Springtime was approaching quickly but no air of cheer or excitement hung on the air. The table grew quieter by the day and there seemed to be no way to fix the strain between the people that had once been just like family.
Lou felt tears start to rise in her eyes as they had countless times in the past week. Everyone was so distant, even her new husband. They'd been married for nearly half a year, and it should have been the happiest time of their young lives. They still loved each other very deeply, but the dismal events had taken their toll on the young lovers.
The Pony Express had officially ended months ago, and now everyone sat and waited for the inevitable: a war between the states that would split the country, and everyone at the table, in two. There seemed no use in starting a fresh life with the ominous, destructive force hanging over their heads like a dark cloud.
South Carolina had succeeded in December, and they'd just received word that the garrison at Fort Sumter had been fired upon by the southerners. Lincoln had asked for seventy-five thousand volunteers to march against the South, and Lou knew it was only a matter of time before Virginia followed its southern sister in rebellion.
Her dark eyes darted to Kid, whose skin seemed to be stretched drum tight across his cheeks and whose eyes seemed to sink deeper into his worry wrinkled forehead daily. She knew it tore him apart to ignore his homeland when Virginia needed him most.
That's why she wasn't utterly shocked when his fork fell to his plate with a loud clatter that caused everyone to jump and he began to speak the words she'd dreaded for months.
"I feel like I should tell you all that I've decided…" he paused and Lou felt the tears flood into her eyes for she knew the next words already, "I've decided that I'm going home to fight for the South."
Lou would never forget the silence that followed Kid's words. Her eyes unconsciously darted to Jimmy, whose mouth hung slack in surprise, his fork paused in midair. She suddenly remembered what Kid had once said to her about the South:
"Lou, if they try to take my memories, I'm going home."
"You're gonna leave Rock Creek?"
"Leaving you…would be the hardest thing I'd ever have to do. But staying would be harder."
Lou guessed he'd decided that, in fact, staying was too hard.
"What?" Cody demanded, the first to come out of the shock, "You can't be serious!"
"I am," Kid insisted and he sought Lou's hand, "Lou, honey, I know I should have talked to you first, but I just couldn't until now."
Large tears spilled out of Lou's eyes as she gently disentangled her hand from his and wiped at her cheeks, hating to let them all see her cry. She could think of nothing to say, but she felt betrayed by his choice; the South was his cause, certainly not hers.
"Are you already forgetting Noah?" Buck asked incredulously, his voice clipped with pain from the still fresh wound of the loss of their dear friend, "He'd turn over in his grave!"
"Damn it!" Kid roared, slamming the table with his fist and causing both Rachel and Lou to jump again, "When will you people learn that this isn't about slavery! I never owned a slave and I never wanted to! This is about protecting the soil that I was born on! It is about defending my home from the government! It is about preventing another tyranny!"
"But, Kid, Virginia isn't your home now, your family is here!" Rachel began.
Kid's voice softened as he looked at Lou, who was sitting very still and being strangely silent, "Yes, my family is here. But Virginia is still my home, and my heart tells me I have to go fight."
"And make your wife of not even a year a widow?" Jimmy demanded, standing up, "Damn it, Kid, you have a responsibility now to Lou! And if you go out there and play soldier, chances are you won't come back! I can't believe you'd leave her here!"
"I'm going with him!" Lou shouted, climbing to her feet, "You aren't leaving me here, Kid!" Fear had crept into her voice, stealing some of the sureness from her adamant words as she gently tugged at his sleeve.
"Of course she's going with me!" Kid growled back at Jimmy, ignoring Lou's gentle touch.
"You'd drag your wife into a war zone?" Jimmy snapped back.
"What business is it of yours, Jimmy? She's my wife!"
"And she'll soon be your widow!" Jimmy screamed back.
"Please stop it, both of you!" Lou demanded, silencing the two men who loved her so much, although only momentarily.
"Teaspoon, can't you talk some sense into him? I mean you're from the South too!" Cody wondered.
Teaspoon had fixed his gaze on the plate in front of him, grief filling his eyes and lining his face as this inevitable conversation took place. This was it, he thought, the beginning of the end of the family he'd grown to love so much.
"I thought you'd fight for your home too," Kid said suddenly, looking at the man he loved as a father.
Teaspoon sighed, and the boys were silent with respect for the wise old man, "Kid, I understand how you feel. I know what its like to love land like something tangible. Almost seems like the soil loves you back, gives you comfort. But I'm telling you, war ain't pretty son. Boys die. And in the end, it ain't never worth the cost. You got a family now, and not just Lou. You got us. You don't have to get involved in this war, son."
"So you're saying that when we fought the British, it wasn't worth it to gain our freedom? You're saying we should have just let the British lord over us for the rest of our lives rather than revolt?"
"I'm saying that you ain't never seen a war, and I ain't sure I ever even seen a war like this one is going to be. I'm saying that you got a family here, and that family is going to be hurt if you ride off to fight for the South. I'm saying that you got Lou to think about."
"So you aren't going to fight? What was all that talk about a while back with Jimmy? You said you were going home." Kid demanded.
"That was before Noah died, son. Like it or not, homeland or no, the side you are going to be fighting on is the same side that enslaves men and women. Now it ain't about slavery to you maybe, but to four million people in chains in the south, it sure is," Teaspoon said, then added more thoughtfully, "And to Noah, who I loved like a son, it was about slavery. And that one fact is keeping me from going home."
"Maybe so," Kid conceded, "But everybody's choosing sides, and I've chosen mine. We'll leave in a week. Noah would have understood I had to go."
"Wouldn't be so sure Kid, when did Noah ever understand your ties to the South?" Buck snapped resentfully, "Don't comfort yourself by putting false words into his mouth!"
Lou's eyes grew big as her husband's last words sank in. A week!
"So that's it?" Jimmy spat at Kid, "Aren't you even going to talk to your wife about this? Don't you think she deserves a say in this? Lou, are you just going to sit there? This is your life too!"
"My life is with Kid now. If he has to go, then so do I," Lou nearly whispered.
"Damn it Lou! Are you the same person you used to be? Has Kid drained the life out of you so quickly that you don't even speak for yourself anymore?" Jimmy demanded, smashing his fist on the table and standing up.
Lou opened her mouth to respond about the time Kid made a leap across the table and grabbed Jimmy's shirt. Jimmy was more than ready to fight back, and it took Lou and Buck pulling Kid back and Cody and Teaspoon grabbing Jimmy to finally break them apart.
Kid twisted free and started to storm out of the room.
"I hope I never lay eyes on you again!" Kid shouted at Jimmy, flinging the door open. It crashed against the wall and the windows rattled. A plate fell from a shelf and shattered into a million pieces.
Lou and Rachel both had tears running down their faces.
"Next time we meet, Kid, it won't be as friends!" Jimmy screeched after him, bringing the tears more rapidly down Lou's cheeks.
Kid growled something unintelligible, and slammed the door behind him with a force that caused everyone to jump.
"I don't believe this!" Cody growled, and started to storm out the other door of the bunkhouse. However, when he saw Lou sitting there, her eyes overflowing with tears, he couldn't help but stop to stroke her hair once gently before slamming the other door behind him.
The others soon dispersed in a similar disgusted manner, leaving only Jimmy and Lou standing in the bunkhouse that had been their home for just over two years.
"Lou, you've got to try and talk some sense into him."
Lou shook her head sadly and sighed, "Oh, Jimmy, I knew this day would come long before I married him. So much of Kid's honor comes from his belief in the land he was raised on. I don't think people that aren't from the South can understand it, but the land down there is prized above all else, and if Lincoln's made a move to invade his land, then he has to go."
"He doesn't have to go! Lou, he promised to take care of you, to protect you."
"In his way, he is protecting me. From who he'll become if he doesn't follow his heart, and from what will become of the country if the government is allowed to dictate the lives of southerners."
"If I didn't know better, I'd think you were a southern sympathizer. That little band of gold on your hand sure does carry a lot of weight, I guess."
"Jimmy, you know me better than that," Lou said, stung endlessly by his words, and he was instantly sorry, "And yes, this little band does carry a lot of weight! It means I'm bound to my husband, and whatever road he takes I must go where he goes!"
"Even to a land you've never seen while he leaves you alone to fight for a cause you are against?"
"Yes! I don't like it any more than you do, but you know Kid, Jimmy, he can't just sit here. Maybe he is too anxious to get blood on his hands, like you always said, but it is his choice."
"I'm sorry, Lou, just please try to talk him out of it. I don't want him to be killed," Jimmy admitted.
"Why don't you tell him that yourself? You've both been screaming at each other for so long, you've forgotten how much you love one another. You won't be able to change his mind, but you might be able to save your friendship."
Jimmy shook his head, and looked at Lou sadly. She was more beautiful than ever, and had thrived on married life. Her figure had filled out and was more womanly than in the express days, her hair longer and glossier, her eyes bright, and her skin usually flushed prettily. Tonight however, she looked pale and stricken, and fragile. God forgive me, he thought, I still want her for myself. I'd give my life for Kid, and yet I want what is most dear to him.
He didn't want to hurt Lou, and yet he knew he owed it to her to be honest, "Lou, I meant what I said. If he rides out of here to fight for the South, we become enemies. And that means that you and I can never see each other again."
A hiccoughing sob caught in Lou's throat and she ran to Jimmy and flung her arms around him tightly.
"Please don't do this! You know I love you Jimmy! I love you more than anything in this world, next to my husband! Don't make me choose between you, please!"
With tears standing in his eyes, Jimmy reached up to pry her arms from around his neck. He brought up both of his hands to cradle her cheeks and whispered, "Lou, you already have."
With that he placed a gentle kiss on her forehead and choked out, "goodbye Lou" before he left the bunkhouse.
Lou wrapped her arms around herself and sat down at the empty table after he was gone, sobbing violently. Her eyes searched the small room as she recalled all the days and weeks and months that had passed with all of them laughing, loving, and surviving together.
Jimmy was right, Kid was asking her to leave everything familiar and to travel to a land she'd never seen, a land where she'd be an outsider, while he left her to fight for a cause she didn't believe in. It was so much to ask.
Sighing, she rested her forehead against the well-worn wood of the table that had hosted so many memories, and she resolved herself to leave. She would follow him to the very pits of Hell if he asked her to, because she loved him so completely.
And, she would discover, indeed it was a very real kind of hell that they were all approaching and a time when even the strongest of ties would be tested.
A thick smoke clung low to the ground, blocking out an overcast sky. Bullets whined and roared incessantly, and artillery boomed relentlessly from all sides, sending flaming pieces of deathly metal through the air. Man after man screamed in agony, and the wails united into one terrifying pitch.
"God help us," Kid whispered as yet another shell screamed overhead.
"I think God packed up and headed home about the time the Yanks got here," Ben Raymond, Kid's comrade, said softly, turning over on his back to reload his weapon and pulling his neck in close as another bullet whizzed by them.
During a short break in the crossfire, Kid fought to lift his elbows out of the thick, slimy mud, and turned to reload his weapon also. Tears filled his eyes as he let his gaze travel over the day's carnage. Most of his company lay dead or close to it all around him, and the fighting was a long way from over.
It was the worst battle he'd seen yet, and he'd been with the Seventeenth Virginia since that first day at Bull Run, the summer of sixty-one. Had that only been a little over a year ago? Kid wondered. He'd seen and endured a lifetime of grief and suffering since then. His eyes traveled to his own hands, completely covered in mud, as was the rest of his body. He was thin and sickly from the hard winter and the small rations the dwindling resources of the Confederate Army dictated they receive, and homesick beyond belief.
