Summary: A child's questions help Lou keep a promise to lost family.
Author's Note: This story falls in the Fighting For Love, Post Script series of stories, coming some two decades after the Civil War. It was originally written for the A Few Good Lines challenge at The Writers Ranch.
“Ma? You still home?”
Louise turned from the laundry she was folding to look at her eldest son, Jamie, sticking his head through the kitchen door calling for her.
“I’m right here, son,” she said, worried by the anxious tone in his voice. “What is it?”
“You’d better come,” he answered, relief in his face. “Mary Margaret’s upset ‘bout somethin’ and she won’t talk ta none of us.”
Lou quickly set the sheet in her hands back down on the table and headed straight for the door. Soon, she was following her son down the porch steps and across the yard to the barn. Standing in the entrance, he pointed silently up to the hayloft. Lou could hear a quiet sobbing drifting down with the stray bits of straw dislodged by the little girl’s movements.
“Thanks,” she said, putting a hand on Jamie’s shoulder. “Yer a good boy. I think yer Pa left some cookies fer ya on the kitchen. Why don’t you get yer brothers and go have one each. One!” she held up a single finger in warning.
The teen nodded, smiling, and turned to go. Lou sighed. Mary Margaret was her youngest and most volatile child, and the only girl. Born several years after the three boys, who had come one right after the other, she was often spoiled by her Pa and brothers, in Lou’s opinion at least. But normally, she was a very cheerful child. Although she had a fiercesome temper, easily aroused, she was quick to get over her anger and begin smiling again. But it was rare for her to cry over anything. Lou wondered what had happened.
Hitching up her skirts, she wished she’d already dressed for work in her trousers and vest. Climbing up into the loft would be so much easier! Shaking her head at her own foolishness, knowing it was just a mental delaying tactic for dealing with her little girl, Louise stepped onto the first rung of the ladder and quickly clambered up it.
Peering over the floor of the hayloft, she saw Mary Margaret tucked into a mound of hay in the far corner, curled into a ball, crying. Lou smiled gently, wondering what earth shattering crisis had precipitated this meltdown.
She finished crawling into the loft herself and moved over to her daughter’s side. Reaching out a hand to rest it on the girl’s shoulder, she simply sat there, waiting for Mary Margaret to have the first say.
“Why do people have ta be so mean?” she finally whimpered.
“What are you talkin’ ‘bout, honey?”
“The girls at school,” Mary Margaret explained, sitting up and wiping her reddened eyes dry on the sleeve of her dress.
Lou nodded slowly. Yes, she had personal experience with just how mean and nasty girls, little and big, could be to someone who didn’t fit in. And, needless to say, no one in this family would ever, quite, fit in. No matter how hard they tried.
“What happened?” she asked.
“We were talkin’ ‘bout families,” the little girl sniffed. “We’re supposed ta do a family tree for History class. Find out what family members were alive during what historical events, stuff like that. And they started teasin’ me, said I didn’t have any family. That I was a… a…. orphan!”
“You know very well that isn’t true,” Lou smiled, slightly exasperated. She reached out and pulled the girl into her arms for a hug. “What have I told you about letting lies get under your skin. It ain’t worth the trouble.”
“But, Ma,” Mary Margaret wailed. “They said all of us are ‘orphans’. ‘Cause we’re Express babies. I don’t even know what they meant! But then they went on ta tell the teacher I wouldn’t be able ta do the assignment, ‘cause I didn’t have no family tree. They said I’d faaaaaiiiiilllllll!”
“Now hold on there,” Lou said with a warning tone, hoping to hold off another crying jag. “That ain’t true, either. You do have a family tree. It’s just a bit unusual. But it’s got lots of history in it, so I doubt you’ll fail the assignment, seein’ as how the idea is ta learn ‘bout history anyway.”
“I know,” Louise smiled, chucking the little girl under the chin. “Come on inside,” she added, standing up and holding her hand out to her daughter. “I’ve got somethin’ ta show ya and lots of stories ta tell. I bet yer Pa has a few too, and I know yer Uncle Buck could add to them.”
