Lou sat on the porch of the bunkhouse watching her friends ride toward town…a couple with a bit of difficulty. They were on their way to a fancy dress dance that the Ladies Aid Society was hosting to raise money for the school. They were all dressed up as something or another, even Jimmy who had refused at first. Lou had considered going for a moment but after seeing a couple of the town girls picking out the fabric for their costumes in town, she just couldn't bring herself to go to another dance as a boy.
Rachel looked out the window of the kitchen at her young friend. The girl looked so sad sitting there. Of course the events of the last couple of months hadn't been the best for Lou. She'd thought herself in love with Kid, then they had broken up. Rachel didn't blame Kid nor did she blame Lou, they were both still very young and she didn't believe either one knew what they wanted yet.
Rachel sighed wishing she could think of a way to make her friend feel better. Lou reminded her so much of herself. Only instead of gambling to make her way Lou had disguised herself and probably stayed safer then Rachel herself had.
After finishing the dishes Rachel returned to the parlor to finish the mending she had been working on earlier. 'Those boys sure are hard on clothes,' she thought as she picked up one of Ike's shirts to sew a button on. Reaching for the thread she noticed she didn't have the right color to sew it on and headed up stairs to her room to see if she could find the right color in a trunk Emma had left upstairs.
Emma had told her on a recent trip to check on her boys and girl, to make use of the items in the trunk saying that she didn't need them anymore. Rachel had gone through it with Emma that day and Emma had kept a few things. Rachel smiled at the memory. The two of them had a lot in common and had become friends, writing each other weekly.
Rachel opened the trunk and pulled out the first couple of items on top. She'd not paid much attention when Emma had put them in the truck but as she laid them on the floor the lace on the sleeve of one caught her eye. It had turned a creamy color with age, it complimented the green dress it was attached to better now than it would have when it was white. Out of curiosity Rachel held the dress up to look at it. It was beautiful; too bad she thought it wouldn't fit her. No, Emma was much smaller than she was.
Henry would have loved this dress, Rachel thought as tears threaten to fill her eyes. He always said that dark green reminded him of the fields of Ireland. Rachel turned her mind back to her task and began to dig through the truck looking for the thread. This time her hand brushed over an old half mask in the bottom of the same green as the dress. She pulled it out looking at it. It was edged with pearls and had teal feathers in the center and green velvet ties.
Rachel laughed to herself as she went back to the trunk. There, where the mask had been was a pair of slippers that matched the dress. She smiled wondering when Emma had worn the fancy outfit and if she had enjoyed the dance she must have attended in it. Rachel's hand stilled and she smiled to herself then. With a giggle of a younger woman she picked up the dress, slippers, and mask and hurried down the stairs.
"This is going to be so much fun," she said to the wind as she pulled the door to the house closed behind her.
She hurried across the yard of the station to the bunk house noticing Lou was no longer on the porch. As she opened the door of the bunk house she saw Lou sitting at the table with her head down. "I sure hope you haven't been crying," Rachel said.
Lou lifted her head and pushed her hair back out of her eyes. Rachel smiled noticing that her friend's hair was almost shoulder length now. Laying her find on the table she said, "You, my friend, are going to that dance."
Lou shook her head. "Rachel, I can't go. I can't go to another dance as Lou and watch all of the pretty girls falling all over the fellas."
"I don't think that is what is bothering you," Rachel said coming around the table. She smoothed more of Lou's hair back out of her face. "I think you wouldn't mind going to a dance as Louise." Rachel giggled again. "I think you would like more than one fella to pay attention to you."
Lou blushed as her eyes grew big. "Is it that obvious?"
"Only to me, I think."
Lou pointed to the bundle Rachel had laid on the table. "What's that?"
"That my friend is how you are going to that dance as Louise," Rachel smiled, "Or maybe someone else. Let those boys who think you are nothing but one of the guys see you as something more."
