Disclaimer:  This is a work of fan fiction based on characters created by Ed Spielman and owned by Ogiens/Kane Productions.  Neither the author nor the webmistress claim any ownership or any profit from the creation of this work.  This story may not be posted elsewhere except with the express permission of the author.
Chapter One--Wednesday

Being with Buck for any extended period of time was like being near deep waters.  There was something rich, heavy and calming about him that washed over you if you were still enough to let it.  His natural manner and bright humor, which always surprised the riders when they needed it, were a sort of refuge over the past two days.  Lou thought on this as the two of them pounded their way back to the Sweetwater station.  Teaspoon had sent them on a run to Sulfur Springs a couple of mornings ago.  As the run had been an extra, due to an embarrassing foul-up at a station to the West, they didn’t have a pouch to bring back and were able to enjoy a leisurely return trip.

Things had become less strained between her and the Kid over the last couple of weeks, and he had even been up to wish the two of them a safe ride when they left the station just after dawn.  This smoothing out of the relationship was a relief to all of the riders who hadn’t known how to deal with the tension that had previously existed between the two or what should or shouldn’t be said around them.  Though things were better between her and the Kid, there was an almost imperceptible coolness between Kid and Jimmy now, and though Lou thought perhaps it was just in her head, she determined that Teaspoon had recognized it as well - “and that’s the reason I’m riding with Buck instead of Jimmy.  Jimmy and I were up.”  She smiled at the thought- Teaspoon who hadn’t recognized that she was a girl until he simply couldn’t deny it.

At first, Lou had been somewhat resentful about the switch from Jimmy to Buck, having looked forward to some time with the rider who was fast becoming her best friend, but Buck’s company and easy spirit had made her realize that maybe she needed some distance from everything, maybe even from Jimmy. She realized that he cared for her in a way she wasn’t able to care for him.  “Not right now, maybe. . .  No.  Time, that’s what this needs,” besides, she had been feeling a little “funny” lately, she decided that it was just the difficulty of dealing with the end of her relationship with Kid, and the tension that was rising between the two riders with whom she was the closest.  This ride was a much-needed break, and she had been enjoying Buck’s company immensely.

Buck stole a look at the young woman, well, supposedly boy, who was riding just a few strides behind him.  She looked lost in her thoughts, and he smiled and wondered what could be holding her rapt attention, and fixing that bemused expression on her face.

Rides were one of the only times that Lou was really able to think through her life and her relationships.  She guessed that the boys didn’t spend nearly as much time thinking about the dynamics of the station and often wondered what the boys thought on during their hours of riding.

She had been missing Emma more lately, though, at least, Rachel had become a good friend.  She thought back to the first real “woman” conversation she and Rachel had, well, other than the one in the barn.  She had begun to seek Rachel’s advice regarding the Kid, much as she had done with Emma, except now, there was really something to talk about.  One evening, the two were simply enjoying some hot tea, as the rain came down outside.

“Mmmm, this is nice, Rachel.  Sometimes, I just need some girl time.” She smiled at her friend who returned a smile full of understanding,  “You’re my only woman friend, you know.”

“Oh Louise, one of these days it won’t have to be this way anymore.  You must be looking forward to that.”

“Mmmm” she responded, non-committally, nodding her head slightly from side to side.

“What’s the hardest part of life like this for you, what is the worst about it?”

Rachel asked over her steaming cup.

“Gosh, Rachel, I don’t know. . .I mean, sometimes the bunk-house talk at nights is . . .uh, . . .really something.”  she  began, blushing slightly.  “or when one of them is fawning over some girl and talking about how beautiful she is. . .I can’t help but wish. . .”  Rachel nodded as Louise took a thoughtful breath and continued. . .”but honestly, I love riding.  The land can just be incredible, fiery sunsets, the green prairie.  Even though it can be scary sometimes, it’s worth it.  I love being included by the boys too; I feel like I’m really part of something.”

“I know you love it, Louise. . .” Rachel replied, with a look that said more than that.  Lou thought that maybe Rachel was going to add something more, something about Kid. Those were the days when Kid was practically driving everyone crazy worrying over her, maybe Rachel was going to try and encourage her to re-think her choice of life-style, and she didn’t want to hear it.

“There is one thing” she hesitated, “probably the worst. . .” both her eyes, and the volume of her voice lowered here, as if someone could have been eavesdropping.  “It’s just awful to ride. . .during that time.  You know.”

A new smile tugged at the corners of Rachel’s lips, and she set her cup down on the table.  “I’ve wondered how you deal with that, that can’t be comfortable.”

Louise finally made eye-contact with the older woman, “No, no it’s NOT.”  She shook her head and almost laughed.  “At first, there were times I’d ask one of the boys to take a ride for me if some of the days worked out, but it was too hard to come up with good excuses.  It’s not too bad, it’s not painful, I remember my mother would usually spend a day in bed, but it’s not like that for me hardly at all.  What I hate is just the riding part, you know, just with the cotton . . .it rubs and, uuh.”  She shrugged her shoulders and screwed up her features to display the utter dislike she had for the whole thing.  Lou took another sip of tea, and smiled, trying to stifle a laugh.

An idea struck Rachel and she replied, “You know, since I help Teaspoon schedule the runs, if you can just give me an idea of when you have your woman’s time I might be able to try and work things around a little bit.  Of course I wouldn’t say anything” she added, seeing Lou’s eyes widen.

“That would be great, but . . .I can’t really tell when I’ll have it.  Since I’ve been riding, sometimes I don’t get it for a couple of months at a time.  At least I don’t have to deal with it every month. . .Do you think that’s bad, that something’s wrong?”

“No, I know that lots of different things can change a woman’s cycle.  Probably once you stop riding you’ll go back to normal.”  Rachel said plainly, wanting to ease the concern that the comment held.

“Well, maybe I just ought to count my blessings then.” the younger woman laughed lightly.


Buck drew his bay mare up to a canter and called to the female rider, “Lou, do you want to stop and water the horses?  We’re making good time and if we ride till sunset tonight we can probably make it back by early afternoon tomorrow.”

 “Sounds good.” She replied with a nod.
They were coming up on a small creek that boasted some lush green trees along the banks.  It would be nice to enjoy the shade for a while, as the noon sun was starting to shine with some effort.

 Cody opened a lazy eye and peeked out from under the brim of a new hat as he heard at least two approaching riders.  He had been napping beneath some welcoming shade trees for the last hour or so and wasn’t looking forward to company.  He groaned and sat up, readjusting his hat to sit squarely on his head.  Turning, he saw Buck and Lou approaching,

“See, I thought that was his horse,” he heard Lou say.  Cody drug himself to his feet, “Whaaat, you ain’t been sent after me, have you?  I’m not due back from my break until Friday and. . .”

Buck cut off the blond rider’s whining. “You think too much of yourself, Cody, we hardly even knew you were gone.  Except that there isn’t that disgusting sound of you eatin’ at the trough--er, dinner table.”

Lou turned her head and stifled a giggle at Cody’s mock hurt expression.  “You don’t look like you’ve been going hungry though, Cody, what’ve you been doing the last several days?”  asked Lou as the two slid off their mounts and walked them to the water.

Cody joined them on the shore of the shallow creek.  “Lou, you know you’ve been saying you’d like to see a big city?  You’ve gotta go try Denver.  Cities like that are going to be the future of this country. Denver was amazing!”  She could tell that Cody was just getting warmed up and that the tales would begin flying thick and fast very shortly.  “All of the people, and a theater where they held shows every night.  And the girls,” he smacked Buck’s arm with the back of his hand, “the girls, Buck, were beautiful.  Fine ladies in dresses all the way from Europe.  The buildings were tall like I’ve never seen!”  Buck grinned and shook his head slightly.

 “And now after all of your fun are you broke again, and should we all expect to play William F. Cody’s lending bank?”  questioned Lou, raising her eyebrows at him.

 “Only ‘til I get paid next.” He replied solemnly, with the faintest twinkle in his eye.  “What are you two doing?  You seem to be taking your time if you’re on a ride.”
“We ran some mail to Sulfur Springs somehow it was missed on an earlier run out of Rock Creek.”

“And that took two of you?”

 “The last rider headed out this way had a little trouble and Teaspoon just thought it would be better to have two of us on it.”  Replied Lou, always quick to defend if she felt her abilities were being questioned.


 “So, what are you doing our here, Billy?  All of that vacationing just take it out of you?”  asked Buck, attempting to put the pressure back on the grinning rider.

 “Aw, I’m just enjoying the day.  Um, seeing that I’m a little short of funds, I thought I’d just better head back early, and I’m just taking it slow, you know.”

 “Hmm” commented Lou

Cody turned and stuck his tongue out at her.  The three of them bantered back and forth for a while as the horses sucked noisily at the water.  Lou knelt at the water and washed her face and the back of her neck, just right on a hot day like this; she was wondering if the heat was getting to her, as she was feeling somewhat light-headed.  She opened her canteen and took a generous swallow.

“You want to join me and Lou, or will we be too much for you to keep up with now?  Looks you’re softening up after your last few days of leisure.”

“Nah, I’d better come with you.  Who knows what sort of mischief you wild ones could get into.  I suppose this means my nap’s over, though.”

Between the three of them, they came up with some dried venison and a couple of apples that would serve as a hold-over until dinner, and were on the trail within the half-hour.


The three rode in relative silence for the next several hours.  It was quite a warm day, though Kid would have said that it felt like a late-autumn in Virginia.  The land was breathing life.  The grass was just beginning to whither as the summer rains had ended, and the mid-season wildflowers were still boasting their natural, muted colors.  Perfection, it couldn’t have been a more beautiful day, except for the fact that a few more clouds could have shielded them from some of the heat.  As the sun drifted towards the western mountains, the land began to cool, and the rhythm of everything seemed to slow.

By the time that dusk had really set in, the three riders were setting up camp in a small open area amidst a semi-enclosure of trees.  The three munched some corn biscuits and picked at a rabbit that Buck had shot before the sun had set.  It was quite a shot, and he was pleased, rabbits could be a mess, and you could ruin more meat than they were worth if you hit them in the hind quarters.  But between that and some left-over dried venison, they felt as if they were doing pretty well, and their faces flickered orange in the light of the fire.   Cody’s tireless voice brushed over the other two riders as he recounted the exploits of the previous days.

“Sunday night,” Cody began with a far-off sigh.  “I was enjoying a fine meal after watching a Shakespeare play at the Denver theater.”  He didn’t bother to add that he had understood only about half of the words that he had heard of during the performance of “The Tempest;” he had found found parts of it amusing though, and felt that he had caught the main story-line.  Nevertheless, he was glad they didn’t ask him to explain the story to them. He went on to describe the city, the streets, the shops, the buildings. . .

 “Sounds like quite a trip,” Buck finally managed to interject.

 “It was.”

 “Fellas, I’m done in, I’m gonna call it a night.”

 “Already, Lou? I haven’t even told you about-“

 “Tomorrow.  There’s plenty of time tomorrow for you to fill with words” she teased, not unkindly.  “You and Buck can stay up and talk if you want, you won’t bother me.”  Suddenly, Cody saw the young woman grimace.

 “Woah, what was that?  You ok?” he said, his voice clearly concerned.  Buck, turned his face towards Lou to see if he could determine what had caused the comment.

 “Yeah, fine, I think something I ate is just sitting wrong with me.  I’m just gonna sleep it off.”

 “Well, I’m glad I don’t have that problem too often.”

