"Lou, teach me to dance," Cody demanded one night as they all got ready for bed. Jimmy looked up from polishing his gun and grinned at Kid, who was doing the same thing across the bunkhouse.
Lou was quiet as she fidgeted with the broken laces on her boots. She didn't say anything until Cody actually marched himself over to her bunk and almost dragged her off of it. "Lou, did you hear me?"
Jimmy watched Lou swat at Cody. "I heard you. I’m just choosin' to ignore you."
Cody crossed his arms over his chest, just like Jimmy knew he would. "Why? Just teach me to dance. You're a girl. You gotta know how."
Lou muttered something under her breath that no one caught.
"What?" Cody leaned closer. "I didn't hear you."
"They didn't teach me to dance, all right?" Lou replied, looking up. "It ain't like the orphanage in St. Jo was a church social."
He could see Cody struggling to reply to that one. Without another word, Cody turned to Kid on the bunk below. "Kid?"
Kid shrugged. "Never learned. Mama never had time. Weren't manly enough for Jed."
Cody shot a look at Buck and Ike before shaking his head. "Forget it. Mission school's probably just like the orphanage." Then Jimmy found himself looking into a pair of hopeful blue eyes. "You had normal folks, Jimmy. Someone had to teach you t'dance."
Jimmy rolled his eyes as he set his gun in its holster and hung it from the bedpost. "Mama made me practice with my sisters. But if you tell anyone about this, you're dead."
When Cody moved to stand in front of him, Jimmy pushed him aside. "The hell you think you're doin', Cody? I'm dancin' with a lady. Then she can teach you." He held his hand out to Lou, ignoring the glare that Kid sent him from the bunk below. "Can I have this dance, miss?"
He could see Lou blush even in the dim light of the fire as she hopped down from her bunk. He forgot how small she was sometimes, standing there just in her long johns. She still looked like a scrawny boy with a bad haircut, but he could imagine what she might look like as a real girl.
He held out his hand to her. "First thing you gotta remember is that you ain't wrestlin' with one of us. You don't throw a lady around. You treat her gentle-like." He tugged Lou closer, putting her left hand on his upper arm and taking her right hand in his. "You face her, then you put your hand on her waist. Not her behind. Her waist. Because we're gentlemen, just like Emma's always tellin' us."
Putting pressure against the small of Lou's back, he led her through the forward-side-back-side motion of the box step that his mama so patiently taught him. "Step, side, step, side," he repeated softly, counting off the rhythm. "It's simple, Cody. If she trusts you enough to show her where to go, you can dance."
Lou looked up at him, and he was amazed at the trust in her eyes. For a minute, he forgot the faded long johns they both wore. He could almost imagine her in a dress like his mama or Celinda might've worn, something blue and flowy with lace at the neck. He moved her into a slow circle, automatically drawing her closer.
Though she stumbled at first, she eventually relaxed into his arms. He didn't say anything, because he was afraid he'd break the spell. In his mind, a fiddle played softly and her skirts swished against his good trousers as he whirled her around the table. She smiled slightly, letting him see the woman she might've been, if… He wondered if the others saw it, if they heard the same music that he heard in his head as they danced.
But then his foot stumbled over something, probably one of Cody's boots, and he fell against her. For a minute, it was her body against his, only worn wool separating the two of them. She leaned up and he leaned down, and Cody deftly plucked her out of his arms to waltz away.
"Like this?" Cody asked, one hand on Lou's waist, the other holding her arm out like he was aiming his rifle.
"No, I think it was more like this," Buck said, moving towards the two and rearranging their arms. Then both of them gave Jimmy an expectant look. "Right?"
When Jimmy nodded, Cody began to slowly walk Lou through the same steps. She gave him a helpless look as Cody tried his best to imitate what Jimmy showed him. Buck must've caught on, because he suddenly cut in on the two of them. "Here, Cody, practice on me. I wanna learn too."
Lou escaped to the safety of her bunk without another look at any of them. Kid shot him an unreadable look before watching the spectacle of Cody and Buck working their way through what passed for a dance. Jimmy decided to head outside before the dancing turned into a fist fight, which was inevitable with Cody.
He was surprised to hear the door shut behind him. Lou came to stand beside him as he stared out at the night. When she started to shake a little with cold, he put an arm around her to keep her warm. Just like she was one of his sisters--that's what he told himself, at least.
"You miss it?" he asked her.
She looked up at him like the question surprised her. "Miss what?"
He looked down at her, surprised again at how small she was, tucked under his arm. "Bein' a lady. The frills an' ribbons an' all that."
She looked thoughtful. "Don't know if I was ever a lady long enough to miss it. I ain't even known real ladies til Emma. After Ma died when I was ten--" She shook her head. "Sometimes I think I'm a better boy than a girl."
He squeezed her shoulders, leaning down to kiss the top of her head. "I think you're a fine girl, and you're already the prettiest of all of us."
Lou looked up at him, smiling a little. "Thanks, Jimmy." She leaned up and kissed his cheek. "Thanks for remindin' me what it's like. Bein' a woman. I'm glad you boys found out, so at least I don't have to hide with y'all."
And without another word, she went back into the bunkhouse.
He heard a crash and what sounded like someone howling, but once it quieted down, he figured it was safe to go back in. Cody was sitting on his bunk, clutching his head while Kid, Ike and Buck laughed at him. Even Lou was smiling from her perch on her bunk.
"So you survived learnin' to dance?" Jimmy asked, throwing himself on his bunk.
"Didn't think it was gonna be that hard," Cody muttered.
"Nothin's ever easy," Lou replied. "Just like growin' up."
The round of goodnights passed around the room as one of them got up to bank the fire and turn down the lamp. They were quiet after that. Jimmy knew he wasn't the only one who thought, sometimes, how it could've been if Emma was their mama and Teaspoon their daddy, and they were raised right by folks who didn't spend more time worrying about the fate of slaves then of their own kids. But when it came down to it, the Lou and everyone else was still kin--kissing kin, some of them. And Teaspoon always said that everything life threw at it was supposed to make you stronger. Even dancing lessons.