"Rider up!" Buck held Lightning, waiting for Lou to come out of the Bunkhouse. "Come on Lou!" He rolled his eyes and looked at Jimmy, Ike, and Noah who were all sitting on the porch, listening to the argument going on in the bunkhouse with interest.
"Kid, I gotta ride. Can we talk about this later?" Lou was clearly frustrated with the Kid.
"What did she do this time?" Noah asked the others quietly.
"You know how they are," Jimmy replied. "Kid's probably worried about her taking this run, and she's mad at him for being overprotective. Can't say that I blame him this time though."
Why? Ike signed.
"Well, I'm not supposed to say. Teaspoon wanted to tell you tonight, but we're getting a new rider. With all the extra runs we've been getting lately, we could use the help. Besides," Jimmy laughed. "I think he's kinda tired of Cody's complaining."
The others laughed with him. Cody had been complaining a lot lately. Ever since they moved to Rock Creek they'd had a lot more runs. All of them had had to make extra runs. They were all tired of it, so they really couldn't blame Cody for complaining.
"If Teaspoon didn't want us to know about the new rider yet," Noah asked, "then how come you know?"
"Me and Kid and Lou were in his office yesterday when he got the message from Russell, Majors, and Waddel telling him they hired us a new rider." Jimmy replied.
"So what does this have to do with Kid's overprotectiveness?" Buck asked as Cody came into view. "Lou, you gotta go, now!" He yelled.
Lou came out of the bunkhouse with Kid right behind her. "I'll be fine, Kid. Stop yelling at me, and just let me do my job, okay?" She mounted Lightning and took the pouch from Cody.
"Ride safe, Lou!" he called as she headed toward Senaca.
Kid turned toward the others who were grinning at him. "She sure does listen to you real good, Kid," Noah teased.
"Yeah," Jimmy said. "You really know how to control her."
"Shut up," Kid growled, going back into the bunkhouse.
"Jimmy," Buck asked again. "What does the new rider have to do with Kid not wanting Lou to take this run?"
"Oh, well Lou's supposed to pick him up on her way back from Senaca. I guess Kid's afraid he'll find out Lou's a girl without us there to protect her. He could get her fired, you know."
Noah laughed. "Knowing Lou, I'd say Kid should be more worried about protecting the new guy when she tries to shoot him for getting her fired."
You know, you may just have a point there, Noah, Ike signed. The others laughed.
"Yeah," Buck said. "She'd probably scare him to death!"
"What's going on?" Cody asked as he came out of the barn. His question only served to make the others laugh harder. "Why is everyone laughing?"
"It's a long story, Cody," Jimmy finally stopped laughing long enough to answer. "Remember you guys, Teaspoon didn't want me to tell you, so when he talks to you about it tonight, act dumb. Of course," he said as Cody gave him a disgusted look and walked into the bunkhouse, "some of us will have to act harder than the others."
Lou was fuming as she rode toward Senaca. Kid made her so mad sometimes! Imagine the nerve of him! "Why does he have to be so protective of me?" she mumbled to her horse. Lightning shook his head as if replying. "I know boy," she smiled. "I would probably really miss it if he ever quit. Its just that..." she sighed. She smiled to herself. She had to admit that it made her feel a lot safer when Kid wanted to protect her.
She was so deep in thought that she didn't notice the fallen log in the trail. She tried to hang on as Lightning reared up, but she hit her head on a low-hanging branch. Her last conscious awareness was a sensation of falling.
Senaca, Two Days Later
The young man restlessly paced back and forth along the wooden sidewalk in front of the sheriff's office.
"Something bothering you son?" the sheriff emerged from his office.
"I was supposed to meet someone here yesterday and he never showed up."
"Well, son, maybe he ain't coming."
"I sure hope he is. He's supposed to take me back to Rock Creek. I've got a job riding with the Pony Express, and if he doesn't show up to meet me I won't be able to get the job. I need this job so much."
"Why don't you go to Rock Creek yourself? Why do you have to meet him. You won't get lost trying to find Rock Creek on your own; its easy."
"Its not that. With all the trouble with outlaws lately, the company prefers that I'm with someone who has experience. Besides that, they want there to be two of us just in case there is trouble, so we have a better chance of surviving and getting the pouch through."
"I can understand that, but apparently your friend ain't coming. I'd say since you don't have a pouch to risk, its your choice to chance it or not," the sheriff tried to help. The young man seemed polite and nice, and even though he was dressed shabbily, he didn't look lazy. A lot of people were down on their luck out here, and jobs were hard to come by. He respected this young man, even though he had just met him, and he didn't want him to lose this job.
