Oh, and Happy New Year!
For Kouklitsa who wanted:
Setting : Lou's at the station and Kid just came back from a run. They just got back together.
Situation : Kid is injured but needs to get a very important message to someone, lives of many depend on it. He almost kills himself trying to keep a promise he made to the person that gave him the message to deliver.
Mood : Angsty.
Reference : (this is the *word*) Pain.
Required : Nobody can know Kid is wounded until he collapses from his injuries. Be creative on how he masks his pain from Lou and the rest.
After three days on the trail Kid was relieved to be heading back to Rock Creek. The special run he’d made had been uneventful which he was thankful for, and now he was ready to be home. Perhaps it was the fact he had been alone for most of the run’s duration or maybe it was just that he missed Lou so much, but Kid was quite prepared to call in favors from Cody and the other boys to avoid such a length of time away in the future.
The Kid was still several hours from Rock Creek when he saw the riderless horse. It stood grazing a few yards ahead just off the trail. Though still saddled, Kid could not see its owner, in fact he had not seen another soul all day as he made his way home.
“Whoa, girl,” he murmured to Katy as he drew rein near the other animal. It whinnied at Katy but then went back to eating the long grass.
Kid dismounted and checked the animal over. While the gelding was unhurt, whoever had been riding him may not have fared so well as Kid saw a streak of blood on the saddle. He glanced around but saw no one. Mounting Katy once more, Kid started searching for the rider. The horse was not rode down so he figured they couldn’t be far.
After twenty minutes of searching he heard a groan from the edge of the track. Two booted feet were visible in the grass, belonging to a man lying prostrate and unmoving. In a moment Kid was off his horse and by the man’s side.
“Hey, mister, are you all right?” Kid asked, even though the answer was obvious.
The older man was breathing in short, painful breaths, his bloodied hands covering a bullet wound to his chest. It was a miracle he was still alive.
“Hold still,” Kid said as he tried to assess the injury. His lips set in a firm line when he realized there was little he could do.
“Help them,” the man gasped, grabbing the sleeve of Kid’s jacket. His eyes were wild and pleading.
“Who? Who needs help?”
“I didn’t see the others hiding back there,” the man moaned, shaking his head. “He was friendly at first… Wanted to know about the wagon train. I thought… maybe he was looking to join up with us.”
The man’s head lolled back and he closed his eyes, barely breathing. He did not let go of Kid’s sleeve and after a few moments of silence he spoke again, but this time it was barely a whisper.
“You hafta help them. They’re half a mile back... Don’t have many guns…”
Kid looked over his shoulder, trying to determine the direction. “Where are they?”
“East… We left… Rock Creek yesterday.” The man coughed and bloody froth appeared on his lips.
“Just lie still, mister, I’ll go for help.”
“No,” the man commanded with renewed strength. He tightened his grip on Kid and raised his head to stare at him once more. “My wife and young’uns. Please… help ‘em.”
He held on long enough for Kid to nod in response before sinking back onto the ground. He panted after the exertion, then, with a last painful gasp, the man was still. Kid waited briefly before closing the dead man’s eyes before he stood quickly to retrieve Katy. Then he headed east.
* * *
Kid rode on, staying off the familiar path and keeping watch for any riders. He urged Katy on as fast as he dared, not knowing what was ahead of him. If it was a wagon train heading away from Rock Creek it wouldn’t be far from the track. Before long Kid heard a gunshot and he drew Katy up to get his bearings before continuing.
By the time he could hear men shouting and women crying, Kid was on foot. He had tethered Katy behind a clump of bushes to keep her hidden then, using the foliage as cover, got as close to the wagon train as he could to see what was going on.
There were a dozen wagons close together along the trail – they must have been stopped for their noonday meal, Kid guessed. He counted ten armed men. A few were guarding the huddled group of settlers – men, women and children – while others ransacked the wagons, pulling out food, clothes and other possessions and taking what they could find of value. Whatever whiskey they had found was being consumed on the spot, the jug handed around between them as their boisterous yells and laughter filled the air. Kid guessed they probably weren’t experienced at wagon train robbery as they were obviously taking their time, but they’d had enough in numbers to overwhelm the travelers. They also had no qualms about killing either – Kid counted two bloodied men and one woman lying unmoving, on the ground.
