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The Story

By Madison


Copyright 1999

Chapter One

True Heroes

It was a beautiful night in the town of Seneca. People were wandering the streets enjoying the fair, and dining out to celebrate the event. I was in the middle of my supper, when I noticed the gunfighter and his lovely companion being seated two tables away from me, at the most luxurious restaurant the town offered. I could hardly believe my luck! Not too many journalists had the honor of being near the most famed gunfighter alive. His Navy Colts decorated with silver and ivory betrayed him. Wild Bill Hickok was here in Seneca! This was my chance to interview the legendary man everyone knew of. With butterflies in my stomach, I made my way to their table.

"Excuse me," I begged with sincere politeness. After all, I didnít want to make a bad impression. "My name is Jonathan Dean McKay. Iím a journalist," I told him confidently. "I was wondering Mr. Hickok, if I could interview you for my-"

"No," Hickok shot quickly. " Thank you."

His response was as quick as his notorious draw I noted, but my attention was soon diverted away. Up close I realized just how beautiful his lady friend was. She was a petite woman sporting a lovely blue dress with lace decorating the bodice. Her auburn hair fell just above her shoulders, allowing the candlelight to dance upon it. She was a heavenly lady for a remarkable man.

My presence seemed to make her uncomfortable, and I could only assume it was because of the swift change in Hickokís mood. His deep set eyes held strong determination in them, proving an interview was not permissible. With a bow of my hat I excused myself and allowed them to finish their dinner in peace.

Back at my table, I secretly tried to observe the couple. Rude? Yes, but only if you get caught! I blamed desperation for my lack of manners. I wanted to know more about the life of Wild Bill Hickok, whether he liked it or not! A fool could see the chemistry, the romantic eyes the two had for one another. However, I sensed that Hickok was almost afraid to indulge in it. Maybe a commitment phobia? Maybe wounded by another love in the past? So many questions, such little cooperation. Still, a journalist must be persistent!

When the two finished their supper, they prepared to leave the cozy restaurant. Hickok never gave me a second look, but his lady friend did. She felt me watching them and I quickly turned away from her suspicious eyes. By the time I returned my gaze back to my subjects, they were well out the door with me eagerly pursuing their trail.

The couple walked arm and arm up the street to the middle of town, where the citizens were holding an outside dance. I was deeply touched when shyly the woman in blue turned to the gunfighter and held out her arms, asking him to dance. I must say, I became envious when the two began swaying to the music. Though there was an awkwardness between them at first, it was obvious they held an unbreakable closeness. Hickok was a truly lucky man in this journalistís opinion.

Soon, their blissful moment was interrupted by gunshots ringing out across the town. Most of the startled citizens took cover, including me! The trouble started when the townís deputy, who was a young man with little law experience, noticed several men trying to rob the bank. The marshal had left two days ago escorting a prisoner to Fort Kearney to be hanged, leaving the young deputy all alone. To make matters worse, these were no ordinary thieves. They were mean, cocky killers who called themselves ĎThe Fallen Gangí. The title fit. The group brought havoc to little towns, killing husbands and fathers. Sometimes they even preyed upon women and children.

Like a true hero Hickok immediately went to the young deputyís aid. This courageous act didnít surprise me, but something else did. Without hesitation, he threw his companion one of his Navy Colts. This small woman went right into danger, firing the weapon with astonishing skill. Together, they wounded their adversaries with each shot fired. The young lady even managed to save the deputyís life by pulling him out of harmís way. By the time the firing ceased, the whole band was either wounded or dead.

The Fallen Gang was no more thanks to Wild Bill and his mysterious lady friend. I had never seen such bravery, loyalty, and skill in any other man or woman. I felt disappointed though that I knew nothing more of his companion. She was truly a one of a kind gal.

The Dime Novel

Two Weeks Later...

Jimmy, Lou, and Noah were gathered in the bunk house playing a hand of cards, when Cody wandered in. Their dust covered friend, who had just returned from a run, approached Hickok with a grin on his face. To the othersí amusement, Jimmy refused to acknowledge Codyís presence for a short while.

"You got something to say Cody, or do just like standiní by me?" His funniní as usual didnít detour Cody. Drawing from the past, Jimmy sensed a tale was to be told. Whatís so remarkable now? He wondered but didnít ask. His fellow rider was bound to ramble on regardless of whether the rest wanted to hear the exciting news.

"Thereís a new story out about ya," Cody informed Jimmy with more than a hint of curiosity in his voice. The dime novel had been on his mind since he left Willow Creek.

"That so?" The news didnít impress Jimmy. Fame seeking journalists plagued him with their imagination, showing no mercy. Dime novels werenít worth the paper, the ink, and the time it takes to make Ďem.

Mischievous intentions allowed Cody to shrug off Jimmyís lack of enthusiasm. "Itís called, ĎWild Bill Hickok and his Mysterious Mistress in Blueí." He knew the last part would capture Jimmyís attention. Never before in stories written about him, had a woman been given a title role. "By some author in Seneca. McKay, I think." As suspected, Jimmy and Lou exchanged glances. Hmmmm. "The book says, you and your mystery gal defeated some bandits there."

"I heard The Fallen Gang was captured there," Noah joined in. "A few weeks ago." It wasnít hard to figure where Cody was heading, and he was eager to follow.

With his blue eyes narrowed in suspicion the blonde rider interrogated, "You two werenít in Seneca around that time, were ya?"

Lou and Jimmy just looked at each other, knowing they werenít supposed to have been in Seneca that night. Their assigned destination was Hollenberg, which is really close to the lively town famous for its grand fairs. Since neither one could resist the temptation of enjoying Senecaís celebration, they fabricated an excuse for being gone so long. Delayed package. Honest.

"No," they answered in unison.

"We were in Hollenberg," Lou said matter-of-factly. It was true. Well, mostly. They did stop in the small town on their way back from Seneca. After all, they still had to pick up the package.

"Just wondering," Cody replied. "Oh," he added quickly. "Hereís copies of the story I picked up for you two." He distributed his gifts, taking note of the tense expressions plastered on their faces. "Seeing how you were both in Hollenberg at the time, maybe youíd like to read about what neither of you missed!" With a cunning grin Cody left the bunk house to go con Rachel into cooking extra food for supper. He was starved!

Lady Luck

Luck had never been such a lady before! My observations of James Butler Hickok were a thrilling success, making me a very wealthy man. Of course, I knew Mr. Hickok probably didnít share my enthusiasm. I got the impression he lacked a fondness for the press. However, I think he would enjoy my tale if he bothered to read it.

Oh, and the beauteous woman in blue! She was the tool used in making my adventure story a best seller, and I donít think Iíll ever be able to forget her. She deserves a tale all to herself! After all, who doesnít want to read about Wild Billís love?

Of course as a journalist, I am not allowed ethically to stray from the truth. Well, not too much anyway. There were a few minor details that didnít quite happen. I may have made their mutual attraction seem a bit more passionate toward the end, throwing in a kiss for the romantics at heart. I believe I claimed it was "one of the most unforgettable kisses in history," and that "all lovers in the world would have become envious after witnessing the lip lock." Everything else in my little novel is the truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God!

