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Paul Regan rode into Sweetwater Station, Kid was waiting with a fresh horse for him. Paul slid off the back of his horse and swung the mochila over his shoulder. Kid watched as Paul staggered back a few feet. "You okay?" He shook his head, "As soon as the world stops spinnin' I'll be fine."
Kid set a hand on his shoulder, "You need to sit down a minute... you don't look like you can make it to the next station."
Paul moved back towards the horses, "I'm already behind schedule, I can't stop."
"Yes you can... you will- Emma'd have my hide if I let you go without something to eat and drink."
A hand waved weakly across his face, "No... I couldn't eat anything.... but some water'd be nice."
Kid nodded and ran to the porch for his canteen. He brought it over to the other rider who gratefully swallowed several gulps of water. Handing it back to Kid, Paul pulled himself into the saddle.
The horse shifted to the side as Kid pet the mare's shoulder, "Lady will take over once you hit the open trail... she knows the path."
Paul gasped out a ragged breath... "I sure hope so... I really need some rest... they've been workin' us to the bone these last few weeks."
Kid smiled at him, " 'know what you mean. Teaspoon's been havin' us double up... this week should be easier... you ride safe Paul... I'll see you soon."
Lady jumped into a gallop as Kid smacked her on her rump. Paul looked like he'd never been in the saddle before; he was bouncing around like a rag doll.
As Kid watched the dust settle he opened his canteen again and took a big swig off cool water. He had a few more chores to do before he could rest. Emma'd be home soon, bringin' supplies and the rest of the riders home. With Lou out on a ride, Kid was glad to have some time alone to think.
Walking to the woodpile, Kid set the canteen down beside him. It was hot, way too hot for this time of year, and he'd be needing more water soon.
Late that evening, Emma and the boys returned home. Jimmy brought in a plate full of food to Kid. "Hey Kid, we ate in town, so Emma brought this back for you."
Kid rolled onto his back, "No thanks Jimmy, my stomach is feelin' awful..."
Cody slid the plate out of Jimmy's hands, "No problem Kid, I'll take care of this for you."
Jimmy stared at Cody's back, "You want me to get Emma?"
Kid rolled back to face the wall, "I'll be okay tomorrow."
Shrugging his shoulders Jimmy took off his jacket, "Whatever you want."
Calling back over his shoulder, Kid voiced his last question of the evening, "Is Lou back yet?"
Jimmy stilled as he was hangin' his gunbelt up, "She ain't due back until tomorrow."
You Can Lead a Horse to Water
The sun rose on the next morning and found Lou just starting back out on the trail. After a round of problems, she had waited at the last station for as long as she could. Lightning had thrown a shoe and she had searched for another. Joseph, the Station Master at Three Rivers Station, had turned pink when he admitted they had none left. They'd been hopelessly undersupplied for weeks and Lou left Lightning there with a heavy heart.
Candy was the replacement they had foisted off on her. Several hours into the leg, Lou had found many reasons to 'seriously dislike' the horse (and that was bein' kind). First and foremost she spooked at the smallest things, the last 'distraction' was a prairie dog and had taken them miles off the trail.
Now it was late morning and Louise was at the end of her limit. They'd finally found the trail again and Louise jumped at the first chance to stop for water.
She jumped off Candy's back and tied her securely to a tree limb, taking no chances. She was in no mood to have to chase the beast down.
The stream was clear and pristine... water sparkin' with sunlight through green leafy trees. Here was a moment of peace in her day... and she was gonna relish in it.
Lou dropped to her knees and scooped up handful after handful of cool water. Candy whinnied behind her and Lou laughed over her shoulder, "Jealous?"
She stood and dusted off her pants. She made it back to the tree and untied the reins from the branch. Candy immediately pulled back, tryin' to wrestle the reins from Lou's hands.
Louise yanked back, "What's the matter with you? You need water too-especially after all the EXTRA riding we've had to do because of you."
They'd made a few steps toward the water and Candy tried to rear, her eyes showin' more white with fear.
"Stop it, or you'll just have to go without."
Candy planted her hooves firmly into the ground as Louise tried one last time to drag her to the water's edge.
Lou tried to swing up into the saddle but found herself eatting dust. Candy had moved out of the way at the last moment and Lou was about to take a bullet to the damn filly.
She pushed up on her elbows and spat dust into the water, "Just you wait 'til I get you back to the st-"
A few feet to her right a man lay unmoving in the brush.
She jerked the reins as she moved closer. "Paul?" He continued to lay motionless, "Paul... that you?"
Louise felt her heart thud against her ribs when she turned over the body. He'd been there only a few hours. The water hadn't had time to bloat and distort his features. He was dead and by the looks of him, it wasn't pretty.
She resisted the urge to gag. 'The Station,' she thought. 'I have to get back and find out what happened to the others.' The mochila lay next to him and she grabbed it up in her hand.
Louise scrambled to her feet and pulled the mare's face down to hers, "I'm not foolin' girl. You better listen up. I need to get back and you are the only way to get there. You take one step off the path and I'll put a bullet through the back of your head."
