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.
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 naïve 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.
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 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.