Author's Note: My first story in about four years, be kind! From lyrics of the Clay Walker song "'Fore She Was Mama"
It was a cool fall day in Rock Creek and all of Lou and Kid's boys had a cold. No matter how much they pleaded, their mother had refused to let them play outside any more for the day.
"Ma! What are we supposed to do locked up inside all day?" Louise, with a toddler on her hip, stirred the pot of boiling potatoes.
"I don't know Jack. Why don't you play hide and seek?"
Her two oldest sons turned to each other and shrugged. Jack, 10, and Jed, 6, were usually good about finding things to busy themselves. Lou wasn't sure why they had so much difficulty with it today, but she was sure it had something to do with the fact that she needed them out from under her while she prepared Kid's birthday dinner. It was always when she was planning to have company that the boys seemed to require extra attention. As the two boys started to run off up the stairs she yelled out,
"Wait!" She swung her youngest boy, Jimmy, off her hip and sat him on the ground. "Take your brother with you. And don't get into anything!"
Jack snickered quietly to himself from his hiding place in the hallway closet. He knew it would take Jed and Jimmy a while to find him behind the stack of quilts on the floor. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness of the space he saw a wooden box he didn't recall seeing before. He reached for it and discovered it was full of books, letters and a few photographs. Because of the dark he wasn't able to see who was in the photos or read what the letters or books said. Jack scooted closer to the door and propped it open to let in some light. As he opened the lid on the box his brothers came running up behind him.
"Found you!" They cried in unison.
Jack seemed to have forgotten about the game already.
"Look what I found."
Jed and Jimmy sat down next to their brother and began pulling the items carefully out of the box.
"What are they?"
"I don't know. Look at this picture!"
Three year old Jimmy pointed to the photo.
"Yeah, there's Pa," Jed said, "And Uncle Jimmy, and Uncle Billy, and Grandpa 'Spoon…" he continued to name and point out the rest of the people in the picture.
"But who are they?" he motioned to three men he didn't recognize. One, a dark skinned man in light pants, the other a tall man with a bandana and the last one looked vaguely familiar. He was a smaller man with his hat pulled low, but Jed just knew he'd seen that fellow somewhere before.
"I don't know." Jack said. "Let's see what else there is. The three brothers began opening the books, which they soon discovered to be diaries, and letters. Jack, being the best reader, read aloud from the letters. The first one he read was from his father, to his mother. It was all about some woman named Amanda being kidnapped, how his father wanted his mother to stay behind and that he still loved her. The letter wasn't something the boys really understood, or cared about much (since it seemed like sissy love stuff), and quickly moved on to the other letters and books.
Kid opened the door to the kitchen and was met with a wonderful wave of smells. Lou had her back to him and was busily mixing the icing for his birthday cake. He snuck up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist.
"Sure smells good."
"I just hope it tastes as good."
"I bet it will." He kissed her cheek. "Where are the boys?"
"Upstairs playing hide-and-seek, but I haven't heard them in a little while. Run up and check on them for me, will you?"
Kid obliged and took off up the steps two at a time. He found his three sons sitting in the hallway just outside the closet with a box of papers.
"What are you boys doing?"
Jimmy jumped up and ran to his father, taking his finger and dragging him over to the other two boys.
"Look Pa!" he proclaimed, as if they'd discovered gold.
Kid took a seat on the floor and Jimmy crawled into his lap. Jack picked up the first photo they'd looked at and handed it to his father.
"Pa, we recognize most everyone in this picture, except for these three. Who are they?"
Kid couldn't believe what his sons had found. This was his and Lou's box of memories from their Express days. They hadn't looked through it in a while, and the boys had never seen it.
"Well," he started with a smile. "You know Ma and I used to work for the Pony Express. This picture was taken back then. See, we were all riders."
Jed pointed again to the three strangers.
"But who are they?"
"This is Noah. You boys have heard us talk about him before. Noah was a very special man, and he could use that whip better than Uncle Jimmy could shoot."
"What happened to him?"
"Well, he was shot trying to help a friend." That was as detailed as Kid wanted to get about his friend's untimely death.
"Is his name Noah like my middle name, Pa?" Jed asked. Kidd nodded,
"That's right. We named you after your Uncle Jed and your Uncle Noah."
"Who's that?" Jed pointed to the man with the bandana.
"Like my name?" Jack asked. Kid nodded.
"Yep, Jackson Ike. We named you after him. Ike was a very dear friend to us too. See, he had scarlet fever when he was little and lost his hair and his voice."
"How'd he talk" Jed asked.
"Uncle Buck taught him Indian Sign language and he talked with his hands."
"Wow!" All three boys said in unison.
Jed pointed to the smallest rider in the picture.
"Pa, who's he? I think I know him."
"You certainly do. That's your Ma."