With that said she swung up in the saddle and set Paul's mochila on top of the first. She wasted not a single moment before heading out.
Keep Your Distance
Emma dried off her hands and looked out over the horizon and saw the lithe figure of Lou leaning over the neck of her mount. At the far end of the property Lou reined her horse in short.
Buck and Ike ran off the porch of the bunkhouse and started past Emma.
"Hold on boys!"
They turned to her, "Emma?"
"Lou's stoppin' for a reason, let's wait and see what it is."
Lou stayed astride the horse and called out, wavin' her arm above her head. "Emma!"
"I can't come any closer; there's been trouble."
Ike looked to his 'brother' for answers. Buck had none.
"Well darlin', spill it."
Lou looked down at her hands on the saddle horn. She lifted both mochila's off the horn and threw them as far as she could. "You'll need to change mochilas and have two other rider's complete the runs."
"Two?" Buck turned to Emma, worry streaked across his features.
"I came across Paul Regan about 20 miles out. He's dead Emma."
"Dunno... couldn't find a mark on him. He was face first in the creek."
Emma took a step forward and set her hand on Buck's arm... "Get a horse saddled; I'll explain in a minute."
Lou called out again, drawing their attention, "You'll probably want to burn the mochilas and whatever gloves you have on when you handle them."
"Loulabelle? Is there something you're not tellin' me?"
"Nothing for sure... but his shirt looked like he'd lost his lunch."
"And?" The wait was killin' Emma.
"I drank the water from the stream before I found his body. If it's in the water, I'll get it for sure."
Worry settled in the pits of everyone's stomach. "Louise, how do you feel?"
"Fine. I feel fine... but you need to send someone to the other stations and find out if they're sick." The next question was the one she had been dreadin', "Who was here yesterday when he rode through?"
Emma looked to the other boys and then at the bunkhouse where Kid lay in bed.
Buck ran up, Warrior in tow. "Saddled and ready to ride Emma."
"Good, take a ride through the next three stations west and keep your distance. Find out if they've anyone sick... and how. Things could get bad and we should know what we're facin'."
Buck nodded toward his friend, "Lou?"
Emma looked into his eyes through her bravest mask, "We need to know what we're facin'... she'll be fine for now... but you'd better hurry."
He nodded and mounted up. A quick backward glance and he was gone.
"Emma?" Lou was unsettled by Emma's silence, "Emma, you're scarin' me; who was here yesterday?"
Emma swallowed past the thick lump in her throat, "Kid was here Lou... he'll be fine."
"Emma?" She didn't like the answer, "Emma, what aren't you tellin' me?"
"He's not feelin' too good," before Lou could react she hastily added, "It could be anything Louise... don't worry yourself right now."
Lou wanted to rush to him and check him herself. "I know you'll take good care of him." Louise turned her mount around with steely resolve.
"Wait!" Louise paused when Emma's voice reached her, "Where will you be?"
"The old Marcus Cabin. It's seven or eight miles off the trail."
Ike nodded to Emma **i know where it is**
Louise tried to brighten up her voice, "I'll see you soon."
"Ride Safe Louise..." Ike moved closer to Emma and she set an arm around his waist, "We'll be prayin' for you."
Ounce of Prevention
Ike was busier than he'd ever been. Emma had him taggin' after her as she busily set up beds inside her house.
As soon as she heard riders approaching, she and Ike ran outside before Cody and Jimmy could go in the bunkhouse. The two arrivals were drafted inot helping ike with his chores, and the two sensed something was wrong. For once they kept their smart mouth comments to themselves. Emma lay out her supplies on the porch of the bunkhouse.
Jimmy had been pesterin' her the entire time... tryin' to get answers. Emma had put him off so as not to forget anything she might need.
Finally, she sat down on the porch swing and patted the seat beside her. Jimmy sat down and waited for her to begin. She began by tellin' him that Paul was dead, of what they weren't sure. "Lou came in earlier; she was the one who found the body. We don't know if she'll be comin' down with it. We'll know more when Buck comes back."
"What could it be?"
Emma felt her insides twist in a knot. She had been haunted with images of her own child, suffering from Small Pox. This could be something as deadly and she couldn't help but feel she'd lose another 'child' before this was over. She felt panic flooding through her veins, and her hard won control was dangerously close to slippin' into hysteria, "It could be anything Jimmy, we won't know for sure until-"
"Whoo hoo! Rider Comin'!" Cody stood in the yard wavin' Buck to a stop.
She ran down to the fence, Jimmy at her heels. "What is it Buck?"
The young man looked drawn, "It's bad Emma. They're all sick. Except for the few that were out on a run. We've been lucky so far."
"Lucky?" Jimmy was chompin' at the bit.
"There's two dead at the farthest station. More that are headin' the same way."
Emma gripped Jimmy's arm. "Dear Lord." She straighted in a moment, "What do they say... what's happening to them?"
Buck heaved a sigh and looked back up the trail. "Fever... high.. and only gettin' worse. Can't eat or drink anything. No sores, just a lot of empty stomachs. They can't seem to stop the others from gettin' sick."
