Chapter One

“Rider comin’!” Lou jumped at the sight of the horse off in the distance, tossing the unsnapped pea back into the bowl on the porch floor.

“Lou! Ya scared me.” Rachel wiped her hands on the towel at her lap.

“Uh, Rachel, do you mind if I...” Her voice only loud enough for Rachel to hear.

The older woman laughed. “Go on.”

Lou grabbed at her long skirt as she bounded down the porch steps, thankful for the break in the day’s monotony.

“Welcome back, Buck.” She took the reins. “I’ll take care of her if ya wanna get ready for dinner.”

“Kid’s in the barn, huh?” Buck removed his hat, and brought his arm up to wipe away the sweat.

Lou scowled, her retort cut off by the crunch of boots on the hard dirt behind her.

Teaspoon rushed up. “Where’s Kid?”

“He’s in the barn, why?”

“You better come.”

Without hesitation, Lou handed the reins back to Buck and followed the older man.

“Kid?”

“What is it Teaspoon?” Kid sent a shovel deep into the saturated hay in Katy’s stall.

“Son!”

Kid looked up, facing Teaspoon.

“Virginia’s seceded, just got word.”

Lou’s throat constricted. “I can’t breath.”

“Lou?” Kid led her to a nearby hay bale.

Lou pulled at the collar of her shirt.

Kneeling down in front of her, Kid took her face in both his hands. “Lou?”

She focused on the fear in Kid’s eyes. Fighting for fresh air, her face flushed. She felt small electric currents shoot through her temple. The sight of Kid’s image fading in front of her snapped her out of her panic. With a loud inhale, she gulped in the needed air. Lou watched relief play across her husband’s beautiful face. Taking another deep breath, she smiled sadly. Tears began to fall as his face relaxed.

“What’s happened?” Rachel came up alongside Buck. Teaspoon’s sad look gave Rachel her answer, she hung her head. “Come on.” She ushered the men out of the barn.

Lou watched the others leave. Alone, she snaked her arms around Kid’s neck. In a wave, racking sobs shook her body and tears splashed down her face in an endless torrent.

Kid shifted his weight, pulling her up and onto his lap, replacing her on the bale of hay. He tightened his grip around her waist and rocked her gently. “It’s okay, shh.” He stroked her back.

Lou peeled herself away from his shoulder. His red rimmed eyes mirrored her misery. “I’m sorry.” Her voice, husky from emotion, sounded small.

“Don’t be.” After a moment of silence, he tipped her head back. “If you ask it of me, Lou, I won’t go.”

Lou starred into the icy blue depths of his eyes, at war with herself. She slowly shook her head, wiping away fresh tears. “I – I can’t make this decision, Kid, don’t make me.” She stuttered, taking a shattering breath. “I can’t ask you to do somethin’ that will haunt you with doubt,” her voice broke, “even though I want to so badly.” Using the back of her hands, she pressed them against her eyes, forcing out the remaining moisture. The coolness of her skin refreshed the angry swelling.

“Are ya okay?”

“I don’t know. I will be.”

Buck, Teaspoon, and Rachel sat silently at the table in the center of the bunkhouse. Kid came in, his hat in his hands. Lou followed, trying to hide her puffy face in shadow.

“I’m afraid we’re gonna skip dinner tonight, Rachel.” Kid scanned the bunkhouse. “I’m…we’re.” He turned back to Lou. “I’m sorry, Teaspoon, but I have ta leave for Virginia.”

Teaspoon shook his head.

Buck stared down at the table.

Rachel stood and hugged Kid tightly. “Come by for breakfast if ya feel up it.”

Lou felt chilled despite the warm day. Once home, she built a small fire and starred into it, her mind blank, letting the heat message away the fear. Turning, she watched Kid scan the room, much like at the bunkhouse. His gaze met hers. She tried to smile. “I’m gonna miss this place.”

“It’s our home.” Kid stood across the table from her, twisting his hat in his hands.

“I don’t have anything for dinner.” Lou left the fire and began opening cupboards and cabinets. “I’d just planned to eat at the station.”

Kid took her arm. “I ain’t hungry.”

“Me neither.” She pulled him to her in an easy hug and felt his muscles relax as the tension left his tall frame.

She rested her cheek against his chest. “How long do we have?”

“How long do you need?”

“How does 20 years sound?” The fire crackled behind them. “Maybe a day or two? Won’t take long to pack up what we’d need, but we gotta see if Rachel would be willing ta store some things.”

“And the horses.”

“You ain’t takin’ Katy?”

Kid released her, sitting down at the table. “It’ll take two weeks if we ride. By taking the train, it’d only take four or so. Plus, she’ll be safer here. Two days, then?”

Lou swallowed past the lump rising in her throat.

~ ~ ~

Lou scanned the faces gathered around the breakfast table. Jimmy refused to meet her eyes. Teaspoon and Rachel didn’t speak unnecessarily. Buck sat in complete silence. Kid concentrated on the meal in front of him. The solemn echo of utensils on tin plates added to her misery. Two days left with the people she loved like family. This isn’t how she wanted to spend that time.

Finishing his eggs, Kid broke the silence. “Thanks, Rachel, breakfast was real good but I think I’ll be headin’ out.” He pushed back from the table.

“I guess you are at that.” Jimmy said under his breath, though clear enough for all to hear.

“Why don’t ya just say what’s on your mind, Jimmy.” Kid stopped and turned.

Jimmy shot up from the table, the chair rocked back and landed on its side with a loud crash. “I’ve said it ‘til I’m blue in the face, you just don’t hear!”

“Jimmy, Kid!” Rachel stood.

“Sorry, Rachel, I just can’t sit back and watch him make a fool of himself and not say nothin’.” Jimmy held Kid’s gaze.

“That’s what you think I’m doin’, making a fool of myself? That I’ve got some roman’ic notion of what I’m headin’ off into? Is that it? Virginia’s, my home! It’s where I’m from, I can’t walk away from that!” Kid and Jimmy stood nose to nose.

“This is your home, here! With Lou!”

Kid pushed Jimmy back.

Teaspoon caught Jimmy’s drawn back fist. “That’s enough!”

Everyone stood. Buck moved into position between Kid and Jimmy. Rachel placed her arm on Lou’s shoulder. Lou watched the two men slack jawed. She didn’t know what to say.

“Kid, maybe you should go.” Teaspoon released Jimmy who turned away to face his bunk.

Kid cast a glance at Lou and left without further argument.

Feeling the sting of tears, Lou made to leave. She’d be damned if she’d cry again.

Jimmy’s accusation stopped her. “How can you let him do this?”

Buck’s anger surfaced. “You just can’t resist it, can you, Jimmy?”

“He’s going off to fight for the south, to fight for slavery, for something he says he don’t even believe in!”

“No, he’s not.” Tired of the fighting and depressed by the situation, Lou spoke up.

“No, Lou, then why’s he goin’? Why’s he leavin’ you behind? What good reason can he have to do that?”

“He ain’t leavin’ me, Jimmy; I’m goin’ with him ta Virginia.”

Jimmy’s mouth hung open. “He’s forcin’ you into this fight?”

“He ain’t forcin’ me ta do nothin’.” Lou stomped her foot. “He’s my husband and I’m goin’. I knew what I was gettin’ into when I married him. Hell, I knew when I said yes to his proposal that this day was comin’. I’m not gettin’ anything I didn’t sign up for.

“If you cared about him, Jimmy, you’d set aside your self righteousness. You’d hear that this decision is tearin’ him apart. He can’t be somethin’ he’s not. Now, you can forgive him or you can’t but I ain’t havin’ you shove this down his throat.”

“I can’t believe you’re supporting The South!” Jimmy raised his voice.

Lou moved to the door. “I ain’t supportin’ the South, I’m supportin’ my husband.” She pushed through the bunkhouse door, slamming it closed.

“Did you hear that?” Jimmy looked around at the three somber faces.

Teaspoon returned to his forgotten breakfast. “Did you?”

~ ~ ~

A horse and carriage rambled by as Lou clung to Rachel. Letting go meant leaving and she didn’t feel ready to say goodbye to Rock Creek. She felt Kid’s hand on her shoulder.

“I’m sorry, Lou, it’s time ta go.”

Sniffing back tears, she stood and looked into Rachel’s bleary eyes. “You’ve got the address of Kid’s cousin’s in Manassas, right?”

The older woman nodded. “I’ve got it. Take care of yourself, and come back to us, okay?”

Hugging Rachel one last time, she gave Buck and Teaspoon a parting glance. Taking Kid’s hand she entered the dark interior of the stage to St. Louis. Kid followed, sitting beside her. Lou starred out the window. Sadness over Jimmy’s absence formed a lump in her throat. Just over a year passed since she’d joined the Pony Express, she never imagined this is how it would end.

~ ~ ~

“Last stop, Louisville, Kentucky. Everybody off!” The train attendant passed through the near empty car.

Kid grabbed their small suitcases, handing one to Lou.

“I ain’t been this far east before.” Lou looked up at the southern stars.

“Train used ta go all the way ta Virginia.” Kid placed his hand on the small of Lou’s back, moving her off the platform.

“You worried ‘bout crossin’ over, tomorrow?”

“Not really. I didn’t think I’d ever be comin’ back this way is all.”

Like Saint Joe and Saint Louis before it, Louisville teemed with union soldiers. She always associated the uniform with trouble, but it surprised her at how quickly they became alarming. All too soon those uniforms will represent men trying to kill her husband. Knowing Cody, and in all probability Jimmy, wore just such a uniform chilled her.

“I secured a couple horses. They’ll be ready to ride out in the mornin’.” Kid shut the hotel room door.

Dressed for bed, Lou sat at a small desk writing a letter. “I’m lettin’ Rachel know we made it ta Kentucky. Not sure how reliable the post will be once we get ta Manassas.” She glanced up at Kid.

He walked to the open window. “Lou, get down!” Kid pulled his gun, ducking below the sill as shots rang out in the alley below them.

“Yee-haw!” A chorus of men’s voices faded in the distance.

Lou crawled over to Kid. “What happened?” The sound of voices outside drifted up to their room.

“Some soldiers were attacked. I think it’s okay, now.”

Kid and Lou slowly stood up.

“Did ya see who done it?”

Kid sighed. “Just that they wore gray coats.”

“You gonna tell anyone?” Lou watched uncertainty play across Kid’s face.

He watched the crowd gather around the fallen soldiers. “Don’t know that I should, seein’s how I’m gonna be wearin’ one shortly.”

Hating the tortured look in Kid’s eyes, she went back to writing the letter.

~ ~ ~

Picking their way down the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Lou stopped at a crest. The Shenandoah Valley lay out before them, rolling gentle, covered in the crisp green of spring. “My God, Kid, Virginia’s beautiful.”

“There’s the Shenandoah River.” He pointed to the clear water snaking its way through fertile farmland. The smile on Kid’s face took Lou’s breath away.

Riding into Big Lick two days later, Lou noted curious looks pass their way. Pulling up to the town’s stable, a grizzled, old man emerged.

“What can I help ya with?” He spat tobacco juice onto the dirt packed ground.

Kid swung down. “We need fresh horses.”

Only one of the man’s eyes focused, it roamed over the couple. “I might have some. Depends on where yer headed.”

“Manassas.”

“Sure, I gotta couple horses.” He disappeared through the stable doors.

Lou’s eyes searched out Kid’s. He didn’t seem fazed by the eccentricities of the old horseman.

“Army took most of ‘em, but these two’ll get y’all there.”

The two horses looked run down. Certainly not up to the Pony Express’ standards. Still, they were in better condition then the one’s they rode in on. Kid ran his hands down and inspected their hooves. “They need ta be shod.”

“It’ll cost ya.” A fresh plug of tobacco muffled his words.

“We’ll trade ya outright with the two we got. Once rested, they’ll be the better stock. You can throw in the shoein’.”

The old man stared at Kid silently, his one good eye hard. “They’ll be ready ‘fore the night’s out.”

A young boy sat at the check-in desk of the lone hotel. Lou approached him. “I’ll need a room, please.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” He pulled out a ledger book then turned to grab a key.

Kid came in, carrying their luggage.

He stopped abruptly seeing Kid come through the door.

A middle aged woman came from a backroom to stand beside the boy. “Everything, okay?”

“Yes, Ma.”

“Good. How are y’all doin’ today?” The woman smiled at Kid and Lou.

“Just fine, Ma’am.” Lou took the key and signed the registry.

“You’re our only guests at the moment. Providin’ no one else checks in, your welcome ta have supper with Johnny and me.” She indicated her son. “My name’s Jenny Henderson.”

“That’d be real nice, Mrs. Henderson.”

Later that night they sat around a checker covered dinner table in the small house behind the hotel. “It’s been a while since I came through Big Lick, but I remember it bein’ a busy place.” Kid took an offered roll.

“Used ta be. But, with the war startin’ most of our men headed off ta Montgomery at first, now Richmond. The railroad from the west stopped runnin’ through, and a ton of families headed west to avoid everthin’ all together. Yer the first set of travelers come through in a couple weeks.”

“Your husband, Ma’am?” Lou snuck a look at Kid, who concentrated on his plate of food.

“Yep, he’s one of ‘em. Left as soon as Virginia seceded. So, where y’all from?”

“N…”

“Manassas. Manassas.” Kid interrupted Lou.

Lou looked at him with a frown.

Kid shook his head slightly.

“You’re goin’ the wrong way ta be travelin’ from Manassas.” Jenny passed a nervous glance to her son.

“Yes, Ma’am, we’re comin’ in from Louisville. Headin’ home. This is real fine stew.”

Lou looked down at her hands.

“Thank ya. Would ya like another helpin’?”

“Thanks, but no. I think it’s time for us to head in, we’ve got an early ride tomorrow.” Kid stood, followed by Lou and the Henderson family.

“Thank you for supper, it was a nice meal.”

“What was that all about?” Her hands on her hips the moment the hotel door shut. Kid infuriated her with the guarded look in his eyes. She held his unflinching stare.

“Lou, just don’t worry about it, we’re almost home.” He faced away from her.

“What? Don’t worry about what?” She fought the urge to pummel his back. “Kid, you better talk ta me, ‘cause I ain’t movin’ ‘til ya do.”

He stopped but said nothing. For a long moment she watched him stare at the wallpaper until she couldn’t take it any longer. “Kid, you’re scarin’ me.”

He spun around, rushing up to her. “I’m sorry.”

He reached out for her but she pushed away, angered by her confusion. “Just tell me what’s goin’ on.”

“Lou, you’re a Yankee.” He grit the word between clenched teeth, keeping his voice low.

Lou let out her held breath. “Is that what this is all about?” She shook her head chuckling.

“Lou, it’s not funny. You don’t understand what people around here can be like.”

“The man at the stables was off-puttin’ but everyone else has been nice.”

“It’ll be hard on you if they don’t like you. And, they don’t like northerners, never did, war or not.”

“It’s gonna be hard on me if they love me enough to elect me President!” She placed her hand on his arm. “Kid, I know you’re tryin’ to protect me but I am who I am, and well, they are who they are. ‘Sides, it ain’t like I’m from New York City.”

“I ain’t gonna be around ta keep ya safe.” His hands ran up and down her arms, his voice barley a whisper.

“Good thing I can take care of myself, then, huh?” She stood on her tiptoes and kissed him gently. “I’m sorry this is hard on you.”

Kid deepened the kiss, crushing her to his chest. “I love you, Lou.”

“I love you too, Kid.”

~ ~ ~

Lou left him alone at the graveside and walked across the abandoned farmland. She let her mind wander, imagining Kid as a small child fishing in the nearby river, or working the rocky ground. This land made Kid the man she loved. It instilled in him a sense of right and wrong that, at times, seemed unshakeable. It also gave him the forbearance to fight, to stand up for those principals. Her heart broke imagining how quickly his innocence disappeared at his father’s hands, yet, that evil still could not penetrate the incredible gentleness at his core.

Walking the pathway that traced the river’s edge before snaking back up to the cemetery, she returned to Kid’s mother’s graveside. Kneeling by her husband she put her arm around his broad shoulders.

After a moment, Kid stood slowly and walked back to the horses.

Lou lingered, gently running her hand over the simple white cross. “Thank you.” She whispered.

“You ready?” Kid turned to Lou once mounted.

“Yep.”

Together they rode out across Bull Run.

“I think that’s it.” He pointed to a small, white, farm house sitting on a hill. A large oak tree cast it in shadow.

“You think?”

“Well, it’s been a while.” A woman with blonde hair emerged on the porch, shielding her eyes from the sun. “That’s definitely it.”

Seeing Kid and Lou, she waved, a smile breaking out across her face. “Robert, they’re here!”

They rode up as a tall, red haired man, with a ruddy complexion, wearing a confederate uniform, emerged from the paddock. He joined his wife at the entrance to their farm. “Kid! Well, I’ll be!”

“Robert.” Kid shook his hand vigorously. “Erika.” He kissed the young woman’s cheek. “This is my wife, Louise McCloud.”

Lou dusted off her hands and smoothed her short hair. She extended her hand in greeting. “It’s nice ta meet ya.”

