Lou looked up from the letter she was engrossed in as she heard the sound of a horse approaching the waystation. There weren’t any arrivals scheduled until the next day, so her curiosity was understandably piqued. She gently refolded the letter from Teresa and tucked it under her pillow with the intent to read the rest later. She jumped down from the bunk and walked cautiously onto the porch.
Kid and Jimmy looked up from the fence they were busy repairing and tried to discern the identity of the approaching rider, but neither recognized the lone figure. Lou was soon in the yard standing beside them, shielding her eyes from the sun with one of her hands.
“Who is that? Cody ain’t due back ‘till tomorrow and Noah just rode out today.” Lou inquired.
“I don’t know, but whoever it is, they seem to be in a hurry.” Kid replied, stepping closer to Lou. Something told him their new arrival would bring trouble, and he learned long ago that he was right about these things most of the time.
Jimmy laid his hammer down on the makeshift work bench and reached unconsciously for his guns, which he realized he wasn’t wearing. He fought the urge to curse and instead straightened his back rigidly, hoping the stranger wasn’t going to bring any trouble to them.
After what seemed like an eternity but was actually only a few moments, the rider pulled to a halt in front of the trio. Kid eyed him warily as he dismounted and strode to face them. He pushed his tattered black head further up on his forehead, revealing ruggedly handsome features. His blue eyes traveled from Jimmy to Kid, and rested finally on Lou. Kid watched in surprise as Lou stepped forward and spoke three words so soft that he had to strain his ears to hear them.
“You found him?”
“You bring the others?”
“They’re waitin’ at the saloon.” the stranger replied.
“I’ll get my horse.” Lou said as she turned to walk to the stable.
Kid looked at Jimmy in confusion, and then turned to look at the stranger once more before following after Lou. He’d never seen Lou look so detached and unemotional before. He wanted answers, and although he knew Lou could be stubborn when she wanted, he was going to try to get something out of her.
“Lou, who is that?” Kid demanded as he walked over to Lou, who was busy preparing Lightning for a ride.
“Someone I used to know.” Lou responded absently. Kid winced slightly as he recognized the short explanation he’d given to Lou not too long ago when Doritha had come to Rock Creek.
“What’s this all about Lou, where are you goin’?”
“I can’t talk about this right now Kid. I have to get goin’.”
“At least tell me who he is.”
“It ain’t important Kid. I’ll be back later.” Lou said as she brushed past him, Lightning in tow. Kid watched her retreating back and fought the urge to run after her and demand an explanation for the stranger’s appearance, and her odd behaviour. Instead, he walked slowly to Jimmy who was watching the horizon as the riders disappeared, leaving only a thick cloud of dust.
“What was that all about?” Jimmy asked, his brown eyes filled with concern.
“Lou ain’t sayin’ nothing, but I can tell you one thing, I think we’re in for some trouble.”
“You think we should follow them?”
“No Jimmy... Lou will tell us what this is about when she’s ready.” kid calmly replied.
Jimmy looked at his friend in astonishment. Kid hadn’t exactly been all that confident in Lou’s abilities to handle herself in the past. However, Jimmy had to concede that Kid had been more supportive of Lou’s decisions lately. He lifted his eyebrows, but said nothing. Kid didn’t seem to notice this as he walked towards the side of the house.
“Where you goin’ Kid? We got to finish this fence.” Jimmy called after him.
“I think Rachel needs some more firewood.” Kid said simply.
“Same ol’ Kid.” Jimmy muttered as he went back to his task, hoping the work would take his mind off the petite rider.
Lou’s heart was in her throat as she walked through the swinging doors into the saloon. She stood beside her silent companion, surveying the room. The pair hadn’t spoken at all, words weren’t necessary. They both knew why he was there and why he’d brought the others. They’d found him.
“Well I’ll be, Lou McCloud! You done growed up nice and pretty.” a slightly slurred voice whispered in her ear.
