Towns heard the click of the hammer and felt the man's hand over his mouth and bolted awake out of a sound sleep. The hand of his assailant stifling his sounds of alarm.
"Where's the girl Townsie?"
Towns recognized the voice and shook his head indicating that he didn't know.
"Don't lie to us ya dumb lawyer! We followed you here, so we know you met her tonight. Michael, get the door, boy!"
The lawyer squinted in the darkness to watch the second shadow lock the door and move to light the lamp at the bedside. As the light flared up, it blinded Towns for a moment before the faces of his assailants came into view, faces he knew well and should have expected to see.
"Now, I'm gonna take my hand away real slow like," said the man nearest Towns. "You make a move to alert anyone and I'll shoot you sure as Christmas, you got that?"
Towns nodded slowly and the hand came away. He sat up in the bed and stared calmly at the two men. "Alan and Michael Gaines," he said softly. "I should've known you boys would be after her."
"But of course, Townsie," Alan said, his dark eyes glittering bitterly. "We didn't work all that time for dear old Dad only to have our inheritance pass on to that McCloud bitch's daughter. We've come for what's ours and if she won't give it to us, we'll make her an offer she can't refuse."
"Alan, it's not her fault that she is Boggs' oldest legitimate heir. And it's certainly not her fault that he amended his will after she reclaimed her siblings," the older man maintained. Brothers they were and he could see they had something planned...something disasterous having to do with Louise Boggs who called herself McCloud and dressed like a man. "She's your sister for God's sake!"
Alan Gaines' eyes hardened and he grabbed Towns nightshirt in his fist, turning his hand slightly so that the material drew tight around the lawyer's neck. "You listen here Mr. Big City Lawyer. My baby brother and I worked our asses off for Boggs even though he left our mama high and dry with two little ones to feed in favor of marryin' that high and mighty schoolmarm bitch. Our mama was good enough to fool around with for years, but he wanted a proper lady to marry. It's time Boggs paid for what he put us and Mama through. We were good enough to do his dirty work but not good enough to claim as his own."
"But Boggs is dead, Alan. I'm merely fulfilling the last wishes of my employer, otherwise you'd receive everything you're due," Towns maintained, trying to keep his composure as his face reddened. "I don't know what possessed him to leave his fortune and business to that little slip of a girl, but I won't help you take your revenge out on her. Besides, if you read the will, you know that the other half of Boggs' estate goes to Travis."
"But Jack Travis is in prison," Michael protested, speaking up for the first time.
Towns pried Alan's fingers from his neck. "That's the rub, my dear boys," he said. "Travis is not only not in prison, he's here in Rock Creek. It seems Travis' son is marrying your half sister."
Alan smiled wickedly. This was perfect! "So, we'll kill
two birds with one stone and get what's rightfully ours," he said menacingly.
Why are you even thinking about this, she asked herself harshly. Louise Boggs is dead to you as is her father so why even bother with it at all? You've got a new life, a new family. You're going to be married and start your own family. The man abandoned you! You were his daughter, his firstborn and he didn't even care enough about you to stick around and we won't even touch what he did to you, how he terrorized you all.
"Lou, that you?"
She turned suddenly, the harsh whisper startling her, making her heart nearly stop. Behind her, Kid slowly rose from his bunk, grabbing the afghan from the foot of it to wrap around his longjohn-clad form. Her heartbeat returning to normal, Lou smiled tenderly as he approached, his hair mussed and his fists rubbing at his sleepy eyes. She could almost see him as a sleepy five-year-old on Christmas morning or some such occasion. "You don't have to get up, Kid. Go back to sleep," she whispered to him.
"Couldn't sleep, huh?" he asked, lowering himself stiffly to a seat slightly behind her with a groan. Still not quite awake, he grunted slightly as he looked her over. "You're wearin' my shirt."
Lou shrugged and looked down at herself. The spring night had turned downright chilly the longer the sun had been down and she'd grabbed Kid's blue shirt as it hung over the bedpost to layer over her own longjohns. "I was cold," she admitted with a smile.