He put his hand over the breast pocket of the warm woolen shirt Lou had given him the last time he saw her, the Christmas of 1861. In that pocket he had every letter she'd written him, including the last one that begged him to try and make it home for this Christmas. He missed her with a pain more acute than anything he'd ever imagined, and his greatest fear was that he would be killed before he could look into her gentle, loving brown eyes again. The last time he saw her he'd been amazed at the change in her. He'd married a girl, and slowly she was coming into her own as a woman, with a grace and beauty he'd only seen glimpses of in the past.
It hadn't been easy on her, Kid knew. Parting from Rachel, Teaspoon, and the boys had nearly broken her heart, especially with the hard feelings left unresolved at the time of their departure. Jimmy had ridden out the night after the fight in the bunkhouse, and they hadn't seen him since. This was the biggest burden on Lou's heart, he knew, because though he'd been jealous of it, he'd always understood that a special bond existed between Lou and his best friend. Lou had admitted to him last Christmas that Jimmy had yet to answer one of her many, many letters to him. The others hadn't been quite as angry as Jimmy, but there had been a feeling of strained politeness that last week, and for the first time Kid had felt unwelcome with the riders, Teaspoon, and Rachel.
He and Lou had purchased a tiny tract of land with an old farmhouse on it when they arrived in Virginia. He'd only lived with her there for a month before he was called to service, and he knew the place still didn't feel like home to her, though she never said so. A kindly older couple were Lou's only company, for when she'd ridden into town with their neighbors, she'd not been received kindly and had been treated as an outsider, even as she labored alongside the ladies in the hospital. Though she'd never admit it to Kid, he knew she was horribly lonely, but no amount of pleading or begging on his part could convince her to wait for him in Rock Creek. If Lou only saw her husband once every year, she wouldn't give up those few precious days for months of comfort with people who loved her.
"Better come back to the battlefield, Kid," Ben said, well aware of his friend's tendency to daydream about his beautiful wife, "The blue bellies are about ready for another go-round!"
Ben was from Georgia, and hadn't been able to make it home during leave for Christmas last year, so Kid had graciously offered him a place to enjoy the holiday. Ben had been smitten by Louise from the moment he saw her charging down the drive to catapult into her husband's ready arms. She'd made him feel completely at home, and had taken the edge off of his homesickness. Ben couldn't blame Kid for thinking about her.
Ben and Kid had grown close, almost a close as he and Jimmy had once been. Ben didn't hold the lofty notion that ten Yankees still didn't match one Southerner as so many of the soldiers in their company did. Ben fought for the same reason Kid did, because he loved his native soil of Georgia. Both men seemed to realize the desperation of the South. They were out numbered, out gunned, and out supplied by the North.
"All right men!" A gruff voice sounded, and Kid and Ben twisted in the mud to find their Captain crawling up towards them on his elbows. Captain Eli Browning was an admirable, respectable leader who had gained his men's confidence long ago.
"Are we going closer, Sir?" Ben asked incredulously, his sandy blonde hair falling over his brown eyes from underneath his hat.
"No, we're falling back!" Browning said.
"All this for nothing!" Kid cried out, and his eyes sought the now sightless ones of the dead boy from Richmond who lay at his side, "Why did we fight in the first place! We can't give up now!"
Eli sighed. Kid was an intelligent man with real possibilities for advancement, especially given the rapid death rate of men in ranking positions. But Kid was stubborn, and could never bring himself to admit when it was time to quit and accept defeat.
"I don't like it any more than you do, but we're beaten! Now fall back! There are reinforcements on the way. Now, fall back! That's an order! The artillery has got the range on us, and any minute they'll fire up the cannons again!"
Kid nodded and reluctantly started to crawl backwards, not able to resist firing a few shots as he went.
He'd stopped wondering what happened when those bullets were brought to a halt, presumably by the body of a blue coated soldier, a long time ago. At first, he'd been tormented by nightmares of women like Lou receiving notices in the mail and sobbing for years because of his hand, of mothers and fathers ruined by the loss of their son, of all the destruction war wrought on everyone. But he'd seen too many of the horrors, seen too many good men in gray killed by bullets to wonder any more. He'd become a true soldier, a machine. After the war, there would be horrors and nightmares. For the time being, it was all he could do to keep going without Lou. He dare not think of the consequences of his actions.
But for all his fear, and all his regret and distaste for the business of war, he believed in his cause as strongly as ever.
The whine of an incoming mortar snapped him back to attention, and he was vaguely aware of the shouts of men around him.
Everything else happened fast, but through Kid's eyes it was all slow motion. He looked up just in time to see the shell crashing down almost directly on top of Ben, who was now several yards away. He saw his friend's face convulse and his fingers dig into the ground in pain. A shower of dirt and metal went up, blinding Kid. Pain ripped through his shoulder as a piece of shell struck him. In a flash, it was all over.
Kid barely dared raise his head when the dust settled. Wiping the mud out of his eyes with bloody fingers, he desperately sought to check on Ben and Captain Browning. A sob escaped his lips as he used his good arm to pull himself toward the scene, every movement sending shattering pain through his left side.
Both men were dead, brutally mutilated by the shell. Kid closed his friend and the Captain's eyes, and was only slightly aware of the dizzying pain in his own arm. He dared not look at the wound.
Sobbing at the senselessness and insanity of it all, he wondered why in God's name these two good men had been killed, when, if the shell had fallen only a foot more to the right it would be he that was dead. He buried his face in the mud and screamed and sobbed with grief that made him nearly mad, clutching at the mud with his good hand until his fingers were raw.
Finally, merciful darkness found him as he passed out with the loss of blood and was carried far away from the hell of the Battle of Fredericksburg.
"Please, tell my wife that I loved her more than anything…that I'm sorry to leave her like this, so soon…tell her to go home…and that I died a whole man…tell her that when our baby is born and she looks into his eyes, it'll be me staring back at her, Tell her…she's the only good thing I ever knew…" The words got fainter and fainter as did the light in the bright blue eyes staring up from the death bed.
Lou's hand trembled as she wrote furiously, trying to keep up with the rapidly slurring words of the young man laying on the cot. Her tears fell onto the paper as he spoke of his unborn child, and Lou clenched her teeth and refused to lose control here, at this poor boy's bedside.
Not five months ago, she'd miscarried her own child. She hadn't seen Kid for over a year, and her unborn child had filled her with such great hope. She would have had something to love in the absence of Kid, and there would have been life in the midst of all the death. But one morning something had gone terribly wrong, and if it hadn't been for the help of Ellen Garner, her elderly next door neighbor, she would have died also. She'd sworn the kind old woman to secrecy. Kid had never received the letter announcing the joyous news in the first place, mail was so scarce and unreliable, so Lou had not burdened his soul with the tragedy. However, it weighed heavily on her heart and spirits, and nothing short of looking into her husband's eyes again could ease her pain.
"Miss, would you hold my hand? I'm scared to die. I believe in Jesus, but I'm still scared…would you pray with me?"
Lou leaned close to the young man's bed, and grasped his cold hand with both of her own. How many blood covered hands had she held, how many eyes near death had she stared into unblinkingly, trying to give assurance that the soul staring out from them was loved and had died a noble death? But God! Lou cried out inwardly, how could it be noble to die writhing underneath a surgical saw with no medicine to ease the pain?
It wasn't long before the boy in front of her ceased to whimper and cry, and his eyes closed forever, the creases of pain in his forehead only lessening slightly in death.
Lou bent her head over the young man and wept for him, as she did for all of them. She was still sitting there with her head bowed when a gentle hand shook her shoulder.
Lou jumped and looked up to find Ellen's gentle brown eyes looking at her sadly.
"So many of them die," Lou whispered, shaking her head.
"I know, Louise, my dear," Ellen sighed and patted a strand of white hair that had escaped her neat white bun before saying uncomfortably, "Louise, I thought you'd like to know, the casualty lists are in from Fredericksburg. I haven't seen them yet…"
Lou bolted from her chair and rapidly wove in an out of the rows of beds in the makeshift hospital, ignoring the cries of the men as she went to make sure Kid's name wasn't on the list.
It was a form of torture scanning those lists for McCloud. Kid had adopted her last name, and she dreaded seeing it with a terror that caused bile to rise in her throat and blood to pound in her temples. The other women were elbowing in to get a copy, but Lou, small though she was, had soon forced her way to the front.
Harriet Williams, one of the society belles who'd looked down on Lou and done everything in her power to make sure Lou stayed the outsider looked down her nose at the shorter woman and held the list high.
"It would be a real shame if your husband's name was on this list, wouldn't it? Then you'd have to leave Virginia and go back to your Yankee heartland."
"Give me the list," Lou said through clenched teeth, her heart fluttering wildly.
"Surely you can't love a husband that fights against your precious north," Harriet continued, her fingers tightening on the paper.
Lou's blood was roaring through her veins, and her cheeks flushed a bright red, "Perhaps if you could find a man who could stand to marry you, you'd understand how I could love him," she snapped.
She'd hit the horrible woman's weak spot in bringing up her spinster-hood. A gasp went up from the crowd of ladies as Miss Williams went about gasping and sputtering.
Lou rolled her eyes and snatched the list from her fingers, casting a fiery eye on any other woman who dared question her love for her husband as she retreated to a corner to read the names in solitude. She was vaguely aware of wailing and moaning as woman after woman found a lover or family member on the list. They all had friends to comfort them, and Lou suddenly felt very alone as she started flipping through page upon page, looking for the M's.
Time seemed to slow as her eyes scanned the list. MacMillian, Mash,…McLead…Lou felt tears spring to her eyes and she buried her face in her hands sobbing with relief. She quickly straitened up, knowing that other women were as anxious to see the list as she. She was about to return it when a name further down the page caught her eye.
New tears filled her eyes as she recalled the gentle young man from Georgia that had become so close to her husband. She could only imagine Kid's grief at losing him. After she relinquished the list to the mob of hoop skirts, Lou wearily sat herself down at a table and put her head in her hands, taking deep breaths to steady herself.
Ellen came up to her and squeezed her shoulder, fearing the worse.
"No, its okay, he's okay," Lou said shakily, "But Ben, do you remember Ben from last Christmas?" Her eyes filled with tears, as Ellen nodded sadly, "He's on the list."
"Poor dear," Ellen said softly, and took Lou by the shoulders, "Come, let's go home. You'll have supper with me and Henry."
"Oh, no, really," Lou began in protest.
"Shh! I'll hear nothing of it. Kid asked me to look after you, and to tell you the truth, Henry and I love having you there. It gives Henry someone else to try his opinions out on," She said with a wink, and Lou smiled through her tears as she thought of the well meaning, but opinionated older man.
Ellen set her arm around the girl's shoulder and steered her out of the old house that served as a military hospital.
That night Lou enjoyed the kinder older couple's company, but her eyes kept drifting out into the cold December night, where a light powdery snow was falling. She longed to have Kid home for Christmas, but the holiday was less than a week away, and with the Battle of Fredricksburg just over, she imagined the infantry would be moving quickly to expound on their victory.
She finally wrapped her shawl around her shoulders and started out into the night, after insisting Henry didn't have to walk her through the small hedge that separated their homes.
"Louise, dear, please promise to go to bed instead of staring out the window like you tend to always do. Watching won't bring him home any faster, you know."
