't put in a letter?"
I saw it then. A little bundle on the prison cot next to her. It moved.
"I wanted you to come here and tell you in person. Introduce you to your girl," Sarah said. She was holding up a baby girl who blinked at me and stared like a grown person would. Like she would open her mouth in a minute and ask me what the hell I was lookin' at.
"That . . . that . . ."
My mouth felt like dry wool, like my tongue was all of a sudden too big for my mouth.
"Do the figurin', Jimmy. They'll tell you she was born a month ago …"
The guard nodded lazily. Figure this was the most entertainment he'd had a in a while from the smug grin on his face, but I couldn't give a hang about that.
"You know when we were together." She got up with the baby on her shoulder, and came up to the bars, droppin' her voice low and husky-like, "There by the pond . . . remember?"
Did I remember.
"I need you to take her. I'm set to hang in another two weeks, Jimmy. You're her father. You have to take care of her," she was saying now, with that same pleading look she gave me when we came up with the plan to "save" her from the man she was planning to kill and rob the whole time. But there was something different this time. She was desperate last time, sure, but now . . . now, there was a softness there in her eyes, for her little girl.
"You expect me to believe she's mine?"
I'd forgotten how much hate she could put into a look, until now. But then it passed and she looked just tired. "I expect you to know she may be," she said, looking so beaten-down I had to feel sorry for her, even after everything. "And you'll be all she has in a month. A maybe, but the only 'maybe' that's left alive to look after her." Her eyes were drillin' into me, darin' me to look away, like the toughest gunfighters I'd ever faced. She was laying it all out there, no more games, and it was true. Or at least it could be.
"Promise me you'll make sure she has a good home, Jimmy," she said. "The kinda home you and me never had." That was like her, to use what she knew about my past against me, but I couldn't blame her, not when I saw how she looked at that baby of hers. She was going out of the world and trying everything she could on the way out to care for her baby girl. When I saw that scared, pleading look, just like before, I couldn't say no to her.
"What's her name?" I asked.
She kept her eyes on me, and the tears were running down her face, her nose was running, and she wasn't even botherin' to wipe her tattered sleeve over her face to stop it. "I ain't named her . . . ain't got any claim to. You do it."
I stared at the baby on her shoulder, and she stared back, angry-looking and just the spit of her ma … same wild curly hair, even at a month old. Same big hazel eyes. We stared each other down and I nodded. "I'll see she's looked after."
"Take her. Take her with you," Sarah said, shoving her little bundle at me. The guard gave a grin and opened the cell so's she could hand me the baby. She was so small, but heavier than I expected for her size, and she kept staring at me. After I took her on my arm, I looked over at Sarah, with a thousand questions about what to do now. The guard locked the door and she was trying not to break down in front of him. "Go quick," she said, and she turned 'round, putting her hands up on the walls of her cell and bending her head down. "Get out! Get out and . . . and remember." She turned around and glared at me, looking more like the baby than ever. "You've promised."
The baby blinked and frowned in the light outside when I stumbled my way out. Kid's mouth opened and he started in, saying everything I already knew anyways, and I kept walking down the street with somebody's baby in my arms, my daughter now.
Author's Note: Thank you to Hanny!
"You are the worst mistake of my life!" the girl yelled angrily, tearing apart the still closed envelope and flinging the pieces against the rider's face.
The look Kid gave her was the one of a man whose heart had been crushed in a million pieces. Lou stopped, shocked by what she had just done; without saying anything she turned and scurried out of the barn. She didn't look at the other riders, who had surely heard their horrible argument; she mounted Lighting and switched the mochila with the approaching rider, galloping away as fast as she could.
Two days later Lou was returning to the Station at a much slower pace; she really didn't feel like coming back and facing the Kid after what had happened. She couldn't stop thinking about their argument, the cruel words she yelled at him kept ringing in her head; she knew she had gone too far this time but she couldn't help it.
It had been a little over a week since that fateful run she and Jimmy had taken to Willow Springs. At that time the girl had been hurt by Kid's interest for the new schoolteacher; from the words she had overheard it seemed that all the love he said he felt for her wasn't so important anymore and that he was ready to pursue a new romance.
She had never felt as lost as in that moment; Kid had been the first man she loved, and his words made her doubt she had ever truly known him. When she discovered that Kid had even risked his life to defend that girl's honor, the sadness had been replaced by the fury. After all his words about love and marriage and wanting to protect her now he was ready to die for the first woman who caught his eye.
Lou was so angry that she could barely stand his presence, and the way he kept trying to talk to her, looking with those puppy eyes of his, served only to infuriate her even more. The letter she found on her bunk while she was preparing for her ride had been the last drop and she had exploded.
But now she was regretting her words; they were plain cruel and humiliating and, more important, not true. Because no matter what, she couldn't ever bring herself to think that her relationship with Kid was a mistake; complicated, painful, but never a mistake.
Plus, she thought guiltily, on her part she had enjoyed the company of Jimmy more than as one of a friend consoling her. And if that armless gunslinger hadn't abducted her, Lou wasn't so sure she wouldn't have done something she would regret later, even only because of the sadness and the loneliness she was feeling.
Her ride had been haunted by the last devastated look Kid gave to her before she left and now she wanted to try to patch the damage done, even if she really didn't know if was possible anymore.
The Station was strangely quiet when she arrived. The horses the boys were breaking when she took her run were nowhere to be seen, the only sign of the hard work they'd (past tense) done was some of the corral's broken planks.
Entering in the bunkhouse she was welcomed by the grim expression of her friends, she felt her stomach churn, by their looks something bad must have happened.
"Boys…what's happened?" she asked, afraid of the response.
They raised their heads to look at her; she could read sorrow, pity and also a flicker of resentment in the eyes of some of them.
"Kid had an accident," Buck finally said.
"He was breaking one of the new horses; he lost his grip and was thrown against the corral."
"He banged his head pretty hard and lost his senses," Noah continued after Buck, but then stopped, nobody wanted to give her the news.
"He didn't wake up since then," Jimmy finally concluded.
"How…what?!" Lou gasped.
"The doctor said it's a concussion and it's a pretty bad one too. He…he doesn't know if Kid will wake up again, Lou."
The young man didn't have the guts to tell her what else the doctor said: that Kid could wake up tomorrow as well as remain like that forever, that he could heal and recover completely or instead have permanent injuries. Doc Barnes explained to them that head injuries like Kid's were very bad because the effects were unpredictable and there wasn't much a doctor could do to treat them.
Looking at Jimmy's eyes, Lou could imagine what her friend wasn't telling. She felt choking, the ground swaying under her feet and she had to hold onto the table to not fall.
"Where's he now?" she asked in a whisper.
"Up in Rachel's spare room."
"I have to see him!" she exclaimed rushing out of the door, leaving the boys looking pityingly at her. Because everyone heard the last words Kid and Lou said to each other, they knew that the girl wouldn't ever forgive herself if Kid died and the last words between them were born from anger and pain.
The girl rushed inside the house and up the stairs, and stopped before the closed door. Suddenly afraid of what she would find in the room. With her heart pounding in her chest Lou opened the door.
