Part One

"I don't think we're gonna be able to outrun this storm!" hollered Cody over a clap of thunder. We were returning to Sweetwater from a special run to Crystal Springs. Although it was just late afternoon, the dark clouds were quickly turning day into night.

"I think you're right," I agreed as the raindrops started to spot my poncho. "Any suggestions?"

"Well, we're not gonna make it back to Sweetwater tonight. How about the station at Three Crossings?"

Inwardly, I grimaced. The boys at the other stations ususally lived like swine. Cody and the rest of ours probably would have too, if it wasn't for the civilizing presence of Emma. It was hard for me not to show my genuine distaste for stations like Three Crossings, "I'd rather not."

"Well, what do you want, Lou? You want to stay out here in the rain instead?"

"I'd rather," I muttered to myself. To Cody I said, "Let's just go a little further. Maybe we can find shelter in a cave or something."

"Whatever you say, Lou," Cody sighed in resignation. "But if I catch pneumonia and die, it'll be on your conscience."

Not being close enough to punch him in the arm, I stuck my tongue at him instead. Fortunately, because of the way I turned my head, I was able to spot a little structure out of the corner of my eye. "Look ahead, there's a cabin or something!" I exclaimed. "Want to see if they'd let two express riders sleep in their barn?"

Cody grinned, "Let's find out!"

As we turned in the direction of the cabin, lightning struck right over us, spooking my horse, Penny. She reared at the exact moment I wasn't paying attention, and my right foot got caught in the stirrup. As I landed, I managed to free myself on the way down, but not before hearing an awful >snap<, and a burst of pain surge through my ankle.

"Lou? Lou? You alright?" Cody was by my side in a flash.

"My ankle," I moaned.

"Come on, Lou, we'll get you somewhere dry and then take a look at it," he said, scooping me off the ground with very little effort.

By the time Cody situated me and both the horses, it was almost too dark to see the cabin. Carefully, Cody climbed the two front steps to the door. Oddly, as cold as it was, no smoke emitted from the chimney.

"Put me down," I whispered. "They might think it's awful strange of you to be carrying me when I'm supposed to be a boy." Gently, he slid me down, but still supported me. I could only stand on one foot for so long.

Cody rapped on the door, "Hello? Anybody home? We're just a couple of express riders who got caught in the rain, and my friend has a hurt foot."

"Cody," I sighed. "You don't have to tell your life story. Besides, I don't think anyone is home- there's no fire."

Undeterred, Cody opened the door that gave way easily. Another flash of lightning proved to be a blessing, because during its brief time it illuminated the room and we could see where a lantern was hung near the door.

"Here, lean against the door for a minute, I'll be right back," he assured me. He found and lit the lantern, and returned for me.

After carefully placing me down on a sofa, he found other lamps and lit them. In the light I noticed that he was soaked through to the skin, and realized the weather was growing colder. This alarmed me, for it had only been a couple of months earlier that Cody had been exposed to the elements, and spent a miserable Christmas Eve because of it.

"You best get out of those wet clothes," I instructed.

"But I don't have anything to change into," he laughed. "Besides, you're almost as drenched as I am."

I couldn't deny that.

"Well Cody, you weren't shy about borrowing these people's homestead, why don't you look around for some extra clothes?"

"You think that'd be okay?"

I threw a decorative pillow at him in response.

"Okay, I'll try and find us something, but then I want to get a good look at that ankle."

Cody disappeared behind a partition, and came back with two delightful surprises: a plaid nightshirt for him, and white flannel nightgown for me.

"Oh this is pretty," I declared, fingering the lace at the sleeves, "Now will you kindly go in the other room and change, seein' as how I can't?"

"That's our Lou, " chuckled Cody, "Sweet as cream one minute, and a spitfire the next. If you can wait a few minutes, I can even have a fire ready for you to change by."

"No, the fire can wait. Go change before you catch your death, and it will be on my conscience."

Retreating, he looked over his shoulder and winked, "You sure are a bossy one."

That is true, I thought to myself, but what else can you expect after having to become a "mother" to my brother and sister at such a young age. Being extra careful of my ankle, I removed all my clothes, including my long-johns, and slipped the gown over my head. Thank goodness I never gave up the habit of wearing drawers, I thought, even if it was ridiculous to wear them under long-johns. But, they were the one feminine thing I could wear without anyone knowing. Emma even washed them secretly with her underthings.

"You ready?" called Cody.

"Yeah, and ready for a fire, too. The temperature is dropping by the minute."

When he emerged wearing the nightshirt, he had a funny look on his face.

"What's that look for?" I wondered.

His face flushed a rosy color I thought only reserved for women, "It's just-just that I never seen you in a nightgown before, is all. Never seen anyone in one, really, 'cept my ma, of course."

"Just think of it as a dress that happens to be worn at night. I know you've seen girls in dresses before," I suggested, desperately trying to keep that same shade of red out of my own face. "I've never see you in a nightshirt before, either, chicken legs."

Cody responded to this by clucking like a chicken the entire time he built the fire.

"Cody?"

"Bwak?"

"You can stop that now. Sorry I teased you."

"Time for me to look at that ankle anyway," he replied, taking human form again. He bent down to get a better look, and put his hand on my toes, "Does it hurt when I do-"

"Ouch!" I yelled so loud that I almost scared myself. "Yes, it hurts when you do that. Please don't do it again."

"Sorry Lou," he apologized sincerely. "You've got a bad sprain, but nothing's broken."

"How can you tell?" I was curious.

"Seen enough damaged ankles to know the difference," he answered. It was good enough for me.

Part Two

We were quiet for a few minutes, not knowing quite what to say. I was still self-consious about Cody's mention of my nightgown. Then his stomach growled, breaking the silence. We laughed comfortably together, and somehow the tension was relieved.

"Guess it's time for supper," Cody chuckled. "I'll see what I can find- and don't worry, I'll leave these folks a few coins before we leave."

Cody's search did not reward much. He found some potatoes in the cellar, and some jerkied beef. It wasn't a fantastic meal by any means, but good in an adventurous sort of way. "Sorry it's not much," Cody apologized.

I shrugged, "Well, it beats Jimmy's cookin'."

Cody grinned, and then started to regard me seriously with eyes that were as blue as a summer sky.

"What's that look for?" I asked, pretending to be more annoyed than I was. "Is it the nightgown again?"

"No, uh, no." he stammered. "I was just thinking...you seem so different now than when you first came to the station."

"Well sure, now that everyone but Teaspoon knows I'm a girl."

"It's not just that- it's like something isn't haunting you anymore. Lou, I want to know something: what happened that day when you and Ike and me went to town?" he asked gently.

I forced myself not to panic. I was not ready to talk about it yet with anyone but Emma. Cody was a good friend, but he might not understand. My old instinct to run away came back to me, but fortunately, I remembered my ankle in time.

"It's okay, Louise, you don't have to tell me if you don't want to. I didn't mean to upset you. Take a deep breath now- you look a little pale."

I finally caught my breath and was able to speak, "Maybe someday, Cody. Hey, you called me 'Louise.'"

"Pretty name for a pretty lady," he winked. "Anyway, I'm glad you're okay. We'd better get some sleep now. Goodnight."

Cody stretched out before the stove and closed his eyes. I pulled the blanket up to my shoulders and drifted off listening to the rain beat down upon the roof.

The throbbing sensation in my ankle made it difficult for me to stay asleep. On one occasion I thought I awoke to the sound of muffled sobbing. For a moment, I was back in the orphanage where nightly cryings were a regular occurance. I opened my eyes and realized where I was. Cody lay on his stomach by the fire, with his eyes buried in his hands and his shoulders heaving. He was not having a nightmare. So, you're haunted by memories, too, I thought to myself. My first instinct was to try and comfort Cody somehow, just as he had done for me. However, he was having his cry under the impression that I was asleep. Not wanting to betray him, I closed my eyes and willed myself to rest.

"Lou? Lou, wake up. There's a break in the storm and I think we can make it home."

"Alright," I mumbled sleepily. I managed to notice that Cody's eyes were red-rimmed.

"Didn't sleep well last night," he said defensively. Goodness, I hadn't even said anything! "I'll get the horses ready while you get dressed."

We were out on the trail in ten minutes. Although it was no longer raining, the temperature felt like it was dropping by the minute. Maybe it was fortunate that I had sprained my ankle. Otherwise, I would not be sharing a horse with Cody and taking advantage of the extra warmth.

"Only about ten more miles now," Cody announced after about two hours. He had been unusually- no, eerily- quiet during the ride. Perhaps he was still busy with those thoughts that had been haunting him last night.

"I'll be glad to get home," I yawned.

"Don't go to sleep on me, Lou," he warned. "You gotta stay awake when you're this cold. Remember how you had to keep me awake on Christmas Eve?"

I laughed, "That was no easy task, but you're here to tell about it."

For the last ten miles Cody grew more conversational. Either he was escaping his demons, or trying to keep me awake. Finally, after a full day's ride, we approached the station. Like a beacon of light, Emma was waiting for us on the porch.

"Ike, get the horses. You two are comin' straight inside, and having hot stew, then going right to bed 'fore you catch your deaths."

Cody gently lifted me from the horse, "She needs a bandage, Emma."

Our red-headed housekeeper was alarmed, "She's been wounded?"

"Just sprained my ankle is all, " I said to calm her fears.

"Kid, bring the bandages from my kit," she ordered.

In short order, everyone was inside as Emma bandaged my foot and Cody told of our adventure.

"So, you and Lou all by yourselves for a night, huh?" Jimmy smirked.

Not sure how to deal with this, Cody looked at me with pleading eyes.

"Yes, Jimmy, and he was a perfect gentlemen, unlike others I might mention." I added, giving him a frosty glare. That boy could get on my last nerve.

The others tried unsucsessfully not to laugh, and Emma shooed them away to do chores. After feeding us some of her good stew, she insisted that Cody and I climb into our bunks.

