Monday, May 28, 2012

The Long Journey Home

by Paola & Pilarcita

Author's Note:  This story is a sequel to The Doctor, originally written for the I'm a Girl! Challenge at The TYR Writers Ranch.





I've chosen to hold this story to post this Memorial Day in honor of all those who've served our country.  To anyone who's donned the uniform I can only say, Thank You!  To those who laid down their lives in service, I offer a grateful, Mission Accomplished!




“Just a moment, Sir,” the Boatswain’s mate said, holding out a hand to stop Buck from stepping onto the gangplank and disembarking from the <i>U.S.S. Sixaola*.</i>  “You’ll need to put this on before you leave.”

The sailor held up a cloth mask he’d just pulled out of a wooden crate at his side, a big red cross emblazoned on the lid he’d pried off it.  Buck took the proffered mask and passed it on to Hawk even as the Boatswain’s mate passed another his way.

“What is it for?” Buck asked, a puzzled expression wrinkling his weather worn face.

“I don’t know if you’ve heard, Sir, but there’s an epidemic.  They’re calling it the Spanish Flu.  Started up a couple months ago.  I hear it’s even spread to France by now.”

“Remember, Grandpa,” Hawk asked, putting his hand on Buck’s shoulder.  “Those men in the quarantined ward they wouldn’t let us near?  I remember the Sister saying something about the Flu.  That must’ve been what she was talking about.”

Buck looked down again at the mask in his hand.  “And this is supposed to do what, young man?”

The Boatswain’s mate cleared his throat, trading a look with Hawk.

“Don’t look around me like that,” Buck grouched.  “I’m old, I ain’t stupid.”

“Sorry, Sir.  The mask is supposed to help keep you from breathing in the virus that’s causing the influenza.”

“Here, Grandpa, let me help you tie it on,” Hawk said, taking the mask out of Buck’s hands.  Buck immediately grabbed it back, smacking sharply at his grandson’s fingers.

“Leave me be.  I ain’t a child!”  Quickly, he reached up and tied the mask around his head.  “Now, hurry up.  We’ve gotta get down to the dock ta meet Lou’s casket.”

“Yes, sir,” Hawk smiled, tying on his own mask and hurrying down the gangplank after his grandfather.  He sighed in relief as his feet touched dry land.  It had been a long two weeks aboard ship as they’d crossed the turbulent winter waters of the Atlantic.  Much of the crossing had been quite unpleasant.

Half walking, half running to catch up with Buck, Hawk called out, “Wait up!”

Buck turned back and waited a moment until Hawk caught up to him before resuming his quick pace down the dock alongside the ship that now towered over them, it’s three smoke stacks belching black clouds into the winter morning air.  Ignoring the stares of all the troops arriving home, he let out a loud, “Hmph!”

“What?” Hawk asked.

“Seems ta me it’d be a mite more effective ta just stay outta the cities ‘sted of wearin’ these danged masks,” Buck grumped.

“I don’t know what’s got you so upset,” Hawk said.  “They’re pretty much identical to the masks Lou wore in surgery almost every day.  She swore they did wonders for preventing the spread of infection.”

This seemed to allay the older man’s concerns.  If the masks had Lou’s stamp of approval, apparently they were just fine with Buck.  Hawk shook his head in bemusement.

“Well, where is she?” Buck demanded of the first sailor he saw.

“Who would that be, Sir?”

“Dr. Lou McCloud, seaman,” Hawk supplied.  “We’re here to retrieve the body and escort it home for burial.”

“Oh!  The remains will be unloaded by honor guards, after all the other cargo is out.  Then the Army will have to process them at the base before releasing them to next of kin, Sir.  I’m afraid you’ll have to wait.”

**********

Hawk paced restlessly across the small hotel room the Army had provided, just off base.  They’d been stuck there for three days, waiting for Lou’s body to be released to them.  Apparently there was some disagreement over their claim to being her next of kin.  And, due to the Spanish Flu epidemic, they’d been stuck inside the small 10 by 14 room the entire time.  Hawk was surprised he hadn’t worn a hole through the carpet in the five steps he could take between the bathroom and the bed.  With each pass, the distance felt shorter, the walls closer, the oxygen scarcer.

He looked at his grandfather, sitting placidly by the window.  He’d spent the time much as he had their crossing of the Atlantic, with his nose stuck between the pages of Lou’s journals.  He’d read through the dozen journals they’d found in her trunk shortly after her death more than once. 

But, it was only when they’d been digging through it looking for something to prove they were her next of kin to the Army that they’d found this current journal Buck was reading.  He’d smiled a soft, bittersweet grin when he’d first opened it and realized it was Lou’s record of her years with the Express.

Now, he was eagerly devouring this latest journal.

<i>March 10, 1860

My first day as a rider was interesting to say the least. The other guys I’ll have to work with are more or less my age and a bunch of misfits, like me.

There’s an Indian guy, Buck Cross.  He’s Kiowa, if I understood right.  His friend Ike is mute and bald.  He’s a bit unsure of himself as a result.  Those two share many scars from the prejudices and troubles they’ve had to endure already.  There are times I think I know exactly how they feel.

Then there is Billy Cody, who’s much too cocky and loud for my tastes.  But he does know how to use that rifle of his, even if he’s a bit hard on the ears.

Jimmy Hickock is a lot like Cody, in a lot of ways, sure of himself and undisciplined.  But there’s also a dark edge in him that the sunny Cody doesn’t have.

Then there’s Kid.  He’s the hardest to figure out. He mostly keeps to himself, almost as if he doesn’t want to be noticed.  But he’s good with that mare of his and, when Hickock challenged him, he showed he’s the best pistoleer of the lot of us, even if I got the impression he’ll be much more reluctant to use his gun than Hickock.

Teaspoon, our Stationmaster, is probably the strangest man I’ve ever met. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the smell of onion and bear-grease surrounding him when he rose up out of that water trough!  But he didn’t send any of us away, not the Indian, not the mute guy, not me, “the runt of the litter” as he called me.  I’ve got to give him credit for that, too, because most people would have sent us packing without thinking twice.

Finally there’s Mrs. Shannon, Emma as she said to call her.  She’s in charge of taking care of those of us at the station, feeding us, cleaning up after us, mothering us.  She’s really become our stationmother.  Just the other day I heard her telling Teaspoon we aren’t orphans as long as she’s around.  As amazing as it seems to all of us, she actually wants to take care of us.  A mother is something most of us haven’t had in a long time.  It’ll take some getting used to, but I’m glad she’s around. It won’t be easy to work and sleep so close to those guys.  The thought she’s with us reassures me.

This has been a tiring, interesting day.  I feel as if my life is finally starting to change for the better.</i>

Buck smiled reading Lou’s first thoughts about them.  He remembered their introduction to each other as if it were yesterday.  How they were lined against the fence, waiting, and Teaspoon’s first appearance, popping right up out of that water trough.  Then there’d been Emma, dear Emma, adopting them as her sons, and daughter, on the spot.

He continued to read through those first entries.  Memories of the early days of the Express, which he hadn’t thought about in so long, started to come back to him, first a few at a time, then a torrent that grew with every minute.

There was the first time they’d seen a gunfighter challenge Jimmy, Ike having to testify against some outlaw and Buck ending up abducted, having to wait for the others to rescue him like a damsel in distress, his own battles with his brother Red Bear and his split heritage, finding out about and fighting Lou’s father Boggs…

Mostly he read silently.  Sometimes he’d share a passage out loud with Hawk.  Sometimes he’d laugh at a story from his past.  Sometimes he’d stop reading to stare morosely out the window, not really seeing the wintry weather outside, as slow tears coursed down his leathery face.

And then he started to notice something: Kid’s name appeared more than any of them.  Buck remembered how close Lou and Kid had been back then, but there was something about Lou’s words that indicated a hidden affection much stronger than that of one friend for another. 

Hawk shook his head as he watched his grandfather and resumed his pacing.  How could the old man be so… patient?

“Relax, son,” Buck spoke up, not lifting his eyes from the leather bound book that held Lou’s most private thoughts.  “No amount of impatience will make things move any faster.”

It was Buck’s turn to shake his head.  If he didn’t know better, he’d think Hawk was Lou’s kin, not his.  He certainly had her difficulties handling waiting.  Buck turned the page in the diary and felt a slight fluttering near his leg.  He looked down even as Hawk reached out and picked up the piece of paper that had fallen out of the book.

Hawk handed it over to Buck.  It was well worn, had obviously been balled up at least once before being pressed flat and slipped between the pages of the journal.  It had the feel of an official document.  Turning it over, he read out loud, in a wondering tone, “Marriage Certificate?”

Hawk peered over his grandfather’s shoulder at the certificate, its title emblazoned in big curlicued letters across the top.

“This certifies that on this 30th day of May, 1861,” Buck continued reading, “Miss Louise Kathleen McCloud married….”

Both men stared at the name next to Lou’s.

“That’s an awfully strange name for a man,” Hawk commented.  “Even a white man.”

“I wonder…” Buck mused, quickly flipping back several pages in the journal and beginning to read an entry to Hawk.

<i>“I’m so worried about the Kid.  As soon as Billy came back and told us what happened, I started to get this sick feeling in my gut and it hasn’t gone away.  I just knew something was wrong.  Thank God Jimmy and I managed to talk the Marshal into looking into it.

When Sam came back from the governor’s office and told us the bad news, I almost lost it.  Billy even felt he had to reassure me Kid could take care of himself.  I felt so embarrassed.  I thought I was better at covering up my feelings than that.  I thought for sure Sam would’ve cottoned to my secret after that, but he hasn’t.  He must be just as worried about the Kid as I am by now.

In the morning we’re riding into Prosperity to find out just how much trouble the Kid’s gotten himself into.  He would have to come to the rescue of a lady, even if she wasn’t quite a lady.  I just hope we’re not too late!”</i>

Buck raised his eyes to meet Hawk’s.  Hawk had slowly sunk down onto the bed next to his grandfather as the older man read.  Now he asked, “You don’t think?”

Buck shrugged, flipped ahead a few pages and began to read again.

<i>“I could have killed Kid today!  We’d just barely rescued him from that prison where they had him doing hard time and he goes rushing off to rescue the damsel in distress, again.  Nearly got his fool head shot off for his efforts.

It was all I could do not to smack him one upside the head for being so stupid.  But on the way back, he started telling me all about how she’d reminded him of his mother and he couldn’t help doing for her what he hadn’t been able to do for his Ma.  Then I was glad I hadn’t said anything.  It’s so rarely he says anything about his family that every comment is a jewel I treasure.  I’m glad he feels free to talk to me.”</i>

“Then,” Buck said as he flipped the page again, “the next day she wrote…”

<i>“Today Kid told me I’m his best friend.  That he feels so comfortable with me he can tell me anything.  It made me feel so good I wanted to hug him.  But, I didn’t dare.  As much as I trust him, I’m not sure I can trust him to keep my secret.  Keeping this job is more important than any friendship.  I’ve got to get Jeremiah and Teresa out of that orphanage as soon as possible, before someone adopts them.”</i>

Hawk wondered why his grandfather’s voice broke over those last names.  Who were Jeremiah and Teresa?  Had Lou had children?  The more questions her journals answered, the more they raised.

A sudden rapping on the room door interrupted their reading.  Buck and Hawk shared a worried look.  They hadn’t expected to hear from the Army until tomorrow at the earliest.  With a shrug, Hawk stood and walked to the door, opening it to find a uniformed Army captain with his arm raised to knock again.

“Oh, good, you’re in,” the Captain said.

“And just where else would you expect us to be, sonny?” Buck asked, standing as well.  “Ain’t like we can exactly go sightseeing with this epidemic going on.”

“Ahem, yes, of course,” the Captain answered, non-plussed.