 Lou smiled with her lips pursed tightly together and wrapped her blanket tightly around her and settled in for the night.

 The boys stayed up and chatted for another half an hour.  Buck telling about how Noah and Ike had each been haranguing one another over a little dun mustang that they were having a devil of a time breaking.  How Rachel, tired of doing laundry for the “ingrates” refused to do the last load, and any load thereafter unless they learned to give “credit where credit was due.”  Pretty soon she had all of them apologizing, and Jimmy and Ike swallowed their pride and actually hung the laundry out for her the following day.  It was an amusing site, he had to admit.

The fire began to die down, as did the energy levels of the two young men.  Cody placed some more wood on the fire before the two turned in.

The fire popped once loudly, and Lou opened her eyes.  She was cold.  She knew it really wasn’t a cold night.  The boys seemed comfortable enough, even though the fire had burned down to just a pleasant glow.  She pushed herself up and reached out for the worn leather coat that she had draped over her saddle.  She struggled to put it on, fighting the cramping that she felt in her lower abdomen.  “Damn,” she thought to herself, “what’s going on with me(?)” She pulled the blanket tightly around her and she curled herself up into a fetal position.  She forced herself breathe deeply and slowly trying to fight the ache that was eating at her.  Suddenly, she felt another cramp that made pin-points of light dance in her head.

 “What the hell?” Her mind raced.  She tried to swallow the panic that rose like bile in her throat.  She was not going to get frantic; she wouldn’t, dammit!  Maybe if she could just rest a little longer, it would pass.  Several cold minutes stretched before another cramp hit her, and she sucked in a loud breath before a quick sigh escaped her.

Buck lifted his head and looked with clouded eyes at the girl lying slightly opposite of him.  The fire was low, and he was able to make out the agonized expression on her face and the position of her body.  “Lou?” he whispered.

Her eyes opened, and he could see the fear that had taken up residence there.  “shhh” she mouthed to him, raising a finger to her lips.  Cody lie undisturbed, always a sound sleeper, a fact for which Lou was now thankful.  She bit her lips in between her teeth as she fought back tears.

He rose silently and went to her.  Kneeling with his back to what remained of the fire, he placed a concerned hand on her shoulder, “Are you okay?”   She couldn’t bring herself to speak, and she tried to choke back a sob.  “Are you hurting?  What’s wrong?”  The volume of his voice rose as his concern grew.
“I’m not sure. . .it hurts.”  And yet, she did know, or she thought she might know, but it couldn’t be. . .no.  The petite rider pushed herself onto both hands, and drew up her legs under her, her forehead on the hard dirt below her.  “I. . .I don’t . . .oh God,” she cried, as she realized that she was bleeding.  It just couldn’t be, she told herself, over and over again in her head.  I can’t be. . .I would have known.  “I can’t be” she caught herself saying aloud.  Suddenly, Buck felt as if sleep was a million miles away as his mind tried to grasp what was happening.

 Several feet away, Cody stirred, “What’s going on?” he said confusedly, his eyes moving from where Buck had previously lay, and now focused on the two forms across the fire.

“Lou(?)” Buck said seriously, looking into her eyes with a question.

Her face contorted in pain, the pain of him knowing, the sheer embarrassment that made her want to melt away; she turned away from him and gave a sob.  “Can you please take me away from the fire?”

He paused for a moment, almost confused, not sure what she was thinking.  That hesitation was all Lou needed, she pushed herself up with a quick movement, and nearly fell over as she tried to hold the blanket around her--if he wouldn’t help her, she’d just go herself.  Her frustration and fear were now rising in relative proportion to one another.  Buck, falling back on instinct reached out and grabbed her, slipping one arm under her two legs, together in the blanket and the other behind her, he lifted her up smoothly.  The thought crossed his mind “she’s near light as my saddle.”  As the thought struck him, Buck knelt to grab the side of her bedroll with his hand that was under her legs, and he turned and walked into the cool dark.

It didn’t matter what she said; the moment couldn’t have been more mortifying.  “If I could explain,” she thought.  She mumbled and sobbed into the front of Buck’s shirt as he carried her gently several yards from where the other rider now sat, his eyes fighting to follow them into the blackness.  “When I was thirteen, I was. . .raped by some bastard - animal,” a sob shook her “he just about killed me. . .the doctor said I’d never have children. . .I didn’t . . .”  She gasped as she felt another cramp tear at her.  “I’m so sorry.  God, please...”  Her voice faded out on the last word.

 “Shh, Lou, it’s okay, you’ll be alright.” He whispered into her hair.  With a snap of his wrist, he was able to put out her bedroll, and still hold her to him.  He lowered himself slowly to his knees and lay her gently on top of the makeshift bed, and stared at her with deep concern.  Her eyes were clinched shut, and yet a couple of tears still managed to escape from under her damp lashes, though Buck could not see them.  He placed a hand on her face and stroked her hair with the other.  Lou shook her head and rolled herself to her side, back to the position in which Buck had seen her when he was first awakened.
She couldn’t bear to open her eyes.  Buck knelt there, uncomfortable, scared, wanting to help her, to comfort her, knowing that there was nothing he could do that would ease her pain or take away the shame and humiliation that she must have been feeling.  He swallowed hard, trying to get the nerve to ask her if he could do something for her.

 “Please Buck,” her pleading voice was almost inaudible.  “Look in my saddle bag.  There are a couple of bandannas in there, I think.”  Without a word the young man rose to his feet and walked swiftly towards faint glow that was all that existed of the previous fire.  He turned to look at the Cody who was staring back at with a haunting question in his expression.  Buck didn’t answer a word, but his face said it all.  Cody winced, and seemed to tremble for a moment.  He drew his knees up, rested his arms on them, and buried his face where they crossed.  After only a few moments Buck found what Lou had asked for, and then, thinking again, he went to his own saddle and came up with another one.

 “Cody.”  He raised his head from his arms.  “Do you have any more?” Without a word he reached out to his saddle bags and removed two additional bandannas.  Buck took them from the blond rider, and walked back into the blackness.  Her eyes were still closed, but her breathing was more steady.  He wondered for a moment if she had gone to sleep.

“Thanks” she said, reaching a hand outside of the blanket shell she had wrapped around herself.  He placed them in her hand, and hesitated, wondering what he should do next.  “Will you, . . .go away, please . . .”

 He thought of how the deer and wild animals, and even dogs would find a place to be alone when they were giving birth. . .or dying. . .and he understood her desire to want to protect herself, to be alone at this time, but he didn’t want to go far.  He wanted to be in ear-shot.  “Lou” he said softly.  “I’ll be just a little ways away, all right?  I’ll be in the dark, so I can’t see you, okay? If you need anything, honey, I’m nearby.”  She didn’t respond, and he took this as either agreement or, at least, acquiescence, and walked several yards away from her and sat down.

 Lou lay there in the darkness.  The darkness was soothing, even as her body seemed to be attacking her.  She wanted to pray that everything would just end, that the sun wouldn’t come up, that she wouldn’t have to face what was happening to her, that she wouldn’t have to face Buck and Cody tomorrow morning.

 She fumbled with her belt and the fastener on her pants.  She shrugged them to her knees, and worked one of the bandannas down her long-john bottoms.  “God, I can’t believe this is happening” it was half a prayer, half a question.  She wanted to break down again as she had to once again face what was happening to her.  “What have I done?”  She curled herself up tighter and pulled up the blanket over her face like a child.  Somehow that was comforting, and she felt that same comfort that a little girl feels hiding from the dark, knowing that the blanket doesn’t protect her, yet, believing it would at the same time.  As long as the world was out there, and she was curled up “in here” she didn’t feel so ashamed.  All that her world contained now was the pain in her body and the darkness that nursed her.

As she lay there, experiencing the dying of the first life she had ever conceived in her body, her mind couldn’t rest.  How could she have been pregnant and not known it?  She thought back to the last time she and Kid had been together. . nearly two and a half months, could that be right?  She hadn’t really been sick, nothing really out of the ordinary.  One time she had thrown up- Rachel made her stay in bed the rest of the day, but she had been fine since.  How could she tell Kid?  Should she?  He had worried about this possibility when they had been a couple.  She couldn’t bring herself to explain that she couldn’t - or thought she couldn’t- get pregnant.  Anyway, he had clearly been ready to move on, his interest in Samantha had proven that to her.  She began to tire of the questions and the worries.  Her thoughts were dragging her in circles, over the same tired territory, over and over again.  She didn’t want to believe this was happening, and that two of the boys she had been riding with for just over a year were awake and aware of what was going on.  She wanted to convince herself that maybe this would all end, like a dream, that she wouldn’t have to face Buck and Cody,. . .hell, and herself after this night.  She was too tired to keep this up. Once, twice she traded bandannas and put the blood-covered rags in her coat pockets, thankful she had put it on.  She couldn’t possibly let the boys see.  She realized of course, that the boys had given her their bandannas.  She decided that she would buy them new ones as soon as she got the chance. . .if she got a chance. . .was she going to die?  No, she forced the thought from her mind.  No, she would be fine, and she would just buy some bandannas and fold them and put them on their bunks.  She had done that once for Jimmy.  Once, after he had been shot, and ruined another one of his shirts, she had bought him a new one and placed it on his bunk when no one else was around, there was no doubt about who had done it, but she liked doing things like that.

 The night crawled by for Buck and Cody.  Buck sat in the darkness, hearing Lou whimper and sigh every once and a while, straining his ears for any time she might call to him.  He wished Kid were here, . . .no, on second thought, maybe not, that might just be the worst thing.  Kid would no doubt be over-wrought, it would make things harder on Lou.  It was clear to them all that he still loved her, as much as the two of them tried not to see it. . . “Argh, What kind of hell is this?”, he thought, setting his jaw in frustration. . .Maybe it would be better if Jimmy were here.  He just didn’t know.  He was becoming chilled, but didn’t want to move from his spot to go and grab his blanket.  He and Lou had never been close, and though they loved one another as brother and sister, he knew that maybe she needed someone who was a close friend to her right now.  “Well, she’s got me. . .and Cody.  We’ll do our best.”  He’d never felt so helpless to help someone he loved before.

Time and time again he fought the urge to go over to her, to ask her if he could do anything for her, maybe she was wanting someone to be with her, but he wouldn’t let himself.  She was proud and bull-headed, he knew, but it seemed that she realized her limitations and was asking for help tonight.  If she needed him, she’d let him know, and he’d do whatever she asked.
Cody was even more anxious than Buck.  He couldn’t see or hear anything.  He only had a guess at what was happening, and he hoped more that anything that he was wrong.  He mustered up a couple of prayers as the night dragged on, not knowing what else to do.  Could she die?  The young man felt that if anything happened, he would know it- that Buck would call for him.  He realized that he wasn’t needed-or wanted- out there, where they were, and so resigned himself to poking at the fire, getting up a couple of times to collect small branches and feed them into the new flames as a way to work off his nervous energy.  The thought crossed his mind to take a blanket to Buck, but he didn’t want to risk anything to disturb the situation.  Besides, he was slightly night-blind, a fact that he hated, and was concerned that he might even trip over Lou in the dark. He sighed, frustrated at the whole thing, worried and angry and at an utter loss.

Finally, after what seemed like days, Lou was exhausted and cold, and really was miserable past caring about what was happening.  Something told her that it was over, and that she was going to have to live and face this.  She realized that the insides of her coat pockets were probably blood-covered, and she hoped that she wasn’t going to appear a terrible mess.  She would just have preferred to die, she didn’t want to look as if something had happened to her.  In the morning, perhaps she could try and wash up before the boys got up, but didn’t feel as if she would be able to get the energy to rise before them, or perhaps at all.  She folded and arranged one more clean bandanna before wrestling her pants back up over her hips and closing them.  Gathering her courage she called softly in the direction of the man closest to her.


