Monday, October 17, 2011

Fighting For Love: Chapter 9

The War is Over, Life Begins Again (Apr-Sep 1865)

Music: Fortunes of War, Iron Maiden (Kid)
I Finally Found Someone, Barbra Streisand (Cody)
Broken, Firewind (Hickok/Thatch)
Stars, Switchfoot (Hickok)
You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth, Meatloaf & Bonnie Tyler (Kid/Lou)
Perfect, Cr├╝xshadows (Lou)
Still Loving You, Scorpions (Teaspoon)
We Don’t Need Another Hero, Tina Turner (all)
Stand Back Up, Sugarland (Buck)

Kid and Lou
As they all returned to their barracks, the members of the band of survivors Lou had guided through the winter gathered in their corner. Most were eagerly discussing their plans for after they were released. A few were sadly bemoaning the end of the Confederacy.

“Kid, what are your plans?” one asked.

Looking up from where he was checking on a still feverish Lou, Kid said, “We’re going back to Nebraska Territory. We plan to start a horse ranch out there.”

“I almost wish I could do the same thing,” Alfred murmured. “The Virginia we knew is gone. Won’t ever be back. If it weren’t for my wife and her family, don’t think I’d go back at all.”

Several of the men nodded in agreement with Alfred’s assessment. Lou weakly reached out and grabbed the edge of Kid’s sleeve to get his attention. Letting the others talk on, Kid leaned down to see what she wanted.

“Invite them,” she whispered. “Some will come.”

Kid nodded and lifted his head to rejoin the conversation.

“Lou’s right,” he said. “If any of y’all ever decide to head West, you’re welcome to come to our place. Come for a visit, come to stay. You’ve all heard us talk ‘bout how the Pony Express made us riders a family. Well, surviving in this hellhole has made all of us a family too.”

Several of the men nodded thoughtfully. Then one asked, “How do we find ya?”

Kid smiled, putting his and Lou’s dream into words, “Look for the McCloud/Cross Horse Ranch, somewhere in the vicinity of Rock Creek. That’s in Nebraska Territory, near the Kansas stateline.”

That day no one wanted to go out and find a volunteer job. Everyone stuck around the barracks, discussing their plans for after their release, talking about parents, sweethearts, wives, children. As they squeezed into their shared bunks that night it was with a good cheer that had been missing since their arrival. Few were truly happy about the defeat of the South, but all were ecstatic they’d soon be going home.

At roll call the next morning, the releases began. Moving through the prisoners in alphabetical order, it took two days before Kid and Lou reached the top of the list.

“McCloud, Kid. McCloud, Lou,” the call came.

Kid rushed up to the sergeant seated at a desk and saluted. “Kid McCloud, 1st Virginia Cavalry, Company G, reporting as ordered, Sir.”

“Mr. McCloud, are you willing to take the Oath of Allegiance?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Kid responded quickly.

“Stop calling me, Sir,” the sergeant smiled tightly. “I work for a living. Sergeant is fine.”

Kid nodded.

“Alright, records show you were picked up in Northern Virginia. Is that true?”

“Yes, sergeant.”

“Here’s the money to cover a train ride back to Richmond. You’ll have to make your own way home from there,” the sergeant said, pushing a handful of bills across the table toward Kid. Kid looked down at the money then back up at the sergeant.

“Sergeant, can I pick up my brother’s, too? He’s sick.”

“Nope,” the sergeant shook his head. “Each man’s gotta come in person. On account of the Oath.”

“Alright,” Kid said. “Can I go get him now, then?”

“You do that. But hurry. There’s a lot of fellas just as eager to get home as you.”

Kid ran back to the barracks where Alfred was watching Lou for him. Walking up to the bunk, he was pleased to see Lou was awake for a change.

“Do you think you can walk?” he asked.

“I’ll try,” she smiled at him. “Anything to get home.”

Alfred helped her sit and then stand up. Once on her feet, Kid and Alfred closed ranks about her and, each grabbing an arm, helped guide her out into the bright sunshine of the May morning. Slowly, she shuffled her way to the desk with the sergeant in the middle of the parade grounds.

“Lou McCloud, reporting as ordered,” she whispered.

“Mr. McCloud, are you willing to take the Oath of Allegiance?”

“Yes,” she answered.

“Are you going home with your brother?”

Looking up at Kid with a hint of her former self, she half grinned as she said, “Yes.”

“Alright, here’s the money for the train,” he said, handing her a pack of dollar bills similar to the one he’d already given Kid. “Now, you both have to take the Oath of Allegiance. Repeat after me:

I, state your name, do solemnly swear, in presence of Almighty God, that I will henceforth faithfully support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Union of the State thereunder, and that I will, in like manner, abide by and faithfully support all Laws and Proclamations which have been made during the existing Rebellion with reference to the Emancipation of Slaves – So help me God.”

“So help me God,” Kid and Lou ended together.

“Make your marks here,” the sergeant said, pointing to the bottom of the papers in front of him with the written oaths on them, “And you’ll be free to go.”

Kid quickly signed his Oath, then helped Lou bend over to sign hers. The sergeant gave them both a copy of the Oath that included a sworn testament that they were free to go. They looked at each other, at a loss as to what to say, what to do next. It was Alfred who broke the silence.

“Congratulations! Now, get out o’ here before they change their minds!”

“You don’t want us to wait for ya?” Lou asked.

“No. Kid needs to get you out of here and to a doctor,” Alfred said. “I should be up soon, today or tomorrow. As soon as they let me out of here, I’m catching the next train home. I haven’t seen my Coraline since the day after our wedding. And, hopefully Tiny will have made her way home already, too.”

“Give her our regards,” Kid said. “And let her know about the invitation to our place. A woman like her would do well in the West.”

Alfred nodded, even as he started pushing Kid and Lou toward the front gates. So it was, that without a glance backward, Kid and Lou reached the front gate. They paused momentarily at the dreaded dead line, before gingerly stepping across it. They both felt an itch between their shoulder blades as their bodies tensed to avoid the bullets they knew would soon come flying their way, but didn’t. Then they stepped up to the guards at the gate. Kid kept one arm around Lou to hold her up. With the other he handed their exit paperwork to the guards.

“Another pair of Johnny Rebs ready to head home,” the guard muttered as he stamped the paperwork and handed it back. “Get out o’ here and don’t ya come back, ya hear!”

“We wouldn’t dream of it,” Kid started to respond sarcastically, until Lou elbowed him gently in the ribs. He ended on a strained smile and turned to walk down the road away from the POW camp.

Slowly, they made their way down the dirt road. Lou’s little bit of strength didn’t last fifteen minutes. Soon, she was huffing and puffing.

“Kid,” she panted. “I need to rest.”

“Alright,” he said, guiding her off to the side of the road. “Let’s sit under this tree for a bit.”

Sitting down she leaned against his side, her head on his shoulder. Together, they looked across the landscape, away from the walls of the POW camp they’d just left.

+“Look, Kid,” Lou said weakly. “Is that the ocean?”

“No, that’s Lake Michigan,” Kid said quietly. “It’s one of the Great Lakes. They’re so big they look like the ocean.”

“Wonder if Teaspoon’s been here,” Lou whispered.

“We’ll have to ask him,” Kid answered, looking down at his wife. She’d fallen asleep on his shoulder. Reaching out to touch her forehead with the back of one hand, he flinched at the heat pouring off her. Sighing, he shifted her position so he could stand up. Bending over he lifted her into his arms and began to march down the road, praying he would find a doctor quickly. Twenty minutes later, the road led him into the edges of the city.

“Please, can you tell me where I can find a doctor?” Kid asked for what felt like the millionth time.

“No, now leave me alone,” the woman said, brushing past him to climb into a fancy carriage. “Damned seccesh, scum!”

Becoming more desperate by the minute, Kid grabbed the arm of the next person to pass him on the boardwalk. “Please, my wife’s sick. Where can I find a doctor?”

This person just ignored him, easily pulling out of his grasp and moving on down the street. Just as Kid was starting to give up hope, he felt a tug on his pant leg. Glancing down he saw a dirty street urchin looking up at him.

“You need a doctor, mister?”

“Yes! Do you know where I can find one?”

“Follow me!” the child said, before darting off into traffic.

Caught by surprise, it took Kid a moment to realize what was happening and take off after the child. “Wait! Slow down!”

After following the child across a busy street and down a twisting alley, Kid emerged into a sunlit street across from a large building with the words Deaconess Hospital emblazoned over the door. The child disappeared inside, Kid on his heels.

“Doctor! Doctor!” the child shouted.

“What is it Jerome?” a middle aged man asked, stepping out of a back room, wiping his hands on a white apron fastened around his middle. He stopped as he caught sight of a skeletal Kid standing in the doorway, an even skinnier youth clutched in his arms. After a brief pause to digest the sight, the man rushed forward, “Here, let me take him. Nurse! Some help out here.”

“Please,” Kid begged, on the verge of tears, “You’ve got to help her! You’ve got to save my wife!”

The man looked down at the youth in his arms in surprise, noting this time the finely etched features, still apparent despite their wind-chapped, malnourished condition.

“What’s wrong with her?” he asked, already hurrying toward the exam room at the back of the building.

“I don’t know,” Kid said, following. “She got a fever after roll call a few weeks ago. Hasn’t been able to shake it. It just seemed to keep getting worse. Today, she passed out.”

“Roll call?” the nurse who’d answered the call for help asked, noting Kid’s and Lou’s ragged grey uniform remnants. “You two just came from Camp Douglas, didn’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Kid answered.

“I won’t help these confounded Grey Backs,” she said with a quiet menace. “It was traitors like them that killed my Manny.”

She set down the tray of bandages she’d been carrying and turned to leave the room.

“Mrs. MacDonald,” the doctor said, “They’re human beings and it’s our Christian duty to help them. Besides, by the looks of them, they’ve already paid for their folly tenfold.”

Kid said nothing to defend himself, merely walking over to the exam table the doctor had laid Lou on and running his hand along the side of her face. The doctor came up beside him and placed a hand on Kid’s shoulder. “We’ll take care of her, young man.”

“You’ve got to save her. I can’t survive without her. She’s saved my life more times than I can count these last few years. She can’t die now. She just can’t.”

“Well, let’s see what’s wrong with her,” the doctor said, turning to Lou and beginning to unfasten the dirty grey rags that were all that was left of the flamboyant uniform she’d donned three years previously. “Hand me those scissors. We’ll need them to cut through these bandages. Was she injured?”

“Uh, no,” Kid said, ducking his head and blushing a bit. “She used those to help hide her…. self.”

“Ahhh,” the doctor nodded in understanding. As he peeled back Lou’s clothes his hand brushed a series of pinkish spots across her abdomen. “Has she had diarrhea?”

