"Louise? Louise, are you alright?" It was Charlotte's voice outside my door. I wanted to respond, to say something, but my body and mind wouldn't let me. I couldn't even release myself from my fetal position on the floor.
The doorknob rattled some, then I heard the door itself creak open, "My God, Louise, what happened?" Charlotte was by my side in an instant trying to lift me into an upright position. She was quiet, guessing by the state of the room and my appearance what had taken place. My cheeks were scratched, and my dress was torn at the bodice. A treasured music box, given to me by my mother, had been thrown against the wall, and was now in ruins on the floor. "Oh, Louise, I'm so sorry ... maybe if I hadn't been gone..."
I found my voice then, "You couldn't have done anything to stop him, Char-Char-Char-.." I started to sob uncontrollably. Charlotte held me and let me cry. Even in my pain, I thought about how good a friend she was. My only friend, really. She was the only working lady who had been nice to me since I'd first taken this job doing laundry at the brothel. I was never sure why the other women looked down on me.
"We're getting you out of here, Louise," her voice broke my thoughts. "You're just a girl. Wicks may do what he wants with his women, but not with innocent girls. We're getting you out, you hear." I heard, but was too upset to respond. Charlotte was kind enough to stay with me until I cried myself exhausted. She helped me to bed and whispered, "I have to go now- clients are waiting- but I'll check on you later."
It seemed to take me forever to fall asleep, and once I did, I was plagued by nightmares. I could see Wicks, hear him threatening me, and feel his breath on my neck. I tried to pull away, but he was stronger than I was.
"Stop that screaming you little wench!" was what woke me. Had I been screaming? I wish I'd screamed earlier, but when I'd attempted, no sound came out. A knock sounded at my door again, starting my heart to pound seriously. Thinking it was Wicks, I tried to make myself as small as possible and not make any noise. Maybe he's go away. Another knocks, and I started to feel nauseous.
"Louise, it's me, Elenora. Can I come in?" Elenora? She was the new working girl Wicks had recently hired. She was very popular with the gentlemen, with golden curls piled on top of her head, and big brown eyes with long sooty ashes. She had smiled at me once, and her smile was kind, but I had learned by experience to keep my distance from the ladies.
"I- I guess so," I called, not at all sure why she would need me at this hour. She found me in the dark, sat on the bed, and put her hand on my shoulder, "I heard what happened, and well, I'm sorry, Louise. I wish I could undo what's been done. I had a-a generous client tonight, and wanted to give you this." She pressed what felt like a gold nugget in my hand.
"Oh, Elenora, I can't-" I protested, struggling to sit up.
"Take it," she whispered. "It rightly belongs to Wicks, but he'll never know. Listen, there's not much I can do about my life right now, but I'll do anything I can to help someone who has a chance to escape this life. You're still young, honey. Get out while you can. I started as the laundry girl, too. Look where I ended up."
"Does everyone know about me?" I asked.
Elenora brushed off a wisp of hair that was sticking to my damp face, "No, Charlotte only told me. She looked so upset when I saw her. She told me about you when I asked her why. I heard you having a nightmare, and just wanted to do something."
"Thank you," I choked, "I'm much obliged."
"Use it for a ticket out of here, to somewhere where you can have a better life, Louise." I nodded my head, my eyes filling with tears. No one had ever given me such a gift before.
"There now, don't cry," she consoled, sounding very much like a mother.
"Would you feel better if I stayed with you for a while?"
"That'd be nice," I admitted.
She pulled the blankets up to my chin, "You try and rest now. I'll be here if you need me." Just knowing she was there made it easier for me to fall asleep.
The next thing I knew, someone was shaking my arm vigorously. Recalling the events of yesterday, I jumped up, frightened.
"Easy now, it's just me," said Charlotte. I could barely make out her face in the dim, pre-dawn light.
"What is it?" I asked, remembering to breathe again.
"Wicks is passed out- this is your chance to escape. We can get you a ticket for the early stage. By the time Wicks sleeps it off you'll be in the next county."
The stagecoach! I'd better put on my nicest dress, I thought. Then I realized I had not taken it off since yesterday. Now it was not just torn, but wrinkled from sleeping in it, too. I was about to mention this, when
Elenora came in, with her arms full with a dress. "Hurry, get into this. We'll pack your bag while you get changed," she instructed. Quickly, I did as I was told, not even stopping to admire how fine the brown wool dress was. I did wonder, though, where she had gotten the dress, since it was much too small with her.
"Are you ready?" asked Charlotte, just as I was buttoning the last button. I nodded, not quite believing what was happening to me yet.
Elenora put her hand in mine, "Come on, let's get you out of here. We'll go out the back way-just in case."
Thankfully, we got out of the building without anyone noticing us. It was so early that the whole town seemed asleep. A sudden thought came to me as we turned the corner and the depot came in sight, where was I going?
"Where will I be going?" I whispered. Charlotte shrugged, I guess to wherever the first stage leaves for. The important thing is getting away from here. What do you want to do when you get there, Louise?"
"I don't' know. Maybe sew or clerk in a store or something," I mumbled, "Anyway, I'll have some time to think on it. Anywhere but a-" I wasn't sure how to say cat house or bordello without offending my friends. After all, it wasn't them I disapproved of, but the man who ran the operation,
"Anywhere I'm safe," I finished lamely.
When we arrived at the depot, I rapped on the window to call the ticket agent's attention, "I'd like a ticket for the next stage, please."
"You wantin' to go to St. Jo?" he asked.
"Yes, St. Jo," I answered. So it was settled. I would leave for St. Joseph in half an hour.
"Heard St. Jo is a right nice town-lots of opportunities for decent work," Charlotte tried to encourage me.
The three of us were silent for a while after that. We sat on a bench, huddled together for warmth, and for me, security. I thought of the long journey ahead, and was excited at the prospect of starting my life over again. But scared, too. Going to a new town, meeting strangers and looking for work all made me nervous. Anything, though, was better than working for
Mr. Wicks, or in a brothel. I'll make you proud of me, mama, I thought.
"You say something, Louise?" asked Elenora.
I blushed, not realizing I had thought aloud, "Oh, no."
"It must be scary, thinking about that stage," said Charlotte, placing a reassuring hand on my shoulder, "Here Louise, I want you to have this for your trip." She placed in my hand a Bible. I had gone to church as a small child and knew a little about the book, but never even dared dreamed of having one of my own. I looked at her, bewildered.
"I've tried to live my life by that book- in most respects, anyway- but I think you need it more than I do right now," she explained.
"You can share mine," offered Elenora in a confidential whisper.
"Thank you both so much. I wouldn't know what to do without your help."
Tears were smarting in my eyes, and my throat began to feel tight. Right then, we could see the stage approach. I hurried to pack the treasured Bible into my carpetbag, and hug both my friends. They gave me many motherly admonitions before releasing me. Although I tried to look independent and shrug them off, the truth is I was glad to hear them.
"And Louise, do whatever it takes to be safe," added Charlotte, giving my hand a final squeeze.
It was time to go. I climbed onto the stagecoach with the help of the driver. It seemed like that as soon as I was seated, the reigns snapped and we were on our way west. I turned around to give one last wave to the only two people in my life I knew as friends.
It was not until we were a good distance out of town felt safe enough to really take a look around me. Three other people shared the jostling stage. There was a young man and woman who seemed to be absorbed in each other, and I wondered if they were newly weds. The other man wore a suit and seemed fidgety. He kept taking out his watch, looking at it, and shaking his head before putting it back again.
He did this approximately every five minutes, and I couldn't see that it made the stage travel any faster. Certainly this group of travelers was not much for company, but I was grateful. Because there was no conversations, I did not have to talk about what I- a young woman alone on the stage- was doing heading for the West. I was glad that Charlotte had given me a Bible to read. I took it out of the satchel and turned to the gospels, since they were the easiest to understand."Dinner stop!"