Back at the Bunkhouse

The ten cent magazine was unveiled to the others during supper, courtesy of Cody. Throughout the meal, Jimmy and Lou constantly traded unsure glances, hoping their express family wouldnít grow suspicious about the tale, or suspect that the lady mentioned was Lou. Surprisingly, Cody kept his theory to himself, and Noah copied his example despite holding similar thoughts.

The eldest at the station leaned back in his chair, enlightened by the dinner theme. "Funny thing," began the law of Rock Creek as he eyed Lou and Jimmy over. "I received a letter from the marshal of Seneca today which didnít make much sense Ďtil now." Knowing his riders well made it easy to spy the guilt creeping into their eyes. "He wanted me to thank you and your lady friend for helping his deputy while he was gone."

"When were you two in Seneca?" Rachel asked as she passed out second helpings of stew.

"They werenít," Cody eagerly answered for them. "They were in Hollenberg!"

"They?" Kid looked questionably at Lou, searching for answers. She offered none. She was too focused on the snitch sitting across from her.

"Oops," Cody muttered after receiving the evil eye from the pair in question. Teaspoon remembered sending Lou and Jimmy to Hollenberg, and it didnít take much to connect the two incidents. He also understood Senecaís spectacular fair was the reason behind their detour. "Delayed package, huh?"

Jimmy and Lou were speechless. There was no way around it. They were backed into a corner and had no other option but confession.

"We decided to stop for a day," Jimmy admitted bravely to Louís relief. "We just happened to pick the wrong day."

"So you did help defeat that gang?" Noah interrogated, finally throwing his two cents in.

Lou nodded. Their little adventure was out in the open. Surprise, surprise. Should have known weíd get caught. Oh well, Teaspoon didnít seem to mind our fibbing too much. Now it was time to face the questions.

"How did that author know who you were?" Buck asked curiously.

"McKay recognized Jimmy at the restaurant and asked to interview him," Lou explained. "When Jimmy turned him down, he began following us."

A huge smile spread over Codyís face. "So then this ainít a made up story?" And they thought they could keep this a secret? "Sounds like you two had a real interesting time. Real interesting."

"Whatís that suppose to mean?" Jimmy calmly demanded. He didnít like the gleam resting in the blonde riderís eyes.

"Just wish I had been there to see it myself," Cody replied, finding the whole scenario very entertaining. "Guess Iíll just have to stick to reading about you. Both of you!" Sensing how uncomfortable Lou and Jimmy were feeling, Rachel managed to change the dinner subject by hastily listing all the chores that needed to be done in the next couple of days. Pretty soon the riders were arguing about who should do what, and who did what last time. Usually their bickering made her head hurt, but today she was willing to suffer for Lou and Jimmyís sakes. Predictably, the riders would continue this conversation until they were all tired enough to sleep for days. And things are only gonna get crazier, she realized.

The Calm Before the Storm

Days Later...

The pounding hooves echoing over the horizon, notified the station of the tired steed approaching. "Rider coming!" Buckís warning encouraged Ike to mount up and prepare for the exchange Lou was eager to make.

"Have a safe ride, Ike!" Lou called as she halted Lightning beside the corral.

The grit clinging to her entire body spoke of the dust storm she had encountered, gaining Buckís sympathy. "Want me to take him for you?"

His offer was so tempting, but Lou was in no rush to encounter the Kid, who was probably waiting inside for her. "No, Iíll be fine." No four words had ever been harder to say.

Done with the boring task of fence mending, Cody approached Buck and asked with sarcasm drooling off his tongue, "How come you never offer to take my horse?"

"Youíre not as cute," Buck sparingly pointed out.

Cody cast his eyes upon the lady rider covered in filth before retaliating with a Ďif you say soí look. Realizing that being freshly bathed gave him an edge over Lou, he argued playfully, "Thatís a matter of opinion." Like a king, he strutted to the bunk house with his head held high, leaving Buck to laugh at his rooster pride.

In the little structure, Cody discovered Kid reading McKayís dime novel with a sour expression sketched on his face. Must be at one of the romantic parts. "Itís a pretty good story." "Descriptive," Kid muttered dryly. He could feel eyes watching him. "Something I can help you with?"

"Nahh....." Being the friend that he was, Cody felt obligated to announce Lulubelleís presence. Naturally, his only intention was to reassure Kid she was home safely, not to liven up the station with the joys of chaotic love. "Lou just rode in."

It didnít even take five seconds for Kid to exit the bunk house after hearing the delightful news. Cody counted! Of course, it didnít take him any longer to follow.

While brushing down Lightning, Louise allowed the story to play on her mind. After reading McKayís tale, she prayed Kid hadnít. He wouldnít like what the journalist wrote about her and Jimmy. It wasnít all true, but she kind of wished it was.

Locking lips with James Hickok was something she longed for ever since their little adventure with Elias. During that eventful trip, Jimmy kissed her passionately, and she could still recall how his lips felt against hers. They had always been drawn to each other, but McKay took that attraction and ran with it. Too bad Jimmy wouldnít.

The journalistís tale was well told, and different from other stories written about him. This novel didnít paint Jimmy as a man who killed twenty to thirty men on a regular basis. Instead, McKay showed Jimmy for the brave and loving man that he was, and he portrayed her as the woman she always wanted othersí to see her for. She wasnít a helpless damsel who needed protection. She was strong and independent. Of course, she didnít mind him calling her gorgeous either.

Voices hitching a ride on the wind grabbed her attention. Kid was gunning for the barn with his wanna be shadow close behind. "That little rat," Lou muttered under her breath. Cody just canít resist stirring up trouble.

"Lou," Kid called from the barnís doorway. He turned and threw the curious rider a Ďyou donít belong hereí look, though Cody attempted to play the naive card with hopes of staying. "Would you kindly leave?" Kid all but shouted. His tag along found the outburst amusing, but left upon request.

To avoid sounding rattled by his visit, Lou took a deep breath to calm herself. "Yeah Kid?"

"What exactly happened in Seneca?" He bravely and foolishly inquired.

"You already know," Lou responded defensively. "We ran into a little trouble, thatís all."

Her guarded manner wasnít reassuring, making him suspect hidden secrets. "Nothing else?"

"Kid!" Lou snapped heatedly. "Can we talk about this later? Iím not in the mood." She brushed by him, preventing him from asking questions of the heart. How could she explain the confused feelings dogging her? That she was attracted to Jimmy, and yet still in love with him. Everything seemed too complicated.

Heeding the warning her coldness gave, Kid resisted the urge to follow her, seeking out his informer instead. "Whereís Jimmy?" He demanded through the archway of the little shack called home.

"Iím not sure," Cody admitted with a shrug of his shoulders. "He rode out toward Larkinís Creek earlier."

Kid flew to the barn even faster this time, truly amazing Cody. He had a feeling that if Kid met up with Jimmy, another one of their little Ďchatsí about Lou would take place. Two men who loved to express themselves with their fists. Ouch!

Soon, Katy came tearing out of the barn with Kid encouraging her to run as if a prairie fire was snapping and crackling at her heels. Cody all most felt guilty for arousing more trouble. All most.