"Aw, Emma, " I started, but was quickly cut off.

"None of that now," she admonished. "There's not much you could do anyway, young lady. Here, let me put a couple of pillows under that foot to keep it elevated."

By the time Emma finished fussing over me, Cody was snoring softly above us in his bunk. We smiled at each other, amazed at how fast he could fall asleep.

"He must have had a long night," Emma said, rising to cover him more thoroughly and giving him an indulgent smile.

"He kept the fire going all night, plus taking care of me." I told her.

Emma must have known I wasn't telling her the whole story, "Is there something more, Louise? You have a certain look in your eye that only women get."

"One time last night I woke up and heard Cody crying-deep, heart-wrenching sobs. Oh Emma, I wanted to go to him so badly."

"That must've been hard on you," she agreed. "But you did the right thing. All these boys seem to have ghosts that followed them- things in the past they want to keep burried, like you did. There were a couple times before you came when I'd come in here at night to check on them and find one of them in tears."

"Do you know about Cody's past?" I wondered. He was a talkative one, but rarely spoke about himself.

"Afraid not," she sighed. "But he'll open up when he's ready. You try to rest now, before supper time." She gave me a maternal kiss on the forehead, then checked on Cody again, and pulled the blankets around him a little more tightly.

Part Three

I awoke to the sounds of the boys trying to wake Cody in a manner that was not very friendly.

"You boys cut that out," I whispered, hitting Ike on his bald head with a pillow. But I was too late; Cody woke up in about as good a mood as you might expect a grizzly bear to be in when interrupted from hibernation.

"You boys deserve what you're gonna get," called Emma from the stove. "Now come on over to the table. Supper's almost ready."

"Where's Teaspoon?" asked the Kid as we took our seats.

"He had some business in town," Emma answered. "He should be along directly. Kid, would you say the blessing please?"

Emma was bound and determined to make us into model citizens, so saying grace before supper and church on Sundays were unbreakable rules.

As soon as we started digging into the beef stew and hot biscuits, Teaspoon came in, and looked anxiously at the feast set before him.

"Knew you'd come in as soon as there was food on the table," Emma winked.

"Any news from town?" asked Buck. Between rides and bad weather, we had not been to town in some time, except for Sundays.

"As a matter of fact, there is," grinned our station master. "Something you boys are gonna like, too...there's gonna be a dance in two weeks, to celebrate Valentine's Day."

For a split second after Teaspoon mentioned the dance, I saw myself in a beautiful dress, twirling around to the music. I had never been to a dance before, except as a small child, and had always dreamed of the day. That dream was short-lived, though, as I came back to the present with a sinking feeling.

My face must have shown my thoughts too well, though, because when I looked up, Teaspoon was staring at me with a look of...could it be sympathy?

"Don't look so unhappy, son. Just because you're on the short side don't mean the girls won't dance with you."

The boys were unable to stop themselves from bursting out into laughter, and even Emma coughed behind her napkin. At least Teaspoon didn't know the real reason why. Still, I felt myself on the verge of tears, and quickly excused myself. I ran to the stable seeking comfort from my horse, Penny.

In a few minutes I heard straw rustle on the floor in back of me, and turned around expecting to find Emma or Cody. To my surprise, it was Jimmy.

"What're you doing here?" I asked somewhat defensively. Jimmy and I had not gotten off to the best start.

"I wanted to see if you were okay," he replied, sounding a little hurt. "I know what it's like you know."

"How could you?" I demanded.

"Because most people think I'm someone I'm not, too."

I wanted to argue his point, but he sounded so sincere that I nodded for him to go on.

"Most people think I'm tough, because that's how I try to act on the outside; that's what people see, because I have to cover up who I am on the inside, too."

"So what are you on the inside?"

Jimmy flashed me a brief, crooked grin, "Not too sure-that's part of the problem. But I'm scared a lot, and I don't feel as smart as the rest of you-that's why I act tough.

"I didn't know that. You can be a very sweet man. I guess you do know kind of how I feel."

"So what are you gonna do about the dance?" he asked.

"Get a stomachache about an hour before it starts," I sighed.

"Oh, I think we can come up with a better plan than that," he said with a mysterious smile. "Come on, Emma's got blueberry pie for dessert."

"But what will I tell everyone?" I asked, wondering how I was going to explain my behavior.

"Just tell them you have a short temper, too," he joked.

I punched him in the arm, "Thanks Jimmy," and hope he knew my real meaning.

A few days later I returned from an exhausting run, and collapsed on my bunk.

"Emma wants to see you as soon as you're washed up," Kid notified me. He, Buck and Ike were involved in a poker game.

"I'll go over in a while," I yawned. I didn't want to move for about a week.

Ike clapped his hands to get my attention, She said now, not later

"Only if you help me out of this bunk," I implored them. Ike chuckled silently, but came to my rescue anyway. "I wonder what can be so important."

"Well, get on over to Emma's and find out," suggested Buck.

As soon as I shut the door behind me, I heard peals of laughter. What kind of trick are they up to now? And why do I seem to make such a good target? But to my surprise, Emma was there waiting for me- and so was Jimmy.

"We've got a plan, Lou."

I was puzzled, "A plan?"

"For the dance, silly," smiled Emma.

Jimmy talked so fast he almost stumbled over his own words, "On my last ride I saw a woman wearing a new kind of bonnet- it kind of covered her face, but it looked real nice. Anyway, I figure if you wore one of those to the dance, no one would figure out who you really were."

"They're called poke bonnets. I saw them in my Godey's Ladies Book," explained Emma. "If you have a free day next week we can go to Oak Grove and have us a little shoppin' trip. Would you like that? Never mind- I know your answer by the way your eyes are shining."

"But what will I tell Teaspoon?"

Jimmy reached out and gently took off my glasses, "I think it might be time for an eye appointment, don't you Emma?"

"Bet she can't see a thing without them," she laughed.

Part Four

"Come on, Lou, turn down the lamp," grumbled Cody, who liked sleeping almost as much as he liked eating.

"Just a few more minutes?" I begged. "This letter has to be just right. I'm writing it to Jack about the dance."

"Dear Jack," started Kid in a high, feminine voice. "Please, oh please, come to the dance with me. Kiss kiss, Louise."

The others thought this was hilarious and started to make kissing and swooning noises.

"The next one of you who says something is gonna get a punch in the nose," I warned, loud enough for everyone to hear. Believing me, they quieted down. It was a hurried note to Jack that was written that night, and I prayed that he would reply soon.

Two days later, Emma and I loaded up the buckboard with our overnight satchels, and headed for Three Crossings. Teaspoon had believed our story about my needing new eyeglasses, and gave us permission for two days off. I was still in my boys' disguise, of course, but would change into it once we were a fair ways out of town.

"What color dress were you thinking of?" asked Emma once we were on our way.

It had been so long since I had even thought about purchasing a dress that the question took me by surprise.

"I hadn't even thought about that," I admitted. "Would you believe it's been almost a year since I went to choose a dress of my own? The time before that, I was with my mama." Almost ten years ago, I sighed to myself. After that it was cast-offs from the older orphanages. By the time they got to me, they were worn out and mended several times over.

"Well, that's something for you to think on then," she smiled.

A strange thought occurred to me then, "Emma, I don't know if I rightly remember how to even choose a dress- the color or style, or anything."

"It'll come back to you," she assured me. "Besides, you can try on all kinds at the dress shop. As for color, you'd probably look best in red, pink, blue- those kind of colors. The only ones I'd recommend staying away from are yellow and orange. They might make you look kind of sallow."

I spent the rest of the ride daydreaming about all different kinds of dresses, and how I'd look in them when dancing with Jack.

We arrived at the hotel to check in first. Although it was not a grand hotel by any means, to a girl who'd never set foot in one before it looked like a palace. Our room was on the 2nd floor and was sparsely furnished, but the beds looked a lot more comfortable than those at the bunkhouse. A part of me was tempted to stretch out on it now, but the part of me that was excited about the dress won over.

Emma and I set out to explore Three Crossings. To our good fortune, the town had a dry goods store, and a dress shop. We decided to head to the dress shop first because it more likely had a better selection. We entered the building and a woman came out from behind the counter to greet us. She appeared to be about the same age as Emma, with straight brown hair pulled into a single braid, and kind green eyes.

"Afternoon, ladies. My name is Alice McKee. Can I help you?"

"Yes, thank you. I'm here with my friend Louise. She needs a new dress, and as long as I'm here, I might as well look too."

The two older women laughed comfortably together. Mrs. McKee took my hand, "Well, young lady, let's take a look. We best start with our smaller selection for you."

I was awed by the display of silk and satin dresses, and pointed out several to Emma.

"They are lovely, Lou," she agreed. "But we're talking Sweetwater here, not New York or Paris. Most of the girls will be wearing their best cotton dresses- something they would wear to church."

"I suppose you're right," I sighed. Mrs. McKee chuckled and lead me to her sampling of more simpler dresses.

One dress in particular caught my eye. It was a deep turquoise color, covered with small pink roses. Although not fancy, it was very pretty and even had lace at the wrists and neck.

"The lace is directly from Paris, even if you do live in Sweetwater," winked Mrs. McKee.

I was bursting with the anticipation of actually wearing it, "What do you think, Emma?"

"It's lovely. You go try it on, and I'll look for a poke bonnet for you. If it doesn't need any alterations why don't you wear it to the hotel for dinner tonight?"

I went behind the curtain, and to my joyous surprise, the dress fit perfectly. It didn't even need to be taken in in the bust, as I'd feared it might. Both Emma and the shop owner smiled approvingly when I emerged.

"You look beautiful, Louise. The color really suits you," complimented Emma. She set the poke bonnet on my head, "There now, you make quite a picture."

"Wish I had one of those new-fangled picture-takers," agreed Mrs. McKee. "She is a lovely girl."

"She sure is," Emma smiled at me knowingly.