I jumped to attention, startled. Had I been asleep? Well, I certainly had not slept much the night before, and no doubt needed the rest. By now, the driver had pulled off to the side of the trail by a clump of shade trees. When he gave the signal, everyone climbed out of the cramped seats as quickly as we could. We headed to the shade where there were a couple fallen logs for benches. Soon, people were began to take sandwiches out of sacks for dinner. My face flushed; I had not thought about how I was going to eat on this trip, and I was starting to get hungry. I wasn't at all sure what to do, so I busied myself reading again.
"Miss McCloud?" The young man who rode shotgun was standing directly in front of me, and I couldn't help but take notice of how good looking he was,
"I-uh- couldn't help but notice you didn't bring any dinner with you. Would you care for a couple of slice of bread and butter?"
"Oh, no. I couldn't accept.""Please, miss, I insist."
"Well, I am gettin' a little hungry," I admitted.
The kind man gave me the bread and butter, plus an apple. I hated to take charity, but there was really no other option. At least supper is served at the way station, I thought ahead. I wished I'd thought this journey out a little more thoroughly, but the truth was, anything was better than being back with Wicks. I'd rather starve to death first. It was not a long dinner break. We were soon back in the stage, passing by miles and miles of nothing. It was a long, boring ride, with even more boring people for company. How strange that no one spoke to one another for hours on end!
In a way, I was glad. I still wasn't ready to talk yet.
After what seemed like forever, we finally arrived at the way station.
"One of the best there is," the driver assured us, "Clean rooms, and good food. Woman by the name of Ida Collins runs the place."
Sure enough, when we pulled up to the station, a woman appeared out of the barn to greet us. She was a slight woman-no bigger than myself- and yet doing the job of a man, or two men. She perhaps around thirty-five, with a few grey hairs peppering her brown braid at the nape.
"Hi, Adam! Howdy, Jack!" she greeted the driver and his side-kick, "Glad you brought by some business. Supper's on the stove, and will be done as soon as you've all washed up. Come on folks, I'll show you to your rooms."
Because there were so few of us staying overnight, I had a private room. I looked around the pleasant little room, wishing I could stay longer for just a night. It was so homey...
"Miss, you finding it to your liking?" came Miss Collins' voice through the door.
I opened it, "Yes ma'am, it's very nice. Thank you. "Well, there are freshly cleaned towels in the bureau drawer, Miss-?"
"Please, call me Louise. Louise McCloud," I answered, then wondered if it was wise to use my real name. Who knows how far and wide Wicks might search for me? Well, it was too late now.
She shook my hand, "And I'm Ida. Good to meet you. Are you ready for supper?"
"Yes, it smells delicious," I smiled.
The evening meal was a large affair. Ida, the folks from the stage, some cowhands and a few towns' people shared the dining room table. We ate of Ida's salt pork, green beans and fresh bread. Chatter seemed to be going on all around me, but I was content to just sit and listen to the other's talk. The meal was pleasant until the man next to me tried to strike up a conversation.
"What's a pretty little gal like you doin' all the way out here-alone?" he slurred. There was whiskey on his breath. There was a certain leering look in his eye- one that was now unmistakably burned into my memory.
Instead of responding, I rose to clear my plate, but the man grabbed on to my arm, "You're stayin' right here with me."
By now, my heart was pounding, and the unreleased tears stung my eyes. I felt hot, sick and scared all at once, like I was going to lose my dinner.
All these people were around me; why didn't somebody do something? Why didn't I do something? tried to escape his hold on my arm, but he was twice my size and much stronger.
"Otis! You let her go!" shrieked Ida at the top of her lungs. Surprised, he let go of my arm. Flustered, I headed quickly for my room, where I threw myself face down on the bed, and began to sob. Two incidents in as many days were too much for me to handle at the moment. I heard Otis and Ida arguing, and then him leaving after hurling a long string of profanities at her and her mother.
"And don'tcha ever come back- drunk or sober"' were Ida's final words to him.
"Miss McCloud? Louise, are you all right?" came Ida's voice through the door.
I was crying too hard to even answer. Besides that, I didn't want to have to explain my behavior. Everyone probably thought I was such a weakling, getting hysterical at every man who made unwanted advances. If they would all just go away... but Ida didn't go away; she came right inside my room, and tenderly patted my shoulders."I'M-I'm sorry," I hiccupped into the pillow.
"Easy now, don't try to talk if you don't want to. I just came to tell you that Otis is gone. You won't have to worry about him no more."
"Thank you," I mumbled.
"Louise, something pretty bad happened to you recently, didn't it?"
"Hmm... thought as much. Listen, sweetheart, you get a good rest tonight and let me take care of everything, okay?"I sat up to face her, "Yes ma'am."
Before leaving Ida assured me there would be someone posting guard all night. Then she showed me where some spare nightgowns were kept.
It did feel good to change out of the dusty traveling clothes and into a clean flannel night rail. "You've got to toughen up, Louise," I told my reflection as I combed my hair. "You know you can defend yourself- you did it at the orphanage. Don't let men like that intimidate you."
It was not easy getting to sleep that night. Visions of angry mens' faces haunted me, making me feel sick all over again. In the morning, I awoke feeling unrested and anxious. I threw on the dusty traveling dress with some disdain. It had been so nice to escape its' confines for a while. I was apprehensive about coming down to breakfast. I didn't want to face the questions, the stares, or the looks of pity. Still, it couldn't be put off forever...
Fortunately, due to Ida and Jack's pleasant chatter, breakfast was not the chore that I expected it to be. People did cast a few sideways glances at me, but it was not too awful. Much easier to endure than some other things, I thought wryly.
When the meal was over, Ida held a private conference with me as the others prepared to board the stage again, "Louise, I know it ain't easy for a young woman on her own out West. You"ll be safe on the trail- Jack and Adam are good men, and they'll protect you. But once you get to where you're going ... well, here, these might come in handy." She handed me a bundle, but there was no time to look through it. Adam was calling for me to board. I thanked Ida with a hug, and said a quick goodbye.
"How are you feeling, Miss McCloud?" asked Jack as he helped me on board.
"Better, thank you," I replied. There was such concern in his eyes that I couldn't help but smile, "Really, I'm fine."
After everyone was on board, the stage began the final leg of the journey to St. Jo. As usual, we were off to a very slow start, but eventually picked up some speed.
While everyone else was preoccupied, I took a peek into the bundle that Ida had sent with me. On top was some food -sandwiches, and two cold chicken legs. I blessed her then and there, and wondered how she knew. Further down was the nightgown she had loaned me the previous night. It was all so much... her generosity brought me to the verge of tears. I would have stopped looking if the shine of a metal object hadn't caught my eye.
The object turned out to be a pair of scissors. And under those were a set of men's trousers, and a heavy denim shirt. That's odd, I thought. Perhaps the clothes were for Jack or Adam. Then I saw the note.
"Dear Louise," it began, in obviously hurried handwriting, "By this time you have seen everything in the package. Some of the items may look confusing to you. They are in case you find yourself feeling safe as a girl sometime. Use them if you, This comment made Jack laugh so hard that he had to wipe his eyes with his shirtsleeve. I'm wasn't sure why he was laughing, but I liked the way it sounded.
"Oh, no. I don't want to be a lawyer at all. Those fellahs are startin' up a mail delivery outfit called the Pony Express. I'd rather be on a horse than behind one any day. They pay is decent, and you get a place to live, too."
"That does sound good. I love to ride. Where will this Pony Express go?"
Jack went on to explain that it ran from St. Jo, where we were headed, to Sacramento, California. He told me about the relay system, and the way stations that had begun to spring up along the route. I was about to ask him how he knew so much when Adam started herding us back in the coach.
"Well, Miss Louise, nice eating with you," he waved. Late that evening, we arrived in St. Joseph, Missouri. was glad to be off the stage, but frightened to be in a new town. It seemed as if there were people everywhere, going about their business even at this late hour. Overwhelmed, I stuck close to the stage depot. Now that I arrived, where would I be going?