The Storm

"All grew quiet as death fell upon the remaining outlaw, bringing peace back to Seneca and allowing the citizens to emerge from hiding. Never before had any other man or woman shown such verifiable courage in this growing town. The pair, who was as well matched as the stunning Navy Colts holstered in Hickokís belts, were applauded for their bravery. But this couple wasnít searching for praise. They only longed to be wrapped in each othersí arms, with the enchanting tune Ď Waltz Of The Flowersí surrounding them. As their wish was granted, Hickok lowered his lips to embrace hers....." Jimmy closed the novel, noting how McKay was the first journalist to catch a glimpse of what the real James Butler Hickok was like, and the way he wrote about Lou was remarkable! He also recognized the strength that possessed her.

Luckily, the writer failed to discover her identity. If he had, Louís express days would have been over for sure! Still, Jimmy worried. The book told a few white lies about the flirtation between him and Lou, and it brought about thoughts he didnít feel right having.

There was a number of times he caught himself thinking about her, or looking at her in ways his best friend wouldnít appreciate. Lou was spoken for the instant Kid discovered her secret, and he would always keep her safe. Kid was the type you married and he wasnít because trouble would never stop dogging him. "Here it comes now," Jimmy noted as he saw Katy barreling towards him with unwavering speed. "Guess he read the story."

As Kid leapt from Katy, Jimmy flung himself to the side leaving nothing but solid ground for Kid to tackle. The impact stole his breath away, buying Jimmy a short moment for words. More than likely, there wouldnít be another one when Kid recovered.

"Canít we settle this a different way for once?" Jimmy asked, trying to avoid the traditional slug out over Lou. Unfortunately, Kid wasnít. He quickly lunged at his friend again, only this time Jimmy wasnít so lucky. He fall hard, and the Ďduelí was officially on.

It was the same old pattern. Kid threw the first punch, then Jimmy returned the favor. Back and forth, back and forth... it would continue until they were both exhausted. The only good side to their fights was the lessons gained from them. They were both experts at taking turns.

Despite Kidís aggressiveness, Jimmy managed to shove him forcefully into the dirt. "What the hell is wrong with you?"

"Just canít do anything without her, can you Jimmy?" Kid shot back. He wiped at the blood lacing his lower lip.

"What happened in Seneca ainít my fault!" Jimmy was tired of being blamed for the chaos that exploded around him. "That ainít why youíre mad either!"

"You-" Kid began, only to be interrupted.

"None of itís true, Kid!" Hopefully his explanation would put the Ďfireí out between them. "The fightís the only thing that took place."

"Why didnít you say something then?" Kid interrogated, certain Jimmy was denying the truth.

"You didnít give me a chance!" Jimmy exclaimed hotly. "How many times do we have to go through this? She loves you." Those painful words he never permitted himself to forget.

Kid was speechless. He had worked himself into a frenzy, and never considered talking to his friend before decking him. Realizing he had no right doubting Jimmyís word left him feeling like a fool. A jealous fool.

The Advertisement

My advertisement looked wonderful, proving all those art lessons had really paid off. The portrait I had drawn showed what my- I mean Hickokís- sweetheart looked like. This young woman had caught my fancy, and I was determined to discover more about her. When inquiring around Seneca left me empty-handed, I knew a different strategy was needed.

In order to find my little lady luck, I put a "bounty" on her precious head. Along with my sketch, there was a detailed description of the beauty and a fifty dollar reward. Money is always an incentive, and would surely increase the odds of locating her. In order to collect the loot, the "bounty hunter" must deliver her to me unharmed!

Within days my ad would be in every town throughout the territory! Oh, how I wanted this woman with a passion, and I had a feeling Hickok did too. If I was a betting man, Iíd wager where ever the lady went, Hickok was sure to follow. Another story in the works!

The Hunter

A Week Later...

The bounty hunter stepped up to the wall littered with the faces of outlaws, shoving other pursuers away from his "income." His eyes roamed over the Ďwant adsí until finding one he was partial to. "Whoa!" Jake Colter exclaimed. "I can see why he wants her." Although the bounty on the woman was low compared to the list of murderers advertised, Colter felt the itch to pursue her after spying, "Hickokís lady love? Howíd he get so lucky?" Like a pirate seeking treasure, Colter set off towards Rock Creek where his old acquaintance now lived. He couldnít wait to see Hickok again.

The Good With the Bad

Four Days Later...

The storm roused by McKayís creativity appeared to be calming since the station had put the novel behind them. Kid and Jimmy had made amends, returning things to the good old days. Not to say, ĎWild Bill and his Mysterious Mistress in Blueí was forgotten. After all, it made a great bedtime story!

The sudden, timid knock broke Teaspoon from his reflections, directing him to the scrawny fellow occupying his office threshold. "Can I help you son?"

Nodding, the young boy approached with a mass of papers clutched in his hands. "Mr. Bailey said to bring these to you, sir."

"Right on time," Teaspoon declared as he relieved the delivery boy of his Ďpackageí and sent him on his way. Keeping with tradition, Teaspoon began shuffling through the wanted posters when Louís picture came up clear as day. "Damn!"

His outburst gained his clumsy deputyís attention, and Teaspoon hastily sent him to investigate some stolen chickens. "This rewardís gonna cause some major trouble," he realized as he shoved the advertisement into the drawer and locked it. During supper, Louise and the boys would have to be warned about McKayís latest trick.

~**~

While lounging outside the bunk house, Jimmy and Lou traded opinions about Ďtheirí written adventure. Both admitted to finding parts of the book entertaining, though McKay had no right using their daring deed to his benefit! After all, they were the stars! Whereís their profit?

The money discussion was a hot debate until an approaching rider lured Louís attention away. "Whoís that?"

"A snake," Jimmy answered as the bounty hunter halted his horse before them. "Colter, what the hell are you doing here?"

The warm welcome met all his expectations. "Just thought Iíd pay you a visit, Hickok," Colter replied smugly. "Missed you so much aní all."

"Yeah, I bet you did." And the Easter Bunny delivers presents. Ones he made in his own workshop with a hundred elves painting dolls and such. Jimmy wondered what Colter would try and sell next.

The bounty hunter brushed his shoulder length hair away from his unshaved face, loving the reunion. "Arenít you gonna ask how Iíve been, Hickok?"

"No," Jimmy answered without a moments hesitation.

Hence, a miserable imitation of hurt feelings commenced, only ceasing after Lou caught Colterís eye. Since he admired the drawing of the wanted gal frequently, being a genius wasnít required to figure out her secret. "Whose your friend?"

"Heís a rider at the station," Jimmy informed the curious visitor. "Lou, meet Jake Colter."

"The bounty hunter that went after you?" She was surprised to see them talking and not shooting.

"The one and only. Tell me something, Lou," Colter began before pausing to light one of his cigars. "Is Hickok always this friendly, or is it just me?" How he missed giving the gunfighter a hard time!

A trail of smoke danced toward them, and Jimmy swatted it away from a choking Lou. "You didnít answer me, Jake. What brings you to Rock Creek?"