He was sure she had called for him, and he walked towards the small bundle of blanket and Lou.  “Do you want to go back to the fire” he asked her softly?

She nodded, closing her eyes again.

Cody’s heart beat faster as he heard Buck approaching and saw the young woman in his arms.  Buck’s eyes met his as he lowered his miserable cargo onto her bedroll, and she turned away from the firelight, so that the boys wouldn’t be able to read her expression.

“We’ll stoke the fire up,” Buck said gently.  He had felt her trembling as he carried her back to where they had all previously been sleeping, and didn’t want her to have to ask.

Lou nodded her head, “thanks” - though she didn’t meet his eyes.  She wasn’t sure if she’d ever be able to.

Chapter Two--Thursday

 The next morning was slightly overcast, and the sky was a muted gray as the sun poked up over the horizon.  Lou awoke, and without moving, listened for the voices or the movements of her companions.  She wasn’t going to turn her head and look, afraid she’d find one of them watching her.  Maybe they weren’t even awake, maybe she had woken up before they had.  Then, she heard the sound of one of the boys stirring the fire, and realized that she wouldn’t be able to ignore them forever.  She heard a whisper and one of them rise and begin to walk away.  Lou took a deep, silent breath and rolled to her other side, to face the facts.

It was Buck, kneeling at the fire, and watching her with a warm expression. “Morning” she mouthed, forcing herself to meet his eyes.

 He approached her slowly and knelt several feet from her head, “How are you feeling?” he said gently.  She blinked and swallowed hard, then nodded, “ok”.  She didn’t yet trust herself yet to speak, afraid her voice would break and she might begin to cry.  She felt utterly drained, but still didn’t want to risk it.

 “I’ll make some tea for you.  Will you be up to eating something?”

 “Maybe, I’ll drink something, I’m not real hungry.”

 “Alright, just rest,” he dared a tender smile, trying to take the edge off of her embarrassment.

 She gathered up some courage, sat up without looking up, and grabbed her canteen.  She walked away from them into the grove of trees near where they had made camp.  When she was sure she couldn’t be spotted removed the one clean bandanna from the sleeve of her coat and poured cold water onto it.  She washed her hands and then her legs and thighs.  She found that her long johns had dried blood on them.  She didn’t want Rachel to wash them, and tried to think of how she would manage to take care of them herself without having to embarrass herself in front of their “station mother.”  She was cold again, of course, but she didn’t want to take any of the water that was being heated.  She accepted that fact that the boys probably knew what she was doing, she just didn’t want to seem so conspicuous, it was still too humiliating.

 She emptied the three other bandannas out of her pockets and decided that she would hide them in the tight knots of branches at the base of a large scrub bush.  She worked without thinking.  She couldn’t let herself fall apart.  She just wanted to get home--for this to simply be forgotten, though she knew it couldn’t be.

 Over at the fire, the boys were speaking in hushed tones.
“Was she okay?  I mean. . .”

 “It was a bad night, she’ll make it though.  She’s just really ashamed, I think.  I mean, just try to imagine being in her position.”

 Cody nodded solemnly.  “Poor thing.  I just can’t believe it. . .Will we need to wait till tomorrow to travel, or should one of us go ahead?”

 “I don’t know.”

 Cody poured coffee for the two of them, and was in the process of pouring an third, when Buck interrupted him.

 “Hold on.  Put some more water on, I’ve got some tea that will be better for her, probably.”

 A few minutes later, Lou walked slowly back to the fire.  Wishing she would just sink into the ground with each step, but determinedly walking toward reality.

Without a word, she folded her blanket in thirds and lay it on top of her hot roll, which she rolled up swiftly and tied with two thin cords.  She turned then, to sit on it, and Buck handed her a steaming beverage.

 “It’s hot,” he cautioned.

 “I see that.”

The silence was causing her such anxiety, she didn’t know what it would take to make things seem more normal.  It was surprising that Cody hadn’t ventured to say something.  Cody however, knowing his propensity to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, didn’t trust himself to break the silence.

 With hands wrapped gingerly around the tin cup, her eyes fixed on the small fire, Lou took a trembling breath and began, “Will you please let me tell people, how and when I want?  I don’t want you to tell.”  She was pleased with herself--that she sounded so together; she didn’t even hear her voice waver.

 “Whatever you want, Lou,” Cody replied, finally releasing his tongue.

 She looked up into his blue eyes and thanked him with a glance.  Her gaze wandered to Buck who was thoughtfully chewing a biscuit,  “Of course” he said simply.

 Cody looked at her steadily for a moment, “are you feeling okay?”

 “Yeah, I’m okay.” There was momentary pause. “They’ll be expecting us today, at least me and Buck” she remarked--to neither of them in particular, just trying to address their thoughts.

 “Are you going to be able to ride?” questioned Buck

 “Yes” she replied definitively, with a little more force than she had intended.  “I’ll be fine,” she added, trying to smooth out her tone.

 The rest of the morning was simply taken up with tending to camp chores and preparing for the ride ahead.  The boys tried to make some small talk, and Lou did her part, but it all felt awkward, and Lou simply wished that she could ride in the other direction when they set off.


She realized, not a couple of miles into the ride that the boys were letting her pace-set and though she appreciated it, in a sense, it made her even more self-conscious.  She pushed the pace somewhat faster than she physically would have liked, but she wasn’t going to move any more slowly, her pride was too raw for that.  She wanted to ride as if nothing had happened the previous night, but they were all too exhausted for that--and besides it would have seemed frantic and foolish for her to force it.  They stopped twice during the day to water the horses and rest a spell.  Neither time did Lou request it, though she was inwardly thankful when Cody and Buck, each in turn, brought up the suggestion themselves.

 They rode in silence.  As they traveled on, and to Lou’s relief, the night’s events and Cody and Buck’s relation to them seemed to grow somewhat fuzzier and further away, relative to their distance from the campsite.  Several times during the day Lou felt the stalking approach of the feeling and memories just before they pounced upon her with devastating clarity.  Twice, she let herself toy with the possibilities of what would have happened had she not have lost the baby.  How would she have told Kid?  No doubt, Kid would have proposed marriage, “yet again,” she thought bitterly.  She was angered at the thought of it.  “He would do it because it would be the ‘right thing to do,’ not that he really gives a damn.”  She let the storm clouds of this prediction stay but momentarily before she replaced them with the equally impossible fantasy of the two of them choosing names for the child and looking forward with anticipation to its birth and what it would be like to have a baby nursing at her breast.  Kid would be a wonderful father, she thought.  A smile tried to creep to her lips, but as it did so, reality blindsided her and replaced it with the stinging of tears.  She again steeled herself and attempted to push the ideas out of her mind.
 The Sweetwater station rose into view a bit before dusk.  They wouldn’t be too late, but Lou knew that if it hadn’t been for her that they could have arrived hours earlier.

 They rode up to the bunkhouse, and Jimmy came out the greet them.

 “Can’t say we’re surprised to see you before dinner. . .since Cody’s with ya.”  He grinned sardonically.

 “Just make yourself helpful and take Lou’s horse, Hickock,” Cody retorted.  Lou shot the blond rider a glance as she slid off the back of Lightening.

“Thanks” Lou said, not looking at the dark-haired rider whom she handed to reins to.  Ike joined them on the porch and silently took another set of reins from Buck, who by this time had dismounted as well.  “Hey, who’s gonna take Soda for me?” Cody hollered to the house.

 <You just got back from vacation.  You can handle it> Ike signed grinning widely.

 Buck and Lou went into the bunkhouse while the three others took the horses to the barn accompanied by Cody’s half-hearted whines.

 Noah was the only rider seated at the table, before him was a mostly-empty plate.  Teaspoon’s was still something over half-full.  “Seconds” thought Lou.

The arrivals began putting their belonging away.  “Well, good evening to you.” said Teaspoon drawled, gesturing with his fork.

 “Hungry” asked Rachel?

 “I could eat” replied Buck.

 “Well, sit down, you two, you can get settled in after you have a meal,” said Rachel, setting out two new plates.

 “We expected you a little earlier. .” Teaspoon began “waited dinner for you a spell, but... ”

 “We got things taken care of” replied Buck as he settled in beside Noah.

 “How was the ride Lou?”  asked the dark-skinned rider.

 “A ride.” She replied blandly.  Teaspoon noticed that she was more subdued than usual, and decided that somehow his plan to give Lou some “away-time” didn’t achieve the desired effect.

 “Lou, some ham and beans for you?” Rachel asked, as she filled a plate for Buck.

 “Naw, just some corn bread, I think.  Not too hungry.”  Rachel couldn’t help but notice the way Buck caught her eye when she said this, and she wondered what had happened between the two on the ride.  She guzzled a cup of water.  While Buck explained to the others how they met up with Cody.  Lou’s head swam, she just wanted to get a little something in her and fall into a stupor on her bunk, but she felt too grimy even for that.

 “Rachel, do you mind if I draw myself a bath after dinner?”

 “Well, if you call all that you’re eating tonight dinner. . .” Lou didn’t so much as smile at the remark, and Rachel finished, “Of course, looks like you’ve had a hard day.”

 The dinner continued with some small talk and the revelation that Kid had been set on a lengthy run to Cutter Flats the prior evening.  Soon, the three other riders came into the bunkhouse.

 “Well now, Mr. Cody, might you care to spin us a tale about your vacation?” Teaspoon asked the tow-headed rider.

 “Aw, I suppose I’d better eat some to get my energy up, then I’ll be glad to--and y’all will be glad I did,” he replied, and sat himself down beside Lou on the hard bench.

 Jimmy groaned and shook his head.


 Taking occasional baths at Rachel’s had become a sort of prerogative, and it was one aspect of being treated “like a girl” that Lou didn’t mind in the least.  She tested the steaming water with her big toe and eased her foot in up to her ankle.

 “Mmmm,” she sighed.

 She worked her way into the water and breathed the humid air in deeply.  The light was low, and she reclined up against the back of the tub.

 “Don’t fall asleep,” she told herself, feeling peculiarly giddy at the idea, she giggled out loud. “Boy, I really am tired,” she thought.  She stretched her ankles and calves and back leisurely and rolled her head from side to side.  Then, in a moment of frustrating clarity the thought occurred to her that the soap was gone, and she didn’t even have a wash cloth to scrub off with.  She chided herself in her mind, and decided just to call and see if Rachel could bring them.  “Makes more sense than climbing out and staggering around the house in a towel,” she reasoned.

 “Rachel!”  she paused, “Rachel?!”  She heard footsteps.  The door opened,

 “Yes?” Lou turned to look at the older blond woman, who was smiling with a quizzical expression.  Lou couldn’t help but break into a sheepish grin.

 “I’m so slow, I just forgot soap and a wash cloth.  Would you mind. .”

 “No that’s alright, Lou.  I utterly forgot that there was no soap left in here.”

 She walked from the room, closing the door half-way behind her.  She returned and walked the items to the tiny girl, engulfed in the tub.
“Thanks, Rachel.  That was dumb.”

 “That’s okay, you’re just tired.  I understand.”

 “Maybe” thought Lou.

 Rachel reached down for the clothes Lou had shucked off; they were lying in a pile next to the chair where her fresh ones were. “Here, I’ll take these now, if you want.”