"Miss McCloud?" the voice belonged to Jack. "There's a boarding house I know of in town if you need a place to stay for a while. Would you like me to take you there?"
"Uh, sure, that'd be nice," I said dumbly. The throngs of people seemed to have numbed my brain. I gathered up my carpet- bag, and followed Jack's lead in the direction of the boarding house.
A typical-looking boarding house matron met us. She was a robust woman, with her hair tied in a tiny knot, a frying pan in one hand, and a pleasant but determined look on her face.
"Mrs. Schmidt, I'd like to introduce you to Louise McCloud. Do you think you might have some room for her until she gets settled?"
"Sure, plenty of room!" she explained cheerfully. "Happy to have the business, and glad to have a woman around here for a change. Follow me, dear Jack, why don't you bring up her things?"
"This is all I have, ma'am," I said, my face growing hot. After an awkward moment, we both followed Mrs. Schmidt.
The room she led me to looked plain, but comfortable. One of the nicest touches was a braided rug by the bed. I thought about how nice it would be to step onto that rug instead of cold wooden planks on chilly mornings.
"Well, Miss McCloud, I best be off," said Jack, startling me out of my daydream. "I will be in town for a couple days, at least. Gonna try to sign on with the Express. I'll be at the way station if you need anything."
"Thanks for everything. Obliged to you," I replied. There was a lump in my throat as I watched him turn to leave. Jack was my last attachment to anything familiar. I was glad he would be in the vicinity, at least.
Jack had not taken five steps when he turned back around to face me, "Say, Miss McCloud, why don't you join me tomorrow night for dinner at the hotel?
I hear it's first-rate."That'd be nice," I nearly choked. We agreed that he would come for me tomorrow night at seven o'clock. I felt a little less abandoned then, and sighed with relief.
When Jack left, I began to unpack my belongings and put them in their appropriate places. The nightgown, scissors, and a worn dress went in the dresser drawers and the Bible on the nightstand.
"The first thing I need to do is get myself a new dress," I muttered to myself.
Mrs. Schmidt poked her face in through the open door, "Miss McCloud? Just wanted to let you know that breakfast is at seven Tomorrow, dinner at noon, and supper at five. Is there anything I can do for you?"
"Well, first you can call me Louise," I invited her. "I was hoping to look for a job soon, and am in pretty desperate need of a new dress. Can you tell me where there might be any places of employment?"
"Wish I could," she replied. "But I can tell you where to find a dress shop. Rebecca Ford owns the place, just down the street a bit. In fact, why don't I take you tomorrow after breakfast?"
"That's right kind of you.
"Sleep well, Louise."
It was good to crawl into bed that night knowing I was safe in a real home, even if it was temporary. Mrs. Schmidt seemed like a kind woman, and the house was clean and comfortable.
Morning came much too early. I had not known that the landlady kept roosters, but I sure knew at five o'clock that morning! Since there were no chores for me to do, I stayed in bed another forty-five minutes, simply enjoying the softness of the mattress.
After dressing, I popped my head into the kitchen, "Is there anything I can do to help you?"
"Nope, just you and me for breakfast, so not much to do. My, but you're a little thing, aren't you. I hope you have an appetite." "I do, ma'am," I grinned.
As promised, after breakfast Mrs. Schmidt took me to Rebecca Ford's Dress Emporium. The woman who stood behind the counter was tall and slender, and wore her hair in a loose bun at the top of her head. She also wore a certain look on her face, like she was expecting something good to happen.
"Hi, Rebecca. This is Louise McCloud. She's new to town and stayin' on with me for a spell. She's lookin' to buy a new dress.
"Hello, Louise," beamed Rebecca, "I'm so glad you're here. Now let's find a dress that will go with those beautiful brown eyes..."18 I liked Rebecca immediately. She made me feel important, welcome and beautiful in only a few minutes of being in her presence. Together, we decided on a simple green calico dress. It was almost sad to bring the dress to the counter and buy it, for that meant that I might not have further opportunities to see Mrs. Ford again soon. But as it happened, she asked if I was looking for work.
"Why, yes," I blinked in surprise, "Why do you ask?"
"Well, I could use some help in the store, mostly with mending. I can pay you 75 cents a day, plus dinner, with weekends off. What do you say? Can you mend?"
I smiled widely, "I say 'yes' to both questions. Thank you so much."
"You're quite welcome. The hours are from eight to four, with half an hour for lunch. See you tomorrow?"
I nodded my yes, as I was so excited I couldn't even speak. "Well, you accomplished all you set out to do in one errand," laughed Mrs. Schmidt.
"Thank you for taking me," I replied. "It seems like a nice place to work." She was silent for a moment, and then said, "Rebecca is a very special woman. She has a knack with people. Guess she took a real liking to you, to offer you a job on the spot just like that. You'll enjoy working wither."
"And I'll be able to pay the rent on time," I laughed.19 Jack arrived promptly at seven. I had put on my new green dress for the occasion, and Mrs. Schmidt noticed the extra time I had spent in grooming for the evening.
"You won't find a better man than Jack McShane," she smiled right before he came in. And you look real nice, too, boney. He's bound to notice those pretty eyes of yours, if he hasn't already."
"Well, don't you look lovely tonight, Miss McCloud?" said Jack when I greeted him at the door."Thank you," I blushed, "But please, call me Louise."
He offered that I should call him Jack, and we talked lightly as we made our way across town. I was delighted to tell him about my new job, and he seemed excited for me, too. It seemed we both had cause for celebration that night, because the Pony Express was hiring him on as a rider.
"Well, congratulations!" I said proudly. "Today seems to have been our lucky day.""Yes indeed. Here is the hotel, Louise. Hope you're hungry." Supper was a very enjoyable experience. Between Jack's stories and the delicious roast beef, I could almost forget the reasons for coming to this town. That is, until Jack inadvertently reminded me.
"You never told me where you were from, Louise. Or what you did before you came here."
"It's not important," I whispered flatly. Suddenly I felt drained of energy, and very tired. My companion noticed this, and quickly changed subjects.
Once we had finished dessert, there was not much reason to linger in the dining room any longer. Jack suggested an after supper walk, and I accepted. The days were long because of summer, and we had at least an hour of daylight left. During the walk, Jack talked about his boyhood and family, making me miss my own. I wiped a tear off my cheek when I thought he wasn't looking.
"Something I said?" asked Jack as he handed me a handkerchief.
I could feel my face growing red, "No. Just thinkin' about my own family is all. I-I'm an orphan. My little brother and sister are still in the orphanage, but I'll send for them after I'm settled."
"I won't talk of family any more if it upsets you."
"Oh, no, please, I'd like to hear about it."
As the sun was setting, Jack walked me to the boarding house. Before he left, he gave me a kiss on the cheek and whispered, "You have the most beautiful hair I've ever seen on a woman." Then he was gone into the night.
Fortunately, Mrs. Schmidt was in the back of the house, and did not see me enter with flaming cheeks. I rushed to my room and took the braids out of my hair, to see if what Jack said was true. My hair was long, thick, and very brown. Not exactly what I'd consider beautiful, but I was pleased that Jack thought so. I went to bed very happy.
The next morning I went to work for Rebecca Ford. She seemed glad to see me, "Hi, Louise! How is that dress working for you? Are you liking St. Jo? I'll show you where to get started..." After answering all Rebecca's questions, and asking a few of my own, we settled into work. Since the mending was not hard, we could visit, and I found myself opening up to her, in spite of my resolve to reveal as little as possible about my life.
"What did you do before you came here?" she inquired.
"Laundry," I answered bitterly as I mended a pair of mens trousers.
She chuckled, "I can understand not wanting to do that all day. Laundry is back-breaking work."
"It wasn't the work I minded," I muttered. The words came out sharply and Rebecca did not pursue the topic any further. She left me with my own thoughts for a while before resuming the conversation. Went home that day feeling tired, but also like I had accomplished something. The days continued on like that- work, and several evenings with Jack made my life feel stable. After a month I stopped worrying about Wicks trying to find me. If he was trying, he would have found me by now. I began to feel not only safe, but at home.