Hawk stepped back, motioning the man into the room.  He stepped through the door and, as Hawk closed it behind him, the Captain looked uncertainly around the room at the single chair by the window and the two single beds.  Finally, he gingerly settled on the end of the nearest bed.  Buck retreated to the chair as Hawk sat down on the other bed.

“So, to what do we owe the pleasure of this visit?” Buck asked.

“The Army has decided to grant your petition to be recognized as Primary Next of Kin and release the body of Colonel Lou McCloud, MD to your custody.”

Buck grunted in reaction.  “Well it’s about danged time.  Don’t know what took y’all so long.  Ain’t like there was anyone else ta claim her.  Lou’s been my brother since before you were a sparkle in yer daddy’s eye, boy!”

The Captain’s eyes nearly crossed at Buck’s mixed references to Lou as both a woman and a man.  He cleared his throat.  “Ah, yes.  Well, sir, it appears this was a mighty unusual case.  Folks at HQ didn’t precisely know how to handle it.  To be frank, I think they’re granting your petition just to wash their hands of the situation.”

Hawk nearly laughed.  Buck did.  “You think the Army’s surprised ta find out one of its best surgeons was a woman?  How do ya think I feel, son?  I lived and worked with her, day in and day out fer nigh on two years and never had an inklin’!”

“Anyway, Sir, I’m to act as your Casualty Assistance Officer.”

“And what, exactly, does that mean?” Hawk broke in.

“Well, I’ll help you make arrangements to transport Col. McCloud’s body home and plan his, er, her funeral.  I’ll also be there to help with the distribution of her final effects and benefits.”

“Ya mean the Army’s gonna honor their word?” Buck asked incredulously.

“Of course, Sir!” the Captain responded, slightly affronted.

“Don’t take offense,” Hawk quickly reassured him.  “My grandfather has good reason to be suspicious of the U.S. Army.  You have to understand, he was there when they broke most of the U.S. treaties with the plains tribes, back in the 70s.”

The Captain nodded, then looked down at the file in his lap, beginning to thumb through the paperwork.  “We have a lot to do tonight, to get you folks on your way as soon as possible.  To begin with, just where do you wish to transport the body?”

**********

“All aboard!  First call for those heading to Charleston, Jefferson City and points West.”

“That’s us,” Hawk said, standing and quickly shouldering his Army rucksack before turning to help Buck to his feet, only to step back, hands held up as Buck pushed him away.

“You comin’, Captain?” Buck asked, even as he began moving toward the steps that would allow him to board the train.

“Yes sir, Mr. Cross,” the Captain, who’d finally introduced himself as Capt. Jeffrey Easter, said.  “But first I need to go check that the Colonel’s remains are properly loaded.  I’ll join you in the passenger cabin in a bit.”

With a barely perceptible nod, Buck sped up.  Soon, he was moving up the steps and into the confining corridor that led past the passenger cabins.  Looking down at his ticket, he read off, “Cabin 3A.”

He looked back up, even as Hawk came to a stop behind him, steadying himself with a hand on the handlebar beneath the window.  They were in car 6.  Buck sighed.  They needed to move through three more train cars just to get to the one with their assigned cabin in it.

“I’d rather be ridin’ home,” he muttered to himself, as he put his head down and began trudging determinedly down the corridor, his shoulders brushing both walls.

Hawk laughed softly behind him.

**********

“So, Jeremiah and Teresa were Lou’s little brother and sister?” Hawk asked, as he carefully stored their traveling bags in the rack over their seats.  The seats themselves would pull down into four bunks, two on each side of the cabin, come night time.

Buck settled himself into his seat, sighing in relief.  Hawk hid his own smile.  Buck was in his late 70s and tried to act as if he were still 18.  Hawk knew after this morning’s exertions his grandfather would be asleep within a half hour of their train pulling out of the station.  But, he’d never say anything to the old man.

“Yep.  From what I’ve read in her journals, they’re the reason she started dressing as a boy.  She only told us she was trying to earn enough money to buy a spread and get them out of the orphanage she’d run away from.”  Buck sighed as he contemplated the situation.  “I s’pose it must’ve been difficult finding a job that would pay enough to let her do that as a girl.  I know it was the best payin’ job I could find in those days.”

“Do you think Kid and….” Hawk let his question trail off. 

Buck laughed, even as he dug the precious first of Lou’s journals out of his pocket.  “I don’t know, but he never did tell us his real name.  It’s certainly possible.”

“I just can’t imagine that.  If she married him, why not tell everyone else?  And when did she tell him?”

“Good question,” Captain Easter said as he entered the cabin and joined the Crosses.  “I’d love to know why Colonel McCloud made the choices… she… did.”

Buck opened the journal, flipping through pages as he obviously searched for where they’d left off.

“Ah, there it is,” he muttered to himself.  Turning the book so the pages were lit by the sun coming through the train windows, he began to read.

“Kid is such an idiot when it comes to women! Why can’t he understand that his “sweet” old friend Doritha still wants something more than friendship from him, despite being very married to another man. The hussy!

If I had to spend a minute more at that table with Miss Southern Belle, cooing over how close she and the Kid were as children, how lucky she was to have found him again after all those years, batting her eyelashes and pouting those little red lips of hers…I swear I would have gagged.

 But it seems I’m the only one thinking all those smiles and giggles and perfectly arranged golden curls are just a little too much to be real.  All the boys seem content listening to whatever she has to say, laughing at Kid’s childhood pranks. But that woman is trouble. I can feel it in my bones, and Kid is too na├»ve to realize it”.

Buck chuckled.  Now he finally understood why Lou was so irritated by the woman’s presence. She had told them all she didn’t trust Doritha and in the end her suspicions turned out to be true.  But the Kiowa could now clearly see Lou’s antics back then were those of a jealous woman, not simply a worried friend.

“Poor Lou.  If she was really in love with Kid, it must have been quite hard for her to see all those girls trying to catch his eye,” Buck smiled.  “He had this boyish charm that delighted the ladies.  That and the fact he was the most ‘normal’ of us made Kid quite popular…” The Kiowa trailed off for a moment, then returned to reading the journal to his companions.

I feel like crying today. I really do. Doritha is dead, along with her husband Garth. They weren’t very nice people, and I didn’t like them, but Kid considered them friends.  Their deaths on top of the losses he’s already had to endure are really hitting him hard. His mother back in Virginia, his brother Jed, now Doritha and Garth…it seems everyone Kid cared about while growing up has either died on him or, somehow, betrayed his trust.

After the funeral, he disappeared. I eventually found him at his thinking spot by the pond. He looked so sad and lost I felt like hugging and consoling him, telling him I won’t ever leave him. I was ready to do that, I was ready to reveal myself to him.

But then he started to talk, telling me he’s so glad to have found us, that he considers us family.  Then he went and told me I’m his best friend again, that he trusts me more than he ever trusted anyone else in his life, because he knows that I’ll always have his back and that I would never betray him.

I lost my nerve then.  Kid is a very private person and it must have cost him a lot to reveal his feelings like that to someone he thought was another guy. How could I tell him the truth now? After all these months we’ve spent together, confiding in each other, to discover that his brother and best friend Lou is actually Louise, and that she’s in love with him, would make him lose all the trust and affection he has for me.

I wrote I’m love with him. Yes I am. I truly only realized it as I wrote the words.  I, Louise Kathleen McCloud, am in love with my best friend, Kid.  And I won’t ever be able to tell him.  I built this persona, my mask, to defend myself and to build a better life for my siblings.  But it’s going to cost me the one person I love most, the one person I would give it all up for.

After I left Kid, I found a quiet spot in the barn to have a good cry.  Tonight I still feel like bawling, but now I can’t.  I’m Lou McCloud, the puny but spry Pony Express rider.  I have to be as tough as any of the other boys.  I have to remember I still have Kid’s friendship, trust and respect.   I’ll just have to make do with that.”

“Lou never told Kid her feelings for him,” Hawk mused. “How sad! If she would have had the courage back then, maybe things would have been different.”

“So, the Colonel didn’t marry the Kid after all,” Captain Easter commented.  “Then, who was her husband?”

Buck didn’t say anything.  He was struggling with a great sense of disappointment. It seemed silly but he had really been hoping Lou had married Kid, and not some stranger none of them knew anything about.

He set the journal down on his lap for a moment, sighing as he remembered how sad Lou had been when Kid left the Express for his Virginia home at the start of the War.  Maybe it was because she’d let him go without saying anything to him? Or worse, because she’d told Kid the truth and he’d rejected her?

Kid was a very traditional guy, that was true, Buck pondered.  He’d respected women, even the independent ones like Emma and, later, Rachel.  But he’d always acted as if he felt it was his job to protect and cherish them.  Finding out his fellow rider Lou was a girl would have turned his world upside down.  Buck chuckled as he imagined Kid’s probable reaction.  It could well have been so strong that it drove Lou away, permanently.  That seemed a logical conclusion, but Buck didn’t want to believe it.

“Kid left not much longer after that,” he finally sighed.  He pulled out the marriage certificate and opened it up to peruse the words they’d all memorized by now.  “In fact, he was already in southern Missouri by this date.  I just don’t see how it’s possible.”

The three men stared at one another for a moment, none wanting to accept that answer.  Without another word, Buck re-opened the journal and began to read again.

<i>“We received word today that the South fired on Fort Sumter.  We’d known war was coming, but now it’s here.  I’m scared.  There, I said it.  I’m scared of what this conflict will do to our hard won family.  Already, we’ve lost Kid.”</i>

Buck paused to run his finger over a smudge in the ink on the page, wondering.  It looked an awful lot like a… teardrop?

<i>“Kid had been talking about going back to Virginia ever since Doritha and Garth died.  Today, as soon as Teaspoon told us what had happened in the Carolinas, Kid up and started packing his bags.   He was gone before supper.

I followed him out to the barn, intent on convincing him to stay while he saddled Katy.  But then he said something that stopped me in my tracks.  He asked me to go with him.  I’ve never wanted anything more in my life.  But then he repeated how much he trusted me, wanted me at his back in the war, just as we’ve protected each other during so many fights this last couple of years.  I wanted to, I can’t say how much I wanted to go with him.  But I couldn’t do that.  I have other obligations. My siblings count on me and I can’t abandon them.  No matter how much I’d like to.

For a fleeting moment I was ready to reveal the truth to him.  Maybe it would have changed everything between us. Maybe he would’ve decided to stay here in Rock Creek with me and, who knows, maybe one day we could even have gotten married.  Jeremiah and Teresa could have come to live with both of us.

A vision of that future, with Kid at my side, passed before me like a beautiful dream but, looking into his crystal blue eyes, I didn’t have the guts to tell him the truth.  I was too afraid of losing him for good over the lie I’d let him believe, betraying his deepest trust in me.   So I let him go.  I let the only man I’ve ever loved ride away because I was afraid of losing him.

With Kid gone, Jeremiah and Teresa have once again become the center of my universe, the reason behind everything I do.  I know I’ll start to miss Kid soon, mourn his departure.  But right now I just feel numb, half-dead.  Devestated, destroyed, deserted… those feelings are yet to come.”</i>

“How sad,” Easter said, interrupting the narrative.

Hawk nodded in agreement.

“We all knew Lou was the most upset about Kid’s departure.  That didn’t really surprise us, those two had always been the closest to each other, much like my first lost brother and I had been,” Buck said.  “But this sheds a whole new light on things.  She really did go around for the first few weeks as if she were encased in ice.  There was simply no emotion, over anything.  Then, she disappeared.  Teaspoon told us he was going to get his brother and sister, in light of the increased dangers posed by the war.”

“That must’ve been really tough,” Hawk mused.  “Weren’t they rather young at the time?  They could’ve given her secret away without thinking about it.”