In the low light of the mid-afternoon sun she saw Rachel sitting in front of the bed, dampening Kid's forehead. The rider lay immobile on the mattress, his skin sickly pale under the tan and at that sight Lou couldn't stop a sob that escaped from her mouth.
Rachel turned her head and found Lou standing in the middle of the room, with the tears flowing freely.
"Lou!" the woman called and rose to embrace her.
The girl kept sobbing, clearly shocked at the scene before of her, despite the fact the boys had already warned her.
"Hush… Lou, I'm sure everything will be all right." Rachel tried to soothe her.
She hoped everything would be alright. After their breakup Kid and Lou weren't on the best of terms and if the Virginian would die or never wake up again, Lou would regret forever not having solved the things with him.
After dinner Rachel finally convinced Lou to return to the bunkhouse. The girl had refused to leave Kid's bedside and she didn't even have her dinner with the others. She had sat huddled on the chair before the bed and kept staring at the unconscious rider until Rachel dragged her out of the room, insisting that she rest a little.
"You're exhausted from your run, and shocked. Rest a little and then come back here, Kid doesn't need your assistance right now. You won't do yourself any good if you keep staying here like this."
All those reasons were perfectly right but they made (past tense) no sense for Lou. Kid was lying sick in that bed because of her. She was sure of that. Of course breaking a horse could be dangerous and accidents could happen, but Kid was too good to lose his grasp like a greenhorn. If she hadn't be so cruel to him, he would have stayed more focused on what he was doing and wouldn't have fallen, so she had no right to rest while he was suffering.
But she didn't have the strength to fight Rachel so she let the woman usher her out the room and went to the bunkhouse. When she entered she dimly noticed that nobody was there - probably they were tending the animals for the night - and that the thoughtful Station mistress had saved something for her to eat.
Lou stared at the covered plate; she couldn't eat in that moment. Kid didn't eat either so why should she? Closing her eyes she couldn't help but replay in her mind that cruel scene of her flinging the pieces of the letter in Kid's face. Had she really been so heartless?
She had always been afraid to be hurt and betrayed, did this fear transform her into such a bad person? Kid's words had hurt her, but she hadn't been a good girlfriend. She kept her distance when he wanted more; she pushed him away when he told her she wanted a serious engagement.
Any other man would have taken the pleasure she offered and would have been more than happy to know she didn't want anything serious for the moment. Instead righteous and naïve Kid wanted a marriage; because they slept together and loved each other.
Those reasons were enough to get married, weren't they? But her mother married her father for the same reasons and she ended up with an outlaw who abandoned his family. She hated the fact she hadn't enough trust in Kid - since he discovered her secret he proved to be trustworthy and loyal - but she couldn't help herself.
Her past experiences taught her it was better be safe than sorry, especially with men; and Kid's story with Samantha showed her she was right. Lou shook her head, she was being unfair. She was the one who left him, she had refused his proposal so she hadn't any right over him anymore, and he was free to chase any girl he wanted. And if she suffered because of it, it was her problem, since she had been the one who wanted to stop.
Kid wasn't obliged to explain himself since he wasn't her man anymore, but he wanted to apologize all the same, and what did she do instead? She refused to listen and showed him all her contempt. And now it could be too late.
Lou felt new tears rise in her eyes, now she will never know what Kid wanted to tell her.
She rose from the bench and went to Kid's trunk. Maybe he put the pieces of the torn letter in there. She opened the lid looking for it, she knew she was invading his privacy but she didn't care right now. She rummaged through his clothes and his other personal effects until she found the folder where Kid kept the sheets of paper, the nib and the other things he needed to write.
Lou didn't find any pieces inside and her heart sank, but she should have imagined that. She had viciously torn the letter and thrown it in Kid's face, it was very unlikely he kept it. But looking through the sheets she noticed how some of them were covered by half-written , half cancelled sentences.
…Why does Lou treat me like offering her my help is the worst thing I could ever do to her?
I never kept a journal but right now I don't know who talk to about this…
Lou started to push me away after we made love, was she regretting it?
There were Kid's thoughts in those words, what he had never been able to express to her. Or maybe it was her that she never wanted to listen. In fact, every time he tried to talk seriously about their relationship she got scared and changed the subject or distracted him as that day at the pond.
There were still so many things left unsaid between them, so many things Kid didn't understand about her. He loved her but he couldn't comprehend her need to prove herself and be independent. And how could he if she was unable to understand her needs?
Lou was still too unsure of herself, of what she wanted and needed, to be ready to share her life with someone else. Why didn't Kid understand that?
Because he was just a boy, confused and overwhelmed as much as her by this huge thing between them, so he held onto his convictions of right and wrong, as he did every time he didn't know what to do. They made love therefore they should marry, that was the most logical thing to do, the natural step they should take.
We made love, we confess our feelings to each other, why doesn't Lou want to marry me? I want to love and take care of her forever, is it so wrong?
No, there isn't anything wrong in that, Kid - Lou found herself thinking - but sometimes love wasn't enough. How come he didn't understand this?
This incapacity to fill the silences between them, to understand the things left unsaid, the other's needs and worries brought them where they were in that moment, despite the love they felt.
She sighed and placed the folder where she found it, and then closed the trunk and leant against it, looking up at the dark ceiling over her. The girl didn't want the things between her and Kid to end like that, she wanted him to be happy and to remain her friend, not him to lay in a bed with his heart crushed by her words.
She felt the tears prickle down her cheeks but she didn't stop them. When she heard the door open, though, she rose from the ground and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. She didn't want the others to see her like that.
Jimmy entered and found Lou looking morosely at him. The dark-haired rider was suffering as much as the girl for what happened to Kid. Lately the things between them were quite difficult: Kid was jealous of him, and he didn't like the way the Southerner treated Lou. But they never talked about this; actually they hadn't talked about anything lately.
Kid had been his closest friend for a long time, they fought and clashed and sometimes Jimmy felt like strangling his stubborn friend, but he knew also that he would always have Kid's back. Lou had somewhat come between them, and now he was regretting it.
He looked at the girl, who was trying uselessly to hide her red and teary eyes.
"How is he?"
"Still the same." Lou shrugged. "It's better I return to him now," she said going toward the door.
"Wait Lou, you haven't even eaten yet. Stay here and rest a little,"
"I can't," the girl said, her face crumbling, "I can't stay here and think about Kid lying in that room because of me!"
"What are you saying Lou! It's not your fault! It was an accident, that horse was really feisty and nobody expected it to react like that!"
"But if I hadn't said those horrible words to him, Kid wouldn't be so distracted. I broke his heart, Jimmy. And if he dies thinking I hate him, I would never forgive myself!" she started to cry again.
"First, Kid is not going to die, he's too stubborn and his head is too thick. Secondly, I'm sure Kid didn't believe your words, he knows you too well to listen to your words when you get so riled up."
He smiled, trying to reassure her, but actually Kid's face that day was really devastated. Those two were able to hurt each other more deeply than anyone else.
Jimmy was finally able to convince Lou to eat and lay down for a while, but in the middle of the night the girl got up and went to sit at Kid's bedside.