"You've been spending an awful lot of time with that McShane boy," commented Rebecca one morning. "Not that I have anything against that. Jack is one of the kindest men you'd ever want to meet."
"He is," I agreed. There was no use in denying it- or the fact that we had been seen all over town together.
Rebecca smiled mischievously, "Well, this is his shirt I've just finished mending. Maybe you'd like to deliver it to him tonight?" I told her that I could drop by the way station on my way home. We laughed and settled into our sewing. While we stitched, Rebecca revealed tidbits about her past as well.
Once she had dreamed of being a missionary, but it was never to be. She got married and moved to St. Jo at eighteen, but one night her husband told her he was going out to the barn to check on a lame horse, and never came back.
"But I can't complain," she insisted after I expressed sympathy. "It's a decent life here. Much better than a lot of women on their own in the West."
"You're right," I said a little too forcefully. Suddenly the room became very dark. One look out the window told us that a storm was approaching from the South- and fast. Rebecca sighed, "You may as well put away your sewing, Louise. It's always too dark to stitch when these storms come up, even with the lamps. You run on home before you get caught in the downpour."
"Just as soon as I deliver Jack's shirt," I waved from the doorway. It was so windy when I stepped outside that I had to hold onto my skirts and bonnet, which was not easy while carrying the package. On top of that, the rain started to fall, too, accompanied by thunder and lightning. While making my way to the express station, I accidentally dropped the package. Before I knew what was happening, a man approached me, "You drop this, miss?"
"Yes, it just flew out of my hands. Thank you," I said, reaching for the parcel.
"Not so fast," he drawled, grabbing my hand. "Don't I get a little reward for helping a lady in distress?"
For the first time, I looked up at him. He was a big, rough looking man whose face hadn't seen a razor in many weeks. looked straight into his cold, grey eyes, and gave him a swift kick in the shin, and then the knee. He swung at me, but I ducked. This enraged him further. He lunged forward, and gave me such a slap in the face that I went reeling to the ground. I became a little disoriented, but I could feel him on top of me, his hot breath on my face. I kneed him sharply in the stomach, and he fell off me, rolling in pain.
"Louise! Louise, are you alright?" came Jack's voice out of the air. I glanced up to see him on his horse, just a few yards away,
I'll be fine," I assured him. I tried to get to my feet, but my legs buckled underneath me. The next thing I knew, Jack was by my side. "It's alright, Louise. You're okay; he was no match for you, see?"
I did look at my attacker, and had a moment of self satisfaction. But seeing him flat on the ground was not enough. So many emotions and memories came flooding back to me, and before I knew it, the tears came in torrents. "Maybe I'd better get you back to Rebecca Ford's," he said nervously, helping me to stand. "Shh... take it easy now, Louise. You're safe."
But I wasn't sure if I would ever feel safe again. The walk back to Rebecca's was a blur. I didn't even realize how bad the storm was until I heard Rebecca say, "Louise, you're soaked. Let's get you into bed, child. Jack, could you get word to Mrs. Schmidt that Louise will be staying here tonight? I don't want her back out in that rain."
"Yes ma'am, as soon as I see the sheriff. I'll be back in a half hour." Rebecca led me to her room, and instructed me to put on one of her nighties. I did so, still unable to stop my tears. They would not stop coming, no matter what effort I made to control them.
Get under the covers, honey. You don't want to catch a chill, do you?"
I climbed into the bed as directed. Rebecca sat near me, stroking back my hair, and trying to reassure me that I was fine now, and telling me how brave I was. She did not press me to talk, for which I was grateful. It was nice to be comforted without being questions. "You just rest, Louise. Jack and I are taking care of everything. We'll talk later."
I nodded my head, and fell back onto the pillows, physically and emotionally exhausted.
"Louise," called a quiet voice. I opened my eyes to see Rebecca standing over me in the dim light of the oil lamp, "There's someone here to see you." Jack poked his head in bashfully, "Just wanted to wish you goodnight."
"Thank you," I replied drowsily. "Oh, Jack, did you ever get your shirt? I was bringing you the package..."
"Is that what you were doing out in that weather? No, I'm sorry I didn't. But I'm sure the two finest seamstresses in town can scare me up another one."
"Sure we can," answered Rebecca. "Thanks for your help, Jack. Goodnight."
Jack winked at me, "I guess that's my cue to leave. Hope you feel better."
After Jack had left, Rebecca came to sit by me again, and asked if I was ready to talk. So I told her the whole story: how my family had been happy until Pa had run off, and Mama took sick, about my mama's death, the orphanage, my siblings, Charlotte and the brothel, and finally the incident that brought me out here.
"How old are you?" she asked.
"Eighteen", I said. "Why?"
"Trying to calculate how much of your childhood you had lost. Seems like most of it."
"There are times- like today- when I think being a boy would be so much easier. In fact..." I went on to explain the contents of Ida's package.
"Would you really do that? Go as a boy?"
"Only until I made a little money, enough to bring my brother and sister out. I think I'd be safer that way." Rebecca leaned forward and gave me a maternal kiss goodnight on the forehead, "Take some time to think on it. Sleep well, Louise. Or should I say Lou?"
Lou, I thought when I was alone in the dark. Not such a bad identity. I could be Lou until I was better situated. still, hated to leave St. Jo, and Rebecca... and Jack. How could I explain my plans to him? Well, it would only be temporary. had made my decision: I would stay here one more week so I could plan my journey, and then head west again, on my own. In spite of my size, I had always been good at "boys" jobs. I could ride just as well as any man I knew. Maybe the company Jack was working for needs riders, I thought.
The next morning I woke up feeling a little disoriented, trying to remember the events that had lead me to be in Rebecca's home. When I remembered, I became more resolute about what had to be done. Rebecca knocked and let herself in when I answered, "Morning, Louise. Did the storm keep you awake last night?"
"No, not at all," I blushed. "Must've slept right through it."
"You had been through a lot yesterday. You must've been exhausted."
"Rebecca, I- I've made a decision about what to do. I wish it could be another way, but what I need most right now is to feel safe. I'll be staying on for another week, if that's okay with you."
"Of course it is, honey," Rebecca assured me simply. "I wish things were easier for you, but I understand. Do you have plans?"
"I'm thinking on some," I volunteered. "Jack said that the Pony Express needs more riders a ways west of here. Maybe that's my chance."
"I hope everything works out for you. Well, come on and get your breakfast now. Then we'll get to work. I'm gonna get all the sewing I can out of you before you leave."
The next week was mostly spent working at Rebecca's and planning for my departure. I told Mrs. Schmidt that I would soon be leaving, and she seemed sad to be losing me as a border.
"We're sure gonna miss you around here. It's been nice having some decent company for a change. Have you broken the news to that McShane boy yet?"
A pang of guilt went through me. As of yet, I had not told Jack about my future plans. I wasn't sure how to tell him, and how much to tell him if I did. He was coming by tonight to take me to supper, so it was the perfect opportunity. Only I didn't want that opportunity to happen. I wasn't sure if I was more worried about breaking Jack's heart, or my own.
That evening I put on my best dress, and did my hair extra carefully. Jack rewarded my efforts with a host of compliments, but tonight I found them hard to accept.
"Louise, doesn't your supper taste alright? You've hardly ate a thing," he noticed.
"No, it's fine. I-I just have other things on my mind is all. Really, the steak is wonderful. Don't know when I've eaten so well."
"Would I be intruding if I asked what was on your mind?" he asked. "You look troubled."
"Oh, Jack," I almost wailed. "There's so much I want to tell you... I just hope you won't be angry with me, or think I'm terribly foolish."
Jack's kind eyes assured me that I didn't need to worry about his reaction, and that I could trust him. So, in low tones, I discussed my plans, and revealed my reasons for it.
"Well, Louise, it doesn't sound easy, but if anyone can do it, you can."