Emma gave a solemn nodd, "Buck... put your horse up. Stay away from the bunkhouse."
Jimmy grabbed her shoulder and turned her to him, "Emma-"
"It sounds like cholera Jimmy. It won't be easy, but I'm not lettin' anything happen to Kid or Lou."
Jimmy nodded, tightlipped, "I'll go get her, bring her back."
"No... you can't go anywhere near her."
"Someone has to get a message to her, bring her back... so you can help her."
"I can't really leave Kid."
"Then let me go." He had already gone 'round the fence before she could stop him.
He turned back, challenge in his eyes.
"I'll pack some supplies.. get me my travel bag from the house."
Jimmy found her on the bunkhouse porch. She took the bag from him and started shoving things in it... quickly explaining what he should do. She paused in mid sentence. "I'm only telling you this in case-"
"In case she already has it. I know... I'll stay with her."
"It won't be pretty Jimmy."
"I don't care."
She set a hand on his cheek and smiled into his dark brown eyes. "I know Jimmy... but you could get it too." Tears threatened to spill onto her cheeks.
"Ah Emma... I ain't never seen you so worried 'fore."
"We've never faced something like this Jimmy. We could lose them both."
He wrapped his arms around her, squeezin' tight. "We ain't gonna lose them Emma. I'll take care of Lou."
He took the bag from her and ran to the barn. Buck had Sundance saddled and waitin'. The two exchanged a look, grim realism settled on their faces. Buck repeated the directions Ike had given him, pausing at the end, "You take care..."
Jimmy was shocked at the depth in his friend's voice, "We'll be okay... you just make sure Cody don't wreck the station before I get back."
Buck gave a half smile and grasped Jimmy's arm, "I can do that... you just bring Lou home... soon."
Jimmy nodded and set the bag over the saddlehorn. He swung up behind it. Taking the reins in his hands he set out of the station without a backwards glance.
In Over Their Heads
Kid rolled over slowly when he heard the door slip open across the floor boards. "Emma?"
He couldn't see in the dim light of the bunkhouse, but someone sat down beside him. Shifting the weight of the mattress beneath him. "Kid... how're you feelin'?"
"Sore... and sick... really sick-" Emma reached to her side and grabbed the bucket, holding it beneath him as he lost every ounce in his stomach.
She wiped his head with a cool wet cloth and took care to spoon as much water into him as he could take. She heard footsteps come and go on the wooden porch outside.
Emma looked out of the window and saw their profiles outlined in the light. They cared... and it gave Emma hope. Kid set a hand on her arm, "You shouldn't be here Emma-"
"Hush up Kid, I'm right where I want to be."
"But, you could-"
Emma shook her head, "You just rest... we'll know more when the doctor comes in."
"Kid you need your rest-"
He shook his head, the damp curls around his face trailing lines of sweat behind them, "Lou-" Emma sighed and settled a smile on her face, "So far - it's good."
Kid looked up at her, unwillin' to take the answer she was spoon feedin' him. "Em-"
She knew he deserved the truth, "I don't know how she is Kid. She's keepin' her distance until we know if she'll be sick too."
Kid groaned and gripped his stomach... Emma stroked his back through the pain, unable to do much more for him.
Jimmy rode up to the edge of the Marcus property and was surprised to see that it looked completely empty. No horse... no Lou.
He wound Sundance's reins around a tree limb near the cabin. He undid the saddle bag and slid it off her back. "Lou?"
Jimmy made his way to the cabin, callin' out her name, "Lou? You in there?"
"Damn it.. if Ike gave the wrong directions..."
"Jimmy?" The call was almost too faint to be heard.
"Lou?" He headed for the door. "Emma sent me to help you."
*click*click* Jimmy froze in the doorway. Lou sat on the floor her head pillowed on the edge of a straw mattress. Her colt pointed in his direction and shaking with her own fevered movements. "Don't come.... any closer."
Jimmy stared at her in shock, "Lou, put the gun down... it's me, Ji-"
"I know - who you are. You can't - can't be here."
He took a good look at her. Her hair hung around her face, looking like she'd gone through a rain storm and now there were dried clumps stuck to her skin.
She could feel his gaze and tried to brush her hair back. Her skin felt hot and pasty under her hand.
"Emma sent me to take care of you-"
"No... you have to go back... Emma wouldn't have sent you... not with the Kid sick-"
Jimmy set the bag down at his feet and reached for the door edge. When he started to close it behind him a bullet ripped past his hand and made a hole in the wall next to him. "Damn it! Lou!"
Lou slipped the hammer back again. "Go back."
He stood his ground takin' his time goin' over her condition. "When's the last time you ate?"
She turn her gaze inward and wondered the same question. It had probably been days since she'd had a real meal. Certainly nothing since she'd found Paul's body. She'd lost everything in her stomach last night, and she'd run out of water as well. The only things she had on at the moment were a pair of thick socks and an oversized sleep shirt.
Lou blushed as she realized that she'd soiled everything else she had in her packs. Feelin' like a helpless child was something Louise did not cotton to. She knew beyond reason that she shouldn't feel so embarassed in front of any of the riders; they all knew her secret and she was now their sister as well as their friend.