Part Five

After Emma purchased a few things for herself, we headed back to the hotel for dinner. A few gentlemen tipped their hats to me, but I wasn't sure how to respond so I just blushed nervously. Still, it was nice to feel admired, and attractive. With Emma by my side, I also felt safe.

We enjoyed a quiet supper in the hotel dining room. Emma joked that she particularly enjoyed not cooking, serving, and cleaning up after the meal. We finished off our supper with apple pie, and then went upstairs to our room, tired from the long day.

"I have a little surprise for you, Louise, before you go to bed," announced Emma.

"A surprise? What kind of surprise?"

"A nice one I hope. Look under your pillow."

Curious, I lifted the pillow off the bed. Sitting there was a neatly folded white flannel nightgown, with delicate tucking across the bodice.

"It's an old one of mine," explained Emma. "But I hemmed it and took it in some. Thought you might enjoy sleeping in something besides your long-johns tonight."

I had the nightgown on even before she had completed the sentence. It was soft and so utterly feminine, "Thank you, this is a nice change."

I crawled underneath my covers, and spread out all my limbs, thrilled to have more room than my rather narrow bunk at home gave me. It was such a nice treat to actually spread out. Emma chuckled at my actions, and went to turn down the lamp.

"Are you hoping there'll be a letter for you when we get back?" she asked in a confidential tone.

"I've hardly thought about anything else," I admitted. "Why do you ask?"

She paused for a minute, and just when I thought she would give me an answer, she asked another question, "Lou, do you think that Cody's been acting differently around you lately? Since, well, really since Christmas Eve?"

"He-he did kind of blush when he saw me in a nightgown the night we got caught in the storm," I said. "But other than that, no."

"It's just that Cody seems more protective of you lately," Emma continued. "I could be wrong, but I think I've been seeing a difference in the way he looks at you."

I was completely dumbfounded by her comment. Cody? Feelings for me? I'd never thought of Cody in that way before. Sure, he was kind to me from the first, but he was kind to everyone...

"Well, those were just my thoughts. 'Night, Louise. Sleep well."

"Goodnight," I replied, but sleep did not come easily to me that night. Thoughts of Cody kept popping in my head, and I couldn't get them out. It was a long, restless night.

It seemed like I had just drifted off to sleep when Emma started shaking my arm, "Wake up, sleepyhead. I'll treat you to breakfast in the dining room."

I groaned and rolled over, but Emma just laughed. I got out of bed feeling unrested and in a sour mood.

"Why don't you wear your pretty new dress?" she suggested.

"I don't want to," I retorted, sounding like a spoiled ten-year-old. I felt horrible using that tone of voice with Emma after all she had done for me. But it was like that bad mood had taken a hold of me, and would not let go. I looked at Emma to see her reaction. A part of me wanted her to give me the scolding I deserved. Only a flicker of surprise registered on her face.

"Well, then, wear what you please," she said softly. "If you want, you can join me for breakfast when you're ready."

Even though I had gotten my way, I still did not feel satisfied. In a huff, I threw on my old dress, and ran a comb through my hair. As she promised, Emma was waiting for me in the dining room, reading a newspaper. When the waiter came to take our order, I asked for pancakes, toast, bacon and eggs-along the lines of my usual breakfast at home. Both Emma and the waiter raised a subtle eyebrow at my request, and it annoyed me even further.

"It's what I'm used to eating," I said defensively. But when the order arrived, it did look like too much food. Sensibly, Emma had just ordered toast, eggs, and juice. After all, we were just riding in the wagon back to Sweetwater today, not doing any strenuous work like on most other days. Aware of my own foolishness, I tried to eat everything on my plate, anyway.

It was a quiet meal. Emma must've known better than to even try and make conversation with me. Finally, when we were done she said, "Well, we best head to the livery and pick up the wagon."

I could barely move, I was so full. I felt like I was going to burst out of my dress any minute. I noticed Emma trying not to smile at my folly. I think I would've felt better if she had laughed out loud.

We were soon on our way home. I knew that it was my fault that the trip would be quiet and awkward. However, I wasn't quite sure how to apologize and keep my pride at the same time.

"Lou, I've never told you much about my life, have I?" asked Emma out of the blue.

"No, not really," I replied. Her question surprised me into having a decent tone to my voice.

"Would you like to know about it?" she inquired

"Yes I would." After all, we had a long trip ahead of us, and it would make the time go faster.

Part Six

"Well, I was born in a little town called Schulyer, (pronounced "Skylar") Virginia. It's about an hour from Charlottesville. My father owned a lumber mill there, and did some farming-mostly vegetables. We got by- sometimes just barely. We had some animals too-chickens, goat, pigs. I had a special pet chicken named Emmaline."

"Emmaline?" I giggled.

"Well, I only had two older brothers, so she was the closest thing I had to a sister. Let's see-Robert was 10 when I was born, and Richard was 8. My mama died when I was six, from a cholera epidemic. I was mostly raised by my father and older brothers. You know why I didn't turn out wild?"

"Why? I would think being raised by men-"

"Would turn me into a tomboy? That's what most people would think. But the men, especially Papa, were determined that I would grow up to be a real lady. He paid a neighbor woman to make dresses for me. I was always in ribbons and ruffles, even when the boys went barefoot. They also made sure I went to school and learned my lessons. So you could say I was quite petted and pampered."

"You were so young when your mama died," I commented. "Do you remember her at all?"

"Just parts of memories, really," she replied. "She had beautiful brown hair-just a shade darker than yours- and I remember watching her put it up in rag curlers every night. I remember that she would read or sing to me before bed. And hoeing. She was a slight woman, but very strong. Anyway, Papa and the boys saw that I was raised to be a proper girl, but when I got older I found a lot of their notions, well...confining."

"So being prim and proper all the time didn't suit you either?"

Emma sighed, "Afraid not. In my case, it is true that my temperment matches my hair. I became rebellious. One time I even ran away with a boy, planning to elope. Fortunately I came to my senses before we reached the preacher's house, and demanded to be taken home. I was scared of what Papa would do, but all he said was 'Get to bed young lady. At least you have some of the sense that God gave you.' That was the end of my rebellion, but not my longing for something different."

"How did you come to Sweetwater?" I was curious.

"Don't worry, I'll get to that part," she assured me. "When I was 19, I met a man- a boy, really-named Evan. He was full of grand dreams. I think I was almost as attracted to the dreams as I was to the man. He would go on and on about his West, and how are life would be there. He saw it as the land of milk and honey."

"It didn't turn out that way, did it?" I guessed.

She seemed not to hear my question, lost somewhere back in time, "After courtin' for a while, we were married. A big, fancy church wedding. And being from the Virginia mountains, we had plenty of music. Oh, how we danced! It was the biggest social event in Schulyer that year. Of course, that's not saying much. Still, it was a grand time."

"I'd like to have a wedding like that someday," I sighed.

Emma did hear this comment, "Don't worry, Louise, you will. But a nice wedding isn't as important as a nice marriage."

"Didn't you have a nice marriage?"

"At the beginning, yes. He bought a farm, but wasn't successful because his heart wasn't in it. He tried a few other things, too, carpentry mostly- but claimed in order to prosper you had to go West. By that time I was with child, so we had to postpone our journey."

I was going to ask about the baby when Emma continued, "I miscarried the baby. We were devastated. How we wanted that little one. As soon as I recovered physically, we went West. I felt like I didn't have anything else to loose."

"Is that when you came to Sweetwater?"

"Oh, no. The year was 1850, so we set out in search for gold. After a long, tiring journey, we settled in a place called Columbia, California."

I was incredulous. There was so much about Emma's life I didn't know...so much I took for granted.

"I just can't picture you as a miner's wife," I said. "I would think you were-well- too refined for that."

"I was only one out of ten "respectable" women there, as some would say. At first it was kind of fun. I met people from all over the world- Chile, China, Mexico, Germany. I got a lot of special attention, being one of the few women there. But later, it got to be very lonely. And living in a tent was fun, too, until the first frost came. Evan promised he'd build us a house, but like I said, he was better at dreaming that doing. When the first snow fell, I insisted we rent a room in the boarding house. That meant taking in laundry in order to pay the rent."

"That doesn't sound like an easy life," I sympathized.

Suddenly, Emma stopped the horses and looked directly into my eyes, "I hate to tell you, Lou, but those were the good days."

Part Seven

Those were the good days? I thought to myself.

"Well, let's stop here for lunch. I had the hotel fix us some sandwhiches for the ride back," Emma announced. She seemed more herself now, back in the present.

We climbed down from the wagon and headed for the shade of the nearest tree. Even though temperatures were still cool, it warmed up quickly underneath the prairie sun. We were quiet for a few minutes as we began our meal, and I was glad. Emma's story had given me a lot to think about.

"Emma, about this morning," I began. "I-I want to apologize. I was out of line talkin' to you like I did. I'm sorry."

She smiled, "Apology accepted, Loulabelle. Everyone is entitled to a bad day now and then. And I suppose my comments about a certain young man last night didn't help you sleep."

"Well, that's true," I blushed. "But stil..."

"Listen, you stop now, or else we'll be here all day apologizin' to each other," she chuckled. I joined in the laughter, and the last of the tension between us disappeared.

After my foolishly big breakfast, half a sandwich was all I was able to manage, and that was only because I didn't want to be wasteful.

"Please don't tell the boys about that breakfast," I pleaded. "They would never let me live that one down."

"Your secret is safe with me," Emma promised. "Well, if we want to get back by supper-time, we best get a move-on. Besides, I have to tell you the rest of my story."

As we climbed into the wagon, a thought came to my mind, "Who has been doing the cooking while you've been gone?"

"Would you believe Jimmy?" she laughed.

"I wouldn't have believed it until you told me. But I guess everyone has a secret talent or two."

"Jimmy learned how to cook when his ma was sick a-bed for a spell. It's not fancy cookin' but it'll do if you're hungry."

