“Grief is a freight train. No, what's a little pain when you have so much to love?” – Sara Jackson-Holman, Freight Train
Stifling another sob, she reached out one black clad arm to reverently touch one of the half dozen photos displayed on the mantel over the fireplace which dominated one wall of the well appointed sitting room. She’d shed enough tears the last few days and would no doubt shed more in the coming hours, she refused to cry at this moment.
You’d think one would get used to death and dying, loss and pain, she thought morosely as she ran one finger down the edge of her own cheek in the framed picture. She was crying in it, too. Lord knows I’ve lived through enough of it over the years.
There’d been a time when things had been bright and full of hope. But that had been a long, long time ago. Sometimes it felt like another life. Yet, whenever she dipped into those memories they were still there, full of golden sunshine, laughter and love. They were the only thing that kept her going right now.
She wrapped her fingers around the edge of the plain wooden frame, so unlike the fancily decorated frames of the other pictures it stood with, and pulled it to her chest as she sank down onto the nearby loveseat. Somehow, for some reason, the unusual photograph of a younger her always helped her remember the time before.
“I had this dream once. I had it in my head. She was the purest beauty, but not the common kind. She had a way about her that made you feel alive. And, for a moment, we made the world stand still.” -- Lady Antebellum, We Owned The Night
Mrs. Louise McCloud whistled quietly to herself as she puttered around the kitchen. Rachel wasn’t due back from the schoolhouse for another hour and dinner was already well in hand. All that was left was to lay out the dishes on the table and pull the food out of the oven when the time came.
She’d once thought she’d miss riding the Express route with every fiber of her being. But, while there was the occasional twinge of longing when one of the boys caught the mochila and took off, she was too busy enjoying her new life to truly miss the old one.
She smiled softly to herself as she contemplated the last three weeks. It was hard to believe she’d been a married woman for almost a whole month now. She couldn’t decide which she liked more… being able to be herself all the time, wear dresses when she wanted and cook delicious meals that made Kid’s eyes light up almost as much as they did when the two would retire to their room upstairs in the evenings, wear trousers and head out for a hard ride on one of the horses that needed a little extra workout… or, the simple peace her life had taken on and the way her hopes for the future were coming together so beautifully.
Pulling out the forks, spoons and knives, she began to slowly circle the table, setting the places for those who would be at dinner tonight. There were so few of them now they didn’t bother moving food to the bunkhouse, but all ate in the main house where Rachel, Kid and Lou now lived together. Kid would be coming in from a run in a few minutes. Teaspoon would be in soon after, tired from a long day of resting in the Marshal’s Office. Buck would join them, too. Lou and Rachel would round-out the small group. But that was all that was left.
A slight hitch in her breath betrayed the turn of her thoughts, as she looked at the set table and mentally counted the places that remained empty. Ike’s death had begun to take on the patina of age and didn’t hurt nearly so much anymore. But Noah’s was a still bleeding wound, aggravated by first Cody’s, then Jimmy’s departures. Cody had left with Captain Urbach a week after the wedding, Jimmy just a few days ago. Both were off to fight in the war everyone now knew was no longer avoidable.
Angrily, Lou swiped at the lone tear that began to trail down one cheek. They’d each made their choices. As much as she missed them and feared for their safety, they were the ones who’d decided to leave this make-shift family. She could only hope that they’d live long enough in this violent world to someday return.
In the meantime, she had a new life to build. She smiled to herself, returning to her earlier thoughts as she wiped her hands on her apron and surveyed the set table with a sense of satisfaction that still took her by surprise sometimes.
The sound of pounding hooves brought her head up and she hurried toward the kitchen door. Stepping out on the stoop, she shaded her eyes and watched appreciatively as Kid galloped into the yard atop Katy, the mochila held out with one strong hand. Matt Bodine spurred his horse into action and matched paces with Kid to grab the mochila. She’d seen just such a transfer a thousand times in the last year and a half, been a part of it hundreds of times herself, but now it took on the beauty of a well choreographed dance, a ballet of symphonic proportions. Perhaps because she knew in a matter of weeks it would disappear forever.