"Lou?" There it was again... that soft concerned tone.
Now, looking up at Jimmy's figure blocking the door, she could feel a measure of feminine pride rearing it's head. Pushing the thought aside she concentrated on keeping the barrel of her gun pointed in his direction.
The fever was making it hard to aim with any precision, and Jimmy seemed to have grown a half foot taller and had the muscles of a giant, "Go away... go away... go away..." She felt close to weeping and Louise hated it, crying was a weakness she couldn't afford.
He reached down to open the bag only to jump to the side as another bullet singed the air by his ear. He scrambled over the bag and snatched the gun from her hand. "It ain't gonna do you any good to kill me Lou."
She tried to protest, "I wasn't tryin' to-" her body began to riot again and she pushed herself to her feet and tried to make it outside. Her feet didn't answer her as quickly as they should and she stumbled to her knees near the door.
Jimmy grabbed her elbow and hauled her up and out onto the porch. He held her shoulders first and then her hair back as her body tried to empty itself. There was nothing left.
His heart sank... this couldn't be good. He waited until she stopped coughing and then drew her into his arms. She fought him with everything she had... it amounted to a paltry resistance. "Jimmy... please."
"Too late now Lou... we're in this together."
Say a Little Prayer
"Emma... Emma, come on out." Sam's voice bellowed from the porch. Her eyes flew open, having spent much of the last hour in restless sleep. The doctor had arrived.
Reaching up to sweep the sleep from her eyes she stopped short and shook her head to clear her thoughts. No one knew very much about cholera, except that it could kill in just a few days.
Emma thought it best to use the same methods that had kept her alive during the small pox outbreak in Sweetwater just a few years ago. She came out onto the porch and washed her hands in the bucket someone had left for her.
Sam stood just out of reach in the sunlight, "Emma?"
She nodded her head with grim formality, "Sam?"
The doctor remained within shouting distance, "How are you feeling Ms. Shannon?"
Emma looked at him with a quizzical glance, "Fine Dr. Sayer, just fine. You?"
His hands gripped the handles of his bag convulsively, "Busy ma'am. How is your patient?"
Emma took a breath and settled a hand on her hip, "Sick. Won't you come inside doctor?"
He looked to the closed bunkhouse door as if he was measuring the distance, "I believe I can make a diagnosis from your observations."
Sam threw his cigar into the dirt and crushed it under his heel. "What did you come out here for? To have Emma tell you how sick the boy is?" Stepping off the porch Sam moved to the older man's side and grabbed a hold of his arm, "You better get inside and see to the Kid-"
"Now wait just a minute there Sam!" The doctor waved his hands in an attempt to fend off the Marshal, "Wait a minute!"
"Sam!" Emma caught his attention, "Give the man a chance to explain himself." The doctor shrugged off the Marshal's strong grip and backed a few feets away. He gulped down a breath and tried to shrug his coat into place. "I'm the only doctor for 50 miles in any direction... I have a responsibility..."
Sam wanted to throttle the man. Emma leaned against a post, her face drawn and pale. She listened patiently as the man tried to explain away the cowardice he was showing them.
Sam, on the other hand, could barely contain his avarice for the spindly man. He had spent as many hours as possible making himself useful around the Waystation. The boys had welcomed him while they waited for Teaspoon to come home from his visit with Amanda.
They all knew why he was there; Sam made no secret of his attraction for the independant Station Mistress. Emma, in her own caustic way, was just as open with her affection for the town Marshal. They were an entertaining pair, but these last two days had been hard on them both.
Emma could take no rest for herself and she wouldn't let anyone else near enough to endanger themselves. She and Kid lived in their own self imposed quarantine and Kid needed her every hour of the day. He'd not been able to keep down even the weakest of broth, it was gonna get worse - a lot worse.
Sam pulled his hat off and drew his hand through his dusty hair. "I gotta go back into town for a few hours," he looked up into her eyes and was instantly worried at the red rims he saw. "You need anything?"
Emma wiped her forehead on her forearm, careful to avoid contact with her hands. She wasn't gonna take any chances.
"Rider Comin'!" Ike jumped up from the porchswing, following Buck as he mounted up and readied himself to take the pouch. His hands were encased in leather gloves, something unusual for the handsome young Kiowa. It was another one of Emma's rules while riders from the other stations were still sick with cholera.
Emma waved and turned to go back into the bunkhouse. She could hear Kid movin' around inside, his fitful motions groaning against the bed. She had almost disappeared into the darkness when he ground out a word, "Emma!"
Her face appeared around the door frame, stray wisps of hair framed her features. Even in the strain of the moment, she was still a woman of beauty. "You gonna be okay?"
A sweet smile turned up the corners of her mouth, "I've been through worse Sam, and I'm stronger now. Don't you worry about me. It's the Kid and Lou we should worry about.
Sam nodded and headed for his mount.
Emma went back inside and took up a cloth laying across the back of a chair. She dipped it in a freshly cooled pot of water. She rung out the cloth and spooned a bit of water between his parted lips. His eyes pulled open and Kid tried to swallow as much as he could.