"No, it won't be easy," I acknowledged, "but the hardest part will be- leaving you." I looked quickly down at my plate, afraid that the sight of Jack's blue eyes might bring tears to my own.
A hand gently lifted up my chin, "Well, now maybe things will turn out okay after all. If you get a job at an express station, chances are I'll come through it. So, we'll see each other. But I am going to miss seeing you everyday."
"I'll miss seeing you every day, too," I admitted. Jack asked when I had to leave, and when I replied the day after tomorrow, an inspiration hit him, "Well, why don't we make the best out of the time we have left. There's a full moon tonight- ever ridden on a horse in the moonlight?"
"No," I smiled, "But I think I'm going to like it." So after supper, Jack ran by the Pony Express station, and procured a couple of horses for us, and I stopped at the boarding house to change into riding clothes. For a moment I considered wearing the trousers Ida had given me, but decided on a skirt instead. After all, tonight I was still a girl. There would not be too many nights in the future I would be able to show my femininity. Jack and I had a marvelous time together. I showed him some of my riding skills, and he assured me I would have no trouble signing on with the Pony Express.
"Even heard of a place a ways west of here that is hiring new riders. A town by the name of Sweetwater in Nebraska Territory. Heard of it?"
I shook my head, "No, I haven't. Is it a nice town?"
"From what I hear, pretty nice as far as western towns go. The station is owned by a woman, but the whole outfit is run by a man named Teaspoon Hunter."
"Is it far?" I asked.
"Yeah, pretty far. But it's your best chance, Louise. And I'll be passing through, I promise." He pulled his horse up even closer to mine, leaned over and kissed me. I know he was sealing his promise.
"I wish tonight could last longer," I sighed.
Jack agreed, but reminded me that tomorrow would come soon enough, for both of us had early mornings. But before our evening ended, he had one more surprise for me. When he had been at the station earlier, he had swapped rides with someone bound for Fremont Springs, a days ride out of Sweetwater.
He could accompany me for most of my journey. Now it was my turn to kiss him. We were slow to arrive at the boarding house, and I was even slower about going inside. Jack held me for a long time, almost too tightly. "I'll see you Friday by O'Malley's pond?"
"At sun-up," I choked for a reply.
The next morning I said a reluctant good-bye to Mrs. Schmidt, because I wanted to spend my last 24 hours at Rebecca's. There were some final preparations I wanted only her to help with.
"You've been a good boarder, Louise," she told me appreciatively. "I am going to miss having you for company. Take care, my dear." Once at Rebecca's, I dove into my work, hoping busy fingers would help to make this hard day go by a little faster. Fortunately, Rebecca kept the conversation light and avoided the topic of my leaving. She knew it was a painful subject for me.
"I'd like to make you a nice supper tonight," she said towards the end of the day. "Care for anything special?"
"Fried chicken?" I asked, grinning up at her. It was not often that I was asked to choose what I wanted for supper.
She smiled back, "I believe I have a fryer all ready to go. You can stop working now, Lou, it's getting dark."
I looked at Rebecca in surprise. She had called me "Lou", not "Louise" as usual. It didn't sound too bad, kind of crisp and informal. With another smile she said I might as well get used to the name. Supper was delicious, and Rebecca promised to send some leftovers with me in the morning. Previously, I had stopped at the mercantile to by my canned supplies. It was going to be a long journey, but Jack had assured me that towns along the way would have supply stores, too.
After we ate and washed the dishes, I said reluctantly, "Well, I guess I'd better be getting on to another chore. Rebecca, would you mind- cutting my hair? I just can't..."
She nodded sympathetically, and sat me down on a chair in the kitchen, with plenty of newspaper under it to catch the hair. I gave her my scissors, and closed my eyes, vowing not to open them until she was done. Still, with every snip I cringed. As far as I was concerned, my hair was my best feature. Jack had said it was beautiful; mama had called it my "crowning glory." And now most of it was on Rebecca's floor. It took a valiant effort not to release any tears.
"Okay, Lou, I'm done. You can open your eyes now."
Hesitantly, I did so. Rebecca gave me a mirror, and I held it to my face.
It took me a minute to register that it was really me staring back. Me, with chin- length hair.
"It looks nice," I said a little shakily. "Thanks for leaving a little length. I- I suppose I should see how I look in the men's clothes." I ran to the guest room where I kept my things, and found the parcel from Ida. The clothes seemed to fit alright, although I did have to roll up the pant legs. Rebecca found me modeling the outfit. "Well, do I pass as a boy?" I asked, dropping my voice about half an octave. She eyed me critically, "Just a minute. I have a couple things that might help." Rebecca returned with an old brown hat, and a pair of spectacles. She said the glasses had been a prop at a theatrical she had seen, and the actor had given them to her as a souvenir. Because they were just glass, they did not affect my vision. Between the wire-rims and the hat, I really did look much more like a boy.
"Just remember, never cross your legs, or walk daintily," she reminded me. "Look folks straight in the eye when you talk to them, and curse on occasion."
"My mama used to say I walked like a boy anyway," I laughed. "The cussin' I'll have to get used to."
Suddenly, Rebecca rushed to me, and gave me a motherly hug, "Oh, Louise, I hope you'll be okay. I know you're doing what you feel is right for you, but it just seems like you had no childhood, and now you have to sacrifice your womanhood."
"I'm still Louise on the inside," I told her gently. "I just have to be Lou on the outside for a while. Please don't worry about me. I'll be fine, really."
"I believe you will, Lou. Now get some sleep, you've got an early day and a long ride ahead of you tomorrow."
"Yes? "I'm going to miss you terribly. You've been like a daughter to me."
Too choked up to say anything, I merely nodded, hoping it would convey how close I felt to her, too. It was still dark when I got up the next morning. I dressed quickly, and placed my few belongings in a satchel. Fortunately, the satchel was a plain one that a boy might carry.
To my surprise, Rebecca had breakfast ready for me, saying I couldn't leave on an empty stomach. Even though I did not have much of an appetite, I knew I had to eat for strength. After a final hug I was out the door, and on my way to O'Malley's pond.
True to his word, Jack met me at sun-up by the pond. He was mounted on one horse, and held the reins of a spare, a beautiful appaloosa. If Jack was disappointed at my appearance, he did not say so, but gave me his usual smile and wave.
"You ready for this journey, Louise?"
"Think so," I replied, arranging my provisions in the saddle bags. "Oh, and could you call me Lou when anyone else is around?"
"Sure thing, Lou," he winked.
With a sigh of anticipation, I hopped up on the saddle. A spirit of adventure was in the air. Jack and I grinned at each other, gave our horses a little kick, and were off, bound for all the dreams of a new life promised by the West.
The sun was directly over us by the time we stopped for a break. "You're riding a little high in the saddle there, Lou," teased Jack.
"Suppose I gotta get used to this long-distance riding," I groaned, dismounting my horse. Along the way, Jack had told me that her name was Penny, because of the copperish color of her spots.
Also along the way, we had seen a few Pony Express stations. Some were no more than a stable with a shack next to it, others looked more accommodating. Jack had assured me that the Sweetwater station had some of the best accommodations, with a cook and a bunkhouse. It seemed the riders lived there, which was not the case of all the stations. Also, a woman was there. Somehow, that made me feel a little more confident. Just knowing another woman would be around was comforting. It was a long, exhausting journey, and when night fell I usually ached so badly that all I wanted to do was lie still and rest. However, I often made the days longer by staying up late and talking with Jack across the campfire. I knew he must have been tired, too, but there seemed no end to the things we could talk about, and somehow the days weren't long enough.
When we stopped for the eighth night, Jack told me that we were about half a days ride from Fremont Springs. A lump formed in my throat; after tomorrow, I would have to go on alone. Jack would turn around and head back east to St. Jo.
"You're kind of quiet tonight," he observed as we listened to the crickets chirp and the howl of a coyote.