Kid rode Katy up to the edge of the porch, pushing his hat back as he grinned happily up at her.
“Have a good day?” he asked.
“Better than you,” she laughed, eyeing the dirt ringing his eyes and coating his cheeks. “Looks like you decided to bath in dirt.”
Kid shrugged bashfully and swung his leg over Katy’s rump as he dismounted.
“My last mount threw me, over by Mound Ridge. I’ll clean up before dinner,” he promised solemnly. Then suddenly reached out and wrapped both of his large, dirt encrusted hands around her waist to pull her, shrieking in smiling protest, off the edge of the small porch and into his arms, snugged up against his strong body. His blue eyes glinted with mischief as he rubbed his face against hers, even as she tried to evade the rasp of his stubble and the streaks of mud he was wiping all over her cheeks, laughing the entire time. It ended with his lips pressed to her mouth. “But first, how about a kiss to welcome a hardworking man home?”
Lou pulled one hand free of his embrace and smacked him upside the head. “Once yer clean,” she smiled, “you can have all the kisses you want.” Wiggling out of his grasp, she added, “But you’d better hurry. Dinner’ll be done in less than thirty.”
The sun rose over the rooftops at the Express station, bathing everything in a soft, golden light. The late fall sunshine brought a cheery lift to everyone at the station, where all had been down for weeks as they contemplated the end of the Pony Express. Even the birds seemed to be a bit happier today, chirping a sprightly tune from the tree outside the kitchen window, providing musical accompaniment as Lou washed the breakfast dishes.
She tried to let the simple happiness the morning offered her infuse her being, even as her traitorous mind kept running over the previous night’s dinner conversation again and again. The talk of what each of them would do once the Express station was closed next week had left a dark shadow hanging over her newlywed desire to be happy.
No one was really sure what to do next, least of all she and Kid. They’d put off going to pick up Theresa and Jeremiah until the Express closed, to save as much money as they could. But after that, too many questions remained unanswered. The sense of uncertainty left her feeling off kilter, which interfered with her innate desire to think of happy things at this point in her life.
Hearing the door open and close behind her, she said over her shoulder, “Your lunch is in the pail on the table, Teaspoon.”
“He’s already come and gone,” Kid said, snuggling up behind her and wrapping his arms around her waist. “You must’ve been lost deep in your thoughts to have missed that!”
Lou shrugged non-committally and Kid sighed. He hated seeing her like this. She’d been so quiet the night before, too, when they went to bed. He thought for a moment, while pressing his lips to her soft, bare neck.
The contact sent a shiver of appreciation racing down her body toward her fingers and toes.
“Rachel’s gone, too, and Buck’s getting ready to leave on a run,” he said, thinking out loud. “Why don’t you pack a lunch fer the two of us and we’ll go have a picnic down by the swimming hole after I finish chores.”
Lou turned in his arms at the suggestion and looked up at him, reaching up with one hand to cup his cheek.
“Is it that obvious?” she asked.
Kid nodded. “Kind of hard to miss.”
“Alright,” she said. “But…. no talk of tomorrow, or next week or what comes after. Let’s just enjoy the day. Who knows how much longer this nice weather will stick around.”
Kid smiled at her speculatively. “Long enough for a dip in the pond, do ya think?”
Lou grinned back wickedly. “Maybe. If you behave yerself. Now git! I got stuff ta do here and you got work, too, ‘fore we can go and play.”
“We woke under a blanket, all tangled up in skin. Not knowing, in that moment, we’d never speak again. But it was perfect. I never will forget.” -- Lady Antebellum, We Owned The Night
Lou moaned in appreciation as she snuggled into Kid’s warm embrace. As anticipated, the previous day’s warmth had given way to the first serious cold snap of the year late in the afternoon. But there was nothing cold in her bed this morning. Her husband radiated a reassuring heat that made her loathe to crawl out from under the covers.
Of course, the wandering pressure of his hands and lips as they explored her skin under the blankets was no small inducement to stay exactly where she was, she thought, sighing again as he hit just the right spot.
