Summary: It's been four long years of war and separation. But 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?
“We should stop for lunch soon,” Lou said, breaking into the silence that had hovered over the small family of travelers. “The children need a break.”
“Yeah,” Kid sighed, looking down at baby Noah, who was becoming less of a baby every second. He’d spent the last hour squirming in front of Kid, trying to slide off Katy’s back at every opportunity. Hugging the child closer to him, he pointed out a nearby stand of trees. “Looks like there’s some water over there.”
“Race you?” Lou suggested, smiling, hoping to raise her husband’s spirits.
Kid was about to turn down the offer, but Noah started jumping in his seat. “Race! Race! Race!”
“Do I have a choice?” he asked with a lopsided smile and spurred Katy into a land eating gallop. Lightning at their side, as always. Putting his head down to snuggle his cheek next to his son’s, listening to the child’s bright laughter, Kid wished things could always be like this. The pounding of the horse’s hooves, the laughter of his children, no one else to worry about, no cares in the world. Life could be so much easier..
“Stop where yer at or I’ll shoot!”
The sound of the trigger being cocked, much more than the squeaky earliteen voice behind the threat, had Kid pulling back on Katy’s reins. She whinnied in protest, rearing slightly as she tried to stop on a dime. With one arm wrapped around Noah and grasping the reins firmly, Kid had his pistol pulled, cocked and aimed before she came to a complete halt.
“Who are you and how dare you threaten my family?!” Kid roared.
“Threaten your family? Yer the one ridin’ like hell toward my family’s camp, armed fer trouble!”
“Alright, why don’t both of you put yer guns down, slowly and easily,” Lou suggested, trotting Lightning up to Kid’s side to place a restraining hand on his arm. “He’s just a child, Kid.”
“I ain’t no child,” the boy protested, even as he lowered his gun, Lou’s feminine voice calming his fears. “You ain’t got no call ta be callin’ me a kid, neither.”
Lou laughed lightly, dismounting to walk up to the boy. Pointing back at her husband, she said, “He’s the Kid. That’s his name. I’m his wife, Lou… Louise McCloud. We’re just travelin’ through on our way home.”
The boy turned toward the sound at the weak call and hurried to the back of a covered wagon in pitiful shape. The canvas was badly worn, torn in several places, the wagon in obvious disrepair. The oxen were gaunt. The camp looked like a tornado had blown through just a few minutes ago. The eggs on the fire were smoking, about to burn. Lou hustled over to pull the skillet out of the flames and set it on the wagon’s tailgate, only to have the tailgate fall out from under it. She looked up at Kid helplessly.
“Greenhorns,” he muttered.
Lou looked from him to the scene inside the wagon. A small woman, smaller even than Lou, lay on her back, heavily pregnant. Her unwashed hair hung in greasy, limp tangles around her face. Two more children, a girl around the age of 5 and a toddler of indeterminate gender, a bit younger than Noah, huddled by her side.
“Who are they, Tucker?”
“I don’t know,” the boy said, carefully tucking the blankets more tightly around her.
“Maybe they kin hep us,” she said, sighing.
“We don’t take charity!” the boy began to protest.
“Fer myself, no,” the woman said softly. She reached up and gently wiped a hand across the little girl’s face, pushing the hair out of it. “But it ain’t just me we gotta worry ‘bout. These chillen’s won’t survive much longer.”
“I’m hunry, Missus,” the little girl whimpered.
“I know sweetie.”
“Kid,” Lou shouted. “Why don’t you get lunch goin’. And set up the tent. We’re gonna be here a bit, I think.”
“Why?” he asked, right by her ear, startling her. “What’s goin’ on?”
“These folks need our help, Kid,” she said softly, almost whispering. “We can’t leave ‘em here ta starve or freeze. Wouldn’t be Christian.”
“No,” he agreed more firmly. “It wouldn’t.” Turning to the family huddled in the wagon he asked, “Where y’all headed?”
“Oregon,” the boy who’d greeted them with the rifle said determinedly.
“Well, ya ain’t gonna make it ‘fore the winter snows close them passes. By this time of year only an Express rider could make it through,” Kid said.
The boy and the woman shared a look of near panic.
“Don’t worry,” Kid added. “We’ll help you fix this wagon up so it’ll get ya to the nearest town, find a place you can winter over.”
“Thanks, mister,” the woman said, her eyes misting over. “I don’t know how ta thank ya.”
“Why don’t you start by tellin’ us yer name?” Lou suggested with a smile, lifting an inquisitive EmmyLu up onto her hip. The girl lay her head on her mother’s shoulder and stared pensively at the other children.