 Rachel jumped slightly and turned back to Lou, the clothes falling from her hand.

 “I. . .uh, I can take care of them.”

 Rachel stared back dumbfounded.

 “I just, well, let me do it, I can.” Lou explained, fumbling to excuse her previous outburst.

 “Ok” replied Rachel, still puzzled by Lou’s reaction.  She looked back to the pile on the floor and noticed what looked like dried blood on the longjohns.

 “It’s ok,” Rachel said, “It’s no big deal, it happens.”

 “Rachel, just. . .please.  Let me.”

 The young woman looked so forlorn and upset--Rachel wasn’t sure what could have brought this on, but chalked it partly up to the girl’s fatigue.  “Ok Lou.”  Then after a pause, “do you want to stay for some tea afterward?”

 “No, I just want to sleep.”

 “Alright.  Just relax and enjoy your bath.  I won’t disturb you.”

 “Thanks” she nearly whispered, breaking her eye contact with her older friend.

 Rachel left the room without another word and closed the door.

 Lou spent the next half hour mindlessly washing herself and crying with fatigue and misery intermittently.  After she was done, she scooped out some of the bath water with a basin and cleaned her long johns.  After taking care of the bathwater, which was no small task, she made a quiet and deliberate exit from the house and, in the dark, draped the johns over one of the clotheslines.  The bunkhouse was relatively quiet.  Buck was in his bunk, listening to another of Cody’s stories as were the rest of the boys, Ike doing so over a game of solitaire.

 Lou climbed into her bunk with effort, and was glad to lie down.

“G’night,” she said, more from habit than the desire to communicate.  A chorus of similar expressions followed in response and Lou pulled the pillow over her head and sank into a heavy, dreamless sleep, unaware of Buck’s eyes that watched her with concern.

Chapter Three--Friday

The next morning was uneventful.  The riders awoke and arose, dressed, and prepared to head out on their respective chores, except for Cody who was resting on his belly in his bunk.

“Hey.  You gonna sleep all day?” Noah poked the bleary-eyed boy in the ribs.

“Aw, I’m not due back till this afternoon.”

“But lucky you.  Here you are a day early, and fully capable of tending to your share of the work.”  Jimmy grabbed a pillow and smacked the back of Cody’s head with it.

“Alright, enough.  I’ll get up.”

“Not very convincing, there” Buck added, shaking his head.

“You’d better start looking lively if you want breakfast.” Lou reminded him.

“OK! Alright!” Cody replied, rolling off of his bed.

Breakfast was an unhurried affair, no riders were expected to head out today, but they were sure Rachel would have plenty for them to do.  Lou, who was generally quiet, was utterly non-communicative at the table, and Rachel risked several glances at her, trying to read the young woman, but nothing revealed itself.  Her appetite seemed to have picked up just slightly from the previous night.  Jimmy was the first to finish and grabbed his gun belt and a sharp looking hat before heading out the door to tend to a project that Teaspoon had assigned to him.

“That’s sure a fine hat, Jimmy.  New?” Remarked Cody.

“Yeah, I got it while you were gone.  Just saw it and thought I’d pick it up.”

“Hm, ya’ might finally be developing a sense of style” the blond replied, tilting his head to the side with a look of mocking . . .

<When are you gonna get one of those?> signed Ike.

Cody simply rolled his eyes and shook his head.  Jimmy gave a brief chuckle as he headed out, and Cody’s expression changed suddenly.  A plan was forming in his mind, and Teaspoon read him like a book.  “That boy has altogether too much time on his hands” he thought to himself, for nearly the hundredth time since he had laid eyes on the cocky kid.


Later that morning, after finishing his chores, Cody set about his plan.  He couldn’t seem to keep his mind off of Lou, but he thought he had found just the thing to occupy his time.  In the shade of the bunkhouse porch, Cody was working diligently, in deep concentration and writing. . .something.

“What is he doing?” Buck asked.

“Who, Cody?  God knows.” Replied Noah

“Well, it can’t be good,” said Buck, unconsciously reaching up to touch his medicine pouch.

“Ah, he keeps things around here interesting.”

Lou passed then, carrying a sack of feed on her right shoulder.  “Aren’t things around here interesting enough?” she said darkly.  She didn’t look up, and Noah stared at her briefly.

“Well, she’s been just as sweet as sugar today.  Do you know what’s up with her?”

“Not really,” Buck lied smoothly.  “She’ll come out of it.”

“Well, let’s hope so, before Kid gets back.  Things have been better lately, but with her in a mood like this. . . who knows.”

When Cody finally spied the victim of his latest plot, he shook his head at his good luck.  Jimmy’s shirt and hat were placed on a barrel in the corner of the tack room, and he was washing his face in the basin.  When he lifted the full basin and leaned down to pour it contents over his head, Cody saw his chance.  He grabbed the hat and, in its place, left a large scrap of paper.  He wasn’t sure it would actually work, Jimmy was always on guard, or so it seemed.  He wasn’t certain that it would even be possible to sneak up on him, but he was always up to a pleasant surprise.  Cody ran off to put the final touches on his project and then scamper to his lookout to watch and enjoy the fun.

Jimmy felt refreshed and invigorated after his brief wash and began whistling “Buffalo Gals” as he rung his hair out and dried off.  He then ran an old comb through his dark locks.  He thought of his mother briefly, “she would want to cut it.”  He gave himself the briefest of “once overs” in the small looking glass that was suspended on the wall, and, satisfied with his appearance, turned to gather his belongings.  He stared curiously at the paper for a minute before Jimmy really understood what it meant.
It read: “If you want to see your precious hat again, look for the next note under the stairs of Rachel’s porch.  The Hat Rustler.”

He was far from amused and looked up and scanned the scene for he presumed culprit.  Lou was in the round corral trying to train a skittish, new colt to lead, and he approached slowly.

“Lou, you know where Cody is?”

She looked up at him, “No, he should be around somewhere, but I don’t know.”

Jimmy nodded in reply and kept his eyes peeled as he approached the two-story home where Rachel stayed.  Before he knelt down, he looked all around, making sure there was no one to witness the proceedings.  He pulled himself slightly under the stairs on his forearms and spied the piece of paper weighted down by a mediumish rock.  As he slithered out from under the porch, he realized that someone was coming out on the porch.

“What are you doin’ Jimmy Hickock?”

Jimmy misjudged where he was in relation to the porch and lifted his head quickly.  Rachel heard a sharp, but dull thud.
“Aw, sh-oot!”  He grunted.  Jimmy climbed to his feet, and looked up to Rachel.  “Cody.” He said holding out the piece of paper.

“Of course,” Rachel replied, she didn’t even bother to read the note.  It didn’t matter what it said, she’d hear all about it later.  She descended the steps to head out back to the small vegetable garden that now contained only potatoes and carrots.  She braved a smile at Jimmy who was dusting himself off and gingerly reaching up to feel for a bump on his head.

Jimmy pursed his lips together and drew them into a firm line.

He read the new note.  “Well done!  You are on the trail to great treasure.  You will be closer when you check under the rock that sits at the entrance of your second home-the sweat house.  H.R.”

Ok, enough was enough.  Jimmy wasn’t gonna play this game.  Who knew how many little trips he would have to make until he found his new acquisition.  He was a man with a mission, he was going to find the “Hat Rustler.”  From his perch, Cody snickered to himself.

The station certainly wasn’t a large area, and it only took him 10 minutes to ask each of the other riders if they had seen the prankster.  Jimmy didn’t reveal the purpose of his search, but Noah did ask Jimmy why he wasn’t wearing his hat on such a bright day.  Jimmy pretended that he didn’t hear and went once again to question Lou.  When he first saw her, she was mildly scratching the colt behind its ears with a far-off look on her face.  He decided not to ask her again, and with an aggravated exhalation, set off toward the sweat-lodge.

The next clue was right where Cody has indicated that it would be.  The goose-chase took him, to the grainery, to the bunkhouse, and back to the tackroom, where he found yet another note in a saddle-bag, hanging on the wall.  Cody had judged Jimmy’s patience perfectly and this note was to be the last.

Jimmy’s jaw clenched as he unfolded the note, but relaxed when he read that it would be the final one. “You have proved your worth, great adventurer.  You will find your hat flying in the barn.  H.R”

Jimmy didn’t know what to make of that, but stepped into one large, airy section of the barn.  He felt foolish as he looked up, but sure enough, his hat was suspended in the air, nearly 8 feet above his head.  He had no idea how Cody had got it up there, but he almost had to appreciate the prankster’s ingenuity . . .almost.  The hat’s stampede strap was tied together with a piece of fishing line that was wrapped around a hook in the wood of the barn’s ceiling.  He shook his head in frustration once again, much to the delight of the onlooker perched in a small corner of the loft.

Jimmy first considered knocking down the hat or breaking the line with one of the pitchforks that stood erect in the tool rack.  He grabbed one and after working with it briefly, realized that it wouldn’t be long enough to do any good, even if he jumped, and he wasn’t gonna be caught looking that foolish.  “Jumping up and down with a pitchfork,” he snorted, “cousin of the devil himself,” and he smiled slightly.  Wait, there was the barrel in the tack room.  Jimmy rolled the barrel to a spot beneath the hanging hat, and once he felt it was relatively stable, climbed upon it.  He then raised the pitchfork, and wobbling slightly, attempted to bat gently at the hat.  It was harder to maneuver the tool than he had anticipated and more than once he had to lower it and rebalance himself.  He wasn’t always real sure on his feet; for that reason, he had never enjoyed high places, and balancing on the small pedestal of the barrel was testing his abilities.  After some work, he managed to wrap the strand of line around one of the pitchfork’s tines and tried to put enough of a slant to the pitchfork to make it break the line.  The line did finally snap and the hat fell to the ground.  Jimmy didn’t want to make any sudden moves to grab it as it dropped.  Once the line had broken and the pitchfork no longer worked against the light resistance, Jimmy thought he felt the barrel tilt slightly, and put his weight further on his right side. When he shifted his weight, he felt a sudden lurch and immediately saw the error of his ways.  The barrel went out from under him.  Jimmy gave the pitchfork a push away, not wanting it to fall on him, and found himself on top of his treasure.

Cody could no longer hold his laughter and burst out in an applause of cackles and hoots.  Jimmy’s ire was great, and he jumped up, only to feel a shooting pain in his right ankle.  He nearly fell again, but his pride held him up.  “Cody, CODY!!!  You’re gonna pay for this.”  The laughing rider did feel slightly ill at ease, but not anxious enough to overcome the amusement he felt at site he had just witnessed.  “If I could get up there to you!” he threatened. Cody only then recognized that Jimmy had injured himself, and that did temper his glee somewhat.  “Damn it. . .Kill myself getting this thing”, he muttered under his breath as picked up his flattened hat.  He looked up to stare menacingly at Cody while hobbling out of the barn.  “You’d better take care of the barrel and pitchfork, Cody, DO YOU HEAR ME?”

When Teaspoon walked into the bunkhouse he found Jimmy trying to pull off his right boot.

“Let me help,” suggested Lou, making a movement toward his foot which was propped up on a bench in front of him.


“Ok, ok.” Lou snickered, “Might have to cut that boot off soon, if you don’t manage to pull it though.”

At that, Jimmy, groaned loudly and made a giant effort, pulling with force at his boot.  He clearly had convinced it to obey, and after releasing it from his heel he tilted it and slipped it delicately from his foot before removing his sock.  He shot a glance to Lou who seemed somewhat self-satisfied.  Teaspoon looked with a curious respect at the ankle, which was already displaying a myriad of stormy colors.

