Summary: It's been four long years of war and separation. Now the hostilities are over. But Kid's family is still flung to the far corners of the earth and he's feeling guilty he didn't go with them. Will the spirit of the Christmas season help him forget?
Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory
December 20th, 1865
They were tall, definitely knee high. And they shone brightly in the late morning sun that filtered through the store window. Someone had spent quite some time buffing the black, patent leather until it gleamed. The smell of the leather and oil hung in the air, as attractive as the boots themselves. They were perfect.
Lou’s shoulders slumped at the thought. Yeah. They’d be the perfect Christmas gift for Kid, but there was no way they could afford them. Turning away from the display, she moved across the store to the shelf stocked with candies of all sorts.
“A little something sweet for the babies?” Emma asked, smiling as she glided to Lou’s side, her skirts swishing gently about her. It was a trick Lou had never quite managed to acquire. She’d learned, eventually, how to move in the long skirted dresses without tripping over her own feet. But that was about the best that could be said. She wasn’t precisely graceful at any time other than on the back of a horse.
Lou nodded her head. “I’m afraid it’s about all we can afford this year,” she murmured.
Emma wrapped an arm around Lou’s shoulders in commiseration. She well understood what it was like to not have the money to spend on her children the way she’d like. The last few years had been hard on everyone. And Lou and Kid had just been starting out, with the babies coming practically on the heels of their wedding, scandalously so by some accounts. They were making ends meet and had a good start on a working horse ranch, but had little for the extras in life. The only reason they’d been able to make this visit was because Lou had insisted on bringing the children along when Kid came to deliver a shipment of horses to the Army here at Fort Laramie. But Emma also knew Kid and Lou were too proud to accept handouts. So, she’d just have to be sneaky and get them all extra nice Christmas gifts. She’s sneak them into their luggage when they left, so they wouldn’t discover them until they were well on their way home.
“Well,” Emma said briskly, hiding a secretive smile. “What do you think they’d like?”
Lou reached out immediately and selected a brightly colored stick of red and white candy. “Emmylu will want the peppermint, there’s no doubt about that.”
Emmylu, or Emma Louise McCloud, was a precocious three and a half year old, born not quite nine months to the day after Kid and Lou’s wedding. She had all of Kid’s black and white view of the world and Lou’s determination and outspokenness. She also had a liberal helping of stubbornness from both parents, making their lives miserable upon occasion. Emmylu, born on the Fourth of July, and her younger brother, born on Thanksgiving, were their Holiday Babies, as Kid liked to call them. Lou rubbed her belly, just starting to show, and wondered if they’d continue the trend. Maybe this one would be a May Day baby.
“But I ain’t so sure ‘bout Noah,” Lou mused. Her just barely two year old son had had little opportunity to try candy yet so she wasn’t really sure what he’d prefer. Since she could only afford to get him one stick, she wanted to make sure it would be one he’d like. “What do you think, Emma? The peppermint? Horehound? Molasses? Butterscotch?”
“What’s that one?” Emma asked, pointing to a collection of black candy sticks at the end of the shelf.
“Licorice?” Lou wrinkled her nose. “No, I don’t think so. Not for his first piece at least.”
“Why don’t you go with the butterscotch, then,” Emma suggested. “It’s sweet but nothing too….. drastic. Should appeal to the little one.”
A soft smile broke out on Lou’s face, one that obviously had little to do with her young son. “Just like his Pa,” she murmured so softly Emma wasn’t even sure she’d heard her correctly. “Better get two or Kid’ll get jealous.”
“What about you?” Emma asked. “You deserve a little something sweet for Christmas, too.”
“Well….” Lou dithered a moment, tempted but reluctant.
“Oh, go on,” Emma encouraged. “It’s only ten cents.”
“Alright,” Lou said, finally giving in. Reaching out as eagerly as any young child, she snatched a stick of the horehound candy off the shelf and added it to her small pile of purchases. Along with the four sticks of candy it included a mass of brown yarn she planned to turn into mittens for everyone, a small packet of sugar for Christmas cookies and three oranges. They were the last ones the store had, sitting there in their proud glory on the counter. She and Kid would have to share, but it didn’t matter. She could hardly wait to enjoy their juicy sweetness on Christmas morning.