I wondered how Emma mananged to know so much about each of us riders. SHe had a way of drawing us out, and a way of letting us know we could trust her. At least that was the case for me. Oh, I had trusted Charlotte, and Rebecca, but only to a certain extent, I realized now. With Emma, I could trust her with my soul. It has been a long time since I had let anyone get to know me so well. Of course, the year I spent in the brothel, I didn't feel as if I even had a soul. But in the last few months, I felt myself slowly gaining it back.

"Now, where was I?" asked Emma, bringing me out of my reverie. "Oh, that's right-the boarding house in Columbia. That was a rough winter. A lot of days it was too cold to mine, so Evan began spending more time in the saloons. There were 50 in that town to choose from."

"Fifty saloons!" I exclaimed. "How big is this town?"

"Not big enough to justify two saloons, let alone 50."

"Did your husband drink a lot?" I asked with some trepidation. I remembered how my pa would drink himself into a stupor, or worse yet, a rage.

"No. At first he mostly just hung around. He drank little and talked big. But then something awful happened to me, and he couldn't deal with it. That's when the heavy drinking started."

I didn't want to know what had happened to Emma. A familiar sinking feeling formed in the pit of my stomach.

"It wasn't as bad as what Wicks did to you," she continued. "One night we were robbed. I was attacked, but defended myself before anything worse could happen. Evan was too stunned to move, even though I screamed for him to help me. He took to the bottle a lot more after that. Men sometimes have strange ways of proving their manhood."

"Emma, I-I never knew," I said, blinking back tears.

"Of course you didn't know, child," she said gently. "I never told you before now, and it's not exactly something a body can guess."

"Why are you telling me this now?" I asked.

"Well, partly to pass the time, partly because I know so much about you, and partly because I want you to know that everyone has ghosts that make them cry at night sometimes."

"Like Cody that night?"

"Exactly. Just that everyone has a different ghost. You want to know how I came to Sweetwater?"

"Yes, I've been waiting for that part."

"Shortly after we were robbed, I let Evan know that I was in the family way. I wanted to make absolutely sure I was going to carry the baby to term before I let him know."

"How did he take the news?" I wondered, remembering how my sister Theresa's birth was too much for my pa to handle.

"He was excited at first, but then got scared. We were left with almost nothing after the robbery, and he had to actually start providing and not just dream about it. He wanted me to stop laundering, but we needed the money."

"Did Evan find any gold?"

"Not enough to matter. He did get back to his carpentry, though. Still, we were ready for something else. I didn't want to raise my child in the gold mines. We met a man in town who said he was from Sweetwater, and that he was selling some property there. We decided to take a chance, and headed for Nebraska territory."

She paused for a breath, and then continued, "I had baby Joseph two weeks after we arrived in Sweetwater. Needless to say, it was no easy journey, but things got better after we settled here. Evan was working more and drinking less. Then came small pox. Joseph and I got real sick. Evan couldn't handle that much responsibilyt, and took off. I got better, thanks to kind neighbors, but the baby never did."

"Is that why you stay behind after church sometimes?" I asked before thinking. Emma didn't mind, though.

"Yes, I try to sit by his grave once a month. It's hard, but I try to honor his memory."

I thought about my own longing to sit by my mother's grave and tell her about my life now. I didn't mention that to Emma, though. This was her story, and her pain, not mine.

She continued, "THe people of this town knew of my situation, and were good to me, especially Marshal Cain. He helped me turn my property into a way station, and eventually the Pony Express Station. So that, Louise, is how I came to Sweetwater."

"It's so sad," I said under my breath.

"But it didn't end sadly, did it?" she asked.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I don't have my own child, but I do have you and the boys. Believe it or not, having all of you around satisfies a longing in my soul."

"I'm glad we make you happy," I smiled. "Look, we're almost to Sweetwater!"

"We had ourselves quite a trip, didn't we, Louise?"

"We sure did. Thank you, Emma."




Buck and Cody were in the yard when we returned.

"Hi Emma, Hi Lou," greeted Buck. "Did you find yourself a dress?"

"I sure did," I gushed. "A real pretty one."

Cody grinned broadly, "I can't wait to see it on you."

"Well, you'll have to wait until the dance," I tried to say casually. I could feel the color rise up through my neck and into my face. Was Cody just trying to make conversation, or was there more to his words?

Part Eight

A letter arrived for me a few days later, postmarked St. Joseph. I don't know who delivered it to my bunk, but there it was after I got back from an especially hard ride. Fortunately, no one was around and I could read it in private.

"Dear Louise," it began, "I accept you lovely invitation to the dance and will see you on Saturday. I am looking forward to our visit, as I have some good news, and a question to ask you. Sincerely, Jack."

My heart did a little flip and I tucked the precious note under my pillow. Jack was coming to see me! Instead of my usual nap after a ride, I went to talk with Emma. She would appreciate my good news.

Emma, Jimmy and the other boys were glad for me as well. Cody was a puzzle, though. He would laugh and joke and be his usual self one minute, but almost made a point of staying out of my way. For the first time in months, we went for a week without a conversation. I wanted to talk to him about it, but just somehow never got around to seeking him out.

The next Saturday I complained to Teaspoon about having a bad head and stomach ache. He looked over me with fatherly concern as I lay in my bunk trying my best to look ill, "Well, you'll have to miss the dance, son. Can't risk any of my riders getting any sicker. You just stay and bed and heal up."

I waited until I could no longer hear the horses of the others before hopping out of bed and into my new dress and bonnet. I glanced at my reflection in the mirror before hearing a knock on the door. My heart did that familiar flip-flop as I went to answer it.

The grin on Jack's face was as ride as the prairie sky, "You are a sight for sore eyes, Louise."

"Hello, Jack," I blushed. Time and distance had made me a little bashful. "I'm glad you could come."

"I wouldn't miss escorting the prettiest girl in Sweetwater to the Valentine's Dance. Would you do me the pleasure, Louise?" he jauntily offered his arm to me.

"Why I'd be honored to, Mr. McShane," I teasingly replied in my best "Southern Belle" voice. All the nervousness and tension between us seemed to disappear.

We had a pleasant talk in the wagon on the way into town. I confided in Jack my fear of being discovered, but he put me at ease.

"You have nothing to worry about, Louise," he assured me. "You look gorgeous. Just keep that wide brim of yours toward Teaspoon."

As soon as we walked in to the hall, I could feel many sets of eyes upon me, even though I kept my own eyes to the floor. This is a mistake, I thought. They're all staring at me...they all suspect something.

"You're turning a lot of heads," Jack whispered. "Come on, let's show them you can dance prettily, too." Before I knew it, we were on the dance floor. The band's tune of choice was "Oh, Suzannah."

All the boys took their turns dancing with me, except for Cody, who seemed to be enjoying himself immensely with a red-headed girl from town. I tried not to care, to act indifferent, and to not be hurt. But I did keep an eye on him when his back was turned.

Emma called me aside at one point to ask how things were going, and to give me a compliment on my dress again.

"I'm having a good time," I smiled. "Has Teaspoon said anything?"

"Not a word," she grinned.

Jack and I danced a few more dances, and then left early according to plan. I couldn't risk being in town too long, plus I needed to get back in my bunk before Teaspoon arrived home.

We managed to slip out fairly unnoticed. Soon we were on our way back to the station.

"You never did tell me your good news," I hinted.

"I was saving that for the end," he explained. "But since we're almost there, I can tell you now. I inherited some land last month from my great-uncle."

I patted Jack's hand sympatheticlly,"I'm sorry to hear about your great-uncle. Where is his land?"

"Outside of Stockton," he replied.

"Stockton?" I shook my head. "Where is that? Missouri?"

"No, Louise, it's in California."

California! It might as well be in China! My heart sank to my knees, but I tried not to look disappointed. After all, I was happy for Jack, "What-what do you want to do with the land?"

"I was thinking of starting a horse ranch," he said proudly. "They say where the land is, it's warm nine months out of the year, it never snows, and the ground is so fertile you can grow almost anything. You can live off the land. And all those farmers need horses, right?"

"It sounds like a wonderful plan," I managed even though my mouth felt like sawdust. "I wish the best for you, Jack, I really do."

Jack reached for my hand to hold it, "Louise, I was planning on asking you to come with me to California-as my wife."

Part Nine

"Huh?" was my romatic reply. The dumbstruck look on my face made Jack chuckle.

"My wife, my bride, my helpmeet.."

"I-I know what you mean," I explained hurredly, "I just didn't-didn't expect-"

Jack touched his finger to my lips to silence me, "I realize this is unexpected. I want you with me, and this is the only solution I can think of."

"Jack, I'm-I'm honored to be asked. I care for you deeply, really, I do, but...my life is finally stable now. I know I'd have a good life with you. I just still need some time to get my life together, to know who I am a little more."

I felt sick to my stomach after refusing Jack's proposal. I couldn't even look him in the eyes. Jack had been so wonderful to me since that first day we'd met on the stage. He was so kind, and here I was turning him down. What kind of a horrible person was I?

"Well, I could always wait for you, Louise, until you're ready-"

"No, Jack. Please don't wait for me. I couldn't ask you to do that," I cut him short. "You deserve to find happiness, and to follow your dreams. I can't get in the way of that."

"Could I write to you from California then?"

"I'll cherish every letter."

Jack stopped the wagon in front of the bunkhouse. He held me close for a minute, and kissed me before saying goodbye.

"I'll miss you," he whispered. I could only nod in response, as my throat was too tight to speak. As soon as he helped me down from the wagon, I ran inside, and threw myself face-down on my bunk like a child. The others were not expected back for a couple of hours, so I had some time for an indlugent cry.

I didn't hear anyone enter the room some time later, but I did feel the weight of the person as they sat on my bunk. A gentle hand stroked the back of my head. At first I thought it must be Emma, but the hand was bigger, clumsier, and smelled more of leather than of lilacs. It was a man's hand, I realized.

I turned over on my bunk to see who it was. Of all people, Cody was sitting there, a look of concern in his turquoise eyes.