“I don’t think you’re gonna’ be riding with that.” Jimmy gazed at his foot, his expression similar to one Teaspoon had seen on a young boy who had showed up at the jail, requesting help in the search of his lost dog.  Teaspoon attempted to stifle a chuckle, but to no avail, “Will you look at that, ‘bout swoll up to the size of your head.  How’d you do that?”

“Nevermind.” Replied Jimmy lowly.

“I’ll take your ride, Jimmy” offered Cody, in an attempt to extend the peace pipe.  Teaspoon hadn’t noticed him, standing in the corner.

“Good.” The injured rider responded, and Cody slunk out the door.


Lunch was generally a “catch as catch can” affair, and it wasn’t unusual that one or two of the riders might miss it and grab left-overs so it didn’t seem too odd when Lou didn’t show up for the meal.  Rachel, however, concerned about her younger friend asked if anyone knew where Lou was in order to take her a sandwich.

“I’ll take it to her, Rachel.  Just sit and eat, you hardly get a chance to do that around here
sometimes.”  Cody reached out his hand for the sandwich wrapped in a ragged napkin.  Rachel tried to hide her surprise.  She certainly knew that Cody didn’t often choose to remove himself from the table before necessary, but didn’t want to hurt his feelings by revealing her mild shock.

Cody had been more concerned about Lou than he wanted to let on, and while his escapade with Jimmy’s hat had been something of a distraction, he still felt a distinct burden for the female rider.  Cody found her in the hayloft and offered her the sandwich.  “Lou, you need to eat something.” He said simply.  She took the sandwich and nibbled at it half-heartedly.


“How you hanging in there?”


“Lou. .” he stopped, having no idea how to continue, how to express his concern about how she was acting.

“Thanks for the sandwich Cody, I’ll just finish it, then I need to get back to work.”  The conversation, if it could be called that, seemed to end just there.  Cody rose smoothly to his feet and climbed out of the loft, cursing himself for not having planned out what to say in advance.


“What’s that?” asked Noah

They turned to see a rider coming on a silver gray mount.

<Monte?  There’s not supposed to be another rider out till tomorrow,> responded Ike.

“Agh, I’ll take it” replied Noah, hustling toward a saddled sorrel.  There was always one horse ready should just such a need arise.

<Ride safe, Noah> Ike signed, hoping to still be in shot of Noah’s peripheral vision.  The rider on the silver horse charged in and handed the pouch to Noah who took off into the countryside.  Surprise runs were uncommon, but becoming less so with the past election and talk of war that seemed everywhere.

Rachel had come out to the yard, wiping her hands on a towel and called to the new arrival,  “Come on in, I can feed you.  You must be hungry.”

“Much obliged ma’am, but I’m just gonna head back to town, got some uh, business to attend to.”  With a grimy hand he tipped his hat before turning toward Sweetwater at a casual lope.

Rachel and Ike both shrugged their shoulders and Ike grinned.  “Ike, I’d like to send you and Lou to town for some supplies this afternoon.”

<I’m sorry> he signed <Teaspoon still wants me working with that mustang.  It’s just no good but he insists it’d be a good addition to the herd.>  Rachel nodded, thinking of the previous days where Ike and Noah as well as the other boys had come in sore and stiff after time with the stubborn animal.

“Well then, do you know where Buck is?”

<I think he’s trying to repair one of the seams in his saddle, I told him just to take it into town, but. . .you know Buck.>
Rachel nodded in appreciation of the comment.

Rachel found the young Kiowa doing just as Ike had anticipated.  He had a leather needle and some fine leatherworking thread and was working it thought the holes where the previous seam had been.  “Buck, would you and Lou head to town to fetch some supplies for me?”

“Sure, I can.” He replied, looking up from his project.  “But I could go with Ike, give Lou a little rest, or Cody maybe.”

“Well, Ike is to work with that mustang and Cody. . . I just feel he ought to have the last day of his vacation.”

Buck didn’t want to insist and said, “Yeah, that’s fine, I’ll fetch her and we can head out.”

They could have both ridden in the buckboard, but for some reason, incomprehensible to the housekeeper, Lou had adamantly insisted on riding Lightning along beside.  Rachel was becoming concerned about the girl’s unresponsiveness and the way she was dealing with whatever was bothering her.  Lou chose to ride because she didn’t want to risk the chance that Buck would bring up the events of the evening two days prior, and she was determined to ride outside the distance of casual conversation.  The day was cool but bright--another beautiful afternoon, but neither Buck nor Lou noticed it.  Buck couldn’t help but be thankful when they reached the town and pulled up in front of Thompkin’s store.  They dismounted and happened to catch the coos and giggles of a group of three young women who were admiring a baby.  They were dressed in colorful cotton dresses and the one who was apparently the mother of the child beamed cheerfully as the other two vied for its attention by stroking its cheek or playing with its hand.

“He looks just like Mark.” One offered merrily.

“But he’s got my nose.”

“Oh, can I please hold him?”

Lou stopped without meaning to and watched intently as the women passed the bundle from one set of arms to another.  She seemed then to catch herself with a start and pulled her hat lower over her eyes before cutting in front of Buck to enter the store two long strides ahead of him.  She walked briskly to a far wall and pretended to be occupying herself looking though the goods on the shelf.  Buck busied himself gathering a couple of items on Rachel’s list and then went to the girl who was staring miserably at the shelf.  He tore the list in half and handed one portion to her.  She took it without looking at him, and turned to gather the items.  He wasn’t trying to be unkind, he could have gathered the supplies himself, but he hoped this would occupy her some.

It took just over half an hour to make their purchases and Thompkins, for once, let them escape without a snide comment about any of the residents of Sweetwater Station.

Buck grew weary of the silence on the trip home and hummed something staccato and in a minor key.  Lou strained her ears to hear what must have been an Indian song of his childhood.  When he stopped, she said, “I liked that, what was it?”

“Oh, it’s called something like ‘Winter becomes Spring’ it sounds more poetic in Kiowa though.”

“It was nice.”

This was the first positive thing that Lou had said in nearly two days.  He wanted to kindle any kind of joy she had as much as he could and began the song again, slightly louder this time, and continued with different melodies until they reached the station.


After dinner, Lou went out to the barn where Buck was again working intently with his saddle.  His patience really amazed her sometimes.  She walked deliberately, making a bit of noise, so that she wouldn’t startle him, knowing that he could get extremely engrossed in small tasks.


He turned to her “Yes, Lou?” she noticed that he set down the needle, as if to give his undivided attention.  She stood and gazed at him a moment.  She enjoyed the kind, but not condescending expression on his face.  Lou took a breath and began,

“I just came to ask you. . .Um, about what I said. . . the other night.  I don’t really think you’d tell anyone, but I just wanted to ask you not to, anyways.”

Buck turned his head to stare out of the tack room momentarily then stood up and approached close enough to rest both hands on her shoulders.  He looked at her fixedly, with a concern and seriousness that seemed perfectly juxtaposed.  “I won’t tell.  I just want you to be o.k.  Maybe it will help if you talk to Rachel, about that night, about what happened before. . .” he paused and dropped his hands, looking as if he were at a loss for what to say next.  “I won’t tell.  But Lou, you need to be able to talk to someone--you can’t go on like this.  You know that.”

Lou just stared at him blankly, and Buck wondered if she was even hearing his words.  Suddenly, he saw the tears that had crept to her eyes.  She turned her head and blinked.  “Thanks” she said hoarsely, before heading back toward the bunkhouse.

Chapter Four--Saturday
 Kid’s face twisted as Lou told him about that awful night and the child she had lost.  The words came more freely than she had expected; perhaps it was the fact that the pressure had been building up so much, and once she allowed the first little bit to escape, everything else would be released in a rush.  Kid sat immobile, facing her but not looking at her.

 “Kid, if I had known. . .I’m so sorry.  You were worried something like this might happen, and”  Lou’s voice began to tremble slightly as she dared a look into Kid’s countenance.

 “And, WHAT?!  If you had known you’d have probably done something to get rid of it.  You’re probably glad this happened!  Hell, Lou, maybe you even wanted it to happen!”  He rose to his feet, and for the first time, Lou felt fearful in his presence.  “How could you not have known?”  he hissed menacingly.

Lou’s breath caught, the accusation was simply too much--a chocked sob escaped and she put her head in her hands and pulled her knees up to her chest.  She felt Kid there in front of her, felt his large and brutal hands on her forearms, and finally, the sheer shock as he jerked her to her feet.  Lou couldn’t believe this was happening.  Not Kid.  Not Kid who had seen too much abuse committed by his father against his mother. . .he would never hurt a woman, never do this.  And that’s when she realized--while she was still in her dream, she realized that she was sleeping and forced herself to awaken.  She opened her eyes and encouraged them to adjust to the darkness, looking to the presence of each of her bunkmates for comfort.  She brought her breathing under control, and let her gaze move from rider to rider.  Jimmy was on his back and his mouth was slightly open.  Lou felt a tenderness looking at him, realizing that maybe night in the bunkhouse was the most peace he knew these days.  Ike was on his side facing the window, and she couldn’t see anything but a slight glint off of his head from the moonlight that was coming in.  Buck was snoring lightly as usual.  She wanted to move over and peek into the bunk below her, the bunk where Kid generally slept, but she was afraid of waking the others and remembered that he would be back the next day.  After reassuring herself that she was safe and that these boys were her family and they cared about her, she was able to close her eyes, and nearly an hour later, managed to find sleep.

Dawn came rapidly, and before she knew it, Lou was involved with the daily ritual of dragging herself out of bed and preparing for the morning.  After morning chores, everyone settled into the breakfast table, anticipating the eggs, sausage and biscuits they knew were on their way.

 Teaspoon opened the morning as he typically did, commenting on the forthcoming meal, “Rachel, that sure smells good.  I reckon I could even eat some of it.”

 Rachel laughed in response, “Glad to hear it.”  She placed a large plate of fried eggs and another of browned sausage patties on the table, and the boys pounced.

 “Civilized, boys!  Act civilized.” Teaspoon reprimanded them, and began to tuck a napkin daintily into his collar.

 The boys discussed chores for the day.  Jimmy was still gimpy due to his ankle but he was determined to help fix Rachel’s porch rather than be stuck hanging out laundry again.  There was hay to be spread in the barn, work to be done on the large corral behind the barn and a variety of other tasks that were distributed and bickered lightly over.  Rachel finally managed to be able to join the meal, after the biscuits were out of the oven, and she spread butter on one of the steaming chunks of bread.  Everyone ate with good appetite, if not vigor, except for Lou.  She pierced the yolk of her egg and ran bites of sausage through it with her fork before finally putting them in her mouth.  She fought to swallow each bite; unbelieveably, she thought, somehow she felt emptier by the day.  How could a life she didn’t even know existed leave such a pain in her heart?  She really wanted someone to talk to, but she wasn’t sure that the miscarriage was what she wanted to discuss.  She didn’t know what she needed, but she needed it badly.

 “Whaddya think, Lou?” Cody asked. She was suddenly aware that the conversation had moved to include her.

 “Um, ‘bout what?  I wasn’t paying attention. .sorry.”

 Cody gave her a puzzled look, “Nevermind, it was just a joke, really.”  Lou nodded and forced herself to raise another piece of sausage to her lips.

A few minutes later, Jimmy tried to engage her in the conversation once, but she brushed his attempt aside.