He opened the blanket up. "Come 'ere," he said, his voice still roughened from sleep, "that's my job." Lou eagerly scooted into his arms so that she sat between his thighs, her back to his strong chest. Kid wrapped his arms and the blanket around her, lowering his head to nuzzle her shoulder. "Hmm, the benefits of being engaged," he murmured. "Okay, Louise, talk to me."
"About what?" she asked, staring into the fire again.
"You know what about. About why you're sitting here staring into the fire instead of curled up," he yawned uncontrollably before continuing, "sleepin'." When Lou didn't respond Kid knew her answer. "Funny how people you thought were long gone don't stay long gone."
Lou felt her throat tighten a bit, but swallowed hard, willing the emotion away. "Ya know, part of me wants to read the will, to talk to that lawyer and maybe find out why Boggs did what he did," she admitted. "But another part of me knows it was easier when he was dead and didn't give a damn about me. How could someone leave their children and wife just like that? How could he try to.... How could a man threaten to kill his firstborn, the child he created? I mean I was part of him, Kid -- flesh of his flesh! How could he? And why, after so many years of praying he'd love me, why now?"
At the sound of the deep pain in her voice, Kid felt tears springing to his own eyes. Her pain was his, her questions his own he had asked for so long with no answers. He pulled her tighter to him, leaning her head back against his shoulder. "I don't know, baby," he whispered. "Maybe he changed. Maybe seeing you brought home all the things he'd done and he was trying one last time to make amends before he died. Maybe this is your chance to finally know the truth, to bury the past once and for all."
"Maybe this is my Jack," Lou whispered.
Kid didn't reply as he thought about how similar their situations were. Both were now coming face to face with the dark pasts they'd run away from long ago. Lies, half-truths, mysteries, missing fathers...it was like looking through a fogged up mirror that distorts and misshapes the images within. Somehow they needed to clear away the fog and see the true images.
They sat in silence for a few moments. "I'm so scared, Kid," Lou said softly, her voice quaking.
"I know. So am I," he admitted. "But I think we have to do this, both of us. We owe it to our children, like you said, but we owe it to ourselves, too. I'll be right here, Lou. I ain't goin' nowhere."
The words were an echo of those she'd said to him after Doritha's funeral.
Before they'd bridged the gap between them, brought them back together.
Now they reinforced the bond they shared, giving comfort and strengthening
their own resolves to find out the truth.
Lou picked up the halves of the log as they fell off the chopping block, her hands protected from the splinters by her work gloves. She carried them to the pile a few feet away and stacked them with the rest Jimmy had chopped. Chores were at a minimum for some reason and she'd eagerly volunteered to help Jimmy anxious for some mind-numbing work.
"Kid told me you had a bit of excitement last night," Jimmy said casually. He had noticed, as had the others, that the young couple had seemed more secretive than usual the last couple days. The riders watched them with a mixture of jealousy and interest -- interest because there were usually very few secrets between them all and jealousy because each longed for someone they could share that kind of relationship with. It had surprised him greatly when Kid, after all they'd been through about Lou, had taken him aside that morning before breakfast and confided in him, asking him to watch over her when he couldn't.
Lou shrugged one shoulder. "You could say that," she grunted in reply. She wasn't particularly interested in talking about last night's events, but knew that Jimmy, in his quiet way would drag it out of her sooner or later.
Thwack! "Told me the guy was Boggs' lawyer."
Thwack! Jimmy paused to glance at her quiet form, her whole body showing she was preoccupied. "You know, you once told me that it sometimes helps to talk," he tried. "Just wanted you to know I can listen and chop at the same time."
She smiled wryly as her own advice echoed back at her for the second time in as many days. "Guess, I gave more advice than I thought," Lou muttered, shaking her head as she made another trip to the pile.
"Pretty good advice I'd say."
"He called me Louise Boggs, Jimmy."
Hickok's head came up sharply at the comment, alarms going off in his gut. "He knew who you were?"
Lou nodded. "Towns is Boggs' lawyer. He said...he said that my father left it to me -- everything, the money, the business, everything," she murmured. "It's like someone you thought was dead and buried a long time ago has suddenly risen from the dead to haunt you. It's like my nightmares are suddenly daymares."