"It's okay, Lou," he tried to comfort me. "Whatever it is, I'll help you. Don't cry now." Cody wrapped me in one of his bear hugs.

"Why-why aren't you still at the dance?" I hiccuped.

"That girl I was dancin' with-she wouldn't stop talking and she had nothing to say," he sighed dramatically. "Complained the whole time about how rough she had it because she lived on a farm. Wish I could have told her about you."

"You sure looked like you were enjoyin' yourself," I teased, starting to feel better.

Cody grinned sheepishly,"It was an act for the other guys. I figured if they saw me havin' such a good time, one of htem would come and take my place. And it worked too-poor Buck right now is having to listen to Mabel go on, and on and on..."

By this time I realized I was no longer crying, and even laughing a bit. He must have known that he had loosed me up, "Did something happen to you?"

"Kind of," I said, not really wanting to explain the situation. "Jack inherited some land from a great uncle in California. He asked me to marry him and go with."

Cody was quiet for a few moments before asking, "What did you tell him?"

"I said no. I'm such a fool, Cody. I refuse the only man who has ever cared for me. I feel so terrible, but I know I'm not ready to get married yet."

"Well, you did what you had to do," replied Cody. I thought I heard a hint of relief in his voice. "For what it's worth, Louise, I'm glad you're staying. And Jack isn't the only man who cares for you." Cody leaned over to kiss me on the forehead, and his lips barely touched my skin. Then before I knew it, he was gone.

Part Ten

The events of the next few dsyas left little time to dwell on Cody's comments. The day after the dance, Emma was called away to help a friend deliver her baby.

"I'll be gone a few days, at least until Sally can get on her feet again," she told me. "But when I get back I want to hear all about the dance. Take care of the boys, Lou."

That same evening at supper, Jimmy announced that he was not hungry. We all stared at him in shock. If he had said "I am the Queen of England" we wouldn't have been more surprised.

"I know the biscuits are a little-er-darker than Emma's, son, but that's no reason to eat your vittles," scolded Teaspoon, our substitute cook.

"It's not the biscuits, Teaspoon. I just ain't been hungry all day."

"Guess you get Jimmy's helping, Cody," joked the Kid.

When Cody didn't reply, Kid called his name again. We looked over to see that Cody was asleep at the table, sitting straight up with a fork in his hand. Ike gave him a nudge, and Cody awoke in a start and dazed, "What's goin' on?"

"Dinner," Buck answered dryly.

"How do the rest of you feel?" asked Teaspoon. There was a worried look in his eyes.

"I'm fine," I said, and Ike nodded in agreement. Buck was a little tired, and the Kid had sore throat.

"I suggest that the rest of you boys go directly to bed after supper," Teaspoon instructed. "Almost all of ya are comin' down with somethin'. You rest up and feel better. Ike, you cover the short runs tomorrow, and Lou, if I'm called away, I'm appointing you temporary station manager. Everything settled?"

We nodded, and the ailing boys went to their bunks as Ike and I cleared the table.

"Hope this is just a flu or something," I told Ike as I washed and he dried.

"Doesn't look good," he signed. I had to agree he was right.

Later that night as I was climbing into bed, I heard someone call out for his mama. It was Cody, having a bad dream. I climbed up to his bunk to comfort him, "It's okay, Cody. You're having a bad dream is all." I reached out to stroke his forehead, and it was not just warm, but hot to my touch. And, to my horror, small red dots were appearing on his face and neck.

"Lord, no," I prayed. "Ike! Bring me some cool water and rags. And tell Teaspoon to get the doc! I think it might be scarlett fever."

Ike's eyes were wide with fear. He had lost his hair and speaking ability from the disease. I had been told by the nuns at the orphange that I'd survived it as a baby. No wonder we were fine.

"Go now!" I yelled, to snap him out of it. I had never seen Ike run so fast after his feet started to move.

"You're gonna be fine, Cody," I soothed him. When he settled back into a normal sleep I left him to check on the others. Sure enough, they were developing the same rash, but as yet no one else had a high fever.

Ike burst back in, signing so rapidly that I couldn't understand. He slowed down for my benefit, but his frustration of not being able to communicate as well with me was evident. He explained that Teaspoon had gone to get Doc Barnes. He handed me the pail and rags, then looked nervously at Buck. We both knew that anyone with Indian blood had a higher mortality rate from this disease.

"He's fine," I assured him. "Spots, but no fever. Buck's strong, Ike. He'll make it. Here, why don't you help me move Cody to my bunk. It'll be easier to care for him that way, and he's the sickest now."

Ike seemed glad to help me, for it took his mind off Buck. In his delirious state, Cody was not easy to move, even a short distance. Once Cody was settled in my bunk, Ike helped by dipping the washrags in the water, and wringing them out. He handed them to me, and I sponged Cody's face, neck and arms. He did not protest my ministrations, and even woke up briefly once to say, "That feels good."

"It'll help bring your fever down," I explained, but he had fallen back to sleep.

Teaspoon arrived a few minutes later with Doc Barnes in tow. The usually jolly doctor looked haggard and worn tonight.

"Half of Sweetwater is down with it," he said in an exaspirated sigh. "I'm not surprised you boys caught it, seeing as how much territory you cover. "Ike and Lou, you've had it?"

We both nodded yes. Doc Barnes fired directions at us as he examined each rider, "Ike, Lou, you'll have to care for them. I'm going to need Teaspoon's help in town. Jimmy, Kid and Buck seem to be okay. Buck is an especially lucky young man. Plenty of liquids and rest for them, and I'll leave some quinine. Their cases seem mild.

"I'm afraid Cody's case is more severe," he frowned, leaning over the boy. "Don't let the fever get too high, and make sure he takes plenty of water, even if you have to wake him up to give it to him. Sorry I can't be much more help than that, but I have an epidemic on my hands.

"Thanks, doc. We'll do our best." I said.

"Call me if things get worse," he said in a gentler tone. "I pray to God they don't."

Teaspoon rode back to town with the doctor, and said he would try to get word to the other stations to bypass Sweetwater for the time being.

Finally, everyone left and we were able to turn down the lights.

"You best get some sleep," I told Ike. "Sounds like we have a rough few days ahead of us."

Ike hopped up in to his bunk, and I was glad, for he looked tired already.

Since Cody had saturated his blankets with sweat, there was no bunk left for me. I pulled Emma's rocker over near Cody, wrapped his coat around my shoulders, and tried to get a little rest in myself.

Not long after I dozed off, Cody cried out again.

"What's wrong Cody?" I asked. If he could tell me, then maybe I could help him.

"Lou, can't you shut him up?" grumbled Jimmy.

"I'm trying my best," I snapped. Then, turning to my patient "Cody, wake up a minute. Tell me what's wrong so I can help you."

When he finally opened his eyes, they were cloud, "I'm so hot...so hot..."

I removed his wooled blanket, which caused him to shake with chill.

"We need to get your fever down," I muttered to myself. "Here, Cody, drink this water. It'll make you feel better."

By this time, Cody was in an unresponsive stupor. Thankfully, he mechanically swallowed the water, in which I had put in a little of the quinine. Maybe it would ease his pain a bit.

To my surprise, Cody opened his eyes and asked fairly lucidly, "Will you stay with me, Lou?"

"I'm right beside you," I assured him. "I'll be here all night."

"Please, stay with me," he demanded, his voice growing louder.

"Can't you do anything about him going on like that?" asked Kid. Usually, the boys could sleep through the worst storms, but the fever must have been making them fitfull tonight. I didn't acknowledge this request, because the truth was, there was not much I could do. But there was one thing, I thought, that might satisfy everyone invovled. I crawled into Cody's bunk, pushed a pillow against the wall for comfort, and leaned back against it. I brought Cody to me, and he rested his head on my chest contetedly. This way I could soothe him, and the others could sleep undisturbed. I even got a few hours of sleep myself.

Part Eleven

The few hours of sleep were not enough for what the next day had in store. I was up before dawn to help Ike with chores, made sure the boys all had water, cooked oatmeal for Ike and myself, and tended to the boys again. No sooner than Ike had finished breakfast, he was mounted and ready for a ride.

I was about to wash the breakfast dishes when Kid requested, "Lou, I-uh, have to, um, you know..."

"You need help?" I asked, dreading the answer.

Kid's face was deep red, a strange combination of fever and embarassment, "My legs still feel kind of weak. Just help me outside."

I supported the Kid with my weight and lead him outside. Discreetly, I turned away, giving him some privacy. As mortifying as that experience was for me, it was nothing in comparison with me trying to get Cody to use the chamber pot. I will be so glad when Ike is home, I thought.

The hours of the day blurred together. It became a routine of giving water and broth, sponging them down, and assisting with trips "outside". Occasionally a rider came by and I would send them on to the next station. At least it was a relief to the monotony.

To my great relief, Buck's case remained mild, as did Kid and Jimmy's. Although red-faced, achy and weak, they still managed to tease me when I was awake.

"What are you cookin' us for supper, Lou? Roasted pheasant?" joked Buck.

"Oatmeal", I replied without humor. "Maybe some flapjacks."

"Flapjacks for dinner?" Jimmy sounded appalled.

I was starting to get annoyed, "Well, what do you boys want then? And don't say roast pheasant."

"Mashed potatoes," answered Jimmy. The other boys agreed.

"Mashed potatoes," I said through gritted teeth. I bent over to check on Cody, who was still sleeping, "Well, at least I don't hear you complaining."

I never knew cooking spuds could be such an event. After getting them from the cellar, peeling, cutting (not to mention the cutting of my finger), and putting them on to boil, I had to again make sure all the boys were drinking water. The other boys swallowed theirs easily, but Cody took some coaxing.

"My throat's too sore," he whispered.

"Just try a little for me," I pleaded. "I know it hurts, Cody, but the only way you're going to feel better is to take plenty of water."