Erika smiled at the offered handshake, taking it quickly. “Oh, you too! We were so happy ta hear y’all are married. Come on in.” She waived them towards the house.

“I’ll get those.” Robert grabbed the reins of the two tired mounts.

“Kid, Louise, this is my mother, Alva.” An old woman, gray hair pulled back in a tight bun, sat on a rocking chair, knitting. “Mamma, you remember The Kid, don’t you, Annabelle’s son?”

Alva put down her knitting and stood, coming to the couple. She tilted her head back and examined them down the bridge of her nose through a pair of trepidatiously perched glasses. A Swedish accent punctuated her delivery. “Kid, you’re much more grown up than I remember.” She turned her attention to Lou. “I don’t remember you at all.”

Kid removed his hat. “Mrs. Andersen, this is my wife, Louise McCloud.”

“McCloud? I don’t know any McCloud’s.”

“Mamma, Louise is from out west.” Erika helped her mom back to her seat, gesturing for Kid and Lou to do likewise.

“Out west, that’s just wilderness.” Alva shook her head and resumed knitting.

Erika flushed with slight embarrassment, casting a quick glance at Lou.

She gave her a reassuring smile.

Robert came in and took a seat. “Those two horses look the worse for wear. Expected somethin’ better from a Pony Express Rider.”

Lou noticed Kid’s hardening eyes. “We left our horses in Nebraska ta get here quicker. Took the train ta Louisville, then traded horses in Big Lick, this is the best of what was left.”

“Well, Kid, I’m glad you’re here. The South needs good men. Men like you, who fight tough.”

Hearing someone speak so openly about fighting in the war, shocked Lou. A stab of regret caused her to wince, thinking about the tense conversations around the bunkhouse table.

Kid nodded at Robert’s uniform. “I’m surprised you’re home.”

“I’m headed into Richmond tomorra, I hope you’re comin’ with me.”

Kid turned to Lou. “I – I guess I am.”

“Great, we’ll make a day of it. The ladies can come ta see us off.” He clapped his hand on Kid’s back, smiling at the women in the room.

The next day, Lou made a point to dress up. The dark blue dress complimented her tanned, olive complexion. Her curled and swept up hair disguised its length and elongated her neck. She wore the cameo earrings Rachel gave her before she married Kid. Having no idea how long it would be before she saw him again, she wanted to give him a happy image to remember her by.

Erika felt the same inclination. The blonde wore a white dress with a light green, flower print. Her feminine curves accented by the tightly fit bodice. The full skirt swayed back and forth as she gesticulated. “Mrs. Randall’s gonna be here if you need anything, Mamma. I’ll be back tomorrow, okay?”

Alva continued knitting.

“Mamma, I need ya to tell me that ya understand.”

“Lordy, girl, I hear you, I’m not deaf. You’re going to Richmond, you’ll be back tomorrow.” Alva waved at the young woman.

“And, Mrs. Randall is here to take care of you.”

“Yes, yes.”

Erika shrugged at Lou. “You look lovely.”

“So do you.”

“Good, because I’m scared silly. I’ve been hopin’ somehow that this day never came.” She smoothed down the front of her dress.

“I know whatcha mean.”

The women walked out to the front porch.

A middle aged couple stood talking with Robert and Kid.

Seeing Lou, Kid excused himself and walked up to escort his wife down the steps.

Erika followed the newlyweds.

“You look beautiful.” Kid whispered, tucking his wife’s arm in his.

Lou blushed.

“Mr. and Mrs. Randall, this is my wife, Louise McCloud.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. McCloud.” The older woman turned a kind smile to Lou.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, too, Mrs. Randall.” Not knowing if she should offer her hand, Lou just clung to her husband, embarrassed. She felt like a child.

Erika rushed up. “Mamma’s in the house, knitting. She shouldn’t be any trouble for ya. You just might have to remind her that I’m in Richmond.”

“She’ll be fine, Erika, don’t you worry none. Robert, you take care of yourself, okay? Mr. and Mrs. McCloud, it was nice ta meet ya both.” Mrs. Randall headed into the house.

“Ladies, you ready?” Mr. Randall held out his hand. Erika accepted his help into the waiting buckboard. Lou faltered slightly, before doing the same. Mr. Randall came up along side them and snapped the reins.

Lou passed a confused glance to Kid, who obliviously mounted one of the tired nags from Big Lick. Lou hoped he’d get a better horse in Richmond, and then she wondered if he’d get a horse at all.

“So, how long have you and Kid been married?” Erika turned to Lou.

“Almost two months. You and Robert?”

“Three year’s ago next month.” She adjusted a piece of hair that came loose. “I’m dying to know how ya two met. I was shocked to learn Kid was comin’ home, and with a wife ta boot. I just didn’t think, well with Dorthia and Garth…” She cut herself off, shaking her head. “Oh, that ain’t important. Anyway, how’d y’all meet?”

“Well…well, we met in Sweetwater. That’s Wyomin’ Territory. Right after Kid joined the Pony Express.” Distracted be her worries over the war and Kid, she hadn’t given thought to covering her time with the Express.

“So, you followed him to…where was it? Nebraska?”

“Mmm, hmm.” Lou strained her eyes looking for Kid, who rode ahead of the Buckboard with Robert.

“Why did ya wait so long ta get married?”

Lou tried not to show her irritation over the questions. “Oh, I guess the timin’ wasn’t right.”

Lou found Erika sweet and her questions showed a genuine love for Kid. However, the former rider felt frustrated and bored. She toyed with the idea of swapping places with Robert, but she certainly didn’t dress to ride. Sighing, Lou resigned herself to the questions Erika impaled her with.

They stopped at a small hotel in Richmond, Kid and Robert left the women with Mr. Randall to check in.

Lou joined Erika in the latter’s room. “Richmond’s a busy city.”

“I used to beg my parents to take me with ‘em when they came. Now, I think I’d rather be anyplace else.”

Lou nodded. The gray uniforms swarming the city didn’t ease her mind anymore than the blue uniforms did. Soon her husband would wear one. The thought brought her little comfort.

Sitting together in silence, they watched activity flooding the streets. A while later a knock at the door brought them to their feet.

“You ladies ready for a splendid dinner?” Robert smiled brightly, bowing to his wife at the door.

“Absolutely!” Erika matched his mood. “Louise?”

“Comin’.” Try as she might, Lou couldn’t force the joviality.

Kid stood at the bottom of the stairs. He wore a full uniform, freshly starched. “Oh, my.” Lou stopped half way down her descent.

“He cuts a fine figure, don’t he?” Robert mistook Lou’s reaction.

The light didn’t reach Kid’s eyes. “Well, how do I look?”

“I think ya look better in buckskins.” Lou said in a low voice.

“They’d be far more comfortable.”

“Kid, wait.” Lou stopped him before they followed Robert and Erika across the street. “I need ta know what’s going on.”

“Robert! We’ll catch up to you all in a moment.”

The tall man raised his hand. “Don’t be too long, or I’ll likely eat your dinner.”

“He’s in an awfully good mood.” Lou scowled at the man who seemed to be taking her husband away from her. “This is all movin’ just a bit too fast for me.”

“Me, too.” Kid placed his hands on Lou’s shoulders. “What’s going on?”

“You’re standin’ next ta me in a uniform, does this mean it’s done? Your one of them now? Am I gonna see you again after dinner tonight?” The rawness of her barely checked emotions frightened her.

He stroked her cheek. “We have tonight. I leave tomorrow.”

“Well, I don’t want ta spend it havin’ dinner and answerin’ a million questions about how we met, and where I come from.”

“Lou, if it were up ta me, we wouldn’t have left that hotel room.”

She felt her cheeks flush.

“But, Robert, he wouldn’t understand. He’s a simple man. He seems ta think we’ll be home in a few days time.”

“I wish that were true.”

He half smiled. “I enlisted for a year, we can do this for a year; last year went by so fast, this one will too.”

Lou shook her head unconvinced.

“Now, tonight, we’ll eat a fast dinner, I promise. Come on.” Kid led Lou out into the busy Richmond night.

Later, lying in her husband’s arms, Lou fought to stay awake. She wouldn’t sleep through these last moments, no matter how hard her body fought her for it. “You awake?”

“Yeah.”

“You should sleep, you need ta be rested.”

“You should sleep.”

She pulled herself onto her elbows and looked down at Kid. “Nope.”

He gave her a glassy-eyed grin. “Maybe if I fall asleep while on duty, they’ll send me packin’.”

“Then we better find a way to keep you awake.” Lou trailed kisses along his chest, and jaw line. Finding his mouth, Kid took possession of hers, rolling her over onto her back. Her arms circled around his neck, pulling him closer.


Lou’s eyes blinked open.

Kid sat next to her on the bed, fully dressed in the dreadful uniform. He pushed her hair behind her ears, and ran his hand down her face. “Mornin’.”

“Mornin’.” She took his hand in hers, scooting close to him.

“I have ta go.”

She nodded. She would not cry. “Lemme get dressed and I’ll walk ya down.”

“No.”

His voice sounded gentle but the word ripped through her like a knife. “No?”

“I want to remember you like this: tussled and sleepy.”

She took a deep breath, the room spun. “Kid…” The words wouldn’t come.

“I know.” He kissed her, pulling her tight. All too soon he let her go, heading for the door.

With his hand on the doorknob Lou came fully awake. “Wait!” Wrapped in a bedsheet, she flew to him. Kissing him again, she broke away. “Come home.”

“Where else would I go?” His face broke out in a wide smile, his eyes crinkled. Without another word, he left.

Lou rushed to the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of him, but either he went a different direction, or became lost in a sea of uniformed men. A single tear slipped down her cheek. Turning to look at the empty bed, rumpled from their last night together, Lou felt small and completely alone.

Chapter Two

“Whoa there, Bessie.” Erika stroked the cheek of the large cow. “She’s never done this before. I’ll be here the whole time.”

Seated on a small stool, her head rested against Bessie’s right flank, a frown of concentration creased Lou’s forehead. She gently massaged the teat as Erika demonstrated a few moments before. Lou let out her breath as the warm cream poured down into the waiting bucket. “How do ya know when ta move on ta the next teat?” Lou didn’t look up from her work.

“Only a small bit will come out, and the utter’ll be soft.”

A short time later, the women emerged from the barn behind the house, two full buckets of cream between them.

“That wasn’t as hard as I thought it’d be.”

“Naw, Bessie’s a good girl, she gives her milk freely. Besides, it’s gonna help out a lot if you can do the milking, because I’m pretty sure I’m having a baby.”

“Congratulations!”

Entering the kitchen through the back door, the women laughed while they washed up. “It’s too hot ta cook anythin’, we have chicken left over from last night, think that’ll make a nice sandwich?”

“That’ll be perfect. I’ll make some iced tea.” Lou placed a pot on the stove to boil.

“Mamma?” Erika headed down the hall. “Come have lunch with us in the kitchen.”

Lou grabbed an apron and tied it around her waist. She pulled out the chicken and set about slicing it.

“Lou!” Erika ran into the kitchen.

Lou spun, knife in hand. “What is it?” She looked around expecting someone to jump out at her.

“You gotta letter from Kid!”

“What?” Quickly, Lou set down the knife and ripped the letter from Erika’s hand. “I’m gonna…” Lou pointed to the stairs leading to her room.

“Go. Go on.” Erika dismissed her with a wave, turning her attention to the forgotten chicken.

Lou broke the seal on her way up the stairs. Her heart catching at the sight of the familiar handwriting, she felt overwhelmed at the thought of having a tangible piece of him in her hands. Stopping at the top of the landing she frowned, the letter, partially written in Lakota, contained a small, indecipherable map.

Lou,

I miss you so much. Two dogs fight over a fallen eagle. The mice run. I’d write more but I have to get this off.

Kid


Lou sat hard on the top step. This isn’t anything she expected. The loss caused tears to spring to her eyes. Shaking it off, she focused on the Lakota. What’s he trying to say? Two dogs fight over a fallen eagle. The mice run. Lou picked up the small, square map. Two simple lines intersected with each other in the northeast, no towns, or landmarks indicated, but she felt certain the intersection was Manassas Junction. He wants us to leave, we’re the mice. Two dogs must be the armies?

“Erika do you have a map?” Lou ran downstairs.

“No.” Erika tilted her head, frowning.

“Okay, can you help me fill in a map?”

“What?” Erika stood up as Lou placed the square parchment on the table.

“The letter from Kid, he wants us to leave. I think the armies are comin’ here. He drew a map but it ain’t got any information on it. So, before jumpin’ ta conclusions I wanna make sure I’m readin’ it right.”

Erika peered over Lou’s shoulder looking at the map with the two lines. “How can ya make anything outta that?”

“If this is Manassas, could this be Richmond?” Lou pointed at the intersection and then the end point just southeast.

“Yes. It could be. But, how do ya know the two lines cross at Manassas?”

Ignoring the question, Lou pointed to the line due east of the intersection. “Where is this?”

“I suppose it could be Arlington.” She wiped her hands and took the paper. “No, it’s the wrong direction. Alexandria?” Erika stopped, standing up straight.

“What?”

“It could be Washington.”

Lou placed a steadying hand on Erika’s shoulder. “Where does this other line go?”

“I don’t know it could go anywhere.” Erika’s voice caught in her throat. She looked over at Alva, who ate her sandwich, calmly watching the two anxious-eyed girls.

“Okay, Erika, where could we go? Where would Kid send us?”

“I-I don’t know.”

“Yes, you do. Just think. Do you have friends or family southwest of here? Someone Kid would know about?”

A slow smile curled at the corners of Erika’s mouth. “Aunt Lizabeth. She lives in Blacksburg. Kid would send us there.”

“Good, good.” Lou caught Erika’s pale blue eyes. “We have ta pack and go.”

Immediately Erika shook her head. “No, this is my home. We can’t just leave it.”

“I know it’s hard ta just up and leave, but Kid didn’t send this ta us as an option. He’s warnin’ us. I have ta believe it’s serious enough for us ta act on it.” Lou watched the tears form in her eyes. She placed a hand on the other woman’s stomach. “It’s much more important for you and that baby you’re carryin’ ta stay alive then it is for your house ta stay unharmed.”

Erika placed her hand over Lou’s. Biting her lip, she nodded. “Who are we gonna find to take us there? The Randall’s left last week. There aren’t any other families out here.”

“We’ll take ourselves.” Lou picked up the letter and map, her eyes tracing Kid’s handwriting one last time before placing them in her pocket.

“Three women cannot ride across the state unescorted.”

Lou didn’t have time to coddle Erika. “Do you have any guns?”

“There’s a rifle of Robert’s in the foyer closet.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes, I don’t think there’s anything else. Robert took care of all that.”

Lou looked around, hoping to find a weapon previously hidden. “I have two. Plus the rifle. That makes three guns for three people. Can you all shoot?”

Erika looked again at Alva, who continued eating her lunch, watching the two girls without expression. “I’ve never held a gun, Louise.”

“It’s not hard. You just point and shoot.”

Erika backed away, grabbing the back of the chair to steady herself. “This is crazy, we can’t go. Even with guns, we need protection.”

“I’ll protect us.”

“What?”

“I can take care of us.” Lou took a deep breath. “You asked how Kid and I met, well it’s true we met in Sweetwater, but that ain’t the whole story. We met ‘cause I rode for the Pony Express, too. I dressed as a boy and lived and worked as a boy. I can shoot.”

Erika sat down at the table until the sound of water boiling over grabbed her attention. She pulled the pot off the stove and turned off the burner. She whipped down the wet counter with a towel.

Lou watched her shoulders shaking. She wanted to comfort her, but didn’t think Erika would accept it.

“I can shoot, too.” Alva stood up and walked to her daughter.

“Mamma?” Erika turned bright eyes towards the older woman.

“Your daddy taught me to shoot when you kids were younger.” Alva smiled proudly at Lou.

Lou returned the smile. “Then you get the pistol.”

Erika looked between the two women. “This is crazy.”

“It is. It’s war. War ain’t nothin’ but crazy.”

~ ~ ~

Alva and Erika stared at Lou. Dressed in britches, shirt, and vest, wearing her hat and glasses, all traces of Louise were gone. “You all ready?”

“You sure do look different.” Erika didn’t move.

Lou grabbed her suitcase and headed outside to the buckboard. She didn’t know what compelled her to bring along the boys clothes, but she now knew her instincts were right. Packing the buckboard she felt her confidence return, a feeling foreign to her since she left Rock Creek. “Is this all?”

Alva hauled herself into the center of the long seat; her ever-present knitting hiding the gun on her lap.

“No, it’s not nearly all.” Erika tilted her head back and looked at her house. “It’s enough.” She climbed up to the right of her mother.

“I’ll be right back.” Lou jogged over to the paddock, releasing the single horse contained within. She freed the chickens and cow from the barn. She grabbed the oil lamp and rushed back to the buckboard. Climbing in, she loaded the rifle then set it under the seat. She secured the oil lamp and snapped the reins. Ever so slowly the wagon crept forward. Snapping the crop, the horse picked up speed. They rolled out in the smoky grey light of dawn. The last family in the small settlement, Lou wondered if she’d ever see the farm again. For Erika’s sake she hoped she would.