"Just tired is all," I shrugged, not wanting to discuss the real reason for my quietness, "Too many late nights, I guess."
"Well, get some sleep, Lou. Goodnight."
"What is it, Lou?"
"Do you think you could- well, just hold me for a few minutes?"
He came across to where I was, laid down next to me, and rested his head on my saddle. He put his arm around me, and I lay my cheek against his chest.
"Is this better?" he asked.
"Much," I mumbled. It was the first time that I'd been this close to a man and have it be my choice. It was exciting, but I was too tired and apprehensive to really pay close attention. Because I trusted Jack so much, it was easy to relax, and soon I fell asleep in his tender arms.
Despite a good nights sleep, morning came much too early. Food did not really appeal to me, but I made myself eat for strength. With few words between us, Jack and I packed our belongings, and rode towards Fremont Springs.
Even though I had a crude map and had been given explicit directions to Sweetwater, Jack still felt compelled to give the directions to me again-twice. I humored him by listening closely, and asking a clarifying question or two.
Eventually, we came to a signpost with an arrow saying "Fremont Springs, I mile", and we knew this was the place to part. But for a few minutes, we were both quiet, contemplating that signpost.
"I guess- I guess I have to go on alone now," I said shakily, my voice choked with emotion.
"Louise," said Jack, and he took my hand, "Lou, just remember: even though I won't be with you, it doesn't mean you'll be alone."
"You're right," I agreed, sliding down from Penny, and beginning to remove my provisions.
"Whoa, what are you doing there Lou?"
"I'm getting my stuff from Penny."
"Why? You're taking her. Sorry I forgot to tell you earlier."
I swung around to face him as my jaw dropped, "But Jack, I can't! She belongs to the express..."
"Which is precisely who you'll be riding for. Don't worry, though, I okayed it with the boss. Said as long as you'll be working for the company, you might as well ride a company horse. I meant to tell you beforehand, but it slipped my mind somehow."
"I can't thank you enough, Jack. You really didn't have to do this, but it will make the rest of the trip so much easier and faster. Besides, I'll be glad for the company."
"Well, I'd best be off. Good luck to you, Lou, and God bless. Write me when you get settled. I'll pass through Sweetwater one of these days." With a wave of his hand, and a tip of his hat, Jack turned his horse east, and began his journey home. I did not watch him retreat for long, because it was too painful.
"Let's find ourselves a home, girl," I told Penny as I climbed on her back. "Gid- up!"
The town of Fremont Springs was not impressive, but it did have a mercantile. I stopped there, the first time I was really in public disguised as a boy. 1 was a little nervous as I hunted through the store for provisions, that someone might notice I was incognito.
"You're total come to $2.08, son," the man behind the counter informed me. I was relieved to hear him call me son. Lowering my voice, I thanked him kindly and went on my way. Traveling alone was not so bad, just kind of unusual after I'd had Jack to chat with. Besides, there were others on the trail occasionally, including a few who I took to be express riders. Still, even when I came across some rough-looking men, I felt insecure only for a brief moment, but never totally unsafe. Not one of those men had that leering look in their eyes when they saw me as a boy. Ida was a wise woman, I thought, to have prepared me so well.
Eventually I came to Three Crossings, only 25 miles east of Sweetwater. It was a good thing, too, for now I was running low on provisions and cash, and to reach Sweetwater would take about three days. I had one days worth of food left. Well, I could always drink creek water, and eat when I got there.
The next day, though, a man approached me on the trail. He was the first person to come up to me like that in a long while, and it made me apprehensive.
"Excuse me, young man, but you look like you've traveled a long journey. Would you care to buy some mutton for your trip? I raise sheep, and am hoping to sell it."
"I'm sorry, I'm out of cash," I explained.
"Well, take half a pound anyway. Consider it a gift."
I was in no position to refuse his offer, "Thank you, sir. Much obliged."
That night I cooked the meat over the campfire until it was brown and juicy. It was nice to have supper out of a can for a change.
While munching on the steak, I realized that this was probably my last night of camping out. Tomorrow night I'd likely be in a bunkhouse full of strangers. The thought made me shudder, and I wished Jack could be there, waiting for me in Sweetwater. Memories of Jack made me sentimental, though, and I turned my thoughts toward other things.
The sun was pretty high in the sky when I woke up the next morning, and my body felt strangely stiff.
"You would think I should be used to you by now," I told an unsympathetic Penny.
As the day wore on, I became increasingly tired, and achy. My throat felt strange, and I shivered even though it was a warm day. Still, I pushed myself. Almost there, I kept thinking. There it is now, the signpost with an arrow, "Sweetwater, 1 mile". Only one more mile. Jack will be glad to know. Where was Jack? Now my head felt strange; all my thoughts seemed to blend together and made no sense. Where was I heading? The express station at Sweetwater. If I can just keep my wits about me for one more mile...
Fortunately the station was not far, just outside of town. The closest building was a house, so I stopped in front of it, and dismounted clumsily. felt like I was on fire as I staggered up to the front porch. Before I even knocked, a woman opened the door. Even through my haze, I could tell she had reddish hair, and a kind face. Her eyes were full of concern.
"Can I help you?"
"I'm Lou McCloud. I want to be an express rider," I replied. The porch seemed to be moving from underneath me, and then everything turned black. The next few days were a blur of sighs, voices, and scents. Someone kept touching their hand to my forehead; the hand was soft and smelled faintly of lilacs. Then a voice would instruct me to swallow, and before I knew it, there was water going down my parched throat.
"I think we'd best send for the doc. He hasn't really come to in three days," I heard a woman's voice say.
"No doctor," I moaned without opening my eyes.
"Sorry son, but you were in bad shape when you got here," said someone else. The tone of the voice was different- deeper and older.
"Teaspoon, send one of the boys for Doc Barnes, would you please?"
After a few minutes, I heard someone calling my name, "Lou? Can you open your eyes for a second? I need you to wake up a little bit. There you go, sweetheart."
We were in a dimly lit room, and the woman who had answered the door for me was sitting on the edge of the bed. She smiled down at me with gentle eyes.
"I don't remember..." I began, trying to figure out how I got into the bed.
"Shh... it's alright. You've been very sick, Lou. You were hardly alive when you got here. My name's Emma Shannon."
"Jack told me a woman owned the station." I remembered out loud.
She looked deep into my eyes, "Lou, when you first came here, you were running a very high fever. I-I had to get you out of your clothes."
I glanced down to see that I was no longer in my own garments but wearing a man's flannel nightshirt. Not even a week here, and someone had discovered my secret. There was nothing to do now but sigh in resignation.
"Now, look, I know it ain't easy for a woman- let alone a young girl- to make it out here by herself. We all have to make sacrifices, and you certainly made a unique one. I just wanted to let you know that I won't give away your secret."
"Thank you," I whispered sincerely. The room began to spin, and I closed my eyes.
Another stranger was calling my name. I didn't want to respond; it took too much effort to open my eyes. All I wanted to do was lay perfectly still.
"Lou, can you hear me?"
I nodded my head slightly. The motion hurt my head and my neck.
"We're trying to figure out what's wrong with you. I think you might have contracted anthrax. I need to know if you ate any lamb before you came here," he instructed.
I racked my brain to try and remember the events of the journey. There had been a man selling mutton...
"Mutton," I mumbled, "A man selling mutton. He gave me a piece. It was good."
"It couldn't have been that good," the doctor replied, shaking his head. "That meat nearly cost you your life. Emma, here is the medication for him. Lots of water, and lots of rest for him, too."
"I'll see to that doctor, thank you," she answered. Then it was quiet again, and I could rest again without being shaken, prodded or poked.
The next time I woke up, I was back in my old room in the St. Louis brothel. There was the familiar, unmistakable sound of the doorknob rattling. That could only mean one thing- Wicks. I started to tremble. Remembering my vow not to keep silent again, I found my lungs and screamed Charlotte's name.
"Shh... Lou, it's okay. You're having a bad dream is all. It's alright honey. No one is going to hurt you," Emma's voice roused me from sleep.