“I’m Martha… Hollander,” the woman introduced herself, saying her name more like Maw-Tha in her deep southern accent. “That’s my brother, Tucker,” she added pointing to the young man hovering at her side. “These’re my…. children, Ellen and Albert.”
Lou flicked a concerned glance at Kid and saw that he too had noticed the odd pauses in her introduction. She wondered what the woman was hiding, but figured it couldn’t be worse than her current situation.
“Well,” Kid said briskly, following Lou’s own train of thought. “Let’s get these children washed up and fed. Then, Tucker, you can help Lou and I get the wagon fixed up. Tomorrow we’ll take y’all to Box Elder and help you find a place.”
“I hate this stuff,” Lou groaned as she stirred the pot of black, bubbling pitch and plant material with a large stick.
“Why’s it so stinky, Ma?” EmmyLu asked, peering around her mother at the pot.
“I don’t know honey,” Lou smiled down at her daughter, trying hard to breathe through her nose. “Probably whatever makes it so sticky also makes it stinky.”
Lou laughed and nodded. The little girl wandered off to join the other children.
“The glue about ready?” Kid asked, walking up to her while pulling off his gloves. Sweat shone on his forehead despite the winter chill in the air.
Lou nodded. “Ready when you are. So’s the sinews.”
“Good,” Kid said, smiling slightly at her. “Cause I could use yer help. Tucker’s willin’, but he just don’t know what he’s doin’.”
Lou looked over at where Martha sat under a nearby tree. She looked almost pretty after a good meal. Though she could still use a bath. For the moment she was wrapped up in nearly every blanket the little family had and was happily entertaining the youngest children with a game of cat’s cradle. Assured her little ones were safely occupied, Lou turned back to Kid and nodded.
“I’ll be right there.”
“Good,” he repeated again, leaning forward to kiss her quickly before heading back toward the wagon where he and Tucker were working to get the broken axle off so they could repair it.
Lou watched him closely. He was walking taller, smiling more than he had in months. She grinned. Nothing ever worked to make Kid feel better than to let him feel like he was helping someone else out.
“Alright,” Kid said, taking a good grasp of the base of the wagon bed. “When Lou and I lift on the count of three, Tucker, yer goin’ ta pull the axle clear of the wagon. Ready?”
“Yes, sir,” the young boy nodded eagerly.
“Here we go,” Kid said, meeting Lou’s eyes across the wagon seat. “One… two… three!”
“Ungh,” Lou grunted, lifting with all her might.
“Pull, Tucker,” Kid gasped out. “Quickly. We can’t hold this for much longer!”
Without another word, Lou and Kid let the wagon fall back onto its wheels.
“You alright?” Kid asked, stepping around the wagon to Lou’s side. She stood, bent over, hands on her knees, gasping for breath.
“I’ll be fine,” she muttered, straightening up. “Yer the one that was liftin’ the wagon without gloves. How are you?”
He tried to shrug off her concern even as she reached out to grasp his hands and inspect them.
“Um hm,” she murmured. “As I thought. I shoulda never let ya get away with insistin’ I wear yer gloves.”
“We only had the one pair with us, Lou,” he protested.
“And now you’ve got two palms full of slivers.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“As soon as we get that axle glued back together, I’m goin’ ta have ta pull them splinters, Kid,” she warned in an exasperated voice.
“Let’s just get this thing fixed before it gets dark,” Kid said, already turning back toward the task at hand. “I don’t fancy spending another night out here if we don’t have to.”
“Will it really hold?” Tucker asked, as they surveyed the temporarily repaired axle back in its place under the wagon.
“Not for long,” Lou said.
“But long enough to get y’all to the next town,” Kid added. “Now, let’s go get washed up. This pitch’ll stick forever if we don’t get rid of it quick.”
“I never thought of using pine pitch as glue,” Tucker marveled, following Kid toward the creek. “And them wet sinews? Where’d you learn ta use them ‘sted of rope? How’d you know they’d get all tight like that when they dried?”
Lou smiled as she watched them move away. Kid was like a… well a kid in a candy shop with Tucker’s adoration. And it was easy to see Tucker was dying for a man he could look up to.
She wanted to clean up, too, but thought this might be a good time to help Martha get cleaned up as well. Turning toward the other woman, Lou paused. Martha’d let the blankets fall off the back of her shoulders as she reached out to capture little Albert before he tumbled too close to the firepit. And now Lou could see not only how painfully thin the girl, and baby on the way or not she was truly just a girl herself, really was. But that wasn’t what made Lou gasp. The blood that had seeped through the back of the dress, creating a pattern of crisscrossing lines that traveled from the top of her shoulders all the way to her low back and upper buttocks, did that.
“What the hell happened to you?” Lou demanded in a fierce tone.