Jimmy had to chuckle at the wording. Out of all of the riders, he could certainly empathize with her plight. Figures from his own past were constantly popping up in his present calling him out and sometimes threatening his friends. He remembered the day they'd saved Lou's brother and sister, the day Kid had shot her father. The man hadn't seemed like much of a father in his estimation if he was willing to shoot his own daughter. He glanced at Lou out of the corner of his eye and could see the weariness written in her very aspect. "Here," Jimmy said, handing her the axe. "Take over for a couple minutes will ya, Lou?"
Lou instinctively grabbed the axe he'd shoved into her hands. "Where are you goin'?"
"Gotta go see a man about a horse," he muttered sheepishly. He squeezed her shoulder as he passed.
She watched, grinning as Jimmy headed toward the outhouse. Of all the boys, only he and Cody didn't bother mincing words around her too much. "While you're at it, why don't you head over to Rachel's roses? They look like they could use a little 'watering'," Lou called, ignoring the dirty looks he shot her.
Lou turned her attention back to the wood needing chopped. She was so intent on her task that she never heard the man come up behind her until he spoke.
"So we meet again, Miss Boggs."
She yanked herself around to face the voice, her hands clutching the axe. "Towns," she breathed. "Damn it, man, you're lucky I'm not armed or I coulda shot you in the head! What're you doin' here anyway? And don't call me that. My name is McCloud, Lou McCloud."
"I thought maybe we could start over," Towns said. "I apologize for startling you last night. Sometimes I get so focused on my duties that I forget that I'm not always the bearer of good news."
Louise turned to take a few pieces of wood over to the stacking pile, suddenly nervous. "Look, mister, why don't you go back East and forget that you ever saw me. I wanted nothin' to do with Boggs while he was alive and I certainly don't want nothin' to do with him now he's dead," she replied vehemently. That's it, she'd send this lawyer packing and then forget all about her past, focusing on her future with Kid.
Towns frowned. He'd thought if he came to her repentant and polite that she'd second guess her initial reaction and allow him to finish his business. he could see now that she wouldn't, that she'd make this difficult. If she didn't accept her inheritance, he and his firm would never get the final payment for services rendered Boggs owed them. The payment was ensured only after the job was done. "Whether you want your inheritance or not is inconsequential to me," he stated abruptly. "The point of the matter is that I have a job to do. The money and half the business ventures are yours to do with as you wish. However, for my firm to get the money your father owed me, you must accept the will, the inheritance, and a certain letter written by Boggs himself for your eyes only."
Frustrated and angry that this man wouldn't take no for an answer, Lou
picked up the axe and advanced on him a few steps. "Boggs was not
my goddamn father!" she yelled. "Fathers don't abandon their children.
They don't beat them for looking at them and they don't scream and lock
them in dark closets because they asked a question. Just leave me
the hell alone. I don't want his money or his measely excuses.
So, you just get back on the stagecoach and ride the hell out of here before
I come after you and make you understand me!"
"That's it Noah ya almost got 'im!" Kid hollered at his friend. He smiled slightly as the bucking horse began to buck a little less. As the horse settled down, Noah patiently murmuring to it, Kid tore his eyes away from the action in the corral. His blue eyes scanned the yard on the other side of the corral, looking for a glimpse of his fiancee as she chopped wood with his best friend. However, instead of seeing the two of them working and joshing each other playfully, Kid could see Lou all alone with a strange man entirely too close to her.
"Towns," he muttered to himself. It had to be. The man fit Jack's description perfectly. Quickly he strode around the corral, heading in their direction.
Buck watched Kid's purposeful stride and squared shoulders wondering what Jimmy had done now. "Hey Kid, where ya headed?" he called. When Kid never acknowledged his words, Buck looked where his determined friend was headed and saw the stranger Lou was confronting with an axe. "Oh, shit. Noah! We got trouble!" Her didn't even wait for Noah to exit the corral before he ran to catch up with Kid, hoping to either back him up or keep him from killing the man who dared to threaten their Louise.