Miles away, Jimmy was nearing the end of his wits. Louise had worsened overnight and Jimmy was quickly losin' his mind worryin' about her.
In the dark hours of the night, cramps set in. Louise had called out in her sleep, clutching at her feet and legs. The muscles were contracting in convulsive fits.
He didn't know what to do. Emma hadn't warned him about this. Doin' the best he could, he tried to spoon water down her throat and keep her as comfortable as he could.
With each new onset of cramps, he massaged her cramping muscles, hoping to ease her to sleep after each attack. Giddy with lack of sleep, he began to wonder if Kid would kill him for havin' his hands all over her legs. Laughing to himself, Jimmy decided it would be worth it, even if neither of them were enjoying it all that much.
Jimmy doubted if Lou would remember much of their time in the cabin; she seemed to drift in and out of conciousness. She'd even clung to him in the middle of her pain, and he'd held her even though she'd nearly strangled him with her arms. "Make it stop ... please Jimmy."
He held on like the world was ending, yet still worried he would crush her by accident. She wouldn't let him let go, and in the wee hours before dawn she'd begged him to end it all. "No... not on your life."
"I can't take another hour," she'd gasped out in the middle of another bout of purging.
"I ain't lettin' you give up Lou. Emma would skin me alive."
Louise looked over at him, her eyes bright with fever, "Is that why you're doin' this?"
Jimmy looked back, startled. He wondered if a bit of her humor was returning.
Hours later he wished it had. She was worse. Her body was shaking with chills and she could barely get a breath, let alone drink water.
Sam had stopped by to give Jimmy the news from the other stations and home. Kid was in much the same condition as Lou and Emma was just as tired as Jimmy was.
The town marshal was lackin' his normal humor, but Jimmy didn't point it out. He kept glancing back at the cabin with every noise, "Sam?" His voice was tired but strong with purpose, "I gotta get back... what did the doctor say?"
Sam tried to keep himself from growlin' like a tiger, "The fool don't know nothin' of any help. Hell, Emma's got more common sense in her little finger than he's got in all his fancy medical books."
He couldn't help but think that all the common sense wouldn't help if she came down with it too.
"You showin' any signs Jimmy?"
Jimmy shrugged his shoulders and wiped the sweat off his forehead. "Nothing that a little sleep can't cure." He heard another moan from inside and moved closer to the door, "Sam? Did Emma say anythin' about the chills?"
Sam shook his head and kicked at the dirt, "Damn it. Sounds like he's goin' into shock Jimmy. Ain't good, that's all I can say."
"When I left he was still bitin' on a strap to keep from cryin' out from the cramps."
"See if you can find out anymore from Emma; I gotta go back inside."
Sam nodded and rode off toward town.
Jimmy splashed some clean water on his face, usin' the canteen he'd hung up outside. He sat down beside Louise, watchin' her toss and turn, her movements slowin' down as she went deeper into shock. He felt like poundin' his fist into the wall. He wished it was all a matter of medicine. At least then he could 'do' something.
It was so much easier ridin' through indian territory with a Sioux War Party hot on his heels than sittin' by and watching Lou go through this. This was something that no amount of fancy shootin' would get them out of. He'd never felt so helpless.
It's Always Darkest
Teaspoon returned home in the middle of a living nightmare.
Laundry was fallin' off the line and the smell of burning oatmeal scorched his nose. "What the hell is goin' on here?"
He was just about to step onto the porch of the bunkhouse when Cody screamed out a warnin', "Teaspoon! You don't wanna go in there!"
Turnin' on his heel he stood ready to challenge the hot-headed young man. "Why not?"
Ike had just joined him and nodded his agreement, "Kid's sick and Emma's been stayin' in the bunkhouse to care for him. So, she moved us into her house."
Emma tapped on the window next to him and shooed him away with her hand.
Teaspoon got off the porch and walked into the house with Cody. Ike took Teaspoon's horse into the barn. "So Cody, you better fill me in - and I want to know everything."
Sam stopped by later, on his way back to town from the Marcus place. Teaspoon stood with him as he called out the news to Emma. "You got any ideas for Jimmy?"
Emma shook her head and sat down on the bench. "It ain't good Sam, sounds like Lou's got it worse than Kid. Can't think of a reason why, unless he was exposed to it for a longer time."
Teaspoon watched as Cody and Ike readied another horse. Buck would be comin' through any minute and Cody would take the mail to the next station.
"Emma?" Cody looked almost scared to interrupt.
"I sure hope they get better soon or we're gonna mess up your house somethin' awful."
Emma chuckled a bit and felt her heart lighten, "As long as it's still standin' I'll be a happy woman. I just know the next day or two will be the hardest."
"Aw Emma, I thought that Kid was doin' better."
"Well, the cramps are fadin' but he's still in danger. They both are." Emma tried to keep the mood light and hopeful, "You boys feelin' okay?"
Cody looked up, pushin' his hat back on his head, "Just fine... we're just worried 'bout you Emma... you take care of yourself."