“Yes. Does that mean anything?” Kid asked anxiously.

Turning from Lou to Kid, the doctor nodded. “It looks like Typhoid. I know she looks bad, but it’s treatable. The only problem is, we’re out of quinine, the best treatment. All I can offer her is soporific treatment, to ease her symptoms.”

“Where can I get quinine?” Kid asked, pulling the train money from his pockets. “I have the money they gave us for a train home. I can buy it.”

Moving away from Lou’s side, the doctor went to a desk and pulled out a pad of paper.

“This is the name of my pharmacist. If he doesn’t have any, he’ll know where you can get some,” the doctor said, handing the note to Kid. “But, you need to clean up first. Typhoid is spread by lice, and I imagine you as well as your wife are well infested. Best to get you both washed down as soon as we can. We’ll have to shave off all your hair, too.”

Kid submitted impatiently to the bath, knowing it was necessary but thinking all along of the urgent need to get his wife medicine. He took no longer than necessary to scrub down, not even pausing to enjoy the feeling of being clean. As soon as he stepped out of the tub, he put on the old hand-me-down shirt and trousers the doc had left for him. Looking at the tattered remnants of his uniform, he picked them up off the floor and dropped them in the fireplace on his way out the door.

Following the doc’s directions, Kid easily found the pharmacy. A bell tinkled merrily as he entered. Looking around, Kid briefly ran a hand over his now bald head and thought of Ike.

“How can I help you young man,” a voice said, seemingly from nowhere.

Kid jumped. Looking around, trying to identify the source of the voice, he said, “Uh, Doc Passavant sent me. Said I could get some quinine for my wife here.”

A small man popped up from behind the counter. “How much will you need?”

“Doc didn’t say. She’s got typhoid fever. Been sick for a few weeks now.”

“Sounds like you’ll need a full two weeks course,” the small man said, bending down and pulling out a bottle of a white powder. Beginning to measure out a portion, he continued, “Can you afford that much?”

Pulling out their combined train money, Kid looked down and began counting. “How much is it?”

“The full two week course will be $50.”

Kid shrugged and handed the whole pile of bills over. It was all they had, but worth it to save Lou’s life. Somehow, he’d have to find a way to earn money to feed them and send a wire to Rachel in Rock Creek.


Hickok
Jimmy sighed as he downed another whiskey. He’d mustered out of the Army last week. But, despite the promise they’d all made to head back to Rock Creek when the war was over, he just couldn’t make himself leave Springfield. With Lou and Kid dead, there just didn’t seem to be a reason to go back. Tapping the table in front of him, he indicated he wanted two new cards.

“What’s yer problem?” a voice with a slight southern accent asked. “Cat got yer tongue?”

Jimmy looked up, startled, to the man who’d just joined the game with the last hand. Between his accent, his height and his low tilted hat he reminded Jimmy of Kid back when they’d first met.

“Don’t see no reason to say things that don’t need sayin’, is all,” Jimmy muttered, watching the younger man from under the brim of his own hat.

“Seems a mite unfriendly, to me.”

“What’s yer name, kid?” Jimmy asked, allowing his curiosity to get the better of him.

“Davis Tutt. Junior.”

“Hickok,” Jimmy said, waiting to see if the kid recognized his name.

“Just Hickok? Ya ain’t got a first name?”

“Jimmy. Jimmy Hickok.”

“Well, Mr. Jimmy Hickok,” Tutt said, laying down his cards, “it’s time to put up or shut up. I’ve got two pair. Let’s see ‘em.”

“Three of a kind,” Jimmy flashed a quick grin at the younger man. “You’ll have to get up earlier than that, to beat me.”

The younger man pushed his chair back in disgust, but Jimmy waved him back into his seat.

“Stick around. I’m ‘bout to order some supper. There’s always plenty to share,” Jimmy said. “So long’s you’re willing to share your story.”

“Ain’t much to tell,” Tutt muttered, pulling his chair back up to the table. “Picked the losin’ side. Like always. Now, I’m just lookin’ for a fresh start.”

Jimmy nodded in commiseration.

“I know the feelin’,” he grinned. He reached out and wrapped an arm around the waist of a passing saloon girl, dragging her into his lap. She giggled as he tupped her under the chin. “Nothin’ a little whiskey and a good woman can’t fix.”


Buck
“Red Bear, I know the terms aren’t great. But at least they’re terms,” Buck urged. “The Gantonto are going to come and settle the lands whether we agree or not. The only question is whether we get anything for the land!”

“But, you would have us give up so much,” Red Bear practically whined.

“Would you give up your son’s life?” Buck asked.

“No,” Red Bear said, not even having to think about the answer.

Looking at all the Kiowa leaders gathered to discuss the last round of treaty negotiations, Buck continued, “They’re offering not only compensation for lands lost, but to provide schools, teachers, hospitals and doctors. You’re not going to get a better deal!”

Slowly, one by one, the leaders nodded in agreement.

“You are right, Running Buck,” White Eagle said. “Much as it pains us to admit it, our time has passed. We can only hope to survive in this new world.”

“So, I can tell the Pony Soldiers and Agent Whitfield that you’ll sign the treaty?” Buck questioned.

“Yes.”

That night Buck settled back in satisfaction after eating Standing Woman’s supper. Shines Brightly was cuddled up to him on one side, while Shining Star was curled up asleep in his lap. He gently stroked the little girl’s hair as he spoke with his wives.

“It looks like we’ll be able to hold the final treaty signing within the week.”

“That’s good news,” Standing Woman said.

Dawn Star nodded in agreement, pulling their newborn daughter close to her breast to nurse. “We’ll begin packing up camp the same day, so we can leave the next morning.”

“You two know me too well,” Buck sighed in mock aggravation.

“We know that with the war over you’re eager to get home to your Wasicu family,” Standing Woman smiled gently at her husband.

Looking around the tipi at the varied nature of his family, Buck grimaced as he imagined his Express brothers’ reactions when they met.

Buck’s time estimations were right on target. It took only three days to arrange the final signing of the treaty between the U.S. government, Kiowa, Comanche and Apache tribes. That morning, his wives began packing up their camp even as Buck put on his ceremonial robes, including the white buffalo robe, for the signing.

Buck gathered underneath a canopy along with the dozen other tribal leaders and translated as the Indian Agent J.W. Whitfield droned on about his hopes for a peaceful future between the Indians and the Whites. Finally he shut up and the actual signing of the treaty began.

The various tribal leaders stood up and one by one approached the table with the treaty on it. They carefully put an X next to their names on the paper. Buck oversaw the entire ceremony, making sure each man signed next to his own name. Buck shook his head silently as he marveled at how easily his Kiowa family could have been cheated if he hadn’t been there. Not a one of them could read or write. They were relying on his knowledge to guarantee the Pony Soldiers’ honesty. As the translator and negotiator Buck himself did not sign the treaty.

After the signing ceremony was over, the Indian Agent approached Buck. “You did good work here, son.”

“Thank you,” Buck said simply, hiding his irritation at the man calling him son. The only white man who could truthfully call him son was in Texas, the last he’d heard.

“We could use a man like you,” Whitfield said. “Why don’t you come work for me out at the reservation?”

“Sorry, sir,” Buck said. “My family and I have other plans. We only came to help with the treaty. We’ll be leaving for Nebraska Territory first thing in the morning.”

Whitfield looked taken aback, then his features hardened. “Your kind ain’t exactly welcome in Nebraska Territory, son. That’s white land, now.”

Buck smiled. “I know. I’m going back to reunite with my white family, now the War’s over back East.”

Not giving the befuddled Whitfield a chance to respond, Buck walked, almost sauntered, away. He loved getting the drop on stupid white men, he thought to himself. The looks on their faces were priceless!


Lou and Kid
Kid leaned forward and brushed his hand across Lou’s face. She turned her head, unconsciously nuzzling against his touch.

“She’s responding well to the treatment, son,” Dr. Passavant said.

Kid nodded in relief.

“What are your plans, once she’s ready to travel?”

“Don’t know, sir,” Kid shrugged. “Haven’t really thought beyond getting her help.”

Kid had been working around the hospital to pay for his room and board while Lou was being treated. The Lutheran charity hospital offered medical treatment for free.

“Guess I’ll have to find a job,” he added. “I only need to earn enough to send a wire to Rock Creek. They can send me money for the train trip home.”

The doctor nodded in understanding. “Day workers gather in the mornings in Haymarket Square. You won’t get much, but it’ll be something.”

“Thank you. I’ll try that tomorrow, then. No matter what, I’ll continue to work cleaning up around here in the evenings.”

“Just don’t make yourself sick, son. You’re still regaining your strength.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Kid half-laughed. “I could barely lift a full mochila about now. The boys would sure laugh to see me in this condition.”

The next morning, Kid left before dawn and joined dozens of other men in Haymarket Square, hoping to be get work for the day. Unfortunately, there were about three times as many men as jobs. Kid got no work that day and trudged back to the hospital around noon.

A couple days later he finally managed to pick up work with a construction crew. He spent the day helping rebuild an apartment building destroyed in a recent fire. He came home that night 50 cents richer and tired to the bone.

Reaching the hospital, he headed straight to Lou’s room. She was awake for once.

“Kid,” she smiled, her whole being brightening at the sight of him. “You’re back. How’d it go?”

“Earned four bits. Ain’t much, but it’s a start,” he sighed, collapsing into the chair next to Lou’s bed. “How are you feelin’?”

“Better,” she said. “I stayed awake all day, today.”

“That’s good,” he said. Then, sighing deeply, he dragged himself out of the chair and headed back toward the door. “I’d better get to work cleaning.”

“But…” Lou began, unable to finish before he’d left the room. She frowned in irritation. This was the first day she’d been fully awake and she’d been looking forward to spending some time with him. Maybe he didn’t like the way she looked with so little hair, she thought grumpily. Running a hand over the fuzz that had already started to grow in from where the doctor had shaved all her hair off, Lou pouted. As short as she’d cut her hair herself, this was just too short.

A pattern soon developed. Kid was able to get work once or twice a week. The money slowly started to add up. Yet, even when he didn’t get work, Kid always seemed to have something to do to keep him busy and away from Lou.

Three weeks later, they’d saved about half the amount needed to send a wire to Rock Creek and Lou was up and walking around, trying to get the strength back into her legs. Kid had come back early that day, unable to get any work, and almost immediately disappeared into the depths of the hospital. Lou, without Jimmy to consult, had decided it was time to track down her errant husband and force him to talk.

She eventually found her husband in the kitchens at the back of the hospital, stirring a pot of stew. The Deaconess Hospital was unusual in that it provided two meals a day for the resident patients. Most hospitals expected patients to provide their own food. But, being a charity hospital run by the Lutheran Church, Deaconess had added this extra service.

