...they say that you need to follow your heart, be true to yourself-
no one ever said it would hurt so much...
or be so hard.
The day she left, she slowly rode along the edge of the property... memorizing every last color and scent of what she was leaving behind. "It's so beautiful in the mornings you know?" She nodded to the hills crowned in golden light. "It's like magic in the mornings. The birds wake and the sun warms the ground. You can feel the energy around you, you can feel the power of the horses as they move through the fields. That's the feeling that will stay with me." She grew quiet again as she watched a new foal settle beside his mother.
"Are you sure, Lou? This is your dream, can you really leave it behind?"
"My dreams have too high a price Buck," she reached down and touched his hand as it lay on Lightning's neck, "Kid wasn't willing to pay it, and I can't do anything until I know if he's alive." She looked away from Buck's eyes, afraid that he would see how unsure she was. "Can't say I would've wanted him to stick around - he'd always be somewhere else in his heart." With a smile she turned away and toward the road - and then, she was gone.
Buck looked after her, watching as the dust Lightning kicked up settled slowly to the ground. The air felt different, the horses had grown silent and Buck couldn't help but feel that a part of the magic had left with her.
Lou came to the edge of town. She stilled her mount near the church at the end of the road. She spared a moment to take it all in, Seneca had changed.
"Let's go girl," she urged her mount forward and passed by new shops and businesses. For a moment she thought back to the trip with Jimmy, the day she bought her wedding dress... tears she didn't think she had left in her came spilling out onto her cheeks - things had been happier then.
Now the town 'felt' different. Everywere you looked people rushed around ....in and out of doors like mice under the watchful gaze of a cat. Not a one stopped to talk to each other - hardly a person met the gaze of another. Lou tried to call out a greeting to some as she passed by. Few if any returned the greeting, most just looked up and and continued on their way.
Lou passed by a hotel in the middle of town. She had spent time there after an Express run once, the room had been clean and nice. After bein' on the road a few days sleepin' out in the open, she could use a real bed to sleep in. She still was not used to being in the saddle all day. It seemed like a lifetime ago when she had been so at ease on the back of a horse.
' 'sides, it would be nice to have somepeople to talk to,' She tied Lightning up outside the hotel and went in.
Her room on the second floor was small but beautiful, they had added a lot of things since the last time she'd been there. She freshened up, leaving her few possessions packed up in her bags. She looked forward to a dinner that wasn't made over a campfire.
The dining room downstairs was a high contrast to itself just an hour ago. Gone were the young couples and such. Instead it was filled the brim with Army officers in dresswear. She admitted to the host as he searched for a table, that if another officer came in she'd be fairly blinded by all the brass. He hid his own laughter behind the paper menus he carried, and seated her by the wall in the back. The table was small but Lou didn't plan on company. The waiter told her in a quiet voice, "If you'd rather not be bothered by the officers, I can send food up to you in your room."
Lou looked around the room... all of the men were in conversations with the others... no drunks.. no saloon girls.. this was heaven. "No thank you, I'll be fine." She took her napkin off the table and placed it in her lap. She asked for a pot of hotwater and a teacup.
She opened her purse and took out a teabag, a special blend of herbs that Buck had given her. She tired easily and this tea did wonders for her health.
More soldiers entered the room and Lou watched them as she drank her tea. Stories had reached Rock Creek of the raids against the army in these parts. She knew that most of these men had probably come in recently. The army needed to protect their men and the people of the town. Somehow she felt safer here in the hotel with them. A sea of dark blue coats.
He watched her from across the room. Sweet thing, and yet, he bet if he asked she'd have a colt revolver tucked under her pillow at night. Yes sir, she had an edge about her. Probably had a man or two pining away for her too. She giggled at a joke told at the next table.. her eyes gleaming... a fine sense of humor too, she apparently wasn't bothered by the bawdy suggestion in the ending.
He nodded to his aide and started to walk across the room towards her table.
From halfway across the room she noticed him coming towards her. She straightened in her chair and set her teacup down on it's saucer. The delicate cup made a sweet chime as it touched it's mate.
He was a tall gentleman. A full beard and moustache, neatly trimmed, covered his face. He walked up to her table and paused for a moment. She noticed the slight paunch at his waist, but his posture was impeccable. She looked up and met his eyes, "Hello."
His face relaxed in a smile, "You beat me to it Miss. Here I am trying to make a favorable impression, and I fail at the very introduction."
"Don't be upset sir, I'm just not one for fancy pretenses. Would you like to sit down with me?"
A hearty laugh made his middle shake. Most of the men stopped to listen to the laughter, "My dear, if you don't beat all! Why yes, I'd love to sit down with you! A fascinating woman like you will no doubt make a wonderful dinner companion."
He took the seat opposite from her. He unbuttoned his coat and smoothed his napkin in his lap.
He'd only just sat down with the woman, but he saw reflected in her eyes a kind of kindred spirit. He knew that he'd have to work hard to shock her. So he started with the obvious:
"You might be wondering why an old man like me would bother a young lady like yourself, the truth is, miss, you remind me of my daughter...
It's been 6 months since I've seen her or her mother...and you have the same soft brown eyes as my Abigail."
Lou leaned over the table and patted his hand, "I'm sure you'll see them soon."
"I'd like to think so my dear." His melancholy threatened to dampen his mood. As he wrestled with his feelings she took a moment to measure up her companion. She had never found it easy to talk with men, especially older men. Major Orem on the other hand was a sweet man. He reminded her of Teaspoon.
A soldier stopped by to confer with the Major. He was much younger, almost her age. Under his hat she could see a stern round face, with thick black hair and brows. He looked over at her several times during his conversation with the Major. He turned back to the Major with a hopeful look touching his features.
Major Orem looked around the young soldier, "Miss, I don't suppose you'd consent to my dear friend and aide, Mr. Randall to come and join us?"
Louise smiled brightly, "We can always use another friend at the table. Please sit down."
One by one, officer after officer politely asked to join their table. Louise found it was impossible to turn them away, and it wasn't more than a few moments before the whole table was filled with Army soldiers of various commissioned ranks.
Soon she was drawn into their conversation. They all had stories of home to share. It seemed that most of the men seated near the table were all serving their first post, and for a good many of the younger men... this was their first time away from home.
Watching their expressions, Lou had the distinct feeling that although they'd never mention it to the Major or any other officer, they were all feeling lonely and very much afraid.
She took time to talk with each man, enjoying the laughter she created as they fell over themselves to please her. Several of the men would chide her in intervals... pressing her to eat more... build her strength. It was sweet.. and Lou couldn't help but miss the days when she used to fight the other boys at the dinner table. Where was Cody these days?
Major Orem was staring at her - a deep pondering look on his face "What did you say your name was again?"
"Did you say Louise?" he dragged the name out like it was a mouthful.
She looked around at the men's expectant faces, "Why yes Major... why do you ask?"
The Major chuckled like a little boy - he leaned over to a young Lt seated next to him - the young man was up on his feet in a minute... and disappeared into the crowd -
The major glanced at Louise.. watching her intently... she shifted in her seat and took a nervous drink of her tea.
"No need to be nervous my dear. I've just asked young Randall to invite a friend to join us."
A waiter came to the table - the plate held high aloft as he was afraid it would tip as he passed through the crowd. The major handed the man a tip as he set the plate down.
Lou was absentmindedly looking around when something Major Orem said caught her attention-
"Sir? I'm sorry - what did you just say?"
He had a devilish twinkle in his eye, "I said, dear girl, I just don't understand how a man can live on cheese sandwiches."
Lou began to choke on her drink.
Major Orem slapped the table - causing the glasses on it to dance and chime against each other...
"There you are! I was beginning to think Randall didn't 'hop to' like I asked him."
"Major Orem Sir-" that voice!
"My dear lady, I believe you know our young scout here."
Lou turned in her seat...unable to trust her legs to hold her. The man standing behind her chair was unmistakably James Butler Hickok.
He nodded and smiled. "Lou-"
"Lou?!" their reverie was broken by Major Orem's booming laughter, "That's a boy's name Hickok! Don't tell me you can't see the difference!"
Lou stood and placed her hand on his arm. It had been almost a year since she had seen him and she was unsure how he would react to the unexpected reunion. She took a moment to look at him. Gone was the youthful fullness of his face - replaced by a leaner more mature mien.
His eyes were the same, deeply brown and searching... always looking straight into her heart. She was afraid he'd see everything and she turned her eyes away to hide.
"Lou?" she could hear the concern in his voice as she stared at him.
She leaned toward him and wrapped her arms around his middle,"Thank God you're here!"
He gathered her into his arms... wondering at how it felt to have her back in his arms. One hand stroked her hair softly as he held her against him.
"Ahem," chided Orem, "hate to break this up Hickok..but I didn't invite you here to monopolize this sweet young thing." He gave an outrageous wink before calling for another chair to be brought to the throng that had gathered around the tiny table.
The conversation soon centered around how the two had met. Jimmy and Lou took turns sharing Pony Express stories with the gathered crowd. They were careful to explain that Louise's brother was a rider. The awestruck soldiers missed the inconsistancies in their stories... but Major Orem heard every word. Especially when one of the them slipped and said, "You remember when WE-." This is the most he'd been able to get from Hickok since he'd been assigned to this post. He'd heard stories about the young man that couldn't have been true, and had always believed that there were more impressive stories locked up in his mind. Apparently Miss Louise had a few amazing secrets of her own.
Less than an hour later, Major Orem noticed the glances the two old friends shared when they thought no one was payin' attention. Louise's strength was also fading fast. Dark smudges appeared under her eyes as if someone had poured ink onto her skin.
He caught the eye of his young protege, and Hickok turned to her and studied her face. He lifted her chin with his hand and she quickly turned away from his discerning gaze. "If you'll all excuse us.. Miss - ah.." Even after all this time he still didn't know what her married name was, "Louise should really turn in."
He stood and offered her his hand. She stood carefully as the young officer on the other side moved her chair away. Every officer in the restaurant took that moment to stand. Louise blushed... that would never have happened at the bunkhouse.
Several begged for her to stay for just another hour. The major chuckled, he'd never seen a group of army men go soft over a woman so quickly. It was understandable, once you've met Louise... you'd never forget her. In the last few hours, she'd become a daughter, a sister, friend and sweetheart to all that had gathered.
Another round of pleading ensued and Louise had to beg them to stop. "I'm sorry... I've been riding straight through the last two days and I really would love to get some rest." She stepped closer to the major..."But I would like to take a short walk to stretch my legs first...Jimmy?" She looked up at him, "would you care to join me?"
The major silence another round of complaints and offers to take Hickok's place. "Now boys - let the two old friends have some time to catch up with each other."
Louise gave him an appreciative smile.
"By God, you've got me blushin' like a school boy - Hickok, take her outside before I forget I'm married!"
She felt relief flood through her as Jimmy took hold of her elbow and led her away from the table. It wasn't until they heard the front door of the hotel close behind them that Jimmy allowed himself to relax. "I keep thinkin' the younger boys will follow us out here..."
A giggle tickled her throat, "I think the major has the doors blockaded by now."
"You're probably right... you sound like you know him pretty well-"
"He's like - well... he's like Teaspoon, don't you think?"
Jimmy nodded and the two continued down the street together. He paused in front of a feed supply store. "You wanna sit for a minute Lou?"
She stared at the barrels and the open street. There wasn't anyone else out at the moment. They were very much alone. She had that edgy look about her, like she was measurin' up the situation. He had the distinct feelin' like she was gonna bolt, but after a moment's pause she sat down on a barrel and leaned back against the store window.
Jimmy sat down on some burlap feed bags and took his first real chance to look at her. She'd lost weight... that was the most obvious thing. She'd always been slim... but there was something else wrong - a sadness he couldn't name.