"Guess- guess had a nightmare," I panted. My heart was still beating wildly against my chest. "Probably from the fever."
"Is that your real name?"
"It's short for Louise," I admitted. "Louise Elizabeth McCloud."
Emma put her hand to my forehead, "Well Louise Elizabeth, I think your fever had gone down some. Are you feeling better?"
"A little. Sure better than I was. You know, I don't even know how I got here."
"Well, you showed up in pretty bad shape. It must've been quite a trip though. When your fever was so high I couldn't get you to stop talkin'. Who's Jack? You asked for him a lot."
At the mention of his name, memories of the journey came flooding back to me. I could see Jack, clear as day, saddling up his horse, or giving me a wink across the campfire.
"Jack McShane- he's a friend of mine. Rides for the express, too, out of St. Jo."
"You miss him?" Emma asked outright.
"Haven't had much time to think about that," I answered evasively.
Emma changed the subject, "Well, you'll meet the rest of the riders here before long. Let's see now- there's Jimmy, Cody, the Kid, Buck, and Ike. They're looking forward to meeting you."
I wasn't sure if I was looking forward to meeting them in return. They were sure to ridicule me because of my size, and what if they found out I wasn't a boy? The thought that maybe I could just stay safely in Emma's house occurred to me, but I knew that was impossible. Well, I'd just have to prove to them that I was tough, and could do the job.
"Do you think you're up to eating supper with us tonight?" her voice broke my thoughts.
It was tempting to say no, but before I could even answer, Emma assured me that everyone understood how sick I'd been, and would be kind. She promised that I could sit by the stove and keep warm, too.
A few minutes before supper that evening, I put on my men's clothes and glasses, and combed my hair in a more masculine style. Emma offered to help me across the yard to the bunkhouse, but I wanted to do it on my own, and show everyone that I was stronger than I looked. I was glad for her presence next to me, though.
When we got to the bunkhouse, five strange pairs of eyes, plus Teaspoon's, turned too look at me.
"Gentleman, I'd like you to meet Lou McCloud," introduced Emma.
"Welcome aboard, Lou," said Teaspoon, indicating a seat for me. "Glad to see you up and around."
"Good to be here," I nodded, taking my place.
After some prodding from Teaspoon, the other boys introduced themselves to me. They were sure a bunch of different personalities: Cody, with his blonde hair and flashing grin, tense and sullen Jimmy, shy Kid, the mysterious half Kiowa who spoke for both himself and Ike, who was mute and bald from scarlet fever. He communicated through Indian sign which Buck was able to interpret.
Before the meal began, Emma said the blessing. It gave me a measure of comfort somehow to know there was some sense of order and family at mealtime. It made me not feel quite so lost and alone.
Although the boys were cordial enough, they seemed to be watching me very carefully, scrutinizing my every move. I suppose they had a right to check out who they'd be riding with, but still, it made me uncomfortable.
"Is that all you're gonna eat, Lou?" asked Buck, once I had finished. The others were already working on their seconds helpings.
"Oh, it was very good, but the anthrax took away some of my appetite. I'll be eatin' better soon enough."
"You have to keep your strength up around here," Jimmy told me. "We don't want anyone slowing up our outfit."
"You don't have to worry," I replied icily, giving him a defiant look.
"Jimmy," Teaspoon's voice had a note of authority.
"Anyone who can make it here on horseback only half alive can probably hold his own. Even though Lou may be puny he's- spry."
I wasn't sure at first if Teaspoon's words were complimentary or not. But when he gave me a grin I knew I was in his favor.
After that brief conversation, the stares subsided but the chattering continued. The boys joshed with each other good- naturedly. For a moment, I wished I could be part of that, but I knew, too, that getting too close would be dangerous.
"Well, Lou, you should get back to bed. Doc recommended a few more days of rest. Then you'll be able to bunk in here," promised Emma.
Cody jumped from the table, "This here will be your bunk, Lou. A good one- right by the stove and under yours truly."
I nodded in appreciation. The bunk was in a nice position, and having Cody for a bunkmate didn't seem like such a bad prospect. He was by far the most outgoing rider, and would probably take any attention off of me.
"Well, I'm glad the boys were decent to you," Emma declared once we were safely back in her house. "I was afraid they'd ride you pretty bad after they saw your size."
"I'm tougher than I look," I assured her.
"What did you think of the boys, anyway?" she asked, a gleam of curiosity in her eyes.
I stripped down to my long- johns and crawled beneath the covers. "I'm- I'm not sure yet. They're a bunch of characters, aren't they?"
"Good heavens, yes. Would you like to know more about them?"
"I guess so," I replied. I had the feeling Emma liked having me around to talk to-someone else who could understand a woman's perspective of life.
"Like you said 'a bunch of characters'. They don't have much in common except that they're all orphans and headstrong. Kid arrived first, from Virginia. He's a little shy, still, and just loves his horse. Then Cody- he's always smiling and joking. He's got a serious side, too. He reads everything he can get his hands on. Buck and Ike came next. Evidently, they've been friends since school days. Buck is half Kiowa, you know. He's pleasant, too, but sometimes there's a sadness in his eyes. Ike now, he's a real sweetheart. Life dealt him some rough hands, but he makes the best of it."
"What about Jimmy?" I inquired, thinking maybe she had forgotten about him.
"That boy," she muttered, "is headed straight for trouble and then probably hell. He's so angry- has such a chip on his shoulder. It's him I worry about most. Maybe he'll settle down sometime, though. Teaspoon's already had to dunk him in the trough a couple times to cool him off."
I chucked at the thought of Jimmy Hickok being dunked, and thought mischievously that it might be fun to witness sometime. It certainly must have bruised his pride, although it seemed to be in tact tonight.
"Thanks for telling me, Emma. It's nice to know who I'll be working with."
She gave me a motherly kiss on top of her forehead, "You're welcome, Miss Lou. You know, I'm going to miss having you stay here after you're recovered. It's nice having someone to talk to. Goodnight."
As soon as I fell asleep I was plagued with bad dreams again. All sorts of familiar scenes replayed in my mind: ma's dying, the orphanage, the brothel...but all in strange, distorted images. My daddy would be talking to me, and then his face would change, and he would become Wicks.
"Stop crying, Louise. You're all grown up now. Stop crying- don't you dare tell anyone," he demanded, his face too close to mine.
Don't cry now, I'm here," said a low voice. Was this part of the dream, too? Who was here, and why couldn't I see her?
"Lou, wake up. No one is going to hurt you. It's me- Emma."
I woke up to see Emma hovering over me in the pale light of the lantern she had placed on the table.
"Are you okay?" she asked tenderly. "That's the second nightmare you've had tonight."
"I'm fine, really," I said, shaking my head a little to get my bearings.
Emma stroked back a piece of hair that was sticking to my damp face, "Louise, I'm worried about you. You'll be sleeping in the bunkhouse soon, and you don't want those boys to hear your screams. At first I thought it was the fever, but you ain't running one now. Is there something on your mind?"
"No," I lied. Emma was a good, sweet woman and I knew she could be trusted, but my past was too painful to deal with again. It was so much easier to pretend nothing had happened.
"If it is something, you know you can tell me. Get some rest now," she instructed.
I lay awake long after Emma left my side. Her words were true, though: I would be in the bunkhouse soon, and could not take my personal history there. I would just have to try harder to forget. I would have to bury my secret deeper.
It was not long before I was strong and healthy again. I moved into the bunkhouse, and the boys did razz me quite a bit until they found out I could pull my own weight. Actually, I was rather pleased with myself in discovering that I could keep up with the boys in rides and chores.
"You're not half bad for a little fella," Buck complimented me one day as we chored.
"You're not half bad yourself," I grinned.
Buck stood there for a minute, looking at me quizzically. When I asked him what he was looking at, he said, "I don't remember seeing you smile before, is all. How come, Lou? Ain't you happy here?"