Lou walked through the kitchen door and laughed to see her three teenaged sons sitting around the table, stuffing their mouths with cookies and tossing down large glasses of milk.
“I thought I told ya one cookie each?” she said with a warning note in her voice.
“Sorry, Ma,” Willie, the youngest boy, said placatingly. “We were just soooo hungry after that long walk home from school.”
Never letting go of Mary Margaret’s hand, she used her other hand to ruffle the boy’s hair.
“Well, put the rest away now,” she said. “Then why don’t you come join us in the parlor. I’ve got something to show you. All of you.”
The three boys scrambled to do as they’d been told and soon trailed after their mother and sister. They watched curiously as she stepped up to the large bookcase their Pa had built her next to the fireplace. Letting go of their sister’s hand, she reached up and took down three pictures from the top shelf. Then, she reached out and grabbed a picture album. It was brand new, a Christmas gift the year before from Pa.
She settled down on the rag rug, another gift, this one from Rachel, in front of the fireplace and patted the floor next to her. It was a familiar signal to gather on the rug and settle in for a story. Story time had been a favored family tradition in the McCloud household for as long as any of the children could remember.
Once they were seated around her, Lou began to speak.
“Y’all know yer Pa and I, and yer Uncle Buck, used ta ride fer the Pony Express,” she said. “We rode fer two different stations, the second one right here in Rock Creek. Folks in these parts have long memories. One of the things the Express preferred was ta hire orphans. And that’s what all of us were, more or less.”
The children all nodded. They’d all heard this plenty of times. They loved to hear stories about their parents adventures with the Express.
“Thing is, a family ain’t just ‘bout blood. And, while we didn’t have no blood parents, that ain’t ta say we didn’t have any parents a’tall.”
“But, if yer Ma and Pa were dead, how could ya have parents?” Mary Margaret asked.
“Hush,” hissed Jed, the middle boy. “She’s gettin’ to it!”
Lou glared at Jed over the tip of her nose and he winced before looking an apology at his little sister.
“Anyway,” Lou said, clearing her throat. “Like I said, just ‘cause our parents was dead didn’t ‘xactly mean we was orphans. One of the first things I ever remember yer Gramma Emma sayin’, was we wasn’t orphans as long as she was around. And it was true. She was like a Ma ta all of us. Eventually, yer Grandpa Teaspoon started actin’ like our Pa, even though he didn’t want to. And later, when Rachel joined us, she was like a big sister. The rest of us, well, we were tight as brothers can be. Remember, I was livin’ like a boy then.”
Lou paused to look down at Mary Margaret who was tugging at the sleeve of her dress.
“Who’s Grandpa Teaspoon?” she asked. The children had all met Gramma Emma several times, when she and Grandpa Sam came to visit with their children, or when they all went to Omaha to visit them. But Teaspoon was a new name for the little girl. Lou laughed.
“Teaspoon? Well, Teaspoon Hunter was our boss. He was the stationmaster in charge of us. He was also the Marshal after Grandpa Sam married yer Gramma Emma and ran off with her ta be the Territorial Marshal. I swear, if we hadn’t all objected and insisted on a proper weddin’, he’d a run off with her in the middle of the night!”
They all laughed, each with their own memories of just how in love their nominal grandparents were.
“And Mary Margaret, you can put this in yer assignment,” Lou advised. “Yer Grandpa Teaspoon was a survivor of the Alamo. He and a few others rode fer help before Santa Ana’s army surrounded the mission. Unfortunately, help didn’t make it back in time. That always pained him.”
“Really? You mean he knew Davie Crockett and Jim Bowie? Personal?” Willie exclaimed.
Lou nodded. “After that, he went on ta become a famous gunfighter, though they didn’t call them that back then, and later a Texas Ranger. He did lots of things.” The light faded from Lou’s eyes for a moment. “Unfortunately, he got sick and died of the consumption when I was carryin’ you, Jamie. He never got the chance ta meet any of ya. But he’d’ve been mighty proud of what fine young men, and lady,” she paused to smile down at Mary Margaret, “y’all have become.”