Lou smiled at Ellen and nodded her promise, but silently vowed to leave the candle burning in the window like she had every night since he'd first left.
She was climbing the stairs to the rickety old farmhouse she now called home when something struck her as odd. The door was slightly cracked. Her eyes looked back to the snow, and her heart leapt in her throat to see large footprints next to her fresher, smaller ones.
Someone was in her home!
All the horror stories she'd ever heard about deserters and lone women came rushing to mind, but she remembered that Ellen and Henry were only a shout away. Her fingers dug in her bag for her gun, the same gun which had seen her through the express and that she still carried for late nights coming home from the hospital with Ellen.
Ever so slowly, with her heart beating in her throat, but her jaw clenched with determination, Lou let herself into the house. She avoided the creaking boards on the floor as she stole softly through the pallor and towards the kitchen. She heard slight movement in there, and cocked the hammer of her gun.
Now or never, she thought with a sigh, hesitating only a moment outside the kitchen door. Then she took a deep breath and burst through it, brandishing her gun like a sword, and growling fiercely.
It took Lou's eyes a second to adjust to the dim candlelit kitchen, and even longer for her to believe what she saw there.
Standing there in the middle of the floor, shirtless and barefoot with a chicken wing frozen to his lips was her husband, who now was staring fearfully at her over the food.
"Kid," Lou breathed finally, her eyes misting with tears, and obscuring the view she'd dreamed of for over a year. He was very, very thin, and pale beyond belief. His hair was long and she could tell he'd only recently shaved his face from what she was sure had been weeks worth of a beard. His eyes were bright though, and filled with tears as he gazed at her.
Kid could only stare back at Lou, who had been the one for him since he'd first discovered her secret. He couldn't believe how far they'd both come since then, and it comforted him in the world gone crazy just to look into her knowing brown eyes. She looked more beautiful than she ever had to him, though he could see in her face the year had been a hard one, and she still took his breath away.
They stood and stared at each other for at least a minute, content to let their eyes have their fill, content to know that the other was all right.
Then Lou could stand to be apart from him no longer, and the gun clattered to the floor as she leapt across the room and into his arms. Their tears mingled as they embraced, and Lou turned her face up to Kid's to claim his lips passionately.
They murmured words of love and clung to each other for some time before Kid bent his head against her shoulder and whispered, "Lou, Ben…"
"Shhh, Kid, I know," Lou said soothingly, and her hands caressed the back of his neck as he sobbed into her shoulder. Her breath was hot on his ear a few minutes later when she whispered, "Kid, let's go get you cleaned up."
Kid followed obediently as she led him by the hand up the stairs and he watched as she drew him a hot bath. Then slowly, she unbuttoned his shirt, and cried out with horror at the slowly healing, but still nasty wound on his shoulder.
"Kid, a doctor should see this!" She said, fearfully studying it.
"They'll just take it off!" Kid growled, "They don't have time to see to it! I've had worse, Lou, it will heal. I'm not letting them chop my arm off!"
Lou sighed, Kid was right. And she'd seen many men with less serious wounds suffer amputations. As long as Lou could keep it clean, it would be fine. But when Kid went back to the battlefield, there would be no way to keep it from getting infected.
Lou was silent as she stirred steaming water into the tub and as Kid slowly climbed in. It broke her heart to see him so thin, even more so than when he'd first started riding for the express. Lovingly she kneeled beside the tub and gently sponged off his sore, tight muscles.
"How long can you stay?" Lou finally whispered, avoiding Kid's eyes to hide her tears from him.
"A week. I'm being reassigned. My whole company was killed, besides me."
"Kid, your shoulder needs time to heal!"
"Lou, we've been over this before. You know I have to go back."
"The Confederacy has had you for two years! When do I get a chance?" Lou cried out.
Kid sighed and reached out a wet hand to caress Lou's cheek, "When the war is over, we'll have our whole lives."
Lou sighed wearily, but didn't point out that the odds were against him surviving the war. She didn't want to waste the few precious days they had together fighting.
"Then I guess we'll just have to make this week special enough to last until we meet again," Lou said huskily, and stared fully into Kid's eyes.
A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as he stood in the tub, and reached for Lou, sweeping her up into his arms, and not feeling the slightest bit of pain in his shoulder.
Whatever battles raged outside that cold Virginia night, inside the walls of a certain small farmhouse North and South were completely at peace.
However, even as Lou snuggled close to Kid's strong chest and layed awake all night listening to the treasured rhythm of his heart beat, even as Kid slept contentedly, not haunted by nightmares for the first time in months, trouble was approaching.
And this trouble was marching fast, clad in blue.
Jimmy walked out to the barn quietly, hands shoved deep into his pockets. The night air had a sharp bite to it, but he didn't really feel it.
Once inside the old barn he found himself drawn to the same stall that always called him…Katy's.
The gentle paint mare pushed her face out over the door and nickered upon seeing him. Jimmy sighed, and felt glad that Kid had arranged to leave her in Rock Creek while he went to fight. Kid hadn't been able to bear the thought of her shot in battle, and knew she'd be an easy target with her loud color. Although it was comforting to have a piece of his old friend around, especially with him so distant now, Jimmy found it painful at the same time.
It brought back too many memories of happier times. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth when he remembered how, at first, Kid had wanted to sleep in the stable, instead of the bunkhouse with all of them.
Jimmy stroked the beautiful mare as he did almost every night, feeling as if he owed it to Kid to pay her special attention. "Damn sight more personable than your owner, girl," Jimmy muttered to her, as he did quite often, and again let his mind drift to the rift between he and Kid.
Jimmy shook his head and felt the old anger flare in his chest when he thought of Kid fighting for the Confederacy.
"What a fool!" he exclaimed softly, releasing his breath, a cloud of vapor in the frosty air, "has the whole world in his hands and he is willing to throw it all away!"
Thinking of Kid inevitably turned his thoughts to Lou. Gingerly he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the last of her letters to him. His heart grew heavy as he gently unfolded the well-worn creases and sank down in the sawdust to read it yet again.
I guess I should finally admit to myself that you are not ever going to write back. I didn't really believe until now that you would really cut all ties with me. There have been so many days I've sifted through my mail, longing to hear from you, to know you are well…but I hear from Rachel, Cody, Buck, and Teaspoon that you are in good health. But they say you are often melancholy, and sometimes I almost hope that it is because you miss Kid and I. Don't think I'm being cruel, it is just because we miss you, Jimmy…I miss you! We went through so much together, and I love you like family. These are such hard times for me, Jimmy. I know they are hard for everyone. Sometimes I just want to quit, and throw my hands in the air and scream 'Enough!' But I can't, and I know you understand that. As much as you hate it that I'm here with Kid, in the South, I know good and well you understand why I had to come. And I know that you understand just as completely why Kid is here. Oh why do you both have to be so damn proud?
I haven't seen or heard from Kid in months. The only way I have of knowing if he is alive is by word of mouth and horribly unreliable casualty lists. I just thank God that none of you are involved in the fighting. I couldn't bare searching those lists for your name as well! I work in the hospital in town, and watch boy after boy die screaming. Oh God, when will this madness end, Jimmy?
I sigh as I write these words, because I know in all probability you will refuse to read them. Oh, Jimmy, if you are reading this, can't you find it in your heart to reply, just once? Just a line or two to say that you are alright, that you are surviving, that you hate me, anything, anything at all would be welcome! I suppose you can't-rather you won't-do that. So I'm writing to tell you that you'll get your wish if I don't hear from you this time, Jimmy. I won't write you anymore, and I won't bother you. I'll let you just forget me completely if that is what you want…but whatever your response to this letter is, my dear old friend, know that I love you with all my heart and wish the best for you always. You are one of the greatest men I've had the honor of knowing, and don't let anyone ever tell you otherwise!
Love Always, Lou
Tears stung the back of Jimmy's eyes as he folded the letter again with trembling hands. How many times had he picked up a pen and a piece of paper to reply to her? How many crumpled sheets of incoherent thoughts and apologies to Lou had he burned in the fire? Lou had been true to her word. The last letter had come almost six months ago, and she hadn't written him again. Occasionally he saw her neat handwriting in mail going to one of the others, but never to him.
It broke his heart. Especially as Christmas approached and thoughts of their old family penetrated every moment. He missed Kid, Lou, Noah, Ike, Emma, and Sam whole-heartedly. He also hated the inactivity of his life. He acted as deputy of Rock Creek, but there was no action. Everyone was fighting the war or the winter, and that left no time for trouble making. Cody was serving with the army in the West, and doing a lot of work scouting. They sometimes didn't see him for weeks at a time. Buck divided his time between Rock Creek and the Kiowa, and Rachel was busy teaching school.
Jimmy wasn't sure where he fit in. Countless times he considered joining the Union, but the thought of facing Kid on a field of battle sent a cold chill down the length of his spine, and, if he entertained the thought long enough, brought a clammy sweat beading on his forehead. He could never kill Kid, not for any cause.
He took a moment to wonder if Kid felt the same. Kid's love of the South was so strong that he doubted if Kid would hesitate too long in doing whatever it took to win the war.
"Lou, how's Jimmy?"
Lou turned around from where she was trimming the tree Kid had insisted on cutting down and dragging into the house, and smiled gently. Her husband tried to hide it, but he still loved Jimmy as much as she did.
"Rachel said he's doing fine. He's working as Teaspoon's deputy."
Kid smiled, "Who would have thought that the hothead we first met would one day end up upholding the law instead of looking for ways to break it?"
Lou laughed lightly, and stood back to admire the red ribbons she'd tied symmetrically on the tree.
Suddenly she felt Kid's arms slide around her waist from behind, and she leaned her head back against his chest as they surveyed the small Christmas tree together.
Kid kissed her cheek softly, and Lou was concerned at the feverish feel of his cheek as it pressed against hers. But asking about his health had only ended in them fighting about him going back to the army, so she chose not to say anything…yet.
"It's pretty, isn't it?" Lou sighed, running her fingers lightly over his arms.
"Yes you are, I mean it is," Kid grinned boyishly, and then set her on her feet and moved to the tree, "Almost perfect, in fact."
"Almost?" Lou demanded softly, not sure if he was referring to her or the tree, but not pleased for either to be just almost perfect.
Kid suddenly snatched a ribbon from the tree.
"Kid! It was perfect! They were all evenly spaced, and now…"
Lou's voice trailed off as Kid came to stand in front of her. Gently he put both hands on her shoulders and spun her around. Then his hands were running through her hair, hair that now reached halfway down her back in waves of shining auburn, and he was lifting it off her neck. When he had done his best at creating somewhat of a braid down her back, he tied it with the red ribbon in a ridiculously large bow.
Lou giggled as she felt hairs already escaping brush against her cheek.
"Maybe you should be a barber instead of a soldier, dear," She jested him.
"Maybe you should be quiet," Kid growled softly, but though she had her back to him, Lou could hear the smile in his voice.
"Dinner is almost ready," She began softly, turning around and faltering a bit when she saw the look in his eye. It was so loving, so passionate that she felt gleeful and excited, but also so sad to know soon she wouldn't be able to look into his eyes for a long time.
"Dinner can wait," Kid whispered, and took Lou into his arms.
A while later, Lou sat with Kid, curled up on the floor in front of their fireplace. It was Christmas Eve, and Lou had what she wanted most in the world, Kid by her side.