The Kid was calculating how he could take out as many of the gunmen from his hidden position before he would draw their fire, when he heard the shrill scream of a woman. One of the outlaws was dragging her away from the group, ignoring her terrified shrieks as he pulled her towards a wagon. One of the hostages, perhaps her husband or brother, ran after her but received a cracking blow to his skull from one of the guards that knocked him unconscious.
“Damn it,” breathed Kid, inching closer as noiselessly as he could. He wished he had a rifle with him so he could attack from a better position. As it was he had to get so close that it would be a matter of moments before the gunmen would be upon him after he opened fire.
There was no alternative he had to do something. He couldn’t leave these people to their captors. He cocked his gun as quietly as possible, positioned himself behind a couple of boulders that afforded him a little coverage, then took aim.
He got off two shots before the outlaws knew what had hit them. Two men went down. With a yell the leader of the gang, the only one still on horseback, ordered his men to return fire. The first shots were random as they still didn’t know where Kid was, but when he shot two more of the gunmen they were able to get a fix on his position.
The Kid could hear some of them running towards him, while at the same time the whinnying of horses meant others were mounting up to get after him. He pulled back from his hiding spot and ran towards Katy, knowing he would not be able to hold off the men from where he was. As he crashed through the bushes to grab Katy’s reins the bullets were already whistling past him and the sound of the men approaching grew louder. Kid jumped onto Katy’s back and kicked her hard.
“Come on, girl,” he urged as he leaned low over the saddle, heading in the direction of Rock Creek and help.
* * *
Not long back from her run, Lou finished changing clothes in bunkhouse, relieved to be out of the dusty, sweaty shirt. She was going in search of Rachel to see if there were any leftovers from lunch when she saw Kid riding in on Katy. A smile immediately appeared on her lips as it did these days whenever she saw him.
It had been that way ever since Charlotte’s death, when she’d told him about her past. They had had many conversations since then, and yet without saying anything specifically, something had shifted and there was an unspoken understanding of love and commitment between them. She wasn’t sure what it all meant, or if this time would be any different from the last, but somehow Lou knew that it would be. She hadn’t been ready last time, and their relationship had confused and infuriated her as much as she had loved him and wanted to be with him. Lou hoped they were past all that. They still hadn’t solved the issue of her living a man’s life and doing a man’s job alongside him, nor had they addressed Kid’s overprotective nature, but whatever happened they would do it together, of that Lou was certain.
Curious at the speed with which he was approaching, as she knew he was coming back from a special run and there was no relay rider to take the mail pouch, she watched as he rode towards the bunkhouse, then straight past it without seeing her, heading for town. With a frown she stepped off the porch and ran after him, seeing he was drawing rein outside Teaspoon’s office and was off Katy’s back in a moment. Lou quickened her pace.
She arrived as Teaspoon was waiting for Kid to catch his breath so he could talk properly. He took a swift dipper full of water to rinse out his dusty mouth.
“How many, you reckon?” Teaspoon said, already retrieving his shotgun from behind his desk.
“At least ten,” Kid managed between ragged breaths. “I managed to get a few of ‘em before they came after me.”
“Buck, round up Noah and Cody, and if you see my deputies tell ‘em to git back here,” Teaspoon ordered. Buck disappeared from the marshal’s doorway and ran towards the bunkhouse.
“What happened?” asked Lou, unable to hide the panic in her voice when she saw Kid’s bloodied arm where a bullet had nicked his shoulder. She went immediately to his side.
“Wagon train’s bein’ held up,” Kid told her, and after a swift but reassuring squeeze of her hand he turned his attention back to Teaspoon. “They’ve shot three of them that I could see. And there’s women and children there, Teaspoon... They’re rough men.”
Kid glanced uneasily in Lou’s direction at that, unwilling to elaborate on what he had seen and heard... not so soon after learning of what Wicks had done to her.
“Where are they?” the marshal demanded.
“Just east of Cooper’s Crossing, near the creek. They’d been following the trail pretty closely. I’ll show ya, I just need a fresh horse,” Kid replied. “And we’d better take the doc with us.”
“Jesse,” Teaspoon said, indicating with a swift tilt of his head that the boy should go in search of the town doctor whose office was a few doors down. After Jesse had gone Teaspoon gathered some extra ammunition and several canteens of water.