“Is he in them pictures?” Jed asked, pointing to the framed photographs Louise had taken down off the shelf.
She nodded her head. Holding out the first of the frames, she pointed to an older man with grey hair and a rough, unshaven chin. He had a black hat on, a grey shirt with suspenders to hold up his pants, and a gunbelt slung low over his hips. He stood at the back of a group of young men, some of whom they recognized, others they didn’t. A pretty, lighthaired woman sat on a stool next to him.
“Is that Auntie Rachel?” Mary Margaret asked.
Lou nodded. Pointing to the young man seated on the porch steps in front of Teaspoon, she added, “And that’s me.”
“Who’s that?” Jamie asked, pointing to the tall black man standing at the edge of the group, a coiled whip attached to his hip.
Lou smiled sadly as she traced his form with one finger.
“That’s yer Uncle Noah,” she said softly. “He wasn’t with us from the first, but he was just as much a member of our family as anyone else.”
“How can he be my uncle?” Mary Margaret asked curiously. “He’s colored.”
“Awww, don’t be stupid,” Willie snorted. “Uncle Buck’s indian and he’s still our uncle. Why couldn’t we have a colored uncle, too?”
“Willie, while I agree with the sentiment, that wasn’t a very nice way to speak to someone,” Lou cautioned. “And here’s somethin’ else ya can put in yer project Mary Margaret,” she added. “Yer Uncle Noah? He helped with the Underground Railroad. Do you remember what that was?”
The little girl nodded. “It was how they helped slaves ‘scape ta Freedom.”
Lou nodded. “See, yer Uncle Noah, he was born free. But he felt a powerful obligation ta help others who hadn’t been as lucky. He and his Aunt Sally both helped with the Underground Railroad when they could. They even helped with one of the Freedom Trains that took freed and escaped slaves back to Africa and eventually founded the country of Liberia. But you know what yer Uncle Noah’s favoritest thing in the whole world ta do was?”
She looked around the circle of her children, holding them in suspense a moment, before saying, “He loved ta buy slaves at auction, right out from under the slaveowners, then set them free then and there. Thought it was a hoot!”
“Wasn’t that dangerous?” Jamie questioned.
Lou nodded, the smile slipping off her face. “Unfortunately, yes. Noah lived a very dangerous life. Always said he was born ta hang.”
“Did he?” Jed asked.
Lou shook her head. “No. He was killed in one of the first battles of the Civil War. He wasn’t even in the Army. They wouldn’t take him ‘cause he was colored. The colored units didn’t come until a couple years later. Oh, he would’ve loved ta have been able ta join up then! But he was killed tryin’ ta help a woman escape the battle.”
“Wow, I never knew there was so much history in our family, Ma,” Mary Margaret said.
“And that ain’t all, is it Ma?” Jamie said, smiling.
Louise shook her head.
“After all, Uncle Bill is famous even today,” Willie said proudly. “He’s who I’m named after and someday I’m gonna go ride in his Wild West Show. I’ll be a better shot than he ever was. Better even than Annie Oakley.”
Lou laughed at her exuberant youngest son who reminded her of Cody more and more as he grew up.
“That’s true,” she said. “But there are other parts of history that aren’t quite as famous, but perhaps just as important ta remember.”
“Like what?” Mary Margaret asked, rapidly scribbling down notes on all she was hearing.
Louise pointed to the man standing between Uncle Buck and Noah. “You can’t see it here very well, but if you look at this other picture, it’s more obvious.” She pulled out the second picture and pointed the man out to the children. They gathered close to look.
“Why, that man has no hair, Ma,” Mary Margaret exclaimed excitedly.
“What happened to him?” Jed asked.
“Yeah, did he get scalped or somethin’?” Willie piped in.
“Oh, please,” Jamie scoffed, rolling his eyes.
A catch in her voice, Lou explained. “He lost his hair, and his voice, to scarlet fever when he was very young. Younger even than you, Mary Margaret.”