She closed her eyes and inhaled the sent of the freshly bound hay nearby. It calmed her nerves a bit.. reminded her of home... the ranch... Ki- she silently cursed as she felt her knuckles turn white as she gripped the edge of the barrel.
Sneakin' a look at him she knew that he was just bidin' his time 'til she was ready to talk - how she'd missed him these last few months. Gathering her courage she looked up. She'd never told anyone else what happened ... Buck, Rachel and Teaspoon knew.... 'cause they lived it. He didn't rush her... just watched her with those eyes... "Jimmy?" He nodded, "I'm followin' the KID."
He kept silent... knowin' she'd tell him everything when she was ready. "He's in the south by now. I don't know where exactly... but I'll find him."
Jimmy shook his head in disbelief... throwing up his hands he leaned closer, "Slow down Lou... slow down.... I don't know what Kid's done this time to get you riled up... but I'm sure you'll work it -"
"He left me." Jimmy was shocked into silence by her soft response. She sat up away from the glass and stared at her hands. "I never thought he'd really do it...thought he'd given up that ghost, but then I woke up one morning to one of his famous letters."
"A few months ago."
He shook his head... takin' a minute to control his mouth and his temper. "What have you been doin' since then?"
Lou furiously wiped at her eyes, she'd shed enough tears. "Tryin' to make a go of the horse farm we started together."
Jimmy kicked the barrel next to him, "Dammit Lou! He expected you to do it all by yourself?"
"No....no," she smiled, "Buck arrived the next week... Kid sent him word several weeks before - before he left." She heaved a weary sigh into the air, "He'd known... he came to help and I stared at him like an idiot. Kid told him what he was doin'... not me. It took everything I had, but I held it together... never ever cryin' in front of Buck, Teaspoon... even Rachel. There was too much to be done.. and I never found the time to be weak."
"It ain't weak Lou... You had a lot dumped on you, with no warnin'. Noone would've said anything against you... least of all our family." He saw how her eyes darkened at the word, "How long did Buck stay on?"
"He's still there... he wouldn't take the farm outright... I've already signed half of it over to him. He says he'll take care of it for now... 'til I come back. He doesn' t realize I'm not plannin' to go back... not to stay. He earned it, even tried to keep me from doin' anything of the heavy work."
Jimmy saw the old glimmer in her eyes, "He should have known better."
A smug smile was his reward, "You know me Jimmy, I'm not gonna back down... never did - never will." Lou looked up as nearby footfalls grabbed her attention.
The Marshal in town passed by them on his nightly rounds. As he passed by he nodded at Jimmy and tipped his hat to Lou, "Evenin' ma'am."
"Looks like it's gonna be a cold one tonight."
The two men waited for her answer. They were left hanging as she ignored them both.
Louise let herself withdraw again... tucking herself away into her thoughts. A brisk wind gusted through town pickin' up leaves and dust, only to blow right on through. Jimmy shivered and turned to Louise. She hadn't moved a muscle... unaware of the world around her.
A couple, movin' throught the shadows on the other side of the street laughed at some private joke... drawing her gaze. The two huddled under a large blanket as they walked. Another cold wind blasted the town and the man adjusted the blanket around the woman and their unborn child.
A sharp intake of breath scared Jimmy. "You cold Lou?"
"No..." her lips and skin had turned nearly blue in the evening light, "I'm fine.. just a little tired."
Jimmy already had his coat off. "Here," he draped the woolen coat over her shoulders. "You'll catch your death out here in that little dress."
Lou tried to take the coat off... hand it back to him.
"Don't try it Lou... what would Teaspoon say if he walked by and I hadn't given you my coat?"
"I imagine about the same thing the Major would say."
"Yep, they'd both have my head... and I really ain't willin' to roll those dice Lou.. just humor me."
She nodded, resigned to his charity.
He looked her over in the cold moon light, still startled by all the changes. "Lou, I know you don't always want to talk about what's botherin' you, but I know there's somethin' you ain' tellin' me. It's written across your face... eatin' you up inside. I can't help you if I don't know what it is, but I'm gonna wait until you want me to know."
Road weary as she was, she was finally feeling the effects of the last few days. The air around her was near freezin' and she pulled the coat tighter around her shoulders. She looked over and noticed that Jimmy was also sufferin' from the cold. Lou moved to sit next to him...leaning against him to share her meager warmth.
Minutes later the silence surrounded them and her hand closed over his, "I'll tell you Jimmy... I will, but I this is something i think Kid should hear first. Can you wait?"
His curiosity was more that peaked, but he held his questions in check, "I'll wait.. and we'll find him Lou...we'll find him."
The next morning Lou found a note under her door. She dressed quickly and set off down the stairs to the dining room.
Jimmy and the Major were already deep in conversation when she arrived. Jimmy saw her first and set his napkin down on the table. He stood and pulled out a chair.
Lou smiled at him and the major, "I don't know what it is that you've done to him Major... but when I knew him... he'd never have pulled out my chair!"
The major sat back down in his chair, "Well dear, that may have to do with the fact that when you knew Mr. Hickok. You were a different person... LOU?"
"Don't worry dear, Mr. Hickok did what he could to deny the obvious. Last night in your stories of the Pony Express... on more than one occasion one or both of you slipped.. and talked about 'WE'. Don't try to tell me it was your brother or some other droll answer... you're too sharp to think I'd be fooled with some half baked explanation."
Lou barely noticed as the waiter set down a plate before her. "Is that why you called me here?"
Major Orem chuckled, his shoulders shakin' "Right to the point. Was she always like this Hickok?"
Jimmy nodded as he set down his coffee. Lou watched him with interest. In the few short months he'd been with the army, they had done much to his 'rough edges' ... but there was still that raw energy that was unmistakably Jimmy.
"I've taken the liberty of grilling my scout here... it seems you're lookin' for information on someone fighting for the south."
She nodded.. trying not to meet his gaze. "It's a long story... I'd rather not-"
"I'm not askin' for anything more than you're willin' to share."
"I'm goin' after my husband. He's gone to fight the war for the south."
"You plan to follow him?"
"I know how to track sir-"
"I don't doubt it.. but that's not my concern."
"You do realize that there is no one goin' in or out of the south without orders or a bullet in their back. There is no way for you to get through."
"I need to -"
"May I make a suggestion?" She looked across the table and nodded, "Come to work for me."
"For you.. the army? With my husband fightin' for the South? NO! I couldn't pick up a gun, thinkin' he might be on the other end."
"A gun... heaven's no.. I wouldn't think of askin' you to do that. I need something quite different... I haven't seen those boys so happy since they first arrived. The last few weeks, they've lost heart. These constant attacks only serve as warnings... warnings that they have taken as gospel."
"I can see how it would be hard.. so far from home and family."
"I knew you'd see it too. Last night was the first time I've seen half of those boys smile.. or enjoy themselves. It did their hearts almost as much good as it did mine. I wanted to thank you," he reached across the table and took her hand in his. "Will you join us? I promise you we'll give you every piece of information we can find about your husband."
Jimmy had made his own decision, "We'll find him Lou.. I promise you."
Louise looked from one man to another, "I thank you for the offer... but I think I can find him..." She looked away from them both. "It's my problem."
The major wouldn't let her hand go, "My dear... they say that no man is an island and I fear it is the same for those of the 'stronger' sex," he winked even though she did not see it, "please at least promise you'll think about it."
She nodded and he let her hand rest on the table again.
He pushed back his chair, "Now... if you'll excuse us, Mr. Hickok and I have a hunting expedition to join. Mr. Hickok?" He turned and walked out the double doors to the waiting regiment.
Jimmy looked at her again, "Lou? You gonna think about the offer?"
She nodded her head.
"I'll be back later... we'll talk again, if you're ready."
He walked to the door and had opened it a foot when she spoke, "Huntin' Jimmy? Just the major's nice way of sayin' you're goin' after the raiders?"
"Take care of yourself.... come back in one piece okay?"
Out of her sight he smiled and joined the others outside.
She heard their horses thunder out of town and she sank into her chair. She could feel her stomach turning and pressed her hand against her lips trying to keep her breakfast down. "Come back in one piece.. I can't lose you too."
The soldiers carried him in on a stretcher, a large gaping wound in his leg. Blood, dark as wine velvet slid out of the wound with incredible speed. They called out for someone to get Louise.
The hotel clerk rushed upstairs and pounded on her door, "Miss Louise, Miss Louise... the Major needs you downstairs! He's hurt ma'am!"
Louise threw open the door, she wore a robe over her underpinnings but the belt was loose and the front gaped. "What happened?"
"Shot ma'am! His leg looks bad!"
She followed him down the hall, "Why did you come for me?" She asked as she frantically retied her robe closed.
"The soldiers are asking for you."
It took but a moment to make her decision. Her hair lay around her shoulders and she realized there was no time to go back. "Walter.. go back to my room, and get me something to tie my hair back with."
He turned on his heel and ran back to the room at the end of the hall.
Louise ran down the stairs to the dining room, her barefeet rubbing against the carpet. She nearly ran into one of the soldiers. "Where?" was all she asked, he wordlessly pointed to a corner of the dining room where several long tables were pushed together.
She raced over to the Major's side, "Oh sir, what have you done to yourself?"
"Myself?" he laughed, "My dear girl...it was someone else who did the shooting."
She smiled at his bluster, "Well, at least we know they didn't hit your funny bone."
The major lay back and let Lou examine the wound. Someone gave her a knife and she cut back the fabric of his pants. The Major exhaled as the air came in contact with the wound. "Oh Lord Miss Louise, I think Mr. Hickok will be green with envy."
The bartender handed the Major a bottle of whiskey which he dutifully swallowed in large gulps. "Now if you don't lay still we'll have a worse mess on our hands."
Walter rushed in with the tie for her hair. Since her hands were covered in blood from working on the Major, Walter was forced to play handmaid and tie her hair back by himself.
Basins full of water were brought out and Lou cleaned the wound thoroughly and took out the bullet and shrapnel. The wound was large and gaping, so there wasn't enough skin to adequately cover the wound for sewing. Louise pulled what skin there was together and stitched it as quickly as she could. A second bottle was handed to the major and Louise pulled one of the soldiers over to the side and gave him an order that caused him to balk. A firm word from her and he complied.. emptying his gun powder into a bowl beside the table.
Others had gathered and now watched with morbid fascination. Louise walked around into the Major's line of site. "Sir?"
"I've heard of this treatment Louise... but I never thought I'd have it done."
"If you don't want it...."
"I am perfectly willing to put myself in your beautiful hands. Please do it." Wasting no time she prepared a mixture and spread it over the open wound. She offered the major a leather strap to bite down on. He shook his head, "No thank you... I can handle it my way." A few of the men raised their eyebrows at her methods, but as the Major had no quarrel they left her be.
"Does this mean you've accepted the position?"
She tried not to laugh at his expression, "If it will get you to lie still... yes, I'll work with you." He lay back smiling, quite content to endure what was to come.
She asked for a match and one scared young boy handed it to her with a quaking hand. She lit it against the table and touched it to a edge of the wound. Instantly the air was filled with smoke and flame as the combination cauterized the wound.
They moved the Major upstairs to his room at the first window of opportunity. It was there she finished tending him. When she finished dressing the wound the Major was already sleeping quietly. The wound showed no signs of infection and Lou sat exhausted in a chair next to his make-shift bed.
The major's aide sat beside her for an hour after the emergency. He filled her in on the battle, they had been conducting routine exercises. A supply shipment came over the ridge, followed by raiders. The major had lead the charge to defend it.
"And Jimmy... Mr. Hickok?"
The man shook his head, he knew that Hickok had been in the battle, but with all the confusion he had not seen him since. He excused himself to check on the other wounded, leaving her alone with the major and her own worries.