~ ~ ~

The rain poured hard as they turned down a long birch lined driveway. Humidity so high, fog hugged the ground and the tree line. Lou leaned forward, straining to see. With a death grip on the reins, she willed her eyes to stay open, exhausted to the point of numbness.

“There it is.” Erika caught the small beacon of light emanating from the front porch of a large house.

Lou closed her eyes for a second, letting relief ease the tension in her body.

Materializing out of the shadows a large black man came forward. Lou pulled the buckboard to a jerky stop; simultaneously, she reached for the gun in Alva’ knitting.

The older woman woke with a snort.

“Who’s there?” The man called out, holding up a lantern against the dark.

Lou cocked the gun’s hammer.

“You tell Mr. John and Mrs. Lizabeth that their niece, Erika’s, arrived.”

He turned and disappeared back into the shadows.

Lou sighed heavily. She replaced the pistol and snapped the reins, bringing the buckboard up to the house proper.

In a moment an older man emerged on the front porch. “Erika?” He now held out the lamp into the gloom.

“Uncle John!” Erika jumped down.

“Oh, heavens!” An older lady pushed past the man. “Child, come out of the rain. What are you doing here?”

Lou helped Alva down.

The old woman turned dark eyes to Lou. “You’re a strong woman.”

Lou nodded.

“Your husband’s a strong man.”

Lou nodded again.

Alva gave her a terse smile then headed for the porch.

Lou followed, frowning.

“Aunt Lizabeth, Uncle John, you remember my mamma, Alva Lindskoog.”

“Of course.” Lizabeth took Alva’ hand in greeting. “How are you?”

“Presently, tired and wet.”

“Tansy, please see Alva to her room.” She passed the old woman off to the young black girl hovering in the doorway.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“And, who’s this young man?” John held out his hand.

Lou caught her breath and turned pleading eyes to Erika.

“This young man, Uncle John, is Kid’s wife, Louise McCloud.”

Lou couldn’t see it but she felt certain Erika grinned from ear to ear.

“Wife?” John turned to Lizabeth, dropping his hand.

“Kid?” Lizabeth looked toward Lou. “Come on, dear, step into the light.”

Lou obliged, removing her hat and glasses. “I’m, I’m sorry, I’m not very presentable. We wanted to be cautious gettin’ here.” Lou looked down, feeling embarrassed and uncouth. She had no idea Kid’s aunt and uncle would be so obviously wealthy. The presence of slaves added to her unease.

“Come on in, girls.” Lizabeth took Erika’s arm and followed John into the house. Lou followed like an undisciplined orphan.

Tansy appeared with towels, which Erika and Lou accepted gratefully. “Oh, our things.” Lou turned to head out again.

“Don’t worry about them, Angus will see to it. I want to get a look at you.” Lizabeth walked up to Lou, taking her chin in her hands.

Her puzzled eyes looked kind, but Lou’s heart raced. What would happen to her if she wouldn’t accept her? Would Kid really send her to someone who would turn her out? She figured she could always head back for Rock Creek, but doing so would give up any hope of seeing Kid until the war ended.

“Relax, I don’t bite.” The soft brown eyes smiled, crinkling the way Kid’s did. “You are a beautiful girl. How on earth do you think you’d fool anybody dressed as a boy?”

Lou shared a shy smile with Erika. “I guess people choose to see what they want.”

“How’s Kid?” Lizabeth’s voice faltered.

“I wish I knew, Ma’am.” Lou shook her head, touched by the tears in the old woman’s eyes. “Last time I saw him he was good, though.”

Lizabeth smiled, “Please, call me Lizabeth, or Aunt Liz. This is Uncle John. You’re with family now.” She pulled Lou into a tight hug.

Slowly Lou brought her arms up and returned the embrace.

“Louise.” Uncle John replaced Lizabeth in the circle of Lou’s arms.


With her eyes closed Lou stretched her arms across the wide expanse of the soft bed. It felt like she slept on feathers. Opening her eyes, she scanned the unfamiliar bureau, wardrobe, and rocking chair. Turning on her side, she caught the small suitcases and remembered the ride from Manassas.

Dressed in a simple brown skirt and white blouse, she walked down the long hallway towards the stairs. “Excuse, me?”

The female slave from the night before gave her a slight curtsey. “Yes, Ma’am?”

“Hi, my name’s Louise.”

The girl blinked. “Yes, Ma’am.”

“What’s yours?”

“Tansy, Ma’am.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Tansy.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“I was wonderin’ if anyone else was awake and where I might find ‘em?”

“They’s down in the kitchen.”

“Thank you.” The girl didn’t move. Lou smiled and turned, hearing the girl’s steps recede down the hall.

“Oh?” Lou turned but Tansy disappeared. Lou looked over the railing. Where would she find the kitchen?

She came down the stairs, arriving in the foyer from the night before. Lou proceeded down the hall, quietly peeking into unoccupied rooms. Finally she came to the end and pushed open the door. Bright light shown through a wall of windows. Lizabeth, Erika, and Alva sat at a round table, sipping tea from china cups.

“Louise! Good morning! Come have breakfast.” Lizabeth’s ready smile beamed as bright as the sun.

“Sorry I slept so late.” Lou pulled out a chair next to Erika.

“Nonsense. Erika was just filling me in on how you drove the buckboard down from Manassas.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Another slave, an older woman, arrived with a plate of food for Lou.

“Now, I already told you, call me Lizabeth, or Aunt Liz.” She placed a soft hand on Lou’s arm. “You confirmed my assessment from last night, Louise. You are a very pretty girl.”

“Thank you, Lizabeth.” Lou tried out the name; she couldn’t bring herself to say Aunt Liz just yet.

“That’s much better.”

Erika stood up. “I’ll leave you two to get acquainted. Mamma, do you want to take a walk with me?”

“Yes.” Alva stood in the stiff manner Lou had grown accustomed to.

“So, you’re married to my nephew? It’s been so long since I’ve seen him. He was just a boy when he left here. His mamma was my sister.” Erika poured Lou a cup of tea.

“Kid never talked much ‘bout his family.” Lou cut into the hotcakes set before her.

“No, I don’t suppose he would.” A faraway look came to Lizabeth’s eyes. “It seems he found some happiness out west, though.”

Lou thought of their friends faraway and felt a stab of homesickness. “Yeah, I think he did.”

“I would read stories of Pony Express riders, how heroic they were, and well, I felt so much pride knowing that The Kid was a part of that.”

“Kid was one of the best.”

“He sent us a letter once he settled in Sweetwater, then later, a letter came about Jed. Nothing after that.”

“Life moves pretty fast out there. A year can go by and it feels like a week.” Lou looked out across the expanse of land on the other side of the windows. “You grow tobacco?”

“The Prestons do.” Lizabeth turned her head. “John’s their Forman, this is their land.”

“This is a plantation?” Lou reacted instinctively, unable to hide the shock in her voice.

“Yes, the Smithfield Plantation, largest in the county. I’m surprised you didn’t notice that coming in last night.”

“I don’t think I would of noticed a snake in my bed last night.” The uneasiness from the conversation with Tansy returned as Lou realized she sat in the heart of the slave owning South.

“Does it make you uncomfortable?”

“A bit. It just ain’t what I’m used ta.” Lou worried she’d offended the kind lady.

“Where are you from, Louise?”

“I grew up outside St. Joe, Missouri.”

“Missouri’s a slave state.”

“Yes, Ma’am - I’m sorry, Lizabeth. It is, just not in the parts I was raised in.”

Lizabeth took a sip from her teacup. “How do you feel about slavery?”

Lou remembered the conversation with Kid from Big Lick. She let her mind wander over the leafy green fields, remembering the worry in Kid’s eyes that night.

Lizabeth watched the faraway look come to the young woman’s face. “I don’t know how I feel about it. The part of me that is thankful for the life I have knows it’s due to the slaves and their labor and their service. But there’s a part of me that is concerned that keepin’ people as property is a sin.” She looked at Lou. “It’s okay with me if you don’t like it, I’d just caution you not to say anything about it.”

~ ~ ~

Lou dove into the cool lake. Knowing that evening settled in didn’t prevent her from taking one last lap in the glacial water. Virginia’s oppressive summer heat relented only slightly in the evening. Coming up for air, Lou closed her eyes and could almost believe she swam in the lake in Sweetwater. A blissful smile came to her face remembering the moments she and Kid shared in the refreshing water. The memory of him so strong she reached out her hand expecting him at her side. The hard slap of water brought her out of the trance and replaced it with the hard realization of his absence. Glancing up at the setting sun, Lou reluctantly made her way to the shore.


“I was about to send Rebecca after you!” Lizabeth whacked Lou on the shoulder with a tea towel. “You need to get dressed quickly, the Prestons invited us over for dinner this evening.”

“The Prestons?” Lou had yet to meet the family on whose hospitality she’d been living.

“Don’t worry, they’re a bit dower but they’re nice enough.” The older woman pointed Lou up the stairs.

Lou opened the sparsely filled wardrobe. “Should I wear the blue dress or maybe britches and a vest?”

“You could wear this?”

Lou blushed as she spun to face Erika. “I – I’m…I didn’t know anyone was around.”

Erika laughed. “I thought you could wear this dress, it doesn’t fit me anymore, but it’s too lovely to sit on a hanger.”

Lou took the ivory, summer dress from Erika and held it up. “It might be too big in certain areas.”

“We’ll just pin it for the night and wrap you up in this.” Erika took a wide knit shawl from the back of the rocking chair. “With my mamma around we’re never short of shawls, scarves, or mittens. But, I think it’s a bit warm for scarves and mittens tonight.”

“How are ya feelin’?” Lou began unbuttoning her shirt.

“Better. I held down my lunch today.”

“Well, here’s ta hopin’ dinner stays down as well.” Lou shimmied into the lovely dress.

Erika came behind her and began adjusting the bodice. “Oh, I’m not goin’.”

“Why not?” Lou turned, prompting Erika to firmly turn her back around by the shoulders.

“It’s not appropriate now that I can’t really hide my condition.” She slid her hands down Lou’s waist, tightening the fit, and securing it with pins. “You, on the other hand, have the tiniest waist.”

“I’m too skinny; it’s why I can pass as a boy.” Lou looked in the full length mirror, with the adjustments the dress fit perfectly.

“Nonsense, you’re lovely.”

“I wish you were comin’, I’m nervous as a cat in a room full of rockin’ chairs thinkin’ ‘bout going up to that house. There are too many rules out here. I know I’ll forget at least one of ‘em.”

“There isn’t too many, you’re just not used ta havin’ any.” Erika sat on the bed watching Lou.

She pulled her damp hair into a small knot, securing it with a silver comb. “There are rules in the West; just not everyone follows ‘em.” She pulled out the cameo earrings from a drawer, the sight of which caused a lump to form in her throat. Lou caught Erika’s sad reflection and realized it mirrored her own. “It’s the earrings, I wore them on my weddin’ day. And the lake, it reminds me of home.”

“For me it’s watching John and Lizabeth together. At night, I talk to my baby, and sometime’s it’s all I can do not ta break down.”

Lou bit her lip and swiveled to face Erika. She slapped her hands on her thighs. “Well, could I pass for a lady?”

“Not only can you pass for a lady, Mrs. McCloud, you can pass for a southern lady.”

Lou fidgeted with the shawl as she followed John and Lizabeth down the path to the great house. Her eyes loomed over the white home lit orangey-pink in the sunset. Several lights illuminated the long porch. A middle-aged, black man bowed to Lou. She imagined Noah living a life of this kind of servitude and felt sad.

“Mrs. Preston, our guests have arrived!” A portly man emerged from an adjacent room. “Welcome Mr. Jackling” He bowed.

Lizabeth dipped her head.

“Mrs. Jackling.”

“Colonel Preston, allow me to introduce my niece, Mrs. Louise McCloud.” John took Lou’s hand bringing her forward.

“Colonel Preston.” Lou held out her hand.

“Ah, Mrs. McCloud.” The Colonel bowed.

“Colonel, I trust you’ve made our guests welcome?” A tall slender woman came down the stairs and placed her arm through the Colonel’s. Dressed in black, her dark hair was streaked with gray. She stood a foot taller then her portly husband. Thin lips and a bird-like nose gave her a pinched expression. “Mr. Jackling. Mrs. Jackling. How wonderful to see you again.”

“Mrs. Preston, thank you so much for your invitation this evening, it was very thoughtful.”

“And this young lady is Mrs. Louise McCloud.” The Colonel introduced Lou.

“Ah yes, the relatives from Manassas. It’s nice to finally meet you. I apologize I haven’t had a chance to visit with you prior to tonight, but there is a lot to be done these days.”

“It’s a pleasure ta make your acquaintance.” Lou felt intimidated by the stern woman in front of her.

“Please, follow me.” The Prestons led Lizabeth and John, followed by Lou, into a large dining room.

Lou caught her breath at the elaborate table. China and crystal gleamed in gaslight. A younger black man came out of nowhere to seat Lou. She passed him a thankful smile and in doing so caught the affronted look that passed across Mrs. Preston’s face. Lou quickly looked down at her plate.

The same man that sat Lou, pushed open the swinging doors, and held them. Three women emerged. Two carried dinner plates, on which sat artfully prepared trout, freshly steamed vegetables, and spoon bread. The third carried a pitcher of bright red liquid and poured it into the water glasses set at the table. The fruity smell made Lou’s mouth water.

“Colonel, would you say grace?” Mrs. Preston folded her hands and bowed her head.

Everyone quickly complied.

“Bless us, O Lord, and these your gifts, which we are about to receive from your bounty. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Lou eagerly cut off a piece of the trout and her eyes went wide as the flavorful fish melted in her mouth.

Lizabeth agreed with Lou. “Mrs. Preston, this is the most delightful fish!”

“Thank you.” The older woman inclined her head royally.

Lou took a sip of the fruity drink, and discovered it came from raspberries.

Sipping a glass of the cool liquid, the Colonel peered over at Lou. “Mrs. Preston tells me you came down from Manassas, Mrs. McCloud?”

“Yes, sir, we did.” Lou returned her hands to her lap.

“What a rousing victory for our boys in gray up there, eh?” The Colonel directed his question at John.

“Yes, sir.” John looked to Lou. “I dare say the girls were lucky to leave when they did.”

“Mrs. McCloud? I assume your husband is one of our enlisted?”

Lou turned to her hostess. “Yes, Ma’am, that’s why we moved ta Virginia. My husband’s from Manassas.”

“Moved? From where?” Mrs. Preston arched her eyebrow taking a delicate bite of carrot.

“Nebraska, actually.” Lou swallowed.

“Nebraska? What’s a fine southern boy doin’ out in Nebraska?” The Colonel snorted.

“Kid rode for the Pony Express.”

Mrs. Preston’s eyes went wide. “Oh, my! How dramatic. Are you from Nebraska then, Mrs. McCloud?”

“No, Ma’am, not originally, I’m from Missouri.”

“It’s high time they got their act together and joined The Cause.” The host shook his head. “I don’t know what they’re waitin’ for.”

“It’s a pretty divided state from what I understand.” John dug into the spoon bread.

“Mr. Jackling, Missouri is a slave state, there ain’t no good reason for it ta be tied to the Union any longer. Not when the Confederacy’s here ta take care of it. Why, those that don’t like slavery, they can just leave. Kansas is right next door.”

“So, how did a young lady from Missouri end up in Nebraska?” Mrs. Preston engaged Lou and Lizabeth in a conversation separate from The Colonel and John.

“Well, for work. I helped out at the Express Station, that’s how I met Kid.”

“We’re happy to have you in Virginia.”

Talk of the war soured Lou’s stomach and by the time the pound cake came, she couldn’t enjoy the delicacy. She hadn’t heard from Kid since the letter sending them to Blacksburg, but it wasn’t long ago that news reached them concerning The Battle of Manassas. From July 2nd through the 21st the Union Army out of Washington converged against Beauregard’s troops at the junction. Lou felt certain Kid had been there, how else would he know to warn them to leave? Scanning the list of the 1900 soldiers killed, Lou felt faint from relief when Kid’s name wasn’t on it. How many more lists would she have to go through before Kid came home safely?

“Mrs. Preston, as always, a lovely dinner.” Lizabeth took the pensive woman’s hand in farewell.

Lou nodded her head. “It was very nice.”

“Well, I’m glad you could come. I will stop by in the next few days to greet Mrs. Andersen and Mrs. Lindskoog. I trust Mrs. Andersen is doing well?”

“The first few months are always rough, but she’s managing just fine.”

“Good. It was a pleasure meeting you Mrs. McCloud. Please let me know if there’s anything you need.”

Replacing her earrings in the bureau drawer that evening, Lou came across the note and map from Kid. She ran her finger over the faded writing. Covering her face, she gave in to her fear and loneliness, and let the tears fall. Stumbling blindly to the wardrobe, she removed his shirt and inhaled his faint musky scent. She wrapped it around her thin nightgown. Slowly she curled into bed. Racking sobs rattled the headboard.

~ ~ ~

Lou waited outside the mercantile, watching as the first flakes of snow began their languid descent. Grasping the green muslin to her chest she lightly bounced in place as she waited for Cartwright.