"Please, Kid," she kept saying, "please wake up. I'm sorry for what I said, I didn't mean it. There're so many things we need to say to each other. But it's not too late, you know? You just have to open those puppy eyes of yours and look at me, I promise I won't get angry this time."
She continued to talk to the unconscious rider, holding his hand, until she fell asleep with her head on the pillow, near Kid's.
The dawn found Lou still sleeping, the awkward position she was in -half sitting on the ground, half lying on the bed- didn't disturb her exhausted sleep. But at a certain point a tiny movement made its way in the girl's deep slumber; she opened her eyes to understand what that movement was and saw Kid's hand slightly grasping hers.
Lou jumped up, completely awake. The grasping became stronger, Kid was moving his head and finally he opened his eyes, staring in front of him, unable to focus on anything, as a newborn baby.
"Kid?" Lou called worried, and he turn to look in her eyes.
"Lou…?" he asked hoarsely, clearly disoriented.
The girl's heart soared, but at the same time she felt unable to stay in that room anymore, suddenly self-conscious and ashamed of herself.
"Just a moment, I'll call Rachel and the doctor," she said stepping back from the bed and rushing out of the door.
She went to call the Station Mistress, telling her Kid had regained consciousness, and without even waiting for her answer she ran to the bunkhouse to tell the boys the good news, before she galloped away to town.
"Kid is awake, Kid is awake" that was the only thing Lou had in mind in that moment, and she never felt happier.
Doc Barnes was pleased to hear the news the little rider Lou McCloud brought and rushed to the Station with him; but he also said that he had to examine Kid thoroughly and only after would he be able to say if everything was all right or not.
So now Lou was nervously waiting for the man's response, sitting in the tiny hallway in front of Kid's bedroom. Rachel had been able to shoo the boys and Teaspoon to the bunkhouse, but the girl had been irremovable. When, after a time that seemed infinite to Lou, Doc Barnes finally exited, his expression told her everything she needed to know.
Lou burst into the bunkhouse and everyone's heart dropped at the sight of her tears.
"Lou, what did the doctor say?" Teaspoon asked worried.
"He..he said everything is ok," the girl sobbed, half crying, half smiling, "he said that in a week Kid will be able to sit on a horse again."
"That thick head of his serves something, then!" Jimmy joked, grateful for the news.
The others laughed and cheered, finally relieved after days of anguish and uncertainty.
Lou felt her knees buckle and she dropped on a chair, hiding her face in her hands, still weeping.
Kid was alive and he'll recover fully. She didn't need anything else in that moment. Maybe he hated her now, and didn't want to have anything to do with her anymore after her words. But in that moment the joy of knowing he was alive and healthy was enough to her.
They would have all the time of the world to rebuild their friendship and if the destiny will give their love another chance, then Lou promised that she wouldn't let it pass without a fight.
Author's Note: A big thanks to Dede who beta-ed this story for me and gently encouraged me to write the next part! And thanks to the LJ girls who read and comment this story.
The funeral was small, just him and Lou and a younger woman who he never would have pegged as Buck's type. How Buck had ended up in this small mining camp was a mystery to him, though Lou must've known the story as someone in this town (perhaps the woman who was now noisily blowing her nose in a lace handkerchief) had sent word to her of Buck's death. He wasn't sure how Lou had known where to send the telegram telling him the news; maybe she followed him in the papers or just overheard talk in saloons, he was easy enough to track through gossip.
He let his gloved hand rest for only an instant on the small of her back as they began the walk down the hill towards the town. "Buy you a drink, Lou?" he asked as though no years or ugly words had passed between them.
She nodded at him, never altering the grim line of her mouth. She'd grown hard over the years, brittle. Her small frame was wiry and taut with an alertness borne of too many years on her own. She'd been pretty once, but that had faded now so that only the memory of beauty sat in her eyes. It made her even more attractive to a certain sort of man, weary men, men on the edge who thought she'd been through hell herself and could bear it if they drug her through again.
The town itself looked to be about as close to hell as you could get and still have snow. He felt foolish trying to keep the mud off his boots while Lou strode through the muck without pause. The saloon was a ramshackle affair, plank walls with gaps between the boards for rain and snow to fall through. He ordered the drinks and held his own up before downing it, letting the lamp light filter through the amber liquid. "To old friends and memories that won't ever be forgotten," he said, avoiding the look she shot him over the top of her own glass.
"I didn't expect you to show," she said. He could tell she didn't much care if the words hurt him or not.
"He was my friend too, Lou."
"Figured you'd forgotten that," she muttered, pouring herself another drink from the bottle left behind by the barkeep.
He grimaced, but the grimace turned into a grin, which turned into a bitter laugh and he shrugged his shoulders. The smile stretched across his skin felt wooden and false but he was made up of lies and exaggerations and he'd grown accustomed to the feel of them. He poured himself a second drink, sipping this one while stealing surreptitious glances at her.
He'd loved her once. He could admit that now, now that it was too late. He supposed they all had loved her in their own way. Her sudden laughter, her grace, her strength - she'd shamed him more than once, the way she shouldered her burdens without complaint - she was a better man than most of them and more woman than any of them could handle. He'd never said anything to her about his feelings; it was plain as day that Kid was the one for her. He never did understand why she shied away from the protection the Kid offered her. Truth be told he had been jealous of that, had wished that someone had wanted to keep him from harm and pain.
He'd never been coddled, certainly not as a child when his father's work was too important and too dangerous to allow the tiny tragedies of childhood much merit. His parents didn't believe in self-pity; they believed in pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, making the best of the situation. "Smile," his mother would say, "Even if you don't mean it, and pretty soon you'll find you're happy." It was good advice and he'd followed it religiously, until good spirits and good humor were a matter of habit. But the feeling never went bone deep. It was just a film on his skin, a fog to peer out of. Hurt stayed buried and he gritted his teeth and set his jaw to keep from crying out; but everyday it got harder to keep himself reined in. He was a better actor than anyone gave him credit for; after all the people he had worked beside, fought beside, given his blood for more than once, even they had bought the act and disregarded the reality. But this was his reality now, the dashing figure in the papers, the hero of a hundred dime novels.
Lou poured herself another drink and started to refill his glass as well but he smoothly tipped his shot glass upside down and shook his head. He never drank to excess, it weakened his tenuous grip on his facade and after all he'd sacrificed to maintain it, to voluntarily let it slip was unconscionable. He comforted himself with the thought that it was better for others this way too. They avoided any uncomfortable guilt or pity when they realized he had cared all along.
"We're the only ones left now," she said softly. "Ain't gonna be anyone at my funeral if you don't show."
"Don't talk like that, Lou." He nudged her playfully with his elbow. "Y'know you'll outlast me. All it takes is a jealous husband with a decent aim and I'm a goner."
The shadow of a smile played across her lips. She shot back another drink and swiped her hand across her mouth. "Guess I oughta be headin' out."
"In this weather? You'll freeze."
She shook her head. "Snow like this in the mountains can last for weeks; the pass could get blocked. Better to get goin' while the gettin's good."
He walked with her to the door. "You could always come back with me, you know. I could find a job for you, whatever you want to do."