Another aide came by later to relieve her. She had just changed the dressings on the wound and it had remained infection free. She left instructions that if anything happened, she was to be the first to know.
She walked back downstairs, she knew she was a mess, but she thought to check on the other injured soldiers and to see if Jimmy had come in.
The door was heavy or his arms were weak... either way it was very difficult to get inside the hotel. He was bone weary from all the fighting he had seen that day but one thought had stayed with him through the worst of it, Louise.
He knew she'd be waiting. He'd sent the major to her knowing that she'd care for him... they'd seen enough bullet wounds in their day and had learned some tricks along the way. By now she'd probably be looking for him, worried and angry that he'd been in danger.
She stood in the middle of the lobby, her robe splattered in blood now dry from age. Her face, tired but still beautiful. Her hair had escaped it's binding and was nearly loose over her shoulders. She stood over a young soldier and by her face the young man was bad off. The next moment played out a scene Jimmy had seen too many times in the army. She lay a sheet over his face and Jimmy's heart sank with her's, another good man was dead because of this awful war.
He moved as she lay her head in her hands and wept, her shoulders quivering as she sobbed. He moved up quickly behind her and touched her shoulder ever so gently. "Lou-" was all he whispered and she was in his arms. Clutching him to her, her face buried in his shoulder, she wept.
Another soldier whispered in his ear, "She's been amazing today...but she really should rest. Why don't you take her to her room."
Walter ran up holding the spare key out to him. Jimmy shook his head as he swept Lou up in his arms, cradling her against his chest. Walter dutifully ran up the stairs ahead of him, opening the door quietly. Jimmy moved through the doorway and Walter closed the door after them.
He set her down on her feet and peeled her robe off. She didn't protest, Jimmy had seen her in less. He pulled back the covers and laid her down like a little child. She pulled up her knees and hugged them, "Jimmy?"
"Yeah Lou," he covered her with the thick blanket.
"How do you stand it Jimmy? I've never seen so much pain...and death."
"We'll talk about it later Lou, now get some rest."
She nodded and adjusted her body until she was comfortable. The cool sheets drawing out all the tension from the day.
Sometime during the night, Jimmy, still sitting in the chair beside her bed, awoke to tears.
Lou thrashed on the bed, her arms wrapped around her middle, "Oh God, please no! Please... just bring him back....bring him back!" He moved to her bedside and tried to wake her. She kept her eyes closed tight as her arms reached out in desperation. He knew from their talk that she missed Kid, but there was something soul rending about the sound of her voice pleading, begging for help that broke his heart.
In a moment he made a decision. He shrugged out of his jacket and boots. Laying them on the floor, he climbed onto the bed and took her in his arms. Hearing his voice crooning to her, she began to calm down and cling to him. Jimmy felt guilty sharing her bed, but he told himself that she needed company and he was laying on top of the covers. He knew as he thought up the excuse that it was a weak one, but right now he'd do anything to be near her and help her through this.
He had seen so much in the last few months and it was only going to get worse. If he only had this one night to touch her and hold her close, then he'd take the chance.
As light broke thru the smoke from the livery that had burned to the ground the night before, a knock came on the door to Lou's room. Jimmy awoke first and slipped out of her arms. He opened the door and straightened when he recognized Major Orem's aide, Capt. Tom Flemming.
"Captain." Jimmy stood at attention until the Captain waved his hand.
"No need to be so formal this morning Hickok. I've come to ask you if you'd consider taking the lead in the hunt this morning." Jimmy looked back at Lou fast asleep in the bed. Captain Flemming also noticed her, "Is that your friend... the one who took care of the Major?"
Jimmy pushed his hand through his hair and nodded. He moved his body to block the doorway and the Captain's view of Lou. "About the hunt, when do we start?"
The captain looked down at Jimmy's feet, "Well son, as soon as you get some shoes on."
Jimmy nodded and shut the door. He picked up a towl from the basin and began washing his face. The cool water helped to wake him and he started to pull on his jacket. The chair beside the bed groaned as Jimmy sat down pulled on his boots. "Damn dainty furniture... might as well be made of toothpicks."
He picked up his jacket from the back of the chair and leaned over Lou. She slept like an angel, he felt better knowin' she got some rest. The blanket was balled up in her hand and her lips were slightly parted touching the pillow. He took one last guilty pleasure and let his hand slip through her hair, brushing it away from her neck.
He hated to leave her without telling her where he'd be and scrawled a note on a piece of paper, sayin' he'd meet her for dinner as soon as he got back. He left the note on the pillow next to her and touched her cheek softly. In the morning light she smiled.
The small band of Army scouts and cavalry rode out less than an hour later. All had been involved in the fighting the night before and sagged in their saddles. The Raiders' attacks had become more frequent and deadly... the only way to stop it was to eliminate the threat. Jimmy felt the familiar weight of his Navy Colts strapped to his sides and confidently moved to the front of the group. They thundered out of town on his order, following him into the heart of hell.
"He's comin' around."
Darkness covered him... his eyes felt like they were swollen shut. No matter how he tried he couldn't lift his eyelids. He tried to reach up with his hand and touch his face, but he could only move it a few inches before he was stopped.
"Calm down boy... you'll pull your arm out of your socket if you keep yankin' on it like that."
Jimmy didn't recognize the voice and continued to struggle, "I can't see!"
"Well, that would be 'cause my boys didn't like you shootin' at us."
"Your boys?" Jimmy's throat closed. "You're Quantrill."
"Smart boy..." Jimmy felt someone touch his uniform, "scout are you?"
"What does the army think it's doin' out here...what does it hope to accomplish!?"
"To stop you and your 'boys'. These raids .... the killin' has to stop."
"My dear boy... I didn't start this mess. The Jayhawkers have been raiding the southern farms around here for longer than I care to think. No one from the military tried to stop them."
Jimmy tried to squeeze his lids shut, trying to wash his eyes with tears. It was takin' too long. "Can't say I've heard much about the Jayhawkers sir, I joined when you had begun your raids."
"Well, consider this an education."
"I'd rather go home."
Loud booming laughter rattled in his ears, "Very funny boy... very funny. Tell me.. what name do you go by?"
"Well Mr. Hickok.. why does your name sound so familiar... do I know you?"
"I don't suppose so sir... I'm only a scout."
"No... I know I've heard that name."
"Second group comin' back!"
Jimmy heard the activity around him, grateful that for a moment, Quantrill was distracted. He cursed that hack of a writer... once again his reputation was endangerin' his life.
The raiders moved away and Jimmy strained his ears to catch any part of their words. They spoke, but he was unable to catch any of their words. He hung his head for a minute resting his arms. He was goin' to get back... there wasn't a doubt in his mind... there weren't any ideas either. That's what scared him.
"We caught one... and we're gonna keep him for awhile."
"Damn Jergin...you make the prisoner sound like a puppy! Why is Quantrill keepin' him around?"
"Seems he admired the man's courage. Never once turned to run, always pushin' forward to save the others. Quantrill said more men like him.. and we'll lose this fight."
"I'm gonna get a closer look.. seems like this man is someone I'll need to keep an eye out for."
"Don't worry 'bout gettin' up close.. he can't see much of anything right now." Jergin walked away laughin'... that boy was still green behind the ears.
Jimmy could hear cautious footsteps in the dirt behind him. Sittin' up tall in his chair he waited for the snide comment or cheap shot he knew was comin'. Sad to say that what happened hit him like a shot below the belt.
"Dang it Jimmy... you've got yourself in a mess of trouble this time.... what ever will Teaspoon say!"
His breath froze in his lungs and he shook his head to clear his ears... but the laughter was unmistakeable, "Jesse?"
She'd seen a river of blood today. Table after countless table covered in the blood and dreams of young men swam before her. She forced herself to continue on through the endless line of soliders comin' in off the field. It was hard to believe anyone survived the battle, it had been long and gruesome. Hearing many cry out in pain Louise fought against the need to escape this gilded hell.
"Louise?" The major had been carried down earlier.
She moved to sit beside him as a lull created a few moments of peace. He had seen them all come and go. He felt for each one of the boys in his command and she knew he took it personally. Each time one left under a sheet he aged another year. In a few days.. the poor man would be older that sin. "Yes sir?"
He laid a hand on her arm... lookin' into her worn face, "Darlin' you look like hell."
She looked up into his eyes, smilin' from embrassment, "I'll bet I'm not the model nurse Miss Dix wants carin' for the boys." She smoothed her hair and grimaced over the condition of her hands, dry and chapped from the constant washing.
"I doubt Dragon Dix ever gets her hands dirty these days. I can tell you for a fact, she's never been as sweet to look at as you are."
The doors burst open and she stood automatically as they carried in the next wave of injured soldiers. "Louise?" The major set a hand on her arm, "What have you heard of Mr. Hickok?"
"Not much sir... no one really saw what happened after he was pulled off his horse in the middle of the battle. After that it's anyone's guess." She swallowed a gulp of air down her throat, tryin' to keep her wits together. "I still have hope>"
"My darlin' girl - keep that hope alive. Hickok doesn't strike me as a man who'd give up so easily. Not if he has this pretty face to come home to."
She smiled more for the Major's sake than her own. She left him sitting there as she returned to the makeshift hospital. As soon as she was sure he couldn't see her she turned her face away and wiped at the tears clinging to her cheeks.
The men had been tryin' to spare her from the truth. Quantrill's men were ruthless. She'd seen the bodies of their other prisoners. They use them for information then dispose of them. The ones they'd found and brought back didn't leave much to bury... let alone, identify. With every moment that passed with no word... her hope died a little more.
She found herself sinkin' deeper into dispair, she'd allready lost family... she couldn't bear to lose another. How much more could she be expected to endure before she lost herself as well?
"What kind of a favor are you asking for?"
Jesse shrugged his shoulders, "Let him go."
"You think it's that easy? Let an army scout go?"
"Maybe the army'll take it as a good will gesture."
Quantrill's features twisted, "Goodwill gesture? What do you think we're doin' here? This is a WAR we are fighting. There is no room for mistakes or weakness. Letting him go would be a blaring example of both."
"I've never asked you for anything."
"Then why start now?"
"Because... he's a friend...almost family."
Quantrill laughed, "Another one? Jesse, this is becoming a habit with you.. pickin' up strays."
Jesse stood his ground. "This is different, he's on the other side."
The darkhaired leader sighed into the deep heat of the afternoon, "You'd have to sneak him out of here... no one can know I let you do this." The younger James nodded and turned away, "Jesse!"
"Don't make me regret this... and don't EVER ask for another favor, or your life will be the one on the line." Jesse nodded his understanding.
Jesse doesn't know how he managed to sneak Hickok past the others, that was a miracle in and of itself. The next miracle entailed getting a bound and blind Hickok into the saddle. It would have been easier if Jimmy had half a mind to co-operate.
"Dammit Hickok... will you help me?"
"You better watch your language boy, or I'll have to wash your mouth out with soap."
Jesse threw his gloves down. "I ain't no boy... 'sides if if weren't for me you'd have your throat slit by now."
Hickok blew out a breath through locked teeth. "So when do I die?"
"You ain't... if you help me out a little." He led two horses to the spot where Jimmy was restin' against a tree. I can't take of the ropes now... but you can pull yourself into the saddle.. can't ya?"
Jimmy lifted up his hands, "Lead me to the horse.. and I'll get on."
An hour later Jimmy had given up trying to remember where the Raiders camp was. Obviously the young man had paid attention to what Teaspoon had taught them. They'd been riding in wide arcs and circles... moving quickly away from the camp, but leaving him no chance of back tracking later.
He chuckled as his old friend seemed to read his mind, "Jimmy?"
"You ain't gonna tell Teaspoon you saw me here... are ya?"