“Louise, what are you still doing here?” Miss Caylee Miles came up behind her.

“Oh, I needed ta pick up some fabric. Cartwright will be here soon.” Lou smiled fondly at her boss, the town teacher.

“Do you really need to stand out in the cold?”

“I didn’t realize it was so chilled ‘til I got out here.”

“The first snow, always my favorite day in winter!” The older woman’s enraptured smile reflected her dramatic demeanor. “Come in with me and help me pick out a gift for our spelling bee champion.”

Lou turned to follow Miss Miles back into the mercantile when she caught site of the horse and buggy. “Oh, he’s here! I need ta go.”

“Of course, I will see you tomorrow!”

“Goodnight.” She waved farewell.

“Louise, there’s a letter for you.” Lizabeth called out from John’s study as Lou walked through the door.

Curling up in front of the fire, she tucked her feet underneath her skirt, and tore open the envelope. Lou hadn’t heard from anyone since arriving in Virginia. The letter came from Rachel.

Dear Louise,

I pray this letter finds you safe and healthy. You and Kid are never far from my thoughts. News of the war gets to us more slowly then ever, especially now that the Express has closed for good. It seemed inevitable. With the war not only were the rides becoming more and more infrequent, they became more and more dangerous. In the end only Buck and a newer rider remained at our station. Now, they’re gone too, and with Teaspoon in Texas, I alone remain in Rock Creek.

Jimmy enlisted not long after you and Kid left, and I understand he is scouting for the army just like Cody. Buck thought about going up north or further west. I hope to hear from them soon and will pass on any news.

All is not sad, though, as I am getting married. I’ve met a man named Alliace Jones. He comes from Mississippi and has been working on the Rivers for most of his life. When the war came he decided to go west to Sacramento, which brought him through our town. I didn’t think I would ever find someone this special again. We plan on marrying in November and someday hope to buy an old farm between here and Lancaster, though it might take a few years to save up the money. I’m still working at the school and the old station is serving as a boarding house. I still cook for the men who live there, though it ain’t the same as when you, Teaspoon, and the boys were around.

Please write me soon and reassure me that you and Kid are doing as well as can be expected. I wish you could be here to be at my wedding. I love and miss you.

Rachel


Lou glanced at the bolt of material she purchased for the Prestons’ Christmas Eve party. Closing her eyes, the warmth of the fire thawed her, and her mind drifted back to last Christmas. She remembered Noah and Ike, smiled at the memory of Teaspoon recounting the Christmas story, her finger tracing her lips as she remembered her stolen kiss with Kid. She imagined Rachel’s joy, spending her first Christmas with Alliace. The unfairness of the war that separated them during their first Christmas as husband and wife, weighed heavy on her heart. Her resentment at feeling beholden to Mrs. Preston and the subsequent party added to a less than spirited mood.

“I hope it wasn’t bad news.” Erika sat down near the fire.

“No, not really. The Pony Express has closed, it feels like that part of my life is finally over and done. Rachel, the housekeeper, she got married in November. Our friends have all left.”

“You’ll get back there someday.”

Lou wondered about the possibility. Even if she and Kid returned, would it be the same?

Erika picked up the fabric lying beside her. “So, have ya given any thought as to what I’m gonna turn this into?”

Lou arched her eyebrow. “A dress.”

Erika lovingly traced the muslin. “I can do just about anything with it between now and Christmas Eve.”

“Surprise me!”

“Really?” Erika’s eyes went wide.

“Sure, why not?”

The night before the party the two young women stood in front of Lou’s mirror and worked on the final fitting. Lou felt overwhelmed by the quality of Erika’s workmanship. A square neckline trimmed in embroidered white flowers. Using some left over cambric, Alva knitted a lace overlay that Erika sewed across the bottom hem of the dress. The bright white against the dark green gave it a festive frosting. Lou smoothed her hands over the bodice. “Erika, this is beautiful and it fits like a glove.”

“Close, it needs to come in more here.” Erika pulled the bodice back, tightening it across Lou’s chest. The force knocked Lou back into Erika. “Sorry, this baby of mine is always getting in the way! Go ahead and take it off, it’ll be perfect for tomorrow.”

“I hate that you ain’t comin’.” Lou slipped into the brown skirt and began buttoning up her white blouse.

Erika folded the frock over her arm and gathered her pins. “You’ll have ta tell me all about it when ya get back.”

The doorbell rang. A muffled shriek from Lizabeth sent Lou rushing downstairs. She stopped at the top of the landing and grabbed the banister for support. Hesitating just a moment, she flung herself down the stairs. “Kid!”

His strong arms swept her up into a tight embrace and she felt all the apprehension leave her body. Tears of happiness stung her eyes. “I can’t believe you’re here!” Her wide eyes stared into the blue depths of her husband’s. She vaguely heard Erika’s own excitement as she greeted Robert.

“I’ve missed you.” He whispered in her ear.

She breathed in the scent of dirt and horses. “I’ve missed you, too.”

“I see you got my message?”

The sight of his eyes crinkling in smile brought peace to Lou’s soul. “The two dogs fight over a fallen eagle. The mice run!”

“Well, there was only so many words I can write in Lakota.” He brought his hand over her cheek then down her neck and bent to give her a gentle kiss. Slipping his arm around her shoulder, he pulled her close to his side.

Lou starred at his profile, her hand reaching out to touch his arm, his chest. She could not believe he stood next to her.

“Erika!” Kid gave his cousin a sideways hug, not letting go of Lou.

“You, also, look bedraggled!”

The once sharp uniforms hung dirty and tattered from the men.

Lizabeth pulled on John’s arm. “Why don’t you boys change for supper?”

“I can’t wait ta get outta this uniform.”

“That, my cousin, is the truth!” Robert clapped Kid on the back and headed up the stairs with Erika.

Kid and Lou ascended the stairs behind the slow moving couple. She watched Robert tenderly place his hand on Erika’s back, assisting the pregnant woman in her climb. Joy burst in Lou’s heart: they were home, they were safe.

Lou handed Kid his clothes. “Here, wear the white shirt. I’ll launder the blue one when we get your uniform ready for tomorrow night.”

“What’s tomorrow night?”

“The Prestons are throwin’ a Christmas party in the main house. I suspect the Colonel will want you all ta wear your uniforms. You’ll probably end up bein’ the guests of honor!”

Lou straightened the collar on Kid’s shirt, and noticed the exhaustion behind his eyes for the first time. “Are ya okay?”

“I am now.” He pulled Lou to him, kissing her with hunger.

Lou lost herself in the familiar dizziness of Kid’s kiss. She pushed back, forcing the separation. She tried to catch her breath. “We have ta be at supper in a few minutes, Kid.”

“I don’t need ta eat.”

Her face burned. “I’d die of embarrassment.”

Kid looked at her hard.

She picked at a loose seam on his uniform and followed it to a small hole where the arm and shoulder joined. “You promise you’re okay? You get enough ta eat? You’re stayin’ warm?”

He turned her face to meet his eyes. “I’m doin’ fine. I promise. How ‘bout you? You okay?”

Her hands moved up across the stubble on his chin before they ran through his curls. “I’m workin’ in town. Got a job assistin’ the school teacher. It feels good ta be doin’ somethin’. The best thing, Kid, is it pays in silver. I’ve saved every penny.” She broke from his arms to pull out a small box hidden within the wardrobe. “Your army salary has taken care of the few expenses I’ve had. Livin’ here, most things are taken care of for ya.”

“I didn’t know Uncle John and Aunt Liz lived at the Jameson Plantation. They used ta have the small house next ta the one I grew up in.” Kid scanned the well appointed room.

Lou felt guilty at her unease over plantation life. In a real way this is the life he fought to preserve. “How long do ya get ta stay?”

A shadow came into Kid’s eyes. “We have ta report back the day after New Year’s. Lou,” Kid gripped her shoulders, “we have ta serve for another two and a half years.”

The room spun. “What? Why?”

“Direct order from President Davis, all the enlistments were extended.”

Lou wrapped her arms around his waist and laid her head against his strong chest. “You’re here now.” For the moment, it was all that mattered.

Sitting down to a hearty meal of potato soup, Lou basked in the glow of family. The men barely spoke as they wolfed down two helpings of soup and half a pan of cornbread.
Kid’s presence gave her the courage to let go of her general melancholy and embrace the pleasure of Christmas.

The family gathered in the living room and let the fire’s warmth spread over them. Setting aside Lizabeth’s custom of reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, they caught up under the cheerful eye of the freshly cut Christmas Tree.

Lizabeth came alongside Kid. “It’s so good to see you again. You have become a man your mother would be very proud of.”

“It’s good to see you, Aunt Liz. I’m sorry it’s been so long.”

Lizabeth dismissed his apology with the wave of her hand. “Nonsense, you were living your life.” She looked over to Lou, whose hand Kid held. “Thank you for entrusting your wife to our care. She’s an amazing woman, Kid.”

“That, I know.”

Lou concentrated on the fire, pleased by the praise. Lizabeth and John’s acceptance meant a lot to her.

“So, Erika, tell me how y’all made it down here? Kid’s been awfully quiet ‘bout the whole thing.” Robert turned to his wife.

“Well, Lou got a message from Kid, didn’t you?”

“I did.” Lou wondered why Kid hadn’t spoke to Robert about it.

“How’d you get a message off?”

“I paid a boy in Richmond ta deliver it.”

Robert’s face turned dark. “That was risky wasn’t it?”

“Not really, Robert. Kid wrote the message in Lakota.” Lou felt obligated to defend her husband.

The tall man scrunched his face. “How do y’all know Lakota?”

“There’s a lotta things we know.” Kid’s voice sounded sharp.

“Well, I’m glad ya did. I felt sick when we converged at Bull Run, thinking Erika was close by.”

Erika spun to face Robert, her excitement apparent. “Robert, did you see our house, is it okay?”

Robert passed a look to Kid before returning to his wife. “Whelp, we stayed there with the army when we came through, and took real good care of it. But, we’ve been up defendin’ The Valley for five months, so I don’t really know anymore.”

Kid shut the door to their room, hard. “There ain’t any more dinners we have ta go to tonight?”

“No.” Lou walked to the bureau as she loosened her hair, placing the pins in a small glass dish.

“There’s no other obligations, gatherings, re-aquaintins that I need ta worry about?”

Lou turned, tossing him a sly smile over her shoulder. “No, Sir.”

Kid shortened the distance between them with a quickness. “Your hair’s gotten long.” He pulled it through his hands, letting the curls tumble loose.

“Mmm, hmm.” Lou closed her eyes leaning into to her husband, whose strong arms wrapped around her. The kiss, when it came, blocked out all her thoughts. Lou’s arms circled around his neck and drew him into her.

~ ~ ~

“I was gonna give this ta ya tomorrow mornin’, but ya look so beautiful. I think ya need it now.” Kid held out a small velvet box.

Lou took the offered gift with her gloved hand and gasped at the sight of the delicate gold chain contained within. A tiny pearl pendant shaped like a tear dangled from it. “Kid.”

He came up to her. “Do you like it?”

“It’s beautiful. I’ve never seen anythin’ so lovely.”

“I have.”

She blushed. “Will you help me put it on?”

Kid nodded, taking the chain from her hands and bringing it around her neck. “It’s perfect.” His hands came down across her shoulders to rest on her waist. He kissed her neck.

“Thank you.” Lou turned and kissed him gently.

Pine bows twisted elegantly around the long columns of the porch. Every light in the colossal home burned bright, providing a welcoming invitation from the snow covered landscape. Escorted by Kid, Lou climbed the dozen stairs leading to the entrance. She smiled in greeting at the young men, dressed in dark green suits, holding the doors wide.

The Colonel and Mrs. Preston stood just inside the foyer greeting their guests. Every family from town came to celebrate at the Jameson Plantation as part of their annual festivities. Kid assisted Lou in removing her gabardine cape while John and Lizabeth made the family’s greetings.

“Mr. and Mrs. Jackling, it’s a pleasure.”

“Colonel, Mrs. Preston, another spectacular party. I’d like to introduce my two nephews, Mr. Andersen and The Kid.”

The colonel turned to face the returned soldiers. “It’s good to have ya home for Christmas, boys. Mrs. Preston, this is cause for real celebration!”

“Yes, Colonel.” Mrs. Preston smiled tightly. “We’re truly blessed to have you with us tonight. I am sure Mrs. McCloud and Mrs. Andersen feel the same.”

The quintet walked passed their hosts and into the main dining room, which expanded to contain the crowd of eighty people. A doorway at the end opened to reveal a room set aside for dancing. Stringed instruments playing “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” wafted over to Lou. Eager to dance she pulled Kid towards the music.

“Mrs. McCloud, you look extravagantly beautiful this evening.”

“Miss Miles, you look festive!” The school teacher wore a black dress with Christmas appliqués secured to its hem. “Please, let me introduce my husband, Kid.”

“Ah, the fine young soldier!” Miss Miles bowed.

Kid bowed in return. “Ma’am.”

“We thank you gratefully for the provision of your wife. Well, I must go off and round up our young charges.” She placed her hand on Kid’s arm. “They’re to serenade us this evening.” In a swoosh of crinoline, she left the couple alone.

“I think Miss Miles enjoys wine.”

Lou giggled. “She’s always like that.”

“You’re kidding.”

Lou shook her head. “Let’s dance.”

Kid and Lou shared a dinner table with their family, and two women from town. Before serving the meal, guests were treated to a small package set at the center of each plate, wrapped in white paper and tied with red ribbon. Lou pulled the ribbon. “Colored almonds!” The profusion of rose, blue, and green treats were delightful.

A succulent meal of roasted pheasant, acorn squash, and honey cakes appeared courtesy of a multitude of slaves. Mulled wine added to the warmth of the hearty winter meal. By the time they served the pumpkin pie, Lou easily set aside her unease at being in the main house. She watched her husband relax in the easy atmosphere and knew she could want nothing else for Christmas than to have him home by her side.

~ ~ ~

Lou could not sleep for the second night in a row. She felt Kid’s absence more profoundly then ever. Frustrated she sat up and lit the nearby candle. Walking to the window she gazed out over the frozen land, pale blue in moonlight. Her gaze ambled over the large barn beside the house and she smiled. Pulling out her boy’s clothes she proceeded to get dressed, complete with gun. She missed riding and thought it’d be just the thing to clear her mind and settle her for the night.

Cracking open the door she silently made her way down through the sleeping house, slipping out the backdoor. Her shoes barely crunched in the soft white powder. Approaching the barn she heard voices and stopped.

“The soldiers is gone, now. You’re sure?”

“They left two days ago, jus’ after the new year. Lordy, I can’t tell ya how I hated washin’ those rebel uniforms.”

The second voice belonged to Tansy but Lou couldn’t place the first. Drawing her gun, she and snuck up to the barn door.

“Well, if the Rebs is gone, it’s time ta get movin’ on pushin’ James out. I was thinkin’ ‘bout settin’ the smoke house on fire.”

Taking a deep breath Lou pushed into the barn and held out her gun. “What’s goin’ on here?”

A large black man she didn’t recognize stood talking with Angus and Tansy. He moved to pull his own gun.

Lou cocked the hammer. “I’ll drop ya before it clears the holster.”

The man froze.

“Louise? What are you doing up?”

“Uncle John?” Lou’s mouth gapped open at the sight of the kind man emerging from the shadows.

“Lower the gun, Lou, everythin’s okay.”

“What’s goin’ on?”

“Lou, I – work with the Underground Railroad; we’ve been workin’ at freein’ slaves for a couple years now.”

Lou lowered her gun.

“Mr. Jackling!” The unknown man’s hand hovered over his gun.

The three slaves looked back and forth between John and Lou.

She caught the fear in their eyes. “Don’t worry, I won’t say nothin’. On one condition.”

“What’s that?” Angus looked to John.

“I want ta help.”

Chapter 3


Standing naked in front of the full length mirror, Lou placed her hands over the small bump protruding from her abdomen. She missed her cycle for the second month, and she’d felt tired and sick since Kid left. Now, her clothes were too tight. The bump confirmed it. She was pregnant.

Lou put on her robe and sat down on the edge of her bed. A small smile hovered around her lips. Pregnant, with Kid’s child. She didn’t feel ready for this day she imagined for so long. Could she do this? Especially with Kid gone? Who knows how long the war would last.

She squeezed into the worn brown skirt and blouse. The tight waist band cut into her skin, despite adjusting it upward over the bump. The timing worked out. Erika’s baby was due any day. A few alternations to her maternity dresses and they would fit Lou comfortably.

At the bureau, hunched over a blank page, Lou chewed on the end of the quill. Dipping the pen in ink she began, “Dear Kid…”

“Louise!”

“What’s wrong?” Lou ran out into the hallway.

“Nothing’s wrong, the baby’s coming.” Lizabeth held Erika against her side. Alva stood behind her.

Lou rushed to hold open the door to Erika’s room.

Lizabeth eased the moaning Erika into bed. “Go find Tansy and have her send someone for the doctor. Then, put the large kettle on the stove to boil water.”

Alva grabbed the pile of cloth strips and hurried down the stairs with Lou.