“Lou, can I borrow Lightning?” Kid asked her.
“She’s rode down, I just got back myself. But I’ll saddle a couple of others…” Lou said, having every intention of joining them.
Kid, wisely, or perhaps because he was too distracted, did not offer a protest, but it was Teaspoon who voiced his objection.
“Now hold on there, you two, I want you to stay here. I got three deputies and the other boys goin’. They’re rested and you both been ridin’ hard.”
“I’m fine, Teaspoon,” Kid argued. “I have to show you where they are.”
“I know where you described, Kid. You get that arm cleaned up,” Teaspoon said dismissively. “Lou, see to it.”
Kid continued to dispute the decision as they moved outside where Teaspoon’s horse was hitched to the rail. As the marshal checked his saddle and attached the canteens, Noah, Cody and Buck rode over from the stalls. Teaspoon filled them in as the deputies arrived, along with the doctor. To everyone’s surprise Rachel ran up to the group with Jesse in tow.
“Jesse told me what’s goin’ on. I’m comin’ too. You might need help with the little ones,” she said breathlessly.
A silent look passed between Teaspoon and the station mistress before he reluctantly nodded in agreement.
Kid and Lou could do nothing as the small posse of their friends prepared to leave, which did not sit well with either of them.
“Teaspoon,” Kid said forcefully. “I’m comin’.”
“I mean it, Kid, stay here. I need you two to keep an eye on things ‘til we get back.” Teaspoon didn’t even look at them. “Noah, saddle an extra horse and then you follow with Rachel. Catch up as fast you can.”
Kid and Lou watched as the riders sped out of town, heading west. Rachel ran towards the stables after Noah. Kid huffed in frustration at being left behind, feeling useless. Lou put a hand on his shoulder.
“Jesse, we’ll be at the bunkhouse. Come get me if anything happens here.” Lou instructed. “And take care of Katy, all right?”
Jesse nodded dumbly; too surprised by the swift turn of events to take any sort of pride in the fact he was taking responsibility for the marshal’s office, however temporarily.
“Come on, Kid, let’s get that shoulder cleaned up.”
Kid seemed not to hear her at first, but as the dust from the riders dissipated and they could no longer be seen, he reluctantly nodded. He grimaced as he stepped forward, clutching the wounded right arm to his side and walking stiffly next to her.
“I should be goin’ with them,” he muttered.
“You heard Teaspoon. ‘Sides, you’re injured. You need to rest.”
“You didn’t see what they done, Lou,” he said quietly, unable to look at her as he spoke. “Those folks weren’t hurtin’ anyone. Probably didn’t even have anythin’ worth stealin’.”
“That won’t stop some,” she replied, worried about the glassy look in Kid’s eyes. Whatever he had seen had obviously affected him.
“They could kill ‘em all. Those women and children…”
“Teaspoon and the boys will find them.”
“What if they’re too late?” he replied darkly.
They were almost at the bunkhouse steps when Kid stumbled, pitching forward without warning. With quick reflexes Lou caught him, but his weight was too much for her and they slumped forward onto the ground.
“Kid?” Lou cried, turning him over and cradling his head as best she could.
His face had grown pale but his eyes still open. Kid looked down at his side and withdrew his hand from under his jacket. It was covered in blood.
Lou gasped. It was not blood from his shoulder, which had already stopped bleeding. She wrenched open his jacket to reveal another messy bullet wound on his side under his ribs. It was still oozing blood. Without thinking twice she clamped her hand over it.
“It’s all right, Kid,” she said shakily.
“Guess they got me worse than I realized,” he murmured with a faint smile on his lips that immediately riled her.
“You knew? Why didn’t you say anything?” she cried angrily. “You sent the doctor with them!”
“They need him more than I do. It’s nothin’, Lou,” Kid replied but his face was still drained of color, his voice weakened.
“We’ve got to get you inside. Can you try and stand?”
Kid nodded and, heaving him to his feet, Lou supported him as much as she could as they shuffled inside the bunkhouse. She deposited him on his bed and he cried out in pain as he landed on his injured side.
“Sorry.” Then, after he was settled, she said, “I need to get a better look.”