A tired smile was his reward, "Thanks Cody, that's mighty nice comin' from you."
"Rider Comin'!" Teaspoon jogged forward to meet the incomin' horse and rider. Buck was home.
Cody mounted up and snatched the pouch from Buck and headed out on the trail.
Buck slid off his mount and immediately went to the bucket of water on the edge of the porch. He slipped off the leather ridin' gloves and shoved his hands under the water. "I'll be happy when we can finally stop doin' this."
Everyone watched him with concern. They seemed to be doin' a lot of watchin' these days, lookin' for signs of cholera. Buck dried off his hands and picked up the cloth pouch he had dropped beside him.
He opened the pouch and reached in. Opening his hand to their confused murmurings he announced, "I think this will help."
Jimmy stared at the pot of boiling water. Watching the bubbles burst on the surface was better than wantin' to bash his head against the wall.
During the late afternoon Louise had slipped into a deep sleep. Somehow, Jimmy felt that he'd be more comfortable if she was tossin' and turnin'. At least that way, he'd know she was alive.
Twice in the last hour he'd jumped up on his feet and scrambled to the table where he'd laid an old discolored mirror. Mrs. Marcus had probably left it behind when the family had moved west. He held the mirror up near her face and watched as the mirror fogged over with her breath. He held it there for minutes on end before he could allow himself to relax.
Jimmy threw a handful of the bark into the boiling water. "How long is this gonna take?" His patience was reaching its breaking limit and his hope was fading. His head fell heavily into his hands. How could he go back and tell them he'd lost her? Kid would kill him with his bare hands and Jimmy wouldn't blame him one bit.
He took the old battered pot off the fire and set it to the side to cool. Taking a small cloth in hand, he tenderly wiped her face, "I don't know if you can hear me... hell, I don't know why I'm tryin' to talk to you, you need your rest." She didn't react. "It's still pretty quiet in here... even Cody's ramble would be better."
Standing, he spooned a bit of the 'tea' on his wrist and flinched as the liquid burned him. "I don't have time for this."
Louise gasped in a weak breath and he dropped the spoon into the pot. Picking up the mirror he waited until the mirror colored white again.
Fallin' back into his chair, Jimmy tried not to throw the mirror down in his frustration. The only thing keeping him from cracking it across a chair was that he needed it.
Emma spooned the tea into Kid as fast as he could take it.
The others watched through the window. Teaspoon squinted his eyes, starin' into the dim bunkhouse. There was a storm brewin' and the light was fadin' fast. Teaspoon took a lantern down and lit it. "What is that thing in the tea Buck?"
"An herb you would call Witch Hazel. I met with some Kiowa warriors on the trail. They sent word to Red Bear and he was waiting to meet me as I was returning to the station."
Cody didn't look ready to drink any, "It don't look too good. You sure it'll work?"
"The Kiowa have used it for many years, if there is still a chance, it will help." Ike turned to his friend and set a hand on his shoulder, they both prayed the medicine had come in time.
Jimmy found a patience he never knew he had.
As the rain pelted the roof of the little cabin he hunched beside the straw filled pallet. Over and over he spooned the weak tea into her mouth. She never moved and hardly seemed to breathe, Jimmy swore he could feel her slipping away.
There was a helplessness washing over him that drowned out the sound of the rain outside. Fat drops of water thumped again and again against the boards, drowning out any chance of hearing her all too quiet breath.
Jimmy bowed his head and tried to pray. "Please... I ain't never asked for much... then again, I ain't listened much either. I'll change that... I'll try... if you," thunder cracked overhead, "if you let her know she ain't alone. I'm here until the end."
Lightning answered and Lou's face was bathed in cold light.
A breath froze in her chest and he grabbed her hand and pulled her into his arms, "Damn it Lou, don't you die on me... don't you-" he felt her body slump in his arms, "I ain't gonna give up and you ain't neither. You hear me?"
Her head rested on his shoulder, her body unmoving. "I ain't gonna let you die Lou... I ain't gonna let you die."
The Longest Mile
Morning broke over the trail and a lone rider could be seen comin' toward the station. Ike was up and sitin' on the porch. The site of the rider pulled him up out of his chair and down into the yard; he was an hour late.
Cody tossed the pouch to the waitin' rider and let his horse run off. Ike pounded on the wall and Buck and Teaspoon ran out into the yard with him.
The door to the bunkhouse flew open, "Emma!"
Teaspoon called out a warnin', "Cody.... you can't go in-"
"It's alright Mr. Spoon!" Emma sat and watched Cody with surprise. Kid sat beside her with soup down the front of his shirt, the noise had shocked them both and Emma's hand had jumped while she was feedin' him.
"Emma- there ain't no time for a lot of fancy explanations, you just gotta come with me."
Setting the soup aside, she stood without question.
Teaspoon never did like the sound of somethin' like that. "What the hell is goin' on Co-"
"Jimmy sent me to get Emma... it's Lou and it's bad."