Buck nodded.  “But, they never made it back to Rock Creek.  By the time Lou got to the mission, they’d been adopted.  Lou just disappeared for awhile.  Teaspoon held her job open for her, but we didn’t hear a word, until she rode up on Lightning about a month later, looking like she’d been to hell and back.  None of us had the heart to ask what had happened to her while she’d been gone.”

“Does the journal say?” Captain Easter asked curiously.

 “I’d assume so,” Buck said, flipping idly forward through the pages.  “We’re only about halfway through this journal and there’s one other we found with it.”

Easter nodded, satisfied.

“Well?” Hawk prodded.  “What does she say?”

“Don’t know,” Buck finally said, closing the journal and tucking it back into his jacket pocket.  “But my stomach says it’s hungry.  I’m headin’ ta the dinin’ car fer some dinner.  This story has waited pert’ near 60 years, it can wait another hour while I get some vittles.”

**********

Buck sat alone at the table in the dining car.  He wasn’t really eating, just pushing the food around on his plate.  He was afraid to read the next few entries in Lou’s diary.  He could admit that to himself.  They would cover some of the most painful moments of his life, Kid’s death, Noah’s death, the death of the Express.  He wasn’t sure he was up to it.

Not to mention, after all he’d learned about Lou in the month since her death, he was afraid of what else he’d learn.  He remembered how distant she’d been, almost unemotional, after Kid had left.  He just wished he’d known.  He might not have been able to do anything to make Kid stick around, but he could have been there for Lou, offered her comfort in the midst of her pain.

Finally, he pushed the plate away from him and pulled the journal out of his jacket pocket.  Maybe if he read ahead now, he’d be able to hold it together when reading it to the others.  As he started to read though, it wasn’t the words he saw, it was his family.

Lou lay listlessly in Kid’s old bunk.  She’d moved into it the day after he’d ridden out for Virginia.  It was the only thing that made him still feel real to her.  At first it had even smelled of him, a unique combination of man, horse and fresh air.  But that scent had since been overlaid with her own.  She missed it.

She’d finished her chores this morning and didn’t have a run that day.  So, she’d retreated to the bunkhouse to get away from the noise of the others.  They, too, were missing Kid, she knew.  They were more grouchy, more likely to get into a fight.  She just couldn’t deal them right now. 

Ever since Kid had left, it felt like there was a current of that static electricity Teaspoon had been talking about the other day running under her skin.  She felt jumpy, like something was wrong.

Suddenly, she stood up from the bunk.  She couldn’t keep lying here, mourning him.  It was time to move on with her life.  She’d told him she couldn’t go with him because of Jeremiah and Teresa.  Well, now she was going to do something about her promise to her mother.

Grabbing her hat, she headed out past he barn, past Buck and Noah, who were prepping for Buck’s run, past the corrals.

“Hey, Lou,” Buck called, “where ya headed?”

She ignored him and kept on walking.  At her brisk pace it didn’t take her long to traverse the entire length of Rock Creek’s Main Street and reach the bank.  She was just as glad to finally have an objective.  Anything to keep herself moving, doing.  When she was still she had too much time to think.  Thinking wasn’t good.  It led to too much pain.

“Can I help you?” the clerk asked as she stepped up in front of the teller’s window.

“Yes,” Lou said, clearing her throat.  “I’d like to check how much is in my account.  Lou McCloud.”

The clerk began to flip through the pages of the record book he kept under the counter.  “Ah, here it is.  Looks like you’ve got… wow!  That’s quite a sum, sir.  $1976.23.”

Lou nodded her head.  She’d saved most of every paycheck over the last year and a half.  The amount didn’t surprise her.  The real question was, was it enough?

“And, how much have the last three farms sold for?” she asked, hoping he’d know the answer.

“Well, I don’t rightly know about the last three,” the clerk stuttered, clearly startled by the question.  “But, the last one sold for $1200.  And, the old Ramsey place is up for sale now.  They’re askin; just $1000.  It’s smaller, but has a nice, solid house on it.”

“Thank you,” Lou nodded.  It was enough.  Turning, she walked out of the bank as briskly and abruptly as she’d arrived.  Moments later she stepped into the Marshall’s office, letting the door slam behind her to waken Teaspoon who was ‘resting his eyes’ with his feet up on the desk.

“How kin I help ya, Lou?” he asked without removing the hat that covered his eyes.

“I’d like some time off,” she stated boldly, getting straight to the point.  “I’ve got enough ta buy a farm and provision fer Jeremiah and Teresa.  It’s time I bring ‘em home.”

This brought Teaspoon to an upright position, his feet hitting the floor with a thud.  He pushed his hat back on his head and met Lou’s gaze with a worried one of his own.  “Well, ye’ve got the time comin’ ta ya,” he began.  “Ain’t no denyin’ that.  But, ye are plannin’ on comin’ back, ain’t ya?”

“Yes, sir,” she said.  “Soon’s I get them here and settled, I’ll be back ta work.”

“When did ya plan on leavin?”

“I ain’t got a ride scheduled ‘til next week anyway, so if ya can assign it ta someone else, I’d like ta get started today.”

“What’s the hurry?” he asked, worried again.

“It’s time.  I’ve waited too long as it is.”

**********

Lou sighed as she dismounted Lightning outside the mission, careful not to catch her long blue skirts on the saddle.  It had been so long since she’d worn a dress she was constantly tripping over it or catching it on something.

For a long moment, she stood in front of the gate, just gazing at the entrance to the orphanage she’d fled all those years ago.  So much had happened since, yet she felt just as much a lost little girl as the day she’d left.  Albeit a lost little girl who now had the means to take her brother and sister with her.