Lou grimaced as she gingerly removed his jacket and then his shirt, trying to move him as little as possible. Still, Kid gasped as his body twisted to accommodate the removal of the clothing. He gritted his teeth and tried not to cry out as she prodded gently at the wound. His skin was dark surrounding the bullet entry and exit wounds. Lou sighed with some relief that at least the bullet had gone straight through. She glanced at his pallid face, worried but trying not to show it. She cleaned the wound as best she could but she had nothing to give him to relieve the pain and no one to call on for help while the doctor was away.
“You should have said something, Kid,” she said in an aggravated tone to mask her concern. “Why are you always so bullheaded?”
Thankful that she had stopped working on the wound, Kid let out a wan laugh. “You sure know how to make a fella feel better.”
“Here.” Lou lifted his head a little and helped him sip a little water from the mug she was holding. Kid drank gratefully before sinking back onto his pillow with a stifled groan. His whole side seized up in pain with the movement.
Lou retrieved a small basket of bandages that Rachel kept in the bunkhouse. There had certainly been enough bullet wounds to keep the doctor coming back to the Pony Express Station. She covered the wounds on the front and back of Kid’s abdomen and then cleaned and wrapped his arm as well. Lou tried very hard to stop picturing Ike lying on his death bed with the terrible bullet wound to his chest. She wouldn’t – couldn’t – think about that and Kid. This was not supposed to happen, not now. Not when she had only just realized what he really meant to her.
“Just lay still now,” she commanded gently, regretting her previous sharpness. There was nothing else to be done until the doctor returned.
The Kid’s eyes were shut and he didn’t acknowledge her. She hoped he was able to get some rest, so at the very least he wouldn’t feel the pain of the wound. But then he opened his eyes and looked over at her. Lou smiled reassuringly as he reached up to take her hand in his.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly.
“For makin’ you worry.” Kid’s stare bore into hers. “I didn’t mean to make you worry.”
“I know,” Lou managed to say but she found herself with a lump in her throat that was making it difficult to speak. “Guess I have to get used to it though. Comes with the job.”
He raised his eyebrows questioningly.
“Of lovin’ you,” she finished with a teary smile.
“I love you too, Lou,” he whispered before his eyes closed and he fell asleep from sheer exhaustion.
Lou wiped at her eyes. It was the first time he had told her that since they’d come to whatever understanding they now had. She liked hearing it. Lou could happily hear it every day for the rest of her life. All the difficulties they had experienced being together, everything they had put each other through, that was in the past. For the first time in a very long time, Louise McCloud was looking forward to the future.
* * *
Later that night Lou was having difficulty concentrating on anything beyond her anxiousness for the doctor and the others to return. Kid was now unconscious, a fact she had discovered when she’d changed the dressing on his wounds and he did not stir. He didn’t wake up when she tried to rouse him, and she was shocked when she felt how hot his face and chest was.
Jimmy had returned from his run to discover her in a panicked state trying to cool him down as Jesse sat wide-eyed on Noah’s bunk. Lou filled Jimmy in on what had happened. With nightfall upon them it was unlikely anyone from Teaspoon’s posse would be returning before the morning. Jesse suggested that they were giving chase to the outlaws and may be gone for days, a comment that earned him a few harsh words from Lou.
“What can we do?” Jimmy asked her, concerned for his friend who was so still that Jimmy kept having to check if he was still breathing.
“I don’t know,” Lou cried in frustration, wringing a cloth in her hands. “It’ll take too long to send for another doctor. But I don’t know what else to do for him.”
Jimmy laid a hand on her shoulder but she shrugged it off as she stood to get more water. As the bunkhouse door slammed shut Jimmy nodded to Jesse.
“Watch him,” he said, tossing him the cloth Lou had been using to wipe Kid down. Then he followed her outside.
Lou was refilling her basin from the water pump with unnecessarily vigorous strokes. Jimmy waited as her breathing became more and more exerted and turned into sobbing. Only then did she still her movements so the gushing water stopped. Lou covered her face in her hands but Jimmy gently turned her so she was pressed against his chest. She began crying in earnest then, and Jimmy just held her.
“He’ll be all right, Lou,” he murmured when her weeping had subsided a little. “The doc’ll be back soon.”
“What if he’s not? What if he dies?”
Jimmy could barely hear the muffled words as her face was still buried in his chest. He rested his chin on top of her head, his brow furrowed.
