Guess I'll have to start trading for the St. Joe runs, now, Kid thought wryly as he walked down the dim street. He'd never quite understand what had possessed him to kiss her. Well, he thought, to quote Jimmy it just seemed like a good idea at the time. He'd never met anyone quite like Louise McCloud. She was beautiful but haunted, tough yet sweet almost to the point of vulnerability. Kid knew the look on her face; it was the same look his mama had had after his father'd run off--the look of a woman who'd been used, abused, and hurt by the men she trusted most. That same haunted, weary look in Louise's dark eyes made her look both young and ancient at the same time. God, she was so tiny! When he'd held her hand in the saloon it had practically dwarfed her own and Kid swore he could probably make his hands meet around her waist. The idea that a man like Simon Wicks possessed such a woman and abused her just made his blood boil. Why was it that the best women he ever met--the ones that captivated and attracted him--belonged to men like Wicks?
Kid had just reached the end of the lane when he heard the gunshot ring out. His head snapped up in alarm as he estimated that the shot had come from the brick house at the end of the lane he had just left.
"Louise," he whispered. Drawing the pistol
from its holster on his hip, Kid dashed back down the street praying it
had been Louise who'd fired or that he'd get there in time.
Charlotte Rowan had been awakened from a sound sleep by the noise of Simon Wicks pounding on the front door to the house she shared with Louise. She'd rushed to open it before he woke the baby with his noise. After pushing his way in, Simon had sent her upstairs to the nursery to keep the baby from crying. He hated any reminder that he'd fathered Louise's child. When he came to the house, the child was kept quiet and out of sight. No one knew about the son Simon hated and Louise doted upon, not even the girls at Wicks' brothel. He would not have it said that Simon Wicks had turned out his own son, yet neither did he want that son's existence advertised.
Charlotte had watched from the nursery window as Louise arrived home with a young man near her age. That was when Charlotte Rowan began to pray. She'd long ago lost any faith she had but now even she knew only God could bring Louise through Simon's sure wrath alive.
The baby awakened and began to whimper as the fight began following the young man's leaving. Charlotte scooped the little boy up and held him close, covering his tiny ears. The shouts and crashes grew louder and closer as Louise ran to the upper parlor hoping to put the strong oak door between herself and her attacker, but Wicks followed her in and locked the door.
Charlotte sat on the small bed and rocked the baby in her arms. "Shh," she soothed. "Don't worry, angel. Aunt Charlotte's not gonna let anything happen to you." She jumped as the shot rang out. Hurriedly, she placed the little boy back in his crib. He began to whimper for his mama but she ignored his fussings in her fear for her friend's life. "Please, God, let it be Wicks dead. Please," she pleaded, rushing down the hall.
She pounded against the oak door desperately with a fist. "Louise! Louise, are you all right?" There was no response. Dimly she heard someone knock on the front door. The housekeeper Rosa answered it as the silence dragged. "Oh, God, he's killed her!" Charlotte cried. "Wicks, Wicks open up!" She began pounding again.
Downstairs, Kid had knocked on the door which was answered quickly by a large middle-aged Hispanic woman in her nightgown and robe, her hair hidden beneath a nightcap.
"Hurry, senor!" she cried upon seeing him. She'd seen him come in with Miss Louise and knew God had sent him to save her mistress. "Mr. Wicks, he locked her with him in the upstairs parlor. He beat her bad, this time. Please help, Miss Louisa!"
A second later he heard the woman's cry from upstairs. Pushing past the houskeeper roughly, he took the stairs two at a time nearly falling flat on his face in his hurry to get up them. The other woman was still pounding on the door trying desperately to get someone to open it. "Stand back, ma'am," he said.
Charlotte did as he told her, watching as he glanced over the door, his mind trying to come up with some way to get in. He pounded on the door with the butt of the pistol he held. "Wicks, open up now! I swear to God if you've hurt one hair on her head...." he trailed off, the silence glaring. "The hell with this," Kid muttered. Lifting one foot, he kicked at the door with all his might not entirely sure he'd do anything other than break his foot. The gratifying sound of splintering wood filled the stillness.
As the door swung open, Charlotte heard the howl emanating from the nursery at the end of the hall. "I need to see to the baby," she murmured, her nightgown and robe billowing slightly as she rushed down the hall.
Kid didn't hear what the woman said but noticed that she'd rushed down the hall to another room. He entered the parlor cautiously, brandishing his pistol before him. The room had been destroyed, papers littering the floor. The writing desk that had probably been sitting against the wall to Kid's right had been knocked over. A large black ink stain covered the wall to his left, the glass bottle shattered on the floor where it had fallen after someone had thrown it. Several book shelves lining the walls had been broken, their books scattered all over. There were bloodstains on the wall where it looked like someone's head had been banged off it. In the center of the room between the settee and the hearth were Wicks and Louise. Wicks lay undoubtedly dead in his own blood while Louise, bruised and battered, the bodice of her dress torn in half, sat on her knees staring at the body. A pistol, apparently Wicks' own if his empty holster were any indication, lay near her knees where she'd dropped it.