“Kid,” Lou said quietly, walking up behind him.

“Lou,” he said, startled. “What are you doin’ out of bed? You should be restin’.”

“Kid, the doc says it’s time I started moving around,” she placated. Then, she got down to business. “Kid, we gotta talk.”

Turning back to the pot of stew, he mutterd, “What about?”

“Kid, why are you avoidin’ me?”

“I’m not avoidin’ ya, Lou. I’m just busy.”

“It’s more ‘n that, Kid. Even when you don’t have work, you’re nowhere ta be found,” she said. “What’s wrong?”

“Lou, just leave it alone,” Kid almost begged. Setting the spoon aside, he put the lid back on the pot of stew and walked to the back door. Grabbing his hat off a hook by the door, he snugged it down on his head.

“I gotta go ta the bakery ta pick up the day’s bread,” he practically flung over his shoulder as he walked out the door.

Lou sighed in frustration as she watched him leave. That hadn’t gone as well as she’d hoped. Next time, she’d try a different tack.

Kid knew he was too early to pick up the day’s bread shipment, so he started wandering the Chicago streets. Soon, his steps brought him down to the lakefront. He stood for a long time staring out over the grey waters of Lake Michigan. It wasn’t their pond with his thinking place, but it was the best he was going to get here.

After an hour of deep thought, Kid stood, brushing off the seat of his pants. He knew he’d have to talk to Lou. But he’d needed some time to figure things out for himself, first. Now, he was ready to talk. He started walking down the street, toward the bakery that donated its day old bread to the hospital. He’d find her after supper.

“Kidd? Hieronymus Kidd? Is that you?”

Kid froze at the sound of a name he hadn’t heard in years. Turning slowly, he watched as an older version of himself with a full beard and mustache hurried down the walk toward him. Peering at the man, recognition suddenly hit Kid.

“Uncle Stuyvesant? Stuyvesant Schuykill?” he asked, bewildered.

“It is you!” the older man exclaimed, reaching out to pull Kid into a bear hug.

“What are you doin’ here?” Kid asked. “We all thought you were in California.”

“I was. I was,” Stuyvesant grinned broadly, stepping back to get a good look at Kid without letting go of him. “Made my fortune in the gold fields in ’49! Finally got married a couple years ago. With the war over, my wife and I decided to head back and see if there was any family left.”

Kid eyed his uncle sadly and shook his head. “I’m all that’s left.”

“What happened?”

“Everything. Nothing,” Kid shrugged. “Life. It’s a long story. Several long stories.”

“Well, you can tell me all about it over supper,” Stuyvesant said. “My Molly’ll be tickled pink to meet you. You’ll have to join us at the Briggs House for dinner. Come on.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Kid demurred. “I’m on an errand right now. And, to tell the truth, neither my wife nor I are in any condition to be eatin’ at some place as fancy as the Briggs House.”

“Your wife? Well, it appears you’ve got more stories to tell than I thought, young man. If you don’t feel comfortable comin’ to dinner with us, we’ll come to you. Where ya stayin’?”

Looking around, wishing he had something else to say, Kid finally spat out, “The Deaconess Hospital, corner of Dearborn and Ontario.”

“Is everythin’ alright?” Stuyvesant asked in sudden concern.

“Lou was sick. But she’s gettin’ better now,” Kid said, brushing off his concern. “I’ll, uh, see ya later.”

With that, Kid turned and walked away. But this time he knew he’d be seeing his family again soon, whether he wished to or not.

That night, Stuvesant and Molly Schuykill walked up to the Deaconess Hospital and asked for Hieronymus.

“Who?” the nurse at the front door asked in confusion.

Looking down at his wife in amusement, Stuyvesant said, “I’ll take a gander he’s still using that ol’ nickname of his, The Kid. Never did cotton much to his Christian name.”

Sighing in relief, the nurse said, “Oh! The Kid’s back in the kitchen getting the last of supper on the table. Come on in. I’ll show you the way.”

Following the nurse, they found the Kid filling bowls with stew from a giant pot, then setting a biscuit along the edge of each bowl.

“I see some things don’t change much,” Stuyvesant joked. "Still puttering around in the kitchen. He used to spend all his time there with his ma, learning to cook everythin' under the sun. Took a lot o’ guff from his Pa and brother over it, but that never stopped him. Now, where’s that wife of yours ya told me ‘bout?”

Looking up, Kid managed a strained smile. He nodded his head toward a still painfully slender young woman with extremely short hair sitting at the table.

“Hieronymus! You didn’t tell me she was such a looker!”

Lou’s eyes flew from this older version of her husband to the Kid in shock.

“Hieronymus?” she mouthed in shock.

Seeing the byplay, Stuyvesant laughed. “I take it he managed ta get ya ta the altar without givin’ away his little secret. He always hated that name.”

“Hieronymus?” Lou finally managed to fully vocalize. “Your name is Hieronymus?”

At Kid’s bashful nod, Lou let a small laugh escape. “So, is that your first name or last? Am I Mrs. Hieronymus now?”

“Uh, no. It’s Hieronymus Kidd,” the Kid said quietly. “I started using my last name as a nickname long before Jed took off. After that, I was the only male Kidd left in town, so everyone just naturally started callin’ me The Kidd. It stuck.”

“So, Cody wasn’t wrong when he said he should call me Mrs. Kidd?”

Kid managed an embarrassed laugh. “I prefer Kid McCloud, actually. It’s grown on me, Mrs. McCloud.”

He bent and pressed a kiss to Lou’s head. Turning to his uncle and new aunt, Kid waved to the table. “Have a seat. We ain’t got much, but yer welcome to what we’ve got.”

Sitting down at the table across from Kid and Lou, Stuyvesant looked at his nephew and asked, “I know you told me you’ve got several stories to tell, but start with the most important one. How’d ya end up here?”

His pointed look took in Kid and Lou’s worn, hand-me-down clothes and the surrounding charity hospital kitchen.

“That’s the longest story of all. I’m not sure where to start.”

Lou grabbed her husband hand in hers and said, “Why don’t you start at the beginning?”

Nodding, he started to speak, “I guess it all began shortly after you left in ’49. Pa wasn’t no good at runnin’ the farm and when we had a bad year, he started to drink. Everthin’ went downhill from there.”

Long after supper was over, Kid, and later Lou, told the story of how they’d ended up at the Deaconess Hospital. Finally, Kid finished quietly, “So, we’re just tryin’ ta save enough money for a wire home.”

“So ya two ain’t as destitute as ya look?” Stuyvesant asked. “Cause, honest to God, yer the closest thing I’ll ever have to a son, Kid. That means what I got is yers. And I can easily afford a wire.”

“I ain’t askin’ fer charity,” Kid said, standing up and moving away.

“Kid, it ain’t charity when it’s family,” Lou reprimanded him. “How often did Teaspoon havta tell ya that?”

“Yer right,” Kid relented, returning to the group. Looking at his uncle he held out his hand, “I’d be honored to accept yer offer of help.”

Stuyvesant gravely took Kid’s hand and shook it, knowing just how much it had cost the younger man to accept the offer. “We’ll head over to the telegraph office first thing in the morning, son. Ye’ll be headed home in a matter of weeks.”

“And, once we’re done with our wedding trip,” Molly added. “We’ll be coming by for a visit. Might even stick around awhile.”

“You’re always welcome, ma’am,” Lou said. “Family’s always welcome.”


Teaspoon
“Marshal! Marshal!”

Teaspoon turned to see who was calling him. Things had been quite peaceful in Rock Creek since the news of the war’s end. Slowly, men had begun returning home, but none had been his boys. Not yet.

“Yes?” Teaspoon asked.

The young boy who’d been hailing him ran up and held out a piece of paper. Gasping for breath he said, “This here telegram’s for Mrs. Tartovsky. Pa was wonderin’ if you could take it to her, seein’s how yer headed out to her house anyways.”

“Sure, son,” Teaspoon said, accepting the paper and handing the boy a penny for his efforts.

“Wow! Thanks, Marshal Hunter,” the boy said, a grin lighting up his face.

Teaspoon watched as the boy turned and headed straight for Thompkin’s store. Then, he looked down at the paper in his hand.

“Wonder what this is all about,” he muttered to himself. “Well, I guess the best way to find out is to get over to the house.”

As he walked into the yard that had once been the scene of so many Pony Express mail transfers, Teaspoon looked up at the construction going on. They’d already added several rooms onto the side of the house, stretching it toward the old bunkhouse. This evening, Janusz was busy putting glass in an empty window frame.

“Where’s Rachel?” Teaspoon asked.

“In de kitchen,” Janusz answered around a mouthful of nails. “Vhy do you ask?”

“She’s got a telegram,” Teaspoon said, waving the paper at Janusz even as he turned to head into the house.

“Who vould send Rachel a telegram?”

“Don’t know. Plan on findin’ out real soon, though. Rachel?” Teaspoon called.

“In here,” she said, poking her head out of the kitchen door while wiping her hands on an apron. “Supper’s not quite ready. Polly’s out in the garden picking some greens for the salad.”

Walking into the kitchen, Teaspoon held out the telegram to her.

“What’s this?” she asked, accepting it.

“Ya got mail,” was all he said.

She tore open the seal holding the folded sheet of paper closed and flipped it open. Her eyes scanned the paper and she gasped. At the look on her face, Janusz quickly came to her side and placed an arm around her waist.

“Vhat is vrong?”

“Nothin’,” she said, looking up and starting to grin so widely her face looked like it was about to split open. “Everythin’s gonna be absolutely perfect, just as soon as we can get to the bank!”

“What?” Teaspoon asked, befuddled.

Rather than ask his question, Rachel handed him the telegram. Looking down he read:

We’re alright. Stop.
Need $50 for train. Stop.
Send to Deaconess Hospital in Chicago. Stop.
The Kid. Stop


Teaspoon sank weakly into a chair. “But, they were reported dead.”

“No,” Rachel said calmly, going to a cupboard and pulling out a scrapbook. Opening it she pointed to the casualty list she’d saved. “Actually, they were reported missing and presumed killed. Obviously, they were only missing!”

Looking up at her, Teaspoon smiled, though his eyes looked suspiciously moist.

“Well, what are we waiting fer?” he asked. “We’ve gotta get ta the bank before it closes and get that money, so’s my kids can come home! All of ‘em!”


Cody
Cody looked into the mirror he’d hung above his bunk in the barracks and straightened his tie. He was nervous. He’d officially been discharged from the Army that morning. Tomorrow he would start the long trip back to Rock Creek. But tonight? Tonight he was going to see Louisa and he had something important to ask her.