Squaring her shoulders and grabbing ahold of her skirts to keep them out of reach out of her feet, she marched up the steps and rang the bell.
**********
“What do you mean they’re gone?” Lou almost wailed, cringing at the near-whine she heard in her own voice.
“I’m sorry child,” the nun said, sadly shaking her head.  “You must have passed the message on your way here.  They’ve been adopted.”
“But… But you knew I was coming back for them!”
“You never said anything about it, Louise.  And you never responded to our first letter three months ago notifying you that there was couple interested in adopting them.  Besides, it wouldn’t have mattered,” the Sister smiled wanly at Lou.  “Not unless you’d come back married.”
“What?!”
“State law, my dear, state law.  I could never have allowed Jeremiah and Teresa to leave with a young, unmarried woman.  You just don’t have the resources to provide properly for them.”
Lou stood up and glared at the nun.  “I don’t have the resources? The resources?!  I’ve got a steady job, enough money saved to buy a small farm with a house already on it and friends. That’s more than my Ma had when she had us!”
“And that doesn’t change state law, young lady,” the nun said sternly, standing up to face off with the furious young rider.  “Without a man at your side, properly married to you, you would never have left this mission with those children.  That’s how the world works.  If you’d ever said anything about your plans to me, I could have told you that and spared you this heartache.”
The nun sighed and relented a little.  “I’m not saying it’s fair, Louise.  But it is what it is.  You’ve got to learn to live with it.  Honestly, if I hadn’t known how much you care about those two, I wouldn’t even have sent you the notification they’d been adopted.”
Walking over to Lou’s side, the Sister placed a comforting hand on the distraught girl’s shoulder.  “Go home.  Find yourself a nice young man, let him court you, get married and raise a family of your own.  That’s the best advice I can give you.”
“And what about Jeremiah and Teresa?” Lou asked quietly, fighting to keep the impending sobs at bay.  “Will I never see them again?”
“In a few months, after they’ve had a chance to settle in, I’ll write you with their address, Louise.  Don’t lose heart.”
Lou nodded, unable to speak through her overwhelming grief, and slowly walked out of the room, shoulders drooping, head down.
**********
Lou stared into the dancing flames of the small fire she’d started to keep wild animals at bay.  Angrily she wiped another tear off her face as it slipped out of the corner of her eye.  She’d let Kid leave without her because she’d felt she had to stay for her brother and sister’s sake.  Now, she had no Kid and no Jeremiah or Teresa.  She had no one.  No one at all.
Laying back on her saddle, she listened to Lightning’s snuffling as he cropped grass where she’d hobbled him nearby.  Looking up, she stared at the brilliant stars scattered across the heavens like a handful of jewels someone had tossed into the air.  She remembered how Kid had taught her all about the stars on one of their earlier runs.
“It’s called the Milky Way,” he’d said.  “And that’s The Hunter-Orion.  Over there’s the Big Dipper.  If you follow those two stars from the end of the Big Dipper, they’ll point you straight to the North Star, everytime.  That way you can never get lost.”
“North,” she muttered.  “What if I don’t want to go North, Kid?  What if I’m supposed to head South?”
Rolling over, she turned her back on the North Star and closed her eyes.  She’d need a good night’s sleep.
**********
“Come on, Lightning,” Lou urged, pushing her horse ever faster, ever harder, knowing she’d have to stop soon to let him rest.  “We’ve gotta catch up with the Kid.”
She’d been riding as hard as she could for the last several days, no specific destination in mind, just South.  She knew Kid was planning to travel south through Missouri before crossing over into Tennessee at Columbus.  There he planned to hop the next train to Virginia.
Pulling back on the reins, she slowed a huffing Lightning to a walk, giving him a well earned rest.  Shifting from her bent over gallop position to an upright seat, she looked around as they approached a crossroads.  The further she’d travelled into Missouri, the more crowded it had gotten, with well defined roads, farms and small communities crisscrossing the land.  The signs at the crossroads pointed to some ten different small towns in the area.  Shifting the reins to her right hand, she followed the sign pointing toward Columbus. 
A half hour later, she approached a small farming community by the name of Eminence.  Leaning forward, she patted Lightning’s side as they slowly wove their way through the late afternoon traffic.
“What d’ya think,boy?” she murmured.  “Should we stop for the night?  Or keep on riding?”
The horse snorted and tossed its head.  Lou laughed lightly at his antics.  Raising her eyes, she looked down the street, in search of a livery.  Lightning deserved a good night’s rest in a nice, comfy barn.
“I’ve only got the one stall left, sonny,” the livery owner said laconically.
“How much?”
“Two bits.  Comes with fresh hay and an oat/corn mash fer yer horse,” he said, spitting a stream of tobacco into the dirt near their feet.  Lou shifted slightly to distance herself from the stinky tobacco juice.
“Fer an extra ten cents, I’ll rub him down fer ya and take care of yer tack,” he continued.
Digging in her pocket, Lou pulled out two halves of a quarter.  “That’s all right,” she said, tossing the two bits to the hostler and walking on into the barn.  “I’ll take care of him myself.”
No sense in wasting her hard earned money to pay someone else to do what she could do just as well.
“It’s the last stall on the left,” the hostler called after her.
Out of habit, Lou let her eyes scan each of the stalls as she and Lightning moved past.  There were giant Clydesdales, obvious farm animals, and sleek Morgans and Tennessee Walkers, built for speed, but nothing that could stand up to the extended periods of hard riding mustangs like Lightning pulled off regularly for the Express.  Lou snorted in contempt as they neared the back of the barn.
A soft, familiar whicker had Lou’s head whipping around and zeroing in on the horse in the second to last stall on her left.
“Katy?” she breathed.  “Katy!  It is you!”  Hurriedly releasing Lightning into his stall, she ran back out to catch the hostler before he left for the night.  “Sir!” she gasped.  “The man who brought in the paint in the stall next to mine?  Do you know where I can find him?”
“What’s it to ya?”
“He’s a…”she paused for a moment before continuing.  “He’s a family friend.  We call him the Kid.”
“That’d be him,” the man nodded.  “Odd name.  He said he was takin’ a room down at Martha’s Boardin’ House.  Was plannin’ ta rest up a day or two before headin’ on east.”
‘Thanks!” Lou shouted, already headed back into the depths of the barn to take care of her horse.
“Sorry, Lightning,” she apologized to the black stallion.  “But it’s only gonna be a quick rubdown tonight after all.  We found him!”
**********
Lou paused on the boardwalk outside the fence, apparently reading the big sign over the porch that declared the large house, called a Painted Lady for its flirtatious latticework and fancy, multi-colored paint designs.  In reality though, she was trying to get up the nerve to go in and say what she had to say.  Finally, taking a deep breath, she ran her hands down her sides to wipe away the sweat that had gathered on her palms then reached out and opened the gate.
Each step down the walk through the front garden toward the porch steps seemed to make the path longer.  But, finally, she reached the front door.  Reaching up, she formed a fist to knock, then pulled back her hand to remove her hat and smooth back her hair.  Smacking the hat against her thigh, she reached up again and finally rapped sharply on the edge of the screen door.
“How may I help you, young man?” A plump, friendly looking woman with curly grey hair tucked up under an old-fashioned white, frilly mobcap came walking up to the door, wiping her hands on her apron.  Lou could hear the sounds of clinking tableware and the rumble of friendly conversation coming from the dining room to the right of the entrance.  “I’ve only got one bed left, and you’ll have to share it.”
“Uh, no, ma’am,” Lou stuttered.  “I heard a friend of mine, the Kid, was stayin’ here.  I just wanted ta speak ta him.  If he’s here.”
“Oh, yes!  That wonderful young man from Nebraska Territory,” The woman smiled at Lou broadly, pushing the screen door open and inviting her in.  “Come on in!  He’s in the dining room having supper.”
Turning, she began to lead the way, still chattering to Lou.  “He’s been regaling us with stories of his time with the Pony Express.  Can you imagine?  All the adventures he’s had?”
“Uh, yes, ma’am,” Lou murmured.  Her response not really required as they entered the dining room.
“Kid,” the lady called out quietly, “You’ve got a guest.  A Mr….”  She turned back to Lou as confusion entered her eyes.  “I’m afraid I didn’t catch your name, young man.”
“Lou.  Lou McCloud.”
Kid’s head turned from the gentleman to his left that he’d been conversing with in response to his name.  Looking up, his bright blue eyes met Lou’s liquid brown ones.  Kid jumped to his feet, dropping his napkin to the table and rushed over to her.  “Lou!  You came!”
Lou nodded, dropping her gaze from his.  “Yeah.  I came,” she nearly whispered.  “Can… can we talk?”  Her gaze moved past Kid’s shoulder, so broad it nearly obscured her view of the other curious boarders avidly watching their conversation.  “Uh, somewhere private?”
Kid nodded and turned to the older woman.  “Mrs. Livingston, do you mind if we use your parlor?”
“Certainly, young man.  Just don’t be too long.  Dinner will get cold.”
Kid nodded, already leading the way across the hall to the formal parlor.  Closing the door behind him he turned to Lou, a serious, concerned look crinkling the corners of his eyes.  “What’s wrong Lou?”
Turning away from him so he wouldn’t see the tears in her eyes, she said simply, “They’ve been adopted, Kid.  They’re gone!  And they won’t tell me where!  Not for at least six more months!”
“Aw, Lou,” Kid practically whispered, stepping up beside her.  She felt his large hand move toward her, hesitate, then slowly come to rest on her shoulder.  “I’m sorry.  What happened?”
Lou nodded, reaching up to swipe the traitorous tears from her eyes.  Taking a deep breath to gather her courage, she prepared to say the one thing that could make him hate her forever.  Or love her.  She had to take the chance.
“They told me…. they told me I had ta be married ta get ‘em,” she said. 
Kid sucked in a startled breath and pulled on her shoulder, turning her to face him.  “What do you mean, Lou?”
Looking straight into his eyes, Lou did the hardest thing she’d ever done in her life.  Harder than facing down a band of renegade Indians, bloodthirsty outlaws or an angered Teaspoon.  Harder even than leaving her own brother and sister behind.  She told him the truth.
“Thank you,” Kid said simply, pulling her into his embrace.
“Thank you?” Lou asked, pushing away from him to look into his face.  “What?”
“I’ve been waitin’ and waitin’ fer ya ta trust me with yer secret,” he said softly, reaching out with one hand to trace her jawline.  “Ya didn’t really think I hadn’t figured it out?”
“But… how?  When?” she stuttered to a halt, not even sure what to ask, her mind a complete jumble at the discovery her secret hadn’t been much of a secret after all.
“After the whole thing with Nickerson’s band, when they were tryin’ ta kill Ike,” he smiled at her.  “Yer reactions just weren’t what I’d have expected.  I started watchin’ ya real close after that.  Then, I happened ta…”
He stopped speaking and blushed a bright red.
“You happened ta what, Kid?” Lou asked, a menacing tone entering her voice.
“I happened ta see ya at the pond.”
“What?!” Lou screeched.  “Ya spied on me?”
Kid quickly backed away, holding his hands up defensively.  “No, Lou.  I wasn’t spyin’.  I was on my way back from a special run fer the Army.  Ya know that route went straight past the pond at Emma’s place.  It was an accident.  I swear.”
Lou’s shoulders drooped, her anger leaving as quickly as it had come.  Falling more than sitting, she landed in the settee near the window.  Resting her face in her hands, her voice muffled, she asked,”How come ya never said nothing?”
Lou could hear Kid shrugging as he slowly sat down next to her.  “I was waitin’,” he said softly.  Reaching out, he gently pried her hands away from her face so he could look her in the eyes.  “I was waitin’,” he repeated, “fer ya ta trust me enough ta tell me yerself.  I kept tryin’ ta get ya tell me, especially there at the end, by lettin’ ya know how much I trust you.”
“Still?” Lou asked, a hopeful look entering her eyes.
“Always,” Kid whispered, his face slowly lowering toward hers.  Lou gasped slightly as she realized he was going to… was… kissing her.  Right on the lips.  Her heart stopped beating, her lungs stopped breathing, the world stopped turning as his firm mouth moved across hers in a tender, magical kiss she’d never thought she’d experience.  Before she’d had time to adjust to this new reality and begin to participate Kid pulled back to look at her.  “I love you, Lou.  Ain’t ya figgered that out, yet?  I’d do anythin’ fer ya.  Even if that meant leavin’ ya behind, ‘cause that’s what you wanted.  Lettin’ you ride without sayin’ nothin’ was hard.  But not nearly as hard as ridin’ out without ya was.”
Lou just stared at him, dumbfounded.  Her fingers pressed wonderingly to her lips as she tried to comprehend this new reality suddenly before her.  Kid not only knew her secret, he’d kept it… because he loved her.  He loved her!  Her heart sang out joyously at the thought.  Kid loved her, Lou, the girl who dressed, ate and acted like one of the guys.
“Yer so pretty,” he whispered, reaching up to brush a stray stand of her hair back behind an ear.  “You can’t imagine how good it feels to be able to tell ya how I really feel, ta touch ya the way I’ve wanted to for so long.”
Finally, she found her voice.  “Yes,” she whispered.  “Yes, I can.  I love you, too, Kid.”
Now it was his turn to freeze in shock, but Lou was having none of that.  Knowing how he felt, how she felt, she wasn’t willing to waste another moment.  She reached up to frame his face with her hands and urge him back down to her, pressing her lips eagerly to his.  His arms reached out, encircling her, pulling her to him, pressing her body as close to his as he could.