Lou’s emotions rolled. This would be her in nine months. She didn’t want to do it without Kid. “Tansy!”

“Yes, Ma’am?” The young girl smiled genuinely.

“Go run and get the doctor, Mrs. Andersen’s baby’s coming.”

“Yes, Ma’am!”

Pumping water into the pot, she set the pot on the stove. Once set to boil, Lou returned to the upper landing.

“Shh. Just breath. Breath.” Lizabeth sat beside Erika, holding her hand.

Erika’s fearful eyes beseeched Lou.

“The doctor’s on his way.” She came to the other side of Erika’s bed. “It’ll be okay, you’re doing great.”

Candlelight flickered over Lou, as she sat dozing along the bedside.

“Robert!”

Lou awoke and looked around. She and Erika were alone, save for Alva who slept in the nearby rocker. Picking up the discarded towel, she rinsed it in the bowl of cool water. She brought it to bear against Erika’s fevered brow.

“Louise?”

“I’m here.”

Erika grabbed Lou’s wrist weakly. “I’m scared.”

“I know. You’re doin’ great. It can’t be much longer.”

“I can’t do this.” Her voice trembled.

Lou took a deep breath. The same thought flitted in and out of her mind all day. “Yes, you can. You are.”

“I – I don’t want to do this.”

“Erika, it’s a little late for that, now. Now, you have a baby that’s dependin’ on you. Robert is countin’ on you ta be strong. You just have ta be strong a little longer.”

Erika clutched her side, “Oh!”

“Another contraction?”

Erika nodded, her eyes closed against the pain.

Alva came to hold her daughter’s hand.

“I’ll get the Doc.”

Lizabeth and John sat in the living room with a white haired man dressed in black.

“She’s having contractions again.”

Wordlessly the doctor got up and placed a comforting hand on Lou’s shoulder.

Three pairs of worried eyes watched his departure.

Lou woke to the sound of a piercing wail echoing out from the nearby room. Quietly, she walked through the bedroom door. Lizabeth and Alva surrounded Erika.

The doctor held up the tiny, red, screaming baby. “It’s a boy, Mrs. Andersen.”

“A boy.” Erika’s voice emerged from the big bed a raspy whisper. “Please, let me hold him.” She reached out her arms.

Lou placed her hands over the small life growing inside her. She felt tears burn in her eyes.

Lizabeth pulled Lou into a quick embrace. “Congratulations.” She whispered.

Once Erika and baby slept, Lou retired to bed. Lighting a candle she caught sight of her forgotten letter to Kid. At the bureau again, she picked up the quill.

Dear Kid,

After eighteen hours of labor, Erika gave birth to a health baby boy, Robert Andersen, Jr. Mother and baby are sleepin’ now. What an amazin’ thing ta behold. She was so strong and she’s so happy. I only hope I can be as strong when our child is born. Which, I ‘spect will be ‘round September. I’d only hoped to imagine that I would have a family of my own some day. I love you so much, Kid, and I pray this war will be long over by the time our baby comes into this world. Stay safe and come home.

I love you,

Lou


~ ~ ~

“I’ll take that in for ya.” Lou grabbed the two letters sitting on Miss Miles’ cluttered desk.

“Oh, you don’t have to, Louise.”

“I don’t mind. It’ll give me an excuse ta take a short walk.”

“Well, than thank you. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Bye.” Lou walked outside. The brightness of the sunlit afternoon gave her energy that she lacked during winter. Cartwright sat waiting in the buggy. “I’m gonna walk on over ta post these, why don’t ya meet me round back.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” The young boy cracked the whip and the buggy lurched forward.

With a bounce in her step Lou headed the few short blocks to the mercantile. “Good afternoon, Mr. Daltry.”

“Good afternoon, Mrs. McCloud.”

“I need to post these, and pick up a shipment for Mr. Jackling.”

Daltry took the letters from Lou.

“Charge them to the school’s account, please.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” He pulled out a ledger for Lou to sign. “The crate that’s come for Mr. Jackling’s a might heavy.”

“You can take it on out to Cartwright, he should be out back.”

“Right away.”

Lou examined the store’s goods, noting that the larder lessened in stock with each passing month. She ran her hand over the remaining un-dyed muslin and then the course calico. No satin or silk remained. Seeing Cartwright pull around front she left, the door bell ringing her departure.

“Once we get home, we’ll need ta take this out ta the barn.” Lou bent down to crack the crate but couldn’t reach the box. Sitting up, she laid her hands over her small stomach. Yawning, she stretched her arms and snuggled down within the buggy’s cover.

Angus greeted Lou and Cartwright as they came in from town. “A package arrived for Mr. Jackling today.” Lou accepted the man’s hand as she stepped down.

“Cartwright, bring that buggy up on in here. Then go fetch Tansy, I’ll need her help.”

“Welcome home, Louise.” Lizabeth sat at the kitchen table with Mrs. Preston.

“Lizabeth. Mrs. Preston, this is a nice surprise.”

“Mrs. McCloud. I hear congratulations are in order?”

“Yes, Ma’am. Thank you.”

“Louise, would you like some tea?” Lizabeth stood removing a cup and saucer from the nearby hutch.

“Oh, thank you, but I’m tired. If you all don’t mind, I’d like to rest ‘fore supper.”

“Of course, Louise.”

“Mrs. Preston, it was nice ta see ya again.”

“Mrs. McCloud.”

Lou walked out of the kitchen. In the hallway she overheard Lizabeth.

“I get so worried about her working like she does. She comes home and goes to bed most days.”

Reaching the upper landing, she poked her head into Erika’s room. “How’s everyone doin’ today?”

“Oh, we’re doing just fine.” The young woman laid on the bed, the small blond child lying beside her on his stomach fast asleep.

Lou came up and gently ran her hand over the small baby. “He looks so peaceful.”

“It’s a far cry from just a few hours ago. I thought he’d take the windows out screamin’.”

“Healthy lungs.”

“Too healthy lungs.” Erika laughed without consternation. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine, just tired.”

Once in her room, Lou let down her hair, and slipped into her nightgown, the most comfortable item she owned. She pulled out her suitcase from under the bed and removed the partially constructed jacket. A pair of trousers and a rough hewn shirt lay within. Curling into bed, she set about sewing the arm up and attaching it to the jacket’s shoulder.

“Mrs. McCloud.” A small knock at the door brought Lou awake. “I’ve those towels ya needed.”

The voice behind the door belonged to Tansy. Getting up, she wrapped herself in her robe and cracked the door. “Thank you.” She ushered the girl inside.

The sewing from earlier lay on the floor. “Sorry, I really did fall asleep.” Lou bent to pick up the discarded cloth but couldn’t reach it.

“Here, lemme get it.” Tansy easily scooped up the jacket.

“Sorry, I keep forgettin’ I can’t move like I used ta.”

“It’s okay. I don’t mind. Is it done?”

Lou took the jacket. “Yes.” She folded it nicely and placed it in the valise.

“These came today.” Tansy pulled out two bolts of blue fabric one lighter than the other from underneath the towels. Unfolding the bolts revealed gold brocade.

“That looks like material for a Federal uniform.”

“It is. We’re sendin’ Janus ta Kentucky. He’s gonna go back as a Yankee.”

“Ain’t this gonna be a target?”

“There’s a group of colored army men in Louisville where his brother’s a slave. He figures it’ll get him close enough without bein’ spotted.”

“You mean he’s goin’ back ta where he came from?”

“I think so.”

Lou shook her head.

“It’s the only way ta get his brother.”

“If he survives.”

“It’s worth it, Ma’am.”

Lou took in Tansy’s unflinching gaze, her clenched mouth. “I suppose so. And, please Tansy. Call me Louise.”

“I wouldn’t wanna get caught, Ma’am.”

Lou nodded. “I don’t have any blue thread. And the mercantile’s barely got anything.”

“I’s can get some from the Mrs., she won’t miss it none.”

~ ~ ~

The sound of her breath echoed loudly in her ears. She ran. Stumbling over tree roots, she scraped her skin raw, her stubbed toe bled profusely. They’ll be able to track me easy at this rate. She stopped and looked around for something to cover her tracks. Grabbing nearby ferns she dusted the trail. It wasn’t enough, the blood covered everything. The sound of horses in the distance sent her running again. Down a hill, she tripped and slid on her stomach nearly to the bottom. Without missing a beat she jumped to her feet and headed for the hidden alcove near the lake.

Lou woke up. “Ah!” Sharp pain twisted through her body. The sheets felt wet and sticky between her legs. “Ohh.” Pain ripped through her again. Brining up her hand to the moonlight she noticed the blood. “Oh, god. No, please. No!”

Taking a deep breath she flung back the covers revealing white sheets covered in deep red stains. Lou stood, the pain nearly bringing her to her knees. With her one hand underneath her stomach she fumbled with the doorknob. The slick blood caused it to slip out of her grasp. Another sharp pain. Lou slapped her hand against the wood frame in frustration. She heard a door close on the other side. “Help!”

“Louise?” The knob turned.

Lou whimpered, feeling dizzy and weak. “Aunt Liz.” She slid to the floor, her back against the chest of drawers, blood dampened the rug beneath her.

“Louise? Louise! John, get the doctor quick.”

“The baby.”

The look in Lizabeth’s eyes terrified Lou.

“Honey, come on, we need to get you back to bed. Erika, help me. Grab her other arm. Alva, get some towels.”

Lou pulled away from the women who took hold of her arms. “There’s blood everywhere.”

“I know, honey, I know. Just trust us, okay. We need you to lie down.”

Tears streaked down Lou’s cheeks. The physical pain hurt, but the knowledge that she was loosing the baby demoralized her. “My baby.”

“It’d be best if she just passed out.”

“Well, she’s too stubborn for that.”

“Here’s the towels.”

“Just lay back. There ya go.”

“Here, where’s the water ba…”

Lou rushed into the protective darkness of the alcove. The smell of grass and moisture assailed her senses. She ached all over from the fall, but the blood stopped. Straining her ears she listened to the sounds of night. Silence. She’d lost them.

Lou reluctantly opened her eyes. Where’s the lake?

“Hey, there. Mornin’.” Erika sat next to Lou.

Lou felt hallowed out. So subtly the baby infiltrated Lou’s mind and body. Now absent, she desperately missed the tiny life. Turning away from Erika, she closed her eyes again, letting the darkness ease her soul.

Hair matted, wrapped in her robe, Lou sat at the bureau. A pen lay discarded over white paper. She flipped through the two sealed envelopes. These were the easy letters: one to Rachel and one to Emma. Reliving the miscarriage hurt, but telling Kid, tore her apart.

She dipped the quill in ink.

Dear Kid,

She blotted the tip.

I wish this letter was bringin’ you good news. I’ve been puttin’ it off, not wantin’ ta bring you any sadness. I’ve lost the baby.

I’ve lost the baby; a small sentence that conveyed so much.

I’m sorry, please stay strong, and come home soon.

Lou.


There was more she wanted to say, but she didn’t want to burden him with her pain. No matter what, she would be strong for him. Melting the black wax, she sealed the envelope, adding it to the small pile.

~ ~ ~

Lou brought her arm up to wipe away the sweat. Even in the cool shade by the lake, the humid Virginia summer suffocated her. She tried to concentrate on Angus.

“…we’ll meet back here, I’ll have the horses ready.”

John smiled at Lou. “Louise, you sure you’re up to this. It just don’t seem, right. It’s too dangerous.”

“Uncle John, we’ve talked about this time and again. Don’t worry ‘bout me. I can take care of myself.”

Lou caught sight of a man as he walked slowly over the hill, emerging like a mirage on the horizon. He shimmered in and out of existence with the wavy heat. Slowly, a grin spread over her face and she ran; the high temperature forgotten.

“Lou!” Kid picked her up and swung her around, kissing her.

Lou clung to his neck. Staring into his eyes, she smiled brightly. “Hey.”

“Hey.” He kissed her again.

When separated his hands went to her flat stomach. “I shoulda been here.”

“There’s nothin’ ya coulda done, Kid.” Too easy, tears sprung to her eyes.

“I coulda been here for you.”

“You’re here now.”

Kid’s face creased in pain. He brought his hands up, his thumb tracing the line of her lips.

“What’s wrong, Kid?”

Kid shook his head, his eyes pleaded with hers. “Robert’s dead.”

“Oh, God. Erika. Does she know?”

“Yeah, I told her and Lizabeth ‘fore comin’ ta find you.”

“I need ta go to her.”

Kid nodded, following Lou back to the house.

Uncle John came up behind them.

Lizabeth sat at the great kitchen table, her hands covering her face. Her shoulders shook with each sob. John came up to her, his hand on her shoulder. Lizabeth turned a red swollen face to the couple.

“Louise.” She stood, wrapping Lou in a tight hug.

“Where is she, Aunt Liz?”

“In her room.”

Lou nodded and turned to Kid. He looked miserable. Squeezing his arm she headed out of the kitchen.

Alva looked out of the window of Erika’s room, her back to the door. She held Robby, whose bright smile greeted Lou.

She walked to the baby, and stroked his soft cheek. Robby grabbed her finger. He’ll never know his father. Tears slipped down her cheek.

Erika lay on her stomach, still as death. Lou lay down next to her and wrapped her arms around the silent woman. “I’m so sorry.” She whispered into her hair.

Erika didn’t respond except to hold on to Lou’s arms. They held each other, crying.

Lou watched Alva leave, bypassing Kid at the door. His eyes, so sad, held hers.

Lou left for her room only after Erika fell asleep.

Kid sat on the edge of her bed. His hands covered his face. So much like Lizabeth. Just like Lizabeth. She knelt in front of him, removing his hands. “Kid?”

“Lou.”

They looked at each other for a long time. She brought him to her shoulder and held him, letting all his pain, sadness, and frustration wash over her.

“I never liked him, ya know? My whole life, I couldn’t stand him. Comin’ back, didn’t change that. And then,” he took a deep breath, “He saved my life, Lou. He stepped in front of a bullet that was meant for me.”

Lou’s eyes widened. “No.” She wouldn’t believe she’d come this close to loosing Kid.

“He did.”

Lou began crying in earnest. “Then I’m glad. God, condemn me, I’m glad.” She choked.

He picked her up and brought her to the bed. She offered him her body, allowing it to give him the comfort her words could not.

Waking up hours later, Lou turned looking for Kid. He sat at the bureau, fumbling with the necklace he’d given her last Christmas.

“Hey.”

He turned, his eyes devastated.

“Kid, you okay?”

“Why is there a Yankee uniform underneath your bed?” Kid pointed to the opened valise. Janus’ uniform sat folded neatly.

“Kid, it ain’t what ya think.” Lou wrapped herself in the sheet and came to him. She knelt down on her knees. “It ain’t.”

“Then tell me what it is, ‘cause I can’t think of but one reason.”

“It’s for a slave. Janus.”

Kid furrowed his brow.

“Your uncle. This house.” She waved her hand. “This plantation. It’s part of the Underground Railroad. I’ve been helpin’ them. Mostly, just makin’ clothes.”

She watched the relief, confusion, and fear play across his face. “Lou, it’s too dangerous.”

“Kid, I tried to just wait this out. Ta sit here, and work, and pretend it don’t exist. But I can’t. I can’t just live here and accept it, I hate it. I feel guilty, I feel sad. I have ta do somethin’ and this is what I’m doin’.”

“Lou, you can’t.”

“You don’t get ta ask me that.” She raised her voice.

“Damn it, Lou!”

“You don’t believe in slavery. You said that ain’t why ya came.”

“It ain’t. But I can only go out there and do what I have ta do knowing you’re safe. Knowing you’re protected. It’s why I sent ya down here. I should have left you back in Rock Creek.”

His words cut her. “I wouldna stayed in Rock Creek. That wasn’t your decision.”

“I know. I know. But, it would have been better for ya there then here.” He ran his hands through his hair.

“No, maybe it woulda been better for you if I was there, but not for me. I need ta see you. Even if it’s just every 8 months. Ta be with your family, it keeps me close ta you. Maybe it’d been better for you if I stayed in Rock Creek, but not for me.” Her voice dropped to a whisper.

Kid came up to her, and put his arms around her. “I was selfish in bringin’ you. I want ya here, Lou.”

She struggled at first, wanting to stay mad at him. The feel of his strong arms, his bare chest, the scent of him won her over. She brought her arms around him and held him.

“I – I’m sorry I thought what I thought.”

“You should be.” She crinkled her nose. “What were ya doin’ goin’ through that suitcase?”

Kid half smiled. “I was lookin’ for somethin’ of yours. Somethin’ I could take back with me when I leave tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow!?”

~ ~ ~

Sitting atop the horse waiting for Angus, Lou checked the gun barrel; the weight of the weapon familiar in her palm. Upon the sound of people approaching, she cautiously cocked the hammer, re-holstering it when Angus appeared with Janus.

“What are ya doin’ wearin’ the uniform, now?” Lou hissed.

Janus pulled down the front of the uniform. “I’s thought it’d be better than slave weeds.”

“If caught, one ain’t any better than the other, but people are lookin’ for the blue uniform. Ya might as well wear a target.” Lou cracked the reins, shaking her head as she led the two men out of the barn.