She glanced up at him to see his eyes half-closed. She hated to admit it, but her husband didn't look well. He tired easily, and a cough was beginning to bother him. He always seemed to be running a low fever, and he didn't eat enough, though Lou constantly tried to tempt him with food.
Her mind drifted back to last Christmas, when she, Ben, and Kid had sat down on Christmas Eve and drank fine brandy and talked of their families. They'd both been so full of energy and so glad to be home, and she hadn't been able to keep enough food on the table to feed their veracious appetites. Ben had been so warm, and funny, and kind, and Lou felt tears rise to her eyes as she thought of him now, buried in a mass grave somewhere in Virginia, so far from his beloved Georgia.
The tears rose higher as she thought of how hard it had been to watch them march off down the drive together. She'd taken comfort in the fact that Ben would watch out for Kid. She didn't know how she would bear watching him march out alone, sick and cold, to a company where he didn't know a soul.
She also remembered her hope and joy at discovering she was carrying Kid's child not long after he marched away. She remembered putting the letter in the mail to him, nearly dancing as she imagined his joy when he received it. Kid had wanted children, and had been so sad when he learned that her brother and sister had been living with a family in St. Joe that loved them. They hadn't wanted to leave, and Lou didn't have the heart to make them. The news that Kid was going to be a father was the one bright spot in a very dark and terrifying year of skirmishing and battles.
Her lips trembled as she thought of the day she'd lost her child. It had been the most devastating experience of her life, and she'd gone through it alone. Kid would want to know, and Kid had the right to know, she realized, and gathered her nerve to tell him the truth.
"Lou, I see Ben's face in my nightmares, mutilated by that shell," Kid suddenly broke into her thoughts, his voice clipped with sobs as he confessed to her, "Lou, I don't understand why they died and I lived!"
Lou instantly wrapped her arms around him, and laid her head against his, chasing the thought of sharing her secret with him away for the moment. He had seen too much to live with the guilt of knowing that she'd gone through a miscarriage without him. "Oh, Kid, I know! Please, tell me about everything! In your letters you make everything sound so much better than it must be! I want to know, Kid! Please tell me!"
And Kid drew a deep breath and told her of some of the horrors he'd witnessed. There were some that were just too unspeakable though, and he refused to burden her heart with them.
Lou listened with tears running down her face, partly the result of her husband's accounts of war, and partly because of the realization that she couldn't tell Kid about their child. It would weigh so greatly on his overburdened soul to know he hadn't been there for her.
After a while they settled down to watch the fire in silence, content to just be together.
Kid suddenly was given to a fit of coughs that wracked his chest and left him gasping.
Lou instantly was up, bringing warm compresses to lay on his chest, and feeling his head for fever. It was higher than earlier in the day.
"Oh, Kid, you are so sick! There is no way you can go back in two days! You'll catch your death! Do you know how many boys die from sickness? Many more than from battle wounds!"
"I'm going back!" Kid growled stubbornly.
"The hell you are!" Lou spat back, "If I have to drug you and tie you down, you aren't leaving till you get better!"
"You'll do no such thing! The Confederate Army decides when I come and go, not you, Lou!" Kid growled bitterly, knowing she was right, but adhering to his sense of duty and patriotism.
"If the Confederate Army has a problem with it, then Robert E. Lee can come marching up to our door and speak with me about it! And if I were you, I'd fear my wrath a lot more than the Confederate Army's!" Lou snapped, "Now, let's get you to bed!"
"Lou," Kid began angrily, but was cut off by another round of coughing.
Kid sighed sheepishly when he got his breath back. Anything he said after that point just wouldn't help his argument, he realized, and he meekly let Lou help him up to bed.
They said no more about his impending schedule of departure, nor Lou's determination to keep him there that night or the next day.
Lou fixed a Christmas dinner, her cooking lessons from Ellen showing in the wonderful smells drifting from the kitchen all day, and Ellen and Henry joined them, combining their own Christmas dinner into one huge feast. There was laughter, and warmth and a sense of family that Lou hadn't felt since they left Rock Creek. Kid sat wrapped in a huge blanket in his chair by the fire later that night when Lou walked in shyly, with something behind her back.
"What are you up to?" He demanded with a slight smile.
"Nothing…I just got you a little something for Christmas is all," Lou approached him and kneeled at his feet, bringing the small package up to rest on his lap, "It isn't much, Kid…we don't have a lot of money you know, and the blockade has cut out almost every luxury in town."
Kid blinked and stared at Lou, who gazed up at him with her eyes shining brightly in the firelight. She looked beautiful in a hunter green velvet dress, and her hair twisted back neatly. His heart suddenly swelled with love and appreciation for her, and tears rose in his eyes.
"Well, don't cry, it isn't that bad of a present!" Lou charged him, but felt tears rising in her own eyes as well as she folded her arms across his knees and set her chin on them, looking up at him as he picked up the package.
Kid opened the tiny package with trembling fingers, and pulled out a small charm on a silver chain. His eyes looked to Lou for explanation.
"It's Saint Christopher, the protector…he'll keep you safe," Lou said, and bowed her head as tears rolled out of her eyes. The thought of anything as small as the charm keeping him safe from the war that raged on outside was absurd, but she dared to pray that it would help somewhat.
"I'm sure it will, Louise," Kid said as he climbed down from his chair to wrap his arms around her, "But while we're doing this, I happen to have a little something for you too."
He kissed the top of her head and left the room to come back a moment later with a small package. Her hands trembled as she opened it, and found inside an official looking piece of paper. She looked to Kid with her eyebrows drawn together.
Kid smiled and explained, "Lou, this is the deed to some property…some very special property. It is the deed to the old Sweetwater station. After the express ended, Russell, Majors, and Wadell had to sell off everything, you see," he paused and smiled gently as tears of joy started rolling down her cheeks, "I remembered how happy we were there, and thought it might be a good place to start over, after the war. We could raise horses like we always talked about."
"Oh, Kid!" Lou breathed, and kissed him gently.
"There's one more thing, Lou…" Kid felt tears well again in his eyes as he said, "The property is all in your name, its your land, in case…" he smiled sadly as she shook her head in horror, refusing to admit the possibility of his next words, "in case I don't make it through the war. I was going to wait till after the war to give it to you, and Teaspoon still has a copy of all the paperwork in case anything happens to me. I just wanted to see the look on your face when I gave this to you, just in case I don't have another chance."
At this Lou burst into sobs and flung her arms around Kid's neck, unable to believe that he would be ripped from her grasp in just a few days time to go out into the bloody war yet again. She loved him too much to go on without him, and yet he'd made provisions for her to live out their dreams alone should he not survive the war.
"I'm begging you, Kid, don't go back!" Lou sobbed, "let's go now! Let's go and forget the blood and the hate! Let's start our life! The Confederacy has had you for two years! When is it my turn?"
"Lou, we can't forget the blood and the hate. I've started this fight, and I have to see it through, to the bitter end. Too much has been lost for me to give up now! If I do give up, what has it all been for? Why have you and I been through Hell for two years? No, Lou. The war won't last forever, and I don't plan on ending up like the rest of my company. But for them, I have to go on, and for them I have to survive!"
Lou felt hot words of disagreement rise to her lips, but she quelled them and instead turned her face into Kid's neck and hugged him tightly.
There was no way to avoid it. Though she'd talked Kid into staying a few extra days at least to get better, she couldn't talk him into abandoning the South.
His love for the South may not have been as strong as his love for her, Lou realized, but it had been burning in his soul for much, much longer.
Lou shivered against the frosty air as she ducked inside the small barn. The chickens and cow left there were happy to see her as she fed them. Sadly, she recalled how well stocked the barn had been before the war. Although she and Kid had left their horses in Rock Creek to be protected from the ravages of war, they'd been able to purchase an old mule, two cows, several pigs, three goats, and many chickens. Now all that was left was the old milk cow and six or seven hens. The Confederate Army had started delving into the supplies of its citizens very early into the war, and she might have been bitter if she hadn't realized it meant Kid got one more meal.
She came out of the barn shivering with the cold, and not even her thick, chocolate brown velvet dress and cloak helped to warm her. It was a miserable, wet winter, which wasn't helping Kid's illness at all. He grew sicker by the day, and was too weak to stay out of bed for more than a few hours.
She raised her head and searched the tree crowded horizon as the sharp smell of smoke suddenly permeated her nostrils. Wrinkling her brow in confusion, she wondered who in the world would be burning leaves at a time like this, with the ground covered in snow.
The air grew cloudy with smoke as she walked back to the house, and she realized whatever was burning must either be very close, or very large.
Then a movement caught her eye through the snow covered trees, and her heart slammed against the wall of her chest. Down on the road, moving in a slowly undulating, but seemingly never ending wave of blue was a large company of Yankees. Suddenly, it was apparent why the air was filled with smoke. They were burning the houses of the citizens of Virginia, determined to shorten the war by raping the land.
They now turned and marched up her drive, coming slowly but strongly. She glanced helplessly up at the old farmhouse, and then at Henry and Ellen's century old home. The older couple was in Richmond, visiting their daughter, and there was no one to help her protect both of their homes but a very sick Kid, who would be taken prisoner if they discovered him.
She never imagined she would fear and hate the sight of the Union uniform so much. They were not her enemy, they were her husband's…but it had never been so clear that she was bound to her husband so completely that whatever threatened him instantly became a hated foe. A rapidly burning fury ignited in her chest and the pail of milk she was carrying clattered to the ground and mixed with the snow as she lifted her skirts and sprinted for the house.
There was no time to warn Kid of the danger he was in, so Lou paused only long enough to grab the rifle from the closet before bursting out onto the front porch. She carefully propped the weapon out of sight, behind the column of the porch. She took deep breaths as the first of the soldiers came into clear view, and drew herself to her full height, never feeling the disadvantage of her small stature so completely as she did now.
Lou stood her ground, even as the long line of blue coats grew closer to her home. She did not lean against the railing of the porch for support, but rather stood straight and proud, showing none of the fear that made her knees tremble beneath the billowing skirts of her dress.
The Union troops, under the command of Captain Joseph Kent, advanced steadily toward the large old farmhouse. Several of the soldiers glanced away from the woman on the porch uneasily, knowing the grim task ahead of them. Several more, however, stared at her with a mixture of awe and fear.
Jonathan Monroe was one of the latter. As he watched the young woman stand her ground the hair at the back of his neck stood on end. He knew that it was foolish for him to feel what resembled fear as he gazed on her, but the look in the small woman's fiery brown eyes was enough to halt the entire Army of the Potomac and send it running back to the sea. If he lived to be a hundred years old he'd never forget the look in those large, expressive eyes. They were beautiful, and framed by long eyelashes, but it wasn't their beauty that held so many of the soldiers captive; it was the fire within them. They blazed and snapped with lives of their own, and such fury and hatred beamed from them that Jonathan moved his hand closer to his weapon as if to protect himself from her. The look in her eyes was equaled by the set of her jaw, her stormy scowl, and the fists clenched in helpless rage at her side.
Joseph Kent halted his company, and they fanned out across Lou's snow covered lawn.
"Are you alone, ma'am?" He called to her.
"I can assure you I do not have a hundred men behind me like you do, so surely there's no reason for you to be alarmed!" Lou replied in a voice that was too calm to be anything but deadly.
"Is anyone else in the house?" The Captain repeated.
Lou felt as if she might be ill right there in front of them. She couldn't very well turn Kid over, but at the same time, if they burned her home, she'd have to.