Finally satisfied with the way he looked, the blonde rider grabbed his jacket and shrugging into it walked out the door. He’d been seeing a lot of Louisa in the last couple of months and he hoped she’d respond well to his request. He really thought she was the one for him. If it weren’t for his promise to Teaspoon, and his desire to see the rest of his family after all these years, he wouldn’t be leaving at all.

Arriving at the Frederici home, he saw he wouldn’t even have to knock on the door. Louisa was already out on the porch, sitting in the swing waiting for him. She blushed at his quirked eyebrow and lowered her eyes to her lap.

“Dinner ready already?” he teased.

“No. Mama’s making it extra big again,” she teased right back. “Seeing as how she can never quite fill you up!”

“Well, let’s go on in and see what’s cookin’,” he smiled at her, holding out his elbow. She stood up and slipped her small hand through the crook and walked indoors with him.

After dinner, Cody looked at Louisa and suggested, “Why don’t we take a walk in the garden?”

She nodded her agreement and soon they found themselves wandering amongst her mother’s roses. After a few moments of silence, she looked at Cody and asked, “Spit it out. There’s something you’ve been thinking about all night. What is it?”

“You know I’m leavin’ in the mornin’,” he began.

“I know. Your going home to see your family.”

“Yep. Thing is, I was kinda hopin’ ta ask ya somethin’ before I left and was wonderin’ if ya might say yes,” he said, beating around the bush in a very un-Cody-like manner.

Louisa stared into his eyes for a moment then, as he started to open his mouth to say something else, placed a finger over it to silence him.

“Wait here,” she said, then turned and ran back into the house. A few minutes later she scampered back out again, this time with something in her hand. Handing it to him she whispered, “Come back to me safe, Willie.”

She placed a soft kiss on his cheek and left him standing in the garden, this time knowing she would not be back. He looked down at what she’d given him. It was a photograph of her. Turning it over he saw she’d written, “Maybe, sometime” on the back of it. Grinning he tucked the picture into his jacket pocket before looking up at her window. Seeing the light there he whispered, “I’ll hold ya to that, my sweet Louisa!”

He turned and walked away. It was time to go home.


Buck
Standing Woman watched her husband as they turned to approach the town on the horizon from the north. They’d already talked about not wanting to parade through the middle of town to get to Rachel’s house. Instead, they’d ride around and come up on the house from the back. Not that that meant they’d go unnoticed, she thought as she saw a rider go streaking toward the town after watching them for several moments.

She and Dawn Star were both a bit nervous about meeting Buck’s Pony Express family. More nervous than they’d been about meeting Red Bear and his wives. This was the family that truly mattered to Buck. Their approval, or disapproval, would be key to his happiness.

She’d watched as he’d simultaneously become more relaxed and more nervous, the closer they’d gotten to Rock Creek. She was still trying to figure out the odd dichotomy.

“I’m going to ride on ahead,” Buck said before taking off at a gallop. She smiled as she watched him go. It was always such a joy to watch Buck riding flat out.

Buck grinned into the wind as he raced his horse toward the old home station. It felt as if the intervening years hadn’t happened, as if he were just coming in from another long run.

“Rider comin’!”

The familiar call only made his grin even bigger as he raced into the yard, to find what seemed like a small crowd waiting for him. Teaspoon was even on hand to reach out and grab his horse’s reins near the bridle, helping bring it to a halt, just like he often had after a run.

“Good ride?” he asked.

“Perfect,” Buck grinned down at the old man he considered his father.

“Welcome home, son!”

Dismounting, the others crowded in around him and all began talking at once. Buck looked around the group and took note of who was there and who wasn’t. Noticing his searching gaze, Teaspoon smiled.

“You’re the first one in, son,” he reassured. “But, Cody, Kid and Lou are all on their way. Haven’t heard from Jimmy yet.”

Buck nodded. Then, hearing the sound of multiple hooves coming up behind him, he smiled. “I didn’t come alone.”

“Who’s that?” Rachel asked, looking at the group of women and children riding into the yard, along with a couple dozen Indian ponies.

Buck blushed and ducked his head.

“I take it there’s a story comin’,” Teaspoon ribbed him.

Buck said nothing, simply walked over and helped first Standing Woman then Dawn Star down from their horses. Holding hands with both women he walked back toward his family.

“Teaspoon, Rachel, Polly… Janusz?” he paused in his introductions as he noticed the Polish man standing behind Rachel, with his hands on Rachel’s shoulders.

Rachel reached up and put her left hand over Janus’ and Buck saw the slender gold band encircling her third finger.

“I see I’m not the only one with a few stories to tell,” he grinned, suddenly a little more relaxed. “I’d like to introduce you all to my wives, Standing Woman and Dawn Star, and our children, Shining Star, Sleeps A Lot, Shines Brightly and.” reaching over he removed the infant from a cradle board on Dawn Star’s back, “our youngest, little Wiggle Girl.”

Holding his youngest daughter close to his chest, Buck finally looked back at his Pony Express family and waited for their reaction.

They stared at him, all of them, in complete, total silence, shocked silence, for what felt like forever. Then, they all started talking at once.

“Well, welcome,” Polly began, walking up to Standing Woman and Dawn Star and shaking their hands in turn. “I’ll bet you’re ready for a rest after your journey. Let me show you your rooms.”

Rachel came up to Buck and took Wiggle Girl from him, holding her close and marveling at the perfection of her features. “She’s beautiful, Buck. They all are. You’re a lucky man.”

“Yes, I am.”

“But, Wiggle Girl? What kind of a name is that?”

“Not her adult one!” Buck said, laughing. “Most tribes name their children after personality characteristics. And the name can change several times before the child reaches adulthood and earns their grown-up name.”

“Well thank goodness!”

“Son,” Teaspoon said, placing a hand on Buck’s shoulder, “I always hoped you’d learn somethin’ from me, but I never expected this. I know I was always talkin’ ‘bout being married six times, but… not all at once!”

Buck laughed at Teaspoon’s chagrined look. “Things are a bit different amongst the Plains Tribes, you know that Teaspoon. It wasn’t what any of us had planned, but this works for us.”

“Well, I ain’t one to judge,” Teaspoon said after mulling that over. “Just so long’s your happy.”

“As happy as a man can be with two wives,” Buck smiled. “It ain’t always easy!”

“I’ll say,” Teaspoon smiled, pulling Polly close into his side. “It took me several decades and nearly as many failures before I finally figured out how to keep one woman happy. Let alone two!”

That night they all sat around the old bunkhouse table eating Rachel’s delicious cooking. As they were finishing up her famous apple pie, Buck leaned back and sighed.

“I sure have missed your cookin’ Rachel.”

“I’m sure Standing Woman and Dawn Star are perfectly good cooks,” Rachel said with a warning glance his direction.

Buck smiled and said, “Quite true. Two of the best cooks in all the Cheyenne and Kiowa nations. But, it ain’t like there’s much call for bakin’ pies and such out on the prairie.”

Rachel laughed and patted his shoulder before placing another piece of pie in front of him.

“So, vhat are your plans?” Janusz asked, getting to what everyone had been wondering ever since Buck had ridden in with his unusual family. “Are you planning on staying around long?”

“I’m here to stay,” Buck said, with a contented expression on his face. “This is home. Before they left, I spent a lot of time talking with Kid and Lou about our plans for after the war. We’re going to start a horse breeding ranch together. I’ve been gathering and training Indian ponies the last couple of years so we’ll have a good starter herd once they get here.”

Teaspoon nodded at the confirmation that his boys had been making plans together.

“That explains that herd ya brought in with ya,” he said. “We’re gonna have to expand at least the corrals in the mornin’.”

Buck nodded. “Looks like you’re already hard at work expanding the house, too.”

“Yes,” Polly said. “We wanted to make sure you all had someplace nice to stay when you’re here. You’re a bit old to be sleeping in a bunkhouse these days.”

Buck laughed appreciatively.

“And, we’re gonna be needin’ a bit more room ourselves,” Rachel smiled mischievously, taking Janusz’ hand in her own.

Teaspoon suddenly sat forward and looked hard at Rachel. “Are ya tellin’ us?”

Rachel just nodded. Janusz answered for her.

“Ve are expecting a baby. Sometime in November, the doctor thinks.”

“Congratulations!”

“That’s wonderful.”

“I’m so happy for you Rachel, you deserve this.”

The talk around the table quickly turned to babies as the women began discussing the things they’d need to do in preparation. The men took advantage of their distraction to slip out onto the bunkhouse porch.

Buck slapped Janusz on the shoulder and said, “So, have the cravings started yet?”

“No. Vhat are crafings?”

“Ah….” Buck smiled mischievously. “They’re one of women’s ways of punishing us men for getting them pregnant in the first place.”

“It’s hard to believe you’ve got experience at somethin’ I ain’t, son,” Teaspoon smiled. “Looks like yer gonna have to be handin’ out the advice for the next few months.”

“My only advice is agree with whatever she has to say, no matter how crazy it sounds.”

The three men laughed together, comfortable in each other’s company.

Buck turned serious for a moment.

“Is there anything I can do to help out around here while we’re waiting for the others to get home?” he asked.

“Vhell, your help vith the house addition vould be greatly appreciated,” Janus said. “It’s going too slowly vith yust the two of us vorking in the evenings und on veekends.”

“Yep,” Teaspoon agreed. “With me busy over at the Marshal’s office and Janusz doin’ the blacksmithin’ round here, there ain’t a lot of time for the house buildin’. And you were always good at carpentry.”

Buck nodded. “I’d be glad to.”

“I was also hopin’ ya might let me deputize ya,” Teaspoon said a bit hesitantly. “I need the help. Especially with the daily patrols. I just ain’t as young as I onct was.”

“Are you sure the townspeople would accept that? I mean, it was one thing to make me a temporary deputy along with the others when you needed extra help. But, on a more permanent basis?”

“I already talked to the town council about it,” Teaspoon admitted. “They’re fine with it. Most of ‘em remember you pretty fondly. And the fact is, they ain’t been able to find anyone else. And, I know neither Jimmy or Cody will be willing to do it on a regular basis. Kid might.”

“Or Lou!” Buck smiled. “Sure Teaspoon, I’d be glad to be your deputy. Like I always was!”


Hickok
“Hickok, let’s go play some poker,” Tutt suggested jovially.

Jimmy shrugged noncommittally but followed him down the boardwalk to the nearest saloon.

“Why do ya hang out with that feller?” Simon asked, dogging his footsteps. Even though Jimmy was no longer a member of the Army, Simon still found every opportunity to pass the time with his hero.

“He’s a friend,” Jimmy said shortly.

“But why? He’s nothin’ but a down on his luck Rebel cardsharp.”