"Oh, my God," Kid whispered in horror. He'd only left the house fifteen minutes ago at the most. He hurried around the end of the settee and crouched behind Louise. Gently he reached out and grasped her upper arms to help her to her feet.
The physical contact snapped Louise out of her stupor. She knew by his touch and his smell that it was Kid. She blindly reached behind her to place a hand on his knee, clutching her torn bodice in her right hand as she stood. "It's all right, Kid. I'm okay."
She closed her eyes and felt the tears born of shock well up. I killed him, she thought hopelessly. Oh, God I killed him! What am I gonna do? All she could see was Wicks' eyes as he realized he was dying. Those horrible eyes hadn't closed like she'd thought they would. Instead they'd stayed open, accusing her. There was no way they'd believe it was self-defense let alone give her a fair trial. Wicks and his partner Madison had bought the police long ago. Louise began to shake, huge tears beginning to fall down her cheeks. "No, I'm not okay," she corrected as she turned to bury her face in Kid's brown shirt.
Kid didn't know what to say so for once he acted without thinking instead. He instinctively wrapped his arms around her as she began to sob heavily against his shoulder, her small frame shaking violently in shock. Kissing her hair, he rocked her slightly like he'd seen Emma do with Ike after he'd been horsekicked. He whispered soothingly to her, his mind not even registering the words he said as he rubbed her back. Lou's arms wrapped around him as she clung with all her strength. The broken ribs she knew she had complained as he held her tighter to him, but she didn't care--it reminded her she was the one who'd walk away from this night.
Her sobs eased into an occasional hiccup but her shaking continued as she finally found the strength to pull away from him. Kid gently brushed away all traces of her tears frowning as he looked at her. She still clutched at her bodice, but Kid could see a bit of the finger-shaped bruises marring the pale skin between her barely-covered breasts. Her bottom lip was split and beginning to swell, one whole side of her face a purplish bruise. From the way she was breathing now, Kid wondered if she had broken ribs on top of it all.
There was a slight noise from the doorway shattering the tender moment with a dose of reality. "Holy hell!"
Louise broke away at the sound of her friend's curse. Charlotte stood in the doorway staring wide-eyed at the chaos. Kid watched Lou's panic stricken glance at the body. "Charlotte, where's the baby?" she asked, desperate to spare him the sight partially blocked by the settee.
"Jon's fine, a little shaken but fine," Charlotte replied. "He's...dead isn't he?" she asked indicating Wicks.
"Yes," Lou replied flatly, her body shivering so bad her voice shook.
Kid placed an arm around her shaking shoulders. "Well, it shouldn't be long before the marshal or somebody gets here. Come on, let's get you out of here." Kid glanced back into the destroyed room before stepping out and pulling the door shut behind him. "Good idea not to mess with anythin' 'til the marshal does get here."
Charlotte's eyes took in the bruises and blood on Lou's face, the split lip, the torn bodice and gasped. This was bad even for Wicks. He sure took his pleasure out of this time, she thought angrily. Goodbye and good riddance to Simon Wicks. She watched as Kid aided Louise down the stairs before returning to the nursery to check on her "nephew".
Upon reaching the kitchen, Kid helped Louise to a chair and knelt before her to get a better look at her injuries. "You should get a doctor to look you over," he said softly. Still kneeling before her, Kid leaned in to catch her eyes which were disturbingly distant and calm. "You okay?"
She looked at him and shook her head. "No, but I will be," Louise replied, her jaw taking on a stubborn and determined angle.
He smiled and rubbed her knee comfortingly, the action not even registering in his mind as being a bit forward for only having met the woman earlier that day. "Good." After a moment, he stood and began to cross the room toward the seat opposite Louise when something about knee high ran into his leg hard. He looked down to find a tiny face with large,tear-filled dark eyes staring up at him in awe. "Whoa there little guy. Where are you goin' in such an all-fired hurry?" he asked, scooping the little boy up in one arm.
The toddler turned in Kid's arms and pointed at Louise. "Mama, cookie?" he asked hopefully.
She has a son, Kid thought stunned. She's younger than me and she has a son. The resemblance was unmistakable in the boy's fine features, auburn hair, and expressive eyes. Putting two and two together, Kid realized he must be Wicks' son too. And he probably heard the whole thing, Kid thought, his eyes softening as the baby sniffled with a hiccuppy sob. He saw Louise watching him holding her son, a look of fear and apprehension in her eyes.