Jimmy rounded the corner of the house just as Kid came up to the pair. At Kid's angry, determined look, his mind immediately tried to figure out what he could've done that would upset Kid so much. No, he hadn't hugged Lou or anything. It was then that he noticed the other man and that Lou was holding the chopping axe defensively. Immediately, he pulled one of his Colts from its place at the small of his back beneath his coat.
"Get away from her!" Kid growled, his gun pointed at Towns already cocked and ready. He just barely noticed Noah and Buck coming up behind him to do the same. He felt a measure of gratitude that Jimmy was on the other side of the pair, his Colt shining brightly in the sun.
Having four pistols aimed at him at the same time was slightly unnerving for the lawyer, but he'd trained himself well to never reveal his true feelings in court or life. "Ah, the fiance," Towns calmly. "I had a feeling you'd be difficult."
"Lou, you okay?" Noah asked concernedly.
Her confidence had returned with her friends' appearance. "Yeah, I'm fine," Lou replied softly, her strained voice revealing her still frazzled nerves. "Mr. Towns was just leaving, weren't you?"
"Well, when faced with four gunmen the battle of decision is easily won," Towns said. He reached slowly into his jacket pocket, stopping when a chorus of clicks resounded. "I'm just reaching for a letter for Louise." He slowly drew out a faded and travel stained envelope, extending it to the small woman before him. "At least take this. It's a letter he wrote you in an effort to explain all this. I have not read it, although Boggs told me of its contents. If you do nothing else, then please read this. He wasted days of healing time in order to write this. Ultimately, the effort he took to write this letter detracted from his own healing and killed him."
Louise stared at the paper before her. She could see her father's broad scrawl over the front of the envelope simply addressed: "To My Daughter, Louise." She didn't want it, didn't want his excuses or his lies. But he died writing this, her conscience told her. Can you honestly ignore a dead man's last act? What if all your answers are in there? Can you destroy all possibility of ever knwoing why by not taking the letter?
"It's up to you whether or not you read it, Louise. But know this, that yours was the last name on Boggs' lips before he died."
As if she were not in control of her own body, Lou watched as her hand reached out to grasp the letter.
"Now, I suggest you head on outta here before we take you on down to the jail for trespassing on private property and harrassment," Jimmy warned.
Towns smiled and bowed slightly to Lou before leaving in the direction of town. The riders all waited until he was out of sight before they lowered and uncocked their pistols.
"Lou, honey, you okay?" Kid asked softly.
Louise looked up at him and didn't reply. She felt lightheaded and even as she said his name, lights exploded behind her eyes, his face wavering and she could feel herself falling as her eyes closed heavily.
Kid caught her awkwardly around the waist as she toppled backwards, Jimmy catching her head reflexively. Jimmy kept her head from hitting the ground until Kid could move around to lift her up into his arms. "Buck, Noah, somebody go get Rachel," Kid said sharply.
Buck ran across the yard to get the stationmistress, thankful that school had let out the week before. Noah muttered to Kid that he'd take Lou's run for her. He knew she'd probably just fainted from stress, but Noah knew she'd be in no shape for her afternoon run. His dark hand brushed against her cheek tenderly as she passed him in Kid's arms.
Kid strode to the bunkhouse, Jimmy running ahead of him to open doors and make sure the way was clear. He watched idly as Kid laid her on her bunk, quickly unbuttoning her tight trousers and pulling her shirt out of her waistband in the hopes of making her more comfortable and helping her breathe. "Can I do anything?" he asked softly.
"I don't think," Kid replied. "I don't know what else to do other than wait. Maybe Rachel knows. Usually when girls fainted back in Virginia it was because they were puttin' on a show for some beau or their corsets were too tight." He looked up at Jimmy a second. "Thanks for backin' me up out there."
Jimmy shrugged it off. "You woulda done the same for me. Besides, Lou's family and so are you. That don't change no matter how many black eyes and bloody lips we give each other." he replied simply.