"Maybe you're right," the young man said. "Thanks sir."
"Go on now," the sheriff growled. He had to seem tough as nails. It would ruin his reputation if he was soft. "Get outta here."
The young man smiled to himself as he walked away. Well, he thought, I guess I'm going to Rock Creek.
Three men emerged from the woods beside the trail. One of them took hold of Lightning's reins and led him into the woods. The other two went over to where Lou lay. They picked up her body by the arms and legs and dragged her off the trail. They dumped her in a clump of bushes where she could not be seen from the trail.
"He's got a bad head injury. I don't think he'll make it," one of them remarked.
"Good," the other one replied. "Then there won't be anyone left who can identify us."
They hurried to join their accomplice and head back to camp.
Kid was worried. Lou wasn't due back until later this afternoon, but he knew something was wrong. He didn't voice his fears to the others; they would just make fun of him. But they had noticed, and for some strange reason it was getting them worried too. They tried to hide it for Kid's sake: if Lou found out how he got them all worried about her, even unintentionally, she would kill him. They had heard enough arguments about it to prove that.
So they all tried to ignore the warning; telling themselves their minds were just playing tricks on them. They pushed the worries away and went on with the day, not knowing that the young woman who had gained so much of their love and respect was lying in the woods, injured and unconscious.
The riders had just sat down to eat lunch a couple hours later when they heard a rider approaching.
"That must be Lou," Rachel said. "Noah, you're up."
"I though she was supposed to bring the new rider back with her," Buck said.
"She is," Rachel told him. "Why?"
"There's only one rider coming," he answered. They all rushed to the porch to watch the rider coming into the station.
"That's not Lou," Kid said.
The rider stopped in front of the group on the porch. "I'm looking for Teaspoon Hunter," he stated.
Teaspoon stepped forward as the riders studied the horseman in front of them. He was a young man, about their age; taller than Lou but shorter than the rest of them, although not much. He had clear eyes and short sandy brown hair with a hint of curl. He was small, but tough-looking. He could probably hold his own in a fight.
"I'm Teaspoon Hunter," he said. "How can I help you?"
"I'm Eli Fowler, your new Express rider. I was supposed to meet one of your riders in Senaca yesterday. When he never showed up, I decided it would be best if I just came here."
They boys just stared at him. Then Kid turned and headed for the barn, the others right behind him.
"What do you think you are doing?" Teaspoon asked them.
"Something's happened to Lou, Teaspoon," Kid said, his tone firm. "I'm going to look for her."
"Us too," the others stated.
"Now look here boys," Teaspoon said, seeing their determination. "You can't all go after her; we still have to run the station. Kid, you have a run later today," he stopped him as Kid began to protest. "If one of these other boys will trade with you, you can go."
Kid looked at the others. All of them wanted to help look for Lou, but they knew Kid should be the one go. Ike finally nodded at him. I'll go, he signed.
"Okay," Teaspoon said. "Kid, you and Buck go look for her. The rest of you will stay here," his tone warned Jimmy, Cody, and Noah not to argue.
No one noticed Eli listening to them, a strange expression on his face. So this Lou was a girl? Well, that sure was interesting...
About twenty men were gathered in the clearing. They were a rough group; scruffy, dirty, and wearing torn, ragged clothing. Most looked as if they hadn't seen a bath in most of their lives, and if you got close enough, probably smelled like it too. It was into this group the three men who were leading Lightning rode. They headed for a tent standing in the middle of the camp. A well-dressed man emerged as they approached.
"Look what we found, boss!" one of them called.
"That's one fine-looking horse boys," the boss said. "Where'd you get him?"
"Some express rider was thrown from him. Had a nasty head wound, so we dumped his body in the woods. He's probably dead by now. Seems he wasn't paying enough attention and got thrown when he couldn't stop in time to avoid a log someone put in the trail."
The boss laughed evilly. "Now, I wonder who put it there?"
"Well boss," the outlaw said. "What can I say? I guess it was a good idea."
"Take the horse to the corral with the others," the boss addressed one of the outlaws. "You bring that mochila and the saddlebags in here," he motioned the other two into the tent.
The outlaw led Lightning to a corral filled with horses, all of them stolen. This band of outlaws was running a very successful horse "trading" business. They had stolen horses throughout the territory, and no one seemed to be able to stop them.
Lou moaned and tried to force her eyes open. The pain was almost unbearable. Her head hurt, her muscles ached, and she wasn't sure she could move at all. She struggled to bring her hand to her head and felt the stickiness of blood. She struggled to sit up, but found she could not move her legs at all. In fact, she realized she couldn't even feel them just before she blacked out again.