Where before the feel of his embrace and kiss had made everything stop in its tracks, this time the whole world sped up.  She could feel its rotation increasing, making her dizzy with the twirling.  Her heart began to beat so fast she thought it would jump right out of her body.  She struggled to get enough oxygen into her lungs fast enough to keep up with the rapid changes in her world.  This time, she was the aggressor, exploring him in ways she’d dreamt about but never believed possible. 
She was so intent on all the new sensations and feelings coursing through her mind and body she didn’t hear the sound of the latch clicking or the creak of the door opening, or even Mrs. Livingston’s softly uttered, “Oh my!  Oh dear!”
 Lou did, however, notice the sudden sensation of being beaten over the head and shoulders with a… pillow?  Pulling apart, Lou and Kid looked up at the flustered woman.
“Stop, that!” she scolded.  “It ain’t right and I won’t have such shenanigans going on in my house, paying boarder or not!”
“You’re right, ma’am,” Kid smiled at her before turning his face back to Lou.  Slipping from the settee, he landed on one knee on the floor in front of her.  “There’s somethin’ I’ve gotta say.  I love you, Lou McCloud.  Will you marry me?”
Lou’s softly uttered ‘Yes’ was nearly lost to the sound of Mrs. Livingston’s body hitting the floor with a soft thud as she fainted dead away.
**********
Lou looked at the minister before her in shock, her lips twitching to keep from laughing.  It’s not a good idea to laugh at your groom’s name in the middle of the wedding.  Kid just sort of looked embarrassed and apologetic at the same time and shrugged his shoulders at her as if to say, ‘What can I do about it?’
“Well young lady?” the minister asked, pressing her for an answer.
Looking back at Kid, Lou smiled.  She didn’t care what his name was.  It didn’t matter.  She was marrying him, not his name.
“I do,” she said, smiling up at her groom.
“And do you take Louise Kathleen McCloud to be your lawfully wedded wife, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, until death do you part?”
“I do,” Kid responded quickly, smiling down at her.
“Do you have the rings?” the minister asked.
“Uh, no, we d…” Lou started to apologize for their lack of rings, when Mrs. Livingston interrupted her.
“Right here,” she said, handing over a pair of matched golden wedding bands.  Looking at the young couple, she smiled broadly, completely recovered from her earlier shock.  “They belonged to my late husband and me.  I want you to have them.”
“That’s too generous.  We couldn’t acc…” Kid started to refuse, but Lou interrupted him with a touch on the arm.  Something in the elderly woman’s eyes touched her.  Accepting the rings was the right thing to do.
“Thank you,” Lou said.  “We’d be honored to wear your rings.”
Moments later, staring down at the golden band on her third finger, her hands entwined with Kid’s, Lou barely heard the minister pronounce them husband and wife.  She didn’t hear him tell Kid he could kiss the bride.  She did feel Kid’s hand under her chin, lifting her gaze to his.
“I love you, Louise Kathleen, with every breath in my body,” he whispered, leaning down to let his lips meet hers for the third time that night.  Even as she reveled in the still sparkling new sensations his kisses brought her, Lou could hear Mrs. Livingston squealing happily and clapping like a school girl in the background, along with the other boardinghouse guests.</i>
Buck didn’t fight the tears that filled his eyes when he read Kid and Lou’s sweet declarations of love and how Kid had discovered the truth on his own but kept silent for Lou’s sake.  Buck chuckled reading how poor Mrs Livingston fainted dead away after seeing two “boys” kissing in her parlor.  He could well imagine her reaction.   He wondered how Lou’d broken the news to the older woman.  As many questions as her journals answered, they just kept raising more.
Now he felt as if his heart was too big for his own chest. He would have liked to have been there, he reflected.  Probably all the members of their makeshift family would have loved to see their two “brothers” marry.  Some would have been more shocked than others, he chuckled to himself imagining Cody and Jimmy’s reactions in particular, but it would have been a day filled with joy and hope for the future for all of them in such hard times.
The old man found himself smiling like a fool, lost in a schoolboy’s romantic fantasy.  Then, unexpectedly, reality hit him like a ton of bricks.  Kid had died just a few days after they married.  He already knew that.  Their dream had lasted less than a week.
Suddenly he lost his appetite as a deep pain seared through him.  In his mind’s eye he could see them the day they married.  Kid and Lou would have thought they had all their lives ahead of them, that they could have a family and raise their children.  But everything had been snatched away from them in the blink of an eye.
He stood up on unsteady legs. He wanted to continue to read Lou’s journal, he needed to know if they had been happy together in the short time they’d had, but he couldn’t do it in that crowded carriage.  He wanted to return to his cabin and at least a semblance of privacy.
Afterward, I just lay there, hugging Kid as tight as I could, my face buried in the crook of his neck, crying helplessly.  Poor Kid.  He didn’t understand.  My newlywed husband embraced me twice as tight while whispering soothing words in my ear.
Our first time making love.  As husband and wife.  It was a bit awkward at the beginning, but when the tension and the nervousness of finally being together wore off, it was the most intense experience either of us had ever survived.  We couldn’t wait for a repeat performance.
But first, in stuttering words, accompanied by blushes and tears, I had to reveal my most shameful secret, the one that had led me to become a boy.  Not just the violence I went through when still barely more than a little girl, but the betrayal of not just one, but two men I had thought would help me.  Kid later told me it explained so much about why it took me so long to trust him, even after all we’d been through together.
Honestly?  Throughout the wedding and the celebratory dinner Mrs. Livingston put on for us all I could think about had been my own fears.  Would I be able to give Kid the one thing, as a husband, I owed him?  The one thing I wanted to share with him more than anything.  I still wasn’t sure if I would be able to share that one last secret with him.  I was afraid Kid would think less of me, blame me for what happened.  Most men would.  But he didn’t.
I guess I should have known my fears were unfounded.  What I shared with Kid was so precious and sacred and frightening and wonderful all at the same time, I couldn’t help bursting into tears of joy.
**********
“Grandpa…?”
Hawk entered the cabin and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw the state his grandfather was in.  Buck’s elbows were resting on his knees and his face was hidden in his hands.  He was curled into himself and his shoulders shook in silent tears.  The younger man had never seen his elder so sad and vulnerable and it hit him hard.
Hawk knew his grandfather was becoming more frail with each passing day; but to witness it first hand, to see him relive his youth and suffer for the friends who had become his brothers during the Express, made him realize how old Buck really was.  Suddenly he was afraid of losing him, too. Buck was the last of those boys who rode under Teaspoon Hunter’s guidance so many years ago and Hawk had this foreboding feeling that it wouldn’t be long before he joined his brothers and sister.
He sat on the bench near his grandfather and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“Grandpa…” he repeated.
Buck raised his head then, unmarked tears continuing to roll down his cheeks.
“Lou was able to fulfill her dream, Hawk.  She married Kid. That certificate was theirs,” he said with a broken voice.
“That’s…that’s a good thing.  Isn’t it?” the younger man responded, unsure.
“She lost him just five days later.  Kid had decided to come back to Rock Creek, to start that ranch he had talked about during the Express.  They could have spent an entire life together and instead…that damned war robbed them of everything they could have had…”
Hawk looked up to meet the worried eyes of Captain Easter, then gently reached over to take the worn journal from his grandfather’s hands.  Opening it to where Buck had left off, he read.
**********
We’re going home!  I was ready to go on east with Kid, join the war.  But he said our marriage changed his mind.  He still loves Virginia but he loves me more.  I’m so happy.  I’m not even afraid of how the others will react when we tell them.
We’ve even discussed maybe not telling them.  Kid’s right, the Express is on its last legs.  We could go back, work for a few more weeks, months at the most, save every last cent in order to have a bigger grubstake to start our ranch with.  But, what if I’m already with child?  It’s not like we were careful or anything.  And, honestly, the idea of continuing to hide, now that I’ve known the joy of loving Kid, is more than I can stomach.
Kid did insist I put my trousers back on for the trip home.  Missouri’s a hotbed of fighting at the moment, with renegades on both sides wreaking havoc.  That’s why I was able to catch up with Kid.  He was taking it slow, covering his tracks, constantly on the lookout for danger.  Me?  I wasn’t paying any attention, just trying to move as fast as I could.  I got lucky.  It’s like there’s an angel on my shoulder, keeping me safe. 
Hawk paused and looked up at his grandfather, worried, before turning the page. Looking down he opened his mouth, then shut it.  He stared at the short entry, not comprehending what he was reading, even having expected it.
“Well?” Captain Easter prompted.  “What’s it say next?”
Kid is dead.
“That’s it?”
Hawk nodded hesitantly, looking over at his grandfather who appeared to have shrunken to half his size with those three little words.  Hawk didn’t mention that the words were smudged, as if someone had dribbled droplets of water all over the page.
He flipped to the next entry.
“She didn’t write anything for two weeks.  The next entry simply states, ‘I’m going home without him.  I don’t know how I’ll continue.  But I have to.’”
“But, what happened?” Captain Easter asked.
Hawk shrugged.  “All I know is what she told us at the hospital in France.  He was killed by Southern bushwackers over his horse.”
“He loved that horse more than life itself,” Buck finally spoke up in a bleak monotone.  “Except maybe Lou.  I can just see him defying them to keep the horse, fighting back to protect both of them really.  We got the notice a few weeks, maybe a month or so, after his death.  Lou showed up the same day.”
The three men in the train cabin fell silent as each pondered what they had learned about the enigmatic Lou McCloud.
**********
She stood staring down into the hole that had swallowed all her hopes and dreams for the future.  She’d been moving without thinking for days now. Doing what she was told, not really caring.  The local sheriff was the one who’d found her, hours after the attack, still clutching Kid’s cooling body in her arms, tears swamping her face as she continued to rock him back and forth muttering the word “No,” over and over again.
But deny it as hard and as long as she had, she couldn’t change the truth. Kid was dead.  And there was nothing she could do about it.
So lost was she in her own misery she didn’t hear a word the preacher was saying as complete strangers lowered her husband’s body into that dark, dank hole.  She flinched at the sound of dirt hitting the top of the casket.
A gentle hand patted her arm.
“My dear, you should come on back to the boarding house now,” Mrs. Livingston said quietly.  “Your darling Kid wouldn’t have wanted you to catch your death mourning him in this storm.”
Lou looked up.  A rainstorm had rolled in unnoticed while she’d stood over Kid’s grave.  All the other mourners had left.  The other boarders at Mrs. Livingston’s, the ones who’d so happily been witness at her wedding, had come, as had several Army officers who’d been trying to find the group of bushwhackers who’d killed Kid and the sheriff who’d found them.
But it didn’t matter.  The ones who should have been there still didn’t know about his death.  The gentle tugging on her arm resumed and she looked into the kindly, older woman’s face and nodded.   She began to turn and follow Mrs. Livingston out of the cemetery, but a flash of light caught her attention.
Looking down she saw the golden wedding ring encircling the third finger of her left hand.  Suddenly, she couldn’t get the jewelry off fast enough.  She began pulling and jerking and twisting it until it slipped free from her now reddened finger.  With all the anger stored up in every cell and fiber of her being, she sent the symbol of her life with Kid sailing through the air into the still open grave.
Without another look back, she followed Mrs. Livingston to the boardinghouse.
**********
“I wish you would stay with me, my dear,” Mrs. Livingston fretted, twisting her hands together in worry.  “It’s not safe out there.  You know that.”
“I appreciate all you’ve done for us… me,” Lou said somberly.  “But I’ve gotta get home.  They’ll be worried ‘bout me.”
Lou tried to ignore the kind woman’s concern as she slipped on her coat and grabbed her filled saddlebags.  Tossing them over her shoulder, she marched out of the room she’d shared with Kid for those few, short, happy days.  She refused to look back.
“Louise!,” Mrs. Livingston called frantically after her.  “You’ve forgotten your dress.”
“No, I haven’t.  Give it to the church charity,” Lou answered, never turning around or pausing.  To herself she added, “That part of my life is over.  As dead as Kid.”
**********
The tall, lanky sheriff looked up at the sound of heavy boots tromping through the front door of his office.  Seeing the young, grieving widow he’d found just a couple days ago, he leapt to his feet and hurried to her side.
Restraining his curiosity at her odd clothing - why was she dressed like a boy?- he asked gently, “Is there anything I can do to help you, ma’am?”
Lou nodded her head, reaching deep into her pocket to pull out a piece of paper.  “I’d be obliged,” she said, barely above a whisper, “if you could see your way to sending this telegram to my h… hus… husband’s family.”
She looked away to regather her composure.  He waited patiently, not wanting to rush her.  Finally she looked up and met his concerned gaze with her own watery one.  “They deserve to know what happened.”
He nodded.  “I’d be honored, ma’am.”  Turning back toward his desk, he grabbed a pencil and piece of paper.  “Just where am I sending this notice?”
“You can send it to his… father, I guess… Aloysius Hunter, Marshal, Rock Creek, Nebraska Territory.”