He finally gave in and drank it. I could tell it was painful for him, and tried to talk to him to take his mind off the pain, "I'm makin' potatoes for supper. Maybe you can try some. Ike should be back home soon. That's it, Cody. Good job."

"What's that noise coming from the stove, Lou?" asked Buck.

"The potatoes!" I gasped, rushing over to them. The water was boiling over onto the stovetop and creating a big mess.

"Well, at least the potatoes are saved!" I annouced cheerfully. But while the food was okay, the kitchen itself was becoming quite a mess. I hoped Emma didn't come home before I had a chance to clean it. Oh well, I'll get to it later, I thought. First I had to get the boys their meal, do the evening chores, and attend to any other needs.

Cody only ate a few bites of supper, but thankfully took more water. After drinking all that water, though, he inisisted on answering the call of nature outside like the others. Evidently the chamber pot experience had been mortifying for him, too.

"You sure you feel up to it?" I asked.

"I'll try," he said just above a whisper. Cody was so weak from fever that I had to help him out of bed, and he leaned on me so heavily that it almost caused me to stumble. Fortunately we were both determined, and got back safely inside. Cody collapsed on his bunk, almost taking me with him. I was relieved to see Ike walk in the door.

"I've never been so glad to see you, Ike," I smiled gratefully.

He yawned and signed Where's supper?

"The boys just had potatoes," I explained. "I can fix you a sandwhich, though. Sorry Ike, I didn't even think about your dinner."

He shrugged and headed to the kitchen to make himself a meal. I didn't escape his raised eyebrows and wrinkled nose when he surveyed the condition of the kitchen..

"Guess it's time to do chores," I hinted after Ike had finished his meal of a cheese sandwhich and cold potatoes. I headed out to the corral, thinking he would follow, but he never did. When I returned sometime later, he was sharing stories with Buck.

You're a lot of help, I thought sacrastically to myself. A few minutes later, Ike was asleep in his bunk. Before settling in myself, I made sure all the boys had water and their medicine. Once again, I pulled Emma's rocker near Cody's bunk, and reached out to massage his warm forehead. As tired as I was, I sort of enjoyed this time caring for Cody at night. He woke up slightly, gave me a sleepy grin, and closed his eyes again.

Part Twelve

When the morning came Cody finally fell into a peaceful sleep. Feeling awful, I dragged myself outside for chores, as Ike was already up and gone. My last chore of the morning was to bring in fresh water. I filled the bucket from the spring and started back for the bunkhouse. Suddenly the weight of it became too much to bear, and I collapsed on the ground. It was the first time I had actually lied down for several days. This is kind of nice, I thought

I don't know how long I had been lying there in the dirt when I heard a horse approach.

"Uh, excuse me, are you okay?"

I looked up to see a strange man who was the same color as his dark chestnut horse. He alighted from his mount and reached out his hand to me, "Don't be scared. My name is Noah Dixon. I was just passin' through and wanted to see if I could water my horse. What's goin' on around here anyway? Pretty quiet for a way station."

"Scarlet fever," I replied, letting him help me off the ground. "Four of the boys are sick with it-one real bad. You should stay away."

"I've already had it. Looks like you could use some help around here, Miss-?"

Miss! How did he know that? Then I remembered that I'd had no time to check my appearence in the last few days. I hadn't had time to even consider it, let alone slick my hair back. Well, I guess he still didn't know that I was a rider. "I'd appreciate that. I'm Lou. Louise. You can call me Lou."

"Okay, Miss Lou. Why don't you rest for a while somewhere more comfortable than the dirt?" he advised as we walked to the bunkhouse together.

"But you don't know about-" I began to protest.

The dark stranger cut me short, "One thing I do know, Miss Lou, is the look of someone who hasn't had much sleep and is about to be sick herself soon if she don't get some rest. I can handle everything."

By this time we were inside. Obediently I went to Cody's bunk, since he was still occupying mine. After noting that he slept soundly, I was asleep in no time at all.




The first thing I became aware of was the aroma of beef stew. Upon that, my other senses woke up one by one. I heard muffled sounds of hushed conversations, and felt the weight of a blanket someone must have placed over me. When I finally opened my eyes the first thing I saw was a clean kitchen area. Emma must be home, I guessed silently, propping myself up on my elbows to get a better view and to clear my hazy mind.

Noah was by my side in an instant, "Don't get up too fast. You've been sleeping hard all day."

"What time is it?" I asked, my sense of everything still a little cloudy.

"About seven."

"I can't believe I slept 12 hours!" I exclaimed. "How are the boys? How's Cody?"

Noah explained that he had gotten acquainted with all of the riders, and that three of them were well on the mend. In Cody however, there was no change yet.

"He took some water today, but no food," reported Noah. "Is there any way I can get the doctor?"

"He said half the town was down with scarlet fever." I filled him in. "I don't think we should call for him unless Cody gets any worse. Maybe Teaspoon or Emma will be back soon, though."

Noah suggested I sit with Cody while he fixed me a bowl of the stew. To my surprise, he lifted me down from the bunk without any effort.

"No wonder the boys were saying you're the fastest rider. You're light as a feather." He was in the kitchen area before I had a chance to reply in surprise.

I felt a hand grab onto mine as I stood there gaping. Cody was awake.

"How are you feeling?" I asked, bending down to feel his forehead. It was still warm, but not the terrible burning hot that it had been.

"Been better," he whispered, trying to smile. "Did you get some rest?"

I chuckled, "I guess you could say that. I slept for 12 hours straight. Looks like Noah did a good job at taking care of things around here."

"Yeah, he's a good fella. I'm sorry I've been so much trouble, Lou."

"You hush with that talk," I reprimanded him gently. "Lord knows none of this is your fault, Cody. It's no trouble to take care of you. You just get better." Cody nodded and dozed off again.

Noah was correct in his assessment about the other boys. They were all near Kid's bunk playing a friendly game of poker, looking quite content.

"Hey, you're looking better," smiled Jimmy when he noticed me.

"So are you," I shot back. "Pink never was your color." This sent the boys into a fit of laughter, even Noah.

"How is Cody?" asked Buck once they settled down.

"A little better, but he still has a long way to go," I informed them. "By the way, which one of you told Noah about me?"

They all remained stubbornly silent. It annoyed me to no end how they could stick together. Noah came over by me and explained how Cody had revealed my secret during one of his delirious episodes.

"Don't worry, I won't give away your secret." he assured me. "Come on, I re-heated some of that stew for you."

As Noah sat directly across from me at the table, he regarded me evenly. I could see the respect he had for me in his eyes, but also something else, like curiosity.

"Are you wondering why I dress like a boy and work for the express?" I asked between bites of stew.

He laughed outright, "Well, that did cross my mind. But there's something I'm even more curious about."

"What could that be?"

"Why weren't you scared of me? There you were on the ground, helpless, and here comes this colored man offering to help you, and you don't even blink an eye. Most white women wouldn't have been so trusting."

"I've never had cause not to trust a colored man," I said truthfully. "Besides, I wasn't in any position to say no."

"You're right about that," he agreed.

Ike came home a few minutes later, and soon joined in the poker match. They invited Noah and I to play as well. Noah accepted in a minute, but I declined, preferring instead to enjoy some time to myself. Realizing it had been quite some time since I had last bathed, I headed over to Emma's to use the galvanized tub.

As if reading my mind, Noah called out to me, "The tub is full. Just add some hot water."

"Bless you, Noah Dixon," I grinned, meaning every word.

Part Thirteen

After adding hot water to the tub, I crawled in and stayed there until my skin was wrinkled and the water was cold again. It felt so good to be clean! I even dusted on a bit of Emma's talcum powder, seeing as I didn't have a ride for at least two more days, and there was no sign of Teaspoon. It was nice to smell like a lady.

I returned to the bunkhouse smelling like a different woman. The boys were still involved in the poker game, so I pulled the rocker near Cody's bunk. To my surprise he was awake.

"You smell nice," he sniffed.

"Thanks," I said. "And you look better. You're getting your voice back, too. You'll be telling your tall tales now before too long."

Cody gave a tired chuckle before he closed his eyes.

Who would believe that after sleeping 12 hours, I fell asleep again quickly and unintentionally? The bunkhouse was completely dark except for the light from the stove when I woke up. I was beginning to wonder just what roused me from my sleep when I heard the sound of labored breathing.

"Cody!" I cried, reaching for him. His face was not flushed red or warm anymore. Instead his skin was cold and clammy and had turned a deathly grey.

"Oh my God!" I screamed, frightened. My mother had looked like this near her death. All of the boys hurried over to us.

"I'll get the doc," volunteered Kid.

"You're still sick," argued Noah.

"Then go with me. I know this town and you don't," reasoned Kid, who was already hitching up his pants over his long-johns. "Come on, we best hurry."

After they left, Buck put his arm around my shoulder in a brotherly way, "He'll be okay, Lou."

"I don't know, Buck," I sighed, blinking back tears. "What can I do? I feel like I need to do something for him."

"Just be here. Hold his hand."

"That's not enough."

"What do your insticts tell you to do? Rely on them."

Suddenly I had a flashback. When my mother was ill, some neighbor ladies had rubbed her feet, claiming they were drawing the fever away from her brain. Cody's feet were icy cold, so I began to massage them, all the while saying a fervant prayer.

Jimmy sponged Cody's face and tried to get some water down him. Being a clear thinker, Ike handed me my hat and glasses.

"Why aren't they back yet?" I complained, growing panicked. Cody's only response to our hard work was an occasional moan.

"They're gonna be here soon, Lou. Don't you worry," said Jimmy. His voice sounded a little husky and I knew it wasn't from the illness.

Kid and Noah returned shortly with Doctor Barnes and Teaspoon in tow. They looked like they haden't slept in days either. Teaspoon's face turned even paler when he saw Cody's condition. The doctor examined him, giving us a running accound, "His heart is strong, that's one thing in his favor. Lou, you did the right thing by rubbing his feet and keeping the fever down. If his heart continues to be strong he'll make it. The term we used in medical school was "pass the crisis". If he does pass it tonight he'll be fine. I'll stay the night if you want me to."