“He won’t die.”
Lou pulled away reluctantly from him and Jimmy bobbed his head to catch her eyes so she knew he truly believed it.
“He won’t die, Lou.”
“I can’t lose him, Jimmy. Not now,” she said, her voice full of emotion.
“I know.” The words were painful to say, but Jimmy did know that whatever Kid and Lou had together was stronger than they’d first realized. They were meant to be together. Jimmy had already resigned himself to that fact.
“Come on, let’s get back inside,” he said, squeezing her arms.
Lou nodded and she slipped her hand in his, silently thanking him for being there for her. Jimmy retrieved the basin and he and Lou entered the bunkhouse to wait for morning.
* * *
The sun was already high in the sky by the time Teaspoon and most of the others returned to town. Rachel and the doctor had brought back the injured and most of the women and children in a couple of the wagons, and the deputies were guarding the three surviving gunmen who were deposited in the jail. The Pony Express boys were following with the remaining wagon train, after assisting with the packing up of their possessions.
Before the wounded could even be unloaded from their wagon, Jimmy was dragging the weary doctor towards the bunkhouse to tend to The Kid. Both he and Lou had spent a sleepless night by his bedside, trying their best to control his fever and giving him what little water they could. Kid had regained consciousness twice but soon passed out again from the agony of the bullet wound. The doctor shook his head when he saw the injury which sent a chill down’s Lou’s spine, but he was soon ordering him to be brought to his office where he would do what he could for Kid.
For the rest of the day Lou paced the floor of the bunkhouse, then later Rachel’s porch when the boys returned, exhausted from their rescue of the wagon train and wanting to sleep. Rachel could not convince Lou to rest herself, so the older woman just stayed with her to be there if she needed anything. Lou said nothing, too afraid to share her fears with Rachel. Instead she focused all her energy on Kid and the hope that he would be all right.
As soon as the doctor emerged from his office late in the afternoon, Lou ran from the porch towards town. She had been watching for any movement from the building and was upon him in a matter of moments.
“How is he?” she asked breathlessly, Rachel and the boys not far behind.
“Alive,” the doctor replied. “And lucky to be so. I’ve done what I can but he’s lost a lot of blood. I won’t know until morning if he’ll make it.”
Lou took the news calmly, relieved that there was still a chance and refusing to think about the alternative.
“Can I see him?”
“He’s unconscious. But I don’t suppose it can hurt. He’s in there,” the doctor said, indicating the back room of his office. Lou disappeared inside without another word.
“And the others, Doctor?” Rachel asked, thinking of the injured people from the wagon train.
“A couple of the wounded men will make it. One’s got a bad concussion but he’ll survive.”
“And the woman?” she queried, dropping her voice. The boys did not know the full extent of the outlaws’ crimes.
“I’ve done what I can for her,” replied the doctor wearily. “They’re lucky we got there when we did.”
“It was The Kid,” ventured Cody. “It would’ve been too late for some of ‘em if he hadn’t come across them.”
“Well, let’s hope we weren’t too late for him,” the doctor said before returning to his patients.
* * *
After reassuring herself that Kid was still breathing, Lou finally fell asleep by his bedside that night, her hand curled around his uninjured arm. She was so exhausted she did not wake when the doctor, Teaspoon, and Rachel stopped by to check on him throughout the evening. It wasn’t until Kid stirred the next morning that she woke with a start.
“Kid?” she cried, as another quiet groan emanated from his lips.
His eyes fluttered open and he saw her by his side.
“Hey,” he croaked, his voice barely a whisper.
“How do you feel?”
Kid did not respond for several moments and Lou thought he may have lost consciousness, but then he licked his lips and managed to open his eyes again.
“How do I look?”
“Terrible,” she replied without thinking, then let out a relieved laugh.
A faint smile appeared on Kid’s face, his eyes closed once more.
“You look beautiful,” he murmured.
Lou’s eyes glistened with tears as she squeezed his hand. “You’re a terrible liar, too.”
The smile faded from his lips as he slept once more. Lou pressed her hand gently to his forehead and sighed with great relief that his temperature had dropped considerably and the color had returned to his face.
“Don’t you ever scare me like that again, you hear?” Lou kissed the back of his hand and held it against her cheek, feeling the steady, reassuring beat of his pulse beneath her fingers.