"Answer me, Miss!" The Captain demanded.
"It's Mrs.!" Lou screeched back, "What right do you have to burn a lone woman out of her home! I'm not even a Southerner! I'm only here because my husband fights for the South!"
"Sadly, you must pay for his misdeeds! He is a rebel, he has committed treason against his country by taking arms against it! Search the house for valuables! Then burn it to the ground!" Joseph Kent barked to his men. Lou took dark satisfaction in knowing all their valuables were buried safely, except the most valuable thing of all, Kid.
"No!" Lou growled, and leapt for the rifle, pointing it at the Captain's heart. "Order them back!" she screamed, cocking the hammer, "or I'll kill you!"
"Ma'am, you can't honesty expect to stand alone against a whole company of soldiers! Put the gun down! You will not be harmed, I assure you!" The Captain began.
Jonathan Monroe had crept quietly around the house and up the back stairs of the porch. Ever so slowly he advanced on the woman who was now holding the gun on his superior. In one fluid motion he leapt for her and snatched the gun from her hands, while locking restraining arms around her struggling form.
"Let me go!" She screeched, and turned all her energy against the tall man with jet black hair and bright green eyes she had noticed staring at her earlier.
"Be still, and you won't be hurt! There is no way for you to stop this, and it will be easier if you don't fight!" He growled in her ear.
Suddenly though, the door to their house flew open and a weak, pale Kid appeared on the porch with his revolver pointed at Jonathan's head.
"Let go of my wife right now, Yank, or today will be your last!"
There was a moment of stunned silence when Kid appeared on the porch, looking ready to take on the entire company, and especially the tall man who dared lay hands on Lou.
Lou gasped as she snapped her head around to look at Kid. Seeing the soldiers start to draw their weapons against him, she let loose a sound that was inhuman and ripped herself from the Yankee's grasp. She crossed the porch in two great leaps and shielded Kid's body with her own.
"Don't hurt him!" She screeched, clinging to him even as Kid struggled against her hold.
"Drop the gun!" Joseph Kent cried out, "Or we'll be forced to fire!"
Lou ripped the gun from Kid's grasp and threw it over the porch railing, "There!"
"Lou!" Kid hissed in irritation.
"You can't fight them, Kid!" Lou said, looking into his eyes and tightening her hold on him, "Promise me you won't fight them!"
"They are going to try to take me prisoner, Lou, I'm not letting them!"
"Kid, how are you going to stop them?" Lou reasoned, then pleaded "please, I don't want to see you shot here!"
Kid sighed and fought the urge to tell her that whether he fought or not, the Yankees could kill him if they wished. He wondered momentarily if it might not be better to die than to be hauled to one of the prison camps in the North to waste away slowly. Horror stories had been traded across campfires since the war started about Old Capitol and other such prisons. But for Lou's sake, he knew he couldn't fight.
"Seize him!" Captain Kent cried out, and men instantly charged up the porch.
"No!" Lou cried out softly as they roughly took his arms and pushed her backwards, "Please! He's sick!"
"Stand back, ma'am!" Kent snapped at her.
Still, Lou refused to leave her husband's side as they roughly drug him down the stairs. Lou shuddered when she saw him faltering with exhaustion.
The men brought Kid to a halt in front of the Captain's horse, and Lou stormed to the animal's side, "My husband is very ill! Please, sir, I'm begging you, let him go! I give you my word he will not fight again! Tell them Kid," Lou said, voice trembling and pleading her husband's cooperation, "tell them that we'll leave Virginia, and go out West, and that you won't fight any more!"
Kid raised his head steadily and glared at the Captain, and Lou's shoulders sagged as she recognized the defiance in her husband's angrily glittering blue eyes.
"Kid, please," Lou whispered, but her husband did not break his stare with Joseph Kent's steely gray eyes. It was not in him to lie to this man, even if it meant saving his life. He would not trade his devotion to his cause for his freedom, and that distressed Lou to no end.
"Ma'am, I don't think your husband is agreeing, and even if he was, I'd take him in! He's killed American boys!"
"Have you not killed boys as well?" Lou demanded of the Captain, "This is your chance to stop the killing! He's weak, and sick! Surely in the middle of all this madness you can show some mercy!"
"It's past time for mercy, my dear," The Captain said, and suddenly he seemed to look years older than he really was, "Search the house and burn it!"
"No!" Kid suddenly barked, "You can take me prisoner, but leave my wife's shelter out of this! She's done nothing! She doesn't even support the South! My God! It is a sorry day when you blue-bellies have to resort to burning women and children out of their homes in the dead of winter!"
Lou shivered at the bitterness and hate in Kid's voice. The war had given him a hardness she'd not seen before, and though she knew he'd never turn on her with those eyes, she was frightened for him.
"It doesn't matter, Kid, I'm going with you," Lou said softly.
"The Hell you are!" Kid growled.
The Captain remarked at the same time, "I'm afraid you can't Ma'am."
"I won't let you take him without me!" Lou growled fiercely, "You'll have to kill me!"
"Lou, don't be stupid! It's too dangerous for you to go! I'll be fine!"
Lou felt tears rising rapidly in her eyes. If only she'd let him go back to the field like he was supposed to, this wouldn't be happening. The realization that in prison Kid would be out of the fighting was no consolation in the face of the cold, damp cell he would be thrown into. He wasn't strong enough to survive it, she knew.
Lou fought her way to her husband's side, and knowing she only had a few minutes left with him, the other soldiers moved back.
"Kid," She sobbed, her tears scorching his neck, "Kid, don't let them leave me here! I want to be with you!"
"Lou, honey, you can't," Kid whispered, not wanting the men to hear his trembling voice, or see the tears forming in his eyes as he clung to his wife for the last precious seconds before he was hauled off to God knows where. He was scared out of his mind for himself, but more so for her, alone in the South with no home, "You have to go back to Rock Creek and wait for me there!"
Lou couldn't stop a clipped sob from escaping her lips, but when she would have protested, Kid persisted.
"Lou, please listen to me! Go to Rock Creek! I'll send word where I am when I get there! It's the only way! I promise you, Lou, that this is not goodbye forever! I'm going to make it, and I'll come for you when I get out! The war can't last forever, and they can't hold me prisoner forever! Lou, look at me!"
Lou found it incredibly hard to raise her eyes to Kid's crystal blue ones without losing all control, but she slowly looked him in the eye, drawing comfort and reassurance from them, as she always did.
"When have I ever let you down?" Kid whispered, tears slowly rising in his eyes as he forgot about the hundred or so soldiers surrounding them. Lou was the only thing into world to him for the moment, "Lou, please trust me now, if you've ever trusted me! Go to Rock Creek, stay there!" When Lou started shaking her head "no," Kid's voice became desperate, "damn it, Lou! Please! I need a promise from you that you will go to Rock Creek and stay there!"
Lou could no longer see clearly for the tears rolling from her eyes, "I'll go to Rock Creek," she promised, but refused to promise she'd be staying there.
Suddenly, a loud crackling noise caught their attention, and they both spun to see their rickety wooden farmhouse transformed into a towering inferno. Lou could summon no sadness to see all their things lost, not now when Kid was being torn from her arms, leaving her alone. She sighed and glanced at Ellen and Henry's home, also roaring with fire.
She turned her back on the scene and instead buried her head in Kid's chest, sobbing violently as he put his arms around her and leaned down to whisper in her ear, "Lou, I love you more than life! Ride Safe, my dear!"
Lou stood on her tiptoes to kiss him passionately, sobs catching in her throat as she did so.
The bittersweet moment was over entirely too soon as the men pulled Kid away and slapped chains on his wrists.
When Lou sobbed and reached for him, struggling to cling to him, two men held her back.
"Where are you taking him?" Lou demanded through her tears, fierce even with the sobs racking her and her voice trembling wildly.
"I'm afraid I can't say," Joseph Kent said softly, "We can't risk you reporting our location or direction to the other side!"
"I just want to know how to find my husband!" Lou screamed in total frustration, and Kid twisted in the arms of his captors, who were leading him slowly away from her, to see what was the matter.
"Then I'd suggest you do as he asked, and go out West, and wait for his letter. They will allow him to write, I assure you! And, he'll be cared for. Really, wouldn't you rather have him safely locked up than on a battlefield?"
"Don't you act as if you are doing me a favor, you horrible man, or as if you've shed any mercy here! You've burned my home and taken a sick man from his bed to lock him in a tiny, damp space! I wish I would have shot you when I had the chance!"
Kent, at that point, felt he could take no more of the small girl insulting his honor, and rode his horse dangerously close to her, "You'll do well to remember, my lady, that you are at the mercy of the Army of the Potomac, and more directly, me!"
"I don't know if that is a threat, but there's nothing you can do to me worse that what you have done! Get off my land, Captain! Get off now!"
Captain Kent sighed and spurred his horse after sarcastically tipping his hat to her. He shook his head, remembering the time when he hadn't been a monster, and his shoulders sagged as the weight of his duty as a warrior fell upon him.
Lou watched Kid's stubbornly squared soldiers until he was almost down the drive, sobbing silently until she could not draw breath. Just before the company turned the bend out of sight, she took a few running steps in the snow and hurled her voice over the distance.
"I love you Kid! And I'll find you!" Lou choked on a sob, then went on, "I promise you on my life, I'll find you, where ever you are!"
Kid turned back, but could find no words as he met Lou's eyes over the distance.
Jonathan Monroe, who'd been so impressed by the girl's defiance and strength earlier, looked back at her too. The flaming house filled the background, and he realized that the inferno that raged behind Louise McCloud was nothing compared to the fire that burned within her. He had the odd feeling that one day he'd see her again.
Lou craned her head and looked after the company, fighting the useless urge to run after them, to follow them. She couldn't. There was no way to fight the entire company. Not yet anyway.
When the last of the soldiers had filed out of sight, Lou finally collapsed on her knees in the snow, the warmth of the burning house doing little to help her chilled soul as she doubled over and sobbed her shattered heart out.
Lou arrived in Richmond a few days later, feeling like a different person. The night after Kid was taken had been hellish, with her sifting through the remains of their home for anything salvageable. Her efforts had gone to waste, and she'd only escaped with the clothing on her back, and a bag full of small jewelry and silver that she'd buried at the start of the war.
Her eyes were wide, but dry, as she looked at the bustling streets and large buildings. Richmond thrived with the war, and soldiers, belles, and politicians were everywhere. Lou found herself almost run over several times upon crossing the street, and her dirty brown dress drew looks of disdain from the prominent citizens.
It took her hours to discover where Henry and Ellen's daughter lived, and she prayed she hadn't missed them. When the large black woman had answered the door to the respectable town house, it had taken quite a lot of convincing for her to call Ellen down. Lou knew she looked the part of a street urchin more than that of a lady. When Ellen's kind face curiously peeked out the door, Lou lost the iron control she'd maintained since she picked herself up from the snow, and rushed into the woman's arms, sobbing the story out.
"I have to get to Rock Creek!" Lou finally stated.
"You can't go out West! Transportation is all but stopped, and it is too dangerous!"
"I have to! It's the only way Kid can get word to me! I have no idea where they sent him! He could be anywhere! And I've been to the telegraph offices already, the lines are down! Mail is so unreliable that even if Kid gets a letter out to Rock Creek, my family there would have no way of knowing how to get word back to me! And I have no where else to go!"
"Nonsense!" Ellen's beautiful daughter, Alana, said softly, "You're welcome to stay here! We'll try to find your husband!"