Thankful for the foggy night and the cover it gave them, Lou’s horse picked its way over the rocky ground. Crossing into Giles County, the threesome headed up into the Appalachians. Lou’s shoulders ached from tension; each sound sent her hand to the gun. Anticipating a cadre of confederate soldiers to descend upon them at any given moment she barely breathed. The midmorning sun rose behind them as they met up with the two men who would escort Janus into Kentucky.

Lou deepened her voice. “Be careful.”

“I will. Thank ya, I owes ya my brother’s life.”

“You don’t owe me nothin’.” Lou turned the horse around.

Angus followed her back into the mountain forest.

Five miles outside Pearisburg, Lou changed out of the boys clothes; her gun hidden underneath the folds of the split skirt.

The lady and her slave stood out in the sleepy little town. Lou made a point of stopping at the mercantile to examine the limited fabric available.

“Do ya have any gingham?”

An older, bespeckled man came from around the corner. “No, Ma’am, not for some time now.”

Lou nodded. “Anything I don’t see here?”

“I got some wool in the back. It’s un-dyed though.”

“Lemme take a look.”

He returned with a big bolt of the heavy cloth.

It wouldn’t take much to die it gray. “I’ll take it and this, too.” Lou paid for the purchase and picked up a copy of a nearby paper.

Angus took the package and together they headed out of town.

Just outside of Blacksburg, they split up, Angus heading off ahead of Lou.

She waited at a small clearing. Sitting underneath a willow tree, thankful for the small bit of shade, Lou opened the newspaper. Jimmy’s face starred back at her. The story originated from a St. Louis paper that favored the union. It recounted how the famous gunfighter infiltrated a confederate camp, which helped Grant penetrate and overcome the confederate forces in the area.

She traced her finger over the faded image. A small smile tipped at the corners of her mouth. Transported back to Sweetwater, she sat around the bunkhouse table with the rest of the riders; laughter filled the air as Teaspoon regaled them with an impossible story. She raised her face to the August heat, her tears smeared the newsprint.

Tired and drained from the ride and the emotional outpouring, Lou pushed through the door to the kitchen.

“Where have you been?” Lizabeth’s voice carried an uncharacteristic sharp edge.

“I – I went ridin’.”

“Next time, would you please leave a note, I’ve been worried sick.”

“Is something wrong?”

“It’s Alva. She passed away in her sleep last night.”

Lou sat down at the table and closed her eyes. First Robert; now Alva.

Lizabeth set a cup of tea down in front of Lou, her hand on her shoulder.

“I’m sorry I worried you. I should go to her.”

“Give her some time.” Lizabeth’s voice returned to its gentle countenance. Peering into the afternoon sun, she shook her head. “How many more deaths are we going to have to suffer through?”

Lou didn’t want to know.

Chapter 4

The smell of acrid smoke woke Lou from a deep sleep. She tried to wipe away the burning in her eyes. Coughing she went to the window. Through protective tears she made out red and orange mist. Her heart in her throat, Lou wrapped the robe around her ample belly and headed into the hall.

Lizabeth emerged from her room concurrently. ‘What’s going on?”

“Fire.” She knocked on Erika’s door, Robby began crying.

“Come in.”

“Everyone okay in here?”

Erika bounced the screaming 11 month old on her hip.

Lou chided herself as Erika passed her a harassed look. “Where’s Uncle John?”

“He’s at the cabins. Where’s the fire at?”

A hacking cough overtook Lou.

“It’s in the fields.” Angus came up the stairs, his clothes covered in soot. “Ya ladies need ta get up ta the main house. The fire’s close by.”

Lizabeth and Erika turned to get dressed. Lou’s mouth dropped open incredulously. “We ain’t got time for that. Grab some blankets for Robby and let’s go.”

Lou followed Erika and Robby into the carriage. She piled in ponderously, grasping Angus’ hand and the handrails tightly. Lizabeth followed. Silently, they swiftly made their way to the Preston home. The road to the great house followed a raised hill. At the apex Lou caught site of the western view. Deep orange and red flames burned high and bright, illuminating the black workers tossing bucket after bucket of evaporating water on the inferno. Black and brown smoke billowed up from the earth choking out the air. The acrid smell of burning tobacco leaf burned Lou’s lungs. The heat from the inferno permeated the carriage, warming her despite the January chill.

A liveried doorman held open the massive oak door, as though the women arrived for a social gathering. Mrs. Preston stood in the door way, an oil lamp held high in her hand. Even in the midst of the chaos around her, she stood stately and proper. Her night clothes as dignified as the black dresses she wore during the day.

“Get them blankets, Rebecca. Mrs. McCloud, why don’t you have a seat?”

Robby started screaming. The sound echoed through the silent estate.

“Shh, shh.” Erika bounced the child. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Preston.” The young woman flushed.

“Don’t worry, Mrs. Andersen, he’s just scared.” The older woman reached out a hand toward the baby, before returning it to her side. A small smile softened her features. “Maybe you would like to lie down. Rebecca will show you to a room.”

Lou sat on a settee wrapped in a blanket next to Lizabeth. She held the older woman’s hand.

Mrs. Preston sat down across from them and picked up her discarded needlework.

The fire crackled; the only sound emanating through out the vigil.

Hours later Angus returned, his dark features deepened by soot and grime. He held his singed hat in clumsy hands. He bowed his head, waiting.

“What is it, Angus?” Mrs. Preston looked up mid-stitch.

“The fire’s out.” He turned to look at Lou and Lizabeth, tears slipped down the latter’s cheeks. “I’m sorry, Ma’am, but the Colonel and Mr. Jackling. They didn’t make it.”

Lizabeth collapsed against Lou’s shoulder. Lou wrapped her arms around her, and held her tight, her own tears falling from tired eyes.

“Thank you, Angus. Go clean up, now.” Mrs. Preston set aside the needlework. Her gaze captured Lou’s.

Lou couldn’t decipher the stern expression that bore into her. Before her eyes she watched as the reserved woman turned to stone; the last spark of warmth and light extinguished. She felt a chill charge up her spine. Lou broke contact and returned her attention to Lizabeth.

~ ~ ~

“Sorry, I know I pushed this alteration up to the last minute.” Erika came through the door, the black dress slung over her arm.

“It’s okay, I ain’t been too anxious ta get in it.”

Lou shuffled downstairs behind Erika and climbed into the buggy taking a seat next to Lizabeth.

Robby quietly sucked on his fingers, his wide eyes moving from face to face.

Lou gave him a tiny smile.

Cartwright pulled the buggy around back of the crowded church. It seemed everyone in Blacksburg came to pay their respects to Uncle John. The family quickly made their way to the front pew, prompting the minister to begin.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”

Lou watched as the weak winter light filtered through the stained glass in the chapel’s cupola. It cast a kaleidoscope of color across the far wall. The valley of the shadow of death? Lou set up camp in the valley of death itself. It surrounded the town palpable with the absence of men of a certain age. Ringing its toll as boys, too young for the work, take care of their mothers and their grandmothers. Its fear paramount in the lists that came out on a perpetual basis; the names of the righteous dying daily in fields of green, brown, and red. Lou felt tired. Tired of the death, tired of the tension, tired of the fear - ready for the war to end.

~ ~ ~

The clattering of the broom falling to the porch floor echoed hollowly in Lou’s mind. She knew this pain. “Not again.” She whispered to no one. Crimson red stained the bright white boards. Lou sat down hard on the porch bench. She held her hand over her mouth, nausea threatening to overwhelm her. Her head spun. She thought to call out but only a whimper left her mouth. Alone on the porch she slipped into the enveloping blackness.

“Louise? Louise?” The sound of Erika’s voice registered in Lou’s mind, replaced by a deafening hum. Her eyes fluttered open. She lay in a dark room, Erika on her right side and Lizabeth to her left. They looked at her with kind eyes, speaking silently. Lou watched as their mouths moved, smiling at how comical they looked speaking without voices. Laughing, she closed her eyes.

The Nebraskan sun beat down on her as she cooled Lightning down. They just came home after the run to Seneca.

Jimmy and Cody argued nearby; Rachel wanted the barn painted red, and Cody in his laziness just splashed the paint on the wall, wasting the precious color, causing it to appear blotchy and angry.

Kid came around the corner, his bright eyes smiling. “Hey!”

“Hey.”

“When’d ya get back?”

“Just now.”

He kissed her and she pulled away. “Kid anybody walkin’ by could see us.”

“I don’t care.”

“Well, I do.”

“Sorry.” He looked down scuffing his boots.

“It’s okay.” She looked around and kissed him quickly on the cheek.

“Teaspoon’s got a special run comin’ up, it’s a couple nights. Do you wanna take it with me?”

Lou concentrated on putting away the saddle and additional tack. Her heart beat wildly. “If it works out with the schedule.”

“I’ll ask him.” He left the barn.

“Wait, Kid!”

He disappeared.

Lou ran out of the barn calling his name. How long was I in there? The darkness of the night surprised her with its sudden approach. “Kid? Kid!” She felt alone in the town. The fog came in with the wind and the rain started pounding the hard packed earth. Just like the night she, Erika, and Alva rode into Blacksburg. “Kid?”

“She’s calling for Kid, poor thing.”

Lou turned sharply, unable to make out anything in the dark. “Who’s there?”

“It’s Erika, Sweetie.”

The wind whipped across her face. “Where are you? Where’s Kid?”

“I’m right here.”

“I can’t see you. Please, just tell me where Kid is?” Lou’s heart raced, she felt him slipping away from her.

The sound of gunfire sent her running blind into the town’s street. She pulled her gun. Ducking as artillery shells launched overhead, Lou kept low, running along the side of the buildings. Ahead of her she could make out Jimmy’s profile, she came up behind him as Cody joined them. “What’s goin’ on?”

Jimmy looked down at her. “It’s a war out there. Cody, go ‘round back, let’s try ta get him from both sides.”

“Have you seen, Kid? I lost him at the station.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen Kid, who do you think’s responsible for all this?”

“What? Jimmy, Kid ain’t…” An explosion set Tompkins’s store on fire.

“There he is!” Jimmy took off running, firing his navy colts.

“Jimmy!” Lou screamed, realizing he aimed at Kid. She drew her gun, firing at his retreating back, her heart in her throat. What was she doing?

Jimmy and Cody disappeared down an alley.

Lou ran after them, coming to an abrupt halt as she turned the corner.

Kid lay at Jimmy and Cody’s feet, their guns trained on him. Smoke, from the recently fired shots, swirled out of empty barrels.

“Kid!” She pushed the two men out of the way. “What have you done? Kid!” He didn’t move. “Kid!?” Tears saturated her vision; she looked up into the cold eyes of her friends. “He was goin’ ta propose. On Teaspoon’s special run. What have you done?” She covered his body with her own, and gave in to the grief that rose in her throat. “Kid, I love you.”

“I love you too, Lou.”

Lou’s eyes fluttered open; she lay in her room at Lizabeth’s.

Kid sat on the edge of her bed and ran a wash cloth over her face.

“Kid?”

“Yeah, it’s me.”

“You’re alive?”

“I’m alive.”

Lou shut her eyes, letting the coolness of the cloth bring her mind into focus. “What’s goin’ on?”

“The baby, Lou. You lost the baby.”

“No, there was a second one.” She opened her eyes. The sadness in Kid’s face told her what her aching body confirmed. “No.” She cried openly, her confusion mingling with loss.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Lou turned her face into the cup of his hand. “I’m tryin’ ta be strong. I’m tryin’ so hard ta be strong for you.”

“You are strong for me. Lemme be strong for you. Come here.” Hey lay down next to her, lifting her onto his chest.

“You’re really here?”

“I’m really here.”

“I miss you when you’re gone.”

“Me, too.” He kissed her forehead, his strong arms wrapped around her like bands of steel.

Lou slept a dreamless sleep.

~ ~ ~

A loud ruckus outside her window brought Lou straight up out of bed. The sudden movement caused her partially healed body to scream in protest. Slowing down to catch her breath the pain subsided. She gingerly slid her legs over the mattress and cautiously brought her feet to the floor. Lou grabbed the nearby chair with one hand and the sturdy bed post with the other. Using her upper body’s strength, she pulled herself out of the bed. Her tender abdomen protested weakly. Standing against the window sill she pushed aside the curtains.

Charred acreage abounded but for the moment Lou’s attention focused on the piles of slaves loaded up in two buggies whooping and hollering as they dashed down the country road. Since the fire, only a third of the slaves remained, and of that half of them were house slaves. Was this the beginning of a second exodus?

“Louise what are you doing up?” Erika came through the door, a tray in her hand.

Lou lowered herself into the nearby chair. “Just seeing what’s goin’ on. What is goin’ on?”

Erika set down the tray and came to the window. “I don’t know, but it looks like more of ‘em are leavin’. Tansy left, she hasn’t shown up the last two days. Could have somethin’ ta do with that Emancipation Proclamation.”

“The what?”

“Don’t know, some Yankee thing. I heard Lizabeth talkin’ ‘bout it with Miss Miles. Oh, ‘fore I forget, she brought you some more books to read.”

“I don’t think I’ve read so much in my life.”

“It’s a good thing to do while you rest up. It got me through my miscarriage.”

“Erika?”

“A year after Robert and I married, I didn’t know I was with child.” Erika picked up the tray. “You gonna take this at the table today?”

“Yes, I’m up. I’d like ta stay up.”

During the first month of recuperation, the bed felt blissful. But now, well into the second month, Lou stirred with cabin fever. If only leaving the room didn’t entail stairs, she’d gladly wrap herself in a blanket and sit on the porch, despite the unusually chilly March.

“Well, I think this is the last of the potato soup.”

“Can’t say I’m sad ta see it go.”

Erika bit her lip as she pulled a small table in front of Lou.

“What is it?”

“Nothin’.” She put the tray down and set out the utensils and napkin.

“I can tell somethin’s on your mind, so out with it.”

“It’s just. There ain’t a lot of food left. Those slaves took a lot of the stores when they left. Bad enough they set the fire. But they had to run off with our food, too.”

Lou lifted her face to the sunlight, thinking about the excitement in the wagons that left the plantation. She didn’t blame them for taking the food they worked to cultivate. She didn’t blame them for the fire. After all, it was part of the plan, the hidden munitions that caused the explosion weren’t.

“Sorry, you don’t need to burden yourself with these worries. Just focus on getting’ better, okay? The horses miss you.” Erika winked.

“Would ya mind bringin’ in the books Callie dropped off?”

“Not at all.”

May fifteenth a letter came from Kid.

Dear Louise,

I miss you terribly. Leaving you, knowing how weak you were, has scared me near to death. Your letter arrived with great relief. We’re finally leavin’ the Valley and headed south towards Richmond. The thought of the city reminds me of my last night with you in our hotel room. The sleepy look on your face still brings a smile to my face. I miss you and I love you.

All my love,

The Kid


“How many more times are you gonna read that?” Erika sat next to Lou on the blanket down by the lake.

“At least a hundr’d, maybe two.” Lou picked up Robby and kissed his tummy. The act never failed to result in peals of laughter from the bright, blond child. She laughed at the boy when he lay on his back, his eyes begging Lou to repeat the kiss. “It’s gettin’ late.”

“Yeah, I don’t like leavin’ Lizabeth alone this long.”

Lou pulled up some grass, twisting it in her hands. “Go on ahead. I’ll come in after a while.”

“I don’t like leavin’ you alone, either.”

“Don’t worry ‘bout me. I wanna read my letter a few more times.”

Erika packed up the small platter and placed it in the picnic basket. “Come on, Robby, come on with Mamma.”

“La!” The toddler reached out towards Lou.

“Baby, I’m comin’ back later.” She tickled the grubby palm.

“La.”

“No, Robby. Louise is comin’ later, come with Mamma.”

“Buh!” The young boy ran after his mom, jumping into her skirt.

Lou lay down on her stomach, relishing the fact that it brought her little discomfort. She watched Erika and Robby disappear over the horizon. She’d have two children now herself, if things worked out as planned. Kid’s letter brought back the dreams they shared of starting a family together. The second miscarriage made that dream impossible.

The sun quickly descended and Lou stood, folding up the blanket. Instead of heading back to the house she walked across the burnt remains of the once fertile tobacco fields. The great house loomed in the distance, its windows covered in black curtains, mourning, it seemed, not just the death of Colonel Preston, but that of the plantation itself.

Mrs. Preston retreated to her room after the funerals and as far as Lou knew wouldn’t emerge. She remembered too clearly, the dead look that came into her eyes the night of the fire. It’s odd, she never seemed too affectionate with the Colonel, but now, Lou wondered how much she must have loved him. The thought of Kid’s death nagged at her daily, but even still, she lived in a everlasting state of denial over his actual danger. Lou couldn’t think of him never coming back.

Without purpose or direction, Lou roamed the plantation. After a while she found herself standing outside the arched entrance of the graveyard. She stood for a while, not wanting to enter, but knowing, ultimately she needed to.