"Didnít realize we were on a first name basis yet. James, right?" The hunter taunted. "Colter!" Jimmy exclaimed, growing tired of games.

"Iím aiming to collect a bounty." After he took a moment to savor his cigar, Jake continued with his story. " I had a feeling the person Iím looking for headed in this direction."

That rang true to Jimmy. "Always after somebody."

"Yep," Jake agreed with a grin. "Course, Iím still longing to see your face on another wanted poster. Donít mean I donít like ya though."

Feeling that the men had some catching up to do, Lou began creeping to the sidelines. "Iíll leave you two alone."

"Nice meetiní ya," Colter called before she could dive into the barn. Then he returned his full attention to Hickok. "Done any reward hunting lately?"

"Chase was more than enough for me," Jimmy declared.

Memories of the ĎRobin Hoodí induced a crooked smile from the bounty hunter. "If we wouldíve just shot him like-"

"A dead man wanted alive wouldíve left us none the richer," Jimmy reminded him.

The five hundred dollar bounty which was split evenly amongst them, made the eventful expedition well worth it, though Lon Chase was no easy prey. He slipped out on his Ďhuntersí more times then they cared to remember. Of course, once the two money seekers realized Chase was innocent, they helped clear his name.

"Well Hickok," Colter began as he gathered his horseís reins tighter. "Itís been real nice seeing ya again, but I need to go find me a pretty lady." Throwing a sly smile, Jake waved goodbye and rode off.

"See ya around, Colter," Jimmy called after him before heading into the bunk house. "Jake ainít so bad," he noted. "Ainít so good either."

~**~

Her faithful horse gave a lonesome neigh since his stall mate was on duty. He always called for Katy when she gone, which she was today since Kid was on a run. The two horses were sweet on each other, just like her and the Kid.

Lou was so deep in thoughts, that she didnít hear the stranger sneak up behind her. Unexpectedly, a strong hand covered her mouth with a funny smelling rag and she began to struggle. Her efforts were in vain. By the time she realized what was happening, the ether had made her lose consciousness.

Chapter Two

The Chase

Marshal Hunter, with reward poster in hand, found his express crew already seated around the houseís small table, waiting for dinner to be served. The one rider he desperately wanted to see, was absent from scene. "Whereís Lou?"

Being the last person with her, Jimmy spoke up. "Sheís in the barn." She oughta just move her things in there, Jimmy mused, knowing the old structure was her getaway..... her not so secret hiding place.

"Jesse," Rachel called to the young boy. "Go call Lou for supper."

The fourteen-year-old rose to follow orders, but not before saying a prayer for the food. Please donít be gone when I get back. Course, with Cody here... Forgetting his manners, Jesse tore out to accomplish his mission. He had no time to waste with idle walking.

"Something wrong, Teaspoon?" Rachel asked after sensing the older man seemed troubled.

"Not yet, but there could be," he answered before holding up the advertisement. "Seems that McKay fellow has offered a reward to anyone who can identify Louise."

Cody left his hunger behind enough to inquire, "Why?" Then he piled on the mashed potatoes, smothering them with gravy. Pieces of meat lined the edges of his plate.

Not wanting to reveal his first thought, Teaspoon substituted it with the runnier up. "Looks like heís taken an interest in her." More than likely, Louise was the bait McKay needed to lure Jimmy to him. Some journalists were just too damn persistent.

The riders were momentarily distracted when Jesse flew in and returned to his dining spot. "She ainít there," he said before shoving a spoonful of food into his mouth.

"What?!" Teaspoon bellowed. "Any of you know where she might be?"

Suddenly Jimmy got a sick feeling in his gut. "That low down snake!" He declared loudly. "I know what happened to Lou."

Once again dinner was forgotten as Cody blurted out the question on everyoneís mind. "What?"

"Colter took her!" With murderous thoughts, Jimmy left the table, retrieving his hat and guns.

"Who?" Rachel asked in surprise. The name sounded vaguely familiar, but where had she heard it?

"The bounty hunter that tried to get Jimmy a while back," Cody reminded her nonchalantly.

"Let me handle this!" Jimmy demanded. He knew Colter better than others, and if anyone was going to get Lou out of this, it was him.

Teaspoon wasnít sure Hickok going alone was the best idea, but he also recognized the stubborn determination being displayed. There was no negotiating. "Ride safe, son."

~**~

The strange sensation of waking up on a horse caused Lou to stirred uneasily in the arms that cradled her. During her nap, she had been leaning back against her kidnapper. Her arms ached, and upon attempting to move them, she found her hands were bound tightly behind her back.

"Finally awake?" Colter whispered in her ear.

Riding double in Louís opinion was too close for comfort. His cologne, a mixture of sweat and smoke, was enough to make one throw themselves upon the mercy of the rain, begging for their suffering to be ended. "Colter, what the hell do you think youíre doing?"

"Well," he began, happy to enlighten her. "Iím aiming to collect the bounty on ya, Lou." How he longed to witness the shock washing over her face.

"What are you talking about?" Lou asked, bewildered by the news. "What bounty?"

After pulling the crumpled advertisement free from his exhausted coat pocket, Jake held it up for her to digest. "This one!"

Oh my God... <The once harmless story had now placed her life with the Pony Express in danger. "Colter, you canít do this!"

"That so?" He questioned smugly.

"Iíll lose my job!" Going medieval on the bounty hunter was tempting, but too dangerous of a play. A safer call was to work toward Jakeís Ďgood sideí, well....thatís if he actually has one. "Canít we work something out?"

"What did you have in mind?" He could only hope for something on the romantic side. It had been a long time since heíd been with such an attractive lady.

Before answering, Lou mustered all the friendliness she possessed. "Iím not sure, but there has to be some way..."

"Are you getting sweet on me?" Normally, he never mixed business with pleasure, but in Louís case, Jake was willing to make an exception. His desires were clearly carried in his words.

"What?!" This bounty hunter has some nerve thinking.... Control Louise. Stay composed. "Not that sweet."

"Donít suppose thatís negotiable?" He inquired, very amused by the conversation. "You really are a snake," she snapped. Jimmy definitely called you right.

"Well, you ainít exactly Miss Sunshine," he threw back, despite finding her company truly enjoyable. She was a spit fire, a challenge, and Colter loved a challenge. Especially when the challenge was a woman. Maybe Iíll just keep her.

"Colter if you turn me in I swear-"

"Maybe thereís a way we can both get what we want," he announced abruptly, carelessly interrupting her threat.

His words gained her curiosity, but not her faith. "Howís that?"

"Well Lou," Colter began. "Itís not really Lou is it?"

"Louise," she corrected. "You were saying?"

"Well Louise, I figure that maybe with a little team work, we can collect the bounty and protect you identity at the same time."

"And exactly how do we do that?" Lou inquired irritably.

"I bring you in dressed as a lady," Colter elaborated. Without asking her consent, he lit up one of his dependable cigars. "Then, you make up some story about yourself to tell this McKay guy, and I collect my reward."

The grand scheme reminded Lou of a leaking canteen. Very unreliable! "Thatís just great, Jake, but thereís just one small problem. I donít have anything to wear!"