"No!" At once defensive and angry, Jesse showed his true feelings in one all important denial.
"What do you want me to tell him?"
"He'd be so disappointed... I'm sure he'd say I had lost my mind." Jimmy listened to the subtle pain in Jesse's voice. "I ain't sayin' he's right... Quantrill didn't start out like this you know. It used to be, we protected the farmers from the Jayhawkers. They took everything... livestock, food... whatever they wanted... just 'cause the farmers come from the south. It ain't right Jimmy."
"I'd agree with that... but there are ways to get help. People are dyin' Jesse. You can't tell me this is doin' any good?"
"No... it ain't, - at least it's doin' something. Something I still believe in." A loud sigh told Jimmy enough, "I don't want to waste time talkin' about this."
"Tell me something about home."
"Jesse, I ain't been back to Rock Creek in months and I hardly ever write letters."
Jimmy could hear the disappointment in his voice, "I can tell you what Lou told me-"
"Lou? But I thought you ain't been to Rock Creek!"
"Lou's in Seneca." Jimmy's horse stopped short, it's head jerked to the side by the reins held in Jesse's hands.
"You ain't serious!"
"You hard of hearin' Jesse? She's there. What's wrong.. I thought you were sweet on her."
"Dammit Hickok, what the hell is she doin' in Seneca? She's too close to the fightin'."
"I ain't gonna tell you who you sound like. She's even closer than you think... who do you think patches up all the boys the Raiders try to kill?"
Silence, then a hearfelt plea, "Send her home."
If Jimmy had a hand free he'd have slapped his knee and then Jesse, to knock some sense into him. "You think she'd listen to me?"
Reality set in, "Not Lou... not if she was where she wanted to be."
Jimmy was confused, "Ain't you gonna ask where Kid is?"
"Why? I don't have to.... he's with us."
"Wait a damn minute Jesse! Kid with Quantrill's Raiders?"
" Yeah... Kid tried for weeks to get through to the south. The army had every road watched and he ran into family after family of refugees. He couldn't watch it happen to them. The Jayhawkers were pickin' on the families.. stealin' stuff. Sayin' it was contraband, but they only took it for themselves. Linin' their own pockets with it."
"So how'd he find you?"
"Quantrill himself brought him in. After one of our groups chased a band of Jayhawkers, they found Kid tryin' to save a woman and her child. She'd been shot for tryin' to keep her jewelry.. she said she needed money for her child. Kid was burned tryin' to save her barn and Quantrill was impressed. Kid joined 'cause he felt we were doin' the right thing fightin' against them."
"It's changin' Jimmy... the Jayhawkers have all but stopped, but Quantrill isn't content... he wants to strike at the Northern Government too... and goin' after the Army suits him just fine... This ain't gonna stop..."
"Then you need to leave... you both need to leave. Kid's got a wife to think about."
Jesse shook his head, "No, you don't walk away from Quantrill....and 'sides, I'm staying with Frank..,"
"Figures he'd be involved in this."
"He never had friends like I did... he never learned what you and Teaspoon taught me." Jesse shrugged his shoulders, "I need to watch his back... you can understand that right Jimmy?"
"What about Kid? What should I tell him?"
"Doesn't matter to me... doesn't seem like he wants to go home." Jimmy squeezed his eyes together again, new tears softened the blood that kept his eyes shut. "Jesse, can I take this blindfold off now?"
Jesse slipped it of and handed Jimmy the cloth. "Really Hickok, I need to know what to tell him-"
Jimmy grit his teeth together, "Tell him that his wife is lookin' for him, she wants him to come home." He wanted to add, 'not that he deserves her.'
"Like I said, Jimmy, no one ever leaves."
"You know the Kid ain't cut out for stuff like this."
"He'd be a fool to try. Quantrill doesn't deal with deserters - He'd be dead within a day, two at the most."
"Than he's a bigger fool than I thought... got a wife at home - When was he thinkin' of tellin her? Or was he plannin to make her wait for the rest of her life?"
"I can't say what Kid's gonna do, but you outta head back to town. I'll cut your ropes and-"
A bullet flew right between them and Jesse turned toward the sound, "Get goin' Jimmy!"
"Come with me!"
Jesse watched as four horses appeared behind them, "We don't stand a chance together. They're Jayhawkers, you're Army and I'm a raider... this ain't gonna be a party, now go! I'll hold them."
Jimmy's hands were still bound to the saddlehorn and Jesse kicked his mount in the hind quarters. He had no chance to do anything but hold on as his mount surged forward.
There was a new sound from the side, more Jayhawkers. Jimmy bent low over his mount squeezin' his knees together he struggled to control the path of his mount. Gunfire, entirely too close for comfort winged past him.
The person firing was gettin' closer, "Thank God he can't aim for beans!" Hickok's whole world moved three inches to the right. He knew enough to know the wound was bad. Continuing to head for town, Jimmy vowed, "That's the last time I count my chickens before-"
Louise found a quiet corner on the porch of the hotel. Sinking into an available chair she stared out at the nearly deserted street, tragedy weighed heavily on her shoulders. She'd seen more and more death in the last few days. "There's nothing grand or glorius about this part of the war-" she sighed into the sunset light.
"I agree wholeheartedly, Ms. McCloud."
She wasn't at all startled, "Captain Flemming, wouldn't you rather be doing something more constructive than tagging along after me all day?" Major Orem had assigned the Captain as her shadow. "I'm sure you'd rather be with your men."
Another step forward and he set his hands on the railing beside her, "Ah... she tires of her watchdog."
Louise stifled a laugh behind her hand and drew her knees up to her chest. "It's not you..."
"Besides," he continued, "accompanying you keeps me with my men." He'd spent the morning and afternoon with her in the hospital tents. The injured men that couldn't fit in the dining room of the hotel had been quartered in rows and rows of tents that lined the outskirts of town.
Louise set her cheek on the cool wood railing, "It's the only thing that keeps me goin'." She flexed her hand, feeling the muscles in her fingers groan from the excersize.
"I think you filled an entire mail bag on your own... and given a lot of the men some peace of mind."
She felt a yawn starting in her cheeks, "I have it better than the Major. The letters I'm writing help their families share in their lives, but his letters ... his letters...." Louise rubbed at her eyes, glad for the excuse to hide the strain she was feelin'.
Flemming sighed heavily, "He hates writing them, every single one shakes him a little more."
"Is that where you were? With the Major?"
She didn't have to look up to know he was nodding his head, "More word from the scouts-" Louise flinched and instantly the Captain wished he'd kept his mouth shut.
"Word?" She couldn't help but sound a little hopeful. Louise let out a nervous little laugh, "You'd think after three days I'd give up hope he'd be alive."
"You're this friend-"
"Well, the Major still feels-"
"Captain! Captain Flemming!" A young scout rode up, "He's back... Hickok sir... he's hurt bad."
Louise leaned over the rail, "Where is he?"
"The hospital tents ma'am; the doctor said there weren't no room at the hotel for him."
"Go back. Bring him here...I have a room."
The scout looked to the officer standing next to her, "You better do as she says son."
The scout nodded and turned his mount around, heading back with new orders.
They carried him upstairs on a stretcher and transferred him to the bed. Louise was already prepared for the arrival and started unbuttoning his shirt. He stirred for a moment and looked up into her eyes.
Louise's hands were shaking and after finishing two buttons, she cursed her condition and ripped the rest of the shirt open. One of the soldiers stayed behind and helped her slip the shirt off so she could see the wound.
Louise cleaned the wound with fresh water from the basin and began to relax for the first time in days. He'd lost a lot of blood, but the wound wasn't fatal, mostly bluster. When she'd patched him up as best she could, the soldier, Murphy was his name, helped her to bandage him up.
It wasn't until she had covered him with a new sheet and had started to bathe his face that he began to stir again. She set a hand on his chest as she leaned over his body, watching his face for any signs of movement. Louise was startled and nearly undone as a hand closed over hers.
A quick exhale, "Thank Goodness." Her eyes half closed as she levelled her gaze at him, "Don't ever scare me like that again!"
Jimmy gave a weak snort of laughter, "What's the matter, Lou? You gonna shoot me?"
Lou set the cloth down on the nightstand, "If I have to, I'll tie you down."
"At least I ain't dyin'."
She blinked in disbelief, "Why would you say that?"
"If I was dyin' you wouldn't be so mean to me."
"Mean? Well next time I'll leave you to the tender mercies of the Army doctor and keep my bed clean!"
For the first time Jimmy looked around, "I'm in your room?"
Louise grew quiet and stared down at her hands, "We've been waiting... the Major and I, for any word about you... I've been so worried. First Kid, then you, I was starting to think I was becomin' a curse."
"Lou?" He thought he should tell her as soon as he could, Lou was not a woman who liked secrets. "About Kid-"
With out looking, she gripped his hand in her own. "What did you hear?"
"This ain't gonna be easy to hear, but he's alive and close."
She only heard the last four words, "Where? Jimmy... why didn't he come with you? You've seen him?"
"Lou... Lou, honey?" She turned an impertinent gaze to him, "You ain't hearin' the words I'm sayin'."
Louise focused on his face, "You said you've found him-"
"Let me tell it Lou... I ain't one to want to hurt you."
Her hand flew to her mouth and covered lips, slightly parted in shock, "Oh God... Jimmy, tell me what happened."
"Quantrill had me and I didn't have any information to help him, but if it wasn't for Jesse-"
"Jesse? What the hell is he doin' out here?"
"Followin' Frank around. He's the one who told me about Kid," he watched her closely and saw her arms twitch with her thoughts, "He's with them Lou... he never made it to the south."
All the blood drained out of her face in a single moment and unconciously she held her palms against her cheeks in an effort to warm her skin and comfort her fears. "Why would he? Never; you're wrong," she said flatly.
He reached out and set his hand on her leg, "I heard it from Jesse. It's Kid alright."
"No it isn't! Kid would never do what Quantrill and his raiders have done to these people. Never! You couldn't have heard right." It was gettin' harder and harder to not scream at him. Instead, she looked away from her friend, "You've lost a lot of blood, you're delirious."
His hand on her leg kept her from bolting, "Jesse told me the news before we were chased, Lou - I heard him just fine."
She stood, brushing his hand away. "I need some time.. tea.. I need tea.. I'll be back." She swept out the door, grabbing her purse as she left.
Jimmy hardly stirred when the doctor came in to check on him throughout the night. But by morning, Jimmy was dizzy with exhaustion and concern, Lou hadn't come back and he needed to know where she was.
"It's my own damn fault... I should've found a better way to tell her than that. I opened my mouth and spilled the news - I should've known she'd take it hard." When the sun rose he asked the doctor to help prop him up with pillows, hopin' she'd be back soon.
He fell asleep that way and didn't wake again until the sun had slid past the window. The door clicked open and brushed quietly against the thick carpet. Louise kept her back to the bed and set her purse on the chest of drawers against the wall.
"I had a feelin' you'd be waitin' for me." He could barely hear her words from where he lay.
"You had me worried."
"Good... you deserve it after what you put me through the last few days." The bite was back in her voice. Something had changed.
"That's a dumb question." Jimmy looked up in surprise. He could swear there was a smile in her voice.
"I'm sorry, I should've found a better way to tell you."
Slowly she turned around to face him, her eyes not quite meeting his, "You only told me the truth. I wouldn't have expected anything different from you."
He winced at her tone, "You make it sound like-"
"I'm sorry if I sound so angry... it ain't you, Jimmy."
"You ready to tell me what's goin' on inside that head of yours?"
She moved closer and sat down on the edge of the bed. "What's to tell... I don't have a reason to stay anymore."
He took her hand in his, "That's not what I'm talkin' about... there's something been eatin' at you from the inside. I want to help you through it."