She slid her foot up and down his calf, to show him just how much she liked what he was doing, even as she reached up to pull the quilt more tightly over their heads to keep the warmth in.
“Kid, hurry up,” Lou urged, laughing, as she rushed down the stairs. “I’m already late getting breakfast started as it is. And I’m sure Katy and Lightning are getting worried about their breakfasts, too.”
“I’m comin’,” he muttered. “You know, not a one of ‘em would starve if they missed a single meal.”
“Oh, hush yer grumblin’,” Lou smiled over her shoulder at him. She stopped at the bottom of the stairs and waited for him to pass her. Slapping at his shoulder she added, “You know you’ll be happy as a bug in a rug soon’s ya get in the barn. You just don’t want ta deal with the cold and wet ‘tween here and there.”
“I just don’t want ta deal with it on my run this afternoon,” he agreed, leaning over to kiss her.
Wrapping her arms over his shoulders and around his head and neck, she pressed tightly into the kiss, savoring the feel of him against her. “Just remind yerself it’s yer last run this week. Two more next week, and that’s it. Leastwise if the Express has gotta end, it’s doin’ it for the truly vile winter weather sets in.”
Kid laughed. “Yep. No more runs like last year, middle of blizzards, sub-zero winds that tear right through the thickest coats, air that freezes yer lungs. I’m just as happy to do without that.”
Lou pushed him toward the door as she pulled out of his arms and turned toward the kitchen. He stumbled slightly, and shook his head in surprise.
“But ‘til then,” she advised, “best get ta feedin’ the animals. Gotta keep Katy strong so’s she’ll bring ya back home ta me.”
Lou stood on the porch, shivering, as she huddled deeply into the extra thick and warm winter coat that had been Kid’s wedding present to her. Yesterday’s cold, wet chill had settled into the first winter storm of the year overnight. She peered out into the blowing white, trying to pick out the sight of Kid, returning from the west.
“It’s alright, Lou,” Teaspoon reassured her gruffly, patting her on the shoulder. “He’s ridden through worse than this without problem. And Katy’s a good mount. She’ll get him home safe.”
“What if something happened before the last waystation,” she asked in deep concern. “Not all the stock is as reliable as Katy, ‘specially now that the Express is startin’ ta sell off the extras.”
“You know he’s one of the best riders out there. He’ll make it through. The weather’s just probably delayed him some, that’s all.”
“Five hours, Teaspoon?” Lou asked on the verge of tears. “What could have delayed him for five whole hours?”
“I don’t know, darlin’,” he answered her, shaking his head. “I don’t--”
“Shhh!” Lou suddenly hushed him, holding up a hand for quiet as she straightened alertly. “Did you hear that?”
She waited a moment then exclaimed, “That! It’s a horse comin’, I know it.”
Teaspoon found himself straining for the sound of galloping hooves and soon he heard it, too.
“Rider comin’,” he shouted out the familiar refrain and the door to the bunkhouse burst open as Matt Clancy came rushing out and leaping onto the back of his waiting horse. Teaspoon handed the horse blanket he’d just pulled off the animal’s back as he continued to hold tightly to the bridle. Looking up at Matt he said, “Ride hard, ya’ve got a lot of time ta make up fer. But ride careful, hear me son? This don’t look ta be gettin’ any better any time soon.”
“Yes, Sir,” Matt nodded agreeably. He, too, was now an old hand at making Express runs in the worst of weather.
“Here he comes,” Lou shouted to be heard over the rising winds.
Matt spurred his mount into motion as Teaspoon let go of the bridle. He matched paces with Katy and took the pouch from Kid. The jerk as he grabbed the mochila pulled Kid to the side and he began to slide off Katy’s back.
“Kid!” Lou exclaimed in sudden, returned worry. She bolted headlong out into the yard, arms reaching out to catch him as he fell. But she was too late. She skidded to a stop on her knees at his side instead, lifting his head into her lap. “Kid?” she barely whispered. Looking up at the man standing just behind her with tears already gathering in her eyes, she added fearfully, “He’s burnin’ up, Teaspoon.”
Teaspoon bent over hurriedly and grabbed Kid’s shoulder.