The three men gathered in the tent, searching through the mochila. They opened all the letters looking for money or army documents. But because of the trouble they and other outlaws had been causing for the Express in the last few weeks, they did not find much. People were not sending money through the mail anymore, and the army was using its own couriers.
"Damn," the boss said. "There's nothing here. Bring me those saddle bags." He began to search through Lou's things and looked at the other two with a strange expression on his face. "What did this Express rider look like?"
"He was a small, skinny fellow. Hardly weighed a thing; it didn't take much effort at all for us to move his body," one of the men answered.
"Good, then it won't take much for you to carry it back here."
"But boss, he's probably dead anyway," they protested.
"I said go get his body!" the boss snapped. The two men quickly left the tent.
The boss watched them leave, the expression on his face still puzzling. He reached into the saddle bag and pulled out a dress. I wonder if this is who I think it is, he thought.
Kid and Buck had been riding for about two hours, and Buck was getting worried about Kid. He had hardly said a word since they left Rock Creek.
"She's gonna be fine, Kid," he said.
"How do you know that Buck?" he answered. "We know she never showed up in Senaca, and we know there's been lots of trouble with outlaws lately. So don't try to tell me that she's okay. Because I know she's probably hurt somewhere, waiting for me to come for her! She might even be..." Kid couldn't finish the horrible thought. "So don't tell me she's okay!"
"Believe whatever you want Kid. But I know we are going to find her, and I know she is going to be fine." Buck tried to comfort Kid, but in truth, he was worried too.
They rode in silence for the next few hours, each lost in his own thoughts and worries about Lou. Buck's sharp eyes watched for any signs of her. He stopped before a fallen log in the trail, while Kid looked at him in confusion.
"This log was placed here by man," Buck explained. He dismounted and began searching the area while Kid watched. "Someone fell here," he pointed to the place where Lou had been thrown. "There were four people, one of them on a horse; probably the one that fell was thrown. Someone led the horse that way, and two more followed." Buck hesitated to say the next part. "There are no tracks to account for the fourth person, but it looks like the other two went this way before they followed the one leading the horse," he walked over to where the men had dumped Lou's body. His quick eyes caught sight of blood on the leaves; a torn piece of cloth was caught on the bushes. "Uh, Kid?" Kid hurried over to where Buck was standing. He saw the blood and the cloth, and all the blood drained from his face.
"That looks like Lou's shirt," he said, pointing to the cloth.
Buck nodded. "It looks like they hid her," he hesitated before saying the next word, "body, here, then came back for her later."
Kid's eyes filled with tears, and he sank to the ground. Buck knelt beside him and put a comforting hand on Kid's shoulder. "The fact that they took her body is probably a good sign that she's still alive, Kid. Come on, let's go find her."
Lou moaned as she began to regain consciousness. She was aware of a hand putting a cool cloth on her forehead. She opened her eyes to see a woman sitting in a chair beside her bed. Lou looked around. It looked like she was in some kind of tent. She was laying on a cot, and beside her was a small table with a bowl of broth on it.
"Are you hungry?" the woman asked, picking up the bowl.
Lou struggled to speak. "Where am I?" she asked weakly.
"Shh, don't talk," the woman said. "You need to eat and rest. We can talk later." She fed Lou some of the broth, then arranged the blankets around her. "Now, go to sleep."
Lou closed her eyes and almost immediately fell asleep. The boss entered the tent and spoke to the woman. "How is she?"
"Still weak, but she'll make it," the woman answered.
The boss nodded. "Let me know when she wakes again."
Jimmy, Noah, and Cody were showing Eli around the station and telling him about everything that goes on there. But they were all distracted, thinking about Lou.
"Look," Eli said. "I know you are all concerned about Lou, and I just want you to know that I hope she's okay."
The boys looked at Eli in amazement. "How'd you know Lou was a girl?" Jimmy finally asked.
"You kinda gave it away earlier when you all wanted to go look for her. You kept saying 'her' and 'she' so it really wasn't hard to figure out. But don't worry," he quickly added. "I won't tell anyone. If Lou can do the work then I guess she's got as much right to be here as any of us."
The boys all sighed in relief. Maybe the new rider wouldn't be so bad after all.
Kid and Buck had reached the hills overlooking the outlaws' camp. They crawled forward to watch the camp. Men were walking around, and at one end was a corral filled with horses. Buck pointed to Lightning, and Kid nodded to let him know that he too had seen Lou's horse.