"Youíre almost as friendly as Hickok," he remarked before blowing Oís in his cigar smoke.

"You just bring out the best in people," Lou retaliated with sarcasm gushing freely.

Jake didnít bother to take offense. He just grinned and admitted, "So Iíve been told." How he loved being with this lively girl, who would never do exactly what you wanted her to. Life would always be interesting with her by your side. Iím sure Hickok wouldnít mind me keeping her.....too much!

His plan was full of wrinkles, and Lou was determined to iron them out. "Where am I going to get a dress?"

"Hollenberg," he informed his prisoner. "Itís less then a half dayís ride from Seneca, and you can get dolled up there."

"Guess youíre buying," Lou commanded rather than asked. "Iím flat broke."

Funny, thatís my line! "Well.... being the gentleman that I am, I wouldnít have it any other way."

Lou just rolled her eyes, dismissing Jakeís misconception of what a gentleman actually was. Sheíd set him straight after this fiasco was over. "Once we meet McKay, then what?"

"I take you out to dinner," Jake added slyly.

"Iíd settle for a ride back to Rock Creek," Lou remarked boldly.

"That too." Jake wasnít sure, but he was beginning to think Louise was the woman of his dreams. Too bad they were only a few miles from Hollenberg, he was enjoying their quality time.

"Weíd better get our story straight then," Lou ordered. "Oh, and since Iím going along with this, would you mind untying my hands?!"

"Only if you promise to be good," Jake teased. Yep, he could definitely love this one. Such attitude was a hard trait to find in a woman these days.

~**~

The artistic sun gave the sky a damson color as it settled in for the night. If it wasnít for the hardships the celestial picture placed upon his quest, Jimmy would have appreciated its tremendous beauty. But not now.

As the sunís rays died out, conquered by the approaching night, traveling became a dangerous feat. Still, he had to push on. Since Colter wasnít the type to work too hard at anything, Jimmy was certain he would stop in the nearest town possibly. Hollenberg.

The Mission

It was just before the midnight hour when Kid arrived back at Rock Creek with the imperative duty of warning Lou- the troublesome journalist was searching for her. This he discovered hours ago, when he stumbled across the poster. Or rather, its carrier.

A bearded man wearing a buckskin coat stopped him just before he reached Thompsonís relay station, seeking information. In his filthy hands was the advertisement. After denying ever seeing the wanted beauty, Kid charged back to the station. Lou would need protecting, and that was his favorite job.

Cody, who was the only rider still awake at the station, stopped writing in his journal when the bunk house door swung open, presenting Kid. "Hey," he called softly. "What are you doing back so soon?" This time, he was in no hurry to play the informer.

"I had to come back to warn...." Kidís voice trailed off as her empty bunk struck chills in his heart. "Whereís Lou?"

"Kid," Cody began, unsure of how to deliver the story. "Before you get in an uproar..."

"Where is she?" Kid interrupted, wanting answers not advice.

Knowing his friend had a tendency to over react when it came to the lady rider made him reluctant to surrender the news. Unfortunately, Kid wasnít giving options. "Sheís been kidnapped."

Worry and anger rose in him. "Someone just rode in here and took her?" Kidís heated words awakened the sleeping riders.

"Itís gonna be all right," Noah joined in after a few moments of silence. "Jimmy is right on their tail."

"Jimmy?" Kid repeated angrily. "Just Jimmy?"

"He didnít want us to come with," Buck added, trying to extinguish the heat facing Noah. "Teaspoon agreed...."

"Damn it!" Kid shot loudly. "Jimmy canít resist playing hero!" He tore out of the bunk house, ignoring the pleas of his trailing bunk mates.

Buck, along with the others halted on the porch, watching Kid disappear into the barn. "Think we should go with him?" He asked. Ike just shook his head.

"Wonít do any good," Cody pointed out matter-of-factly.

"Just when you thought things couldnít get any worse," Noah noted more to himself than the others. "They do." Hesitantly the group retreated back inside, although the nightís chaos would never allow them a peaceful sleep.

Let Us Unite

It was a cool night in Hollenberg with all the respectable citizens safe in their homes, fast asleep. Only the rowdy cowboys, gamblers, saloon girls, and of course Colter and Lou were venturing around. Both the bounty hunter and his Ďdreamí lady were wistfully seeking out the hotel.

Upon entering the dainty establishment, the travelers approached the front desk, where Colter began tapping the bell, demanding service. They were greeted ten minutes later by the owner who wore only long johns and a scowl.

"Can I help you?" He asked with all the politeness he could assemble, which wasnít enough to fill a tablespoon.

The icy manner exhibited, didnít faze Jake. "Yeah, we need a room."

Not in the mood to share any quarters with her kidnapper nor would she ever be, Lou corrected, "Two rooms."

Nodding, the keeper presented the keys. "Room 32 and 34, up the stairs to your left." Before surrendering the items he decided to make their unpleasant arrival beneficial by doubling the bill. "Thatíll be four dollars."

The news bewildered Colter, and he glanced at Lou truly shocked. "Four dollars?"

"Thatís what I said," the keeper firmly stated. "Either pay or-"

"Heíll pay," she insisted. Jakeís display of bold reluctance was the match igniting Louís temper. "Pay him!"

As his money was exchanged with bad grace for keys, Colter spied the satisfied gleam bedding in Louís eyes. She was loving his torment. Four dollars? Ainít no room worth more than a dollar!

Louís desire for a soft bedís comfort prompted her to rip one of the keys free from Jakeís hand. "Guess Iíll see you in the morning." She was leaving him to tend the unfinished business.

As Louise proceeded up the stairs, Colter went to put his horse up for the night. He wasnít worried about her running out. If she did, he could still tell McKay enough about her secret life to make her regret it.

At the livery stable, Jake paid the owner two dollars to take care of his exhausted animal, and preceded back to the hotel. Before he could even round the stable corner he was caught off guard by a strong fist colliding with his face. He looked up, not the tinniest bit surprised by the friendly hand offered.

"Nice seeing ya again, Hickok," he commented sarcastically through an aching jaw. "Was wondering when you were going to show up."

"Where is she, Colter?" Jimmy demanded as he towered over the bounty hunter with anger seething from him.

Still where he had fallen, Jake commenced searching all around him with amused eyes. Then innocently he inquired, "Who?"

Not up for Jakeís antics, Jimmy Ďhelpedí him to his feet by grasping his dirty coat collar. "Donít play games with me," he warned.

"Sheís at the hotel," Jake confessed. "Room 32, but sheís probably sleeping like a baby by now."

Jake watched unconcerned as the gunfighter rushed to meet his missing masquerader. Lou would go through with the plan, whether Hickok liked it or not. What option did she have? Performing the charade was the only way to get the journalist off her back as well as other money seekers. After brushing the dirt off him, Colter idly sauntered off to witness the happy get-together.

Praying the truth was told for once, Jimmy knocked on room 32ís door, anxious to set eyes on the lady rider. When the door creaked open and her pretty little head peeked out, his heart skipped at beat, relieved to find her safe.