Generations of Prestons took up the favored spots. The Colonel’s fresh grave rested underneath the great willow, which provided shade to most of the stones. She ran her hand over Uncle John’s tombstone, a small smile coming to her face as she remembered the gentle demeanor of her confederate. A white cross off in the corner caught her eye. In small lettering the name “Mary Lizabeth” stood out, no last name. A sob caught in Lou’s throat. “Kid must of done this.”

“He did.”

Lou turned sharply, her hand coming to her hip, reaching for the missing weapon. Two years in Virginia couldn’t erase the instincts honed growing up out West. “Mrs. Preston, you ‘bout scared me ta death.” She blushed at her choice of words.

The older woman stepped out from the willow’s shadow; the sight caused Lou to gape. Her hair hung well below her waste, the grey and black colors mixing together in a tangled mess. Her haunted eyes clearly red and swollen from tears.

Lou took a step forward. “Mrs. Preston!”

“Stay away from me!” She hissed.

The anger in her voice gave Lou pause. “Is everything okay?”

“No, Mrs. McCloud. Nothing is okay, you’ve seen to that, haven’t you?”

Lou stood silently, shocked by the woman’s unkempt appearance and unhinged behavior. Her words slowly penetrated Lou’s astonishment. “What do you mean, I’ve seen to it?”

Mrs. Preston walked deliberately up to Lou, her body shaking with each step. “Was this your plan the whole time? I wonder does your husband know about you?”

She knows. “I don’t know what you think I did, but I assure you I never did anything to cause what happened.”

“Oh, you can lie to yourself all you want, but God’s punished you, hasn’t he? He brought you low, took your joy, cursed you like He cursed me.”

Lou wondered if the woman wasn’t drunk. “I think I should head on back to the house.”

“Yes, leave.” She grabbed Lou’s arm spinning her around as she passed the proprietress. “You Yankee piece of trash!”

“Let go of my arm.”

“You don’t get to tell me what to do, young lady. I’ve fed you, I’ve clothed you, I let you stay here despite everything I knew you to be.” Her face reddened as the anger took over. “You killed my husband. You destroyed my life.”

“I did nothin’ of the sort.”

Crack! The force of the blow sent Lou’s head to her shoulder.

“Mrs. Preston, I suggest you take a step back.” It took everything Lou possessed not to return the violence with her own.

The break in decorum seemed to shock Mrs. Preston as much as Lou. She brought her hand to her mouth and then slowly turned and left for the great house. Lou watched her walk away and wondered what it took to create a woman like that.

~ ~ ~

“And, so, as provision of the Colonel’s Last Will and Testament, the house and a small portion of the surrounding land go to Mr. Jackling, but upon his death, it now belongs to you.” Lizabeth folded the letter, returning it to the starch white envelope.

Erika lifted Robby out of his chair at the kitchen table and set him down. “So, Mrs. Preston’s just up and leavin’? That big ol’ house is just gonna sit there empty?”

“I don’t know what her plans are, exactly, but it would seem that for the remainder of the war, at least, she’s heading on back to Chelsea.”

“And, this house? It’s yours?” When Rebecca showed up with the letter, Lou convinced herself that Mrs. Preston intended to kick her off the plantation. The content of the letter, stunned her.

“It appears so.” Lizabeth looked around the bright kitchen then out at the devastation on the other side of the windows. “What am I gonna do with a portion of a burnt tobacco plantation? Especially with no one to work the land?”

Lou watched Erika shake her head sympathetically. “You two act like you’ve never done a day of labor before? You and Uncle John used to work a farm up in Manassas, didn’t ya?”

Lizabeth nodded.

“Erika, it ain’t like you and Robert had slaves then either?”

“Well, no, Louise, but it was different, though. Uncle John and Robert were around ta do the work of the farm. I just looked after the house and my mamma.”

“You took care of the chickens and the cow.”

“What are you saying, Louise?”

“I’m sayin’ that just because John and Robert are gone, don’t mean you all can’t put together a farm for yourselves. It don’t have ta be grand like the Preston’s, but you’ve been given enough land that ya can grow a small crop, enough ta sell anyways. Angus’ is still here, he knows enough, I’m sure. If not, there’s plenty a books down at the school on farmin’. Plant just enough that ya can handle it, then grow a garden, build a chicken coup. This is an opportunity. Where I come from nothin’s handed ta ya, and most things ya work for, ya have to fight ta keep. God’s blessed ya, Lizabeth, what with all of the bad things happenin’ lately, this is a really good thing.”

Lizabeth gave Lou a side hug, kissing the young woman’s forehead. “What a spitfire you are.”

“Erika, we can do this.” Lou looked at the unconvinced mother.

~ ~ ~

Lou awoke early, rushing down stairs to make coffee and start breakfast in anticipation of the long day of work ahead of them. The ground tilled and plowed, gleamed in the early fall light. The hard work of the summer, and the last month in particular, strengthened Lou, harkening back to the Express days. For the first time since coming to Virginia she felt purposeful.

“I thought I smelled coffee and bacon, you’re up awfully early.” Lizabeth grabbed a nearby apron and tied it around the simple black dress.

“We got a lot of work ta do today.”

“Think we can get the whole field planted?”

“Don’t know, half maybe? I’m worried the weather might turn faster then we want it to.”

Robby’s healthy lungs cried out his greeting from the upper landing.

Lizabeth laughed. “Sounds like Erika’s awake. I’ll get the cereal ready for him, if you want to finish up breakfast.”

“I ‘spect Rebecca and Angus’ll be over soon enough.” Of over one hundred slaves who once worked the plantation, Rebecca and Angus were the only two who remained. The loyalty of the married couple astounded Lou, especially given how active they were during the Underground Railroad.

Lou turned the crank, thankful for the bandana around her nose, masking the smell of birch ash and manure. Once melded, she scooped the pungent mixture into the buckets, waiting for Angus to carry it off into the field. Adding more ash and manure to the pot, she turned the crank again.

Off in the distance, Erika and Lizabeth bent over the freshly plowed rows, planting seeds.

Angus came behind them with the fertile mixture, covering the precious seeds with birch branches to protect them from the coming frost.

Rebecca came out of the kitchen calling for lunch, Robby perched on her hip.

“There’s more land than I thought.” Lizabeth took a grateful gulp of lemonade.

“I think we might run out of fertilizer.”

“Use more ash and less manure.” Angus came up from behind the house.

“Even, still.” Lou poured him a glass of lemonade.

“If all else fails, the ash’ll do.”

Lou nodded. “Will you join us?”

Angus looked down at the women seated underneath the oak tree, a red checkered blanket spread beneath them. “Thanks kindly, Mrs. McCloud, but I’s better join Becca in the kitchen.”

Lou stretched her neck, the hard work didn’t come without cost.

Erika looked at her with an odd expression.

“Somethin’ wrong?”

“You two seem awfully familiar.”

“Who? Me and Angus?” Lou watched the retreating black man.

“Yeah.”

“What do ya mean, Erika? He knows more ‘bout farmin’ tobacco than the three of us combined.”

“That’s well and good, but it don’t mean he can join us for lunch, Louise.”

Lou shook her head. “He’s helpin’ us.”

“That doesn’t change the color of his skin.”

“Erika, Louise, please.” Lizabeth cast anxious eyes between the two women.

“He’s free, Erika, and he choose to stay here and help us, out of nothin’ but loyalty ta Uncle John. I think that warrants a meal and some civil company.”

“He’s got that with Rebecca.”

Lou turned to Lizabeth who looked at her lap. “Oh, I see, they’re good enough to drive you ‘round town, and plant your fields, and look after your baby, but you’re too good to eat with them or treat them like the good people they are?”

“What’s come over you?” Erika picked up Robby, bouncing him in her lap.

“I – I just didn’t realize…” Lou stopped herself.

“You didn’t realize what?”

“Nothin’.” Lou picked up her sandwich, not tasting the bite.

“No, you were gonna say somethin’.”

“Erika, it ain’t important, okay. We just see things differently, and I guess I never realized that before.”

“You mean you’re against slavery?”

“Of course, I am.” Lou spoke low.

“And, how does Kid feel about this?”

Lou turned flashing eyes to Erika, causing the young woman to draw a quick breath.

Lizabeth placed a calming hand on Lou’s arm.

“You don’t get ta talk ‘bout my husband. ‘Bout our marriage. ‘Bout somethin’ you don’t understand.”

“Louise, my husband died for the southern way of life. You’re husband’s off God knows where fightin’ for the same thing.”

“No, he ain’t.”

“’Course he is.”

“Kid’s fightin’ for the South, to keep his home from the dictatorship of Washington, not for slavery. Kid don’t believe in slavery any more’n I do.”

“Stop it.” Lizabeth slammed shut the picnic basket. “Now, just stop it. I think it’s time we get back to work.”

~ ~ ~

Miss Miles knocked quietly on the door of the Jackling home. Her feather light knock as revealing as her flowery speech and eccentric dresses.

“Caylee, it’s nice to see you.” Lou opened the door wide.

“Louise. These came; I thought you’d want to know.” She held out a stack of sheets on yellow parchment.

The sight of the familiar papers caused Lou’s heart to drop. No longer able to deny the fear that descended upon her since July, she took the sheets, sitting on a nearby sofa to begin the inexorable examination. Dropping page after page, she scanned the names, feeling sick to her stomach. When did this become her life? When would it stop?

Lizabeth joined Erika and Miss Miles as they watched over Lou. Picking up the discarded sheets she herself scanned the names. “There are so many this time.”

“He’s not here.” Lou closed her eyes, rocking back against the sofa cushions, feeling faint with relief. “Oh, thank the Lord, he’s not here.”

~ ~ ~

Squatting in the April heat, Lou removed her large sun bonnet. The faint breeze felt cool against her burning skin, she felt thankful that the stifling humidity continued to stay at bay. Wiping away the sweat that stung her eyes, she replaced the hat. Focusing once again on pulling the sand lugs from the tobacco stalk. Common to the task, her mind began to wander, a fact which caused her to detest the chore more than the back breaking work.

Nearly a year passed since her last letter from Kid. Well over a year since she’d seen him. Breathing heavily, she tilted her head, willing the tears to cease. Since Gettysburg, moral around Virginia plummeted, but the fighting seemed to relax. Lou prayed heavily that Kid kept safe, the stories of illness affecting the camps worried her almost as much as the reports of wounds and fatalities. She knew he could take care of himself, but he had a knack for getting shot. Images of him lying sick in a hospital or abandoned in a battlefield kept her up at night and the lack of sleep put her on edge.

“Lunch!” Rebecca’s strong voice called from the back porch.

Lou stood, cracking her back. She tossed the pulled leaves onto the nearby sled.

Angus, also pulling out in the field, drove the sled up to the porch and together they walked through towering poles of strung leaves to reach the house.

“My fingers are burning.” Erika wiggled her tired hands.

Lou turned her hands palms up. “Erika, you need to use gloves.” She rubbed aloe into the angry red blotches.

“Gloves make it hard to work.” She spread the soothing gel across her inflamed fingers.

“Do you want to take over pulling for the afternoon? My thread ain’t as pretty as yours, but it’ll give us both a break.”

Erika nodded.

“How many more pullings do you expect, Angus?” Lizabeth sat down next to Erika and Louise.

“Well, Mrs. Jackling, I’d hope at least several more. It’ll be a good week ‘fore the next one.” He took a large swig of water before joining Rebecca in the kitchen for lunch.

“I think we might begin curing tomorrow.” Lou tore into her sandwich.

~ ~ ~

“What is going on?” Lou whispered coming along side Lizabeth. Crouched below the front room window sill, she clutched the .44 tightly.

“Someone’s out in the barn.”

Look cocked the hammer, brining the weapon up.

“What are you doing?” Lizabeth’s eyes went wide.

“Just preparin’.” Lou strained her eyes, picking up a slight movement outside. “Do you know how many there are?”

“I just saw one.”

“Here.” Lou handed her the gun. “I’m goin’ for the rifle, I’ll be right back.” Lou snuck off to get the long range weapon from the closet by the door. Already loaded, she returned to Lizabeth’s side. “Okay, remember how to use this?”

Lizabeth nodded.

The women exchanged weapons.

A large crash sent Lou to the window in time to see a flash as a horse streaked out across the drive. “Hell, no!” She burst through the front door firing two rounds.

Oblivious to the cold, and her bare feet, she ran into the barn and mounted bareback the remaining mare. Dashing out after the thief, Lou gripped the mane and spurred the mount forward. It didn’t take long to catch up with the man wearing a confederate uniform. He turned and fired, missing Lou by a mile. Sitting up straight she aimed, leveling the shot straight between the man’s shoulder blades. He slumped to the ground, causing his mount to slow to a stop.

Cautiously, Lou approached him, her gun leveled, she kicked his side. The soldier didn’t move. She kicked him again. Still nothing. “You better be dead. If you ain’t you should know, I’ve got a gun leveled on ya.” She reached down and felt for a pulse, nothing.

Satisfied, Lou mounted the unsaddled horse, and grabbed the other animal’s reins bringing him back to the barn.

Lizabeth and Erika stood on the front porch.

“Louise?” Lizabeth came down the steps.

"We'll need to go into town tomorrow and tell the Sheriff what happened. He’ll need to take care of the body out in the woods."

Lizabeth and Erika froze.

"He didn't leave me with much choice." She secured the horses in the barn and joined the two women in the kitchen.

Lizabeth set about brewing tea.

“Are you okay?” Erika enveloped Lou in a hug.

“Yeah, I’m fine. He must’ve been in a hurry. It looks like he only grabbed the horse.”

“Louise!”

“What?”

“You killed a man.”

“I know, Erika. We’ll just consider it an early Christmas present.”

Erika handed a cup of tea to Lou. “You’re so casual about it.”

“It ain’t the first time. Thanks, but I think I’m just gonna go on off ta bed.” Lou handed the cup back to Erika whose mouth gapped open. “Goodnight.”

“Good – goodnight.”

Chapter 5

The fresh cool water soothed Lou’s parched throat. Dipping the ladle in to the nearby bucket, she took another healthy swig. Commotion from inside the house caused her to look up from the fields. Miss Miles, blonde spiral curls escaping from her bun, spectacles perched at the end of her long nose, talked to Erika and Lizabeth with great agitation. The three women turned to face Lou. She felt the color drain from her face. Picking up her skirts she ran. Terrified over what may be happening.

Miss Miles flew down the porch steps, parchment gripped tight in her hand, rushing up to meet Lou. “Lee surrendered! Lee surrendered!”

Lou stopped. “What?”

“Louise, Lee surrendered! The war’s over!” The sweet woman clenched Lou in a tight embrace.

Lizabeth and Erika followed.

Lou stood still, letting the women fawn over her, her voice raised barely above a whisper. “The war’s over. Kid’s coming home. We’re going home.” A single tear slipped down her cheek.

~ ~ ~

Two and half months after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the letter came. Addressed to her married name, Lou set it on the center of the table unopened. She wrapped her arms around herself, despite the sweltering heat of the Virginian summer, Lou felt as cold as the day she learned she and Kid would head back to his home. Four years after their marriage. Four years of war and separation. Two dead babies. It all came down to one letter.

“Louise, what are you doing in here?” Lizabeth pushed the pump, setting loose a stream of water.

Lou didn’t move her eyes from the scribbled missive.

“Louise?” Lizabeth place a hand on her shoulder, her eyes following the young woman’s gaze.

“I can’t open it.”

The two women stood in silence.

“Aunt Liz?” Lou turned to the kind woman beside her, her voice breaking. “Will you please read it?”

Nodding her head, Lizabeth silently broke the letter’s seal. Her face fell, tearfully she looked up at Lou. “I’m so sorry.” Her voice husky from unshed tears.

Lou shook her head. Her hand trembling. She took the letter and put it back in the envelope. Tears fell down her face.

~ ~ ~

“You don’t have to leave. We’d love for you to stay.” Erika came into Lou’s room as the former rider packed the last of her and Kid’s things.

“Thank you, Erika. But, I can’t stay here, not without Kid. My home’s in Rock Creek.” Lou fingered the teardrop pearl around her neck.

Erika walked to the window, casually pushing aside the lace curtains. “Louise, I’m sorry for the things I said, ‘bout you and Kid, ‘bout The Cause. Somehow, it all seems so unimportant, now.”

“Erika, there’s nothin’ to apologize about.” Lou took a steadying breath before shutting the suitcase.

“Yes there is…”

“No.” Lou shook her head. She put her hand up, imploring Erika to stop.

The blonde nodded.

“Louise, are you ready?” Lizabeth popped her head around the doorway. “Angus and Miss Miles are waiting.”

“I’m ready.” Lou picked up the two suitcases. One hers. One Kid’s.

Standing outside the house that once seemed so grand, Lou looked around at the birch and tobacco and rolling farmland. She never dreamed Virginia could be so beautiful. Spring would always reminder her of this place, the place that birthed the man she could never stop loving. Turning to the two women who stood by her through so much, she didn’t know what to say.

“I don’t know what we’re gonna do without you?” Lizabeth placed her hand against Lou’s cheek. “We love you, Louise, and you will always have a home here.”

“Thank you. Thank you for everything.”

“I’m gonna miss you.” Erika wrapped Lou in a tight hug.