"Kid, I'd like you to meet my son Jonathan Matthew McCloud," Louise said softly, the mother's pride evident in her voice. "Jon-Jon, this is Mama's friend Kid." Suddenly, the mother in her took over distracting her from all thoughts of the body that lay upstairs. "And just what are you doin' up young man? Where's Aunt Charlotte?"
"I'm right here." Charlotte entered the kitchen fully dressed in a light green dress and carrying more clothes for Louise. She was slightly breathless from running down the stairs. She extended a hand to Kid, smiling to see Jon sitting comfortably on his arm. "Sorry, the little turkey got away from me again. Hi, I'm Charlotte Rowan. I'm a friend of Louise's."
"Pleased to meet you ma'am," Kid replied flashing that charming smile of his. "Folks call me Kid."
Jon's little face screwed up in a pout and he crossed his chubby arms in what Kid figured was probably a pretty fair imitation of his mama. "Me no turkey. You turkey," he huffed before beginning to giggle uncontrollably. The whole idea of being awake when you were supposed to be asleep was a big game to the child.
"Jon!" Louise scolded. She stood with a groan and approached the trio. Jon leaned over in Kid's arms, reaching for her. "Mama hold," he pleaded, his eyes moistening again. Lou stroked a gentle hand over her son's curls, her arms aching to hold him close and find her comfort in the feel of his little body and his baby smell. "Oh, baby, Mama can't hold you right now."
"Your mama's feelin' a little under the weather," Kid said tickling the little boy's tummy. "'Sides, I thought you wanted a cookie. He can have one can't he?"
"May as well," Louise replied. "The jar's over on the counter there." There was a heavy knock on the front door as Kid handed Jon his cookie.
"Miss Louise, it's Marshal Talbot. Your neighbor, Mr. Williams says he heard a shot. Miss Louise? Everythin' okay?"
The adults in the kitchen all looked at each other. "I'll go let him in," Charlotte said quietly.
Kid and Louise just looked at each other, her eyes wide in fear, his eyes telling her it would be okay. She heard the voices of the marshal and Williams as Charlotte led them inside. Louise glanced at her son who was nibbling contentedly on his shortbread cookie, the crumbs falling carelessly onto Kid's brown shirt. Jon wasn't fussing and squirming to get away like usual either--an absolute miracle.
Williams, however, was trouble and had been since the day she'd moved next to him and his wife, her pregnancy very evident at five months. Harrison Williams and his wife Naomi were a childless couple in their thirties, deeply devoted to their church activities and highly disapproving of Louise McCloud's household. Not a day went by that they didn't offer to take Lou's "fatherless child" as their own. When Jon was born, Naomi had managed to be present. Soon after, the Williamses started court proceedings to have the baby removed from his "unfit, whoring" mother's custody and adopted by themselves. But Louise fought them tooth and nail and won the case only through the grace of God. If Harrison WIlliams heard the shot and had brought the marshal, she knew she'd have another fight just to keep Jon and tonight's happenings, as well as Kid's presence did not bode well for her.
Williams pushed his way into the kitchen, Marshal Talbot and Charlotte following behind him. "Louise, what's going on? Where's Jon?" he questioned just before his eyes registered the scene before him.
Kid watched Lou's face harden. "I'm fine Mr. Williams, thanks for askin'. And Jon's right here as you can well see."
"Naomi and I heard a gunshot. Who's he?" Williams gestured toward the strange young man holding Jon and who sat comfortably at Louise's table like he was a frequent visitor. "Did he fire the shot? Come here Jon," Harrison cooed.
Jon for his part snuggled closer to Kid. "No," he said.
"Would someone like to explain what happened here and why Miss McCloud looks like she's been beaten to within an inch of her life?" the marshal demanded, crossing his arms.
Louise sat down in a chair, aided by Marshal Talbot, and told the story in flat, clipped tones. Williams paced back and forth as Louise and Charlotte explained, glancing frequently at Kid in whose arms Jon had fallen asleep.
"Well, you'd best all come down to the office and tell your stories official-like in front of my deputies," the marshal suggested.
"Yes," Williams said brightly. "We'll all go down so you can clear your name Louise. Naomi will watch little Jon while you're gone." He moved to take the sleeping toddler from Kid.
Lou's eyes widened in fear. "No!" The last time they'd watched Jon as a favor, it had taken her three days to get him back. The others stared at her, their eyes showing concern and shock at the desperation in her voice. "Jon's coming with me, his mother," she said emphasizing her role.
"Oh, you'll have to clean up after we get your statement, ma'am," Talbot said, gesturing at Louise's appearance. "Evidence ya know."