“Don’t ever leave me,” she whispered.
Lou made her way over to the bunkhouse porch as the sun was setting in the sky. She had been mucking out the stable and she knew she should clean up first, but she wanted to check on The Kid. He was sitting mending Katy’s bridle, still following doctor’s orders to rest up. His recovery had been going faster than the doctor had anticipated given the seriousness of the injury, but not fast enough for Kid who was bored after a few weeks of lying around.
“Hey,” she said wearily as she flopped into the chair beside him.
His crinkled nose reinforced the thought that she should have bathed first, but then he smiled and passed her his half-drunk cup of coffee, which she gratefully accepted.
“How are you feelin’?” she asked automatically.
“Same as I was at lunch,” he replied indulgently, tightening the strap in his hands. “I’m fine, Lou.”
“Side not too sore?”
Kid fixed her with an amused stare. “How long you plannin’ on keepin’ this up?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Lou sat back in her chair, stretching her legs in front of her and surveying the town in order to avoid looking at him.
Kid shook his head, but he wasn’t annoyed at her over-protectiveness. Instead it reminded him that she did love him, and there had developed a natural, domestic ease between them that Kid had not felt before. She had called in favors from the other riders so they were covering most of her runs, which allowed her to stay with him while he recovered. Kid knew it wouldn’t remain this way, and soon both of them would be back riding for the Express and potentially putting themselves in danger. He hoped they wouldn’t lose this connection when the reality of their lives reasserted itself on their relationship.
“Here, I finished this for you,” he said, handing her a hide rope he’d been making.
“Thanks.” Lou smiled as she accepted the looped rope. “It’s a real beauty, Kid.”
“I’ve had a lot of time to practice,” he said drolly.
“Maybe you’ve found yourself a real callin’,” she joked, leaning closer to him.
“Yeah, I don’t think so,” Kid replied, closing the distance between them.
Before their lips met Cody stomped onto the porch. Lou sat back in her chair, a faint blush on her cheeks, which prompted an exaggerated roll of his eyes from Cody.
“Don’t let me interrupt, I’ve only been ridin’ all day in the hot sun,” he said grouchily. “You two lovebirds just sit on the porch here and have a fine time.”
Kid said nothing as he resumed working on his bridle but Lou immediately bristled at the comment.
Cody tossed his own horse’s bridle at Kid. “Here, you can fix mine too while you’re at it. I’ve near worn it out the last couple of weeks,” he said pointedly for Lou’s benefit. He had covered several of her runs recently, more than any of the others.
“I’m doin’ all your chores, aren’t I?” Lou responded irritably. She was tired of Cody’s complaints and had no patience for his continued whining. “Do you have any idea how many times I’ve covered for you, Cody?”
“God, Lou, you don’t need to jump down my throat.” Cody gave Kid a sympathetic look and said, “Better you than me, Kid.”
Lou threw her empty coffee cup at Cody’s head, which he barely managed to duck.
“I’ll be inside,” he said in a dignified tone, when in truth he was a little scared of Lou when she was in a temper. He entered the bunkhouse, keen to get away from her.
Lou sighed in annoyance – she and Kid never had any privacy. She was starting to remember some of the hindrances to their relationship that they’d previously experienced. And she wanted things to be different this time. How, she did not know, but she didn’t want them to have to hide their feelings for each other, or be embarrassed to show affection. It was something they’d have to work on. For now, she decided she should get washed up before supper to avoid a scolding from Rachel.
“I’m gonna go clean up,” she said as she rose from her chair. She was about to step off the porch when she turned and playfully dropped the looped rope around Kid’s neck and leaned down to kiss him soundly. Cody be damned.
“I love my rope,” she whispered with a smile, then skipped off the porch.
The Kid grinned as he watched her go. He knew she was frustrated with Cody and the other boys, just as he often was himself. But he was determined for things to be different – better – this time around. Kid had a plan. In truth he’d had this plan for a few months but the events of the past few weeks had only reassured him that what he wanted to do, to ask her, was the right thing. He was biding his time until they could be alone, away from Rock Creek and the Express and the other boys… Kid would wait, whether it was tomorrow or next week, or some time months from now. He had a plan. He could wait for tomorrow.