Sweetwater, Nebraska; one week later
"I still can't believe you spent the night with Miss Louise from the Gold Dust," William Cody said shaking his head at his own misfortune not to have the same opportunity.
Kid looked over at his blonde friend who was driving Emma's buckboard back from another trip into town for the extra supplies Emma needed to start planning the wedding dinner. Emma Shannon, the waystation's housekeeper and self-designated mother to all the riders, and Marshal Sam Cain were finally going to tie the knot next month. Most of the other things were taken care of, but now that the big day was only a month away, Emma was eagerly experimenting with new recipes she was thinking of making for the after-service dinner.
"I did not 'spend the night' with her the way you 'spend the night' with women, Cody," Kid protested vehemently for the hundredth time since he'd gotten back from the St. Joe run. "We had dinner, that's all."
"You don't just have dinner with a woman like Louise McCloud, Kid," Cody grinned. "You pay for her. Hell, no one even looks her way without Wicks' permission. What's she like, other than pretty enough to make a priest forget his vows, if ya know what I mean?" When Kid didn't reply he pushed a little more. "She made you forget all about Amber didn't she, Kid? I knew you weren't the angel she thinks you are! Fess up!"
"Cody!" Kid snapped in irritation. Cody's questions had struck a nerve. He had forgotten all about Amber while he was with Louise and now he was feeling guilty for it. Part of him said that what he'd done was wrong, he should never have spent time with Louise when he had a sweetheart waiting at home for him. But another part shouted out that they'd done nothing wrong. He wasn't engaged or married to Amber and neither had he done anything other than have dinner with a pretty girl. Then the guilty side would throw up images of the kiss he and Louise had shared and the war would start all over again. He'd thought he could get away with saying she was just a girl he'd met but when he'd told the boys her name he'd discovered that at least Cody knew who and what Louise McCloud was. Unfortunately it meant a lot of speculation as to how much Kid wasn't telling them.
Kid blushed with guilt and embarassment at his thoughts and pulled his hat down a little farther to cover his face before a sentimental smile crossed his face. "Ain't nothin' to fess up to. Like I told ya Cody, she's probably the most beautiful woman I've ever seen in this life, and we didn't do anythin'," he said softly. Thank God, he added silently. He'd be lying if he didn't admit to himself that the thought had crossed his mind--a couple of times.
Cody glanced over at his friend and laughed at the faraway look in his eyes. "Well you musta done somethin' with her if you don't want Amber findin' out. 'Course she'll find out anyway if you keep runnin' around the station with that silly smile on your face." Ahead of them, the station was just coming into view. An unfamiliar horse was picketed at the bunkhouse porch. "Uh, oh. You better get rid of that grin quick 'cause it looks like your true love's come to call."
As they neared the station, Kid could tell the horse didn't belong to Amber's father. The dark stallion looked familiar somehow, but Kid couldn't quite put his finger on where he'd seen it. The two pulled into the station and dismounted. "Emma, we got those supplies you wanted from town," Kid hollered, unsure which building the housekeeper might be in.
"There you two are!" Emma Shannon greeted the riders with a large smile as she walked out of her house and approached the bunkhouse. Behind her followed a boy's slight figuremade to look even slighter in the ill-fitting clothes he wore. His hat was pulled down low enough that neither Cody nor Kid could see his features but could see a bit of auburn hair beneath it that appeared to be chin length. The boy's shoulders were squared, his arms crossed across his chest as he rested his weight on one leg.
Emma stopped by the buckboard and motioned for the boy to step out from behind her. "Boys, Mr. Spoon hired us another rider today and I thought you two could show Lou here around the station. Maybe let 'im get acquainted with the stock."
Cody rolled his eyes and glanced skeptically at the small boy who couldn't be more than fifteen or so. In his head he was already taking the odds that the boy wouldn't last a week.
"Billy Cody! Now I know your mama raised you better than to be rude like that," Emma scolded. "Trust me boys, Lou here can pull his own. I've seen him ride and I think he'll surprise y'all. Maybe even have one of the fastest times." She winked at Lou conspiratorily who still hadn't looked up at the riders and patted him on the shoulder. "You boys introduce yourselves and start showin' 'im around. I'll take care of the supplies." Emma lifted a box of ingredients from the back of the buckboard and headed toward her house with them.
When she was out of sight, Kid and Cody exchanged glances, each daring the other to go first with the introductions. As usual, Kid ended up elected somehow. With a sigh and a glare at Cody, he extended his hand toward the newcomer, a smile crossing his features. "Guess everybody's got a right to at least one chance. Nice to meet you, Lou." Lou looked up defensively at the Kid out of large dark eyes shaded by long lashes as he accepted the hand and Kid's smile faltered. "My name's....My name's...."
"Kid!" Cody said, smacking his friend on the back. "What's a matter, Kid? You get stuck or somethin'?" He glanced between the two, narrowing his eyes suspiciously at the strange look Kid was giving the new rider. "I'm William F. Cody by the way. Call me Cody or Billy, whichever you prefer. You two know each other?"
Lou glanced at Cody briefly before jerking his hand from Kid's grasp and staring down at the dirt beneath his feet. "Nope," he answered in a husky voice. "Never seen you boys in all my life." He extended a hand toward Cody. "Lou Mc--"
Suddenly, Kid's eyes narrowed and he grasped the boy's chin, forcing him to look up. Kid gasped, recognition catching him by surprise. "Lou!" he exclaimed. "Lou McCloud, you're the new rider?"