"No thanks." He walked up the street with her to where both their horses were tethered outside the undertakers. As she looked over her mount, he tugged on her cinch strap, ran his hand over her saddle just in case. She mounted in one fluid motion, the product of one solid year running the mail. She pulled a rough blanket from her saddle bag and wrapped it around her already shivering form.
He put his hand on her knee before she left. "No matter what you think of what I said or what I did, you'll always be family, Lou. I never stopped thinkin' of any of you as family."
She smiled at him, a weak gesture that acknowledged it was too late to change anything. "I know, Cody," she said with a nod, "I know."
He watched her ride out of town, her horse plodding slowly in the thick snow. He rubbed his hands together for warmth and though he felt like crying he grinned as he watched her go.
Spotting what looked to be hotel near the general store, she rode up to the porch. She slid off of Lightning and tied his reins to the hitching post. She was bone weary of traveling and sleeping under the stars. She wanted a warm bed and a roof over her head, not to mention a bath and good hot food.
Three weeks it had taken her to get here. Three weeks of looking over her shoulder expecting any of the riders that were left to be there. Jimmy and Teaspoon had come close in Denver, she'd seen them talking to one of the deputies near where she had been staying. Part of her had yearned to turn back to the comfort of Jimmy's arms and Teaspoon's care but she knew the memories she was trying to keep locked away would come rushing back if she did. No, she rode away as quick as she could, praying they hadn't seen her.
She entered the building and walked up to the desk. She'd decided she'd write Rachel this evening and ask the stage driver to post it for her when he got to Denver. But she wasn't sure if a stage ran through this bit of a town yet or not. She hoped so because she didn't think she could ride much longer and she had to keep moving or the others were sure to catch up with her. And she knew she'd not be able to turn them down if they asked her to return with them.
She hit the bell on the desk of the hotel and waited.
"Can I help you," a middle aged man said as he came from a back room wiping his hands on a napkin.
"I'd like a room for a few days," Lou replied, not trying to hide the fact she was a woman.
He looked her up and down causing Lou to redden. She knew what he was thinking only whore or trash would be dress as she was and as dirty.
"We don't rent to whores," the man said.
Lou bit her tongue trying not to cuss the man. "That's good to know since I'm interested in resting and hearing a man having his pleasure isn't conducive to that."
"Where's your husband?"
"Dead," she replied, her voice husky even though she tried for it not to be. She felt her energy seeping out of her with that word. It still stung since she'd first heard it two months ago. "Look, mister, are you going to rent me a room or not."
"Rent the lady a room, Jack," another man said as he walked out of the back room. "She don't look like trouble."
Jack shook his head. "Bertha would have my hide if I let a whore a room and you know it, Henry, seein' how she's your sister."
"She ain't no whore," the one called Henry said as he gave Lou a once over. "Didn't you hear her say she lost her husband."
"What in tarnation is all the commotion?" Lou couldn't help but stare at the woman. She reminded Lou of Emma in so many ways. Lou's eyes began to fill with tears as the last bit of strength she had left her in a rush. She gasped as she felt her grip loosen on the desk. She felt arms slip around her as darkness suddenly descended.
Lou woke with a start. Sitting straight up in a strange bed wondering where she was and how she'd gotten there. Slowly everything started to come back to her. Riding as much as possible and keeping off the trails so her friends couldn't find her, leaving Denver in a rush to keep Teaspoon and Jimmy from finding her there. The tears threatened again and she swallowed the lump that formed in her throat. She started to get out of the bed when the door of the room opened and a lady came in carrying a tray.
"Good, you're awake," she said smiling, and once again Lou was a surprised at how much the lady resembled Emma. "The doc…well, what we have that passes as one…said you and the little one will be just fine." She sat the tray on Lou's lap and continued chatting about the town and the people in it. "I'm sorry I do run on sometimes, worse habit I have Henry says. Though there ain't that many of us good women out here so we have to be sociable when we get the chance."
"Thank you," Lou said, looking down at the breakfast the lady had brought.
"Oh, it's fine child, now last night you didn't get a chance to sign the register before you…well, before you fainted, so we didn't get your name," the woman said with an easy smile.
"Lo…Mary," Lou said knowing if she gave her real name the others were sure to find her.
"Oh, I do love that name," the woman said with a kind smile as she sat down on the edge of the bed. "I'm Bertha. I own this fine hotel with my husband, Jack. The other man was my brother Henry, he owns a trading post up on Firecreek and came in to town for supplies yesterday. Good thing too saved my Jack from a tongue lashing. We've been in the wilds too long ifin' he can't see the difference between a good woman and a…well, a lady of questionable character so to speak."
Lou could only smile as the woman rattled on and ate the breakfast the woman had brought her. There were biscuits and jam, eggs and a large slice of ham along with good strong hot coffee.
Bertha looked at the door and turned back to Lou. "Henry would like to know if you are alright." Her eyes filled with tears as she spoke. "I'm only telling you this so you will understand. Henry lost his wife and daughter years ago when he was away selling some horses to the army. Some men raided the homestead before he could return. He was only gone three days so the marshal said they had to have been watching to see when he would leave." Bertha swiped at the tears that had escaped her eyes and found their way down her cheeks. "He's got a soft spot for women that are hurting and he said he saw it in your eyes when he caught you last night."
Lou looked down at the food on the tray suddenly losing her appetite. "My husband was killed in the war," she said her voice full of emotion. "I had to leave home because the memories were…" Lou buried her face in her hands and allowed the tears to fall.
Bertha pulled her close and Lou held on to her sobbing.
Lou heard the door open and someone asked from the doorway, "Is she alright?"
Lou felt Bertha nod but said nothing. "She will be in time," the kind woman said as she patted Lou's back. "Let it out child, it won't do any good to keep all that hurt inside."
Lou did just as Bertha told her to and a short time later she was worn out again. Bertha took the tray from the bed and plumped the pillows behind Lou. "You rest and we'll talk some more in the later." When Lou started to protest she said, "I won't stand for no arguments, young lady. The good Lord put us on this earth to help each other and that is what I'm doing. Now rest."
Lou almost laughed at the way the woman grumbled as headed for the door. It was nice to be looked after for once in her life even if the people were strangers to her. Yawning she slid deeper under the patchwork quilt that covered her. Safe, that was how she felt, safer then she'd felt since leaving the Express and her family behind. Tears began to slip down her face as she cried herself to sleep.
Awaking later that day it took Lou less time to figure out where she was. She pushed herself up on the bed and looked around the room. It was nice, real homey, and not at all what she had expected to find. The sheets smelled like sunshine and everything in the room sparkled. The hotel in Denver hadn't been as nice as this, let alone as clean.
She started to get up then realized she didn't know where her clothes were. It wasn't a comfortable feeling to her at all to be stuck in a room with only a night dress to wear. She threw the covers back and swung her legs off the bed. She looked up as the door opened.
"I'm glad to see you are up," Bertha said coming through the door of the room. "I was hoping you could join us for dinner tonight." Bertha handed Lou a dress that looked to be the right size. "The only restaurant in town isn't fit for ladies. We usually try to serve the ladies that past through dinner at our table."