Emma began packin' her things in earnest, a minute later and she was done. "Let's go." She heard a groan and the sound of the bunk shiftin' behind her, "Not YOU Kid-"
She was already out the door. Kid looked up and Teaspoon stood in the doorway, arms folded, "Rest."
Emma walked into the barn to find Cody saddlin' her horse and Buck and Ike followin' with their own. "Oh no! Cody, you go get your horse and put her up like you're supposed to. Ike, I need you to stay and take the ride this evenin'... Buck can come if he likes, I could use the help."
The two brothers looked at each other and nodded.
Cody moved past, his head hung low and Emma stopped him with her hand, "Cody, I ain't mad at you, but you need rest too."
He looked up at her from the corner of his eyes and smiled, "Thanks Emma... but you gotta get there. I ain't never heard Jimmy this worried 'fore."
She placed a quick peck on his cheek, "I know.. you go get some rest."
He moved off toward the bunkhouse as Buck and Emma led the horses into the yard and saddled up.
Jimmy didn't move when he heard Emma's voice, except to flinch. She sat beside him, her hand touchin' his shoulder for a moment. He never let go of Lou's hand, not for a minute.
Buck stood in the doorway, his heart in his boots. Guilt like he'd never known before stole over him. He'd been too late to save her.
Emma squeezed out a cloth in a bowl and used the moist fabric to wash Lou's face. She hummed a soft melody as she methodically cooled down her fevered skin.
Jimmy still hadn't looked at her. "I failed her Emma."
Placin' a hand on his, Emma shook her head quickly. "She's just sleepin' Jimmy. You didn't fail anyone; this ain't something that can be cured just by care... there's also a bit of faith in it too."
Faith - the word hung in the air. Jimmy worried that his 'prayer' had been too little too late.
Buck was dealin' with his own demons outside. He'd found the herbs he'd needed near to the cabin. Old Mrs. Marcus had had quite a herb garden at one point, it just grew wild now.
Heliotrope, bay, henna and more of the bark from the witch hazel plant he'd brought with him were perfectly matched for the ceremony he was performing. Bound together by a thick string, the herbs, though still fresh, soon smoldered and burned, giving off a thick and pungent smell. The smoke curled through the air and coated his skin with its fine ash.
He'd removed his vest and shirt, but the slight chill in the air did nothing but refine his concentration as he gathered his strength to bargain with the spirits.
Emma sat back against the wall and watched her young friend. Jimmy seemed to be paler than Louise, his skin stretched across his face like a canvas. It was what she saw painted across his features that had her worried. Grief and guilt dominated his emotions.
"Jimmy?" She didn't wait for his answer, "You don't mourn someone until they're dead."
He straightened in his chair and stretched his back, never lettin' go for a moment. "That's no joke Emma."
She moved closer and knelt beside them, one hand over their's, "I'm not jokin' Jimmy... Lou ain't dead, no where near it in fact."
Nodding he turned to spoon more lukewarm tea down Lou's throat. Two spoonfuls and Jimmy could feel his anger building again, this wasn't doin' any good. Swirlin' the brownish liquid he abruptly threw the spoon back into the pot and pushed his hands through his hair. "I ain't used to waitin' around like this."
Emma wrapped him in her arms, comforting the young man who'd taken a special place in her heart, "I know Jimmy, but you've done a wonderful job-"
His voice rasped against her shoulder, "I just don't know how I'm gonna tell Teaspoon... and the others that-"
"-tell them what?" Jimmy froze as a soft touch floated over his fingers.
"Louise!" Emma's arms flew wide in elated surprise, "Oh, thank God!"
Jimmy knelt on the floor, stunned.
Buck ran in through the door, his shirt and vest clutched in his hands. His eyes were wide with relief.
Louise took it all in with a wavering glance, "When did everyone get here?"
Emma laughed and took Louise's hands in her own, "Oh my dear, it is so good to hear your voice."
"-good to see- you... all of you."
Buck was shruggin' on his vest, "I'll ride back to the station... and give them the good news." He met his friend's gaze, the soft brown eyes looked tired but bright with life.
'Thank you Buck,' she mouthed.
He nodded and disappeared.
Emma caught her attention with the touch of a hand, "What can I get you?"
Louise wrinkled up her forehead as a blush colored her pale skin, "A bath-"
Jimmy took the hint and left the room, finding a seat outside on a rickety chair. The relief he felt was so acute, he felt as if he was in a daze. He heard soft laughter from inside and set his head in his hands. The laughter, a celebration of the return of a friend, and a gripping reminder of that could have been lost.
Sam sat on the porch with Teaspoon; the two had been playin' poker for half the morning. The same hand in fact. Both seemed to drift off into thought again and again.
Buck had ridden in the night before and they each scanned the horizon every few minutes for any sign of riders.
As per Emma's warnin', the boys had continued to shield themselves from sickness. They brought their own food and kept to themselves, coverin' their hands from whatever the others touched.
Teaspoon realized how lucky they had been. Word was spreadin' fast down the line, cholera... and that's what it had been, had killed over 25 riders, and the numbers were growin'. Sweetwater station had dodged the bullet and owed it to Emma. Her common sense had done more than anything else to save them.