"Jimmy!" Lou exclaimed joyously as she stepped out into the hall and gave him a big, long hug. "Iím so glad to see you!"

Without permission, his hands caressed her cheeks, smoothing locks of hair away from her face. He couldnít resist touching her. "You all right?"

"Yeah," Lou reassured him with a delicate smile. "Colter and I have a plan to get McKay off my tail."

"You and Colter?" Jimmy exclaimed in confusion. "Youíre working together?"

"That so strange?" Jake interrogated from behind. He had been watching the merry reunion for some time now.

"Here, both of you come inside," Lou commanded firmly. "There are a lot of things we need to discuss if weíre gonna fool McKay."

Working with Colter gave Jimmy an uneasy feeling in his gut. After all, he had kidnap Lou with the intention of trading her for money. Shooting the bounty hunter was a much more appealing, satisfying option. But, if Lou was willing to work with Colter then he would too. Maybe when this is all over....

~**~

Kid urged the skittish bay horse he was riding on through the early morn, missing Katyís dependable footing. Leaving her behind and taking the younger, flightier horse was in her best interest after that enduring ride she suffered earlier. Although exhausted himself, Kid was too worried about Lou to hold up until dawn. Tempered flames grew more fierce when he thought about Jimmy ordering the others to stay behind. "Wouldnít want her to indebted to anyone else," Kid grumbled bitterly.

~**~

The small town of Hollenberg came alive the next day with the typical rituals of life. Children rushing toward the school house, dropping books along the way. Goods being gathered and sold. To make this ordinary morning bliss, a soft breeze kissed the creatures in itís path gently, lifting their spirits.

Inside the Tailorís Shop, Jake was growing increasingly impatient. Poor Louise couldnít make up her mind on which dress to pick. There was a pale lavender one with pretty little floral prints she liked, but then there was another outfit that had also struck her fancy. It was a set that consisted of a black skirt, a white shirt, and a black satin vest. The lavender dress came with an attractive hat, but the black attire came with gloves! She had modeled both of them for Colter and Hickok several times already.

"Which one?" Lou, who was presently sporting the lavender dress asked.

"Which everís cheaper," Colter smarted. Lou chose to disregard his penny-pinching ways, and turned to the person whoís opinion actually meant something to her.

"Iíd go with the skirt and vest," Jimmy suggested. The apparel had fetched his liking the moment he saw her wearing it.

"Shall I wrap it for you?" The dressmaker inquired.

"No, I think Iíll wear it." Lou had washed up before coming, but it almost seemed pointless since Colter was going to throw her right back on a smelly horse. At least sheíd be able to wear it to breakfast before they headed out. "Iíll be right back," she promised before dashing into the dressing room to put on her new clothes. Naturally, she would fix her hair up with the pins she had been given. A lady always makes herself presentable.

Unable to resist the urge any longer, Jimmy picked up the jewelry he had been eyeing. "Weíll take these too," he announced to the dressmaker who was collecting the money owed on the dress.

"What!" Jake cried as he gazed upon the pearl earrings. Jimmy pulling out his own money appeased him.

Upon returning, Lou twirled around so the men could see how gracefully she had done up her hair. "How do I look?"

"Real nice, Lou," Jimmy commented after letting a low whistle escape.

"Definitely easy on the eyes," Jake added with a grin.

"Oh, I have something for you," Jimmy confessed as he held up the pearl earrings. "Theyíll go real good with your dress."

"Jimmy!" Lou cried happily. "You didnít...."

"I wanted to." Seeing her face light up as she immediately put them on was like watching children at Christmas. It filled him with joyful feelings.

Gently, Lou placed a delicate kiss on Jimmyís cheek, and when he returned the favor, his lips barely missed hers, landing less softly on her cheek. "Thank you," she whispered. Oh and for the earrings too.

"I bought the dress," Jake pointed out half teasingly. "Whereís my kiss?"

"You get fifty dollars, remember?" Lou remarked. "But if everything goes all right......maybe." And that was a big maybe.

"Ready to go?" Jimmy shyly asked. He held out his arm, insisting on escorting Lou to breakfast properly. After eating, their journey would begin. But would they fool the fame seeking journalist?

Damsels in Distress

Less than three hours from Seneca, gunshots exploded in the south, rustling Kid away from his previous mission. Upon arriving where trouble and danger was thriving merrily, he discovered two young women trying to fight off a couple of rowdy thieves. The ladies displayed their inept ability with a gun every time they fired to their attackers amusement.

With weapon drawn, Kid came to their aid, being their daring knight without a sword of course. His adversaries, who only preferred to hunt those weaker, were scared off by his bravery, taking only their wounds -courtesy of Kid- with them.

Once it was safe, Kid asked, "Are you ladies all right?"

"Thanks to you," one of the women replied. Before leaving the shelter her carriage offered, she straightened her pink floral dress. "Iím Cynthia Hope, and this is my little sister, Eliza."

The younger girl, who was the tender age of sixteen, smiled pleasantly at her savior. "Itís nice to meet you, Mr...?"

"Folks just call me Kid," he answered sheepishly.

"You donít look like a kid to me, Kid," Cynthia observed. "You definitely donít act like one." Youíre brave and strong..... oh and real cute. But you look a little tired. Almost as if youíve been riding nearly forever just to save me.

"I hate to ask this of you," Eliza confessed as she drew closer. "But could you possibly help us change our buggyís wheel?" Their wheel had broken when they tried to out run the cowboys through the rough terrain. Luckily they had a spare.

Kid nodded, though every part of him wanted to be after Lou. Still, leaving the women stranded would be wrong. Fixing the wheel would probably only take an hour of his time, maybe he wouldnít be too late. Maybe.

Chapter Three

Initiation

It was late afternoon when the trio arrived on the out-skirts of Seneca. The two express riders, who had been riding double, were basking in the closeness they shared. Lou had the pleasure of being seated in front so her dress wouldnít get too dirty, and the added bonus of Jimmyís hands cradling her small waist. Both riders were disappointed to see Seneca looming in the distance, but on the bright side, they would get to ride home like this!

Feeling worn-out by their bashful, yet offensive flirting Colter turned to his bounty. "Ready?" He couldnít wait to finish this job, though it did have a few perks. Rousing Hickokís temper being one.

"Itís now or never," she noted. Gathering her courage, Lou slipped out of Jimmyís embrace, swinging on Colterís mouse brown horse. She could only hope while stumbling through this dangerous plan, they missed the deadly holes it surely had.

"Weíll be back within an hour or two," Colter informed the tense gunfighter. If everything goes all right.

"If not, Iím coming after you," Jimmy guaranteed. He had an uneasy feeling, and waiting outside of town was gonna be harder then using his fist to pound nails into a stone bed. Still, it was for the best. As Lou waved goodbye and Colterís horse spurred forward, Jimmy felt his heart lull momentarily. The game was officially on.

 

We Meet Once More

The soft music dancing through the restaurant was soothing, and after pushing my empty plate to the side, I began working on my next Wild Bill novel. Immediately the words of my adventure story began gracefully flowing from my pen, and I allowed my work to take hold of me. Such a strong grip it held that I scarcely heard the voice calling to me.

