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?
Denver City, Colorado Territory
“Yep,” the doctor confirmed. “You’ve got two broken ribs there, boy. On top of a heckuva lot of cuts and bruises. Why’d you go in there for anyway? That place is notorious for the way they treat Inj… uh, Indians.”
Buck winced as he shrugged into his shirt and began slowly buttoning it up. He stood up and accepted the written instructions the doctor handed him.
“Didn’t used ta be,” was all he said, giving the doctor a couple coins to pay for his time. Without another word, or even a glance at his two ‘brothers’ standing by the door, he pushed his way out onto the city street, trying to breathe deeply of the crisp mountain air, only to wince again. “Damn it,” he muttered.
“Think ya can sit a horse with them ribs?” Jimmy asked, coming up behind him, Cody on his tail.
“At least long enough to get out of town,” he shrugged, wincing again. A bitter, acerbic tone entered his voice. “It’s what those men last night wanted. And I’m too tired to keep fighting them. Guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Ain’t no place that wants a ‘dirty half-breed’ around.”
“Aw, you don’t look all that dirty to me, Buck,” Cody joked. “Fact is, those men last night were a heckuva lot dirtier.”
“Whatever,” he muttered. Balling the paper the doctor had given him into his fist, he tossed it violently to the ground.
“Hey! Where ya goin?” Cody called after him, jogging down the street to catch up.
“Don’t know. Doesn’t really matter.”
Jimmy snorted. “He’s worse’n me. You really think this’ll work?”
“You ain’t helpin’ much, Hickok,” Cody snapped at the man sauntering slowly up to him. Turning back to Buck, he added, “Why don’t you come with us?”
“I ain’t goin’ nowhere near the Army,” Buck sneered. “I learned that lesson a long time ago. Just ‘cause I chose to live among the white men doesn’t mean I’m one of ‘em.”
“Maybe not,” Cody agreed. “But you’re one of us. Family, remember?”
“My family’s dead,” Buck said simply, turning away and walking toward the livery stable at the end of the street.
“No, we’re not!” Jimmy interjected emphatically. “We may’ve gotten scattered to the four winds, but it ain’t dead.”
That was the one thought that had kept him going through the war. His family, his Pony Express family that is, may not be with him, but they were still out there, caring for him, caring about him. It was a comfort in a time filled with little else but pain and suffering.
“Buck,” Cody demanded, grabbing the taller man’s arm and pulling back to swing him around to face the other two. “You can’t think like that, man. Remember what Teaspoon said that last day, when we was all leavin’? ‘We’re a family. And it’s a good family. No matter where you go or what happens, never forget what we had here. And know there’ll always be a brother, or a sister, out there ready ta come when ya call. Because it’s you callin’?”
Buck slowly moved his eyes to meet Cody’s pleading ones. The pain in them was so deep Cody almost gasped. “He wasn’t really talkin’ ‘bout me,” he said hoarsely. “That was fer y’all. My family’s dead and buried.”
“Like hell we are,” Jimmy growled, his fists clenching at his sides. “We’re standin’ right in front of ya man. And it looks like we didn’t get here a minute too soon.”
“Please, just come with us,” Cody begged. “If not for us, if not for yourself, then do it for your brother.”
Buck’s chin jerked as he looked sharply from one man in front of him to the next.
“What are you talking about?” he demanded.
“Kid needs us,” Cody said. “Lou, Emma too, they’ve been writin’ me fer months, ever since the war ended, beggin’ me ta come fer a visit. Said Kid’s practically pinin’ away with guilt, thinkin’ we’re all dead ‘cause he didn’t come ta war with us.”
“But, he needed to take care of Lou, and their baby,” Buck protested.
“Since when has reason ever kept the Kid from feelin’ guilty over somethin’?” Jimmy asked, exasperated, startling an unexpected chuckle out of Buck.
“Not often,” he admitted. Looking back and forth between the two men again, he could see their resolute attitude. They weren’t going to let him walk away and somehow, deep down inside, in places he’d tried to wall off and pretend didn’t exist anymore, that made all the difference. He nodded his head, slowly. “Fine,” he relented. “For Kid.”
“Missus McCloud! Missus McCloud!”
“Wha?” Lou groaned sleepily, trying to escape the hand roughly shaking her shoulder and the voice pounding in her ear.
“Please, ma’am, you’ve gotta come help,” Tucker rattled on desperately. “She’s in a real bad way. Please, wake up.”
Suddenly, the import of his words sank in and Lou jerked upright, her eyes wide open as her brain snapped into full wakefulness. “What’s wrong?” she demanded as she crawled out of the warm bed she shared with Kid and the children.