 “I’m gonna go see to that foal.” Lou said, rising from the table.

 “You hardly ate anything, Louise.”  Rachel replied.

 “It was plenty.  Thanks, Rachel.”

 As the door shut Rachel made up her mind that she would sit the young woman down and have a talk with her that afternoon.  She obviously was not sleeping well, and her lack of appetite was worrying Rachel as well.

 “OK.  Kid’s not here, so what else could be Lou’s problem?”  Jimmy asked, putting his fork down, obviously waiting for a good answer.

 Buck stared methodically at his plate, not daring to look up at Jimmy who had an uncanny knack at reading people.  He put a last bite of sausage into his mouth and ignored the question.

 “Who can understand women?” said Cody, trying to deflect the query, “No offense, Rachel.”

 “Mhh-hmm” Rachel responded, finally able to sit and have at some of the meal.

 “Well, that doesn’t answer my question.  Something’s wrong.”

 “Jimmy,” Teaspoon began,  “Maybe she just needs to be let alone.”

 “No, I don’t think that’s it at all,” he said coolly and removed himself from the table.  He had been planning to simply find Lou and get the answer out of her at that moment, but he recognized his mood and Lou’s and that for him to approach her in this state would be like pouring kerosene on a fire.  “Later” he told himself.  But he knew he’d not be able to delay his impulse for too long.

Cody left on a ride that afternoon without much fanfare.  He was to pick up some legal papers in a nearby town and was not expected to be more than a day.

 Lou didn’t show up for lunch.  She went in early and fixed herself a sandwich.  It wasn’t that she didn’t want to be around anyone, she wanted intimacy more than anything, but she couldn’t bear the thought of being stuck in the bunkhouse with everyone, being forced to make small-talk, to be a part of things that now seemed trivial and small.

 After lunch, Jimmy could stand it no longer, he found Buck, leaning against Rachel’s house, in the shade.  He was enjoying some lemonade and taking a break from the carpentry that had originally been Jimmy’s chore.

“Where’s Lou?” he asked Buck.

 “Out in the barn, I think.”  Jimmy turned, but Buck grabbed his shoulder, suddenly and Jimmy turned sharply, not typically liking to be touched in such a way.

 “Jimmy, just take it easy with her.  Things have been hard for her lately.”  Buck gave him a look, as if checking Jimmy’s comprehension.  Jimmy paused slightly and checked the eyes of his friend.  “What do you know about this?”

 “I know that she’s hurting.  Don’t hurt her anymore.”

 “I wouldn’t do that” Jimmy said defensively, and turned on his heel.

 Jimmy had had enough.  He was certainly more worried than angered, but sometimes he had a hard time displaying them differently, a fault which he often cursed himself for.  He made his way resolutely toward the barn.

“Lou?” Jimmy made his way toward her limping only slightly.

 “Yeah, Jimmy?” she said, not looking up from her task.

 “Hey, stop for a sec.”

 She drew up the rake, planted it at her feet and leaned into it, staring at him.

 “Lou, are you okay?”

 “Fine, Jimmy.”

 “Yeah, well it don’t seem like it to me.”

 “Why don’t you mind your own business?”  She retorted, beginning to rake with vengeance at the hay.”

 Jimmy stepped toward her purposefully and seized the rake, stopping her motion, but not taking it from her hands.  “Something’s wrong, Lou.  You’ve been down in the mouth and sulky and . . just,.just not acting like yourself since you rode in her the other night.”  He lowered his voice and questioned seriously, “What happened?  And don’t tell me ‘nothin’.”

 “Jimmy, . . .it is nothing.  Why don’t you stop acting like Kid?  I couldn’t do anything without him all over me about it.”  Her voice rose as she continued “It’s nothing, and I don’t want to hear about it anymore.  Not from you, not from anybody.  You got that?!”  She was screaming now.  She released the rake and turned to storm out of the barn, but Jimmy caught her by the arm.

 “Lou.” He said firmly.

 She jerked her arm in an attempt to wrench it away from his grasp.  Her face twisted in pain and he was afraid he had hurt her.  Suddenly her body convulsed and a choked sob escaped.  He watched the anger drain from her face to be immediately replaced with grief and vulnerability.

 “Come here.”  He drew her up next to him and put his free arm around her trembling form.  She remained for nearly a minute before pulling herself up slightly.

 “I’m sorry, Jimmy.”

 “It’s ok, Lou, I’m just worried about you is all.”  Damn, he did sound like Kid, he thought to himself.  Lou swiftly disentangled herself from his embrace and walked out of the barn muttering weakly, “Don’t be, I’ll be fine.” and headed to where Rachel was taking out another load of the laundry that never ended.  Jimmy’s gaze followed her with a dark sobriety.

 “Rachel, Rachel?”

 In the midst of hanging out a sheet, the fair-haired woman turned to Lou and pinned the remaining section on the line without even looking at what she was doing.

 “I. . .I’ll help you.” She stammered, and reached for a towel in the basket.

 “Thank you, Louise.  I’d appreciate that.”

 This was a start, thought Rachel.  It was coming.

 With the two of them together the task only took another 10 minutes.  The lines were full and slightly bowed, and Rachel looked at Lou,

 “Let’s go inside and have some lemonade.  It’s a treat for my helpers today.”

 Lou smiled slightly, Rachel had a fondness for the drink and always had an excuse for making it. Soon the two were sitting in the parlor, each with a cold glass in their hand, and Rachel waited for Lou to begin.
“I guess I’ve been acting strange lately, but, I just don’t know what to do, and I need someone to talk to.”

 Rachel smiled warmly and encouragingly and replied, “Well, Louise, my ears are always open for you, for whatever you need to talk about.”

 Lou nodded and glanced at the floor.  She took a deep breath, a long draught of the sour drink and began. “It’s bad, Rachel.”
“Honey, whatever it is, you can tell me.”  Rachel set down the glass on the small coffee table in front of them to give the girl her undivided attention.

 “Um.  The other night.  The night when Buck and I met up with Cody.  I. . .”

 Rachel couldn’t possibly conceive of what could have happened.  Though a dozen things began to race through her mind, none of them seemed plausible, and she never did arrive at the truth on her own.

 Lou’s voice lowered and began to quaver.  With tears clinging to her eyelids, she went on “that night, I had a miscarriage.  I didn’t know I was pregnant, but that’s what it had to have been.”  She began to speak rapidly, Rachel could hardly understand what was being said.  “I didn’t mean to but I killed my baby.  Me and Kid’s baby.  I. .”  She tried to go on, but her voice was now so choked with emotion and couldn’t continue and buried her face in her hand.  Rachel gently took the glass from her before setting it beside hers and drew the sobbing girl into her arms.

 “I’m so sorry, honey.  Oh sweetheart.”  Rachel stroked her hair and “shhh”d softly to her, rocking her slightly.  Rachel didn’t ever try to pull away, or sit Lou up to look at her and go on, but let her cry and sob as she needed.  She remembered losing her own child and at the tremendous pain that still caused her.  And here was Lou, not even knowing she would have a baby and only finding out by its death.  Rachel couldn’t imagine how Lou had been able to deal with this on her own.  “Not well” though, it occurred to her.

 After a couple of minutes, Louise slowly drew back from Rachel’s embrace.

 “Louise, here, let me get you a handkerchief.”  Rachel quickly hurried to the next room.

 Lou was sure she looked a mess, she knew her nose was running, and that she had to look just hideous, but she was feeling slightly better--this was going to help.  Rachel would help her and listen to her and know what to do.

 “Here, honey” Rachel said, sitting down.

 Lou mopped her face up and tried to catch her breath from the exhausting bout of crying.

 “Thanks” she finally managed.

 Rachel was still quiet, but it wasn’t a threatening quiet and Lou was glad for it.

 “I was going to have a baby, Rachel.”  Rachel nodded slowly and placed her hand on Lou’s knee.  “I don’t know what to do, it hurts so much.”

 Lou searched her friend’s face and Rachel knew the girl wanted an answer.

 “You’ve lost someone you didn’t know, but would have loved.  It’s ok to feel this way.  Whenever you lose someone it’s going to hurt, especially if it’s your own flesh and blood.”

 New tears began to well up in Lou’s eyes and she wiped them firmly.  Rachel was worried that perhaps she had said the wrong thing, but Lou came again to ask,

 “Will it get easier?”

 “Yes.  It will.  You’ll always miss that baby, but that’s not saying it won’t get easier.  You’ll be able to go on.”

 “How did you do it Rachel. You must have been looking so forward to your baby.  Picking out names, trying to remember nursery songs.  I’ve been thinking about that a lot.  I didn’t even know, but you.”  She stopped abruptly, ashamed of herself for bringing up the painful memory of not only Rachel’s unborn child’s death, but the death of her husband as well.

Rachel saw the shame on Lou’s face, “Lou, it’s ok. It’s ok.”  Rachel reached out, touched Lou’s face and drew it up to look her in the eyes.  “Yes, I wanted that baby so badly.  We were so in love and wanted the child in our family.  I still miss that baby.  Maybe there will be another one someday, but maybe not.  We’ve both lost people we’ve loved, but we can’t stop living.  We’ve got to grieve, and then we need to survive.”  Louise seemed to be listening and had quieted her tears.  “We all love you, honey, and we’ve been worried about you.”  She paused a minute, wondering if she should ask about that night, and she finally convinced herself to.

 “Did Buck and Cody know?” she asked softly.

 Lou closed her eyes and nodded nearly imperceptably.  When she opened them again, she continued, “It hurt, and Buck woke up.  I wasn’t even sure what was going on, but I realized quick.”  She gave a briefest account of the evening and the next morning, the more “gruesome details” deleted.  “They were both good to me.  It was awful, it was.  But the boys were ok, and they promised they wouldn’t tell.”

 Rachel couldn’t help but feel proud of the young men, how they had taken care of Lou in such a situation.  She also wondered if they didn’t regret their promise after watching Lou the past couple of days.

  Lou had gained nearly complete composure and took a sip of lemonade to wet her mouth.  When she set the glass down, Rachel brushed some stray hair away from the rider’s face.  “Are you gonna tell the Kid?”

 Lou turned her head, “I don’t know.  There’s part of me that says ‘why should I?’  Ain’t nothing can be done about it.  Why tell him that I was carrying his child and that I lost it?  I don’t want him to suffer that.  ‘Sides, he was always worried about. . .that” she finished lamely, fighting off a threatening sob.

 “Oh, Lou.  It’s gonna be ok.”

 “I just can’t help but think that I did something wrong.  That maybe. . .Rachel,. . .do you think I’m being punished?”

 It cut Rachel to the quick to hear the tormented question from her friend, and she wanted to reach out and take the girl in her arms, but she could see that Lou only wanted an answer, to be reassured that she wasn’t bad, that she didn’t kill her child.  “Lou, you didn’t do anything wrong, it wasn’t your fault.  But, I think maybe you need to hear that from Kid,. . . do you think I’m right?” she asked quietly.

 “Maybe.  Do you think he should know?” Lou questioned, focusing deeply into her friend’s steely blue eyes.

 “It’s between you and the Kid.  I can’t make that decision.  You know your relationship, and you know him, and hopefully yourself some.  He cares for you so much, Lou, he wouldn’t fault you.”

 The petite girl wanted to believe it, but wasn’t sure she could bring herself to risk such a step with the young man she had loved and wanted but couldn’t marry just yet.

 “Your next ride is tomorrow?”