Jimmy didn’t deign to answer. The truth was, he wasn’t too sure why he hung out with Tutt himself. He wouldn’t admit to himself it was Tutt’s soft southern accent that reminded him so much of someone else.

Pushing through the saloon doors, Jimmy looked around the saloon until he found Tutt, already seated at a poker table. Jimmy headed over and took a seat, saying, “Deal me in.”

Unfortunately, Jimmy had an unusual run of bad luck at the table that night and a couple hours later found himself tapped out.

“Simon, let me borrow a couple bucks so I can stay in the game,” he requested.

“Sorry, Jimmy. I ain’t got it. I’m done fer the evenin’ myself,” Simon said, pushing away from the table and leaving the saloon.

Jimmy turned to Davis Tutt and asked, “What about you? Lend a feller a couple bucks?”

“Sure,” Tutt said, sliding a few bills from his pile of winnings toward Jimmy. “You’ll owe me.”

“I’m good fer it,” Jimmy said. “You should know that.”

“How ‘bout lettin’ me spend the night with yer gal, Susanna,” Tutt half-joked.

Pulling the blonde barmaid closer to him, Jimmy scowled at Tutt. “That ain’t funny. I don’t share.”

“Aw, ya know I was just joshin’,” Tutt backed down quickly.

“Let’s just play already,” Jimmy said.


Kid and Lou
After Kid’s uncle and aunt had left the hospital, Lou headed to bed. She was hoping with her improved health Kid would join her in the bed, instead of laying down on a pallet on the floor as he had been doing.

But, an hour later when he came back from cleaning up the kitchen, he started setting up his pallet. Lou sighed heavily in disappointment.

“Go to sleep, Lou,” he said quietly. “You need your rest.”

“What I need is my husband,” she muttered.

He blew out the flame in the kerosene lamp and lay his head down on the pillow. After a few moments of silence, Lou sighed again and pushed the covers back. Climbing out of the bed, she walked over to Kid’s pallet and pulled up his blanket to slide underneath it.

“Move over,” she said.

“Lou! What do you think yer doin’?”

“If you’re not going to join me in the bed, I guess I’ll just have to join ya on the floor,” she said, snuggling up to his side.

He lay stiffly, not stopping her but neither did he relax into her embrace.

“What’s wrong, Kid?” she asked gently, hiding her face against his chest.

“This ain’t right,” he said stiffly.

“What do ya mean?” she asked pushing up to look him in the eyes. “We’re married, how can it not be right?”

“Yer sick.”

“No, I’m gettin’ better. And I need my husband so I can keep gettin’ better.”

“I’m afraid I’ll hurt ya,” he started. “And…”

“And?”

“And, I’m not sure I deserve ya anymore,” he finished wretchedly.

“What on earth could make ya think that?” she asked, shocked.

“I’m not a real man, not anymore,” he mumbled. “I can’t protect ya. I spend most of my time in the kitchen, fer cryin’ out loud. And, I can barely provide fer ya.”

“Kid, have I ever once asked ya to take care of me?”

When he didn’t respond, she pushed her fingers into his armpit, wiggling them nastily. “Well, have I?”

Squirming away from her torture, he finally admitted, “No.”

“I need a man who’ll stand beside me,” she said. “A partner, not a father and not a son. You’re that partner. We’ll take care of each other. When I’ve needed a helpin’ hand, you’ve been there. When you need help, I’m ready to do what needs doin’.”

“I know,” Kid said, finally wrapping his arms around her and gathering her close in a hug. “And I appreciate all you’ve done fer me, Lou. Don’t think I don’t.”

“But do ya still love me?”

“Now who’s askin’ silly questions,” he whispered, pressing his lips into her hair. “I love you more than life itself.”

“Then be my husband tonight, Kid. I need ya,” she said, letting her hands start roaming over his body. After a moment of silent thought, he reciprocated her explorations. They both began to get reacquainted with the other’s body, a body that had changed much during the last couple of years’ worth of hardships.

It had been more than a year since they’d been able to get any private time and each was emotionally drained, in desperate need of the emotional intimacy that came with the physical intimacies they were experiencing. Lou sighed in contentment at his caresses and kisses. Now, she was free of the war. Now, she was coming home.

A week later, Lou was trying to fasten the hooks and eyes on the dress Molly had given her. It was a beautiful blue silk dress, as nice, if not nicer, than her wedding dress. Unfortunately, her arms just weren’t long enough, or flexible enough, to get into the right position to fasten it up the back. She heard the door open and turned to see Kid coming in.

“Oh, thank goodness,” she muttered in relief. Turning her back to him, she said, “Fasten these would you?”

Coming up behind her, Kid slipped his hands inside the open flaps of material and around her waist.

“I’d rather take it off ya,” he whispered into her ear.

Elbowing him in the gut, she said, “Behave yerself, Kid. If I’d a known crawling into yer bed was gonna make ya this randy, I’d a waited a few more days. Now, come on. Yer aunt and uncle’ll be here any minute.”

Sighing in disappointment, Kid pulled away and began fastening her dress. Soon, they were ready and waiting for the Schuykills to pick them up. Kid wouldn’t take this day away from Lou for anything. She’d once said one of her dreams was to see a big city. Chicago wasn’t New York, but it was huge compared to places like St. Joe. The cities they’d seen during the war hadn’t exactly counted, at least not in his book.

The Schuykills pulled up in a beautiful carriage with four matched black geldings hitched into the traces. Lou smiled in appreciation of the horseflesh as Kid helped her up into the carriage. She sat down next to his Aunt Molly and looked out across the street. This was the first time she’d spent more than a few minutes outside the hospital and she was eager to see the city.

Lou and Kid ‘oohed’ and ‘ahhed’ over the sights as they drove up State Street, checked out the shopping at Marshall Field’s Department Store, then went for a walk at Lake Park.

“It’s so beautiful here,” Lou said, leaning her head on Kid’s shoulder as they strolled down the paths in the park. “So green and peaceful.”

“We don’t have to go,” Kid said. “We could stay here. I’m sure I could find a job.”

“Oh, Kid,” she laughed, punching him in the shoulder. “It may be pretty, but it ain’t home. Besides, we’d never be able to really ride around here. Just ain’t enough room. Too long here and I’d start to feel suffocated.”

“That’s good,” Kid smiled, “because I got a wire from Teaspoon this morning. He’s sending our money so we can come home. Buck’s already there.”

“That’s wonderful! When can we leave?”

“I’ll check train schedules tomorrow morning,” Kid promised, hugging her arm closer to his side.

“I’ll come with you,” she smiled up at him.

“What’s the matter? Afraid I won’t get the information right?”

“No, I just want to get out more. You know that suffocated feeling? I’ve been feeling it for awhile now at the hospital.”

“Well, ya coulda always asked me to open a window,” he teased. She laughed and he basked in the tinkling tones. He loved making her laugh. “Lou, I asked Uncle Stuyvesant and Aunt Molly to let us have a little time alone for a reason.”

She opened her mouth to say something, but he pressed a warning finger against her lips. Smiling he begged, “Lou, for once just let me say what I gotta say without interrupting me.”

She subsided with a smile and lay her head on his shoulder to listen, glad for the bonnet she wore that hid her hideously short hair.

“Lou, I asked my aunt and uncle to leave us alone for a reason. I wanted to ask ya somethin’. Would you marry me? Again? Right here?”

“What?” Lou asked, confused.

Kid dug into his coat pocket and pulled out a tattered, yet extremely familiar, little velvet back. Taking her hand, he dumped the contents out onto her palm. They both stood, looking down at their wedding rings for a long moment. At last, finally understanding what Kid was asking, Lou looked back up at her husband and cupped his cheek in her hand.

“Yes!” she whispered.

Smiling tenderly down at her, he reached into her palm and picked up the smaller of the two rings. Taking her left hand in his, he slowly slid the ring onto her finger.

“I give you this ring as a visible and constant symbol of my promise to be with you as long as I live. It is a symbol of my love, my faith in our strength together, and my covenant to learn and grow with you,” he promised.

Lou wrapped her fist around the larger ring still sitting in her palm and brought it to her lips to kiss it, repeating her actions from their wedding day. Then, taking the ring she clasped Kid’s hand in hers and slipped the ring on his finger, whispering past the tears caught in her throat, “I give you this ring as a symbol of my love for you. Let it be a reminder that I am always by your side and that I will always be a faithful partner to you. This ring is a token of my love and devotion to you. I pledge to you all that I am and all that I will ever be. With this ring, I gladly marry you and join my life to yours.”

Clasping her beringed hand in his, Kid leaned down and tenderly pressed his lips to hers.

“Thank you,” he whispered. “I needed that.”

Leaning her head against his shoulder, Lou sighed in appreciation of the moment. Kid tensed and looked down at her worriedly.

“Are ya sure yer not gettin’ too tired?”

“I’m fine. I just want to remember this moment forever,” she smiled, “like our wedding.”

“Let me know if you get too tired,” Kid said anxiously. “We can always postpone dinner until tomorrow night.

“No way! I wouldn’t miss supper with yer Aunt and Uncle tonight for anythin’,” she grinned up at him. “I’m hopin’ to get a few more embarrasin’ stories out of ‘em!”

He groaned playfully as they continued their walk down the tree lined path.

That night at supper, Kid and Lou explained their plans to leave to his relatives.

“Well, son,” Stuyvesant said, “I can understand yer desire to get home. When do ya expect to leave?”

“Sometime next week,” Kid answered. “Depends on the train schedules.”

“We should be able to make most of the trip by train now,” Lou added. “We’re going to stop in Omaha and pick up my brother and sister on the way.”

“We’re thinking of cutting our tour short and heading back west, too,” Molly piped up.

“Yep,” Stuyvesant agreed. “The city’s been fun, but we’re missin’ the freedom of the West. Been thinkin’ we might stop by and see y’all on our way. Heck ain’t nothin’ tyin’ us ta California. We might even stay.”

“You’ll be plenty welcome,” Lou said.

“As long as you can keep yer mouth shut ‘bout my name,” Kid mumbled into his dessert plate.

“Sorry, Kid,” Lou laughed. “That cat’s out of the bag now. Ain’t no putting it back in, Hieronymus.”

In response, Kid flicked a candied flower from his piece of cake across the table at her. She dodged agilely and the candy hit the floor behind her.

Waving a finger in his face, she tutted at him. “Manners, Kid. What would Emma say?”


Hickok
“Susana, ya in there?” Jimmy called, taking the steps to her room behind the bar two at a time. “Guess what? I got tickets to….”

He trailed to a stop as he opened the door to her room to find her on the bed with a man he’d thought was a friend. Looking Davis Tutt in the eyes, Jimmy felt his hand inching toward his guns and deliberately moved it away.