"I'd like that," I accepted.

"I'm stayin' on, too," announced Teaspoon. "Cody's like a son to me. It's my duty to be with him."

"Teaspoon, Lou has been taking care of everyone and hasn't gotten much rest. I think maybe he should stay at Emma's tonight. Besides, it'll free up a bunk for the doc," suggested Jimmy.

I began to protest,"But I-"

I wanted to be near Cody, to hold him and stroke his brow. I wanted to whisper comforts to him and stroke back his hair. Now I understood Jimmy's suggestion. He knew my longings, and knew it would be even more painful for me to be there and not be able to do those things when the doctor was present.

"I just need to grab a few things," I finished lamely, giving Jimmy just the slightest nod to let him know that I understood. He followed me outside.

"Don't worry, Lou. We'll let you know if there's any change," he assured me. "Like Doc Barnes said, Cody's heart is strong. That's a good sign."

"I'll be prayin'" I choked.

"I was thinkin' of trying that myself," he admitted with a wry smile.

Once inside I crawled into the bed of the spare room, the one I had spent several days in upon my own arrival. I felt comfortable there. It reminded me of Emma's gentle presence. I sure hope she is back tomorrow, I thought. I don't know how much longer I can take not having another woman around to talk to.

I wanted to cry, but I was too emotionally drained even for that. Cody was in the worst pain of his life, and all I could do was offer prayers. I hated feeling helpless, but as Jimmy knew, I would have felt even more helpless had I been in the bunkhouse.

I laid there in bed for what felt like hours. In reality it was only about 45 minutes. Frustrated, I kicked off the covers and paced the floor. I found Emma's Bible and tried to read, but couldn't concentrate. Finally I found solace in a game of solitaire. It occupied my hands and my mind, but at the same time didn't require too much effort.

Somehow-although I didn't think it was possible-I dozed off at the table. I was startled awake by the sound of a door closing. A little bit of light filtered in through the kitchen window. I realized then that the dawn would bring news of Cody, and that is why I heard a door. Before I could even brace myself for the news a pair of arms were around me.

"Loulabelle," whispered Emma. "Oh you poor girl, having to go through all this alone."

"Emma! Have you seen Cody? How is-? Is he-?"

Emma's eyes teared up, and for a second my heart stopped beating, "It was touch and go for a while last night, but he's gonna be fine. You helped save his life, Louise. The doctor said so."

"Thank the Lord," I sighed in relief. "When did you get home?"

"Late last night. I'd heard Sweetwater had been hit by scarlett fever so I came as quickly as I could. I'm just sorry I wasn't here to help you. Do you want to see Cody now?"

Suddenly I felt shy. I had attended to Cody's most intimate needs, but he had been in a feverish stupor at the time. I desperately hoped he didn't remember all of it.

"Come on," encouraged Emma. She smiled understandingly and reached for my hand.

We entered the bunkhouse; Emma with confidence and me with trepidation. To my relief, Teaspoon had been called back into town. My gaze finally landed on Cody. He was propped up with pillows, and still occupied my bunk. His face was pale, but at least it was not fever-flushed or had that sickly yellow-grey pallor. It was enough just to be near him and hear his normal breathing. Tears of joy trickled down my face.

"Lou, don't cry. I'm okay." Cody's voice was still weak but he spoke with clarity.

I rushed to him and gently lay my head on his chest. Dr. Barnes had been right-Cody's heart was strong. He put an arm around me and gingerly patted my back.

"I'm so glad you're better," I sniffed. "I thought...I thought you..."

"Shhh...For a time I thought so, too. I owe you my life."

"No you don't."

"Then I owe you supper."

"I'd like that Cody. You just rest up now so you can get back to work around here."

Part Fourteen

The riders made a rapid recovery. In no time at all they were able to do chores and eventually carry the mochilla once more. Even Cody, who took a few extra days to recover, got antsy and would do chores around the bunkhouse. For Cody to not only do chores on a volunteer basis, but also be enthusiastic about them was nothing short of a miracle.

Finally, our station was back to normal. The town of Sweetwater had not been so fortunate. Scarlett fever had taken the lives fo twelve people, and the loss was felt. We were a town in mourning and prayers were offered that the dreaded disease never strike again. It was odd to walk along the main street of town and not see some familiar faces, even if I hadn't known those people.

I was happy to have Emma and Teaspoon back to shoulder the major responsibilities, as well as moral support. They dispensed advice as much as bandages when we needed it, and sometimes a figurative swift kick in the pants to go with it.

After his recovery I didn't know where I stood with Cody, and that left me confused. He talked and joked with me, but never sought me out. I began to wonder if his kiss and his words had all been a dream. And here I had refused Jack's proposal! Had I made a dreadful mistake?

One good thing that had come about from the scarlett fever was that Teasoon had asked Noah to stay on as a rider. I was happy to hear this news. Noah was pleasant and level-headed. He made a good addition to our team. Interestlingly, I developed a closeness with Noah that I wouldn't have expected. Except for our love of horses, we didn't have that much in common. However, the circumstances we met under led us to a deep respect for each other. I think it was due to this factor that we became confidantes. Noah usually kept to himself on rides together, or at least didn't ask me many questions. One day though, his curiosity got the best of him. Still, it was a question I expected.

"Lou, do you and Cody-I mean...what I'm trying to ask is... Are you and Cody-well, do you have feelings for him?"

I squirmed in my saddle, "Oh, I don't know, Noah. I thought maybe Cody felt something for me but after he got well he's hardly spoken to me."

"Don't worry, Lou," grinned Noah. "I saw how Cody looked at you when he was sick. My hunch is that he's just waiting for the right time to talk to you."

"You really think so?"

"I'd bet my saddle on it."

Noah was not far off in his prediction. A few days later Cody and I found ourselves alone in the bunkhouse. He was cleaning his rifle while I reorganized my trunk to accomodate more books.

"Lou," "Cody," We spoke at the same time which was followed by an awkward silence.

Cody finally broke the tension with a chuckle, "Guess we both have something to say. Can you let me go first?"

"Alright," I shrugged.

"Lou, I-I said something to you after the dance about Jack not being the only man who cared for you. I meant those words."

"Cody, I-"

"Please, let me finish," he begged, pacing the floor. "I don't remember a lot from when I had the fever, but I do remember that you were always there when I woke up from a bad dream, or needed something. And I care for you more now even more."

I was too moved to speak, but I did find the power to move towards Cody and wrap my arms around him. Just as I thought Cody was about to kiss me, we heard footsteps on the porch (God bless that squeaky step) and backed about three feet away from each other. It's a good thing we did, too, because the footfalls belonged to Teaspoon.

"There you two are. I've been lookin' for you," he announced.

"Somethin' wrong, Teaspoon?" I asked, automatically dropping my voice.

"Not wrong, just urgent," he explained. "An official letter from the governor is coming by stage to Blue Creek in the next couple of days and I've chosen you two to pick it up there and deliver it to Ft. Kearny. I don't know when exactly it is arriving so you may have to wait there for a day. You'd better hurry, it's at least half a day's ride."

Cody nodded seriously, "You can count on us, Teaspoon."

"I know, son. You boys do me proud now."

Cody and I were packed and mounted in a matter of minutes. Just before we left Emma appeared from her house to tell us goodbye and make sure we had a supply of food for our journey, "Ride safe now, you hear?"

"We'll be fine, Emma," I assured her.

We arrived in Blue Creek ahead of schedule and decided to check into the lone hotel there for the night. Cody promised that I'd finally get that supper he owed me. We left our horses at the livery and checked into the hotel.

The clerk was very young and greeted us with a shy smile, "Welcome to Blue Creek, gentlemen. How long will you be staying?"

"Just overnight," explained Cody.

"Alright, sir. Room 14 is at the top of the stairs to your left. Enjoy your stay."

"We, um, wanted two rooms," I said, nervously toying with my glasses.

"I'm sorry, sir. That's our only vacant room right now," the clerk apologized. "But don't worry, the bed is plenty big for both of you."

Part Fifteen

Cody nodded and paid for the room as I pulled my hat further down over my face.

"Lou, what's the big deal?" he asked once we were safely upstairs. We sleep in the same room all the time. Besides, I was gonna let you have the bed anyway."

"It's-it's just different, Cody, now that I-" I stopped myself short.

"Now that you what?"

"Now that I have feelings for you," I sighed. This was not the time and place that I wanted to bring up this discussion.

Cody's face had a puzzled grin, "You do?"

"Course I do, I just said so, silly," I admitted, trying to sound casual.

"I'm glad to hear that, Lou-Louise," he blushed. "I wasn't sure how you felt..." Realizing we were still standing in the hall, Cody unlocked the door to the room and let me in first.

"I'm sorry if I wasn't clear," I apologized. "You're very special to me, Cody. I didn't realize just how much until that awful night I thought I was going to lose you." Just speaking about it made my throat constrict and my eyes water.

Cody noticed my emotions, "Hey, don't cry. I'm healthy as a horse now, thanks to you. Actually, I never did thank you proper." He drew me close and planted a gentle kiss on my mouth. When it was over we just stood there, staring akwardly at each other.

"I still owe you supper," he announced. "Why don't we get washed up and head downstairs?"

I looked at the rumpled men's clothing I wore, "Wish I'd thought to bring my dress along."

"Lou, it's you I want to have dinner with, not your clothes."

I thought dinner would be a quiet affair, but Cody talked almost non-stop throughout the entire meal. It was as if he felt he needed to tell me about his childhood in the course of an evening. He told me about his four older sisters, the puppies that were born in his bed, and how he sometimes got in trouble at school for talking too much. By dessert my ears were about ready to fall off.

"So tell me about when you grew up," he invited.