All three boys quickly looked at the picture again.
"Ma?!" they squealed.
"Ma no boy!" Jimmy insisted stubbornly.
Kid laughed again. He realized that the boys had heard before about the Express days but they'd never seen a picture of Lou as she dressed then. Kid was pretty sure that the only pictures of Lou dressed in such a way were right in that memory box.
"No, but Ma used to dress like a boy and ride for the Pony Express, just like I did. She did almost everything the rest of us did."
"Did she carry a gun?"
"Was she a good shot?"
"She sure was. She was almost as good as me."
"Almost?" came a voice from behind them. They all turned to find Lou standing with her arms crossed. "Didn't I tell you boys not to get into anything?"
"Yes ma'am" they all said quietly.
Kid ignored her chiding and motioned for her to come closer.
"Look Lou. They got out our memory box. You know they'd never seen you dressed as a boy before?"
Lou smiled as she took the picture from her husband. He was right. They hadn't ever pulled out the old photos for the boys before, she wasn't sure why. Lou took a place on the floor beside Jack.
"What other pictures do you have?"
Jack picked up another one, this one a pencil drawing.
"Look at that." Lou almost whispered. "Ike drew this not long before he died."
"How did he die Ma?" Jed asked, looking over her shoulder.
"He was running to save a lady he loved and a very bad man shot him." Tears welled in her eyes as Kid squeeze her shoulder.
Jack pulled out one of the diaries.
"Read this to us!" he insisted, pushing into his mothers hands.
"April 20, 1860, I was shot last week while on a run. I was not injured badly, but I do think I broke a rib when I feel from my horse. Kid rode up on me a few hours later and took me inside to take care of me. While looking at my wounds he discovered my secret. He has promised not to tell anyone else, I think he will keep his promise. I haven't known him long, but I think Kid is every bit a Southern gentleman, and the only person I can trust right now. I'm glad someone knows, I need a friend, and I'm glad it's him."
Kid leaned over and kissed Lou's cheek.
"I'm glad it was me too."
"Eww!" the boys all yelled at the same time. The whole family laughed out loud and Lou picked up another book, flipping through the pages. She scanned the entry before reading aloud.
"Here's a good one! February 12, 1861, Kid had the nerve to move my things into Rachel's house today. That man knows how to push me to the edge! I was so angry at him when he showed me what he'd done, and I said some things I shouldn't have. I know now that he was only trying to do something nice for me and that he meant well, but Lord help him if he ever makes a decision without me again!"
Lou laughed aloud and Kid shook his head. He remembered that day well. Being called a "low down mealy mouth coyote" isn't something a person forgets easily. For the next hour or so the Walker family sat in the floor of the upstairs hallway reading and laughing together.
That night after the supper table had been cleared and the birthday cake served, Jack turned to the older man to his right.
"Grandpa 'Spoon, you know what we found today?"
"What's that son?"
"We found a box of pictures and letters that was Ma and Pa's a loooooong time ago!"
"Well it wasn't that long ago!" Lou chided with a smile.
"What was in that there box Jack?"
Jack smiled as he told about the memory box filled with letters, a drawing and photographs. Jed told about seeing Ike and Noah for the first time, and Jimmy piped in with his own comment.
"Ma no boy!"
Rachel couldn't help but laugh at the boy's insistence.
"What's that about?"
"Well," Lou explained, "There's that photograph in there that that traveling photographer took when he passed through town. The boys didn't recognize me since I was dressed like a boy. We realized we've told them about all that before, but they'd never seen me with short hair." She motioned to her long braid down her back.
"Why don't we have that photograph out, Lou?" Kid asked. Lou stood, making her way to a brown package sitting on the cabinet.
"I'm glad you asked." She handed the package to Kid. All three boys gathered around their father and before he could get it open Jack piped up,
"It was my idea!"
"But I picked it out!" Jed added.
"Happy Burfday!" Jimmy announced, not one to be left out.
"Boys," Rachel chided, "Let him get it open first!" Kid pulled back the brown wrapping and found a beautiful silver frame with the photograph they had been looking at earlier that day in the hallway.
"Now when did you manage this?"
"When you and Buck went out to break that mare. You know how long it takes you to break a horse." She teased.
The newly framed photo was passed around so that everyone could see.
"We were so young." Buck commented nostalgically. Not noticing the sentiment in his uncle's eyes, Jack came up beside Buck.
"Uncle Buck. You remember them?" He pointed to the two deceased males. Buck smiled softly.
"Yep, I sure do."
"What about him?" Jack asked deviously, trying to trick his Indian uncle.
"Yep, I remember him." Buck winked.
"You know who that is?" Before Buck could answer Jed yelled out,
"That's Mama, 'fore she was Mama!"
Author's Note: Thanks to my beta reader, my mom!