Lou had the feeling again that Bertha reminded her of Emma but for the life of her she couldn't figure out why, with the exception of how kind the woman was. Bertha was about Emma size but that was where the resemblance ended. Bertha had blue eyes and dark brown hair. "Thank you," Lou said taking the dress from her. "Guess I'll have to look for some kind of work since I can't really hide that I'm a woman anymore." Lou ran her hand across her slightly distended belly as tears filled her eyes. She knew most folks who would hire even a widow that was with child would expect a lot of work out of her, even if she pregnant. And Lou knew if she lost the child she would die with it.
Bertha could tell Mary was concerned about the child she was carrying. "Now don't you worry yourself. We'll figure out something and you can stay here until you do."
"I can't do that and not pay," Lou protested. I don't need charity."
"Now no one said you did, dear," Bertha replied with a gentle smile as she took Lou's hand. "We all need help and I'm sure someone once helped my sister like I'm helping you."
"Bertha! You going to finish dinner tonight or let us starve?" a shout came up the stairs.
"Let you starve if you don't mind your manners, Henry McCloud!" Bertha called back.
"McCloud?" Lou asked.
"That was my name before I married Jack."
"Oh." Lou was stunned to say the least. Of course there were probably hundreds of McClouds around, even in the territories. Turning she picked up the dress and stepped behind the dressing screen.
"You come on down when you are ready. Jack and Henry went hunting this morning and got a couple of fine prairie chickens. So it's chicken and dumplings for supper. I might even have something put back we could have for dessert."
Lou heard the door open and close as Bertha left her alone to finish dressing. After getting the dress on and find it fit pretty well, she walked from behind the screen. She noticed as she walked up to the dresser that was in a corner of the room, that someone had brought her saddlebags in.
Remembering Lightning for the first time since she'd collapsed yesterday, she hurried down the stairs without putting on her shoes. Reaching the bottom of the stairs she noticed the cold for the first time.
"Ya best head back up and find your shoes, miss, it's turned a might chilly." The man that caught her as she fell the night before was sitting near the stairs.
"He's fine put him up in the stable outback with Jack's and mine. He's a fine animal."
"The best," Lou replied with a blush. "Thank you."
"I'm sure you would have looked after him if you'd been able." The man motioned for her to go back upstairs. "Go on get your shoes; you won't rest 'til you check on your mount."
Lou smiled as she headed back up the stairs and returned a moment later with her shoes.
"He behaved himself when I put him up last night." The man was quiet as he led her to the stable where Lightning was. As Lou stepped into the stall he said, "Looks like you took better care of his fellow," he pointed at Lightning, "here then you did yourself. Guess I don't have to tell you if you don't take care of yourself the little one won't make it."
Lou had been stroking Lightning's neck when the man said that and it caused her to stop. "Yes, sir, I know." Lou wanted to saddle Lightning right then and there and ride out.
"Now don't go runnin' off just cause I said that. I'm kind of bossy. Bertha said it comes from having two younger sisters tagging after me all the time." He was leaning on the stall wall and it struck Lou how much he was like Teaspoon, sure of himself.
"You must be Miss Bertha's brother," she said with a smile. "My name is Lo…Mary."
"Bertha and I had a sister named Mary. Lost track of her a few years back when she left…sorry, miss." Henry looked away growing quiet as he did.
Lou stepped out of the stall. "Thank you again for looking after Lightning, he's all I have left."
"You said your husband died in that war back east?"
"Yes," she replied as she headed out of the barn.
"Some folks feel the need, I think we got more to lose out here if we all head back to fight in Mr. Lincoln's war," Henry replied as he followed her. "Who else did you leave behind?"
Lou was growing tired of Henry's questions. "No one," she lied as she looked away.
"Guess you will tell us in time," Henry said. He didn't seem angry or even upset.
Lou glanced at the man next to her. Like Bertha there was something familiar about him. She had thought it was Bertha's kindness that reminded her of Emma but with Henry it wasn't that he reminded her of Teaspoon, no with Henry it was something else.
"We best be getting' in to supper." Henry quickened his pace and got ahead of her enough to hold the door for her.
As dinner progressed Lou felt her emotions taking over again. The tears she had gotten control of, now started to return as her new friends talked and laughed. She wanted to keep to herself, not form any kind of friendship with them. She just knew Buck, if not Teaspoon and Jimmy, would find her any day and she'd be forced to move on again.
"Is everything alright, dear?" Bertha asked when she noticed Lou hadn't eaten very much.
"It's very good." Lou tried to smile but the concern in Bertha voice caused the tears to surface again.
Bertha reached out and took her hand. "My dear, if there is anything you need or if you are in any trouble we would like to help you." Bertha patted her hand but looked toward Henry as to ask a question. When he nodded to her and leaned back in his chair, Bertha continued. "I told you Henry and I had a sister. Well, Mary…yes, she had the same name as you…was our youngest sister. There was a man she met at a dance and fell in love with. Henry found out that even though he looked to be well off he wasn't in a respectable business. After they married we lost track of her now last we heard she'd had a little girl, but that is all. So we came to a decision that we would help all those that came to our door in hopes that Mary Louise and her little one would be treated kindly by some else."
"Mary Louise?" Lou asked. She had almost dropped her fork when Bertha had said the name and had only just managed to lay it down on her plate.
"That was her name," Bertha replied. "Mary Louise McCloud. You remind a bit of her."
Henry was looking down at his plate but when Bertha said Lou looked like Mary Louise his head snapped up. He looked at Lou as if seeing her for the first time. "She was a bit of a thing but strong as they come. Of course she had to be married to that no good…"
"Gun runner," Lou said finishing his sentence. Bertha noticed that Lou's face had drained of color as the young woman finished Henry's sentence.
Jack looked at Lou he didn't trust her. A good girl wouldn't dress as boy, in his opinion and that of many others. "How do you know he was a gun runner?" Jack asked.
Lou saw his suspicions on his face. "When I was little…"
"We didn't ask…"
"Let her be, Jack," Henry said. Jack started to say something but the look he saw on his brother-in-law's face caused him stop.
Lou cleared her throat and started speaking again. "When I was little my pa and ma fought all the time. Eventually, he started hitting her too. He said it was because she didn't respect him, that the only man she respected was her brother. Ma would tell him that it wasn't so and he'd hit her. It got worse after Teresa was born. One day Ma had enough. While he was away-like he was more often then not-she packed us up and moved us to St. Joe. We were there may be six months before she got sick. She'd been working at the dress shop sewing during the day and at night after she tucked us in she did laundry for some of the folks in town. When the doc finally came she was so sick he couldn't help her. The next morning she was gone. Doc took us to the orphanage in St Joe, I was just a little over 12 at the time. I ran away a year or so later when someone came to adopt a little girl and almost adopted my sister. I wanted to get a job and take care of them myself." Lou swiped at the tears on her face with her hand. "But it didn't work out that way. By the time I was able to finally go back for them I found out a couple from back east had adopted them. All the nun got was a name so I didn't know where to look."
Lou looked up at the people who had been so kind to her. Unsure of how to continue and knowing she was taking chance. "My father's name was Boggs."
Bertha just stared at Lou as her eyes filled with tears.
"So your name ain't Mary?" Jack asked.