“Martha… I think… I think she may be dyin’,” Tucker practically wailed.
“Lou?” Kid asked sleepily.
“Get up, Kid,” Lou said. “Can ya get me the medicine bag and meet me in the wagon?”
“Sure,” he said.
Lou barely heard him as she followed Tucker, who was dragging her by the hand toward the wagon and his sister.
Several paces away from the wagon, Lou could already tell something was wrong. The sounds of violent thrashing, punctuated with pained moans, fragments of sentences shouted, then whispered, easily penetrated the worn canvas covering. Two worried little faces peered out from the back of the wagon at them. Baby Albert had a thumb stuck in his mouth and was sucking rapidly at it. Little Ellen just sat there, a hopeless look on her too young face.
“Take the babies over to our tent and get them settled,” Lou ordered as she climbed into the wagon. “Then get back over here. We might need your help.”
Reassured by her calm, assertive manner, Tucker was already relaxing. “Yes, ma’am,” he said quietly and reached out to gather the little ones into his arms.
“What’s wrong with her?” Kid asked as he climbed into the wagon a couple moments later. Lou looked up at him from where she was sitting at Martha’s side, sponging her forehead with cool water and, occasionally, holding her down when her thrashing about became too violent.
“Remember, I said some of her wounds were infected?”
Kid nodded as he squatted down next to Lou to grab onto Martha’s shoulders, keeping her from rolling off her pallet and onto the wagon floor.
“Looks like I didn’t get them all cleaned out well enough. She’s got a fever and is delirious.”
“Do you think we’re gonna have ta…..” Kid left the question hanging. Lou nodded her head reluctantly. He sighed. “I’ll go stoke up the fire. You get her ready.” He stood and moved toward the opening at the back of the wagon. Standing in the entrance, he turned and looked back at Lou. “What are we gonna do if she doesn’t--”
“Don’t go there, Kid,” Lou said tiredly. “One thing at a time. We’ll deal with that if and when we have to.”
He nodded and clambered out of the wagon.
“No, I don’ wanna,” Martha moaned, pushing Lou’s hands away. “Please…. don’t.”
“Shhhhh,” Lou murmured soothingly. “It’ll be alright. No one’s gonna make ya do somethin’ ya don’t want to. We just gotta get ya better.”
“Is he dead yet? Please tell me he’s dead. I can’t take no more.”
Lou frowned at the girl’s next words.
“Stop!!!!” Martha suddenly screamed, sitting bolt upright, eyes wide open, but seeing nothing, panic on her face, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I’ll be good,” she whimpered. “I promise. I won’t be lazy no more.”
Wrapping her arms around Martha’s shoulders, Lou hugged her tight. “It’s all over now,” she whispered. “You’re safe.”
Tenderly, carefully, Lou lowered Martha back to the pallet, this time rolling her onto her side, so she could check the girl’s back. She gagged at the putrid smell as she removed the bandages she’d put on earlier that afternoon. Several of the infected whipmarks had gotten worse instead of better and now oozed puss.
“Is she gonna be alright?” Tucker asked anxiously, his head peering over the back tailgate of the wagon.
“We’re gonna do our best for her,” Lou said, unwilling to promise anything she wasn’t sure she could deliver. “Go tell Kid, we’re gonna need at least two knives. Red hot.”
Tucker gulped, the blood draining from his face as he looked from Lou to his sister’s bared back.
“Hurry up, now,” Lou urged quietly. “We ain’t got time ta waste.”
“Aggggghhhhhh!” Martha screamed as Kid pressed the red hot knife to the last of the infected whipmarks on her back, the smell of burning skin making Lou want to wretch.
“There,” Kid grunted, removing the knife and settling back onto his heels. “That oughta do it.”
Lou immediately began to apply a new poultice and soon had Martha’s back bandaged up again. The young woman, exhausted from her delirium and the pain of the cauterizations fell into a deep, though still troubled sleep.
“But… but… yer Ma’s husband….” Martha whispered.
Having done all she could, Lou sat back and leaned into Kid’s supportive presence. She closed her eyes to rest for a moment, but new, worrying words from Martha opened them again. Looking across the girl’s slumbering body, her eyes met Tuckers.
“I think it’s time you told us what’s goin’ on,” Kid said, before Lou had the chance.
Tucker looked anxiously back and forth among the three other occupants of the wagon before, finally, nodding his agreement. With a sigh, he settled into a seated position at the foot of his sister’s pallet. Keeping one hand on her legs to reassure himself she was still there, doing alright, he began to speak.