Lou was already shaking her head, "That's so kind of you, but I have friends in Rock Creek who can help me get Kid out!"
"Then write them from here, and let them come to you!"
Lou shook her head softly, "I can't…you see, when Kid and I left, there were hard feelings between them. The only way I'll be able to convince them to come is by going out there myself."
"Then Henry and I will go with you!" Ellen began.
"No, Ellen! You can't! I promise, I'll be fine! Remember, I rode for the express! I'll travel faster alone! But first, I need to sell a few things for passage on the railroad, and then the stage…and some clothes. Can you help me find someone to buy them?"
Alana was already shaking her head, "I have trunks and trunks of clothes that will fit you perfectly, so I won't hear of you purchasing any! And we can loan you the money to buy passage!"
Lou was willing to take up the offer of clothing, but adamantly refused the money. Although it hurt her to part with the ear bobs Rachel had given her the night before her wedding, or the cameo Kid had given her before riding into battle, she got good prices for both pieces. Ellen and Henry still planned on going with her, so Lou snuck out quietly during the night, leaving a note thanking them for all they had done for her. She glanced up at their darkened windows with a lump in her throat as she wondered if she'd ever see the kind old couple again.
The war wrought havoc on the railway system, and Lou had to take a train North before she could travel West, and even then, she knew the chances of having a smooth journey to Rock Creek were slim. It became painfully obvious as she tried to plan her trip back home that communication was all but shut down, as was travel, and she would have to embark on part of the journey on her own. She felt no fear, no hesitation at doing so. It was absurd for her to travel all those miles West, only to turn around and head East to find Kid, but Kid had made her promise to go to Rock Creek.
Lou sat on a train for many days, sleeping in the train station or in the cars when she was permitted as she traveled North, then changed trains to begin the long trek West. Alana's borrowed clothes proved beautiful and respectable enough to awaken the protective instincts of the honorable men travelling with her against the less honorable ones she came into contact with.
"End of the line, Mrs. McCloud," the kindly conductor who had looked after the petite woman with the sad eyes suddenly said, shaking Lou's shoulder to wake her.
She jumped and her pale face was alarmed until she got her bearings on who the older man in front of her was, "Where are we?"
Lou groaned, "So far away! Is there a stage operating nearby?"
"No ma'am, the stages are all shut down. Surely you don't expect to travel to Rock Creek alone?"
Lou's eyes were troubled, "I have no choice. Thank you sir, for your kindness!"
The older man would have protested, but Lou had quickly gathered her bag and exited the car. Once outside she was shocked by the brutally cold weather, and sighed. She knew the trail well, but had no horse, and very little money to get her to Rock Creek.
"What do I do now, Kid?" She murmured softly into the howling wind, before wearily walking into the train station, feeling utterly beaten.
In St. Louis, she found the status of communication and travel even more hopeless than in Richmond. Her idea of telegraphing Teaspoon and having him send someone to meet her was thrown out the window. The streets of the once bustling town seemed more like a ghost town. There was not an able bodied man in sight, and even those mutilated by war were not out on the street.
Lou took a deep breath before walking into a seedy looking shop to sell off the last valuable thing she had, with the exception of her wedding ring. She offered the locket her mother had once given her to the shopkeeper with trembling fingers, and felt tears rise to her eyes as she pocketed the small amount of money she received in return. She'd been low in her life many, many times, but she never imagined she'd part with the necklace. The shopkeeper, greedy though he was, promised to keep it in the back and not sell it for six months. Lou doubted she could count on him to keep his word, and walked to the stable with heavy feet.
In the stables she was confronted with yet another problem. All the available horses had long ago been confiscated by the army, and the hostler didn't have the first animal for sell. Luckily, an old farmer heard Lou pleading the stable man for anything and announced, "I got a horse you can buy, lady."
Lou grimaced at the toothless old man, sure that whatever horse she was about to meet would be far overpriced and leave much to be desired.
She bit her lip grimly to keep from laughing in sheer desperation as she was proven right. Standing outside the man's rickety shack of a barn on the outskirts of town, Lou had to blink twice to believe her eyes as she gazed at the horse that she was about to purchase. It was a strange cross of a draft horse and a donkey, and quite possibly the ugliest animal Lou had ever laid eyes on, albeit the largest. However, her tender heart went out to the poor creature as she saw the scars on both sides of his flanks. Her pity for the poor beast's large, woeful brown eyes sold her on him, even if he hadn't been the only horse in town. With a dirty glare at the mean old man who had abused the gentle creature, Lou took the monster's rope and started leading him back toward town, well aware of the toothless old geezer's cackle behind her at his good end of the deal.
Once again in town, Lou spent her last cent on provisions to last her the week long trip in the wilderness, knowing that it would be cold and miserable for both her and her new companion. She purchased a worn, old saddle and strapped it on the animal, though it looked ridiculously small on the huge horse's back, and climbed on, feeling as if she was astride an elephant. Years of abuse had rendered the horse as gentle as a mouse, but also as slow as a turtle, and sighing, Lou headed out of town, desperately hoping there would be no need to outrun anything that moved faster than grass grew.
What Lou didn't realize was that the wilderness was more wild than ever, and now filled with a predator she'd never known in the express days, a predator known only while wars raged. War brought out the worst in many, many people, and gangs of desperate and cruel deserters slowly grew as the battling continued. In the lawless frontier some of the most ruthless and cut throat bands of these men, wearing mixtures of tattered blue and gray, watched and waited for unfortunate souls to come along their path.
Lou, on the plodding old horse she soon named Gentle Ben, unknowingly traveled along this very path, growing ever closer to danger without even realizing it.
Note to Reader: Although I'm trying to be accurate with the history here, I have taken one liberty that I know of…and I hope you'll forgive me! Point Lookout prison camp really existed, but was not opened until a few months after the events taking place in this chapter!
"Ouch!" Lou yelped as she dropped the considerable distance from Ben's back to the frozen ground. Sharp, hot pain seared through her ankles at the contact. She knew better than to jump off a horse that fast when it was so cold.
In fact, she seemed to know better than doing a lot of the things she was doing. Taking a week long trip in the dead of winter was generally a bad idea, as was travelling with absolutely nothing to trade or bribe anyone with, or even a gun for that matter. She just didn't care.
As she made camp for the night, dreading another night spent in the freezing weather, she wondered about Kid. It had been nearly a month since she left the charred remains of their home and began her long trek west, a journey that usually would have taken two weeks at the most. She wondered if he'd gotten to where he was going, and if he'd written her yet. Tears touched her eyes and stung them in the cold as she thought about how sick he had been when the soldiers led him away from her.
Ben nickered softly as she strapped on his feedbag. The horse, for the first time in his life was not abused, and that simple fact had caused him to fall in love with his owner. The horse followed her every step she took, whether Lou wanted him to or not, and stood over her protectively while she slept. In spite of her self, and her initial disgust with him, Lou grew fond of her sole companion too, and talked to him constantly, which only served to make the old horse more fond of her.
Lou wearily hunched over her small bonfire, and for the third time that day felt tears well in her eyes and run down her cheeks, the wind biting them hard. She couldn't remember ever feeling so tired or beaten. Lately it didn't seem to take anything to exhaust her. She used to be so strong, she thought as she wiped her eyes, but lately the smallest thought could send her into hysterics. It must be her worry for Kid, she thought quietly, draining the very life out of her.
Suddenly she felt something warm in her ear, and smiled slightly when she looked over her shoulder to kiss Ben's nose as he nuzzled her hair and breathed his sweet, oat breath into her ear. She was terribly lonely, and the horse seemed to sense it.
"If we can just make it to Rock Creek, we'll be okay boy. And what a home that will be for you! If you get me there, I promise never to sell you, and that you'll have all the oats and carrots you could ever want! Just get me there!" Lou finished the last sentence in a whisper as her throat grew tight. If she couldn't have Kid's arms around her then she wanted to step into Rachel or Teaspoon's warm embrace. Part of her wished that Jimmy would be there as well, but the idea of meeting him face to face after months of no contact was frightening. Still, she thought as she laid down to sleep, if anyone could help her, it was Jimmy.
"Goodnight, Kid, where ever you are," Lou said out loud, as she had every night. Ben nickered softly and Lou smiled up at the horse, "Goodnight to you too, Ben."
The next morning a very cold Lou was up before dawn and climbing the considerable distance onto Ben, and heading northwest eagerly. She'd been on the trail for three days, and her journey was almost half way over. Ben was proving a very sturdy animal, even if not a fast one, and his endurance amazed Lou.
It was late afternoon when trouble found her in a heavily wooded area. Lou had slowed Ben to long-striding walk when she heard the dead leaves behind her crunching. Gasping, she flung herself around in the saddle and paled. Horsemen were crashing through the brush behind her. She hadn't been spotted yet, but there was no where for her to go, and it was only a matter of seconds before the leader took notice of her.
Her eyes traveled over the group of five men, and she glanced at herself. She had on a man's clothing, but no hat to hide the long hair that now hung down her back. The men were wearing the tattered gray uniforms of the Confederacy. Lou knew that as far away from the fighting as they were, they had to be deserters. The Union army still patrolled these parts, she knew, but she hadn't seen a soul in days and didn't have high hopes of anyone coming to her rescue.
Knowing there was nothing else for her to do, Lou gave Ben a quick kick in the side that startled him and slapped the reins against his thick neck. Although running from them now might cause them to spot her sooner, she knew that she would need the head start. Ben started off at a lumbering gallop, but his long legs opened the gap quickly from the slower moving horses behind her. Lou twisted in her saddle to see that she had been spotted, and as she feared, the men were giving chase.
"Run Ben!" She yelped, hoping to pull ahead far enough to duck off the trail and hide.
It wasn't to be. The wild cries of the men behind her grew closer, and Lou pushed her tired horse even harder. Ben gave all his heart in the chase, which kept the gap from closing completely, but the old horse just couldn't keep his lead over the faster, lighter cavalry horses behind him.
Then Lou glanced ahead of them, and something flashing through the trees caught her eyes…a flash of navy blue.
The coat of the Union uniform.
"Help!" She screamed into the wind desperately, and headed for the group of eight or so horsemen that had stopped on the trail at her cry and turned their horses. They began riding toward her when they realized what was happening. Lou was vaguely aware of them flagging her horse down and grabbing the reins to pull the frightened horse to a stop.
"Thank God!" Lou cried out, "Those men, they are deserters!"
The large man with the unkempt beard who was holding her reins nodded, "Yes, in fact, we've been looking for them." He smiled at Lou, and she tried not to pull back in disgust from the toothless grin he gave her. They were, after all, her rescuers.
Or so she thought. Lou grew pale as she watched her pursuers continue to ride toward the stopped company of Yankees. She felt as if she might be sick as the leader of the gray coated deserters--a tall, thin man with an eye patch-pulled his horse up to the leader of the blue coated men and extended his hand.
"It's about time, Marcus! But seeing as you brought us this bounty, I guess we can forgive you," the blue-coated man laughed.
Lou saw her opening and sprung to action, sending an elbow flying at the nose of the man holding her reins, and knocking him to the ground. Ben spun with the agility of a gazelle at Lou's skillful guidance, and they started to charge out of the circle and away from the men.
Before Ben could break through the gap though, five horses filled it, and Lou was trapped.
"Hello, Missy," the blue coated man who appeared to be the leader of the entire band said, and rode over to survey the wild eyed Lou.