Cody's words nearly made me choke on my chocolate cake. He wanted to hear about my childhood? Good Lord, what could I tell him? If I told him much of anything, surely he would think differently about our relationship. I felt stuck, trapped, like I couldn't take a full breath.

"Lou?"

"Hmm?" "You look tired. Why don't we just go *back* up to the room?" he suggested.

"Yeah, I am tired," I feigned excuse. "I'll probably sleep real good in that big hotel bed."

"Yea, and I'll probably have a crick in my neck from sleepin' on the floor," he joked. Cody left some coins on the table and I followed him upstairs.

"Thanks for supper," I remembered to say as Cody unlocked the door and let me in. Oddly, he didn't follow.

"Ain't you comin' in?" I wondered.

"Thought I'd give you a few minutes to, um, get ready for bed. Figured you didn't have that chance too often."

"Oh," I giggled. "Thanks. I'll let you know when I'm ready."

Because I knew we were likely staying in a hotel, I had packed Emma's old nightgown. I gladly slipped it over my head, "I'm ready," I called.

I could tell Cody was trying to hide a smile as he noticed my unusual attire. We stood there for a few moments not knowing what to do or say. Why was conversation with him so hard now? We had always been able to talk before.

"Well, goodnight," I finally said.

"Night, Lou," he returned, giving me a light kiss on the forehead.

As I climbed into bed and Cody stretched out on the floor I was reminded of that stormy night when we had stayed in that cabin. That had been the first time I'd ever felt something besides friendship for Cody. He had sobbed then, thinking I was asleep. So, I thought, he hasn't told me everything about him tonight.

For Cody's sake I tried to be still and curb my impulse to toss and turn. Eventually I'd have to tell Cody about Wicks or go to extremes to hide that secret from him. Either way wasn't fair. All this thinking brought back memories of Wicks and that incident.

Wicks was back in my room again. I could hear his footsteps. This time I'm going to put up a fight, I told myself. He shook my shoulder and whispered my name. I sat straight up in bed and hurled a punch at him with all the strength I could muster. It was a triumphant moment.

The sound of something crashing to the floor woke me with a start.

"Cody?" I called out.

He responded with a groan.

"What happened?" I asked. "I heard something-did someone break in?"

I heard Cody pull himself up off the floor, "Not exactly. You were havin' a bad dream and when I went to wake you, you hit me in the jaw. Must've been some dream."

I was glad it was dark so he couldn't see my mouth wide in disbelief and horror, "Oh, I am so sorry," I gasped out an apology. "Cody, I feel awful. Please, forgive me?"

"It wasn't your fault, Louise," he said tenderly. "You thought I was someome else, someone named Wicks."

I heard Cody fumble around for a bit and turn up the oil lamp. Already his jaw was beginning to swell. He sat down on the bed and enveloped me in one of his enormous bear hugs. There was a distict difference in his hugs and kisses. Cody's kisses were still shy and boyish, but his hugs were anything but tentative. His hugs were as big as his grins, and equally as comforting.

"I've heard you say that name before in your sleep," Cody whispered into my hair. "I'm worried about you Lou. Is there anything I should know?"

Part Sixteen

Tears stung in my eyes but I tried to fight them, "Yes, but I don't know if I want to tell you. You'd be ashamed of me. I-I don't deserve you, Cody."

"Don't talk that way, Lou. I can't imagine being ashamed of you. You're one of the sweetest, smartest and prettiest girls I've met, not to mention the way you sit a horse. It's me who don't deserve you."

Cody's confession startled me, "What do you mean?"

"Promise you won't tell anyone?"

"Of course."

Cody let go of me and leaned back against the headboard. In the semi-darkness he reached for my hand and held it tight, "When I was younger, my family harbored a run away slave for a time. His name was Samuel. My pa was an abolishionist. After Samuel left us, his owner came looking for him wanting information. My ma was a believer in the cause, too. It was just the two of us home that day. She wouldn't tell the owner or his men anything, so they beat her and..."

Cody struggled to get his emotions under control. I stroked the top of my hand with his thumb, hoping it would help to calm him.

"They tried to-to have their way with her, too," he continued. "I just sat there behind the curtain, watching. I couldn't move-I couldn't do anything. What kind of a son was I? Fortunately they heard my pa riding up and took off. I wanted to protect her, Lou, really I did-"

"Of course you did," I said gently. "You were just a boy. What happened to your ma wasn't your fault. You just remember that."

"That doesn't change how you feel about me?" he asked, souding relieved. "You're so brave. I didn't want you to think I was a coward."

"Cody, you're past doesn't change how I feel about you," I assured him.

He went on to tell me that pro-slavers had eventually killed his father and that he believed his mother died of a broken heart. His four older sisters were all married by this time, and that is why he headed West in search of a better life. I marveled at how he could still find life so humorous after everything he's been through. When he fell quiet, I knew my turn to talk had come. Hearing Cody's story made me feel a little better about sharing my life-like it was an equal exchange.

"Do you remember when you and Ike and I rode into town a few months ago to get supplies? It was the day the house of pleasure opened."

"Can't say as I'll ever forget that," he admitted. "You gave me quite a scare."

"That day brought back terrible memories for me," I told him. "Well, I might as well just come clean and tell you everything..

Cody put his arm around me encouragingly, "You can tell me anything, you know."

"I know. I had a pretty happy childhood until my father started drinking. To this day I don't know why he took up with it like he did. Guess I'll never know. Anyway, he ran out on us when I was about ten. It was rough on us, but we managed for a time. Then mama got the consumption. I had to take care of her and my brother and baby sister. Mama died a couple months later. I tried my best, but..."

"You can't blame yourself for your mother's death," said Cody. Even though in my head I knew that, it was still comforting to have someone else say the words.

"We were taken to an orphanage," I explained. "No one in our area could afford three more mouths to feed and I wouldn't let anyone split us up. We were sent to a mission orphanage outside of St. Louis. The younger kids did alright-they hardly even remembered our parents-but I was miserable. The other older girls used to tease me mercilessly, so I spent a lot of time caring for the horses just to be outside. The nuns were kind, though. They supplied me with books and always found jobs for me to do so I could escape the crueler children. I spent a few years there, but when I got older I wanted to start making money. So one night I ran away. I made my way into the city and started doing odd jobs whenever I could. About a year later I met a man named Frank Wicks. He offered me a job doing laundry. He took me to a big house where a lot of ladies lived. I was so stupid-I didn't realize what kind of place it was until after I'd been there for a while."

"You weren't stupid, Lou. You were young and innocent," Cody argued. "No one is born knowing about those kind of places. Lord, you shouldn't know at that age."

"About a year later, Wicks came to me one night with a proposition. He wanted me to be one of his ladies-said gentlemen preffered their girls young. When I refused, he was angry. Then that next night he came into my room-I know I shouldn't have let it happen, but he was so strong-"

Cody's hold on me was even tighter. He was silent and I wished he'd hurry up and say something-anything-so I knew where he stood. His silence was making me downright nervous, "Well, now you know. That's why I behaved so strangely that day. I thought I had buried that secret deep inside of me, but it didn't work. I'll understand if you don't feel the same way about me."

"Why would I do a crazy thing like that?"

"Because I'm-I'm not who you think I am! I'm not whole anymore. Didn't you hear what I just said?"

I heard Cody catch his breath in his throat, "Lou, what that man did to you was not your fault, no more than it was my ma's for getting beat. I know how some men can be. I feel closer to you now. You mean the world to me, Louise. Please don't feel like you have to keep secrets from me anymore." He hugged me close and kissed me tenderly on the head.

Tears of relief made their way down my cheeks. To have someone who cared for me and didn't hold the rape against me was more than I'd ever dared hope for.

"Why are you crying now?" he asked, souding confused.

"Because I'm so happy," I replied. "That sounds crazy, doesn't it? I'm just glad to know that my past doesn't make any difference to you."

Now that the floodgate of information was open, there was no stopping us. We stayed up for hours talking about our histories, thoughts and feelings. Underneath Cody's jokes and fondness for showing off, he was in many ways still a boy. He confessed that although he sometimes protested Emma's mothering, deep down he actually enjoyed having a fuss made over him. I smiled, knowing exactly what he meant.

"Do you still regret turning down Jack's proposal?" he teased.

I kissed his cheek in response, "Of course not But he was a good friend. He helped me learn how to trust men again. I'll always thank him for that. He's such a kind man. He deserves to be happy."

"Do you?"

"Yeah, I guess I do. Thank you, Cody."

Our blue streak of conversation ended a few minutes later. Cody's head was tilted against the headboard and his breathing was deep and regular. His face looked even more boyish when he was sleeping and his features were relaxed. Not wanting to wake him, I carefully reached to extinguish the lamp, and then lay my cheek against his broad chest.

Epilogue

Waking up in Cody's arms came as a surprise to me the next morning, albeit a nice surprise. I looked up at him to see that his blue eyes were open, too. Guiltily, I also noticed the right side of his jaw was swollen.

"Mornin'," he tried to smile. "You looked so peaceful I didn't want to wake you. Did you sleep good?"

"Very good," I smiled in return. "Does your jaw hurt very much?"

"I gotta admit it's a little sore, but it was well worth it for our talk last night. Well, shall we go to breakfast?" For Cody, food could ease the pain of almost anything.

The stagecoach arrived almost as soon as we got done with our meal. We intercepted the letter and quickly prepared for the last leg of our journey. While on the road back to Sweetwater, I noticed that Cody was unusually quiet, almost pensive.

"A penny for your thoughts," I invited, manuevering my horse along side his.

He flashed me a lopsided grin, "Just doing some thinkin' is all. Lou, I never courted a girl before. And I've sure never courted one who dresses like a boy and words for the Pony Express. I guess what I'm trying to say is, I hope I do alright."

"I'm sure you'll do just fine," I assured him, trying not to grin. "It might be difficult, but we'll manage to figure out something."

"Well, I gotta tell you, Lou, you're one courageous woman to be tryin' this," winked Cody. "Especially with me."

The End

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