She recognized the deep voice and a smile splt her face as she turned and looked at the tall man. “Wish I could say the same for you Charlie.” she returned.
“You wound me my lady.”
“Shh...not so loud. Not everybody knows that...”
“What? they must be blind if they can’t see--”
“If you two are finished, I suggest we get down to business. Where’s Ben?” her original visitor cut in.
Charlie looked at Lou and rolled his eyes before he led the pair to a table in the corner, far away from the various poker games and other patrons. Lou took the time to inspect her old friend. He looked to have aged ten years in the past few. He couldn’t have been more than thirty now, but the lines on his face made him look almost forty. His brown eyes still had the same impish twinkle though.
As soon as they reached the table, a lone figure looked up and narrowing his eyes at Lou. She ignored his glare andsat at the table, the others following suit. Ben roamed a critical eye over her before shaking his head in disgust and directing himself to Charlie and Sean.
“She’s not comin’.”
“What are you talkin’ about?” Lou asked angrily.
“Look, I’m doin’ you a favor. We may not be comin’ back from this.” ben said softly.
“Don’t get all noble on me now Ben, I’m goin’.”
“If I say you ain’t, then you ain’t.”
“We made a pact. I gave my word and I’m not breakin’ it.”
“Don’t be a fool, I’m lettin’ you out of this, don’t you understand?” He replied, his black eyes flashing in anger.
“I don’t need to be ‘let’ out of anythin’. I’m goin and that’s final.” Lou stated firmly as she crossed her arms across her chest.
“Aw let her go Ben. She knows what she’s doin’.” Charlie argued.
“I agree. Daniel was like a father to her, just like he was to us. She has the same right we do to get revenge.” Sean spoke quietly.
Ben sighed in frustration. “Still stubborn as a mule.” he muttered, and lou smiled, knowing she’d won the argument. The smile soon faded as they went over their plans.
Kid watched from the porch as Lou rode in and smiled in relief. He’d been worried about her all afternoon. He jumped up from his spot and walked towards her, dread filling his stomach as he looked into her troubled eyes.
They didn’t say anything until they were safely in the barn. Kid could contain his curiosity no longer, and he suddenly turned to her, “Lou, who was that man and what did he want with you?”
Lou took a deep breath and looked into Kid’s eyes. She knew he wouldn’t rest until he knew the story, so she sat down on a bale of hay and prepared herself to tell him the story of her past.
“The man’s name is Sean Murphy and I used to work with him at a cattle ranch in New Mexico territory a few years ago.” Lou began.
“A cattle ranch? You never told me about that.”
“I ended up in New Mexico after I got away from Wicks.” Lou said painfully. “I needed work and a man named Daniel Sullivan took me in. He was a fairly rich cattle owner who came here from Ireland when he was a boy. There were several other ranch hands...Sean was one of them. Funny thing is, Daniel somehow knew I was a girl, but that didn’t bother him. Of course he didn’t tell me he knew until after I’d been workin’ there for a few months.”
Lou paused and tried to get her emotions under control. Kid sensed her distress and sat beside her, enveloping her hand in his larger one. “Anyway... Daniel was fairly successful until a man named Jack Stall moved to the territory and began to set up his own ranch. Soon cattle started disappearing, and one of the ranh hands ended up missin’. That’s when Daniel taught us how to shoot and ride. He said we needed to protect ourselves, he didn’t know how right he was.” Lou said as she closed her eyes, memories becoming vivid.
Lou and Sean were busy herding the large cattle into the open pasture when they looked up to find Charlie running towards them, stumbling several times. They exchanged worried glances and wasted no time steering their mounts in Charlie’s direction.
“What’s wrong Charlie?” Sean asked, his voice filled with worry.
“You... you gotta come... quick. Stall and his boys...out at the ranch...trouble.” Charlie gasped between large gulps of air.