The sheriff paused in his scribbling to look back up at her, he cleared his throat.  “You do realize the telegraph ain’t made it all the way down south here?  And the post just went out yesterday.  It’ll be a week before the mail runner’s back to pick this up and run it into St. Louis, and the nearest telegraph office.”
Straightening, he walked back over to her side.  Resting a hand gently on her shoulder, he added, “It’ll go pretty much instantly to St. Joe, but then, unless you’ve got the funds ta pay for the Pony Express, it’ll take another week or two to get it on to Rock Creek.”
Lou shrugged.  She didn’t care.  She wasn’t even sure where she was going from here.  She just knew she needed to get away.  “Doesn’t matter.  So long’s they know.”
Without another word, she turned and walked out of the sheriff’s office.  He gazed after her, a worried expression on his face.  That young lady was going to get into some serious trouble if she didn’t snap out of it soon.
Hours later, Lou slowed Lightning to a walk to give him a rest.  They’d been travelling non-stop for several hours now.  But no matter how long or how hard she pushed herself and her horse, she couldn’t get the scene of Kid’s death, his murder, out of her mind.  If she ever saw those men again, she’d shoot them dead without thinking twice, and damn Teaspoon’s moralizing about letting the law handle it to hell!
Seeing the shine of sunlight glinting off the waters of a nearby stream, Lou dismounted and led Lightning over for a drink.  She leaned back against a tree on the creek bank, staring out unseeing at the rolling Missouri hills.  She hated them almost as much as she hated the seccesh bastards that had… No.  She had to stop letting her brain circle around the same set of facts and circumstances.  Walking over to Lightning, Lou reached out with one hand to grab the reins, even as she shoved her other hand deep into her coat pocket.  A piece of paper sliced into her finger.
“Ow!” she muttered, jerking her hand out of her pocket and sucking on her finger to alleviate the sting.  “What the hell was that?”
Reaching back in, she pulled out the piece of paper.  Unfolding it, she saw the words Marriage Certificate printed in a fanciful curlicue across the top.  She’d taken to wearing Kid’s coat since his death.  It was the only thing of his she’d kept.  So far it still smelled like him.  She hadn’t realized he’d carried their marriage certificate in his pocket.  She smiled. It had meant so much to him he hadn’t wanted to be parted from it.
Again, she heard the shot that cut short Kid’s life, saw his face crumple in surprised pain as he fell from Katy’s back.  Heard her own anguished scream as she ran to his side.
In sudden anger she crumpled the certificate into a ball in one hand and tossed it to the ground.  She turned and leapt into the saddle, spurring Lightning mercilessly into a gallop.
Several minutes later, the sound of pounding hooves returned to disturb the peace around the creek.  Lou was jumping off Lightning’s back before he even came to a stop and began to frantically search the ground.
“Where is it?” she muttered, kicking leaves and sticks out of her way.  “Where is it?  It can’t have gone far!”
Suddenly she bent over and picked up the ball of paper.  Carefully straightening it out, she did her best to flatten all the wrinkles in the paper as she walked back to Lightning’s side.  Reaching into her saddlebag, she pulled out a small, leatherbound journal.  She stared down at the marriage certificate, tears gathering in her eyes, until one salty drop fell to land on the paper.
“Damn!” she hissed, hastily trying to blot up the spot without damaging the certificate.  Then, with great reverence, she folded it in half and slipped it between the pages of the book.
**********
Hawk  jerked suddenly awake in his train bunk.  For a moment he was confused about where he was.  Then he just assumed it was the train slowing down for another stop that had awakened.  Eventually, he sound of an odd chanting seeped into his consciousness.  Rising up on his elbow he peered over the edge of his bunk, down into the cabin.
Buck had removed his white man’s clothing and was on his knees wearing only an old-fashioned breechclout.  In the small aisle between the two sets of bunks, the grey-haired Indian was swaying forward and back, chanting repeatedly as he waved a sprig of burning sweetgrass over his head.
Hawk had been raised with his father’s and grandfather’s traditions.  But most Indians these days paid only lip service to the old ways.  Hawk had never seen anyone praying so… desperately before, so sincerely.
Pulling his blanket back, the young man slipped out of the bunk and came to sit next to his grandfather.  He wasn’t fluent in Kiowa, but had learned enough to pick up bits and pieces of what Buck was saying.
“I’m sorry,” he kept repeating.  “I’m so sorry.  I should have been there.  I should have known.  How can you have called me brother when I was so blind to what you needed?  Oh, Creator, forgive me.  Forgive me.”
Finally, Hawk could keep silent no longer.  Reaching out, he gently placed his hand on his grandfather’s shoulder.
“Grandfather,” he whispered.  “What is it?  What’s wrong?”
Buck paused in his chanting to open his eyes and look at Hawk.  It was then Hawk noticed the ragged ends of Buck’s hair, cut short just below his chin.  Hawk had never seen it that short.  But Hawk knew it was a traditional way of mourning.  He was just glad Buck hadn’t pulled out his old knife and started slashing his arms or cut off a finger or two.
“I failed her.  I failed both of them,” Buck muttered.  “Just like I failed Ike.”
“I don’t think they would say that, Grandpa,” Hawk said.  “Remember what Lou wrote about seeing you at Fort Riley?  About being blessed to have been able to deliver Pa?  Lou loved you.”
“But I didn’t recognize her grief.  We were all sad and grieving,” Buck said, sighing as he stood up and began to put his shirt back on.  “But she was so sad.  So quiet.  We thought it was because of losing her brother and sister, and then her best friend, in such a short time.  Now I know better.  We could have been there for her, but we were too caught up in our own pain to notice what she was going through.”
“And maybe, she didn’t want you to notice,” Hawk suggested.  “Remember, she was used to hiding what she really was, who she really was.  She was a very private person.  Even when she was telling us stories about the old days, she censored what she told us.”
Buttoning his pants, Buck looked at his grandson gratefully.  “How’d you get so smart?”
“I learned it from you, Gramps,” Hawk smiled wistfully.  “I learned it from you.”
**********
The repetitive rattling of the train on the tracks sounded a lament in his ears as Buck leafed through the pages of Lou’s journal. The entries had become short, mostly emotionless, and far apart. It was as if the lively, witty and tough Lou that had been filling those pages until that moment, had simply disappeared.
In a way that was just what had happened, the old man thought somberly. The small rider who never gave in to or turned away from a challenge, especially when someone doubted her prowess, the one who wasn’t afraid of speaking her mind, despite usually being physically so much smaller than her opponent, the one whose bravery, and occasional recklessness, had astonished each of them from time to time; the Lou they had all known and cared about since the beginning of the Express had died.
When she returned from her trip to St Joe, wearing what he now knew had been Kid’s jacket, Lou told them what happened with her brother and sister in a hoarse monotone.  It was obvious from her terse explanation she didn’t really want to talk about it.  No sooner had she finished her explanation than Teaspoon had come into the bunkhouse, a piece of paper clutched in one fist, tears leaking from his eyes.
The news of Kid’s death hit them all hard.  So much so that none of them really noted Lou’s departure from the bunkhouse, or her seeming lack of reaction to this latest blow.  After that, she did her runs, attended to her chores around the station, but for the rest she’d stopped living.
Back then Buck had thought he understood what Lou was going through.  He’d lost Ike just a few months earlier and knew what it was like to lose a brother. But Lou hadn’t lost a brother, she had lost half of her heart, half of her soul.  And none of them had had the grace to realize it.
Those last weeks before Russell, Majors and Waddell shut down had dragged on.  They’d all been in limbo, still trying to come to terms with Kid’s death and with no idea of what to do with their lives next.  Only Cody had semblance of a plan.  He’d already signed on with the Army as a scout, even if it had caused a certain level of discord with a worried Teaspoon and Rachel. After what had happened to Kid, the two adults had become more protective about their boys’ choices than ever. They didn’t want another member of their family getting killed because of the war that was ripping the country apart.
“It wasn’t Cody they should have been worried about…” Buck murmured to himself while reading those sparse passages that described the last days of their great adventure together.
“What do you mean, Granpa?” Hawk asked.
“Noah…” it was his simple reply and the younger man nodded somberly in understanding.  He’d heard about Noah before.
“What happened to Noah?” Captain Easter asked.
“Noah was killed by a band of Southern bushwhackers, similar to what happened with the Kid,” Buck sighed.  “That was the last straw for us.  After his death our makeshift family fell apart. We couldn’t take another loss.  It was just too much.”
**********
Will all these deaths ever stop?! Lou wrote the day of Noah’s funeral. The entry was filled with angry, furious words at the senseless killing that had stolen another member of her remaining family.
Noah never even got the chance to do what he most desired, fight in the War against slavery. They accepted Cody, but refused him because of the color of his skin. What kind of sick, hypocritical system would fight for the right of all men to be treated equally and then discriminate against one of the people it was supposedly fighting for?  I’m beginning to understand Noah’s constant bitterness against the world in general.
But life isn’t fair. I should know better by now. Sometimes you get lucky, but most of the time you have to deal with what it throws at you. Noah was brave and intelligent and didn’t let the Army’s refusal bend him. He wanted to fight for the freedom of his people and none of us could have stopped him.
Noah was killed in an ambush, thanks to the foolish actions of Jimmy’s would be sweetheart, Rosemary Burke.  Jimmy blames himself.  He ought to blame her.  But he doesn’t.  He feels responsible.  I think that’s why he’s decided to follow Cody’s lead and join the Army.
The Pony Express is closing soon and I still don’t know what I’ll do next.  All I know for sure is I can’t reveal who I am.  Living as Louise is out of the question.   The only thing I can think of right now is to follow my brothers and join the fight for the North. It won’t bring back Kid, or Noah.  But I will fight to avenge them. And in time I hope this purpose will be able to fill the hole in my life, because I don’t know how long I can survive without my heart.
Buck sighed as he closed the book.  That had been her last entry in this journal.  The next one in the series was missing.  He wondered what had happened to it.  The journals didn’t pick back up until midway through the War.  All he knew was that she’d eventually joined the Army with Jimmy.  Shaking his head, Buck stood and gently slid the book into his suitcase.
Turning toward the sound of the cabin door opening, he met his grandson’s eyes.
“You ready?” Hawk asked solemnly.  Buck nodded, squared his shoulders, picked up his suitcase and followed Hawk out of the cabin and down the narrow train passage.  Crossing three cars, they finally arrived at the baggage car at the end of the train.  There they found Captain Easter carefully polishing the lid of Lou’s casket one last time.
“Almost there,” he said quietly at their entrance.
Buck nodded.  “Won’t be long now.”
Even as he spoke, they heard the train’s whistle, signaling their entrance into a metropolitan area, and the conductor beginning to make his rounds up and down the cars, knocking on doors and shouting out, “Next stop, Oklahoma City, Ladies and Gentlemen.  Oklahoma City in 10 minutes.”
Hawk turned to peer anxiously out the train window.  Buck half smiled at the sight.  He understood his grandson’s excitement.  After two years off at war, he was about to see his family again.  Buck himself was looking forward to seeing his wife Morning Star , his children and grandchildren.  Over the years the Cross clan had grown quite large.  But at the same time… he reached out a hand and placed it softly on the gleaming wood of the small casket next to him.
“We’re almost home, Lou,” he whispered to his lost bro… sister.
The three men stood there, each lost in his own thoughts as the train pulled to a herky jerky stop at the station.  As it let out a last huff of steam, Captain Easter cleared his throat.
“I’ll be right back,” he said quietly.
Buck looked after him as he walked out the back door of the car, swinging to the ground and hurrying to where Buck knew an Army ambulance waited to carry Lou’s body to Muskogee for final burial.
Suddenly, he staggered at the reality of it.  Throughout most of the journey, he’d been able to put out of his mind the real purpose of this trip, why it was taking so long, what he had to do when they reached the end.  But he could no longer put it off.
At the feel of Hawk’s hand coming to rest on his shoulder, Buck reached up to grasp his grandson’s fingers in a tight knuckled grip as he forced himself to stand straight and tall.  Only to feel his knees buckle as he saw the men come trooping back into the car ahead of Captain Easter.
He’d expected to see a couple of uniformed soldiers come to help them carry the casket to the ambulance.  Instead, he found himself facing his sons and grandsons, dressed in full pow-wow regalia.  Each nodded formally to their patriarch before taking a position next to one of the eight handles along the sides of the casket.
In complete silence, they all looked at each other to make sure each was ready, then lifted the casket in a smooth, well-practiced motion.  Moving in a slow shuffle, they began a stately parade out of the train car onto the station platform.  Buck and Hawk followed on their heels, only to come to a shocked standstill when they saw what awaited in the station itself.
The entire station had come to a standstill as well.  Set near the back of the station, next to the waiting ambulance, a drum group began to play a slow, rhythmic dirge, the singers wailing their lament for the Cross’ loss.