The doctor was layin' low, as every time he met up with Sam, the man seemed to fear for his life.
"Teaspoon? How many cards did you say you wanted?"
He looked at his hand again and threw the cards down. "Dammit! Sam, we should just give this up, we both know we ain't got our minds on the game."
Sam nodded and set his own cards down. He stood and paced the boards of the porch, watchin' the horses dance around the ring. "Hurry home Emma."
They had stopped every two miles, even though Louise protested each time. She was as eager to return home as Sam was for them to get there. With soft grumbling she accepted Jimmy's help as she stretched her legs, walkin' for the first time in days. The muscles in her legs and backside, painful reminders that she'd been layin' abed for days.
She accepted his help as she'd done before, silently watchin' his expression as he carefully avoided her eyes. "Jimmy?"
"I'm just glad you're alright Lou."
"I just wanted to say-"
"Nothin' to say."
Lou stared at his profile, haggard by worry and sleepless nights, "You need to rest-"
"I'll rest when we get back."
Most people would've been put off by his gruff tone, but Louise just smiled. She'd seen a side of Jimmy Hickok that most would never see and in some small way --- "Time to get movin'." Jimmy helped her stand and half carried her back to the horses. Her thoughts were set aside for the moment.
Jimmy rode quietly. Louise was perched on the saddle in front of him and he found himself distracted by it. She was family and a close friend, but she was still a woman. That fact alone unnerved him more than he cared to admit.
Emma rode along, keepin' up a stream of conversation while they traveled. She noticed the number of times that Jimmy stopped, and she could tell when it would happen. Everytime Louise would fade and lean back against him, Jimmy would rein in and stop.
She wondered what could have changed. They two had spent such time together, she couldn't understand the discomfor- a slow smile wiped across her features, on the other hand, it made perfect sense.
A whoop and a holler announced their arrival home. Buck nearly flew over the rail of the corral, followed by Ike.
Cody appeared in the doorway of the bunkhouse, rubbin' his eyes from lack of sleep. Slowly from his shadow, Kid moved out into the light. His legs were still shaky, but gainin' strength.
Sam ran out into the yard and met Emma's horse as it pranced in. She threw the reins to the side and slid into Sam's arms, "What brings you out here?" He turned her away from the pryin' eyes of the riders and stole a kiss from her. Emma smiled and leaned into his arms, feelin' the brush of his whiskers against her cheek, "Sam?"
His eyes moved away from her lips and stared into her smilin' eyes, "Yeah Emma?"
"You need to shave!"
Shock turned to laughter, "Ah Emma, it's good to have you home."
The riders crowded as close to the horse as they dared. Teaspoon set a concerned hand on the young man's leg, "Good to see you Lou. You feelin' better?"
Louise affected her face into the mask of Lou again and nodded, "Better every minute."
"Good, it's been hard without you. We can't afford to lose one of our best riders." He took the reins from Jimmy and watched as Lou slid down, his hands held in the steady grasp of Ike and Buck.
Once Jimmy was on the ground, Teaspoon took both horses and made for the barn.
Buck had and arm around Lou as Ike walked beside them 'chattering' along about what had happened while she was away. Jimmy followed behind, but they all stopped as Louise met up with Kid at the edge of the porch.
He was in desperate need of a razor and looked like he'd lost quite a few pounds, but Louise found herself smilin' at the sight of him, "Glad to see you Kid."
"Lou - you okay?"
"Alive." Her eyes flickered closed as she swayed against Buck.
Kid reached out to grab her, but his step faultered and was forced to watch as two other friends helped her inside. Jimmy, tired and weary moved to follow.
"I ain't in the mood Kid." He shouldered past Kid.
"What?" Kid was confused.
Jimmy stopped in the doorway with Kid's question ringin' in his ears. "I ain't got the energy to fight you."
Kid moved closer and set a hand on his friend's shoulder, "I ain't about to fight you. You've done me a favor... takin' care of Lou like that." He smiled and Jimmy turned away, starin' into the dark interior of the bunkhouse.
"I didn't do it for you Kid."
Kid's eyes narrowed, "I don't care why you did it Jimmy."
"Good," Jimmy wiped at his eyes with his sleeve, "Cause all I want is to sleep the rest of the day away."
Kid took a step back and watched as Jimmy walked into the bunkhouse. Kid shook his head, 'If I live to be a hundred years old, I'll never understand his prickly temper.'
"Kid!" Sam called to him from Emma's porch.
"You reckon the boys'll be hungry for lunch in a bit?"
"Well, if they aren't, I am!"
Emma appeared in the doorway, "That's the best news I've heard in days!"
Emma darted around the kitchen, strapping on her apron and avoiding Sam's hands as she prepared lunch for the riders. All seemed right with the world for the first time in days. She pecked Sam on the cheek as she avoided his embrace again, hummin' to herself she set about makin' biscuits and the other fixin's for lunch.
Lou wasn't back to herself yet, but it would come in time. Both she and Kid would heal up and be back on the trail. They all had a lot to be thankful for, mostly for what they had in each other -something that ran as deep as the oldest river - a family.