She smoothed her hand over his arm, "I know you would Jimmy... I know you would."
He sat silent as a stone beside her, countin' every breath they took. Minutes went by and soon the clock was set to chime again. As the second hand clicked on the twelve she shook with the chimes. She looked up at him, comin' out of her daze, "How long've I been sitting here?"
"Not long," he brushed her hair back from her face, "You okay?"
She smiled, "You keep askin' me that... like I'll break or somethin'."
"No... not you."
"You don't know the half of it, Jimmy," she settled against his side, her cheek laid on his shoulder, "but I'll tell you what happened."
Soft whispers tore out her heart all over again. She shut her eyes and told him everything that happened after Kid left. It had been months, but as she spoke the words the wounds in her heart opened up and it felt like she poured fire over them. She finally understood the reality behind the phrase 'Like Salt on a Wound.' Her soul relived each moment as she confided in her friend. Quietly she wondered if there'd ever be a time when she'd be able to say the words and not feel like her soul was bein' ripped apart.
"I wish I'd been there to help-" he didn't know what else to say. He'd never been good with words, and now everything in his mind seemed like paltry comfort.
"You couldn't have done anything-" a sigh pushed out of her chest.
"Someone should've been there."
Lou looked up into his eyes for the first time, "The person who needed to be there wasn't, that's all that matters. I just need to move on Jimmy."
He knew the pain wasn't over for her... probably never would be, but she was lookin' to leave it behind. He saw some papers next to her purse, "You got a letter?"
Lou nodded slowly, "From Buck, he sent some money from the sale of some horses we'd bred."
"What are you gonna do with it?"
She sighed and settled down on the pillow, "It's already gone."
"Gone?" He drew the curtains closed, "What do you mean?"
"Medical supplies have been low for weeks... and the stipend the military sends just isn't enough... not with all the raids."
He sighed and shook his head, "Lou?"
She mumbled into the pillow beside him, "What now Jimmy?"
"You gave it to the army?"
"The army? No... I bought medical supplies, now can I go to sleep?"
"Lou, you shouldn't have done that. That's your money." He turned to look at her, "Lou?" It took him a moment, but he finally noticed she was asleep beside him.
He gave up tryin' to argue and settled in beside her. Tomorrow he'd see the quartermaster and get her money back... and then he would find a way to convince her to go back to Rock Creek. Did he honestly think she'd go? Like Hell.
Jesse hadn't come to a decision. Kid had come back while the camp was still swarmin' with men lookin' for the escaped Scout and Jesse had artfully avoided him. Quantrill hadn't spoken a word to Jesse since he'd come back and young Mr. James was feelin' torn again.
Kid hadn't said hardly a word to anyone either. A letter to Buck was burning a whole in his pocket, he never could seem to find the time to mail it. He sat far away from the fires and barely picked at the food on his plate. Rock Creek seemed years away and there was no hope of goin' back. He'd been tryin' to think of a way to go back, if only for a visit... to explain to Lou.
He shook his head as his mind filled with her. His heart ached deep in his chest. He had tried so hard to put her out of his mind as thoughts of her hurt more than he'd like to admit. Months with the Raiders had killed much of the hope in him. He'd seen too much killin'... senseless killin', and it didn't look like it was gonna get any better.
Jesse watched him stare into the darkness. He knew he had to tell Kid about Lou bein' in Seneca, but he didn't know what that would do to him. He'd been real melancholy of late and it didn't take any work to notice the change in him. Hearing that his wife was so close... that just may be the straw to break him, and Jesse couldn't do that to his friend. He just couldn't.
Kid turned his ring over and over on his finger. He stared as the gold caught the light from the fire. This little circle of gold meant something once, now it all seemed a far away memory.
Needless to say, Louise stayed.
Jimmy's recovery was quick, causing Louise no amount of anxiety. On one hand she was heartened by his returning health, but on the other, the faster he healed meant he'd soon return to the active ranks of the Army.
Louise spent much of her time with the other soldiers, writing letters for them gave her some measure of comfort. Sometimes it was the only thing that helped her get any rest at night, knowin' that someone was gettin' the letters she was writin'. Someone's heart was a little lighter because they'd heard from a loved one. Some nights, long after Jimmy had gone to sleep, Louise would find her way out into the street and stare out into the darkness. Wondering how many would die the next day... how many would be injured? 'We're so far from the war, and still we're right in the middle of it all.'
Each day that dawned her heart grew a bit more morose. She knew that nothing good would come of this war, now her biggest concern was keepin' the soldiers in her charge alive and whole for their journey home.
During one particular visit from the Major Louise resisted the urge to send the older man packing. He seemed hard pressed to have Jimmy back at the front. "I just don't know Major," Jimmy hedged, sending looks over his shoulder at Louise who hovered nearby.
The Major nodded back, a sage expression on his face. "Well son, we really could use you, as soon as you're ready."
Jimmy leaned forward, barely wincing at the stitch in his side. He hissed, "You see -"
"Jimmy, you can stop whispering. I can hear." She turned and unleashed her frustrations on the Major. "I know more than I want to. You're both waiting for me to leave so you can talk about the war. You know I want -" she threw her hands up in disgust, "I guess what I want doesn't matter... ever." She stalked over to the door and threw it open. She took a step into the hall and turned back, lookin' them straight in the face. "I'm sorry, I don't have a right to speak to either of you like that."
"It's quite alright my dear," the Major was tryin' to soothe her troubled spirit, "You've seen so much... it's a wonder you've kept with us. I just hope you know that these boys are serving their country, winning this war with their blood."
She heard the hollow sound of his voice and knew that he barely believed what he was saying. He wasn't tryin' to fool her, he was just tryin' to help them both understand what all this fightin' is for. Shakin' her head, she started to ease the door closed, "I still can't get used to the idea that anyone's death can be justified as a cost of war. I know these boys, after the last few months they've all become dear to me, and to see them come back in a burial wagon has been killin' me bit by bit."
The door clicked shut and Louise leaned back against the hard wood. Her breath rasped out from her lungs as she blinked back angry tears. She knew what was happening behind the door. There would be no way to stop him from fighting, that's the job he'd signed up for.
She couldn't stop him - but she could still watch his back.
Hours later, Louise returned to find officers of every rank filin' out of her room. She greeted them all in turn, waiting for an opening in the ranks to slip inside.
She walked to the closet and slid her bag off the shelf. Louise set her bag down on her cot and began to watch in silence as Jimmy poured over the maps before him. He didn't even look up when she passed by.
"Lou, I -" he began.
She stated the fact, "You're goin'."
He pulled his gaze up to meet hers, half expecting to see anger flashin' hot in her eyes. He was quite mistaken. "Lou, you ain't makin' this easy-"
"Oh really?" She almost laughed, "I thought I was makin' it easy for you. You're your own man, with a job to do. That's the truth of it and I understand."
Jimmy eyed her carefully, there was something goin' on. Lou would never change her mind like this, so quick and unexpected. He watched as she folded her own clothes and shoved them into her bags, fairly jammin' them so full, the seams were stretchin' to their limits.
"You goin' somewhere?"
Her movements stilled at his question. "Goin'?"
"Yeah... your bags.. you haven't touched them for months."
"Hmm..." she closed one and set her hand on the top of it, "months... I guess it has been that long."
For a few moments plans were set aside and Jimmy began to regret what he was about to do. "You're scarin' me Lou-"
"You?" she scoffed. "I don't think that's possible."
"Lou?" He didn't know what was happening... but he knew he didn't like it.
Louise ignored him and started to undo her dress at the front, her hands absentmindedly undoing the row of mother of pearl buttons. "I'm tired... I need some sleep... I'm goin' home tomorrow."
"Home?" For one disheartening moment he began to worry... he'd begun to think that Lou would never leave. Thinking of life without her around was more frightening than the battle coming the next day. She'd been his strength for so long, he didn't know what he'd do now. "You leavin' in the mornin'?"
She nodded, "I thought I go to sleep early and head out at sunrise... should make it back to Rock Creek in a few days." She pulled back the covers on the bed and climbed in half dressed.
Louise had her back to him and he couldn't tell what she was about. He sat on the bed next to her, wondering if it wouldn't be better to explain what he'd be facin' the next day.
"Lou- Louise, I wanted to tell you-"
"Jimmy, if it's all the same to you, I really need my rest." Moments later he could feel her even breathing through his hand on her shoulder. He wanted to shake her awake and find out what had happened.
Instead, he resigned himself to working it out when he returned. He made his way across the room to his cot, stripped off his jacket and threw it over the back of a chair. He settled onto the cot, feeling it creak under his weight.
He rubbed at his eyes, wondering if he was doin' the right thing. He'd wanted Lou there with him; still did, but there was a chance that he would die tomorrow... or that Kid might face the same fate. He couldn't face the thought of her goin' through it watching either one of them die.
He stood up and snatched his jacket from the back of the chair. He took up his hat and headed for the door. He knew that this was the only way he could live with himself. The door shut behind him and he motioned to the young ensign, half asleep in the hallway. The boy jumped to attention and took his post in front of the door.
Jimmy headed down the stairs knowing that she'd forgive him one day... if he was lucky.
Lou awoke with a start, the room was awash with sunlight.
She threw back the covers and looked around the room. Jimmy's things were still scattered around the room, but he was gone.
Louise pulled on her top & threw the door open as she buttoned her blouse with frantic fingers.
The young ensign in the hall jumped about a foot in the air at the noise. "Ma'am?"
"Who are you?"
"Ensign Colins ma'am."
Louise craned her neck to see down both sides of the hall. "Have they left?"
'God, he makes me feel like I'm 80 years old.' "Yes ensign - has the Major left?" He stared at her, mouth slack and eyes fixed on her, 'Argh!' She tried to side step the boy, but he moved with her... blocking her way.
She had about had enough of the beamish boy before her, "What are you-?"
"They told me to keep you here."
"Really?" The question hit the mark with its pointed tone and the young man stepped back in fear.
Louise contemplated another attempt to leave, but he had another idea. Ensign Colins picked that moment to pull a little gumption off the bottom of his shoes. He shifted forward and chambered a bullet, holding his gun high in shaking hands.
A gasp of disbelief hissed out of her throat. Without a second thought she backed into the room and slammed the door.
She breezed to the closet and reached into one of the her packs... gone. Her carpet bag was still on the edge of the bed and she threw out garment after garment. Didn't matter to her if they hit the floor or bed... what mattered was what she had hid under the clothes.
Louise shoved her hand against the inside seams. Willing herself to feel cool metal leaning against her skin, but she searched in vain. She came to the sobering realization that Jimmy'd taken both of her colts. He'd planned this imprisonment well, and he'd pay for it later.
A few scant moments later, she opened the door again and the young ensign groaned, "Ma'am?"
"I know what your orders are, don't tie your insides up in knots. That's not why I opened the door..."
"I need some supplies..."
"Supplies, ma'am? What kind?"
Louise flushed a pretty color of pink, "Well, I need some... ah... 'feminine' supplies."
He swallowed hard and shrank a few inches, " 'Feminine'? You don't mean... you couldn't mean," he stared hard at the floor.
"Yes... I do mean 'those' supplies. Seein' how I can't 'leave' my room... you'll just have to get them for me."
The boy looked ready to pass out, "You ain't serious." He pulled his gaze up to her face, "Damn it... y'are serious. I can't get 'those' things for you..."
"It just ain't right!"
Lou was about to lose her cool demeanor. Time was a'wastin'. "Well, then I'll have to get them..." She made a move to go past him. He barred her way, "Now, you just said you couldn't..."
"I'll just be a few minutes... you can even watch the clock." He nodded and moved aside, tryin' not to touch her. As she moved past him he changed his mind. He reached out a hand and grabbed her arm.