Once at the marshal's office, each of them was taken into the back room by the deputies and questioned about the night's events and their part within them. Kid walked out of the room after giving his statement just as Charlotte was shown in. Louise, who'd been the first questioned, was ensconced in the deputies' office with one of the town doctors. How was he ever going to explain this night to the others at the station, let alone Amber? He glanced at the shut door barring Lou from his sight and sighed as he realized that he'd probably never see Louise McCloud again.
The marshal handed Kid a note as he entered the front room. "This just came for you from the Express station. Seem they been tryin' to track you down all night. You'd best head over there, son."
Kid glanced at the letter. The mail had
come early while he's been out with Louise. He was scheduled for
the eight o'clock run and it was now almost ten minutes after one.
He looked up at the two men, WIlliams and Talbot, with a distressed and
disappointed lookon his face. "She'll be all right, son," Talbot
assured him. "I'll see they get home okay. The doc just came
out a couple minutes ago if ya wanna say goodbye." He could tell
the younger man was smitten with Wicks' mistress and who could blame him
with her fine features, that beautiful long auburn hair, those dark eyes.
Why if Talbot had been twenty years younger....
Kid walked back the hall and found Louise sitting
on a cot in an empty cell, rubbing Jon's tiny back soothingly
as the little boy hiccupped and sniffled his way back to sleep. He stopped in the doorway and watched with
growing fascination as Louise comforted her son. For one strange moment, it felt like she was his wife, Jon his son, as she gently stroked back the sweaty curls and placed a tender kiss behind the baby's ear. It never
occurred to Kid that what he was imagining was wrong, that he was committed to someone else back in
Sweetwater, that Jon and Louise belonged to the dead Wicks. None of that entered his mind as he memorized the moment.
She must have sensed his gaze because she straightened,
looking his direction with a smile and he tried not to
grimace at the bruises and split lip she had. "How is he?" Kid asked softly.
Louise's heart skipped a beat as she looked at him. Here she was, Louise McCloud feeling like, well, like the nineteen-year-old girl she was instead of the thirty-year-old mother she usually felt like. "He had a nightmare. I hope you don't mind, but I told him you'd keep the bad men away," she replied, unable to tear her eyes away from his.
God, she could drown in those eyes! And the way he looked at her both frightened and excited her at the same time. No one had ever looked at her quite that way. She was used to the hungry looks men gave her and usually paid no attention to them because she knew those men only wanted a few minutes of pleasure they couldn't have. But Kid's.... Kid's look demanded more than her body. What frightened her was that, for once, somewhere inside her was the knowledge that she wanted to give him whatever he asked. But to do that meant giving up herself and she couldn't do that, not with people depending on her.
She was extremely aware of the slow, deep breaths she was taking. It seemed like time had begun to be measured in terms of her breaths rather than in minutes or hours. Jon had stopped sniffling and was watching the two adults closely, his thumb stuck in his mouth. "I've never seen him take to someone so quick before. He even let you stay with him while I was tellin' them what happened. Looks like you won us both over in a matter of minutes," Lou said breathlessly.
Kid stepped closer, crouching down to Jon's level.
The baby watched him as his large finger lightly touched
Jon's smooth cheek. "I just stopped to say goodbye. The mail came while I was gone and I have to leave
early tomorrow morning," he said sadly, unable to look at her as the words stuck in his throat.
Lou's face fell visibly. "Oh." She sighed and pursed her lips in the determination not to get upset. He was too good to be true, she'd known that from the second he'd walked into the Gold Dust. But somehow, that hadn't kept her from getting her hopes up. The whole night had been so unreal and now it was time to return to reality--her son and a possible murder charge. "Well, I suppose you've gotta get back to Sweetwater. Your friends'll be worried."
"Yeah," Kid responded, picturing Amber's straight blonde hair, her green eyes angry at what could be seen as his betrayal of her. But looking into Louise's sad, dark eyes, he pushed thoughts of Amber away. "Listen, if you ever need anything, send a message to me at the station through one of the riders and they'll get it to me. I mean it, if you need anything. A friend of mine's the marshal in town and I'm sure he'd help."
"Jon, can you do somethin' for me?" Kid asked the little boy seriously. He nodded. "Watch out for your mama for me? Ya see she's real special and she needs you to give her lots of hugs and be a good boy. Can you do that for me?" Again there was a solemn nod of the boy's auburn curls. "Good. I'll be sure to come visit the next time I'm here, okay?"
He rose and bent to kiss Louise's forehead gently,
lingering slightly as he took in her scent and the feel of
her touch. "You be careful, all right?"
She grabbed his hand and squeezed it. "You
too, Kid." He grinned down at her and she watched with a heavy heart
as the best man she had ever known walked out of the room and out of her
life for what she thought would be forever.