“Help me get him up and inside,” he ordered brusquely.
Two shaking hands dipped the cloth into the bowl of water, soaking up the moisture, then wringing the excess out. The slender woman turned from the bowl to the man ensconced in the bed, buried under piles of blankets, yet still shaking uncontrollably, and trying to shove the blankets away. She pushed the hair back from his face and gently wiped the cloth across his forehead and down his cheek to his chest.
“Oh, Kid,” she whispered tenderly, her voice hoarse from the sobs she wouldn’t let escape. “You’ve gotta fight, Kid. You can beat this. You beat the Hawk. You beat the Pike brothers. You beat my own stubborn pride. You can beat this, too. Just hang in there, Kid.”
So caught up was she in her concern for her husband, Lou didn’t notice the hushed conference going on by the window.
“He needs the Doc, Teaspoon,” Rachel urged. “I’ve done everything I can, but….”
“I know, Rachel,” Teaspoon said, not meeting her eyes, his voice almost inaudible as he struggled to hold in his own fear. Staring at the white out through the window, he added, “But we’re just gonna have ta do the best we can ‘til this storm passes. Doc left just before it started ta deliver a baby over in Fairbury. He won’t be comin’ back ‘til the weather clears and there’s no way we could get to him anyway through this mess.”
“I just wish I could figure out what’s causing this,” Rachel shook her head.
Teaspoon wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulder. “Ain’t no tellin’. Sometimes these things just sneak up on one with no reason. All’s we can do is help him the best we can and hope he’s got the strength to fight it.”
“Lou. Lou,” Buck said quietly, shaking her shoulder as carefully as he could. “Wake up, the Doc’s here.”
Lou lifted her head from where it had fallen on her crossed arms and blinked blearily up at her brother for a moment. Then conscience thought returned and she looked sharply around. It had been three days since Kid’s return and, unlike the storm outside, his fever showed no signs of abating. She hadn’t left his side once and had only slept in short cat naps in a chair by his bed. But all her attention had done little good. He was obviously getting weaker and had never regained consciousness.
“Move over, young lady, so I can see what’s going on,” came the soothing rumble of the town’s doctor. He paused and took a closer look at her as she stood up and moved back from the bed to make way for him. “Why don’t you go get something to eat and freshen up a bit, ma’am,” he added. “Won’t do him any good you worrying yourself to death and it’ll take me awhile to examine him.”
Rachel took her by the elbow and guided her out of the room.
“I never meant to hurt you. You know how much I love you. I know you love me so. But it’s time to let me go.” -- Gloriana, Let Me Go.
A quick change of clothes and a splash of water on the face had definitely helped wake her up. Yet, Lou found herself seated at the kitchen table, staring at the spoonful of food in her hand,not quite able to remember how it got there. It was full of Rachel’s delicious stew but, judging by the roiling in her stomach, Lou didn’t think she could keep it down.
The sound of a door opening and closing, followed by footsteps treading heavily down the stairs drew her attention away from the food. Dropping the spoon back into the bowl, Lou rose hurriedly to her feet and turned to face the stairway.
“Well?” she asked as the doctor stepped off the last stair. “What do we need ta do?”
The doctor looked at her sadly as he walked slowly toward her, shaking his head. She read the sorrow in his eyes and backed away from him, step for step. If he couldn’t reach her, he couldn’t tell her the story she was already reading in his eyes. It was a story with an end she didn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t accept. But, eventually, there was no more room for her to continuing escaping.
She bumped into Rachel, who reached out to steady her with both hands, already murmuring a constant litany of one word, “No.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. McCloud,” Doc said softly, reaching out one hand to lay it on her shoulder in an attempt to comfort her. “There’s nothing more I can do for him. You’d best prepare yourself to say goodbye.”
“No! You just didn’t look hard enough! He’s strong, he’ll fight this. We can’t give up on him. He needs us!” Lou practically screamed into the man’s face as she batted his hand away. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she shook her head violently back and forth in negation.
Not waiting to listen to another word, she pulled away from Rachel’s grasp and rushed up the stairs toward her husband. Rachel started to go after her, a helpless, yet resolute, look on her face.