Lou shook her head. "No, it's Louise."
"Who are you running from, Louise?" Henry asked.
"I'm not really running from anyone, as in the law. I'm not in any trouble." Lou smiled but it was a sad sort of smile. "My husband was killed in the war. We got the news just a few weeks back. The letter we got said he had been fighting somewhere in Virginia and was killed there. I tried to stay with my friends but it didn't work out. I kept seeing him everywhere, at the Express station, around town. I was going crazy." Lou placed her hands on her stomach, "I had found out I was carrying not long after he left. I was scared I'd lose the baby from grieving so much if I didn't leave."
"If that's true, Louise, why were you so exhausted when you rode in yesterday?" Bertha asked. Bertha hoped the girl was telling the truth but wasn't sure.
"My friends…they're more like family really…they didn't want me to leave. They said I should stay so they could help me. I can take care of myself I've proven that to them time and again, but they wouldn't listen." Lou sighed, she felt so bad about leaving the way she had but she didn't feel she'd had a choice. "I made it as far as Denver. That's where Teaspoon and Jimmy found me. I managed to leave as they were coming down the street."
Henry looked at Bertha and started to laugh. "That's a good story. Too unbelievable not to be true."
"You don't believe her, do you?" Jack asked still suspicious.
"I don't know about Bertha here, but I do," Henry said. "It's just the sort of trouble Mary's Louise would have gotten into. The little one was always finding trouble in the oddest ways."
Bertha nodded her head in agreement as she brushed the tears from her eyes. "There is one way we can tell if she's telling the truth." Henry nodded his agreement. "In the last letter I got from Mary, she said she had made Louise a doll. She gave it a pretty unusual name."
Lou smiled. "Miss Annabelle Mumblepuss."
Bertha knocked over her chair as she stood and rushed to Lou's side. She wrapped Lou in her arms. "You'll stay here with me and Jack."
"No," Henry said. "She's going to come with me to the trading post. Small Owl will come and help her when it's her time. She'll take better care of the girl then that hack you call a doctor." He looked at Lou. "Your ma was my baby sister, younger than me by several years, I loved her dearly but it was my actions that drove her to your pa. I've regretted that all these years. Now maybe I can make it up to her by taking care of you."
Lou nodded, something deep inside told her she could trust this man.
"I have a trading post up on Firecreek near the Yellowstone. Most of the folks we see are Indians and trappers. Most of them are harmless, some though…well, I can teach you to take care of yourself."
"You can't take the girl out in the middle of nowhere in her condition," Bertha said as she straightened. "And I'm sure that squaw that's been staying with you…"
"Thank you," Lou said reaching out and taking Henry's hand.
"You will bring her to town to visit?" Bertha asked as she patted Lou's hand that she refusing to let go.
"He couldn't stop me if I wanted to come," Lou said looking up at her new found aunt and then to her uncle.
"Yep, she's Mary Louise's," he said with a smile.
by: Miss Raye
Sam sat down on the porch swing and winced at the groan from the crossbeam holding it up. "Well there's certainly one thing I can say about supper at the Sweetwater Station."
Emma tore her gaze away from the full moon sitting high in the sky and glanced back over her shoulder, Emma's smile warmed him right down to the soles of his feet. "And what would that be?"
He held out his hand to her and she immediately closed the distance between them, her fingers tangling with his as he drew her down beside him. "Well," he hugged her close to his side, "the food is beyond compare."
"Sweet talker." Her voice was full of 'reproach' but he could tell she was grinning from ear to ear.
"Just tellin' the truth." He pushed off the floor and set the swing to swaying back and forth. "I've just got one question to ask you."
"Hmm?" She set her hand on his knee and he was suddenly and irrevocably distracted. "What's the question?"
"Question?" Sam's attention was focused on the warmth of her palm bleeding through to this thigh. "Oh, yeah, the question." He struggled to remember exactly what it was but a shout from inside the bunkhouse and an answering crash brought it all back. "How do you stand all that noise?"
"I can barely hear it from here." She leaned in closer, her head on his shoulder.
Laughter echoed from the windows.
"No wonder Teaspoon sleeps in the tack room, it's quieter."
"Sam," Emma's tone was full of laughter, "you make it sound horrible!"
He shifted a little so he could see her face. "You don't?"
With a little wistful sigh she sat up and turned to Sam. "They're loud, no escaping that fact." The curtain in the bunkhouse window moved to the side and Lou peered out. Emma raised her hand in a small wave that Lou returned. "But, it's just in fun… most of the time."
Sam gave a little grunt of acknowledgement. "You got a few hardheads in that group. I don't like them here with you, too much muscle and too little sense."
"They're harmless, just big boys stretchin' their legs."
Another crash, this time the door of the bunkhouse bouncing off the wall as Cody ran out, making a beeline for the outhouse. "Howdy, Sam!"
Sam turned back to Emma. "How do you stand it?"
He couldn't be sure but in the blue light of the moon he thought he saw the shimmer of tears on Emma's lashes. "When I'm inside… and by myself, it's so quiet."
"That should be a blessing, especially with those elephants in the bunkhouse."
She laughed and wiped at her eyes. "It's nothing, really." He saw her turn to look at the bunkhouse, a sweet smile on her face. "They're like… I mean," she turned to Sam and he watched her steel herself, straightening her spine and giving him a calm look, "it's not that bad. Hearing them fight and laugh, talk and shout… it's all wonderful. I was here so long… by myself. They make me smile."
"They'd make me want to tear out my hair."
That got a soft chuckle from her. "I've managed to keep mine." She patted down the wisps of her hair as if to reassure herself. "I just can't imagine what will happen when they all leave." She gasped in a breath and her hands settled in her lap and quivered just a bit.
Reaching out, Sam swiped at a tear she missed on her cheek. "When we get married," he felt his mouth go dry as his heart swelled, "we'll just have to fill up the house with children."
She didn't say a word and Sam swallowed hard, wondering if he'd said too much. "Emma, I-"
"Sam? Did you just…" she looked at him, her eyes wide, nibbling on her bottom lip, "you didn't just-"
"Tell you I wanted to marry you?" It was a moment before she nodded, her eyes watching him carefully.
He took her hands in his and leaned a little closer. "I want to marry you, Emma Shannon. I want you as my wife even if you come with all the hardheads and-"
The outhouse door banged open and Cody ran back into the bunkhouse. "Night, Emma… Night, Sam!"
"Good night, Cody." Sam bit out the words through clenched teeth but he had a smile on his face, "and interruptions." He lifted a hand to cup the side of her face. "I love you, Emma."
She started to nod again and again, the soft touch of her skin brushed his palm. "I love you, Sam… I-"
Something inside the bunkhouse splintered and the door swung open again. "Emma? Cody and Jimmy are fighting!"
Sam set a hand on Emma's shoulder to keep her on the swing as he stood. "I'll handle it." Darting down the stairs he swung himself over the fence and headed for the bunkhouse, pausing only at the door when Emma called his name. "Yeah?"
She was leaning against the railing. "I will!"
Another crash inside had distracted him. "What?"
Emma shook her head, laughing in the moonlight. "I will marry you!"