"If they have her, she's probably in that tent," Buck pointed to the tent where Lou was. They watched as a man entered it. Kid and Buck gasped in surprise.
"It can't be," Kid was finally able to speak. "He's dead."
Lou woke up as she heard someone enter the tent. She looked toward the sound and gasped at who she saw. "What..." she started to ask.
The Boss smiled at her. "Hello Louise. Are you feeling better?"
She just stared at him. "I thought you were dead!" she finally gasped.
"No, I'm not dead," he said. "But I thought I was going to be for a while there, no thanks to your friends. Fortunately, I managed to pull through."
Lou closed her eyes in pain and shock. "What do you want with me?"
"Well Louise, I want what any father would. I want my daughter home."
She looked into the eyes of the man she had thought was dead. "You are not my father, and this is not my home!" she spat.
"Now Louise, you know you are wrong. I am your father, and this is your home now."
Buck and Kid were still watching the camp, trying to come up with a plan to get Lou out of there. "There's about twenty men there," Kid said. "There's no way we can take them all."
"We have to concentrate on getting Lou out of there and not worry about defeating the outlaws," Buck told him.
"What do you mean?"
"I'm going to sneak in there and try to get her. He's seen you Kid, so it would be too dangerous for you to go too. Wait here and have the horses ready. If I'm not back by nightfall, go back to Rock Creek and get the others. You can leave my horse over there."
Kid nodded and helped Buck smear dirt on his clothes and face so he would blend in with the outlaws. Half an hour later, a much changed Buck walked into the camp and became lost in the group of outlaws.
"I hope this works," Kid mumbled to himself.
Buck walked through the camp, making his way toward the tent where Lou probably was. He heard voices coming from inside.
"I'm a very wealthy man now, Louise. You will be able to have anything you want. And once I get Jeremiah and Teresa from the orphanage, our family will be complete."
"You are scum, no matter how much money you have. You are not my family. Kid, Jimmy, Buck, Noah, Ike, Cody, Teaspoon, Rachel, Jeremiah and Teresa are my family. Not you. You are not my family. And you will not go anywhere near my brother and sister; not even if I have to kill you myself to stop you."
Buck smiled. Lou sounded very weak, but at least she was alive. And from her words he could tell she was able to think pretty clearly.
He quickly moved closer to the side of the tent as he heard Boggs approaching.
"I'm going to check on the horses," he spoke to a man standing in front of the tent. "Don't let her out, and don't let anyone in."
Buck watched Boggs walk away, then glanced around the side of the tent to look at the guard. His back was to Buck, and he didn't hear as Buck snuck up behind him. Buck hit the man on the back of his head with his gun and watched him fall. He quickly made his way into the tent. Lou was sleeping on a cot in the corner, and a woman was sitting beside her. Buck pointed his gun toward the woman. "Don't scream," he said. "I'm not going to hurt you. I'm just going to take the girl with me."
The woman nodded. "Are you part of that family she was talking about?"
Buck nodded. "I'm Buck."
"I'm Sarah, and I'm coming with you." Buck looked doubtful, so she tried to convince him. "Boggs will kill me when he finds out she's gone. Besides, she's really weak and needs a woman to take care of her."
"Why would you do that for her?"
"She's my niece. Boggs is my older brother. I came to live with him when my husband died six months ago. I didn't know what kind of man he has become, but once I found out, he wouldn't let me leave.
Buck nodded as he gently woke Lou up. "Get whatever you need together quickly. We don't have much time." He gently touched Lou's shoulder. "Lou, honey, wake up."
Lou opened her eyes. "Buck?"
Buck smiled at her. "I'm here and Kid's waiting for us. Can you walk?"
Her eyes filled with tears. "I can't even feel or move my legs Buck."
"That's okay. We'll deal with that later." Buck gently scooped her into his arms and turned to Sarah. "Are you ready?"
She nodded. "Follow me. We'll go out the back way." She led him through the camp, avoiding all the outlaws. They finally got to the woods on the opposite side of the camp from Kid.
"We'll have to circle around to meet Kid," Buck told her. "Stay close to me. Once they realize you two are gone, they'll probably search the area around the camp. Hopefully we'll be far away by then, but we should be careful just in case."
About an hour later, they finally reached Kid. He ran to meet them and took Lou from Buck's arms, just as shouts were heard from the camp.
"They've discovered you missing," Buck said to Sarah. "We've got to get out of here now."
He held Lou while Kid mounted Katy, then handed her to him. He then mounted his own horse and helped Sarah up behind him. They rode toward Rock Creek, hoping to escape the outlaws who would soon be behind them.
On to Part Two
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