“No,” Teaspoon said gruffly, clearing his throat. “I’ll talk to her.” Rachel nodded in miserable agreement.
Lou only made it as far as the door to the bedroom she’d shared so happily with Kid just four days ago. The room in which Kid lay…. No! She refused to even think the word.
With one hand she reached out to touch the wood of the door, softly, almost caressing it as if it were Kid’s own face. But she couldn’t force herself to push the door open, too afraid of what she’d see, what she’d find inside.
Suddenly, she crumpled to her knees in front of the door, her hand sliding down the panel as she went, never losing contact. First she felt the sobs coming, bubbling up, out of her throat, like a \pot boiling over. Within seconds, the sobs turned to wails of grief that could be heard throughout the house.
A strong, familiar pair of arms wrapped themselves around her and she laid her head on the shoulder that had borne so many of her tears and fears over the last couple of years. They were strong, when she could not be. But they weren’t the arms she longed for at this moment. And that turned her wails into gulping tears so strong no sound could issue forth.
“You just let it out, girl,” Teaspoon said, his own voice wavery with the tears building in him. “Cause yer right, you’ve gotta be strong fer him.”
“Then… then there…. is h-h-hope?” she managed.
“No,” Teaspoon sighed, hugging her tighter. “The Doc found what’s makin’ him sick and it’s too late. He… he hurt himself worse’n any of us thought when he fell. He’s got a busted rib inside. Taking another run caused it ta do more damage. Doc says he’s bleeding out from the inside and there’s no way ta stop it. And he’s got some scrapes that got infected. They’ve turned ta gangrene, honey. And it’s too late ta amputate, even if he were strong enough ta survive.”
“But… but he promised,” Lou wailed into Teaspoon’s shirt, gasping for breath between the sobs. “He promised ta never ride off without me again.”
“And now you’ve gotta release him from that promise, Lou,” Teaspoon said so quietly she almost couldn’t hear him. “He’s fightin’ hard right now. But it’s a fight he can’t win. We gotta let him know it’s alright ta give up, ta stop fightin’ and let the Good Lord take him.”
“I… I don’t think I’m strong enough,” she said, shaking her head in negation.
Teaspoon pulled back and used both hands to force her face up to meet his eyes. In strict, almost harsh, but loving tones he asked, “How many times has he been strong fer you? Well, girl? How many? DeWitt, Wicks, yer own Pa, the Pikes, Lambert… I could keep goin’. It’s yer turn ta be strong fer him.”
Lou hauled in a wavery, sniffling breath as she tried to shake her head in denial of what Teaspoon was telling her. But Teaspoon rolled right over her attempt.
“You cry it all out now, get all them tears out. Then you get yerself under control and you go in there and tell him… tell him it’s alright ta move on. You…. you tell him goodbye. We’ll all say it, but yer the one he really needs ta hear it from. Yer the one he’s fightin’ fer. Once he’s… once it’s over… then ya can start yer grievin’. Right now ya gotta take care of him.”
Lou sat a lonely vigil by Kid’s bed. It had been the most painful thing she’d ever done to sit there and watch and listen as the others had said their goodbyes, one by one. Rachel had wept silently while holding Kid’s hand. Teaspoon had told Kid how he’d always thought of him as a son and how proud he was of him. Buck had called him brother, then pulled his big knife out of his boot and slashed off all his hair, leaving it in clumps on the floor next to the bed.
But as hard as that had been, there was one more, still harder, thing Lou had to do. She had to say her own goodbye. And she didn’t have the slightest idea how to start.
Inhaling deeply, Lou wrapped her hand around Kid’s, entwining their fingers. Staring at the wedding rings on both their hands, she let out the pent up breath and started to speak.