"How is that going to help? They'll know me when they see me."
Rachel unfolded the dress and Lou gasped over the beautiful outfit. Picking up the mask Rachel replied, "This is how. No one will know it is you since the mask will hide your most of your face.
Lou reached out and took the mask from Rachel a slight smile curving her lips. "You really think it'll work?"
Nodding Rachel held the dress up. The neck was cut a bit low and Lou was surprised at the amount of colored jewels edging the bottom and the small puffed sleeves. "It looks like something a princess might wear."
"Then be a princess of some foreign land…or maybe a queen. Just let them decide who you are don't give away too much until you are ready."
"Won't they be mad when they discover I fooled them all?"
"They might be," Rachel replied with a shrug. "But from the way they acted about going and you staying home when they were leaving, it might make them see how they should consider your feelings too." Rachel pulled Lou to her feet. "Now come on. Let's get you dressed and ready for that dance."
A short time later Rachel entered the dance ahead of Lou. Lou waited a moment then followed an older couple inside to the decorated hall. She stopped in the doorway and looked for her friends. Kid was dancing with one of the town girls, and Teaspoon was dancing with the preacher's wife. Lou spotted Jimmy and Buck leaning against a post near the dance floor. She watched Jimmy as he listened to something Buck was saying and laughed. Looking around she spied Cody walking toward her.
Cody looked toward the door to see who was coming into the dance late. He was surprised for a moment when Rachel entered the hall. The station mistress had said she was going to stay home and finish the mending and a few other chores tonight. Lou had even begged off saying that she had the first run the following morning.
He was debating asking her for a dance when an older couple entered the dance followed by a very pretty young lady dressed in the deep green of early summer prairie grass. As she walked into the dance one of the older ladies handed her a dance card and said something that had the pretty lady smiling.
Handing the cup he was holding back to Mrs. Evans, he decided that he was going to ask the pretty lady for her first dance. As he walked toward her he noticed her skirt was dotted with glass beads, like the prairie was dotted with wild flowers. He decided right then she had to be the prettiest woman ever made.
She smiled at him when she turned toward him. "May I have this dance, miss?"
Her laughter sent a chill down his spine. "Why, of course, Mr. Cody. I'd be honored."
Cody was confused she seemed to know who he was but with her mask in place he couldn't figure out who she was. He led her out to the dance floor as the music began. As they danced the usually talkative rider couldn't think of anything to say.
"The ladies did a fine job decorating the building," his partner said after a moment.
"So who are you supposed to be, Mr. Cody?" she asked.
Cody smiled down at her. "I am the terror of the seas, ma'am, the pirate king," he said with pride.
"Ah, now I see it," she said teasingly. "But that is a shame since I doubt we will ever meet again after tonight."
Cody was still trying to figure out which of the young ladies he was dancing with. She wasn't Emmy Lou Carson, that girl only had eyes for Ike. Maritucker James was dancing with Jimmy, and Sarah Mae Dawson was dancing with Kid. Buck was leaning against a post just watching the dancers. Looking back down at his dancing partner, he said, "And why is that, ma'am."
"Well," she said, "You are the pirate King and I'm the queen of the prairie so it's doubtful we'll ever meet again."
"Now, ma'am, for the right lady a man would give up the sea."
Just then the music stopped and he turned with everyone else to show his appreciation for the band. When he turned back the beautiful lady was gone. He looked around the room trying to find her but she had just disappeared. Vowing to himself to get another dance with the "queen of the prairie," as she called herself, he wander back over to the refreshments.
As the music began he noticed Kid had claimed her for this dance.
Kid had been talking to the dress maker's new assistant, Sarah Mae, when he saw Cody dance past with the pretty lady in green. Her dress reminded him of when he had peeked through the window of the Wilkes' ballroom one warm spring night. Many of the ladies were dressed in much the same way the young lady was tonight. Excusing himself he made his way over to her and requested the next dance.