He darted inside to break up the fight, smiling the whole time. All he could hear was music.
by: Miss Raye
"You're quiet tonight."
She paused, her fingers settling in his hair, the tips of them brushing against the edge of his ear. "I'm just thinking."
He skimmed his palm over her hip, the fabric of her nightgown shifting against his skin. "Something wrong?"
"Hmm…" he felt her voice more than he heard it with his head pillowed on her stomach, "just thinking about how we got here."
"Well," Jimmy tilted his head up to look at her, "we walked through the door and took off our shoes and-"
She laughed and the joyous sound had him chuckling right along with her and he had to lean on his elbow to see her clearly instead of being bounced against her stomach. "Then what are you talking about?"
"I was talking to Mrs. Talbot down at the newspaper office. She told me about how she met her husband. They'd been friends for many years and it wasn't until she was considering one suitor that Martin decided she was the one for him.
"She'd nearly made it to the altar with her original beau when Martin had decided to press the issue. He came to her, several times a day, and pled his case." Louise shook the bed slightly with her laughter. "He'd made a pretty good list until he finally stumbled upon the perfect argument."
Jimmy waited for a few moments, his own attention drawn by the soft smile on his wife's face, the tender sweep of her hand along his cheek before it tangled back into his hair.
"He told her he'd stop pestering her if only she'd tell him that her beau was everything she wanted. If she'd tell him that there was no way that he'd win her heart away he'd let her go."
Sitting up on the bed, Jimmy took Lou's hand and pulled her against him until he was looking into her upturned face. "I tried," he began, brushing a kiss against her cheek, "I tried to give you up."
"I know." She flattened her palm over his heart, feeling the comforting rhythm of his life beneath her fingers. "I was worried that you'd never come to your senses." Jimmy's body warmed her and she tilted her head to the side to consider his expression. "What was it?"
"Hmm?" His hands moved slowly up and down her arms, leaving warmth wherever he touched her."What was what?"
"How did you know… that I was the one?"
He smiled, enjoying this inquisitive side of Louise, and answered her question. "I'd tried to convince myself that I was goin' to end up alone. After Sarah and Alice… I didn't want to get hurt again. I was set on bein' alone for the rest of my life.
"Then Elias showed up and I saw what bein' alone had done to him for all those years. He'd turned his life around… tried to do right by his daughter, but when I looked in his eyes I saw just how alone he was."
Louise took his face in her hands and leaned up to brush a kiss over his lips. "Jimmy, you don't have to talk about this. I was just curious."
Slowly he shook his head once, then again. "I knew, the moment he died I wanted… needed to hold you."
"But you didn't. You waited."
"I had to be sure… I needed you to be sure that you wanted to be with me. So I let you go, let you find out if-"
"If it was someone else that I wanted."
"I knew what kissing you felt like, Lou. I knew how much it shook me down to my toes to touch you. I could only hope that you'd felt the same things, but I couldn't be sure… until you were."
It looked as though a thousand thoughts were churning around inside her head, her gaze focused on her fingers as she traced the line of his jaw. "At any point," she whispered, "I could have gone one way and you could have gone another and... and we wouldn't be here."
He took her hand in his and brushed a kiss against her palm. "So you know what we have to do?"
"Hmm?" She seemed to wake from her musings. "What?"
He smiled, reaching for her. "Hold onto this… what we have."
She slipped her arms around him, cuddling close to keep warm. "I think that's something I can do."
Lou smiled at the way his arms tightened reflexively around her. "At least for another fifty years or so."
Pulling up the blankets around them, Jimmy rubbed his cheek against the soft fall of her hair. "Lou?"
"Hmm?" she mumbled, sleep closing the lids of her eyes.
"Go to sleep."
She snuggled closer and mumbled her agreement. "Mmhmm."
A few minutes later when her breathing had slowed and she turned her head to pillow it on his shoulder, Jimmy felt something deep inside his heart twist and he hugged her a little closer as he let out a ragged sigh. "I hope you got longer than that, darlin'… and I'll be right here beside you."
by: Miss Raye
The door opened and closed quickly; what snow that had managed to get inside the tent in that moment swirled around, helpless and dying in the heat pumped out by a tiny pot-bellied stove. Jimmy shook the snowflakes clinging to the shoulders of his coat and looked around the tent.
Somehow it seemed smaller inside than it looked outside. There were wall to wall drunks and gamblers and the heat coming from the stove only made everything inside the tent smell. Badly.
"Can I help you?"
He felt the tug on his coat sleeve and the searching hand reaching into his pocket. With a deft twist of his wrist he pulled her hand free. "I'm lookin' for someone."
That changed her frown to a hopeful smile. "You found me, honey."
Jimmy grabbed her hand before it slipped beyond searching to inconvenient and lowered his voice to keep his words quiet. "I'm lookin' for an old friend of mine. I heard he's here." As he talked, he searched the room, looking over the men huddled at the tables, clinging to their bottles with frozen fingers and cold dead hearts. This wasn't the place for- "Buck."
Jimmy set the girl to the side and worked his way through the tables to the bar. The stool next to Buck was empty and his old friend didn't even move as Jimmy pulled the stool back, scraping the legs against the rough-hewn wooden floor.
He'd ridden the better part of the last week, half asleep in the saddle, so the pitiful heat from the stove and the shelter that the canvas walls provided was enough to lull him into a smile. The bartender set up a glass in front of him and splashed some whiskey into it.
"You've been a hard man to find."
"Who said I wanted to be found?"
Jimmy chewed on the inside of his cheek, it was probably better then tossing Buck off of his seat, but it wasn't nearly as fun. "Well, right now I don't really care."
Buck tossed back the whiskey in his glass and motioned for more. "That makes two of us."
As the bartender moved away and Jimmy snatched up the glass and drank the weak alcohol down before Buck could touch it. Jimmy slapped the glass back down on the wooden counter and drank his own down before wiping his mouth with the back of his gloved hand. "It's hellish cold out there, Buck. Traveling this kind of distance would have been more fun with someone to keep me company."
"I came here to be alone, Jimmy. Just leave me alone."
Turning on his stool Jimmy made a show of counting off a score of people in the room before dropping his hand. "I don't see a whole lot of solitude to be had here, but I know if you come home… there'd be a lot of folks happy to see you."
The bartender filled both glassed but Buck didn't even try to pick it up, his fingers tracing the old water stains on the wood instead. "I'm not fit company for anyone at ho- back there."
"Good," Jimmy took up his glass and got a good look at Buck, the hollows of his cheeks said he hadn't eaten in awhile, "I'm not much company for anyone… anywhere." He swallowed the whiskey and reached into his pocket for a coin.
The glint of gold caught the bartender's attention and he exchanged the half-empty bottle for the coin in Jimmy's hand.
With the bottle in hand, Jimmy poured himself another glass and ignored Buck's less than subtle hint when he moved the glass within pouring distance. "I get that you don't want to be around us, but too bad for you that you're someone we care about."
"You? We spent more time arguing that working together." The taste of his words were sharp and bitter, marring the features of his face.