 “Kid will be back probably tomorrow morning.  Maybe you can get one of the other boys to trade with you get some rest and healing in.”

 “I can’t” she whined uncharacteristically, “I don’t want to make a big deal--“

 “Lou, the boys are worried about you, and this is a big deal.  Teaspoon will understand, and so will the rest of ‘em.”

 Lou didn’t have the strength or desire to argue and was secretly relieved that Rachel made the suggestion.  For the next few minutes, Lou simply rested her head against Rachel’s shoulder and enjoyed the relief of sharing her burden with a friend.  When at last she raised herself, up, Rachel spoke to her once again.

 “Louise.  Please take care of yourself.  You need to eat and get some more rest.  I know you’re hurting, but other people here are beginning to hurt for you.  Don’t forget, we care about you, and no one would think any less of you if they knew. Alright?”

 “Alright.”  She hesitated, but always cautious she had to ask, “You’re not going to tell anyone, are you?”

 “Lou, I promise you, everything you’ve said to me in private will stay that way.  Now, don’t you worry about that at all.”

Lou thanked her with a grateful look, but she felt weaker and more defenseless than at almost any other time in her life.  The control she tried to maintain over her situations and her emotions was frayed and nearly to the snapping point, the fact of this manifested in her bouts of tears and inability to keep her mind on her work.  She felt out-of-control and unable to do anything about it.  Now, just holding everything together was a challenge.  She hoped that talking with Rachel would make things easier and relieve her from some of her burden, and while it had done that it had also enhanced the reality of the event and magnified the pain.  “This has got to end” Lou told herself.  She would tell Kid.


Lou had considered her options and decided to ask Ike to take her run.  Buck was the only other option and she somehow felt awkward about asking him, Ike didn’t know the situation and that was comfortable.  She found Ike in the barn, filing his horse’s hooves.  He dropped the foot and his file when he noticed Lou’s approach, anticipating a conversation and always having to empty his hands in such a situation.

 <Hey, what’cha doing?>

 “Nothing really.  I was wondering. . .I hate to ask you this, but I was wondering if you could trade a ride with me.  I know you just got back, but I’ll be glad to take one for you in a pinch. . . if it wouldn’t be too much trouble for you.”

 She couldn’t help but wonder about the expression in the silent rider’s eyes.  What was that, pity?  She was seized by the fear that Buck had spoken to Ike about the ride--they were best friends, after all.  There was a brief moment when Ike didn’t respond, but he closed it quickly

 He tried to ease her obvious discomfort with a smile,  <Sure, I can manage it.  Are you doing alright?>

 “Yeah, of course, just, something’s come up I need to--” she stammered

 <It’s ok, you don’t have to explain, I didn’t mean anything by it>

 Lou was embarrassed for a moment, she must have really botched this, I’m all actin’ like a fool, she thought to herself.

 “Thanks a lot, Ike.  I’ll make it up to you.” She nodded once, turned on her heel and walked out.



 “OW, Argh! Unn!!”  Buck stuck his thumb into his mouth and bounced lightly on the balls of his feet.  He heard something like a snicker behind him.  “Fine, laugh all you like.  I don’t see why this couldn’t wait for Kid to get back, he’s better at this sort of thing.”

<I thought Jimmy was gonna do this?>

“Well, Jimmy hit his thumb too.  Got frustrated, and well, that should explain the rest.”  The dark-haired rider swung the hammer loosely in his right hand and examined the swelling thumb.
<That’ll be a beauty> signed Ike <Thumbs are easier to hit than nails anyway, you just managed to hit the larger target.>

 “Thanks, that makes it better.”

 Ike nodded with a grin.

 <Hey, I want to know something.  Did something happen on that ride with Lou?>

 Buck looked away with a frustrated sigh.  “You know, it was a tough ride, I really can’t say anything else.  I’m sorry.”

 Ike looked at him, incredulous. <You can’t explain this to me?>
“Ike, I can’t.  It’s not you. . .”

 <Does Cody know?>

 “Ike. . .”

 <Look, I’m worried about her.  Have you ever seen her like this before?  She just asked me to take tomorrow’s ride and just about panicked when I asked her if anything was wrong.>  Ike recognized the torn expression and his friend’s demeanor and backed off <Is she gonna be ok, whatever this is, that’s all I want to know.>

 “Yeah, I think she’ll be okay, she needs some time.  Things have been crazy around here for her lately.”

 Ike nodded--slowly, pensively. <Alright.  Help her, if you can.>
“I don’t know if there’s anything for me to do. . .She’ll be alright.”  Buck turned back to his work on the porch, and Ike felt slightly dismissed.

Chapter Five--Sunday
 Breakfast was a typical affair.  Hotcakes and sausage.  Teaspoon had left bright and early and had taken some sausage and biscuits with him.  The boys had begun to watch Lou rather carefully, their concern getting the better of them. She had joined them in playing 5-card stud the previous night and did neither spectacularly nor poorly.  She was up the next morning with the rest, and other than the preoccupied expression that seemed now perpetual and her reluctance to participate in conversation, Lou rather seemed almost back to normal and there was a general feeling of relief among her co-riders.  After chores, she headed out to the water hole to collect her thoughts in privacy before Kid returned.  Jimmy saw her saddle Lightening and forced himself not to ask where she was going.

 Late that morning, Buck gave the familiar call of “Rider coming” and Ike mounted a rust-colored gelding and headed out.  Cody was surprised to pass the mochilla off to the silent rider, but wished his friend well.  Ike took off with the swift and smooth ability that Cody had originally been jealous of.

 Cody jumped off the sorrel gelding, and Buck approached him, hand extended.

 “Thanks, Buck.”

 “Sure thing” he replied, taking the reins.

 “Um, where’s Lou?  I mean, what’s happened, it’s her ride, right?”

 “Yeah.  I. . she hasn’t been quite up to things these last couple of days.  She told Ike she wasn’t feeling well and asked if he’d take her ride.”  Cody nodded slowly as the two walked to the shade of the barn.

 “Other than that, are things ok?”

 Buck sighed audibly, “Beats me.  I think she mighta talked to Rachel.  It’ll be interesting to see what happens, Kid’s getting some rest in the bunkhouse.”

 There was a pause between the two, “Noah getting’ back today?”

“That’s what we’re figurin’”

“Well, I think I’m gonna head out to the water hole.  I can’t even rest this dirty.”

 “Better take a shower instead, I think Lou’s out there.” Buck cautioned him.

 “Oh.” Cody headed to the bunkhouse for a fresh change of clothes and a towel.
 The rider was greeted by Kid’s cheerful but tired salutation, “Hey, you’re back.”

 “Was there any doubt?” replied Cody, “When did you get in?”

 “Aw, just about an hour ago.  Whew, I tell you, these 4 day-ers, it’s just too much.”

 “It’s what you get for being so reliable Kid, ‘figured you knew that.  Still crippled, Jimmy?” Without waiting for a response, he directed the next comment to Kid.  “Did he tell you how he did that?”

 “Very clever.” Kid nodded and smiled widely.

 “Enough” came a half-hearted growl, “’Bout good as new.  You wouldn’t have had to take my ride if you hadn’t got that damn-fool idea into your head. .”

 “It was worth it.”  Cody dared in a sing-song voice--but only because he could hear the mocking in Jimmy’s voice and knew that things were smoothed over.

 “Gotta tell you Cody,” started Kid, switching topics. “I don’t know what’s in the water in Cutter Flats, but the girls. . .whew.  You’d have got an eyeball full, I tell ya. I sure did.  But you must have enjoyed looking around in Denver though, right?”

 Cody turned to him sharply, studying Kid’s grinning face.  The grin faded quickly though, when Cody’s fierce expression registered in his brain.  “Great Kid, thanks for sharin’.  That’s good of ya.  Did you give a thought to Lou when you were drooling over ‘em?” he demanded coldly as he marched out the door and closed it sharply behind him.

 Kid simply looked to Jimmy, bewildered, hoping for the explanation that his friend couldn’t offer.


 Lou returned to the station for lunch; she was finally starting to feel a decent appetite again, but when she saw Katie in her stall, she felt her heart sink with an unexpected trepidation.  He was home, and she was going to determine whether she’d follow through on her decision.

She steeled herself up before setting foot into the bunkhouse.  Rachel and Teaspoon were both seated at the table with the boys chatting freely.  There was an empty space next to Kid, and she slid into it, finding herself unable to look directly at him.

 “Have a good swim?” Jimmy asked her.

 She nodded in response, and began dishing carrots and potatoes onto her plate.  She realized that she needed to acknowledge Kid and Cody’s reappearance and forced herself to ask, “So, how were your rides, fellas?”

 “Nothing special” remarked Cody.

 “Long” added Kid.

 A few minutes passed, and casual conversation continued across the table.  Lou spent half her time eating, and the other rearranging the food around on her plate.  She felt unbearably self-conscious, even though she knew that it was totally irrational.  She had felt that the boys were watching her like eagles for the previous day or so.  Were Cody and Buck staring at her?  She struggled to convince herself that nothing was wrong.  “You’re getting paranoid, Crazy” she hollered at herself inside her head.  Kid turned to ask her a question, but thought differently when seeing that she was clearly somewhere else.

 Rachel rose to grab the water bucket, and finding it empty, turned toward the door.

“Here Rachel,” Lou offered a little too loudly, “Let me get it.”

Rachel was too startled to argue about the task, and handed to bucket to the girl. “Thanks Lou.”  Lou gave a nod of her head and headed outside.

 “What’s with her?” asked Kid.  He was doing his best to sound nonchalant, though everyone knew that he still worried and fretted over her more than he wanted to admit.

 Cody trained his blue eyes on the rider sitting across from him, and resisting the urge to snap at Kid, stabbed a cooked carrot.

 “Yeah, Rachel, is she sick?  Wasn’t she supposed to have a ride today?” commented Teaspoon, who would normally have been in town for lunch, but had left Barnet at the helm, trusting the good-hearted fellow to not cause too much trouble while he was back at the station.

 “What the hell do you care, Kid?”

 Kid looked up, utterly taken aback by the comment and the cold gaze of the rider facing him across the table.

 “What?!  What’s that supposed to mean?”

 In that instant, the tension in the room erupted from nowhere. Rachel’s breath caught for a moment and the impending events were nearly palatable to all others in the room.  Teaspoon watched to see how this would be resolved, never anticipating the fury with which Cody would respond to Kid’s question. Buck tried to catch Cody’s eye, but he was out of reach.  Jimmy made a conscious effort to close his mouth, which hung slack at yet another venomous remark from Cody.

 “You make me sick!  You get what you want from her and then drop her?!”  Everyone held their breath and waited for the response, and Cody rose swiftly to his feet, stepping out from between the table and bench.  Jimmy forced himself to keep his jaw from dropping this time, as everyone watched with a horrified anticipation at what would happen.

 “Cody!” Teaspoon’s voice was low and threatening and would have shut the boy down had his frustration not been so piqued.
 Kid flew to his feet.  “Where do you come off, Cody?  Who the hell do you. . .”