“Hey, Jimmy,” Tutt smiled. “I’m just collecting on yer gamblin’ debts. Ya got good taste in women!”

Jimmy deliberately turned his back on the pair and closed the door behind him. On his way out of the saloon he dropped the pair of tickets to a new play in front of a gambler by the door. He didn’t respond to anyone’s attempts to get his attention, concentrating on simply keeping his temper in check.

It wasn’t that he loved Susanna, or even cared overmuch about her. She was fun to hang around with, but that was about it. The problem, he decided, was he just didn’t like to share.

The next day, Jimmy was playing poker with Simon and a couple of his other former co-workers from the Provost Marshal’s office. Tutt walked in and pulled up a chair to the game, saying, “Deal me in, gents.”

Jimmy promptly dropped his cards down on the table and stood up.

“That does it fer me,” he said, turning and walking out of the saloon.

Over the next couple of weeks, the pattern continued, Tutt trying to join in on Jimmy’s games and Jimmy walking away.

“Ya know, he’s gettin’ right furious with ya,” Simon said one night.

Jimmy just shrugged.

“I’ve heard tell, since ya won’t play with him no more, he’s startin’ ta bankroll guys ya will play with.”

Again, Jimmy shrugged, not really caring overmuch.

“Well, what are ya gonna do ‘bout it?” Simon asked, unwilling to leave things alone.

“Ignore him. Beat anyone he backs against me,” Jimmy said shortly, downing the drink in front of him in a single gulp and turning to leave the saloon.

The next night, Jimmy was on a winning streak. He’d already shut down three players and it was down to just him and another highroller. There was more than $300 in prize money sitting on the table and his opponent didn’t have anything left to bet.

Jimmy was well aware of Tutt in the crowd behind his opponent, but ignored him. Until Tutt came up to him and said, “Jimmy, I’m callin’ in yer debt. Pay up the $35 ya owe me!”

“It’s only $25,” Jimmy said, pushing a few bills toward Tutt.

“Nope,” Tutt insisted. “Ya owe me $35. Now, hand over the other $10.”

Jimmy just looked at him for a moment before saying, “It’s $25 and I’ve got an IOU in my other pocket to prove it.”

Tutt laughed and said, “Yeah, right.”

Reaching out he grabbed the brand new gold watch sitting next to Jimmy’s elbow. Jimmy had just won it that night and had taken quite a fancy to it. It reminded him greatly of Emma’s father’s watch. His jaw clenched tightly but he didn’t respond to Tutt’s provocative move.

“Fine,” Tutt crowed, tossing the watch into the air and catching it. “I’ll just hold onto this watch as collateral until ya pay up.”

“I better not catch ya wearin’ that,” Jimmy warned.

“I plan on wearin’ it first thing in the mornin’,” Tutt egged him on.

“If ya do, I’ll shoot ya,” Jimmy said quietly, standing up and collecting his winnings. Without another word he walked out of the Lyons Hotel restaurant where they’d been playing.

“Sure ya will,” gloated Tutt, thinking he’d won the confrontation.

The next morning, Jimmy was sitting on the porch of the boarding house where he was staying, cleaning his guns. Simon ran up and asked, “Have ya heard?”

“Heard what?”

“Tutt’s in the town square, wearing that watch o’ yourn as bold as ya please!”

Jimmy paused in his cleaning for a moment, then returned to what he was doing.

“So, what are ya gonna do ‘bout it?” Simon asked.

“I’m gonna finish cleanin’ my gun,” Jimmy snarled. “Then I’m gonna shoot the bastard.”

In the long run, Jimmy forced himself to sit and consider for a lot longer than it took to clean his guns. He eventually decided he simply couldn’t let this go. That evening he entered the town square looking for Tutt.

Seeing Tutt at the opposite side of the square he yelled out, “Dave! Here I am. Ya better not come across that square wearing that watch.”

Tutt stared at him, with his hand resting on his pistol. Jimmy shifted position, his hands hovering over the handles of his twin revolvers. The two just stared at each other for what felt like an interminable period of time to the nervous onlookers. No one ever could identify just what sparked the motion, but suddenly they both appeared to reach for their guns simultaneously.

Jimmy pulled just one pistol and rested it on his opposite forearm before pulling the trigger. Tutt’s shot missed by a mile. Jimmy’s didn’t, entering Tutt’s ribs.

Tutt shouted at the pain and backed up a few steps, yelling, “Boys, I’m killed!”

Then he crumpled to his knees. Onlookers rushed up and checked him.

“He’s dead,” one called.

“Better call the sheriff,” another added.

Most of the crowd still had their eyes on Jimmy. He hadn’t waited for Tutt to fall, knowing his bullet would take the man out. The second he’d fired, he’d whirled around, gun still cocked, to hold the weapon on several of Tutt’s friends moving in behind him.

“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” he growled. The men quickly removed their hands from their weapons and backed away. That’s how the sheriff found him, when he arrived.

“I’m sorry, son,” the sheriff said. “But I’ve got to take ya in, at least until an investigation can be completed.”

Jimmy just nodded, holstering his weapon and unfastening the gunbelts to hand them over to the lawman.


Cody
“Waa-hoo!”

Much as Buck had, Cody felt the need to race back into the old home station at full gallop, as if he were just coming back from another run. He announced his arrival with his characteristic cheer.

The pounding hooves of his horse and his shout had people pouring out of doors to the house, the bunkhouse and the barn. Teaspoon broke into a quick dance of joy.

“My boys ‘re comin’ home!”

“Howdy, Teaspoon,” Cody said, sliding down off the side of his horse. “Great to see ya!”

He engulfed the older man in a bear hug, then turned to take stock of who else was present.

“So, where is everybody?” he asked.

Buck walked up from the barn, where he’d been mucking out stalls.

“I’m the only other one back so far,” he said, holding his hand out to Cody. Cody looked at the hand and grabbed it, only to pull Buck into a bear hug of his own.

“Glad ta see ya survived,” he said. “Too bad not everyone else did. I’m not too surprised Jimmy ain’t come back yet. I’ll be kinda surprised if he comes at all.”

“Why not?” Rachel asked, moving in for her own hug of greeting.

Pulling back to look her up and down, Cody grinned. “Ya know, there was a day when I’d a thought I’d died and gone to heaven if ya’d hugged me like that.”

Rachel slapped at the back of his head playfully, but he easily ducked her swing. Looking pointedly at her expanding middle, he crowed, “Looks like ya two got straight to work on buildin’ a family. Or maybe ya didn’t wait?”

Placing her hands protectively over her middle, Rachel smiled gently. “The baby’s due later this year.”

“Stop trying to talk yer way out of answering her question, young man,” Polly joined in.

“Polly!” Cody exclaimed, reaching out and dragging her into his arms to swing her in an exuberant circle. Setting her down again, he begged, “Tell me how ya finally convinced the ol’ coot to take the plunge one last time?”

In answer, Polly simply wagged her fingers under Cody’s nose, “Now, out with it.”

Cody sighed and looked around the group, obviously not wanting to share this news.

“I’m not sure just how updated your casualty lists are,” he started.

“Fairly good,” Teaspoon said. “Though not nearly so good as what ya got down at Army headquarters in Missouri, I’m sure, son.”

Taking a deep breath, Cody finally blurted, “Kid and Lou were killed at Cold Harbor last spring. Jimmy ain’t takin’ it so well.”

Everyone just started at him for a moment, then they all started talking at once. Teaspoon stepped forward and held up a hand for silence.

“When’d ya hear this son?”

“Both their names appeared in the KIA lists about a month after the battle.”

“Probably the same lists as the one in the paper came from,” Rachel said. Teaspoon nodded in agreement.

“Well, then, we’ve got news for you, son,” Teaspoon grinned broadly, then winked.

Looking around at the loved ones surrounding him, Cody began to feel he was the butt of some cosmic joke.

“Kid wired us a week or so ago!” Rachel exclaimed joyfully.

“They were captured, not killed,” Polly added.

“They’re headed home,” Teaspoon ended, smiling broadly. “Should be here sometime next month.”

“Waa-hoo!” Cody leaped in the air for joy. “We gotta let Jimmy know!”

The next morning, Cody rolled out of the soft bed Rachel and Polly had made up for him in his brand new, private bedroom. Looking around, he grinned at the luxury of it all, before jumping up and getting dressed.

He ate breakfast with more than his usual gusto. Rachel just smiled, enjoying his enjoyment, and kept dishing out the food.

“I swear, Rachel, I ain’t had food this good since I left,” he said.

Smiling, Rachel chided him, “Don’t talk with your mouth full, young man. Chew and swallow first.”

Doing just that, Cody grinned at her unrepentantly as he said, “Sorry, Ma’am,” before stuffing another bite into his maw. Eventually, even his bottomless stomach was satisfied and he pushed back from the table. Looking around at those gathered there, he asked, “So, what are the job prospects around here?”

“Well, son,” Teaspoon humphed, “I could always use more help over at the Marshal’s office. It would be just part-time right now, Buck’s there the other half ‘o the time. But once Kid and Lou get back, he plans on going to work full-time on the horse ranch they’re starting together.”

“I need somethin’ full time, now, Teaspoon,” Cody said, shaking his head. “Besides, she’d kill me if I became a lawman.”

“And just who might ‘she’ be?”

Looking at the faces around the table, Cody couldn’t keep the growing grin off his face.

“Louisa,” he breathed. “Louisa Frederici. The prettiest little lady this side of the Rockies.”

Rachel and Polly looked at each other and mouthed the word “Louisa?” at each other. Both knew all the boys had been at least a little in love with Lou and the coincidence in names had them wondering. Not noticing the byplay, Cody continued speaking.

“We ain’t promised, yet. But we will be. She said she’d wait fer me. I just got to find a job and earn enough money to support her.”

“I can see yer dilemma, son,” Teaspoon said, scratching his chin in thought. “Ain’t nothin’ around here that’ll pay as well as the Express did.”

“There is the new stagecoach office,” Janusz pointed out. “They are adwertising for drivers.”

“Now that sounds more like it,” Cody enthused. “Where do I apply?”


Hickok
Jimmy picked up the spoon, stared at its contents and dropped it back in the bowl, before pushing the bowl out of the jail cell.

“Better eat,” the bored deputy said, turning a page in the catalog he was perusing. “That’s it ‘til breakfast.”

“Ain’t hungry,” came the laconic reply.

“Gentlemen, might I beg a moment of your time?”

Both men, one in the cell, one outside it, looked up in surprise. The deputy stood and, placing his hand on the butt of his gun, asked, “What can I do fer ya, mister?”

The tall, fancily dressed man with graying hair and beard, held out his hand, “I am Colonel George Nichols.”