Horsin' around with the boys had prepared her well for this moment. She grabbed his wrist with one hand and took his gun with the other.
To his credit, ensign Colins struggled valiently, until the gun was pressed against one of the brass buttons on his uniform. Louise tossed her head to the side, indicating the door to her room, "Inside."
"IN - SIDE."
He backed up through the open doorway, nearly tripping over the door frame. "Hickok's gonna kill me-"
Louise choked out a laugh, "Believe me... he will be the least of your worries..." She raised one eyebrow and peered at him, "Give me your pants."
All the color drained from his face, "What?"
"Your pants..." Boy, they sure do raise mental giants out here.
"But Ma'am-" Louise pulled back the hammer on the gun and Ensign Colins hopped to. Nearly ripping off the buttons to his pants he soon had them off and threw them over to Louise. She shook out the pants and laid them over the back of a chair. She looked back at him and motioned with the gun again, "My jacket?"
She nodded and waited as he shrugged it off. "Thank you, now turn around."
He started to protest but thought differently when she raised the gun level with his head.
Moments later, Louise had left her skirts in a pile on the floor.
The door clicked closed and ensign Colins whirled around to face an empty room. "Hickok's gonna kill me."
Before he waded into the fray, Jimmy thought back a few nights before, when he had laid awake watching Louise sleep. Seized by some unknown impulse, he'd pulled out a few sheets of writing paper and put his feelings down in words.
He didn't trust the letter to do anything more than put his mind at ease. He knew that she would only read it if something happened to him, finally telling her what he'd been hiding for over a year.
Now, he held the letter tight in his hand and said a silent prayer that she'd never have to read it. Quiet suffering was something Jimmy had come to lean upon, using it as a crutch. It was so much easier than showing his feelings to others.... even Louise. The call came down the line to ready for the charge and Jimmy hastily shoved the letter into his inside pocket.
Even as he cut down a cluster of raiders, Jimmy knew the battle was hopeless. They knew this territory inside and out and were using it to their advantage. Like the Revolutionary War soldiers against the British, they hid behind trees and rocks, picking off the army soldiers one at a time. They each carried at least two Colt .44s, the better ones carried up to eight at one time... they didn't have to reload for 48 shots. Most army men carried one... two if they brought their own. They were outgunned and outmanuvered... there was little they could do but try to stay alive.
Jimmy paused for a moment as two young men advancing beside him fell to the ground, limbs severed by the vicious sting of lead shot. Fear started to creep through his mind, the letter now burned against his skin. Quickly a decision was made, she'd never read the letter... he'd find a way to make it home.
Louise rode up to the back line of soldiers and found Captain Flemming frantically directing the soldiers swarming around him in confusion. He caught site of her and froze for a moment.
"Go home Louise!"
"Too late now Captain... I'm here and there's no getting rid of me, at least not until I beat Hickok senseless."
The Captain shook his head, "I don't have time to watch out for you."
Lousie pulled the colt from her waistband, "I'm not asking you too. I'm here for Jimmy."
He quieted for a moment, nearly hanging his head in sorrow.
Her heart squeezed tight in her chest, "Captain?"
"Louise, he went down behind the lines over two hours ago. No one who was near him has come out alive."
She gave up breathing, "No."
"Louise, you should go back to town.. we'll bring the body-"
"NO!" Louise spun around and mounted up again. "Where?" She grated out the question.
"I'm not going to let you go in after him. There is hardly any chance-"
"As long as there's a chance, I'm goin'."
"Dressed like that?"
Louise looked down at the brass buttons that glinted in the vicious sunlight. She worked the buttons free from the fabric and threw the jacket down at the ground before the horse. Resigned to her determination, he pointed out a dark path amongst the trees. Louise followed his gaze and sat up in the saddle, her back ramrod straight. One more look to the Captain and she squeezed her legs against the strong muscled sides of the horse and trampled the jacket into the dust.
Jimmy pulled the woolen fabric away from the hole in his arm. "Damn that stings!"
He could hear footsteps rushing past and he sat lower in the shade of the fallen tree. He thought back to the hours before sunrise when he watched Lou sleeping, silent tears across her cheeks. She'd been hurt so much... it killed him to see it so plainly.
Now as he sat here behind the tree, tryin' to hide until the others could find him, he wished he'd stayed behind to wake her with the words he needed to tell her.
Blood hot and sticky dripped down his arm, filling the well in the crook of his arm. A cool wind whipped by makin' his arm sting somethin' fierce. "I hope this doesn't last much longer-"
A horse lumbered across the leaves drawin' fire away from the foot soldiers and over to- Jimmy couldn't believe his eyes. One hand on the reins, Louise reached for the gun tucked in the waist of her skirt. Three shots later she'd killed two and winged a third. A soldier comin' up behind shot the horse out from underneath her.
Hidden behind the bulk of the animal, Lou used the cover to line up her shot... disposing of the man with the last few bullets.
"Lou! What the hell-"
"Shut your mouth Jimmy, we need to hide, not announce ourselves."
Louise took quick inventory of his condition and slid his jacket off, wincing as he sucked in a breath. The thick fabric catching on his injury. She used his knife to cut the wool into makeshift bandages.
He watched in amazement as she completely ignored the troops moving around them, "I can't believe Flemming let you through the line!"
She dismissed his comment with a matter of fact retort, "Well he had other things to worry about. He knows where you are... and I took resonsibilities for my own actions. All I'm worried about now... is gettin' you back in almost one piece."
Jimmy winced as Lou tied the binding around his upper arm, "You're gonna kill me-"
Lou sat back on her heels, a wry smile tugging at her lips, "No, that's their job," she indicated over her shoulder and the sounds of gunfire just beyond the next group of trees.
Jimmy grumbled as she took the cup of water she offered. "Yeah, 'least you could be more sympathetic."
"Well, you signed up for this war.... not me-" she froze and covered Jimmy's retort with her hand.
Her eyes widened as she heard more footsteps on the fallen leaves. Luckily the recent dry weather had made the leaves crisp and brittle... making stealth nearly impossible.
Hesitant, but fiercely protective, she pushed on Jimmy's shoulders until he was further behind the tree trunk.
Silently she slid a Colt out of his holster and covered it with the fold of her skirt. With several layers of fabric piled on top of the revolver, you could barely hear it as she cocked the hammer.
Deep breaths did nothing to still her heart - the raiders they had been trading shots with all morning were definately with Quantrill. She had seen what the men could do, nearly everyone who had come in contact with Quantrill's raiders would make it back in pieces. There was no guarantee that they would be any different if a woman crossed their path. Lou was not ready to give up her life.
The footsteps turned of the right but Lou held off any relief, fearing it was only a momentary reprieve.
Jimmy studied her as she gripped the colt in her hand - it had been awhile since she had carried a gun. It wasn't that he doubted her aim, he just worried she'd be hurt or killed because she was protecting him. He remembered the letter he wrote for her. He had kept it in his coat pocket and had been waiting for the right moment. He wondered if the raiders would allow her to walk away, but if she did, he wanted her to know how he felt.
'Jimmy, shh!' she mouthed.
Jimmy shook his head and grabbed her arm with his good hand and pulled her closer staring into her eyes for what could be the last time, "Lou- If anything happends to me - there's a letter in my coat -"
The footsteps turned back in their direction and Lou froze above him. They looked at each other and she slid off of him and readjusted her hold on the colt. She closed her eyes tightly and listened to every sound around them. The brittle leaves told her exactly where he was... and that he was alone. That in itself was a blessing.
She could imagine Cody writing this in one of his stories... calling her a 'brave maiden'. Brave? This wasn't brave... this was desperation - survival.
Jimmy watched her from the corner of his eye and felt a pride building inside him. She came through this hell for him, and he'd spend the rest of his days provin' he'd do the same for her.... that is if she'd let him.
The only thing that Jimmy could see beyond her outward calm was the incessant shaking of her hands. She was worried... and maybe not just for him. Jesse was out here somewhere... and Kid too. Jimmy shifted agains the tree, 'It don't matter none... she's still the only one-'
His thoughts were cut off by Lou's indrawn breath. The footsteps were almost on top of the them. She blindly reached back and set a hand on Jimmy's arm, squeezing it in reassurance. They both knew this moment would decide their survival.
The touch on his arm tensed for a split secong before she stood. Her hand let go of his arm to brace the colt held in the other. Jimmy held his breath waiting for the report of the bullet. There was none.
Fear and confusion took over and he shifted behind the tree to look at Lou. Instead of feeling relief he began to seethe with anger.
Kid broke the stunned silence, "What are you doin' here?"
"Lookin' for you," she bit out.
"Then what's with those pants... they're army issued."
"What difference does it make?."
The sickening sound of gunfire was farther off now and the two continued to stare at each other.
Jimmy moved to adjust his arm and Kid, startled by the noise trained his revolver on the fallen tree.
Jimmy pulled himself up so he could see Kid better. He couldn't resist the urge to rile him with a bit of humor. "So Kid, you gonna kill me or just point that thing at me for awhile?"
Shock and then "Jimmy?" a sneer crossed his face, "I should'a known it was you draggin' her out in the middle of a war."
"Kid-" his voice full of warning.
"Don't you blame this on him!" She was wide eyed and spittin' mad. "It's your sorry soul I've been chasin'!"
Through the entire exchange Lou and Kid continued to keep their guns ready and aimed. Kid lowered his and looked over at Lou, a small grin relaxing his face, "You gonna put that down?"
Lou looked at him measuring his words in her head. She stood stock still and made no effort to do what he asked.
"Come on Lou... I'm not goin' to try nothin', you can relax."
"I don't know what side you're on, but I'll give you a chance." The words stung. Kid had only heard her voice that flat once before, when she'd told him about Wicks... he couldn't help but feel that she viewed him as a kind of traitor.
He watched as she lowered the gun to her side and moved to Jimmy's side. Helping him sit up on the fallen tree she made sure his bandage was still tight on his arm,. staunching the flow of blood.
Kid was bothered by the care she took with Jimmy. She seemed perfectly comfortable with him. Breaking himself out of these thoughts, he changed the subject. "How long you been lookin' for me?"
She didn't even look up when she gave her answer, "A few months now."
Kid looked off to the side, trying to hide the disappointment in his voice. "That's all?"
Even though she didn't see his face, she heard the tone. Anger flared up again, "You're disappointed!"
He looked up, caught and guilty, "No Lou, ......ah- I just meant...."
"I know what you meant Kid, and if you really want to know. I started lookin' as soon as the doctor said I could."
The words hung in the air like a challenge. It was up to him to decide.
Lou looked at Jimmy, unsure if she should continue. Jimmy held her gaze with his own and nodded to her. Reassured, she stood up to face her husband, "Yes - you didn't know I wasn't feeling well when you left. I didn't want everyone to worry... and you left without telling me anything. I doubt you said three words to me that entire week!"
Kid hung his head... he had avoided her that week... his decision to leave tearing at his heart.
"After you left Rachel took me to the doctor one day when I got sick in the stables. The doctor said he had good news-"
Kid's heart was in his shoes. He never thought it would happen so soon. He took a step towards her and she took a step closer to Jimmy. He froze, "Then why in hell did you follow me, you should be at home..."
"I lost the baby, Kid!" He stopped mid-word. He heard the grief in her voice and stilled his argument. "I had my hands full with the ranch, and Buck was doin' more than his half of the work. The heat came early this year and I was taking hay to the horses in one of the far fields."
Her eyes had nearly closed and Jimmy worried she was gonna lose her control, her hands were shakin' so hard. " I fainted from heatstroke and by the time Buck found me I was nearly dead. Rachel had me packed in ice and bathed me with cold water, but by the time Buck could find the doctor I had lost the baby."
You wouldn't know it from lookin' at her but she finished the story with not a single ounce of breath in her body.