 Cody stepped up onto the bench and flew across the table at the only other rider in room who was standing.  The next few moments were chaos and madness.  Cody had managed to kick one plate off of the table, as well as the serving dish filled with hot, soaking carrots.  The bench on which Lou, Ike, and Kid had previously been seated, was also knocked over as Ike tried to jump up and stop the two-person brawl.  “Boys, quit!”  Rachel hollered, but neither paid her any mind.  Cody and Kid were on the floor, cramped between the table and the bunks.  Cody was swinging with impunity at Kid, who was baffled at the display, but doing his best to protect himself as well as inflict some punishment on his attacker.  Jimmy felt his natural tendency to act kick in, but realized that he’d be relatively unhelpful in even separating the two, as he was across the table from the two fighting men; nevertheless, his muscles twitched, and he was only prevented from reacting by Teaspoon’s interference into the fight.  Teaspoon grabbed the furious boy by the back of his shirt and jerked him sharply, snapping Cody back, and threw him back on his feet.  Kid scrambled to his feet sweating, and Ike placed a cautionary hand on his arm. “What’s going on?  What’s all this about, Cody?” he screamed.

 Teaspoon ignored the questions and turned the blond rider to face him.  Cody stared at Teaspoon, trying to convince him that he was in the right--that his actions were justified, if only the rest of them knew.  “I don’t know what’s got into you, but you’re not welcome back in here until you’ve got yourself under control, and you’ll also pay Rachel for the dishes you broke.  Now, get outta’ here.”

 Cody turned and stormed past Kid, glaring at him with a look that was intended to cause physical pain.  He slammed the door behind him and went to saddle a fresh pony and get away for a while.  Buck wanted to follow, to try and calm him down, not having realized that Cody had been so disturbed, underestimating the light-hearted rider’s  profound depth of feeling.

 Kid saw little of Lou that afternoon, even though he had tried to catch her attention and speak to her several times, she seemed to be trying to avoid him.    Cody had returned a couple of hours after he had left and had seemed no more desirous of talking with Kid that Lou was.  Kid fully intended on working things out with Cody before they’d have to meet in the bunkhouse that evening, but Lou was another matter.  In general, Kid was tired, and wound up in the bunkhouse doing a few domestic chores for Rachel as the afternoon drew to a close.

 “Kid, would you mind heading over to the cellar at the house and getting me a couple onions?” asked Rachel, shelling peas.

 “Sure Rachel,”  Kid rose from the peas that he himself was shelling, finding it resting after four days in the saddle, and headed out the door.  It was a little cool, but he didn’t mind.  His mind had been on Lou the entire afternoon, and he thought he might just check one of her “hideouts” as she liked to call them, before grabbing the onions.  He really didn’t like to push things; she obviously didn’t want to be around him, but Kid’s stubborn and worried streak got the better of him.

 Lou sat in the hayloft, her coat laying across her shoulders.  She had found lunch nearly unbearable before fetching the water, but altogether unbearable after having done so.  No one explained what had happened, and why Cody was missing from the table, and Lou was once again glad when the meal was done and she was able to get away.  The sun was now bright in the sky, and she felt a coolness inside of her that seemed to have replaced the rock that sat previously in her stomach.  She heard someone climbing the ladder into the loft, and sighed audibly.

 “Thought I’d find you here,” came the warm, familiar voice.

 Lou nodded as Kid perched himself next to her.  “Yeah, it’s my place sometimes.”

 “How you doin’, Lou?”

 “I wish people would quit askin’ me that.” She said, her voiced edged with frustration.

 “There’s probably a reason you keep hearing it,” he said softly.  “Look Lou, I want to be friends, I’m not trying to crowd you.”  Smoothly, he added “You’re hurting, and that hurts me.”

 Abruptly, and to Kid’s surprise, she turned her head towards him and rested her forehead against his shoulder.

“Lou, I want you to talk to me, please.”

 “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry Kid.  Please don’t hate me, I didn’t mean to…”

 “Lou. .”

 “I didn’t mean to. . .I didn’t even know”

Kid couldn’t speak, he felt as if the wind had been knocked out of him, and he just held her tightly to him, trying to make some sense of what she was saying.  “I don’t understand Lou.  Aw, sweetheart, please, please tell me.  Let me help” he murmured into her hair.
Without pulling away, or raising her head to speak more clearly, she sobbed into his shoulder, “I lost our baby, Kid.  I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”  She tried to say it again but was overcome with her crying.  Kid wasn’t sure he could have understood her.

“Our baby?  Mine?  When?”  His head was filled with a flurry of questions that he couldn’t have captured with a butterfly net.  He just held Lou tighter and tried to keep his thoughts on the weeping figure in his arms.  He wanted to ask her if she had really said what he had heard, but kept himself from it, certain that he had heard correctly.  He wasn’t sure how long they were like that, but Lou’s shuddering and trembling finally seemed to ease up a little bit and he dared to speak, “Are you ok Lou. . .I mean are you alright?”

 Lou stayed rested against his chest, unable to look up into his blue eyes.  “I’m ok. . .I’m so sorry Kid.”  It seemed all she could say; would he forgive her.  She hadn’t realized until this moment how scared she was that revealing this to the Kid would forever end any kind of feeling of love that may have remained between them.  She desperately hoped and prayed that he would answer much as he did.

“I don’t blame you, Lou.  I’m sorry too.  Don’t blame yourself, ok?”  There was a pause, and Kid distinctly heard a muffled sob against the front of his shirt.  “Ah, sweetheart,  shhh.”  He rocked her gently until she finally got the strength and courage to lift her head and rest her forehead gently on Kid’s shoulder.  Kid reached around the to stroke the back of her head tenderly.  As quietly as he could he asked her, “Do you want to tell me what happened?”

He knew her well enough to know that she rarely shared her truest feelings without being asked.  She had once told him that if people didn’t ask for her feelings or about different situations that she didn’t feel they cared enough to know.  He had become extremely sensitive to that when they were together and felt the need to come back into that mind-set.

She nodded and straightened up, looking out to the horizon where a bright orange sun was nearing the line between earth and sky.  She put her hands together as if she were praying and rested them against her lips.  She then turned them to wipe her eyes and finally folded her arms over her chest in that defensive posture that Kid had grown so accustomed to.  He waited patiently for her to compose herself enough to feel comfortable enough to speak.  She finally began, slowly, quietly and unsurely.   “Just. . .When Buck and I were coming back from Sulfur Springs the other day, we ran into Cody and we decided to come back together, the three of us.”

It slowly dawned upon Kid that she may have been with just the other two riders when the event happened, and he could hardly bear the idea of her being away from Rachel at that time, or trying to imagine what it would have been like for her . . .

“We were sleeping that night when it happened.  Well, Buck and Cody were sleeping.  It hurt so bad.  I didn’t want to wake them up, but you know Buck, he can hear a mouse eating corn a mile off.” She attempted to sound light-hearted at the remark, but knew she failed miserably.  Kid watched her face twist with grief as she thought on that night, and inside Kid winced at her pain.  “Anyway, I just asked Buck to carry me away from the fire, I didn’t want to be around either of ‘em.”

 “He didn’t leave you, did he?”  Kid asked, suddenly anxious.

 “No, no Kid.  It wasn’t like that.  They were close enough.  It’s just. . .you know, I didn’t want them to know, but they did.”  She felt her voice beginning to catch again and took a deep, quick breath to pull herself together.  “They took care of me.  It was okay. We came back the next day.”

 There were so many questions he wanted to ask, but he knew he would wait for another time.  She would want to talk again.  The other boys really had no idea how talkative she could be when she felt secure enough to do so.  He watched her quietly, realizing how well he really knew her, and she, him.  He felt the tug of “my child” in his heart too, but didn’t want to deal with that right now.  He wanted to comfort Lou, to apologize for hurting her, feeling that this had been his fault, even as she felt it was hers.

 She turned to him, and Kid was able to look into her doe-eyes for the first time since he had come into the loft.  They were red and puffy and. . .desperate.  “I’m sorry Kid.  I can understand if you don’t. . .but, can we still be friends?  Please?”

He hardly heard her, but he clearly heard a hurt sigh escape him and it almost gave him a start.  He reached out his arms to her again, and she practically threw herself into his embrace, as if she had never expected him to want to touch or even look at her again.   “Oh Lou, Lou,”  he whispered, his voice choked with emotion and his eyes stinging with tears, “Of course, of course, Lou.  Sweetheart, I don’t love you any less.”

Both he and Lou were both too overcome to realize that this had been the first reconfirmation of either’s love for the other since the break-up, but something seemed changed between them, and since the night of her miscarriage, Lou felt some true peace.  They clung to each other tightly, afraid to let go, and finding some solace between the two of them, despite, or perhaps, because of their pain.

Kid finally felt Lou patting a hand lightly against his chest, and pulled up.  She looked him in the face.  “It’s gonna be ok?”  It was more a question than a statement.

With a slight raise of his eyebrows for emphasis, he nodded, “Yes.”

Both of them were calmer now, what needed to be said had been said, and Lou seemed ready to end for a while.  He held onto her though and she rested again against him.  He wondered what she was thinking, and his mind wandered.  What must Buck and Cody think of this?  If Cody’s outburst had been a result of this, and Jimmy didn’t seem to know, well, they mustn’t have told Jimmy.  But Ike, Buck probably told Ike, Kid decided, they were so close; Kid didn’t feel like Buck would have kept something like this from his best friend if it was bothering him.  Kid placed a soft kiss on Lou’s forehead, wondering about the shame and fear that she must have felt that night.  Maybe she’s talked to Rachel, he said to himself I hope so, sort of.

He was trying to sort out not just how he felt, but how he should feel, when he heard Rachel calling for him, her voice had always carried well, and it was clear she was probably calling from the bunk house.


Both of the riders looked up slightly and at each other, something occurred to him, “Oh, shoot.  Lou, I told Rachel I’d fetch her some onions.  That’s why I was out, but I took a detour. . .well, she can get ‘em herself.”

“Kid go,” she gave him a faint but playful push, “Go ahead.  I’m ok.  I’ll be in later.”  Kid closed his eyes and shook his head lightly with a smile.  “Really Kid. . . I’m, I’m real glad that you found me.”  Kid watched her carefully for a moment, making sure she was really ok.  He certainly wasn’t inclined to leave.

“Kid?”  Rachel’s voice was impatient, and he felt a certain frustration building.

“Kid” Lou said, with that “really, go” edge to her voice.  He touched her cheek softly and placed another kiss there before rising and heading down the ladder.  They kept their eyes upon the others as he headed down, and before she lost eye-contact she asked “we can talk more later?”

 “Of course.  I’m always here for you, alright?”  Lou risked a slight smile and turned again to enjoy the sunset picture before her.  She seemed to see it for the first time that evening.
As Kid headed out of the barn, his thoughts flew and rested on Cody.  He was sure that he now understood Cody’s strange displays earlier in the day and wondered what needed to be done.  He spotted Buck, apparently headed toward the round corral to see the young foal that was becoming a fast favorite of them all.  Kid managed to cut him off without looking suspicious, he hoped.

In the long shadow of the barn, Kid began, “Um, Buck, can I talk to you for a sec?”  Any bystander would have recognized Kid’s discomfort, but Buck overlooked it and looked at his friend with an easy calm.  Kid wondered if he really should bring this up, somehow he needed to release some of this, perhaps he needed this.
“I just wanted to say thanks for taking care of Lou.”  There was a slight pause that gave Kid enough time to wonder if this was his place and if he should say anything at all.

 “S’all right Kid.  Just be good to her.  She needs you. . .maybe as much as you need her.”  Buck put a brotherly hand on Kid’s shoulder, nodded once with an expression that seemed to display agreement, and walked past him, not wanting to prolong Kid’s unease.

 “I’ll try,” Kid said softly, to no one in particular.  “I’ll do my best.”

The End
(Don't forget to send feedback by clicking on the title graphic!)
Back to Tavern Tales
Back to the Hitching Post