Sean pulled Charlie onto the back of his horse and rode away, Lou close behind him. Before they even reached the ranch, they could see smoke rising from the roof of the house and stable. Urging their mounts forward, they finally entered the yard and rushed into the burning house, searching for Daniel and Ben.
Lou found Daniel first, a large gun shot wound gaping in his chest. His eyes seemed to be frozen in horror, and Lou knew he was dead. Rage filled her heart but she wasted no time in pulling him from the inferno. She looked up in time to see Charlie and Sean dragging Ben out of the house, just as it collapsed.
They looked at Daniel’s still form and closed their eyes. Lou bent down and closed her mentor’s eyes, swiping at the tears running freely down her smooth cheek. She looked over to Ben, who was just beginning to stir. A fit of coughing shook his lean frame.
“Ben! What happened?” Lou asked as she knelt beside the young man.
“Stall and Daniel were arguin’ about some government contracts for beef. That bastard just shot him... I tried to to help him, but one of his men knocked me out cold...”
“What are we gonna do?” Charlie asked
Ben sat up and glared at his friend. “What do you think we’re goin’ to do? We’re goin’ to make him pay.”
“How? You know the marshall is on Jack’s payroll. He won’t do anythin’ to Stall, in fact, they’ll probably pin this on us.” Sean pointed out quietly.
“Then we’ll have to take matters in our own hands.” Ben spat bitterly.
“What do you mean?” Lou asked, her eyes wide.
“Daniel was like a father to us... he deserves to have his killers sent to hell.” Daniel explained. “If the law won’t do it, then we’ll have to.”
“I don’t know--”
“Don’t tell me you’re turnin’ yellow on us Charlie.” Ben said quietly, his eyes burning in fury.
“It ain’t that... I don’t think Daniel would want--”
“Daniel’s gone, they took care of that. It’s up to us, are you in?”
Charlie nodded reluctantly and Ben smiled. He then turned to Sean whose eyes spoke his consent. They all looked to Lou, whose mind was racing. She didn’t reflect long before she too nodded.
“Good...now let’s make it official. Blood oaths can’t be broken.” ben explained as he took a large knife from inside his boot and slit the fleshy part of his palm, allowing several bright red drops to fall to the ground. Each of the other three young people passed the knife and followed suit.
“Anyway, when we went into town, Jack had already left, leaving no trail. We all agreed to split up and go our separate ways, but agreed that if any of us found Jack, we’d find the others and go after him.” Lou finished, feeling slightly relieved that she had finally told someone.
“So they’ve finally found him?” Kid asked deceptively quiet.
“He’s holed up in some compound outside of Willow Springs. He’s apparently become a gun runner.” Lou replied as she stood up.
“You’re not goin’ Lou, are you? I mean, this is crazy!” Kid exclaimed angrily.
“I took an oath Kid.” She said tiredly.
“I’m sure they’d let you out of this if you asked them.”
“Kid, if this were Jimmy, or Cody, or one of the other boys you’d have no problem with this. Hell, you’d probably admire them! Now, I’m only goin’ to tell you this once, I’m leavin’ tomorrow and you can’t stop me.” Lou yelled as she stormed out of the barn.
Kid watched her go, not knowing what to do. An idea suddenly popped in his head and he headed towards town. He couldn’t stop her, but maybe Teaspoon could.
“Buck, can I talk to you for a minute.” Lou asked quietly as she approached her friend.
Buck opened his eyes and sat up groggily in the bed. He’d just gotten back from a long ride and wanted nothing more than to sleep. However, there had been a note of urgency in her voice that grabbed his full attention.
“Sure Lou, what is it?” Buck asked in concern.
“Um... when you killed Neville, how did it feel? I mean, were you happy, did you feel any remorse?”
“What??!!” Buck asked sharply. None of the riders had ever spoken about Ike’s killer.