"I was out for days... I had no idea what happened."
"Out?" Kid's emotions were warring inside... and the emotions that were beginning to surface were dangerous ones.
"There are two days that I don't remember at all, it's the same two days that Buck says he'll never forget."
He felt a bit humbled by her pain, until he caught a movement. Jimmy reached out his hand to comfort her. He'd known, she'd gone to him for help... like she always did... wouldn't Jimmy Hickok ever stop buttin' into their lives. A bit of anger flared in Kid as he thought of Jimmy, "You should've taken better care of-"
The gun at Lou's side flew back up - the barrel was aimed between his eyes, her tone was even and completely devoid of emotion. "Don't say anything I'll regret."
Jimmy took out his other Colt, bracing it on his injured arm. "Lou-" he started, "don't Lou, let me." He knew Kid was hurtin' inside, but he had no right to hurt Lou with accusations.
Lou shook her head and shrugged, the moment had past. "Fancy words from someone who left his new bride to run a large spread by herself."
"I sent Buck!"
"And that makes it all better?"
"I did what I could-"
"No, you left someone else to do what you promised."
Her disdain shocked him. He had thought time and time again about how she would react to seein' him again... it was never like this in his dreams. Then again, he'd never thought he'd meet her in the middle of a battle.
A shrill whistle could be heard in the distance, Jimmy and Lou looked at Kid, his shoulders tensing at the sound. "I have to go."
"No you don't," she stood her ground in front of him. "You can come back with us. No one needs to know you've been riding with Quantrill."
He stood there looking into her eyes. "Lou, I-"
She resisted the look in his eyes, the urge to run, "It's your decision. If you go back to them I won't track you down again. If you want to come back later, well - " Everything inside of her held for a moment. She didn't know what she wanted to say... it was all happening too fast. Then, in a moment of clarity the last few months became crystal clear, "Well... if you don't come back now... I can't promise anything."
She turned away and walked back to Jimmy's side. She knelt down and helped him stand. A second whistle blared through the silence... Kid looked back at his wife and his friend. He seemed frozen in time. Unable to move in one direction or another he stared helplessly at them.
With each heartbreaking second Lou held back her tears. This is not how she had envisioned it. She wouldn't look at Jimmy. She knew he stood next to her, worried for both of his friends.
A call to the North roused them from their reverie. "Mr. Hickok! Ms. McCloud?"
"They're coming for us Kid, what are you going to do?" It was Jimmy who broke their self imposed silence.
Kid wanted to run to her and hold her to him. There was so much he had to make up for, so much he needed to say. There was something else... a deep saddness that he'd never felt before. He knew he couldn't go back... Quantrill would hunt him down... it didn't matter to him who else got hurt.
So, one last look at his best friend and the woman who held his heart and Kid ran off through the trees.
Lou hung her head to avoid Jimmy's gaze.
"Over here Flemming!"
Union soliders broke through the trees and surrounded them, their focus on the darkened woods.
For Lou the world had turned upside down in a few hours time. He'd left her again.
They'd been taken back to the far edge of the line. It was here that the wounded lay waiting for the mercy of God, either they'd find healin' or they'd hear the call home to His side. Lou felt like she belonged right along with them. After what had happened today.. she felt like she was riding the trail between purgatory and hell... and there was nothing to bring her back.
Lou spent the evening wandering through the hospital tents that bordered the camps, letting her feet lead her.
Refugee camps had sprung up everywhere along the border. During the night there was always some disturbance that needed tending, someone needing a shoulder. Escaped slaves and displaced Southern families crowded together in makeshift tents. Hostilities set aside but still festering under the thin skin of desperation. Hundreds of people cramped together only made everyone more liable to act out their frustrations.
Major Orem's men were on duty watching over the refugees and keepin' the peace. Tonight Lou found no sleep. After leaving Jimmy in the hands of the Major's personal surgeon, she found her way through the tents continuously replaying her confrontation with Kid over and over... her soul was a whirlwind of thoughts and feelings. She hadn't spoken a word since Kid ran off into the woods.
She paused at a tent where the sick had been gathered. She walked among the dying and felt as though her sould were dying with them. Given the chance to return to her, Kid had made his decision to go back to the Raiders, and Lou felt completely lost.
"Miss - oh miss, please stop."
She turned to stare into the face of a man who looked like he was just about her age. She leaned down to listen to him. "Yes..." her own voice seeming aged and foreign in her throat.
"Please, could you write a letter for me."
Louise settled onto a foldout chair beside his cot. She still had on the pants she had liberated from the young ensign earlier that day... but her mode of dress was lost on the man beside her. He stared up into her face with a single thought on his mind.
A passing medic handed her some paper, ink and a pen. She settled in and dipped the pen into the well of ink.
"My Dear Lizzie," he began. "It pains me to send this to you." He paused to collect his thoughts and wet his lips, " I lay here wondering how long I have but the one thought first in my mind, why I ever left you."
Louise looked up and bit back a gasp. The words he used hurt more than she could admit.
"There hasn't been a day or a moment that I haven't wished to be by your side. I know that when I left we did not part well." He sighed seeming more tired than he was just moments ago when they had begun.
"You and I were at odds over my decision-" Her hand shook for a moment, but she soon schooled it to her usual neat penmenship. "and, had I the chance to change what -" He wheezed a breath through slightly parted lips, "....to change what" Louise's hand ground to a halt as the man grasped a hand to his chest, the bandage wound around his chest had begun to color with his blood.
"Sir?" Louise set the paper aside and called for a surgeon.
"....to change wha - what -" Breath wheezed out with his words.
"I need a medic!"
He grasped her hand, blood smearing across her skin. "No... I need to finish."
She looked away, "We'll finish later, you need a doctor."
"Please... Ple... please - don't waste time... I -"
Louise caught site of a doctor makin' his way through the crowded group of tents.
"He'll be here in a minute... you'll be-" Louise looked down into glassy eyes. "No." She sank to her knees beside the cot and shook his shoulder. "Wait... we need to finish... you need to tell me what to write. I need - You need-" A hand on her shoulder stilled her words.
"He's gone Louise."
"I know ... I know..." she watched him reach over to close the unseeing eyes and she cried out, "Wait!"
He watched her carefully... she'd never been so shaken before.
"Let me have a minute," she didn't see him nod, "What was his name?"
"Lt. Thomas Hannon."
"Could you sit with me for a minute?"
He watched her for a minute, watching her steady herself as if she was about to enter a great battle. He had no idea about the one already being waged inside of her.
She picked up the paper from where it had fallen and dipped the pen in the ink and set to work. "-and had I the chance to change what -" She read the last part out loud to herself before she started again.
to change what happened between us that day, I'd change only this... that I should have wrapped you in my arms and told you everything that was in my heart. Hoping that even if you would still be angry... you'd know that you would be with me every moment we were apart.
So, my darling, keep these words in your heart... and know that I loved you, even in death.
Yours, until next we meet... Thomas
She set the pen into the ink and carefully handed the paper to the medic sitting beside her. As he read through the letter she gently reached over and closed his eyes.
Wordlessly she stood and brushed past the medic, whose aged eyes shimmered with tears, and wandered on into the night.
Drawn by the covering noise of one of the camps, Louise moved closer to a fire set in a metal cairn. The soft murmur of voices could be heard coming from the next fire circle. Humming, no louder than a whisper, drew forth a somber melody that called her closer...
"Sometimes I feel like a moanin' dove
sometimes I feel like a moanin' dove..
sometimes i feel lika a moanin' dove...
wring my hands and cry... cry... cry... wring my hands'n cry cry..."
Louise looked down at her hands and saw the thin lines of ink trailing across her skin... she'd never been this involved before, never let herself get this close.
The song continued, more voices adding their strength:
"Sometimes I feel like a motherless chil'
sometimes i feel like a motherless chil'
sometimes I feel like a motherless chil'
hang my head and cry cry cry... hang my head and cry cry..."
Louise resisted the urge to set a hand against her stomach. She'd long accustomed herself to the empty feeling inside of her. It would be a long time before she could hear the words 'mother' or 'child' and not flinch inside.
He walked up behind her... her body wavered in the light of the fires. Seein' her completely alone in the middle of so many... it broke his heart.
She trembled under his touch and turned into his arms. Her cheek pressed hard against his shoulder. As she gasped in her every breath she dug her fingers into the wall of this back.
"Now I can go back..."
She pulled away a bit and stared at his chest, "Isn't that what you wanted..."
"You always ask me questions you know the answers to. No... I didn't want you to go," he smiled as she looked away, "If I need to tell you why, I will. This isn't the time."
She tilted her head and smiled into the night, "I'll be leaving in a few days."
"Fine, I'll be goin' with you."
She didn't argue, in fact she sighed in relief.
The chorus of voices rushed around them hope evident in their voices. In the midst of death and dying there would always be hope:
"Sometimes I feel like an eagle in the air...
sometimes I feel like an eagle in the air
sometimes I feel like an eagle in the air...
spread my wings and fly...fly...fly...
spread my wings and fly... fly... fly..."
She shifted and pulled him closer, burying her tears in his coat.
Stopping to wash his face in a nearby stream, he ran over the events of the past two days in his mind. The water was a welcome sensation against his skin, it had been awhile since he'd had the luxury of a shower or a shave.
He'd been ridin' hard and was nearing home. The trail he'd once ridden was slowly being overgrown with weeds. Even the horse he rode paled in comparison to Katy. He didn't even know whose horse it was... he'd just grabbed the first one he could get a hands on.
Kid stared at the reflection in the clear surface of the pond. With his month's growth of beard, he was beginning to look like his father and he couldn't help the feelings growing inside of him. He thought back to the morning he had decided to leave the raiders... not for good, he knew there would be no way to do that. Just for a few days... he had things to do. Things that needed tendin' to.
Things he had to do in person.
He'd found Jesse layin' against a tree, a fresh bandage coverin' most of his thigh. He hissed to get his friend's attention, "Jesse!"
The younger man didn't look up, "Why you hidin' Kid?"
"I've got to go..."
"Wait a damn minute-"
"I'll be back...I just need a few days."
He turned to meet Kid's eyes, "What do you need-" He knew what happened, "You saw her!"
Kid's blue eyes snapped like ice in early spring, "You knew!"
Jesse faced Kid's anger, "Yeah... I never thought she'd get close enough for the two of you to meet."
Kid almost laughed, "Too late now... so you're gonna help me."
"How?" Jesse seemed almost annoyed. "You can't think Quantrill would let you go home on some 'holiday'!"
" 'Cause he ain't gonna know.... you're gonna cover for me."
Jesse shook his head and looked around to make sure they were alone, "What am I gonna tell him... where do I say you are."
"Say you saw me hauled off by the army... that I'm a prisoner-"
"He'll find out, and then you'll-"
"Damn it Jesse... I don't care no more. Tell him whatever you want. I gotta go home and make my peace. If I don't do that I'll go crazy."
With that he left and Jesse somberly mouthed into his lap, "You'll be dead if they find out."
Another splash of water brought him back to the moment. He pushed water through the longer curls that brushed his shoulders, wouldn't do for him to look like a mountain man when he- "When I what?"
He took a moment and looked long and hard into the waters at his feet. In the calm pool to the left he took a long gaze at the face Louise had seen.
There was a determined line to jaw, a hardness that he'd always shielded himself from. It seemed like the same thing was eatin' through his soul. The longer he rode with the Raiders, the more he turned into the things he'd once hated. For now, he'd keep goin' if only to set things right for Louise.
He turned from the 'mirror' and mounted up again. He only had a few more hours and he'd reach Rock Creek. He turned toward the west, away from the sun, and headed toward the past. All other concerns were left behind. All except for one, now, it seemed as if he could not escape the changes dawning inside of him.