“What’s his name?”
“Ike McSwain,” she said softly. “He was the gentlest of all of us, always ready to love, animals and people, and perhaps the most easily hurt because of it.”
“How come you never talk about him?” Willie said. “Or Noah?”
“Well, see, your Uncle Buck has some different beliefs, you know that, right?”
The children nodded. They understood a lot more about their Uncle Buck’s religious beliefs than even their parents, having been raised with them along with the Cross children on the Ranch.
“See, he doesn’t like ta talk about those what’ve already passed, especially by name,” Louise explained. “Believes it disturbs their spirits and might bring on bad luck. And…” she paused as she looked back down at Ike’s faded face delineated in sepia tone, “well, Ike and Buck were like brothers even before they met the rest of us. So, we’ve respected his wishes.”
“How’d he die?” Jed, the most sensitive of her three boys asked quietly.
“He’d fallen in love and died protecting her,” Louise said quietly, a tear rolling down her cheek as she remembered that awful day. “It was even worse than Noah’s dyin’. We all expected Noah would get killed sooner or later anyway. He had an awful chip on his shoulder. But Ike? That was a big shock. Especially when things finally seemed to be goin’ so right for him.”
Uncomfortable with their mother’s obvious grief, the boys glanced at each other, wondering how to snap her out of it. Finally, Jamie leaned over, putting on arm around his mother’s shoulders and pointed to a young man in a black hat, tan coat, black gloves and trousers, sitting in front of their Ma.
“That’s Uncle Jimmy, right? I remember him.”
Lou nodded, turning her head to look up at her eldest son. He looked so much like Kid when they’d first met sometimes it brought her to tears. But he had none of Kid’s tendency to keep things to himself. Oh, he was a thinker, like his Pa, but he didn’t over do it like Kid had. Maybe that’s because he hadn’t had the tragedies in his young life that Kid had already suffered by this time, no drunk Pa, no beat up Ma who died when he was too young, no scrabbling to survive, no war.
“Yeah, that’s your Uncle Jimmy. The world knew him as Wild Bill Hickok, but to us he was just Jimmy, our brother.”
“I’ve heard of him,” Mary Margaret said. “He was a gunfighter and lawman and gambler and ladies’….. ladies’ man. That’s what our teacher said.”
“I’d guess your teacher only knows what he’s read,” Lou said a touch sharply. “And that ain’t even half truth.”
Handing the framed photographs to Jamie, Lou opened the album. In it were news articles she’d clipped and saved over the years about Jimmy and Cody, even Jesse. Sharing stories of the men she’d known as boys, she walked her fascinated children through their family tree, person by person, story by story, truth by truth.
That’s how Kid found them when he and Buck walked in from working with the horses, all huddled together around the pictures and album, asking questions and listening intently to Lou’s answers.
“What’s going on in here?” he asked, laughter in the notes of his voice. “I expected ta find y’all already on yer way over ta the Cross house fer dinner.”
“Is it that late already?” Lou gasped. Kid just nodded. “I’m sorry.” She closed the album and stood up to reverently return it to its place on the bookshelf. “Children, go get washed up, then run on over ta Buck’s.”
A chorus of “Yes ma’am’s” and “Sure, Ma’s” sounded as the three teenaged boys and one little girl bounded out of the room. Kid picked up the last forgotten picture frame and handed it to Lou.
“What were you doin’ in here, anyway?” he asked again, not letting go of the picture even after she’d taken it in hand.
Lou raised her eyes to meet Kid’s, then looked down at the picture of the entire Express family. Gently tracing the faces of each of the lost members, she said in a faraway voice, “Just keepin’ a promise, Kid. Keepin’ a promise, that’s all.”
Live Long, Taylor Swift
I had the time of my life fighting dragons with you
Promise me this,
That you’ll stand by me forever.
But if, God forbid, fate should step in,
And force us into a goodbye,
If you have children some day,
When they point to the pictures,
Please tell them my name.