"Mr. McKay?" a rugged manís voice beckoned. "I think I have someone you were interested in meetiní." When I glanced up, I could hardly believe my search was successful. Hickokís lady was standing right in front of me! "Please, both of you have a seated," I requested after finally finding my voice. "First off, let me apologize for the measures I took to find you, Miss-?"

"When do I get my reward?" the bounty hunter demanded rudely. His lack of manners embarrassed the young woman, sending thoughts of returning his offensive behavior through my mind. But for the ladyís sake, I maintained my gentle nature.

"Soon," I responded with all the politeness I could muster. "I donít believe I caught your name?" I asked directly of the Hickokís love.

"Colter. Jake Colter." The arrogant hunter knew I wasnít addressing him. Mr. Colter was a very cocky man, who found his obnoxious attitude humorous. How unbearable for her to have had him for a traveling companion!

"Why exactly were you looking for me, Mr. McKay?" The heavenly creature before me inquired. Her soft brown eyes were captivating, and the way the light reflected off her swept up hair was stunning.

"I had to meet you," I remarked truthfully. "After seeing what a marvelous team you and Hickok made, I had to know more." I was eager to hear the tale only she could give me about herself and the gunfighter. "I have so many questions...... like how did you two meet?"

"Weíre childhood friends," she confessed hesitantly. "Back in Illinois, our families were quite close."

"Really?" Every word that came out of her pretty little mouth had my complete attention. I was overjoyed to be conversing with her! "What was he like as a child?"

"Oh," she began thoughtfully. "Impulsive, adventurous, and playful. We were always investigating."

Hearing about their childhood was inspiring. "Investigating?"

"All sorts of things," the gunfighterís sweetheart declared. "He was escorting me to my auntís farm when we met you."

"I hate to interrupt this enlighten conversation, but as for a matter of payment?" The inconsiderate man inquired once again.

"Of course." Without further delay I surrendered the money with tested patience. I wanted him gone! "Thank you for your time, Mr. Colter." I was certain the man would leave once he received the cash, but he didnít. He remained next to my wanted gal, leading me to question the motive behind his actions. If he thought I was going to let him put one filthy finger on this girl, he was wrong! My powerful request that she be brought unharmed was probably the only thing that had restrained him from attacking her. It certainly wasnít morals. "Youíre free to leave, Mr. Colter."

"If you insist," he answered with smugness thriving in his voice. "Letís go, woman."

"The lady isnít going anywhere with the likes of you!" I snapped heatedly. My outburst seemed to startle her, but I wasnít going to let this mountain man take advantage of her. It was obvious his intentions were not honorable.

"Yeah she is," he hissed with the same determined attitude I held.

Of course being no fool, I realized Colter would easily defeat me. Sometimes the pen isnít mightier than the sword, or the gun in his case. Still, I had to be a paragon of chivalry for this fair maiden. I stood up abruptly, as did Colter and Hickokís lady, not caring that our quarrelsome behavior had drawn the attention of many dining bystanders.

"Would you both please..."she pleaded only to have the man cut her off as well.

"Weíre going, and if you try and follow us ya little pencil pusher," Colter said threateningly. "Iíll put so many holes in ya that youíll whistle every time the wind blows."

"Iíll be fine," My lady luck claimed, trying to reassure me.

With an obnoxious smile he pulled her by the arm, hauling her out of the restaurant. The poor girl must have been confused by the whole ordeal to leave with that man! The nerve of some people! He rudely interrupted a most enjoyable conversation, and is sadly mistaken if he thinks heíll escape with it.

~**~

Every second was perpetual suffering for Jimmy, and as the hour drew to a close, his restlessness grew to unbearable heights. "I gotta go after her," he declared to the stillness surrounding him as if challenging nature to stop him. Iím coming, Lou! Iím.....Lou? Sure enough, Colter and Lou were galloping toward him at a fierce pace. As soon as the horse halted, Lou slide off and hustled to him, visibly upset.

"Whatís wrong?" He asked concerned.

"Colter," Lou began, tossing an annoyed look at the cigar loving man. "And McKay got in a scuffle at the restaurant."

"Not my fault," Jake protested. He found the journalist rather annoying, like a fly you had a real itch to swat.

"What happened?" Jimmy could only imagine what Jake had done to infuriate the journalist.

"Jake insisted on getting his money, interrupting McKay whenever he tried to talk," Lou elaborated. "Pretty soon, theyíre arguing over who I can leave with."

"You know how temperamental authors can be, Hickok," Jake explained in his defense.

"Letís go, woman?" Lou hissed when she remembered Colterís previous command.

Jake couldnít help but chuckle at her blazing temper. "Donít worry, he ainít gonna bother us again. Told him if he did, Iíd fill him full of holes." Heís gotta be scared senseless by our little confrontation. Or so he reckoned until beating hooves proved otherwise.

"Great," Jimmy muttered as the pesky journalist came dashing over the hills, speeding toward them. How things could spin this out of control amazed him. If itís not one thing, itís another.

The Ladiesí Hero

"Well," Kid began after finally getting the buggy wheel securely on. "You ladies gonna be okay by yourselves now?"

"Oh!" Cynthia cried as if a helpless princess. "What if they come back? I feel so much safer with you here!"

Eliza couldnít believe her sisterís nerve. Once a man caught Cynthiaís eye, she would do anything to get him. Usually with her bashful brown eyes and curly blond hair, she didnít have to work too hard. But somehow, Eliza sensed this time she would. The Kid seemed very preoccupied, like he had somewhere important to be. Of course none of this would matter to her sister.

"Please," Cynthia begged as she traced her fingers along Kidís chest. "Be my dearest hero."

Eliza, realizing what a manipulative creature her older sibling was, decided to come to the young manís aid. "Actually Kid," she began sincerely. "Iím sure weíll be all right by ourselves now." She didnít miss the wicked glare Cynthia tossed her.

"You sure?" Kid asked like only a true gentleman would.

"Yes. My uncleís place is only about a mile....."

"Eliza!" Cynthia snapped. Oops! That came out bad... cover it! "Youíre making Kid feel unwelcome." Her attempted disguise failed.

"Actually, I really should be going," Kid insisted as he rushed to his horse. "I have to meet some friends."

"Bye Kid," Eliza called as he galloped away. Cynthia said nothing. She was steamed Kid was leaving, and even angrier at her sister for encouraging him to go.

A Losing Hand

It was almost as if Lou and Jimmy were trapped in a bad dream or in a poker game which always dealt them a losing hand. Things had gone from bad to worse within a very small time frame, and only speedy thinking would save them now.

"Drop your gun," Jimmy demanded of Colter, drawing his own navy colt against their conspirator. "Now!"
"What?!" Jake found the request terribly offensive. "Iím not...."

"Just do it Colter!" Hickok ordered. "We have to fool him before he gets here." The only way to prevent McKay from becoming suspicious was to have him Ďsaveí Lou right now. "We donít got time to argue!" Reluctantly Jake complied, allowing his weapon to fall to the earth.

"Better put your hands in the air too," Lou suggested as she retrieved the firearm and aimed it at him. "It will look more real that way."