The deputy wiped one hand on his pants then reached over and shook the colonel’s hand.

“I was hoping your prisoner might consent to speak with me for a bit,” the colonel said.

“Why should I?” Jimmy asked, uninterested.

“I know you’ve had bad luck with writers before and I thought you might want to set the record straight, young man.”

Jimmy slid back on the cot in the jail cell and pulled his hat down over his eyes. The colonel eyed him for a moment, then added, “Besides, it doesn’t look like you have anything else to occupy your time at the moment.”

Not moving, Jimmy finally muttered, “What did ya want ta know?”

Smiling, the colonel pulled up a chair and took out a pencil and pad of paper. “Where did the nickname Wild Bill come from?”

Over the next two weeks, as Jimmy awaited trial on manslaughter charges, he reluctantly answered more and more of the colonel’s questions. The day before his trial, the colonel ended the interview with, “Well, I wish you luck, son. I’ll be in the courtroom eagerly awaiting the verdict.”

“What ya plannin’ to do with all them notes ya been takin’?” Jimmy wanted to know.

“I’m going to write it up for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.”

“Unh hunh,” Jimmy grunted. “Just make sure ya tell the truth!”

The next day, his trial began. It didn’t last long. Despite the number of witnesses, they all had pretty much the same thing to say. At the end of the day, the judge issued his instructions to the jury.

“Men, this case is straightforward. The only conclusion you can come to under the laws of the great state of Missouri is guilty. However, you do have the option of applying the unwritten law of the ‘fair fight’ and vote to acquit.”

It took the jury only a few minutes to return with their verdict.

“Not guilty on all counts,” the jury foreman announced.

Turning a sour look on Jimmy, the judge paused for a pregnant moment.

“Son, you got lucky here today,” he grumped. “I suggest you take this as the second chance it is. I understand your reputation is only partly your fault. But your temper is all yours and you’ve got to learn to control it, or the next time you might not get so lucky.”

Banging his gavel down, the judge ended, “Court dismissed!”

Picking up his hat, Jimmy turned to the deputy assigned to guard him. “Can I have my guns back now?”

That evening, Jimmy stood bellied up to the bar, pondering the glass of whiskey on the counter before him. He felt someone move up next to him.

“So, whatcha gonna do now?” Simon asked.

“Don’t rightly know,” Jimmy muttered. “I should head home, but it just don’t feel right.”

“I hear tell our old pal Davy Huston is runnin’ fer sheriff of Springfield.”

“That halfwit?” Jimmy scoffed. “He couldn’t catch a rat if it stood on his head!”

“Mebbe not, but he sure can talk a blue streak,” Simon countered.

“This town’s in for some real trouble if they elect him sheriff.”

“Well, why don’t ya run ‘gainst him, then,” Simon suggested. “Give them a real lawman to vote for.”

Slamming his whiskey glass back down on the bar, Jimmy snorted, “I just might do that!”

It took only a few minutes the next day to fill out the paperwork at the courthouse to get his name entered in the election. Jimmy grinned. Who knew all those reading lessons he’d been taking while with the Pony Express would come in so handy. Now, he just had to let the town know he was running.

He walked out of the courthouse still pondering this question, only to run into Colonel Nichols.

“Why Mr. Hickok,” the Colonel smiled. “How’s it feel to be a free man again?”

“Right good, colonel. Right good,” Jimmy smiled broadly at him, shaking his hand vigorously. “Listen, I was wonderin’ if ya’d sent that story in to yer publishers just yet.”

“I’m planning to mail it off tomorrow morning, son. What makes you ask?”

“Well, I was wonderin’ if ya could add a little bit into it fer me,” Jimmy began, leading the colonel off toward his favorite watering hole.

Two weeks later, Jimmy was spending every afternoon loitering around the general store, waiting for its daily shipment to arrive.

“Here it is,” the clerk said, handing over the latest copy of the new glossy magazine Harper’s New Monthly.

“Thanks a lot,” Jimmy said, grabbing it and tucking it under one arm. Handing over a gold piece he added, “And yer sure they’ll be put out where people can’t miss ‘em?”

“Yes, sir!”

Jimmy nodded, satisfied, and walked off to read the story Nichols had written about him. A couple hours late he wasn’t nearly so happy. “If I ever see that lowdown, dirty snake again, I’ll show him what a gunfighter’s temper really looks like!”

“What’s wrong?” Simon asked, walking up behind Jimmy. “Whatcha readin’?”

“A bunch of lies, that’s what! And after he spent all that time talking about journalistic ethics and just wantin’ ta tell the truth. I shoulda known better than ta ever trust a writer!” Jimmy spat out.

Simon slid the magazine out from under Jimmy’s elbow and started flipping through it.

“Hitchcock?” Simon sputtered. “He couldn’t even get yer name right!”

“And that ain’t the least of it. He says I’ve killed ‘hundreds’ of men. Hundreds! I’m for sure to lose the election now,” he finished, tipping up his whiskey glass to down the last few drops of amber liquid. “The worst of it is, I actually talked to this guy.”

Jimmy’s prediction came true. On election night that September, he came in second to Davy Huston. Yet Simon found Hickok sitting in a corner of the saloon with the biggest grin he’d ever seen on his face.

“I thought ya wanted ta win,” he asked, taking the seat across from Hickok, who was seated with his back to the wall. “So why’re ya so all fired happy ya lost?”

“I could care less ‘bout bein’ Sheriff,” Jimmy said, smiling up at Simon. “The drinks ‘re on me tonight!”

“Does this mean ya’ve found Thatch?”

Not even mention of Thatch, usually the quickest way to set Jimmy off, could dampen his mood tonight. “Naw. I’m still lookin’ fer her. Nope, what I’ve got is even better.”

With that, he simply slid a telegram across the table to Simon.

Come home. Stop.
Kid & Lou are alive. Stop.
Due in Rock Creek in September. Stop,
Cody. Stop.


Looking back up at his friend, Simon sighed. “I guess that means ye’ll be leavin’ us, now.”

“Yep,” Jimmy said, grinning into his sarsaparilla.

“Won’t be the same here without ya.”

Jimmy just laughed.


Buck
“You don’t have to go, Buck,” Standing Woman said as she watched her husband saddle up his favorite mount.

“Yes, I do,” he smiled down at her. “You know how much they mean to me. To all of us, really. Kid and Lou, they were the core of our little family. Emma, and later Rachel, along with Teaspoon may’ve been the heads, and Jimmy was definitely the leader, but Kid and Lou, they were the heart. I’ve gotta go make sure they get back here safe and sound.”

Turning back to check the cinch strap on his saddle, he added a little less enthusiastically, “Besides from the sounds of it, Lou’s still gettin’ her strength back. Knowin’ her, she’ll be insistin’ on being treated as if nothin’s wrong, even when it is. Kid’ll need some help keepin’ her quiet ‘til she heals up.”

Standing Woman laughed and smacked the back of her own, very stubborn, husband’s head.
“That sounds an awful lot like the pot callin’ the kettle black to me.”

Buck turned and gathered her into his arms for a deep goodbye kiss. Lifting his head, he grinned down at her. “Maybe, but in this case, it’s the truth.”

Moments later he led his saddled mount out of the barn, with Katie and Lightning tied to his saddle by their reins. After hugging Dawn Star goodbye and kissing each of the kids, he swung up into the saddle and cantered off into the sunrise.

Teaspoon’s eyes followed him as he crossed the yard and disappeared down the main street of Rock Creek.

“Ride safe!” he yelled. “And bring my boys home!”


Lou and Kid
Lou stood on the boardwalk outside Chicago’s grand Union Station. Kid swung down out of his uncle’s open carriage after her, then reached back in for their carpetbags.

“Thanks again,” Lou said, looking up at the man who’d insisted she begin calling him ‘uncle’. “I don’t know what we’d have done without ya.”

“Oh, you’d have found a way,” Stuyvesant grinned down at her. “It’s the Kidd way.”

“Not to mention the Kid’s way!” Lou joked, before giving the older man a hug.

Kid shook his uncle’s hand, offering his own thank you. “We’ll be seeing you next summer then?”

“Yep. That’s the plan,” Molly said. “I may be hankerin’ to get back out west, but I ain’t fool enough ta want ta travel through a plains’ winter to do it!”

“We’ll be lookin’ ya up next summer though, son,” Stuyvesant added. “You can be sure of that.”

“We’d better get goin’,” Lou said, glancing anxiously at the big clock over the main doors of the train station, “Or we’re goin’ ta miss our train.”

Kid shifted the carpet bag to his left hand and held out his right arm for her. She very properly placed her gloved hand through the crook of his elbow while trying, with little success, to bob a respectful curtsey at the Schuykills.

They all laughed as she nearly tripped over her own feet, only staying upright by virtue of her death grip on Kid’s elbow.

Then, Kid and Lou turned and walked into the train station. As they passed through the huge main doors, Lou looked around in wonder. Despite all the fancy buildings they’d seen over the last few years, in good repair and bad, this was one of the nicest, she thought. Their steps rang out as they crossed the marble floors to the stairway that led down to the boarding area.

Their train was already waiting when they got to the right platform. Lou let go of Kid’s arm as he reached into his jacket to pull out their tickets. First class, thanks to his Aunt and Uncle, complete with beds in a Pullman sleeping coach. A belated wedding present they’d insisted.

After checking the authenticity of their tickets, the conductor reached out a hand to help Lou up the steps. She stared at the outthrust hand for a moment, not quite sure what to do about it. Then she figured out she was supposed to place her hand in it and let the man help her up the steps. She could hear Kid choking back laughter as she fought to wrangle her skirts with just one hand while letting the conductor ‘help’ her by holding on to the other.

Once they were both aboard, and safely out of sight of the conductor, Lou turned around and took a swing at Kid. Her tightly clenched fist impacted with a satisfying thud into his ribs. His surprised ‘oof’ sounded even better to her ears.

“And there’s more where that came from,” she smirked, before turning around and flouncing off toward their cabin. Unfortunately, she ruined the effect by promptly tripping over the lace trim of her skirt. Hearing Kid’s barely stifled guffaw behind her, she stiffened her shoulders and marched on.

Not having to hide who they were, not to mention the first class tickets, made the train trip home much smoother than the trip east, but it wasn’t without its difficulties. Railroad tracks were still messed up from the war. More than once, everyone on board had to disembark and wait while the train was manually moved from one piece of track to another. But, eventually, they reached their first destination. Lou spent the last several miles pacing back and forth in their cabin.

“Would you sit down,” Kid begged. “You’re makin’ me nervous!”

Plopping down onto the softly cushioned bench next to Kid, she lay her head back on the backrest. “Sorry, Kid. It’s just been so long since we’ve seen them.”