"You turncoat cowards!" Lou growled, "didn't have the courage to stay and fight, so you run hide in the woods!"
The man surprised her by laughing, "So, you've heard of us?"
"You'd better just let me go! My husband is the Captain of a Union company stationed close by, and he'll bring the entire Western front down on you! You'll be shot!" Lou lied.
The men all laughed at her this time. Not exactly the response Lou was hoping for.
"Come on, darling, you can ride up here with me," the leader said, shaking his head, "I'm a Captain myself! Captain Harry Ludlow, see my bars?"
Lou's eyes grazed over his jacket, and narrowed as she saw the bloody stains on it, "Did you steal this from a dead man?"
"No, he wasn't dead, just almost," Harry laughed, "stole it right after I shot him!"
There was a hearty chorus of laughter and Lou's eyes widened in disbelief at the band of monsters who had her trapped.
"Please," she began, already knowing it would do no good, "my husband has been taken prisoner. I have to get help for him. He's very sick…" Lou had to pause as desperate tears stung her eyes.
"Aw, don't cry darling. Ain't nothing you could do to save your husband. They ain't prisons so much as death camps. Throw men out in the cold with no food, no shelter, and watch them slowly waste away. Don't give them none of their mail, tell them that their family said they don't want nothing to do with them no more…so see, he's probably already dead!"
Lou screamed a terrifying scream and leapt for the man with her hands clenched in fists. She hit him hard twice before with an easy motion he took the back of his hand and cracked it across her face, easily knocking her unconscious. Lou fell under Ben's feet, finding the darkness infinitely preferable to the reality of her situation.
"Thank you, Mr. Tompkins," Rachel smiled softly as she let herself out of the store. She shook her head and smiled even more broadly to herself. The gruff old man was softening with every year that went by. Today he'd thrown in an extra jar of preserves and a pretty ribbon for her. It was hard to believe he'd at one time been the stubborn old fool who refused to let Buck go into his store. He inquired about the "half-breed," Kid, and Lou with poorly concealed concern every time Rachel walked into his store.
Rachel sighed with contentment, pleased that Buck was home. It was as close to having everyone there as she got these days, with Kid and Lou down South, and Cody off scouting for the army still. At least Jimmy and Buck had been there for Christmas. Her brow wrinkled sadly as she momentarily thought of Jesse. They hadn't heard from him, except for roundabout news that he was still with Frank, since he rode away the day they buried Noah.
Rachel let herself into the marshal's office, shivering with pleasure as the warm air surrounded her.
She laughed to find Jimmy, Buck, and Teaspoon all sitting by the window, playing cards. "Well, I feel safer knowing you all are upholding the peace!"
"Aw, Rachel, ain't no one got enough energy to cause a ruckus. Too cold," Teaspoon said sheepishly.
"Hey, there's a letter over there for you, Rachel. Picked it up in Cottonwood," Jimmy told her, absently waving his hand toward the desk.
"Probably from a year ago…mail is so slow…who is it from?" Rachel wondered.
"I don't know, there isn't a return address. There's a letter there for Lou too. Guess someone got confused," Jimmy shrugged, and his eyes returned to his hand.
"Maybe it's from Jesse!" Rachel said excitedly, and rushed to the desk to pick it up with trembling hands.
Teaspoon, Buck, and Jimmy glanced over to see her eyes passing eagerly over it, then turned back to the game, knowing Rachel would enlighten them if need be, and not wanting to get scolded for being nosy.
"Oh, dear God!" soon came the cry from the desk. All three men quickly spun again to see the blonde woman leaning unsteadily against the desk and covering her mouth with her hand as tears began flowing out of her eyes.
"What is it?" Teaspoon demanded, fearing the worse as they all leapt up and went to her.
"It's Kid!" She began, but that was all she got out before Jimmy and Teaspoon interrupted simultaneously.
"Merciful God! He's…?" Teaspoon began, unable to finish the sentence.
"No!" Jimmy cried out, tears instantly coming to his eyes.
Buck simply paled.
"No! He's alive! The letter is from him!" Rachel said quickly.
"Then Lou? What happened? Is she okay?" Jimmy asked, not caring that his voice sounded panicked.
"She's fine! I think…" Rachel tried again, only to have Buck interrupt her.
"What?" Buck asked.
"Be quiet, all three of you, and I'll try to explain!" Rachel finally snapped, wiping at her eyes.
The three men had the grace to look ashamed.
"Good. Kid has been taken to Point Lookout Prison Camp in Maryland. Yankees burned his and Lou's home and took him prisoner at Christmas. He told Lou to come out here, and she promised him she would. This letter is begging me to keep Lou here, and not let her come after him."
"Where's Lou, then? Why haven't we heard from her?" Teaspoon wondered, "When was that letter written?"
"About three weeks ago. But Lou was supposed to have started on December thirty-first. She should have been here weeks ago," Rachel said, her voice trembling.
"Well, let's not panic. Travel is so difficult, and it is sheer luck these letters got here from Kid so fast," Teaspoon said, "Maybe Lou is waiting for us to reply to a letter before she comes out here."
"No," Jimmy said, looking up from the letter he'd snatched from Rachel's hand, "Lou knew Kid would write her here to tell her where he was. I know her. She would have risked everything to get out here as soon as possible."
"Well, she could take the train as far as St. Louis or Chicago, and I'm betting she took the one to St. Louis. She knows the trail from there to Rock Creek. If she's anywhere, it is between here and St. Louis," Buck reasoned.
"Let's go," Jimmy said, starting for the door.
"Now, hold on, Jimmy! You can't go crashing around in the wilderness looking for Lou! She may not even be out there!"
"But she may be, Teaspoon, and she's alone, and that area is filled with deserters. Cody was doing some work down there with his company, looking for them, and they found fifty or sixty in different places, and I'm sure there are more!"
"I'm sure too son, but you ain't got a chance against a band of deserters," Teaspoon sighed.
"Neither does Lou," Buck pointed out, his dark eyes smoldering.
"Listen, I have an idea. Cody's stationed further South than we are, and the telegraph in Benton is still up and running. I've got to go look after some business there anyway, so I'll wire Cody an urgent message that Lou may be out there and have him form a search party, all right?"
"Teaspoon, if she's not here in three days…" Jimmy began.
"I'll be the first one to saddle up," Teaspoon nodded.
"Poor Lou!" Rachel said, tears filling her eyes, "Lost her husband and her home, and the only way she could get home is by travelling alone for a month! And Kid is going to Point Lookout of all places!"
"Not a good place to be from what I hear," Teaspoon said softly.
"Damn fool," Jimmy muttered more to himself than anyone else, "Just had to get in the thick of it, didn't you Kid?" Then silently he thought, take care of your dumb, thick skull!
Lou wished the persistent, prodding pain in her side to go away, to let her slip back into the welcoming darkness. However, it grew stronger the longer she lay there, and finally she realized someone was nudging her in the side with the toe of his boot.
In the four days she'd been with the deserters, she'd learned that getting up was infinitely smarter than protesting, and she had the bruises to prove it. Slowly, and stiffly, she climbed to her feet, her skin like ice. She'd been tied and forced to sleep on the bare ground every night with nothing but a raggedy blanket. She'd had nothing to eat, and only an occasional mouthful of snow stuffed into her mouth by her frostbitten hands when no one was looking. She was sore and heartsick, knowing she was being taken further away from her destination, and quickly losing all hope that anyone would find her.
"Come on there, darling, up you go. We got to get a move on," Harry Ludlow told her. She knew the names of only two of the monsters, Harry Ludlow and Marcus. From listening to them talk as they rode along roughly, she gathered the blue coats had deserted after Bull Run, and the Confederates had stayed until the beginning of this fall. When they spoke of the destruction they wrought on anyone who crossed their path, Lou's blood ran even colder than the freezing wind. They were cut throats, pirates on land, and far more dangerous than any outlaw she'd ever come across while working for the express. They'd seen the horrors of war, and they had no fear. A few of them had been mentally affected from what they witnessed in battle. One man talked to his dead brother regularly. Another had a nervous twitch and stammered, growing furious if Lou didn't understand him.
They'd made threats to her that were unthinkable. Lou had never heard such language as they used to threaten her. Tears stung her eyes as she recalled some of the things that had been said to her. My husband would have your head if he heard you say that to me she longed to tell them, but didn't dare. For whatever reason, they'd not tried to carry out the worst of those threats, although she had been groped and handled roughly. She knew it was only a matter of time, but she thanked God they hadn't raped her, and prayed she'd escape before they tried.
She wondered if they stayed away from her because she was so ill. She'd been wretchedly sick for three days, often having to suddenly lean over her horse several times a day. They jested her and laughed at her even as she vomited, and Lou was utterly humiliated. She couldn't help but let her mind drift back to the year before, when she'd been so full of hope and love. The hate she felt for these horrible men almost eclipsed the love she felt for her husband. At first, she longed to just lay her head down and sob her heart out, but refused so many times that the bitterness and anger were starting to control her. They hadn't seen the first tear escape her eye since that first day. She couldn't let them. They were like dogs, ready to seize the throat of the weak.
Her eyes darted to the back of the pack where Ben trudged along, often whipped by the cruel men, carrying far more weight in gear than any horse should have been made to carry. He struggled on bravely, but grew weaker, and when Lou heard Marcus propose to kill him and eat his flesh, she came close to losing her control.
She urged him on silently, not sure she could bear to watch the gentle creature die.
That night, she laid her head on the frozen ground and waited for the bite of the cold to do its worse and the numbness to set in, praying that none of the men would touch her…or worse. She shivered convulsively, and her teeth chattered so violently that she bit her tongue many times. Blood ran, unnoticed down the side of her mouth.
She had just closed her eyes when she heard something nearby.
Her eyes flew open and she drew air to scream as she saw a figure hovering over her.
Before a sound could leave her, his hand clamped over her mouth, silencing her cry for help.
It was the most miserable looking lot of men Kid had ever seen, but he realized he must fit right in. Hundreds of them all staggered along dejectedly and lifelessly, their gaunt forms sheltered from the wind only by tattered gray uniforms.
Kid cast a worried look down at his boot, knowing that if he marched many more miles his toes would poke through it. A violent round of coughing diverted his attention from his shoes, and he fell out of line for a moment to try and regain his breath.
"Fall in, Reb!" a guard barked at him and shoved his rifle hard into Kid's ribs, only serving to make him cough harder.
Wearily, Kid moved back into line, not even having the fight in him to cast the guard a scathing glare.
They had been traveling for almost three weeks. Kid had stayed in the custody of Captain Kent and his men for the first week, before being turned over to other authorities. After that first week, Kid had joined the two hundred or so other confederate soldiers being taken to Point Lookout, and they'd been on the move ever since. The first part of the journey had been the worst by far.
He'd lost count of the days as he lay crammed in a railroad car with no light, no ventilation, and not even enough room to turn around. Often the train did not move at all during the day, but the prisoners were forced to stay on board. Many soldiers had died on that horrid trip, and Kid laid not eight feet from a corpse for two days before the body was found and removed from the car. When the prisoners finally stumbled back into blinding daylight, they were met by a company of union soldiers who marched them relentlessly northeast, towards Maryland and Point Lookout.
Kid pushed on steadily, his head feeling light and his vision unfocused. He'd only had a few crackers in the last two days, and he knew he couldn't go on much longer. His only consolation was that he'd said what he needed to say to Lou and gotten the letter in the mail a week ago. And he'd written Rachel to make sure Lou was taken care of and that she didn't come after him.