With a ululating, wailing cry to the sky, an elderly Taime priest stood on the platform, shaking a hand of rattles.  Continuing his dolorous chanting, he turned his back on the casket bearers and began to dance slowly down a path formed by two rows of mourners leading to the ambulance, moving in time to the slow, methodic beating of the giant drum.
Tears flowing freely down his cheeks, Buck brought up the rear of the impromptu parade of mourners.  He watched as the casket moved down the cleared lane, carefully noting how each member of the honor guard reached out to reverently touch the casket with a bared hand, honoring Lou with a last counted coup.  He noticed it wasn’t just his family and friends in the crowd, either.  There were also other uniformed veterans from three wars, Civil, Spanish American and now the Great War, standing at attention, saluting solemnly as the casket passed by. 
The rest of the station remained in complete silence as the procession crossed the platform and ceremoniously stopped before the ambulance, waiting as Captain Easter opened the ambulance doors, then gently placing Lou inside.  Buck and Hawk climbed in after her.
The drumming suddenly stopped, the singing stopped, all sound stopped in the station as the ambulance doors were closed with nary a sound.  No one spoke, as the ambulance driver started the engine and slowly drove out of the building, accompanied only by the wailing sound of the ambulance siren.
**********
Inside the ambulance, Buck turned and fell into his wife’s arms.  He was so glad to see her.  He had so much to share with her, things only she would really understand.  She’d been there, been through many of the same experiences.  But first, he had to ask, “Where did that come from?”
Smiling through her own tears, Morning Star reached up to gently dry the moisture still soaking her husband’s wrinkled cheek.  “Lou McCloud made quite an impression when he, she, was here.”
Buck nodded, “I know.  Lou completely scandalized the community when he helped deliver Pony Rider.”
“Not just that,” Morning Star smiled sadly.  “Don’t you remember?  How hard he worked that winter to help out during the smallpox epidemic?  We’d have lost twice as many as we did if it weren’t for all Lou’s work.  Lou McCloud is a true hero to our people.  Add to that he, she, died a warrior.  They could do nothing less for him.”
Buck nodded, understanding that, as everywhere else Lou had gone, her untiring hard work and caring nature had won her an honored place among his other adopted family here.
**********
The next morning found Buck standing once again next to Lou’s casket, this time in a Muskogee funeral parlor.  Nodding to Hawk, he indicated it was time.
With a deep sigh, Hawk reached out and unlatched the casket.  Slowly, Hawk and his father, Pony Rider, lifted the casket lid.  Then the three men reached in and carefully, reverently, removed Lou’s body from the satin lined wooden box and gently placed it on a nearby table.
Hawk turned away, only to return moments later with a bucket of water and three clean clothes.  A chanting began in the background as the Taime priest from the day before began to sing to the Spirits, dancing around the room, bathing all and everything in sweetgrass smoke to cleanse them.  With this background, Buck, his son and grandson slowly began to wash Lou’s body one last time, preparing her for her final journey.
Once fully cleaned to their satisfaction, they began to dress her in her best dress uniform, making sure every button was carefully polished, each piece of ribbon in precisely the right place, every hem perfectly straight.
Suddenly the door opened and the sound of slow steps intruded on the quiet reverence in the room.  Buck stiffened in anger, looking up to see who would interrupt them at this sacred time.  But before he could vent the fury gathering in his pain filled eyes, a soft feminine voice laced with its own grief intruded.
“So, it’s true.”
“What?” was all Buck could say, completely flabbergasted.
“She’s really passed,” the elderly man? said in a soft woman’s voice.  Dressed in a black suit, with a loose jacket that fell to the knees and hair cut short above the collar it was impossible to tell the elderly intruder’s gender.
“Who are you?” Hawk asked, curiosity and anger vying for dominance in his voice.
“Dr. Mary Edwards Walker,” the woman said, moving toward the men attending to Lou, her hand stretched out to shake in the male fashion.  “I was Louise McCloud’s mentor.  I encouraged her to attend medical school and stay in the Army after the War.”
“You knew?” Buck asked, flabbergasted.
“Oh, yes, I knew,” Dr. Walker smiled fondly.  “Found out the day she got the notice her brother and sister had died of the ‘pox.  I remember that day like it was yesterday.”
“Mail Call!” 
The announcement rang out across the room that served as the mess hall for the doctors and nurses serving with the Ohio 52nd Regiment.  An eager susurration rippled across the room.  Pay day and mail call on the same day?  It was like Christmas in July!
Dr. Walker sighed as she accepted her check, knowing there would be no letters for her.  Her parents were dead, her siblings scattered to the four winds, her husband ignoring her existence.  Tucking the check into the pocket of her modified Union uniform, she walked toward the table in the corner of the room with the newest young surgeon trainee sitting at it, alone, munching on a sandwich.
“Mind if I sit?” she asked quietly.
The young man shrugged laconically, continuing to chew determinedly.  Swallowing, he finally stated, “Seat’s empty ain’t it?”
“Not anymore,” Mary smiled, seating herself next to the young man, not really much more than a boy.  Although… on closer examination, she began to wonder.  Maybe he wasn’t a man, or a boy.  “You’re new around here.  What’s your name?”
“Sgt. Lou McCloud,” he said, nodding as he perused Mary over the tops of his glasses.  Mary wondered if he even really needed them, they were perched so low on his nose.  “Who are you?  Don’t rightly find many women runnin’ ‘round in uniform.”
Mary laughed a little bitterly.  Looking down, she ran a hand across the front of the uniform.  “Had to make it myself.  They weren’t about to give me one!  I’m Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, assistant surgeon to the 52nd.”
Lou stopped chewing and looked at Walker with renewed interest. 
“Well, how ‘bout that!” he muttered in astonishment.  “How’d ya manage that one?”
“The secret?  I had to volunteer, work for free at first,” Mary whispered conspiratorially.  “And... I wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Lou laughed out loud.  It was a sweet, boisterous sound, and a little too musical to be male, Mary thought, keeping her grin to herself.
“What about you?” Mary asked.  “How’d you end up here?  You don’t sound like someone from Ohio.”
“Naw, I’m from the territories,” Lou said, picking up her fork and digging into the mashed potatoes on her plate.  “Joined up in Missouri.  Got transferred to the medical corps about a year back.  When I said I wanted ta train as a doctor they sent me here.  Just got in last week.”
“Sgt. McCloud?”
Lou looked up to see a corpsman holding out a slip of paper.  Reaching out, he grabbed the envelope and tore it open.  A grin began to split his face.  “Wow!  This is the best pay I’ve had since the end of the Express.  $16 a month!”
Mary’s face turned grim at that mention.  “A brand spanking new medical apprentice and you’re making $16?  I only get half that and I’ve got a medical degree and eight years experience as a practicing doctor!”
Throwing her napkin down on the table, she leaned back in her seat almost violently, virtual steam pouring out of her ears as she fumed.
Lou stared for a scant moment before going back to stuffing food into a gaping mouth.  “Guess life ain’t fair.”
‘That’s the truth!” Mary muttered, forcing herself to turn back to her own meal.
“McCloud!  You’ve got mail!” another corpsman shouted, waving an envelope in the air.  Lou jumped up and ran to grab it, even as the corpsman called out another name.
Walking back to the table where Mary sat, Lou was already tearing open the envelope.
“Who’s it from?” Mary asked curiously.
“Address is the family what adopted my brother and sister,” Lou muttered, intent on pulling out the single sheet of paper.  “Figure it must be from them.”
Lou sat down, eyes eagerly scanning through the words on the paper at first, then slowing, then closing in pain as the color washed out of her face.  Tears began seeping out from the corners of her eyes, even as she let the letter drop to the table.  Suddenly, she jumped to her feet and raced out of the mess hall, leaving her still half-filled plate and the letter abandoned.
Mary reached over and picked up the single sheet of foolscap.
            Dear Louise,
            I am sorry to inform you that Jeremiah and Teresa returned to their Heavenly Father last month, along with the rest of their new family.  The smallpox took all of them.  If it’s any comfort, their passing was quick and, I’m told, painless.
            Please rest assured you will see them someday in Heaven, child.
            If there’s anything I can do to help you, please write me back.  I wish you only the best.
            Sincerely,
            Mary Immaculata
            Mother Superior
Standing, Dr. Walker quickly disposed of the remainder of both meals then hurried out of the mess hall after Lou, Louise.  She found the younger woman huddled in a corner of the barn, hidden behind several large bags of grain.
Crouching down next to her, she took the weeping girl into her arms and just held her, rocking her back and forth.  When her sobs slowed, Mary pulled back and looked down at Lou.
“I’m so sorry, Louise,” she whispered.  “I’m so sorry this happened to you.  I know how hard it is to lose someone you love.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” Lou muttered, wiping her eyes dry with the cuffs of her uniform.  “I’ve lost them all, my parents, my siblings, my h… husband, my brothers.  There’s hardly anyone left.  And those that are still alive are risking their lives daily fighting one war or another.”  She sniffed as she tried to straighten her appearance.
“Tell me about it,” Mary offered, settling into a seated position on the straw covered barn floor.  “It helps to share your troubles.”
Lou began to share her story, slowly, haltingly at first… but then the words began to spill forth, almost stumbling over themselves in their eagerness to see the light of day.
“She wasn’t upset you’d found out? Or scared you’d tell?” Buck asked curiously, totally sidetracked from his anger at Dr. Walker’s interruption by this story that filled in some of the blanks left by Lou’s missing diary.
“No,” Dr. Walker said, shaking her head with a smile.  “Honestly, I don’t think she even noticed at first.  Then, I figure she either didn’t care anymore or realized I had nothing to gain from telling and would completely understand her reasoning for staying in hiding.”
“How’d you learn about her death?” Pony Rider asked, coming to stand next to his father, Hawk peering over his shoulder at this stranger.
“I was listed as her next of kin,” Dr. Walker shrugged.  “As she was mine.  That’s why I figure it took them so long to release her to you.  They were looking for me.”
Hawk nodded, knowing exactly what she meant.  But Buck still had more questions.
“That still doesn’t tell me how you found us here.”
Dr. Walker laughed, a silvery, liquid sound despite her advanced years.  “Oh, she told me all about her Express family that first night.  We must’ve spent all night sitting on that hard barn floor talking, sharing everything.  Part of her instructions were to bring her body here to you for burial if she died before you.”
Stepping around the trio of men, ignoring the still chanting Taime priest, Dr. Walker moved toward the table where Lou’s body rested.  Reaching out, she carefully straightened the short hairs on Lou’s forehead.
“We became best of friends, Lou and I.  Then, teacher and student, mentor and mentee.  But you were her family, always and forever.”
Buck stepped up next to the small woman who only came to his shoulder.  “We’d be honored if you’d join us for the funeral tonight at sunset, Dr. Walker.  And if you’d stay with my wife and me afterward.”
**********
Buck held the torch high over his head, looking out over the gathered group of people.  Dozens had dressed in their best to pay their last respects to his… sister… Dr. Louise McCloud.  There were white faces and Indian, male and female, young and old.  It touched him to realize just how many here respected her. 
As the setting sun touched the horizon, Buck began to speak.
“Lou… Louise McCloud came into my life when I was an angry youth with something to prove.  She became a friend, then a sister, accepting me for who I was long before the rest of the world.  She never saw me as red or white, just as friend and brother.  She was the same with our brothers: Ike, mute and scarred from scarlet fever, and Noah, a free black man who carried scars of a much different, though just as lasting, sort.  We all loved her.  Now, I’m the only one of our Express family remaining.  But her memory and legacy will live on with me and mine, so long as there is a Cross on this Earth.”
A chorus of yips punctuated this statement, a pledge from his children and grandchildren not to let her memory die.
Dr. Walker spoke up next.
“I met Dr. McCloud and helped train her into the physician who saved so many of your people during that terrible smallpox epidemic back in the ‘70s.  But she was more than just a student, she was also a friend.”  Mary paused to let the lump in her throat subside before speaking again.  “Dr. McCloud served honorably, first as a Pony Express rider, than as a soldier in Missouri. But after so many years of feeling helpless in the face of death and disease, she decided to become a doctor instead of a fighter.  That’s how we met.  The loss of her siblings to smallpox only confirmed the decision she’d already made.  Life in the Army wasn’t easy for her, but Dr. McCloud felt it was worth it, for the chance to help others.  I honor that choice.”
Another chorus of shouts greeted her words.  Then Hawk spoke.
“I only knew Dr. McCloud a short time.  But it was long enough to save my life!” He choked off a laughing sob, then continued. “But from the beginning he treated me as a member of his family, which,” he paused to look at his grandfather, “I guess I was in her mind.  I’ll never forget not only the medical care she provided, but the time she spent sharing stories of not only her past, but mine with me.  I understand my own family in ways I never would have without her.  All I can say is, ‘Thank you!’”
After another round of chorused agreement, Buck stepped forward along with the rest of the members of his immediate family and together they touched their torches to the fuel piled under Lou’s funeral bier.