She smiled and nodded as she accepted his arm and allowed him to lead her out onto the dance floor. As the music began he nervously took her in his arms and began to lead her around the floor. They had barely made one pass around it when she asked his name.
"Most folks just call me Kid," he replied with a smile.
"Oh, I know your name, but who are you tonight?" she said with a slight laugh that sounded vaguely familiar.
Kid laughed, it was a fancy dress dance and he had come as something he was never allowed to be at home. "I'm a southern gentleman, ma'am."
This time her laugh sounded even more familiar. "Ah, but I was told you are the most gentlemanly one of you and your friends. Except for Marshal Hunter that is."
"Thank you, ma'am," he said his cheeks turning a bright pink. "And who are you tonight."
She looked to be thinking it over for a moment then said, "I'm the queen of Ireland, can't you tell? And here I thought I had done a rather fine job with my costume."
Her accent reminded him of his mother and the way she use to talk when she remembered Ireland. "My mother was from Ireland."
The pretty lady in his arms smiled up at him. "She was? What was her name?"
Kid smiled. He didn't talk much of his family even to Lou but this lady was…he didn't know what she was exactly but something told him he could trust that she wouldn't betray his secrets. "Her name was Katie O'Malley and she came from a small village in Ireland. She and my father came over during the famine. She really missed it but said Virginia wasn't so bad."
Kid watched her take in what he said. She didn't seem to judge him or want to know more just smiled up at him and listened. He'd not talked so much about his self in a long time. Suddenly he realized she told him little about herself. "Are you and your family new in town?"
Again when she laughed it sounded familiar but he couldn't place it exactly. "Pretty much," she replied smiling.
The music ended and he was about to ask her if she would like some refreshments when a boy from town whisked her away. There were several young men just waiting for a chance to dance with the unknown young lady he noticed. He could only stand there as she let the town boy lead her around the dance floor. She was definitely what they would call the 'belle of the ball' back home.
Looking up he noticed Sarah Mae smiling at him, and suddenly she didn't seem very interesting. Kid hoped that maybe later he could have another dance with the 'Queen of Ireland'.
Jimmy had watched Cody then Kid dance with the mysterious young woman in green and wondered if he would get a chance. The current song ended and he watched her curtsy to her partner, but what happen next he wasn't pleased about and he started toward her.
Jamison Mason had a reputation of dancing young ladies in to dark corners and out back doors. Jamison and the lady in green were about half way around the dance floor when he cut in. Jamison didn't look too happy about but Jimmy really didn't care what the other man thought. "I believe the lady promised me this dance."
"She ain't spoke to you all evening, Hickok," Jamison snapped.
"No, he hasn't," the lady said, "But his friend, Mr. Cody, asked for him. And I accepted." She smiled up at him, "And here I thought you had forgotten this was our dance, Mr. Hickok."
Jimmy smiled back at her. "Ma'am, I couldn't forget something like that." Jimmy felt kind of foolish but this lady brought out something different in him.
He took her in his arms and they started dancing. He was enjoying the dance and holding such a pretty lady but Jimmy's eyes kept scanning the crowd for another young lady.
"Mr. Hickok, I don't believe I have your undivided attention," she said.
"Sorry, ma'am," he said. "Just looking for a friend."
"Hum," she replied. "She must be a special friend if you are looking so hard for her." Jimmy started to speak when she added, "And for a man that only apologizes on Sunday, you sure are doing an awful lot of apologizing tonight."
Jimmy laughed out loud causing several people to look in their direction. "Guess I have been."
"So, Mr. Hickok, you haven't answered my question, is she special?" the young lady asked again when they hadn't spoken for a moment.
Jimmy looked down at her, "Yeah, she is. She's very special." He didn't know why or if he should be saying this to her but there was something about her that had him wanting to talk. As they danced he told her as much as he could about Lou without giving away his friend's secret. As the music came to a stop he noticed her checks were wet where her mask ended.