"Lou McCloud, huh? Are you any relation to...."
Kid grabbed Lou by the arm and dragged him into the bunkhouse before Cody could finish his question, locking the door behind him. He plucked off Lou's hat and glasses and stared down into a slightly bruised face he'd thought he'd left behind in a marshal's office in St. Joe, Missouri, a face that used to be framed by thick auburn waves. "What the hell are you doin' here?" he asked, his voice a harsh whisper knowing Cody probably had his ear pressed against the door.
"Workin'," Louise replied sullenly. "What the hell do you think I'm doin' here?"
"Shh! Keep your voice down 'cause I can assure you Cody's listenin' to every word," Kid warned. "You can't work here, Lou."
Louise took a step closer so he could hear her, her eyes narrowing and her jaw hardening in anger. "Why not? I'm already signed on and I proved to Teaspoon I can do it just as well as you boys do so why not?"
I can't believe she's asking me this after everythin' I told her about ridin', he thought astounded. "Why not? Why not? 'Cause you're a woman that's why not. It's hard work, and it's too dangerous for a woman," he fumed.
Her dark eyes flashed in anger and she shook a finger at him. "Don't you tell me about hard and dangerous work. I lived for four years bein' hit and raped at least once a week. You don't think livin' that life was dangerous? You yourself know I'm a good shot, so I can take care of myself, which I been doin' since I was fourteen. And don't remind me of what men might do if they found out I'm a girl, 'cause I lived it. I even survived twenty-two hours of labor, so don't you dare talk to me about hard work!"
Kid threw his hands up in frustration. "And where is Jon in all this?"
"Well, I sure as hell didn't abandon him if that's what you're implyin'," Lou snapped. "He's stayin' with Charlotte and my brother and sister in Seneca. Charlotte's intendin' to open a dress shop there."
Some of the vehemence died in Kid, overtaken by indecision as he glanced down at her angry eyes. What she said was true, she could take care of herself he knew but he couldn't understand her wanting to put herself in danger when she had a son to raise. His resolve against her softened even more as he looked down into her apprehensive face, his fingers itching to touch her bruised cheek. The thick, auburn waves that had fallen down during her fight with Wicks had been cut short. Kid's heart stirred knowing how much cutting her hair must have hurt. God, even when she's yellin' at me she's beautiful, he thought hopelessly with a sigh.
Louise glanced away from him feeling guilty about the position she was putting him in. She'd always hated lying, even though she was good at it, but this was for her family and she had to do it. Answering his sigh with one of her own, she decided to tell him the truth. "Kid, please, I need this job," she pleaded. "I've got three children depending on Charlotte and me to provide for them. The Express pays better than most places and it's finally honest, decent work."
"They decided you shootin' Wicks was self-defense?" Kid asked curiously.
Lou looked down at her feet, taking the moment to prepare herself for the lie, but as she looked up into his eyes, she found she couldn't lie to him. "I don't know," she muttered.
"What do you mean you don't know? You left St. Joe without finding out if you're wanted for murder or not?!"
Her defense mechanism kicked in again. "It wouldn't have mattered even if I'd stayed," she hissed back.
"Why?" Kid demanded.
She closed her eyes and sank to a seat at the wooden table, biting her lip to control the tears that threatened. "They were gonna take Jon," she whispered hopelessly. "Williams showed up with the marshal the day you left to collect Jon and his things. Talbot said that a judge had signed an order saying I was unfit to raise my son and he was just doin' his duty. So, I asked for a few moments to say goodbye. While Charlotte distracted them, I grabbed Jon's and my things and escaped out the backdoor. We got Lightnin' and left as soon as we could. Charlotte took a letter I'd written the orphanage to collect my brother and sister and we left for Seneca the next day." Lou looked up at him, her eyes luminous with unshed tears. "I wasn't going to let them take my baby. He's all I've got."
Before Kid could open his mouth to say anything, there was a pounding at the door. "Kid, Amber's here," Cody announced through the wood.
Louise looked at him, panic in her eyes. "Kid please, don't say anythin'!" she begged. "If not for me then for Jon."
He glanced at the door and back at Lou, who'd donned her hat and spectacles again. She's tryin' to start a new life for herself, ya can't begrudge her that after you've seen what she went through, he thought. "All right," he whispered.
The gratitude and hope in her eyes made his heart leap. It was the first time he'd truly seen her eyes light up in happiness and he had done it simply by agreeing to say nothing. "Thank you," she whispered, kissing his cheek briefly before she ran to unlock the door the pounding from outside having become more insistent. She opened the door to find a blonde woman standing before her dressed in lavender, her parasol over one shoulder.
The blonde woman's eyes widened in surprise. "And who are you?" she inquired in a drawl that placed her origins in Georgia.
Louise was immediately embarassed at the thought of what her own visage must be. She hated the way the woman glanced disdainfully over her masculine clothes, and realized that this woman knew on first glance that Lou wasn't what she claimed to be. To counteract the woman's discovery, she exaggerated the mannerisms she'd learned. Lou crossed her arms and leaned against the doorframe unsmiling. "Lou McCloud. I just signed on."
The exaggerated masquerade seemed to satisfy the
woman's curiosity and she smiled thinly. "Oh," she replied loftily.
"I'm Amber Scott, Kid's sweetheart." The tone of her voice made it
clear that despite Lou's efforts, Amber still knew what she was and she
was staking her claim.