Jimmy cinched the saddle on Louise's mount, checking it for the fourth time. She was deep in conversation with the Major and Jimmy was standing with Captain Flemming making polite conversation. They had been friends, but nothing that ever reached the depth he had with the other riders.
The two men watched as the Major set aside all need for decorum and gathered the young woman in his arms like one of his own children. Louise's laughter could be heard across the street and both Jimmy and Captain Flemming smiled at the sound, "You sure you won't stay?"
Jimmy shook his head, "She wants to go back home."
The Major and Louise approached, her hand securely tucked into his arm. He placed a comforting hand over hers, "Hickok?" Jimmy straightened and gave the Major a salute, "Hickok, you don't have to do that-"
"I know, but I've become used to it."
Major Orem reached out and took Jimmy's hand in his own, "It's been a pleasure to serve with you."
"I have one last order for you-"
Hickok looked at the Major in askance, "Sir?"
The older gentleman went toe to toe with him and leaned forward in a conspiratory fashion, "I expect that you'll keep an eye on our sweet lady." Jimmy's eyes opened wide with surprise before a knowing look passed over his face. "I'm sure I'll hear about it if you don't."
Jimmy leaned closer, "Believe me sir, she can take care of herself."
"Well then son," the saddness was gone from his voice, "you better watch yourself."
"OH....I plan to."
Louise shook the Captain's hand and turned back to the Major, placing a kiss on his cheek. "You take care of yourself."
He looked at both young people as they mounted their horses and stepped back, shoulder to shoulder with Captain Flemming. By Louise's request, her departure was to be a quiet one. The streets were nearly empty and the two turned in their saddles and waved before headin' out toward Rock Creek.
As they rode out, Louise couldn't help but turn back. The Major was still in the same place, his hand raised in a silent salute.
Kid skirted around the town. It was safer, for all concerned, if he didn't meet up with anyone. He'd seen Buck at a distance, working with the horses. For all the time he'd watched, he'd seen no sign of Louise. He'd probably beaten her there, somehow... he was relieved. After watchin' for awhile, he headed out to the one place he needed to be.
It didn't take him long to find the grave.
There, beneath a solitary tree, a tiny white cross. The plot of earth was well cared for and graced with fertile soil. Wildflowers sprung up around the marker and Kid found himself moving closer and closer on feet that magically held him up.
He dropped the reins of his horse and walked toward the little grave, a stammer in his step. It all seemed too horrible to believe. Louise's words came back to torment him.
"I lost the baby, Kid! --- I had my hands full with the ranch, and Buck was doin' more than his half of the work. The heat came early this year and I was taking hay to the horses in one of the far fields. --- I fainted from heatstroke and by the time Buck found me I was nearly dead. Rachel had me packed in ice and bathed me with cold water, but by the time Buck could find the doctor I had lost the baby."
"There are two days that I don't remember at all, it's the same two days that Buck says he'll never forget."
He'd heard the hurt in her voice but without thinking, he'd struck out at her with his words. It made him feel like such a coward to think about it now... but the moment had past and there is no takin' it back.
He read the marker,
The words were carved into the wood with a shaky hand, ends of letters trailed off into deep gashes and cuts. The hand that made them was either totally unskilled, 'or suffering'. The thought entered his head and he knew who had a hand in it.
Louise had carved the words herself and it tore him up thinkin' about it.
Droppin' to his knees before the marker he grabbed a hold of it like a life line, his forehead touching the painted wood. "I'm sorry... I'm so sorry... I... I... I wish I could've held you. Just once." He tried to imagine what his son had looked like. Would he have had his own blue eyes... or Louise's fawn colored brown. He fought the urge to ride to the house and meet with Buck. He'd missed so much and he wanted to hear everything. He wanted to relive the moment through eyes that were there that day, but he couldn't bring himself to go to Buck and ask. It almost felt like he didn't have the right, he'd left his friend to do what he should have done... and he'd never live it down.
He took out a thick folder of papers from his pocket and held it for a moment. Again, he thought through his decision to leave these here. Would someone find it?
He knew before he thought the question that Buck would find it. Kid had a feelin' Buck visited the little grave more times than even he'd care to imagine. Louise was their 'sweetheart' and any of the riders would have laid down their lives for her or this child she'd carried.
Before he knew it, the sun was starting to drag along the horizon and he knew he had to go.
Taking out a length of leather ties he strapped the papers to the cross. With a breath, he said his final farewell and mounted up. He felt the eyes but did not see them. Buck was too good for that to happen. Kid nodded almost imperceptibly and rode away, knowing his friend was already reading the papers.
Louise reveled in the feeling of bein' home.
Their arrival was greeted with a flurry of activities, dinners and rides with the others had been scheduled. Rachel had shoved them down at the table and placed enough food in front of them to feed the entire army company in Seneca.
She'd spent most of the first day with Rachel, catchin' up. The one topic left untouched was the one that Louise needed to avoid. Buck had given her the packet of papers and Louise had promptly stored them away in her drawer.
That night, after dinner, Teaspoon, Jimmy and Buck headed outside for a talk and well deserved glasses of whiskey. The boys had things to talk about.
Rachel busied herself clearing dishes and cleaning the kitchen. She left Louise in the living room, sitting before the fire, her hands set in her lap, holding the papers.
There was a moment when the noise inside her head seemed to quiet, leaving her with a moment of peace. She stared at the flames snapping in the night air and opened the papers.
Jimmy found her there nearly an hour later. Louise was fast asleep, clutching the papers in her hands. He opened her fingers gently and was a about to set the papers on the table nearby when a log popped and illuminated her face.
Tears, long dry, streaked her skin. One tear remained, high on her cheekbone. He reached up and wiped it away with a tender stroke of his thumb.
She didn't stir, continuing to breath steadily in her sleep. Jimmy opened the papers and began to read in the firelight.
Two papers were set aside, having been typed with some sort of stamp set on the bottom of both. The papers that concerned him were those written in Kid's own handwriting.
Jimmy rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand, tryin' to tell himself that he was just tired from the long day. He picked up the last two papers and tried to make out the words written on it. He struggled to read it in the dyin' light of the fire, but even with the light, the language was difficult to understand.
He looked up into Lou's eyes, open and swollen from tears, and tried to think of something to say.
Silence stood between them. With a small smile, she stood and turned toward the stairs, "It's late Jimmy-"
He touched her arm as she went by and she stopped dead in her tracks. She heaved a sigh and he pulled her onto his lap. She hung her head as he held her softly, listening to the dying crackle of the fire.
Rachel paused at the top of the stairs, watching the scene before her. She gripped the rail with one hand. She didn't hear what Lou had said, but she'd known what the papers had said. Buck had told her.
A soft smile eased her heart, she'd come to the stairs to comfort Louise and found that Jimmy had done it for her. There was something between them. Something both had avoided giving a name to. Perhaps, Rachel smiled again, perhaps now that they were both home, they'd have a chance at a life... together? She turned around and went back to her room. She talk with them, tomorrow.
The next morning at breakfast they all gathered round the table together, Teaspoon, Buck, Rachel, Lou and Jimmy. Conversation was light no one asked about the red rims around Louise's eyes. They all knew why.
When the meal was done, Louise helped Rachel clear the dishes and they all sat down again.
"It's been good to come back to Rock Creek," Louise started with Rachel sitting at her side. Jimmy, usure of how the others would take their news stood back from the group, his back resting against a wall. "I never knew how much I'd missed the town, the ranch... until it was-" Louise looked to Jimmy and he nodded, "behind me."
Teaspoon eyed her over his cup of coffee, Lou never was very good about keepin' her feelings hidden. Rachel shared a worried look with him as well.
"Behind you?" Buck was confused, "Doesn't sound like you're planning on stayin'." Louise nodded at her friend and reached across the table to grasp his hand. He held on tight, he was losin' her again. "Where are you goin'?"
"Califor-ni-a?" Teaspoon sat up in his chair and nearly spit out his coffee. "What in blazes is out there?"
"A brand new start." They hadn't seen Louise so happy... well, in quite awhile.
Rachel poured another cup of coffee for no one in general and wondered aloud, "Will you come back?"
Louise looked at the woman who had become her sister in all but blood, "Someday. We just think it'll be better this way, for now."
"Better? How?" Buck was starting to feel some measure of panic and it wasn't agreeing with him.
Jimmy stepped away from the wall and stood between Lou and Rachel, "One thing is, I won't have 'Wild Bill' followin' me."
Teaspoon arched his eyebrow and stared, "How do you think you'll manage that little miracle?"
"I'm leavin' him behind. I'm gonna be James Butler from now on."
"James Butler?" Rachel smiled as she repeated the name, "Somehow it fits you Jimmy - uh, James."
Louise stood and touched him on the shoulder, "I'll be right back." She sailed up the stairs to her room.
Buck looked up at Jimmy, a measure of concern in his gaze, "You two together now?"
"Buck!" Rachel cautioned him with a look designed to strip paint off wood.
Jimmy straightened and stared back, "Can't see how it's any of your business." He turned to the door.
"We're family Jimmy," that stopped him.
"So, if you're takin' her that far away, she better mean a lot to you." The warning was there in tone and stature.
Teaspoon shouldered his way between the two, "Buck, maybe it ain't our place to ask-"
Jimmy would've smiled if he thought Buck wouldn't knock him down for it. "She doesn't know how I feel-"
"I ain't gonna push her... not now."
Buck's shoulders relaxed, "I just want you to think before you do something."
Jimmy leveled his gaze at his old friend. "This is Lou... you know if I ever did anything she didn't like-"
"She'd plug your butt so full of holes we could use it for a lace tablecloth."
Jimmy nodded and cuffed Buck on the shoulder. "You can have your shot at the rest if you like."
"What are y'all doin' down here?" Louise reappeared at the top of the stairs.
Louise eyed them as she made her way down. "Children!"
Rachel smiled and moved to greet her at the bottom of the steps, her arm circlin' Louise's shoulder. "They're just bein' themselves."
Studyin' their faces carefully, Lou made the two boys a little nervous by her inspection, "Really?" she drawled. "I don't see any blood, they must be losin' their touch."
Teaspoon wrapped his arms around the smallest, but the most precious one of his 'children' and hugged her tight, "Glad to see the 'real' you again."
She placed kisses on his cheeks, "Glad to be back." She stepped back a bit and pressed a packet of papers into his hand.
"The end to a lot of heartache." She took her time letting go of the papers, her fingers trailing the edge. "Can you file it for me?"
"I signed them, that's enough. 'sides, Jimmy and I want to get started as soon as possible and the the judge won't be in Rock Creek again for another couple of weeks."
"Fine, I'll give it to the judge... but I hope the two of ya ain't leaving for at least a few days."
Louise celebrated the amazin' feelin' of bein' back in the heart of her family. As she traded hugs with the the others she looked over at Jimmy, watching the whole exchange. She unwound herself from Rachel's embrace and made her way to Jimmy's side.
Jimmy chuckled and stared down at her. "You sure about this."
"Sure as I'll ever be. You?"
Nearly a week later, Louise and Jimmy stood in the yard adjusting the saddle bags on their mounts. Two new horses given to them by Buck stood tethered to the rail with the the simplest of knots. Buck always trained the best.
Louise was having a bit of an argument with her Kiowa friend, "The ranch is yours, no strings."
The handsome young man shook his head, "I insist. I'll wire the funds to a bank in San Francisco."
"This is my dream now," she smiled and hugged him to her again. "I'm gonna follow my heart, where ever it takes me."
The two rode out as the last members of their family watched and waved. Buck stayed longer than the other two, staying to watch until the dust clouds were settling back to the earth. With a strong and steady voice he sent his prayers on the wind. When the last bit settled on the earth he added one more thought. "We'll be here, when it leads you back."