"Maybe you should tell her how you feel," The green lady, as he had started thinking of her since he didn't know her name, said, her voice husky.
He shook his head. "No, I couldn't put her in that kind of danger."
"I bet she could handle any danger you think could come her way. I think you care but you give her too little credit." She shook her head as they parted, "I expect the next time I see you that you can tell me you told her everything you just told me." As he looked down at her he noticed something akin to mischief in her eyes, "I bet you'll be surprised at her reply."
Someone called his name and Jimmy looked up. When he looked back she was gone.
Buck had watched his friends having a good time, and had even danced with Rachel a couple of times but like his friends he was fascinated by the woman in the deep green dress. She seemed to have the ability to disappear as easy as a squirrel playing in the trees.
He was considering searching her out and asking for a dance when Reverend Mitchell called everyone's attention to where the band sat. "Ladies and gentlemen, the ladies would like to thank you for making our first fancy dress dance a success. We have raised a good sum from the sale of the baked goods the ladies made for the school. To thank them it has been suggested-and I don't believe it would be too improper to allow it-that the next dance the ladies ask the gentleman of their choice to dance."
Giggles came from several directions as the Reverend told the ladies to make their choices. His friends were snapped up in an instant. Buck laughed as two young ladies started arguing over who was going to dance with Jimmy. He noticed Cody was a bit put out that he didn't have that problem or maybe it was that Widow Hawkins had claimed him for this dance. His laugh stopped when he saw the young lady in the green dress walking toward him smiling.
She stopped when she was directly in front of him. "Mr. Cross," she said with a very pretty smile, "would you do me the honor?"
For a moment he thought about turning her down since dancing with him could cause her problems with the more narrow minded folks in town. The next he figured he might not get a chance like this again and took her in his arms. As he led her around the dance floor he tried to remember all that Sister Sarah had insisted they learn at the orphanage. She had said you could tell a gentleman by the way he danced. Buck had been a natural and had enjoyed dancing.
"It's a shame you don't dance more often, Mr. Cross, I bet several young ladies would go home with less sore toes if you did," she said smiling up at him.
For a moment Buck had the feeling he knew the lady in green but he couldn't place her. "I'm afraid they wouldn't accept me asking," he replied.
"Why ever no?" she said. "You are a very handsome young man, and I have seen several of them watching you this evening. I bet they were just waiting for you to ask them to dance."
"Their families probably wouldn't approve," he replied. A moment passed as he tried to ask if she didn't have a family that would be upset that she was dancing with a breed. Finally he figured it might be best just to ask her straight out. "I'm sure your family won't be too pleased you chose me for this dance." He wondered and not for the first time why she had chosen him when she could have easily danced with any man in the room.
"My family is very understanding. They know I'll make the right choice," she replied and he heard the pride in her voice as she spoke of her family.
He smiled down at her. "Do you have brothers that might take offense?"
She laughed again and Buck felt as if he could listen to that laugh the rest of his life, it was filled with such joy. "None that can say they are any better than you. They are hotheaded, mischievous, and a bit more trouble than most, but they are fair when it comes down to it. They know they are no better than anyone else."
"What about your parents?"
"They…Poppa at least give everyone a fair chance," she replied. As the music stopped she added, "Or as he likes to say he gives them enough rope to hang themselves."
Buck nodded, "Sounds like he and Teaspoon would get along real well."
"Thank you for the dance, Mr. Cross. I believe we should dance more often, my toes are much safer around you then some of the other young men here." She turned then and walked away.
He was about to go after her when he saw her speaking to Teaspoon and then leave with the older couple she had followed in.
The next morning Lou was up bright and early. She had most of her chores done and was getting ready for her run when the boys finally began to get up. She picked up her bundle from the table and headed out just as Rachel called, "Rider Coming!"
Teaspoon called from the front porch of the bunk house, "Lou, you're up!"