“If it bothers you to talk about--”
“It bothers me.” Buck said hotly, instantly sorry when he saw the expression on Lou’s face. He waited a few beats before trying to bring levity to the situation. “Besides, you ain’t thinkin’ of killin’ anyone ‘sides the Kid are you?” He smiled.
When Lou didn’t respond, he stood up and faced her. “Lou, what’s goin’ on?”
“I can’t go into detail Buck.” she said quietly.
Buck sighed in frustration and looked her in the eyes. “Lou...I don’t regret what I did. He deserved to die, but I still have nightmares about it and it didn’t change anything. Ike was still dead.”
“I’m sorry Buck.” Lou whispered as she squeezed his arm.
Buck was about to respond when the door opened and Teaspoon entered. “Buck, I need to speak to Lou alone.”
When Buck shut the door behind him, Lou turned to the station master and eyed him carefully. “Teaspoon, I need a coupla weeks off.”
“Denied.” Teaspoon said angrily
“Look Teaspoon, I thought you of all people would understand. I’m goin’, no matter what any of you say.” Lou said stubbornly.
“I figured you’d say that. Let me just make one thing clear to you right now...if you ride out of here tomorrow, there won’t be a bunk waitin’ for you when you come back.”
“I understand.” Lou responded defiantly. Teaspoon shook his head and left the bunkhouse, muttering something that Lou couldn’t quite make out.
Lou sat down at the table and didn’t look up when the door opened, knowing instinctively it was Kid. She finally looked up at him and was surprised at the fury in his blue eyes.
“What do you think you’re doin’ Lou? Do you realize that you won’t have a job when you get back, if you get back. I thought you wanted to get your brother and sister out of the orphanage?”
“I do... but this is more important.”
“More important?? You know Lou, I’m beginning to think that I don’t know you.” Kid said harshly.
“Maybe you never did Kid.” Lou whispered as she left the bunkhouse, leaving a very confused Kid behind her.
Dawn was just beginning to break as Lou ushered her horse out of the stable. She’d left a note to the others, explaining why she had to leave, even though she suspected most of them would understand. She’d left her trunk behind along with most of her belongings. She would come back for it if she made it out of the compound. When, not if...she corrected herself silently.
She hated to leave things like they were between her and Kid, but she had no other choice. She couldn’t, and wouldn’t, go back on her word, not even for Kid. She knew that he’d understand someday, even if he didn’t now. She was about to mount up when she heard footsteps behind her. Turning around, she met a familiar pair of brown eyes.
“Jimmy, if you came to talk me out of leaving, you can save your breath.” Lou began.
“Now hold on Lou, I just came to wish you luck... and to tell you to be careful.” Jimmy said quietly.
Lou lowered her eyes, trying to hide the tears his sentence evoked. Without warning, she flung herself into Jimmy’s arms and hugged him tightly. He didn’t seem too surprised at her action and returned the embrace just as tightly. She pulled back and smiled bravely.
“I’m gonna miss you Jimmy... take care of the Kid. Tell him...tell him that I had to do this.”
“Why don’t you tell him yourself.” Jimmy returned as Kid approached them. He squeezed her arm reassuringly and then walked back to the bunkhouse.
Lou steeled herself for the argument she was sure was coming. She watched as Kid approached and suddenly wondered if this was the last time she was going to see him. She wasn’t a coward by any means, but she was aware of the odds. She didn’t want to waste time fighting and hoped he’d understand.
He finally stood before her and Lou opened her mouth to speak. “Look Kid--”
She was cut off as Kid bent down and began to kiss her passionately. Lou was surprised to say the least, but it wasn’t long before she was returning the kiss just as ardently. Frustration, fear, and hope were all infused in their kiss, a kiss that ended all too soon. Kid pulled away and wrapped his arms around her small form.
“Come home safely Lou.” He whispered as he gently kissed her forehead and turned to walk back into the bunkhouse. Lou watched him until the door was closed behind him before mounting Lightning. With one last look around her, she spurred her horse off.
On to Chapter Two