It was almost sunset when the ragtag group of Rebels stumbled to the top of a small rise and saw Point Lookout Prison Camp stretched before them.
Kid swallowed hard and felt tears come into his eyes at the bleak scene. Stretched to the beaches of the Chesapeake Bay were stockyards, outbuildings, and parapets. Guards walked along the high walls enclosing the yards with rifles in their hands. But the agony that ripped through Kid came from the scene within those yards.
A mass of humanity, thousands of men, milled about within them, all thin and dressed in rags. Standing water turned the ground into a swamp, and there was very little dry area from which to escape the biting water overflowing from the bay. Kid had heard someone say that Point Lookout was built to hold ten thousand men, but that at least twelve thousand occupied the space now. As the guards marched them quickly down the rise, eager to be rid of their charges, Kid wondered how in God's name he would survive this hellish place.
"Shhh!" A gruff voice growled, and Lou's attacker leaned close to her face, "Do you want to wake the whole camp?"
Lou struggled for all she was worth, but then suddenly stopped and turned frightened eyes toward the man, certain she recognized the voice, but clueless as to where from.
"Lou, it's Sam! Don't scream, I'm taking my hand away now!"
Lou squinted in the dim moonlight, as if trying to gauge if it was possibly true. Then she was able to focus on the ruggedly handsome face and clear, cool eyes of Sam Cain, and she felt tears start up in her eyes.
"Oh, Sam! Please take me away from here!" She whispered, not understanding why on earth the old marshal of Sweetwater was there, but thankful beyond belief to see her old friend.
"Okay Lou. I know some people who are gonna be mighty glad to see you!" Sam smiled gently, remembering the panic in Cody's voice when he had come bursting into their home in Cool Falls to tell them that Lou was missing. Emma had been nearly hysterical as she urged Sam to form another search party, in addition to the soldiers Cody was taking out. Sam, knowing Emma's special bond with the small girl and his own admiration for her courage, didn't need to be told twice. Fifteen older men in town were quick to follow the territorial governor into the wilderness.
Sam, from what he could see in the darkness, took the time to be amazed at the change in Lou, and to admire her beauty underneath her bruises. Although Emma had let him in on Lou's secret long before they were married, Sam had never realized just how foolish he was to ever think Lou anything but a woman until now. He didn't want to know what had happened to her at the hands of the deserters.
Lou whimpered as Sam cut the ropes that had been embedded so deeply in her wrists for days, and Sam tried to help Lou stand up. However, the long days of inactivity and of starvation had rendered her too weak to stand on her own. Sam gently picked the small girl up and stole back through the woods, to where his men sat on horseback, waiting for him.
"Okay, bring them down!" Sam told his men, "I don't really care if they are dead or alive when you're done!"
"My horse, please save my horse, the big horse," Lou mumbled, raising her head from Sam's shoulder to look him in the eye, "Sam, bring me my horse!"
Sam squeezed Lou tightly and nodded, "We'll get your horse, but right now, we're going to get you to a doctor!"
"I don't need a doctor, I want to know Ben is all right! I promised that I'd keep him…" Lou rambled on, feeling bewildered and confused, and agitated that Sam didn't understand her.
"Lou, honey, I promise you, your horse is going to be fine!"
"Oh, Sam, those men were horrible, horrible. They wanted to eat my horse!" Lou raved on, not herself at all. Sam was frightened for the girl. There was no telling what the men had done to her, yet all she was talking about was their threats on her horse. She was the strongest woman he'd ever known, but he knew that everyone had limits, and wondered if perhaps Lou's mind had been affected by the time spent with the rough men.
"They'll pay for whatever they tried to do to your horse, Lou," Sam said gruffly to hide the fury making his hands tremble, and they'll sure as hell pay for whatever they did to you, he thought.
"Horrible…I thought they were union soldiers and that they'd help me…" Lou whispered softly before laying her head against Sam's neck and either drifting to sleep or passing out. Sam couldn't tell which, but was somewhat relieved that her last statement had been lucid.
"She's coming to, I think," Lou heard a strange voice call out from what seemed a hundred miles away.
Lou forced her eyes open slowly and looked up to see the face of a strange man above her. She shrieked and bolted upright from the many blankets surrounding her and backed herself up until a tree stopped her.
Suddenly another man was pushing the stranger away and kneeling before her.
Lou looked at him in confusion, and closed and opened her eyes, "Sam?"
"Hey, Lou," He smiled at her, the corners of his eyes wrinkling kindly, and his teeth flashing evenly, "Long time, no see."
"How did you get here? How did…" Lou wondered, then quickly looked around for signs of the deserters. They were no where to be seen.
Sam sighed, not surprised that she didn't remember being woken up in the middle of the night and carried away, "Teaspoon and Rachel got a letter from Kid. He's okay, Lou. When they saw he sent a letter to you, they grew worried, especially when they figured you should have been home by then. So, they wired Cody to form a search party, and Cody asked for my help as well. We have been tracking the deserters for three days, and finally got close enough to spot you. Once I had you safely, we opened fire and most of the deserters were killed."
"Good," Lou growled, not ashamed of the hate in her voice…not after what those men had said and done to her.
"Lou, we're about two days from Rock Creek," Sam said quietly, then lowered his voice and scratched his chin as he tried to figure out how to tackle the delicate question he was about to have to ask, "But is there any…uh, injury, that we need to know about before we get there? Are you hurt?"
Lou had to smile slightly at Sam's now bright red cheeks, "No, Sam. They didn't hurt me."
Sam looked at the ground, then back up at her with an odd mixture of sheepish relief, "I'm glad Lou. Hey, we saved the horse you were raving on about."
Lou knit her brows in confusion, "When was I raving about a horse?"
Sam chuckled lightly, "It's better that you don't remember! But there he is, just the same," Sam said, motioning to Ben, who was tied up near by.
Lou glanced at Ben and whistled softly. Ben pricked his heavy ears and nickered to see her.
"Damndest thing I ever saw. Horse pitched a fit tied anywhere else but in sight of you," Sam shook his head, and looked at the beast, "Lou, I don't want to hurt your feelings, but that is the ugliest horse I've ever seen in my life. And I've seen lots of horses!"
Lou laughed slightly, though it hurt her sore ribs to do so, "He's growing on me."
Later that day, Sam ordered to push on. They'd only ridden an hour when Lou grew violently sick again, and that halted progress for three hours. Sam was at a loss to know what to do for the sick girl, but he never left her side, much to Lou's mortification.
It was almost dark by the time Lou was able to continue. This time they only rode for half and hour before they were interrupted again. Lou's heart leapt into her throat as she heard horses come crashing towards them.
Sam, seeing her stricken and pale face, was quick to put her at ease, "It's all right. It's real soldiers!"
Lou still watched fearfully as the riders approached them. Then her mouth opened in surprise as she saw her dear old friend in the lead.
"Lou!" Cody cried out and urged his horse faster, stopping it by Ben and reaching over to sweep Lou off of him and onto his own horse.
"Thank God!" Cody breathed and hugged the small girl tightly, cradling her head and pushing in against his shoulder.
"Ouch! You're hurting me!" Lou complained from within the confines of his strong arms. When Cody lightened his hold on her, Lou threw her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek firmly.
"I'm so glad to see you, Lou!" Cody choked out, then placed a gentle hand on her chin in order to study the bruises on her face, "Did you run into deserters? Did they hurt you? Who did this?"
"I'm fine, Cody. I did run into deserters, but I'm fine now, nothing happened."
Sam rode up to where Lou now sat across Cody's horse with the blonde man and sighed, "Well, I guess we aren't getting much further tonight."
They stopped and made camp, and Sam, Lou, and Cody sat around a campfire, talking of old times and old friends.
Lou was eager to find out about everyone in Rock Creek, and about Emma. Sam was delighted to inform Lou of his two beautiful red headed, brown eyed daughters, one of which had been named Louise, and the other called Alice. Cody was quick to tell her that everyone in Rock Creek was well, and that Buck was back at the station.
"And Jimmy?" Lou asked quietly, "Is he there?"
Cody stammered for a second, shocked that Lou didn't know that Jimmy had been in Rock Creek the whole time. He shook his head; it was just like that hothead to cut all ties rather than allow things to get complicated.
"Jimmy's working as Teaspoon's deputy. It was all Teaspoon could do to keep him from riding down here with his guns blazing, not knowing the territory, to save you."
Lou wasn't sure she believed it. Finally, she asked the question that had been gnawing at her since she'd been rescued, and that she was afraid to hear the answer to, "And Kid?" she nearly whispered, "Where did they take him?"
Cody and Sam exchanged a look, because they were unsure of how much Lou knew of Point Lookout, but they'd heard enough to know it was a horrible place to be.
"Point Lookout," Cody said quietly, watching Lou's face closely.
"Where is that?" she wondered.
Sam and Cody both sighed with relief, and Sam informed her, "Maryland."
"Well, I guess that is where I'm headed next," Lou said softly.
Her eyes then turned to Cody, "Cody, I came out here to ask you a favor, a favor I've got no right asking…"
Cody, already knowing where she was going, held up both hands, "No way, Lou, I can't help you out. Not this time!"
"Cody, just hear me out! Kid is so sick! He's practically skin and bones, and he won't survive! Not in one of those prisons! I know what they are like!"
Cody sighed and thought, you don't know the half of what they are like, honey.
"Cody, this is Kid we're talking about here! I know you didn't approve of his decision, but surely it isn't worth his life!" Lou's voice was growing desperate.
"Lou, it would be treason!" Cody began, "You are asking me to betray everything I believe in."
Lou shook her head and stood up furiously, weaving unsteadily, but purposefully ignoring the hand Sam reached out to help steady her, "Cody, there was a time when you believed in Kid, and family, more than that damn uniform! What happened to you?"
With that Lou started to storm away. However, she only made it a few steps on her very weak legs before a very sick Lou crashed to the ground, unconscious.
The company moved out that very night when everyone discovered just how sick Lou had become. They made it to Rock Creek the following morning and Sam carried Lou to the doctor's home and pounded on the door, while Cody ran to get the others.
In no time at all everyone was standing on Dr. Richardson's porch, hunched against the cold, blasting wind.
It wasn't that long, but it seemed like days before the doctor stepped out onto the porch, and invited them to wait inside, apologizing profusely for not realizing they were all waiting in the cold.
"How is she, Doc?" Teaspoon wondered, fearing the worst.
"She'll be fine. She was just exhausted, and had been without food for so long that she didn't have the strength to keep going. Especially with the little one draining the energy out of her."
"Little one?" Jimmy blurted out in amazement.
The doctor mistook his shock for concern, "Oh, not to worry, it seems that the baby was not harmed, and will be fine, as long as she begins eating properly very soon."
"That would explain the sickness, I guess," Sam muttered quietly.
"Merciful God!" Teaspoon said, sitting down slowly, "Lou is expecting, and Kid's off in some godforsaken prison camp rotting away!"
"Poor Lou, to have to go through it without him!" Rachel sighed, "At least she has us."
"Lou ain't planning on going through it without him," Cody said quietly, relaying the fact they all knew but didn't want to hear, "She's planning on getting him out."
"Well, sure, before she found out she was expecting," Sam pointed out.
Everyone else simply shook their heads, and Jimmy explained.
"You don't understand. That won't stop Lou from going after Kid. Nothing will."