Lou came running out with her saddlebags and the bundle in her arms. "Rachel, will you brush this out for me and pack it away."
"Sure," Rachel said taking the bundle.
Lou swung up on Lightning as the other rider reached the edge of the station yard. She took the handoff and with a yell was off.
Noah slid out of the saddle as Ike approached and took the reins of his horse. "Thanks," he said and Ike nodded. He stood for a moment next to Rachel as they watch Lou ride away. "She sure was in a good mood this morning," he said.
Rachel smiled. "Guess Lou didn't miss the dance as much as we thought." She was walking away as she said, "You made it in time for breakfast. Tell the others to get their chores done and I'll have a hot breakfast by the time they're finished."
"Yes, ma'am," Noah said as he headed for the bunk house. He figured a shower would be nice before breakfast since he didn't have any chores just coming in from a run. He relayed the message Rachel had given him. "How was that fancy dress dance?"
Buck just smiled.
Noah couldn't resist. "What happened? Jimmy shoot someone for dancing with his girl."
Jimmy shook his head but Cody was the one to answer, "You just missed seeing the prettiest girl in the territory that's all."
"Girl?" Jimmy said. "That wasn't a girl, Cody, she was a woman."
"You're wrong, too, Jimmy," Kid said with a grin. "She was a lady."
"I have to agree with, Kid. She was a lady but much more. She was like a…like the prettiest thing you can imagine," Buck added.
A short time later Cody had finished chopping the wood for Rachel and was carrying the last load of wood to the house when he saw it. His shout had the rest of the riders coming from all direction in a flash.
"Rachel!" he called excitement filling his voice.
Rachel appeared at the door of the kitchen. "Billy Cody, what on earth are you shouting about?"
"That dress," he said pointing to the green silk dress hanging on the line, "where'd it come from?"
"Why Louise asked me to hang it out to air before I packed it back in the trunk I found it in."
To Buck, Rachel sounded too calm.
"That's not Lou's dress. She doesn't have one like that," Kid argued.
"No, I believe it might have been Emma's at one time. Louise just borrowed it for the evening." Rachel replied as she watched the play of emotions on each rider's face.
"She was funnin' with us," Jimmy said sounding disappointed and a tad bit angry.
"If you mean she was having fun dancing and being treated like a lady. Yes," Rachel said her voice and stance serious. "Jimmy, if you think she was making fun of you. You're wrong." She watched the four riders Louise had danced with last night. "She looked so sad not to be going. Not being able to go as Louise."
"She was so different," Kid said as he placed his hands in his pockets. Lou knew more now than the others did about him. He smiled as he finally came to the realization that Lou would never tell any of them what he had told her.
"Come on, Rachel, it couldn't have been Lou," Cody protested.
Jimmy shook his head. "I knew there was something familiar about her. She just looked so different." Jimmy knew then why he always had a hard time finding someone else, because he didn't know another woman that could ride like the wind during the day and dance like a snowflake on the wind at night. He almost laughed when he realized she was right he had told her how he felt. Guess, he would tell the lady in green she was right, when she returned home."
Cody shook his head. "Rachel, now don't get me wrong Lou's real sweet but she don't flirt or laugh like this girl did. And as pretty as she is…" He stopped when he noticed the other three riders looking at him. He was sure if they weren't friends he'd have three bullets in him about now. "Fellas, it couldn't be."
"But it was," Buck said. "She fooled us all but gave us all a night to remember." He thought about what Lou had said. Maybe at the next dance he would ask another woman to dance. But he knew he would save at least one dance for the lady in green that had made him feel so special, like he was equal to everyone else in the room.
"I bet she's upstairs in bed," Cody tried again half-heartedly. But even Cody knew it had been Lou. "She was prettier than anyone else there."
Rachel turned to return to the kitchen but looked back over her shoulder. They all four were just standing there watching the horizon for the pretty lady in green even though she wasn't due back until sunset.