Moments later, the two women had paid for the things they’d picked out and were walking down the boardwalk, deftly, at least on Emma’s part, sidestepping soldiers rushing to and fro, on their way back to Emma and Sam’s house, chattering about everything and nothing.
Lou laughed at Emma’s stories about her boys’ latest antics, Sam, Jr, and Isaac were always getting into something. Then there was baby Sarah Elizabeth, born just four months ago. Just starting to roll over and attempt crawling, she was the center of Cains’, all of them, world and was going to end up being one spoiled little girl if they didn’t watch it.
Lou’s lighthearted gaiety faded as they neared the Cain residence on the edge of town. Sam was out in the yard, playing horsey with the children. Right now Emmylu was riding his shoulders, digging her heels in and yelling “Yee-haw!” at the top of her little lungs, while the others cheered her on. Kid was nowhere in sight. Lou knew where he’d be. Sitting in the bedroom Sam and Emma had given them, staring out a window, absently fiddling with his harmonica. It seemed that was all he did lately if he didn’t have an actual chore presented to him.
It broke Lou’s heart to see him like this, but she didn’t know how to break him out of his growing depression. It had started back in late summer, when the celebrations over the end of the war had faded away and none of their brothers had shown up, as promised. Kid kept staring across the prairie, watching and waiting, ready to call out ‘Rider comin’!’ at the first sign of anyone’s return. Except none of them had shown up yet. Each day he’d withdrawn a little more from her and the children. Now, she didn’t know how to reach him anymore.
She sighed forlornly. Emma, having seen Lou’s eyes flit across the front yard to the front porch and then up to the second story window of their bedroom, put a comforting hand on her arm.
“It’ll be alright,” she said. “He’ll… you’ll both get through this. For better or worse, remember?”
Lou visibly tried to shake off her own melancholia. “I know,” she said, forcing a smile for Emma’s benefit. “We’ve had the better, and we will again. But, I worry about them, too, you know? Teaspoon, Cody…. Jimmy,” her voice caught momentarily on that last name, her best friend. “We haven’t even heard from Buck in years. I know it weighs on Kid. It’s just so hard to see him hurting like this.”
She’d known this day was coming from the moment he’d announced his decision not to go to war. It was shortly after they’d discovered she was already with child. They’d only been married a few weeks and Kid had been loath to leave her behind. So, instead, they’d contacted Emma and Sam and arranged to buy the old Shannon farmstead now that it was no longer being used as an Express Station. They’d moved further west to escape the tensions of the war and start the horse ranch they’d been dreaming about and planning for, but not before they’d gotten a promise from each of their brothers and Teaspoon to come visit as soon as the war was over, thinking it would only be a few months. But the war had dragged on for three more years. Now it was over and still they hadn’t come yet.
“I’d hoped this trip might help, seeing you and all.” She stopped and shrugged. There was nothing more to say. It hadn’t worked. Leaving Emma to greet her husband, Lou went on inside the house in search of her own spouse.
Moving up the stairs, she paused in front of the door to the room she, Kid and their children were sharing. She took a deep, fortifying breath, then opened the door and briskly strode into the room, chattering brightly.
“I managed to get a few Christmas presents for the children,” she said, smiling as she laid her packaged purchases down on the bed. “It won’t be much, but they’ll have fun.”
She turned to where Kid was sitting in a chair by the window, just as she’d figured he’d be doing. She walked over and brushed his hair off his forehead before leaning down to kiss him in greeting, acting for all the world as if nothing were wrong.
“Sam and Emma are planning a special goodbye dinner tonight,” she continued. “But I want to make sure we get the children in bed early so they don’t keep us from getting an early start in the morning. It’s going to be a long enough ride home as it is and I’d like to make it back before Christmas. I know Barnett will be glad to see us back, too. He’s never comfortable when we both leave the ranch and he’s got to take care of everything.”
Continuing her chatter, she began to pack their possessions into the carpetbag and saddlebags they’d brought with them. She lost her train of thought as the first few notes escaped the harmonica, but then continued on as if nothing had happened while Kid played the melancholy tune of Aura Lee behind her. There’d been a time when she’d thought it was pretty. Now, she detested every note of that song.