“I know, darlin’,” Kid soothed. “But frettin’ about it, ain’t gonna change anythin’. It’ll just make you exhausted and me cranky.”

“Oh, scary thought that,” Lou teased. “Woe is me. My husband is cranky.”

The train’s whistle announced their arrival and Lou hopped up out of the seat as if it had suddenly turned red hot.

“Let’s go!” she said, like an excited child on Christmas morning, grabbing Kid’s hand and pulling him toward the cabin’s door. Kid laughed, snatched up their carpetbag and followed her toward the train’s exit.

Lou didn’t wait for the conductor to ‘help’ her down off the train this time. She simply gathered the excess material of her skirts in one hand and leaped to the ground. Even before she landed, she was looking around.

“Where are they?”

“Louise!” came a familiar voice, wafting over the crowd. Kid, with his extra height over Lou, was able to spot where Emma, Sam and Teresa were waiting further back on the platform, closer to the station.

“This way,” he said, gathering Lou in close to his side and starting to push their way through the crowd. She continued to crane her neck, trying to catch a glimpse of her family.

“Louise!” Teresa exclaimed, enfolding her older sister in her arms as soon as she was free of the crowd. “I thought you’d never get here.”

“Yep. When they announced another delay,” Sam said, “we thought she’d start walking up the track to meet ya! Welcome home!”

He placed a comforting arm around Lou’s shoulder and hugged her to him, then shook Kid’s hand before pulling him into an embrace, too.

“Oh, Lulabelle!” Emma exclaimed in simultaneous welcome and dismay, as she surveyed Lou’s still frail form.

“It’s alright, Emma,” Lou reassured her, throwing herself into Emma’s arms for yet another hug. “I’m alright.”

Pushing her back, Emma brushed Lou’s slowly lengthening hair out of her eyes and searched her face. “Don’t you ever do that to us again, young lady!”

“I didn’t exactly plan on doin’ it the first time,” Lou said.

Emma pulled her back in for another hug. “I know. But…”

“That’s enough, Emma,” Sam said, pulling her away from Lou. “Let them catch their breath.”
Looking around, Lou asked, “Where’s Jeremiah?”

Sam and Emma shared an uncomfortable look before Sam said, “He’s on a run to Wichita.”

“He works for a freighting company, driving the wagons,” Teresa added. “It’s the closest he could come to riding for the Pony Express!”

“But,” Lou started to protest, until Kid tugged on her hand.

“Not now, Lou,” he whispered in her ear.

Once back at the Cain house, it didn’t take long for Lou to realize things weren’t going to go according to her plan.

“But, Teresa,” she begged, hating the almost whiny quality to her voice.

“Lou, I love you,” her younger sister said. “But, I’m almost finished with my schooling here. I’ve got a chance at a good job once I am done. And…” at this point the young lady started to blush, “I have a beau.”

“Emma, are you listening to this!” Lou exclaimed in horror. Turning back to her sister she began to lecture, “Young lady you are only 15 years old. That is too young to be having beaux! You haven’t even begun to live your life. How can you go thinkin’ ‘bout hitching it up to someone else’s?”

“Louise,” Emma cautioned. “Just ‘cause she’s got a beau don’t mean it’s gonna be permanent. Remember how things were for Kid and you, back in the beginning. They coulda gone either way. But, how would you have reacted if any of us had tried to tell ya to slow down?”

Lou blushed at this, as she thought about the mistakes she and Kid had indeed made in their own courtship.

“But that’s just it, Emma,” Lou said. “I learned the hard way, and almost lost the love of my life over it. I don’t want Teresa to go through that.”

“Lulabelle, you can’t live other people’s lives for ‘em. Remember the talks we had, when you were so confused? Did I ever tell ya, do this, don’t do that? No. ‘Cause I knew there weren’t no sense in it. You had to decide for yerself and live with the consequences. It’s called growing up.”

Lou, outnumbered and outgunned, decided to leave off the conversation for the moment. But she was by no means ready to give up on convincing Teresa to come live with her and Kid. Finally, Teresa simply put her foot down.

“Lou, I love you. You’re my big sister. But, ya ain’t my ma, fer all yer tryin’ ta act like it. It’s too late fer that. Our ma’s dead. Emma’s been all the ma I’ve needed fer years now.”

Getting up from the sofa where they’d been sitting, Teresa crossed the room to look out the window at the Cain children playing in the backyard. “Besides, it won’t be long now before you and Kid start having a family of your own. You need some time alone to get settled proper before that happens. You two ain’t never really had any time alone.”

At this bout of common sense, she finally gave up. Even more worrisome than Teresa's decision not to 'go home' with Lou and Kid was Jeremiah's failure to make it back before they left. He'd sent several telegrams with increasingly vague excuses for why he wouldn't make it in time.

"I just don't understand," Lou told Kid several times.

He hugged her before answering. "From what Sam's told me, he's never quite forgiven ya fer leavin' the orphanage. As long as ya weren't around, he felt free to love ya. Now yer back, he's ready to play the pissed off teenager, again."

Lou couldn't help but laugh at the characterization, albeit a mite uncomfortably. It felt all too much like how she would've described Jimmy when they'd first met him.

Thus it was that a week later, she and Kid boarded the train for Lincoln, the closest train stop to Rock Creek, without either her sister or her brother.

In a bad mood when they boarded the train, Lou was silent for most of the trip. It was only as they neared the stop at Lincoln that she spoke up, picking up an argument they’d been having ever since the trip began.

“I’m not ridin’ in a stagecoach, Kid,” she said defiantly. “I’m well enough to ride home proper, so long’s we take it slow.”

“But, Lou, we don’t even have any horses.”

“It’ll be cheaper to rent a couple of horses at the livery than it will be to pay for tickets on the stagecoach anyway. One night at the hotel in Lincoln, then we’re ridin’ home! And that’s that.”

Kid sighed heavily and gave up the argument. When Lou dug her heels in she could out-stubborn a mule. He grinned to himself. As aggravating as that was, her stubbornness was one of the many things he loved so much about her, seeing as how it had let her survive so much that would have killed a weaker person, male or female.

This time, when the train’s whistle and the grinding of the wheels on the brakes announced their arrival, Lou wasn’t in a hurry to get off. She sedately allowed Kid to escort her off the train, like a proper gentleman. As he handed her down off the train he tugged at the collar of his traveling suit.

“Horseback or stage, I can’t wait for tomorrow when I can wear somethin’ a little more comfortable.”

Lou nodded.

“Kid! Lou!”

They both jerked their heads up and wheeled around to see who was behind them. Kid instinctively tried to push Lou behind him, while Lou was grabbing for the six gun she wasn't wearing.

“Buck!” Kid exclaimed, relaxing. “What are you doin’ here?”

“I’m the welcome committee,” Buck grinned at them, shaking Kid’s hand so hard he about ripped it out of the socket. Then he turned to Lou and held his arms open to her. She stepped into them and wilted against his chest as he closed his arms around her. “We’ve missed you.”

Lou took her time stepping back, so as to surreptitiously wipe a few tears from her eyes.

“We’ve missed you, too,” she whispered hoarsely. “You have no idea, how much.”

“Come on,” Buck said, grabbing the carpetbag from Kid and hooking one arm through Lou’s while Kid kept hold of her other arm. “Let’s get you two to the hotel. I’ve already got rooms reserved for ya.”

“You didn’t have any problems, did ya?” Kid asked, hating the thought Buck might have had to put up with prejudice for them.

“Nope,” Buck grinned. “Not once I told them I was your servant and had come ahead to prepare for your arrival.”

They all three got a good laugh out of that, the idea of Buck acting as anyone’s servant being too preposterous to take seriously.

“Once we get you settled, we can have a nice dinner at the hotel restaurant,” Buck continued, guiding them down the street toward a large, three storied frame building, the tallest in the growing town. “We’ll leave for Rock Creek tomorrow.”

“You’d better have brought horses, and not the buckboard,” Lou growled, tensing at the thought of being coddled.

“Wouldn’t have dreamed of doin’ anythin’ else, Lou,” Buck reassured her.

“In that case, I’m gonna have to do some shoppin’ this afternoon,” Lou announced.

The two men stopped their movement to stare at her. Looking back she smiled insouciantly.

“Well, ya don’t expect me to ride in skirts, do ya?”

They walked out of the hotel before dawn the next morning, headed for the livery. Lou hadn’t had to go shopping after all. Buck had offered to hem up a pair of his old britches, which she’d paired with one of Kid’s shirts, all cinched together at the waist with a leather belt. She’d had to roll the sleeves up several times, but loved the feel of the soft, worn material next to her skin. Plus, the shirt smelled like the Kid. She grinned, surreptitiously sneaking a sniff of the collar as she followed the two taller men down the sidewalk.

As they neared the livery stable, Kid dropped back to walk beside Lou.

“Buck’s got somethin’ up his sleeve,” he whispered to her.

“I know,” she said. “He’s been twitchy as a long-tailed cat in a room full o’ rockin’ chairs all mornin’.”

Reaching the livery stable, Buck motioned for the two of them to precede him into the dimly lit barn.

“Your horses are in the last two stalls,” he said. “I figured you’d want to saddle up yourselves.”

Nodding their agreement, Kid and Lou started walking toward the indicated stalls. At a soft, familiar whicker, Kid ground to a halt.

“Katie?” he whispered in wonder, before sprinting to her stall. “And Lightning!”

“Oh, Lightning,” Lou whispered, wrapping her arms around her horse’s neck and hugging it for all she was worth. The horse hung his head over her shoulder and watched as Kid and Katie went through a similar reunion.

Buck laughed as the two horses appeared to roll their eyes at the emotional reactions of their people.

“We figured you’d be itchin’ ta get back into the saddle,” he said. “And none o’ us could imagine you two comin’ home on any other mounts.”

As the sun rose over the prairie, the three reunited riders galloped out of Lincoln, headed for home. It took them almost a week to cover a distance it should have only taken a couple of days to travel. Both Buck and Kid called frequent stops for all sorts of things. Lou knew they were coddling her, but didn’t really mind. She was enjoying just being back out on the prairie, and on her beloved horse, too much to complain.

But, as they neared the former home station, she began to get impatient, pushing Lightning first into a trot, then a canter and finally a gallop.

“Lou, slow down,” Buck said.

Kid just shook his head, sharing Lou’s sudden urgency to complete the last few miles of their homeward journey as fast as possible. Buck smiled and soon joined them in what became a race to the finish.

Thus it was that the three riders flew back into the old Rock Creek Station in a swirl of dust kicked up by their horses’ hooves.

Rachel stood on the bunkhouse porch, ringing the dinner bell with a grin that wouldn’t stop and bellowing at the top of her lungs, “Riders coming!”

Chapter 10

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