"Itíll look more real that..." the bounty hunter began mockingly until he heard his own gun cock. Suddenly, he didnít feel comfortable with Lou holding his revolver. "Oh please Wild Bill," Colter cried sarcastically as the journalist grew closer. "Donít shoot me!" His behavior screamed of rebellion, however, he wasnít dumb enough to betray his friends. After all, Lou was all too ready to fire.

The journalist, who held great pleasure in Jakeís position, halted his horse beside Hickokís golden palomino. "Thank God! I was afraid something terrible might happen."

"Everythingís fine," Jimmy reassured in a very restrained mannerism. The authorís Ďheroicí act disgusted him......How he could charge to the rescue like some brave and noble soldier, sporting this great concern over the fair belleís well-being and not stop to think, ĎI started this hellish chaos. Iím the true villainí.

McKay, eager to witness the bounty hunterís demise, asked, "What are you going to do with him?" Send him to hell, hopefully.

Jimmy shook his head, forcing himself to continue the charade. "Not much I can do. He hasnít broke the law."

McKay became consumed with bewilderment. "What do you mean he hasnít broke the law?! He kidnapped your lady!"

"I wonder why?" Jimmy interrogated with sarcasm seeping. Then he glared viciously at Colter. "You," he roared. "Ride out of here, and donít let me catch you near her again." The bounty hunter immediately rode off, leaving his gun behind. Naturally, he would expect to get it back later.

"It was nice meeting you, Mr. McKay," Lou remarked as she climbed on back of Jimmyís horse.

"Wait," McKay pleaded as Jimmy encouraged his mount onward. "Wait....."

As the two figures galloped away, Jonathan Dean McKay felt consumed by disappointment, yet soothed by one simple thought. Though the remarkable woman he once longed to identify would always remain a mystery, he could still play on the love he noted, making them as well as himself famous. Besides, why make another bad investment by seeking her out again, when he could rely on his own wild imagination?

Sweet Good-Byes

Two miles from Senecaís border the express riders reunited with their stir -crazed conspirator, relieved that their wild scheme succeeded inspite of the vicious current it had been sailing on.

"We couldíve just shot him," Colter pointed out to the group. "Been doing the town a favor."

"Jake!" Lou cried. "If you would of showed a little manners things wouldnít have gotten so out of hand!"

"Knowing Jake, he probably did," Jimmy responded, confident the hunter used what little courtesy he possessed.

"Atleast, he doesnít know the truth about our little tomboy here," Jake teased. He still admired the spirit thriving within the masquerader, and if Hickok wasnít in the Ďpictureí, he would have chased her relentlessly. But seeing how Hickok was a friend-at least in an odd sense- Jake backed down from the temptation.

"I really appreciate you not telling," Lou sincerely told Colter before returning his gun. By guarding her secret, Jake proved to be nothing like a heartless rattlesnake, but rather a harmless bull snake. And though he contributed to the madness McKay stirred, Lou rewarded his kindness by giving him a butterfly kiss on the cheek- tender....but very brief.

"Are you getting sweet on me again?" Colter inquired.

"Maybe," She responded softly.

"Youíre not so bad, Jake," Hickok added as he approached and shook the hunterís hand.

"Yeah....well...letís just keep that between you and me," Colter joked half seriously. "Iíll be seeing ya, Hickok," he promised as he prepared to ride out. "Louise, take care." Both the express riders called good-bye to their friend as he rode away, certainly off to cause more trouble.

"Jakeís quite the character," Lou noted as she stood beside her companion, reflecting on the last couple of days. "Itís strange, how much has happened to us lately."

"Yeah it is," Jimmy agreed.

Smiling, Louise gently brushed away the strands of hair framing Jimmyís face. Her touch sparked an urge to kiss her, but he denied himself the pleasure. Instead they held each other hypnotized with their soft brown eyes.....an unspoken confession dancing around them.

"We should get going," she said though reluctant to break such a powerful moment. "The others are probably worried sick."

"Youíre right," he reaffirmed, before the lock was broken. "Itís time we went home." As Jimmy helped Lou on the horse, proving his faith by taking the back seat, he prayed this ride would be the longest he ever endured.

Loveís Puppets

Thunderous hooves striking the prairie alerted the traveling duo to the rider approaching, and they turned to get a better look at the bay horse speedily arriving. Soon the steed presented a very familiar face.

"Kid!" Lou cried excitedly. Once his mount halted, she dashed to his side.

"Iíve been so worried," Kid confessed as he examined his love over.

"Iím fine, Kid."

Jimmy remained on his golden palomino, wounded by Louís actions. A hurt he scolded himself for. Kid was the better man for Lou......it didnít matter that his own feelings for her grew stronger every day, and that sometimes he knew she held the same confusing thoughts dogging him......that maybe just maybe they could be magical together. But, he never let himself fall into the trap of Ďhappily everafterí. He could never offer her that, and he wasnít fool enough to believe so. However, Jimmy knew Kid would come as close as the stars are to heaven for Lou. He deserved the honorable position of being Louise McCloudís man. Not because he understood her better, or loved her more. It was because Kid could give Lou the one thing Jimmy couldnít offer. A future. One where trouble wasnít presenting itself as regularly as the sun rises and sets.

"Why donít you ride with Kid now," Jimmy suggested, fighting off his aching heart.

"Jimmy?" Lou gasped, finally realizing how wounded he was.

"It will make it easier," he explained bravely. "On my horse." He hoped Lou wouldnít push things further. Have your future, Lou.

Never before had she felt so torn. Although she still loved Kid, her attraction for Jimmy had grown way past just that. I canít let you off the hook that easy, Jimmy, Lou secretly decided as she gazed upon the gunfighter. Iím not lettiní you sink back into that ĎI canít be with anyoneí stage. After all, how many times does a girl have to prove herself ?! Not wanting to hurt either man made her situation quite tricky. Luckily, she recognized the horse Kid was riding.

"Oh no," Lou cried. "Thereís no way Iím gettiní on that horse!" Quickly, she ventured back to the calm palomino, swinging on back since Jimmy once again occupied the saddle. "Lou?" Kid questioned, objecting to her actions. He realized soon after that pushing the matter would only make Lou mad, so he tried to cover his protest. "When did you get that dress?"

"When we stopped in Hollenberg," Lou answered, avoiding his suffering blue eyes. "Donít you boys think we should get going?" Even though the sun was descending, she was eager to reach homeís comfort.

"Yeah," Kid agreed quietly. Change lured in the air, though he wasnít sure any of them were ready for it. Only time will tell.

Night was well settled in by the time the three express riders finally decided to make camp. The two hours they actually rode felt a lot longer due to the silence overpowering them. During campís construction, Lou went to change into her daily disguise. While she was gone, the two men avoided each other, finally coming to terms with how much they both cared for her.

The storybooks paint an untrue image of love. It was never simple. Love was really a confusing subject that often gave tough lessons. In a sense, love was a puppet master, and you were its puppets. It controlled you, making you do crazy things when ever it fancied pulling your strings. Why people needed each other so much was a question they were all wondering. Until an answer was found, they would continue to play loveís cruel game.

The End

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