Both men looked up as the door flew open and Rachel rushed in. "What happened?" she asked, staring at Lou as she lay on her bunk unconscious. She quickly moved to sit on the edge of the bed, pushing Kid out of the way so she could work. She noted with satisfaction that someone, probably Kid, had loosened her clothes and made her more comfortable.
"That guy Towns showed up here harassin' her about some inheritance from her father," Jimmy offered.
Louise had told Rachel about her father before, and the blonde housekeeper shuddered slightly at the memories of some of the tiny woman's stories of her childhood. "She didn't hit her head or anything?" Rachel asked, her expert hands softly probing through Lou's auburn hair for signs of damage.
"No," Kid replied. "Jimmy caught her head before she hit anything."
"And she was feelin' alright this mornin'?"
Kid frowned getting more worried as Rachel continued her questions. "As far as I know she was feelin' fine."
"Hmmm." Rachel turned to Buck who stood at the end of the bed. "Buck, would you get in the supply cupboard and get out that vial of smelling salts, please." Buck nodded and returned with the small vial. Rachel pulled the stopper out and wafted the bottle under Lou's nose.
Lou coughed at the horrible smell beneath her nose and slowly tried to work her eyes open.
Rachel smiled down at her charge in relief. "Louise? Louise, honey, can you hear me?"
Lou groaned and moved on the bed, her eyes fluttering open slightly. She squinted through hazy vision and could make out the circle of worried faces around her. "What happened?"
"You fainted," Buck replied with a teasing smile on his lips.
She tried to sit up only to be pushed back to the bed by Rachel's firm hands. "The hell I did! I don't faint," Lou maintained.
"Well ya did today," Jimmy said. "About ten minutes ago to be exact."
"Don't worry, Lou, Noah's takin' your run this afternoon. From the sounds of things you had quite a stressing morning. I'd probably have fainted too," Rachel soothed. When Louise tried to protest Noah taking her run, Rachel looked down at her firmly and shook her head. "Don't even think about, arguin' with me, young lady. You said yourself that you don't faint and even if it was a normal happenin' for you, I'd still keep you home resting. There's no way you're in shape to be bouncin' around the territory on the back of a horse."
Lou looked toward Kid who'd listened quietly to the exchange and saw relief flood his eyes when Rachel told her she'd be staying home. The relief in those eyes irritated her. If it were him in this bed, he'd be arguing to high heaven and he'd still manage to find a way to take his run come hell or high water. She didn't want to lay around all day with her thoughts. "Oh, fine!" Lou huffed, turning her face to the wall and presenting her back to her concerned friends.
Rachel, Buck, and Jimmy took their cues and turned to go about their own chores, shaking their heads and smiling at Lou's antics. "I swear I don't know what to do with you all," Rachel muttered. "Now, Cody'd gladly take me up on an offer to get out of chores and rest all day."
Kid moved to sit on the edge of her bunk. He placed a gentle hand on the curve of her hip, feeling the tension in her body. "You sure you're feelin' okay?"
"I feel fine!" Her voice was muffled slightly due to her closeness to the wall. "Don't know why everbody's so dad-blamed worried about me all of a sudden."
The sullenness in her voice touched a nerve in him. He was just asking her how she was for heaven's sake. Well, if she was going to be like this.... "Shouldn't have even bothered askin' I guess. I just love you is all. No need to tell me how you feel or be honest with me. We're just gettin' married in a couple weeks, that's all," he groused. When she didn't reply or look at him, Kid just gave up. He wasn't in the mood to play games today. Fine, he'd give her what she apparently wanted and leave her alone. He rose from his seat and headed toward the door. "I've got chores to do," he muttered to her before leaving, the door slamming behind him.
Lou winced at the sudden sharp sound of the slamming door, one tear
rolling down her face. She hadn't meant to be so mean, she just had
a lot on her mind right now: the wedding, Kid and Jack, the war that seemed
to loom over the horizon and if Kid would leave for Virginia, quitting
the Express, her father.... Unable to stop the emotional tears emerging
from her eyes in rivulets, Lou curled up on herself into the smallest ball
possible and just let the sobs come, her hand clutching tightly and unconsciously
to Boggs' letter.