“Me, too. You’ve been a good friend.”

“So’ve you, Louise. I don’t know how I could have gotten here without you.”

Lou broke away, bending down to meet the boy clinging to his mother’s skirts. “You be good, Robby. You mind your mamma, and your auntie.” She kissed his forehead.

“Lous?”

“I’m gonna miss you.” She kissed him again.

She climbed into the worn down carriage. Taking Miss Miles’ hand in her own, they headed out to Big Lick.

~ ~ ~

Numbed by grief, Lou slept through most of the train ride from Big Lick to St. Louis. The city, once so unattainable, barely registered on her conscious. She arranged passage on the next morning’s stage and checked into a hotel. Deciding to take a walk she found herself in front of the city’s army office. Blue uniformed soldiers came and went without ceasing.

“May I help you, Ma’am?” A scrubby looking officer looked at her over the counter.

“Yes. I’m wonderin’ if you can tell me if William F. Cody or James Butler Hickok are in town?”

“Ma’am, we’ve got soldiers comin’ and goin’ all hours of the night. I couldn’t tell you if I’m here or not.” He turned his attention to the aide behind him, dismissing Lou.

“Excuse me.”

He turned. “Yes?” His irritation barely in check.

“Could you tell me who might know?”

“Ma’am, look around you. We’re settin’ to the business of endin’ a war, I ain’t got time to chase down a couple of men.”

“Lou?”

Lou turned to find Cody standing in the doorway. Relief caused her to half smile. “You’re alive.” She rushed up and gave him a hug.

“What are you doin’ here?”

“Just hopin’ you or Jimmy might be here.” A group of soldiers burst through the door, jostling Lou and Cody.

“Why don’t we go outside?” He led her to the street.

“Is Jimmy, okay, do you know? How ‘bout Buck?”

“Last I heard, Jimmy’s back in Nebraska. I don’t know ‘bout Buck.” He scanned the small woman before him, lingering on her black dress. “What about Kid?”

Lou looked down, her hands in a knot. She shook her head.

Cody nodded. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t!” Lou stepped out of his reach. “I’m sorry, Cody, I just can’t.”

He nodded again. “So, why are you in St. Louis?”

“I’m headed home. Leavin’ on the stage tomorrow.”

“You wanna leave sooner? I can get a wagon and some horses, we can leave this afternoon.”

“That’d be great.”

“Where are ya stayin’?”

“At the hotel near the train station.”

“I’ll be by in a couple hours.”

~ ~ ~

Lou took little comfort in the familiar sight of Rock Creek. Feeling like a different person, it surprised her to see the town looked the same.

Cody stopped the wagon outside the Marshall’s office.

Jimmy bounded down the steps, star pinned to his vest, rushing to greet Lou, stopping short at the sight of her in widow’s weeds. “Lou?”

Lou busied herself dusting off the voluminous black skirt. “Hi, Jimmy.”

“What happened?” He came up to her, placing his hands on her shoulders.

She stepped away. “Where’s Rachel?”

“She’s still at the old station.”

Grabbing her suitcases she walked down the busy street towards her former home.

Cody and Jimmy followed.

Rachel worked in the garden pulling weeds when Lou saw her and stopped.

The willowy red head rushed to greet them.

Lou took a deep breath as she watched Rachel’s surprised look turn to sorrow and compassion. The incredible weight of grief the young woman could no longer hold in check cause her to shake. Dropping the suitcases, she ran to her. “Rachel.” Her lip quivered and her voice broke. Flinging herself into the woman’s arms, she began to cry, the sobs tearing through her like a storm.

Lou’s knees gave out and she sank to the ground pulling Rachel along with her. Lou folded herself up in older woman’s lap, curling her legs to her chest, crying in earnest. “What am I gonna do?” She hiccupped, desperately trying to recover a hold over her emotions. “Oh, God, Rachel, he’s gone. He’s gone. I lost him.”

Rachel rubbed her hand over the young woman’s back and kissed her temple. “It’s okay, just let it out.”

Lou closed her eyes, giving up her struggle to rein in her emotions. She let Rachel’s presence ease her. When, finally, Lou’s strength returned, she sat up. “I’m sorry.” She looked beneath her lashes at Rachel.

“You’ve nothin’ to be sorry about.” She ran her hand over Lou’s face, pushing back the loosened tendrils. “Why don’t you come in and lie down?”

Lou nodded, anxious to get out of the street.

Jimmy bent down and took Lou’s elbow.

Cody helped Rachel up.

With Rachel’s arm around her, Lou walked into the small house. Half way up the stairs she stopped. “My things?”

“Cody and Jimmy will bring them.”

“Okay.”

Alone in the room, Lou sat on the hard bed, so different from the feather bed in Virginia. The darkness of the old house contrasted sharply with the bright, white environment of the plantation home. Yet, the hand sewn quilt, the dark furnishings, the peeling wall paper, it all brought comfort to Lou in a way nothing else could.

With a deep breath, Lou removed the letter she’d yet to read. Slowly she unfolded the paper; the strong black lettering on white background assailed her vision. Fighting the urge to return it to the envelope, Lou read.

It’s with deep regret that I inform you of your husband’s recent death. Separated after Gettysburg, I only recently heard that he was shot during the Siege of Petersburg. He succumbed to his injuries on the 20th of April, 1865. Never have I served with someone so loyal and committed to doing the right thing. I’m pleased to call him my friend. Be assured of his devotion to you ‘til the very end.

Colonel Bedford Fontaine



The sweet smell of Jasmine drifted up from the garden behind the small church. Jesse offered her his arm as the swell of the Bridal Chorus arose from behind the closed doors. Taking a deep breath, clinging to the young boy, they entered. Oblivious to the crowd, Lou’s eyes locked on Kid’s. He looked beautiful, if not terrified.

“I’m worried is all.”

The sound of voices wafted up from below the opened window.

“Jimmy, give her time. She lost her husband. She’s exhausted. Let’s just let her sleep, for now.”

Lou kept her eyes closed, trying to recapture the image of Kid from her dreams. Like the last traces of sleep, it faded from her mind.

Her face looked puffy from the long bout of crying the evening before and the cool water from the nearby wash basin mollified her. Changing into a simpler black dress, she combed her hair into a bun and left the house.

Rachel and Jimmy no longer stood outside.

Lou wandered to the bunkhouse. A small smile appeared on her lips as she walked up the familiar porch. She ran her hands across the railing as she made her way to the door, which stood ajar. “Hello?”

No one answered.

She pushed the door open. “Hello?”

An empty room greeted her.

Like moth to flame, Lou walked over to Kid’s old bunk. Kneeling down she touched the pillow. Her hand tracing the wool blanket.

“Can I help you, Ma’am?” A deep voice called out.

Lou stood quickly, nodding to the man behind her. “I-I’m sorry. I’m friends with Mrs. Jones.”

“Rachel ain’t here at the moment, she’s over at the school house.” The man removed his hat. “The name’s Sam Davis.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Davis.” Lou offered him her hand. “Mrs. McCloud.”

“Mrs. McCloud.” He took her hand shaking it.

Bringing her hand into a fist before returning it to her side, Lou looked over at the small cot that she once bunked in. “Is Mr. Hickok, or Mr. Cody around?”

“Well, I ‘spect the Marshall’s in his office. Don’t know ‘bout Cody, haven’t seen him this morning.” Sam hung up his gun and poured himself some coffee.

“Thank you.”

“Anytime.”

Lou hurried over to the Marshall’s office.

Jimmy and Cody sat talking on the porch.

“Mornin’.”

Jimmy stood. “Mornin’, Lou.”

“Mornin’.” Cody offered her his seat.

“No thanks.” Lou wrung her hands. “Listen, I’m sorry ‘bout yesterday. I didn’t mean for that ta happen.”

“Ah, you ain’t got nothin’ ta apologize, about.” Jimmy smiled. “I’m real sorry ‘bout, Kid.”

“Me, too.” Lou blinked away tears. She shook her head. “It feels so weird ta be back here. I guess I’ve changed.”

“Yeah. I was just sayin’ the same thing ta Jimmy.”

“Thanks for comin’ out here with me, Cody. I know you’ve got better things ta be doin’.”

“It was nothin’.”

“I – I want ta plan a memorial for Kid. Maybe put a cross up in the cemetery?”

“Sure.” Jimmy nodded. “Anything you want.”

“Cody, can you stay?”

“I got a couple days.”

“Good. Do any of you know where Buck is?”

Cody scratched his chin. “I think he’s in Kansas, though I ain’t sure where.”

“I’m assumin’ the telegraph’s down here, too?”

Jimmy nodded.

“Well, it’s too late ta send a letter.”

“He’ll want ta know, Lou.”

“I know. I just can’t tell him, yet. I will. He and Teaspoon, both.”

“Lou, I’m sorry.” Jimmy walked up to her. “Can ya tell us what happened?”

“He died from a gun shot wound after Petersburg. A day after Lincoln’s assassination.” Her voiced dropped to a whisper. “He’d been through so much, ta die after the war ended. It just ain’t right.”

Jimmy placed his hand on her shoulder, bringing her into a side hug.

“It’s good ta be home, though.”

~ ~ ~

The headstone gleamed in the quiet corner of the cemetery. “Herein lies ‘The Kid’. Beloved husband and loyal friend. February 18th, 1836 – April 20th, 1865.” Lou dusted off the lingering dirt, and placed the small bouquet of white and red flowers at the base. Many people remembered Kid and came to the memorial. Lou felt grateful for the outpouring of support from the town. Now, though, that the plans were finished and the friends gone, loneliness overcame Lou. His death felt final and she didn’t know what to do next.

“I need ta find a job.” Lou sat at the small table in the old house.

Rachel waved her hand encompassing the room. “Take this one.”

“I can’t take your job.”

“Yes, you can.” She placed her hand on Lou’s forearm. “Alliace and I are plannin’ on startin’ the farm, at long last. He’ll be back in a week and then we’ll be movin’ out of town.”

“You’re leavin’?” Lou’s heart jumped into her throat.

“Not far, I’m still gonna work at the school, and you can come by anytime. We’ll still see each other near every day.”

Lou let out her breath. “I could take care of the station.”

“Yes, you could. Besides, it might be good to spend some time alone, get used to livin’ out here again.”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, I do. The memorial was quite lovely.”

“Mmm. Hmm.” Lou sipped her tea. “I think I’m gonna head on up ta bed.”

“Goodnight, Louise.”

Lou stood at the windowsill looking down at the bunkhouse glowing in the dark. The sound of men drinking and shouting could be heard emanating from the open windows. She remembered many nights spent with the boys, joking around well after dinner was served; though the level of indulgence seemed far greater than during the Pony Express days. “Kid, this place just ain’t the same without you.”

Lou opened one of the suitcases and unfolded Kid’s cornflower blue shirt. She breathed in the cloth, which only held the slightest trace of Kid’s scent. The loss of his smell caused tears to slip down her cheeks, years passed since he wore it last. She slipped it on, buttoning it up slowly. How many times had she unbuttoned it? It hung off her small frame.

Lou lay down, not bothering with covers and listened to the sounds of night. Sleep escaped her. Kid’s ghost haunted her. She wanted to remember him, but the half remembrances tore her apart. The feel of his shirt, the town’s memories, the sight of Katy, he lingered in the air – just out of reach.

“Hickok!” A male voice shouted. “Just make the damn bet.”

Lou got up, and made her way downstairs. Leaving the house, she made her way to the bunkhouse. She needed to sleep in Kid’s bed, maybe then she could find some peace. Bursting through the door, the sight of the men in their long johns brought her up short. These weren’t the right men.

Silence descended over the room. The men starred at the crazy woman in the doorway. Her long hair, loose, falling over the large man’s shirt, and the black skirt.

“Lou? What’s goin’ on?” Jimmy stood, walking over to her.

“I don’t know. I can’t sleep.” Clearly, she’d taken leave of her senses. How could she think she’d be able to bunk down with these strange men?

“Why don’t you have a seat?” Sam set his cards on the table.

“I don’t want to interrupt the game. I should go.” Lou turned.

“Nonsense.” Jimmy grabbed her arm. “Why don’t we deal you in? Gentlemen, you don’t mind do ya?”

“Thanks, Jimmy.”

Lou took a seat and waited for them to finish the current hand.

“Now, I don’t know if you all know this or not. But, Lou, here, was one of the Express Riders, from right here in Rock Creek.” Jimmy shuffled the cards.

Lou frowned. “Jimmy.”

“Well, it’s true.”

“Ma’am, you rode with the Pony Express?”

“I did. And, the name’s Louise.”

“Well, how’s ‘bout a drink, Louise.” Sam set an empty glass before her.

“You know, Sam, a drink sounds just perfect.” A long time passed since Louise experienced the warm glow of whiskey and for the life of her she couldn’t remember why she didn’t like it. It seemed the perfect solution to cure her state of mind.

Several games and a few glasses later, the evening drew to a close.

“Perhaps it’s time ta get you home.” Jimmy stood, offering his hand to Lou.

She looked around at the sleeping men and smiled. “I ‘spose so.” She gripped his hand hard, feeling dizzy from the alcohol.

The summer night felt good, and soothed her too warm face. She stumbled making her way to the house, grateful for Jimmy’s help. “I think I may have drank a bit too much.”

Jimmy laughed. “I know the feelin’.”

“I’m glad you’re here. I read an article ‘bout ya in Virginia.”

“Well, here ya go.” Jimmy stopped just short of the porch steps.

Lou started up them but stopped and turned back. “You know, I hadn’t seen him for nearly two and a half years.” She looked out past the man in front of her and shook her head. “This shouldn’t be so damn hard.” She bit her lip.

Jimmy opened his mouth to say something but Lou cut him off.

“I was so mad at him for not writin’. I just needed ta know he was safe. Safe, in war, isn’t that the most ridiculous thing ya ever heard?” She started crying. “I miss him so much, Jimmy. I thought Virginia was the worst of it, but this, this is ten times harder.” She placed her hand on his shoulder, steadying herself against the emotion and the drunkenness.

“Come here.” Jimmy pulled her off the steps and into a tight hug.

Lou clung to him, closing her eyes. He smelled like Kid, horses and leather, the musk of a working man. She tightened her hold on him and remembered clinging to Kid after their first Christmas in Virginia. The special week went by so quickly, she didn’t think she could let him go again. She kissed him desperately, holding him to her until he forced the separation, tears in his eyes.

Something felt wrong. The arms were too long, too thin. The lips were tighter, less giving. His hair hung long and straight, lacking the thick curls she loved to play with. Lou pulled back from Jimmy, nearly falling over in her haste.

“Oh, my God.” She drew her hand over her mouth, horrified at what she’d done. “Jimmy, I’m sorry, I…” She picked up her skirt and made to flee into the house.

Jimmy grabbed her arm. “Lou.”

Lou fought to pull her arm free.

“Lou. Lou!”

She faced him.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. You did nothin’ wrong. It’s just…you know, I miss him too.”

Tears flooded Lou’s face a she looked into Jimmy’s miserable eyes. “I need ta go.”

Once safely behind the door, she slid to the floor, letting the tears flow unabated. “I’m sorry, Kid, I’m sorry. I thought he was you…I miss you.”

“Louise, are you okay?” Rachel stood at the top of the stairs.

“I’m fine, Rachel, really.” Lou stood up. Sniffing back tears, she went to bed.

~ ~ ~

“Owen! This pump still ain’t workin’. If there ain’t a plan ta fix it by supper tonight, then you’d best make plans to find someplace else ta live.” Lou slammed down the handle of the broken water pump, causing the men seated around the table to snicker at Owen’s discomfort.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Here, Lou, I’ll help ya load up the dishes.” Rachel pulled out a tub and began placing the tin inside it. “I’m assumin’ y’all are done, then?” She grabbed Owen’s plate.

“I guess I am.”

“Good, now get.”

The men shuffled out of the bunkhouse, eager to get away from Lou’s temper.

“Rachel, please tell me we weren’t like this.” She wet a towel and began scrubbing down the table.

“You all had your moments, but, I don’t think ya got this bad.” She picked up a half eaten biscuit from the floor, tossing it into the dish bin.

Lou grabbed one bucket and headed towards the house to begin washing dishes.

“Lou, hold up.” Rachel handed her the coffee pot. “You got it?”

“Yeah, I got it.” Lou turned to leave when her heart caught in her throat. She closed her eyes and looked again. The bin crashed to the porch, the clatter of tin deafening.

“Lou?” Rachel rushed out.

Lou started running, her skirt in her hands.

Kid climbed down off his horse and met her halfway. With force, he grabbed her and lifted her off the ground.

Like steel clamps, Lou wrapped her arms around his neck and began kissing him. Her tears wet his face. Finding his mouth she kissed him deeply as he lowered her to the ground. She stood back, stroking his cheek with the back of her hand. “Is it really you?”

“It is.”

She kissed him again.

He pulled her closer.

“I thought you were dead. They told me you were dead.” Her hands smoothed back his hair; she smiled at the sight of his blue eyes crinkling.

“I’m know, I’m sorry. It was someone else.”

“You’re okay?”

“I am now. Now that I’m home again.”

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