“Do you remember, Kid, when you first learned my secret? The first of my secrets, I guess you could say? You said it would take some gettin’ used to, my bein’ a girl. I told ya, I’d always been a girl. Thing I didn’t tell ya was, I’d always been your girl. Even when we was apart, you still held a piece of me. And that hurt more’n anything in my life. And you know just how much that is. That’s why I made ya promise never ta ride off without me again. Cause I wasn’t strong enough ta let ya leave with that piece of me. But I’ve grown up a lot, and gotten stronger on the way. And I’ve got others ta help me be strong without you. So… this is yer run, Kid. Yer the rider up. It’s alright, ya can mount up and ride out. I’ll be along shortly, when my run comes. We’ll see each other at the next Home Station, I promise. And… I’ll still be yer girl. Always. Just….” her breath hitched and she struggled to regain control. After a moment, she continued, “just give me a kiss goodbye and take yer run. I love ya, Kid. Ride safe.”
Lou leaned forward and pressed a kiss to his lips.
“Happiness is a soft light, That way we see our life by, Only fading to the dark. Close your eyes, Take to the sky like a big blue kite, Leave your woes behind. Close my eyes, Try to remember what you said to me, Before you said goodbye” – Sara Jackson-Holman, Freight Train
Louise smiled softly in remembered pain. Her beloved Kid had left her just moments later. She’d been right, she’d never had to do anything near as painful since. They’d buried him the next day. It’d been a right fine funeral. Everyone in town had come to pay their respects and offer their support. She’d appreciated the thought, but couldn’t handle the suffocating care they’d tried to wrap her in.
She’d walked home from the funeral, in her wedding dress died black, back straight and tall, her tears hidden behind the blackened veil. She’d entered the house, ripped off the dress and burned it, put on her pants, packed her bags and ridden out without a backward glance.
She’d headed to St. Joe, intending to collect Theresa and Jeremiah before heading West to find a place for all of them. But more heartache had awaited her at the Mission. Jeremiah had been more angry than ever with her, screaming at her that she always ruined everything before running off. She’d learned from the nuns that a nice couple who lived in town wanted to adopt both of the children.
Stunned beyond her ability to handle the pain anymore, she’d walked out of the mission without saying a word. She’d sat down on the steps to contemplate the ashes about her feet that were all that was left of her once bright and shining dreams for the future. She didn’t know what to do, she no longer had any will to even survive.
That’s when he’d taken the picture. She hadn’t even seen him, or the big bulky camera. But he’d searched her out at the rooming house the next day. He’d only said he’d seen her the day before and the pain in her eyes had haunted him. She’d ended up leaving town as his assistant. He’d taught her all he knew about the art of photography. They’d traveled the battlefields of the Civil War, photographing the misery and the death for the world to see. He’d become famous, she’d been forgotten by a history written by men.
It had been years before he’d shown her this picture. She’d immediately framed it and placed it on the mantel, between her wedding photos. He hadn’t understood how she could smile and laugh at the memories it returned to her, how she could take comfort in such pain. But he’d never loved like she had.
They’d married shortly after the end of the War. It had been a good marriage. They’d been partners, friends, parents. But they’d never been the lovers she and Kid had been.
A large hand settled on her shoulder and she looked up into her eldest son’s bright blue eyes, shadowed with the grief of loss.
“It’s time,” he said in familiar tones.
She nodded, sighing, and rose to place the photograph back in its place on the mantel. Taking her son’s arm, she let him lead her out to the waiting carriage in front of the house. The carriage moved slowly through the city streets toward the cemetery. It was a bigger cemetery, a bigger coffin, a bigger funeral, for a much longer lived life.
But which, she wondered, was the bigger loss? The love that had burned bright and all-consuming but been shattered too soon? Or the slower, steadier affection that had lasted decades and helped raise a family? It was too hard, too soon for her to tell. All she knew was… it hurt.
The carriage pulled to a jerky stop and the driver leapt down from his seat to open the door and help her out.
She walked slowly through the crowded people, barely hearing their murmured condolences, to stop before the large white stone that would soon mark her husband’s final resting place.
The preacher stepped up beside her, whispering in her ear before he began the service. “Are you ready, Mrs. Brady?”
“I can hear that old sweet song, a simple melody calling me back home, where the love grows pure and strong. That's where my heart, That's where my heart belongs.” – Gloriana, Where My Heart Belongs