Stepping back, they watched the growing flames lick at the darkening night sky.
Letting his tears slowly slip down his face yet again, Buck spoke one final time, “Goodbye Dr. Louise McCloud, Death Fighter, Sister, Wife, Medicine Woman.  You may be gone, but you will never be forgotten.  May your ride to the Stars be a safe one.”
**********
Later that evening, when the flames had gone out, the funeral pyre was cooling down and everyone had gone back to their houses, Buck sat in his parlor, the last of Lou’s journals in his hands. Mary Edwards Walker rested in the guest room and Hawk had returned to his parents’ home, since they were eager to have their son back with them.
But the old man decided to stay up alone that night.  He wanted to relive his friend and sister’s life and feel her near him one last time.
Today I ran into Jimmy!  What a wonderful feeling to be back with a part of our makeshift family again! When our family split up, shortly after we said our last goodbye to Noah, it felt like the end of an era.  The losses and trials since then have inevitably kept us separated.
Rachel and Teaspoon probably had the hardest time of all, watching us leave them behind. We were orphans, but they, along with Emma, were like the parents we’d all lost.  I’ve never stopped writing them, though. They are my lifeline to the only family I have left.
I’m happy Teaspoon decided to remarry Polly.  And I just learned from Rachel’s latest letter that she’s being courted by the quiet, gentle Janusz Tarkoski.  I’m glad that at least some of us have found a well-deserved happiness.
I haven’t heard much from Buck since the end of the Express.  But, Rachel tells me he’s met someone down in Oklahoma Territory and is courting her.  I’m glad.  I hope Buck decides to give up the losing battle against the white world.  It’s a fight he knows he can’t win.  I hope that he marries this girl, settles down and raises a big family.  That’s the way to fight for the survival of his people.
It’s been easy to keep track of Cody!  I remember when he used to dream about his adventures showing up in dime novels.  Well, that dream has come true.  And, as ever, Cody continues to write regularly, the only one of my ‘brothers’ to do so.  He and his new wife, Louisa Frederici are doing well, already expecting their first child.  I expect to hear any day now that he’s a father.  Now there’s a sight I’d pay to see!
Married.  With children.  Everyone but Jimmy and me seems to have found someone to share their life with.  I doubt I will ever again.  Despite all my travels and all the men I’ve met over the last few years none has ever made my heart jump and my breath catch the way Kid did.  It seems I will walk through the rest of this life alone.
Jimmy feels much the same way, though.  I never fully realized it until this evening.  I ran into him this afternoon here at Fort Leavenworth.  He was in civilian clothing, wearing a large Territorial Deputy badge on his chest, his trademark pearl-handled Colts riding low on his hips.  If it hadn’t been for them I doubt I would have recognized him beneath that curly mane of hair he’s grown that falls almost to his belt now and a thick, long mustache that touches his chin.
He sure recognized me, though!  When he spotted me, he lifted me – his little brother – in a bear hug that left my feet dangling in the air and my heart racing in fear he would notice the softness of my breasts, despite my tight wrappings.
We found a secluded corner to eat in peace and soon were chatting away as if no time had passed.  It was more like we had just come in from a short ride, and not met for the first time after long years of war and separation. We traded news about the scattered members of our family. He told me that Buck was planning to officially propose to his sweetheart and I surprised him with the news of Rachel’s new suitor.
We joked and reminisced about the old times, but the years of separation, the weight of what he’s lived, are clear in the lines of his face.  I’d hazard a guess mine has aged just as much.  The last few years have been hard on all of us.  Jimmy has matured.  He’s more somber than the hotheaded Jimmy I knew.  He’s no longer the Jimmy who joined the Army with me, intent on exacting revenge for Kid’s and Noah’s deaths.
Whatever he did for the Army during the War, after we were separated, is a sore spot for Jimmy.  I can feel it.  He avoided talking about it and I didn’t ask.  In everyone’s heart there are some old wounds that shouldn’t be touched.  Even today, after all these years, there are some things I can’t think about without dying a little inside all over again.
For Jimmy the worst wound wasn’t caused by the War though. Nor was it  caused by any of the string of women who’ve taken advantage of his soft heart over the years, like that Sarah Downs who almost got him killed! No, it wasn’t any of them who wounded his heart irreparably.
That honor, if I can call it such, belongs to the one who cared about him the most.  It was Emma, our sweet Emma, the first woman after our mothers who cared and looked after us as if we were her sons, who seems to have ruined Jimmy’s chances at happiness.
I never realized how much Jimmy loved her and how he is still unable to forget her. Back in the days of the Express I realized that Jimmy carried a torch for our stationmother, but I thought it was only a schoolboy crush!  After all Emma was several years our senior and, more important, she was in love with Sam Cain.  Jimmy never had a chance with her, but this didn’t keep him from falling, hard, all the same.
I can’t blame him for not being able to let go of an impossible love, though.  At least Jimmy has the comfort of knowing she’s living a happy and fullfilling life, with the man of her choice and children.  He can still see her occasionally, even if he can’t be with her.  I, on the other hand, will never see my love again in this world.  I have only five short days of happiness to carry me through the rest of my life.  Sometimes I wonder just how long that will be?
More than once, I’ve thought about my future, now that the war is over.  I have a bunch of money, because I never got to use what I saved during the Express and I don’t have many expenses here in the Army.
Sometimes I’ve thought about returning to Rock Creek and starting the horse ranch Kid and I dreamed about.  But it just doesn’t seem right without him by my side.  Other times I imagine going somewhere where nobody knows me, dropping my pretense and starting to live as Louise again.  I would be able to live a decent life, though I might have trouble practicing as a doctor.  Maybe I could even find a nice guy, let him court me and start a family.
The sting of the loneliness is hard to bear, I can’t deny it. When I watch the other soldiers reunited with their families, the love in their eyes when they meet their spouses, the way they hug their children as if they were the most precious thing in the world for them, I envy them.
When I return to my cold bunk I, too, long for someone waiting for me at the end of the day. I have lots of friends, like Mary, Rachel and Teaspoon, and the brothers of my heart, Buck, Jimmy and Cody, but it isn’t the same.
My thoughts keep returning to Jimmy.  Re-meeting him after all those years made me realize how much I care about my brother.  We could be good for each other, because he’s as lonely as me. We know each other so well and if I ever find the nerve to tell him the truth he might not turn me down.
The idea of telling him my secrets doesn’t terrify me as it did with Kid, probably because I have less to lose. But, still, I can’t convince myself to do it. Deep down I know it is only a palliative, something we would do to fight off the solitude and it wouldn’t be fair, especially not to Jimmy. I’ll always be Kid’s wife in my heart and, as much as I try, I can’t move on. But I’m convinced he’ll find someone to love sooner or later and I can’t deprive him of that chance.
And, the fact of the matter is, it’s been too long. I no longer know who Louise is.  I wouldn’t know how to find my way back to her.  No, Lou is here to stay.  Just this morning my commanding officer offered me the chance to go study medicine officially at Harvard Medical School.  I think I may take him up on it.  At least that way my life will mean something.  I can help people more as Lou than I ever could as Louise.
Buck looked up from the journal, pausing to take a deep breath.  There was something so sad, so final about the words Lou, Louise, had written that day.  Almost as if she were firmly closing the door on all chances at true happiness, a husband, children, a family.  She’d cut herself off, not only from the chance at romantic love but also from the love of her Express family.
“She wasn’t desperately unhappy all the time.”
Buck turned his head to see Dr. Walker standing in the doorway, leaning against the door jam.
“What?” he spoke, surprised to hear his voice cracking over the single word.
“Judging from your tears, your reading what she wrote on one of her bad days,” Mary said, shuffling into the room to lower herself into the chair next to Buck’s, before the fireplace.  “Most of the time, she was happy with the choices she’d made.  She watched what I went through, and others like me, pioneers who’ve struggled to make a difference in this world for women.  And she always said, she felt like she could do more to help people as a practicing doctor, developing new techniques, spreading knowledge to others, saving lives, than by fighting a battle that couldn’t be won in her lifetime.”
Buck nodded.  Lou’d told him something similar the last time she’d been here, when she’d delivered his firstborn son, Pony Rider, back in 1876.  He’d been over the moon about his baby, but forlorn over having to leave his fight for Indian rights.  She’d told him the best way to win the battle was to live a good life, raise his children to be good people.  She’d been right, he smiled.
Turning to Mary, he whispered, “Thank you.”
She reached out a hand and gently patted his, where it rested on top of Lou’s journal.  “I always considered Lou to be a little sister to me.  And since you were her ‘brother’, I guess that makes us family, now, too.”
“Tell me about her,” Buck begged.  “Tell me about the Lou you knew.  Not the one in the journals, not the boy I rode with, not the girl who loved and lost Kid.  Tell me about the woman who lived to save lives.”
Mary nodded and thought deeply for a moment, gently pushing her rocker into motion.  Then, she began to speak, sharing her memories of Dr. Lou McCloud.
**********
Buck slowly lowered his arms, letting the last sounds of his wailing prayer disappear into the morning air.  He breathed deeply.  He loved nothing so much as meeting a new day with a prayer to the rising sun.  It always left him feeling renewed and refreshed.
Pushing himself to his feet, Buck turned back to his workshed.  He had something to do.  He loved Lou, but this wasn’t where she belonged.
**********
“What are you doing, Grandpa?”
Buck looked up from the small redwood box he was sanding to a high sheen.  He’d lovingly fixed it in the old way, using only small wooden pegs, no metal, to hold it together.  He’d carefully crafted the top so that it slid down securely over the bottom.  Then, he’d carved two figures on horseback into the lid, riding into a setting sun depicted by a knot in the red wood.  Both of them had their arms outstretched toward the other, a mochila suspended in the air between them.  Now, he was carefully polishing the entire thing until it shone in the bright, late morning sunlight.
“It’s for her ashes,” Buck spoke softly, reverently.
Hawk looked at his grandfather questioningly, not understanding.  This was not the Cherokee way.  Nor was it the Kiowa way.  What was his grandfather up to?
“I’m taking her home.”
“But, you’ve already done that,” Hawk protested, coming up to admire his grandfather’s handiwork.
“No,” Buck shook his head sadly.  “I haven’t.  This isn’t her home.  Not really.”
“Then, where is?”
“Rock Creek,” Buck said softly.  “With the rest of her family.  Even if they aren’t all physically there, they all are in spirit.  It’s what she’d want.”
Slowly, Hawk nodded.  He understood what Buck was telling him.  It’s like the Cross motto he’d had drilled into his head from the earliest days of his life.  “Family’s family and Company’s company.  You always put family first.”
“And son,” Buck finally said, “I haven’t said anything to the others yet.  Heck, I’ve just made up my own mind myself.  But, when my time comes, I want you to take me back home, too.  Bury me with my Express family, in the white tradition.  I wish to honor their love for me in that way.”
Hawk struggled to breath over the sudden lump in his throat, staring at his grandfather in shock and dismay.  What Buck had just asked broke with every tradition of both parts of Hawk’s native heritage.  Hawk didn’t know how to respond.  Yet, it was such a Running Buck Cross thing to do.  The young man had spent enough time in the outside world the last few years to understand what his grandfather was asking and wanted.  Hawk could only nod his head, slowly
**********
Three years later…
Hawk stepped back from the freshly turned grave, having just dropped a handful of dirt onto his grandfather’s casket.  Buck had finally gone to join his ancestors the week before.  Morning Star had simply awoken one morning to find he’d died peacefully in his sleep.
Hawk listened as a young woman with long blond hair, Caroline Tarkoski she’d called herself, began to sing an old favorite of his grandfather’s, Aura Lee.
Her sweet voice and the sad words brought tears to his eyes.  He looked around the large graveyard, noting the various markers.  Next to his grandfather’s brand new headstone stood two faded white crosses, the names Ike McSwain and, simply, The Kid, still legible.  Next to that was the stone angel his grandfather had raised to mark Dr. McCloud’s final resting place.  Further away, stood markers for Noah Dixon, Rachel Dunne Tarkoski and Janusz Tarkoski, and Polly and Aloysius ‘Teaspoon’ Hunter.  There were even small honorary crosses raised for plain Billly Cody and Jimmy Hickok, no legends here.  His grandfather had insisted on raising the last two markers three years ago, when they’d brought Lou home.
As the last sweet notes of the song faded into the air, Hawk looked up at the broad, neverending, prairie blue sky streaked with brilliant white clouds. 
“You’re home now, Grandpa.  Tell them all ‘Hi’ for me, won’t you?” he whispered.  “And… ride safe.”

Author's Note:  This was my first attempt at writing a story with someone else.  This piece wouldn't have been half as good without Paola's constant attention to detail and great plot ideas.  Thank you! Let's do it again, sometime soon.