"Well now," Jimmy ground his teeth together as he struggled to remember he was here because he actually 'liked' the man sitting next to him, "I thought that was just some friendly banter. You know, that time trailing Teaspoon into Texas has always been one of my favorite memories about-"
"I don't think about those things… I don't want to remember what we've been through."
Buck's fingers were pressing on the glass so hard that Jimmy worried that it might shatter. He wrested it from Buck's grasp and filled it half full. "Then don't remember." He watched Buck drink down the liquor, his face impassive and dark. "Come back to Rock Creek… you'll make new memories." Jimmy swallowed around the ache in his throat. "And the women with get off my back about finding you."
"Rachel or Lou?" There was just the hint of a smile in the corners of Buck's mouth.
"Both," Jimmy poured again, this time for both of them, "and Emma."
"Emma." Buck turned to look at his old friend. "She's in Rock Creek?"
The hopeful ton of Buck's voice was nearly worth the weeks in the saddle and hundreds of leads on his whereabouts that hadn't panned out. "She and Sam moved there with their little boy a week before I left to find your sorry-"
Buck's question startled them both.
"Yeah," Jimmy smiled, "they got anything good to eat here?"
Jimmy considered the comment, nodding slightly as he waved the bartender over. "Food is good. It's a start."
by: Miss Raye
He looked up at Constance when she laid a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry, what?"
She leaned in closer until he could smell the rosewater on her skin. "I asked you if you needed anything, Sam Cain." She laughed, a throaty affair that seemed more embarrassed than anything. "Didn't you hear me?"
Sam swallowed even though he wasn't chewing. "Uh, sure," his gaze moved to the table at his half-finished meatloaf, "I could use a slice of pie."
"Oh?" She slid her hand a scant inch closer to her neck. "I've got an apple pie coolin' on the sill. You want me to cut you a slice?"
"Sure," he agreed, "I like apple pie."
He sat back in his chair and her hand fell away naturally, her smile darkened a little.
"I'll be right back."
He didn't watch her go, didn't want her to catch him looking. There was something else entirely on his mind.
Constance Tanner had moved into Sweetwater with a loaded wagon and a ready smile. She'd sought him out her first day in town, making his acquaintance and announcing that she was opening a café. "And of course," she'd told him, "I intend to offer you free meals, Marshal Cain."
He'd seen her smile and couldn't help returning it. She was a beautiful woman with many charms and when a woman like that smiled at you, it was hard to find a reason to avoid liking her. "You don't have to, Miss Tanner," he'd assured her, "I look after all the folks in town because it's my job."
She'd reached up and patted her hair, drawing attention to the abundance of yellow gold she'd piled up into a mass of perfect curls. "I wouldn't doubt that for a moment, Marshal Cain," she'd tasted his last name on her tongue as she stepped just a few inches closer, "but I'd hoped that we'd get to be friends. Good friends."
He's enjoyed the attention, what man wouldn't? She was beautiful and she smiled at him. Constance had also made it pretty clear that she wouldn't be fending him off with a broom if he showed some interest in courting her.
Constance was a beautiful woman and she'd made her interest clear. By all accounts, since most townfolk didn't see a need to keep their opinions to themselves when it came to his life, folks thought that he'd be smart to get down on one knee and take Constance for a wife.
'Why not?' The voice in his head sounded distinctly like Cal over at the livery. 'She's a comely woman,' that from Tom over at the bank. There were a dozen more voices in his head, all telling him he'd be a fool to let her go.
Sam lifted his coffee cup and took a sip, mentally shaking himself. What was wrong with him?
Outside the window a horse came into view, a sunny palomino followed by a paint. Sam straightened up in his chair and watched as a pair of matched bays pulled a buckboard behind them. His coffee cup clinked down on the edge of the plate and he nearly spilled the remaining contents on the tablecloth.
"Here's your pie, S-"
He nearly knocked her down as he stood up, the legs of his chair scraping along the wooden floorboards. "Sorry, Miss Tanner." He barely spared a glance for her as she gripped his arm for a moment to steady herself.
The instant she let go, Sam stepped away from the table.
"But, Sam, I brought you the apple pie."
He turned and took in the pretty picture she made. Lace edged apron over her gingham dress. Her hair piled up on her head in a style more fashionable than practical. The scent of the pie was heavenly.
But it was all wrong.
Sam looked at Constance and saw that she was everything a man should want, and willing. There was still something inside him that told him it was all wrong. "I know, Constance, and I'm sorry for the trouble you went to bringing it out here, but I've… I've got something I have to do."
"Oh," her tone was flat, but she still managed a smile, "I'll just have to see if someone else-"
He didn't stay to hear the rest of her sentence, the scene unfolding outside the window drew his immediate attention. "Thanks for understanding, I'll see you around."
Emma took Buck's hand and stepped down from the wagon. She nodded her thanks, but her gaze was distracted by Jimmy and Kid as they walked past. "Remember, you two are needed back at the station before nightfall."
Jimmy's grin had her worrying, but she couldn't very well ride herd on the whole group at one time. Turning her attention to Ike and Buck she sighed. "I don't have to remind the two of you, do I?"
Ike shook his head and Buck's expression relaxed. "We're not planning on doing much of anything but helping you load the wagon."
Their earnest expressions made her smile. "You can have some fun, you know?"
Buck surveyed the town with a sweeping glance and it was obvious to Emma that what he saw he didn't like. "We're fine."
Emma reached out a hand and smoothed Ike's collar down where the wind had turned it up at an odd angle. The simple gesture had an odd effect on both of the boys. Ike gave her a slight smile and he seemed to lean into her touch, his eyes warm and affectionate. Buck's expression was neutral, but a muscle in his jaw tensed.
She slowly drew her hand back and gave them a smile. "I'll only be a few minutes inside, so you boys can stay here or you can- oh!" She nearly flattened herself against Sam as she turned. To keep her balance she set her hands against his chest. "Goodness, where did you come from?" She couldn't seem to step back from him, her hands nearly trembling against the firm wall of his chest. "I mean-"
"Hey there, Emma."
His voice always had the same affect on her, it seemed to rumble through her thoughts like thunder, sending shivers along her spine. "Sam."
She couldn't quite seem to muster the 'saucy' tone she usually used on him, but maybe it was because he had her by the shoulders, his thumbs just slightly moving against the ends of her collarbones. "You really oughta be more careful, Emma."
"I'm -" She was having trouble remembering what she was going to say, "Why?"
Sam leaned down just a bit closer and gave her a pointed look. "Because if I looked out here and saw some other man out here, holdin' you like this, I'd get real jealous, Emma. You don't want me to get jealous, do you, Emma?"
She couldn't seem to put her thoughts into words and it pleased him. He liked Emma when she was charming him, but he liked the way she reacted to him when he was close more. He knew how much effort it took her to answer him and he was pleased that she tried. "No, Sam, I wouldn't."
"Good," he answered back, a little quicker on the draw than the beautiful woman in front of him, "cause I'm about to hold you good and proper, Emma."
He watched as her mouth parted slightly and a flush crept into her cheeks.
"How I do love you, Emma Shannon." He didn't wait for her reaction; instead he wrapped her in his embrace, holding her tight against him as if his life depended on it.
She clung right back.