"Here? Here's fine," I answered, not wanting to follow that line of conversation because it was dangerously close to getting too personal. I turned away and went back to work. To my relief, Buck asked me no more questions.
One problem with the Bunkhouse was that everyone slept in their long-johns. Now, I wasn't what a person would call "full- figured", but just the same, I didn't think I should run the risk of the boys finding anything out. And I certainly couldn't keep my arms folded across my chest until everyone went to sleep. Finally, my solution was to read by a small lantern while the others were getting ready for bed. I could usually pretend to be absorbed in my reading, even if I was not. When I was pretty sure the boys were sleeping, I would wriggle quickly out of my clothes, and hop under the blanket.
Less than a week after living with the boys, Cody picked up on this pattern.
"What are you always reading at night, anyway?" he asked with interest.
"Different things- the Bible mostly," I replied honestly. I only had one other book besides it, "The Last of the Mohicans". That poor book was just about worn out with being read so many times.
Cody was about to say something when I heard Jimmy's voice, "So, you think you're better than everyone else because you read your Bible every night? Is that why you act so high and might?"
"That ain't fair, Jimmy, and you know it." the Kid defended me.
Ike clapped his hands to get our attention, and made a series of gestures that made Buck laugh out loud, "Ike says he doesn't mind having someone else quiet around here."
"Well, he's got to be so quiet for a reason, right boys?" Jimmy persisted. He came close to me, too close, "Why are you so quiet, Lou? Run away from home? Surprised your ma and pa let you go out alone after dark..."
Before he could continue, I gave Jimmy a left hook that sent him reeling to the floor. He was about to retaliate when Ike and Cody got a hold of him.
"You take that back, James Hickok!" I said in a low, intense voice. "You don't know nothin' about me, or my folks."
"All I know is that you think you're too good for us.
Too many emotions were dwelling in me at the same time. I couldn't explain why I kept myself at a distance to Jimmy, and my frustration turned to rage. Something inside me snapped, and I lunged for him again. Buck caught me by the arm, but I managed to get free of him. In surprise, Ike and Cody let go of Jimmy, and before I knew it, we were on the ground, the others trying to separate us again.
"What in the name of the Lord is going on here?" roared Teaspoon. We all looked up in astonishment, because we hadn't heard him enter amidst all the commotion.
"He started it!" declared Jimmy, pointing an accusing finger at me.
"Looks like he was about to finish it, took," Teaspoon wryly commented under his breath. "Now will someone please explain just what happened?"
"Just had a disagreement is all," I admitted. "I lost my temper. Sorry, Jimmy."
I knew Jimmy heard the apology, but he said nothing in return. I knew I had mostly hurt his pride by flattening him, more than I had his body. And I think he would have preferred the latter.
"Alright, everyone get to bed now. You boys have an early morning. Lou, Jimmy, try to get along, will ya?" pleaded our beleaguered station master.
After Teaspoon left and things returned to normal, Cody handed me a book, Uncle Tom's Cabin. "Jimmy won't tease you about reading this. I don't have many books, but you're welcome to borrow them anytime."
I thanked Cody with one of my rare, small smiles, as Buck would say, and a look of gratitude. It was not hard to get absorbed in my reading so there was no need to pretend that night.
The next morning I had planned to be cautious and quiet around the boys until I found out just what they thought about last night. To my surprise, they treated me normally, even perhaps with a new, yet grudging, respect. Jimmy, in particular, seemed to regard me in a whole different light, like he was really seeing me for the first time. Chores and breakfast were surprisingly pleasant.
When I returned from a short ride later that day, I found Emma in the barn feediner her goats. I had gone in there to tend to Penny.
"Lou McCloud, what's all this I hear about you fighting? You should know better than the rest," she reminded me.
"I wasn't looking for a fight. Jimmy just went too far, is all. He provoked me, and I couldn't stand it anymore. I- I just lost it for a minute."
She listened sympathetically as I unfolded the whole story before her, from Jimmy's taunting to Cody's kind offer. She was as surprised as I by the change in Jimmy's attitude.
"That may have been the only way you could really prove yourself to the boy," she reflected. "It's a shame, but I bet it'll be for good in the long run. Boys always go by contraries. But Louise, no more fights, okay?"
"Okay," I agreed sheepishly. I knew Emma hadn't expected trouble from her smallest rider.
Then Emma chucked, "Just wish I had been there to see you bring that boy down."
Life at the station seemed to go on as usual after that incident. In spite of my resolve, I found myself opening up a little to the boys, although I still kept most things pretty private. Sometimes, Emma would call me over to her house under the pretense of some chore needing to be done, and we'd talk some women's talk for a while. She would try to draw me out during these conversations.
"You gettin' along alright?" she asked on one of these occasions. She kept them pretty spread out so the boys would not suspect anything.
"Seem to be. I've managed to hold my own with the boys," I replied. "The fact is, this is a better life than the one I had before."
"You know, Louise, you never did tell me where you are from. Down south?"
"I was raised in a little town called Oak Flats. After my ma died, and my pa ran off, we had to go to the orphanage in Independence. Then I ran away to St. Louis, where I worked, and stayed there until I came to St. Jo. And you know the story from there."
"Where did you work in St. Louis?" Emma asked kindly. Just the thought of the big house where I had worked made me feel nauseated. I wanted to come up with an answer, but could not.
"Doesn't matter," I insisted. "I'm here now, living a better life. I hope to send for my brother and sister sometime." Fortunately, Emma was interested in my siblings, and I could talk easily about them.
One afternoon after I had gotten back from a particularly tiring ride, Jimmy approached me in the stable where I was brushing Penny.
"Letter came for you, Lou," he announced. "It's postmarked St. Jo." "Thanks, Jimmy," I said in appreciation, trying not to look too eager. The writing on the envelope was masculine and bold, and I knew it had to be from Jack. My heart was pounding with excitement, but Jimmy was still standing there, so I had to appear calm.
"Know who it's from?"
"I got an idea."
"His name is Jack McShane. He's my-uh- cousin," I lied. It was the best I could do under the circumstances. "Why?"
Jimmy looked at his feet, "I- I don't get much mail at all. It must be nice."
This was the first time I had seen James let down his guard. My heart went out to this boy who was lonely and attention-starved, although he'd rather die than admit that. I promised to share the letter if it contained any interesting news. This seemed to satisfy him, and I was left to read my note in peace.
Jack's letter was not a long one, but it did contain news of St. Jo, which I was eager to hear. Rebecca Ford and Mrs. Schmidt sent their greetings as well, and Jack gave a full account of station life. Evidently, they were not as lively a group as we, but all dedicated and earnest young men. But it was the postscript I liked best of all, "I miss you." They were simple words, but sincere because Jack had written them. I took a glance around to see if anyone was watching me, and kissed the letter. Then I hurried back to the bunkhouse to write my reply.
A few weeks later, as I was writing a letter to Rebecca Ford, I looked up to see snow softly falling outside the window. It was December now, and the weather had been bitterly cold the last few days. I was very glad then for the bunk nearest the stove.
Just as I was sealing the envelope, Kid and Cody walked in, "Hey Lou, writing another letter?'
"Just finished this one," I replied. "It's to a friend back in St. Jo. She kind of helped me- and my family- when we needed her." I had learned that if I gave the boys a few details they did not ask me as many questions.
"Got much family?" asked the Kid as he struggled to pull off his boots.
"Nope, I'm an orphan, too. I have a brother and sister, though. They're in an orphanage now, 'least till I can get them out."
Kid was still fighting with his boots, so I smiled at Cody, and we offered to help. Cody tried to pull off the stubborn boots while I braced Kid from behind.
I laughed to see Cody's face red with exertion as he pulled and declared, "Kid, you're feet are just frozen to these dad-blamed boots!"
With one last tug, the boots came off, and Cody landed on the floor in a very undignified position. Kid and I laughed until we had to brush away tears.
Cody was laughing right along with us, but, high-spirited as he was, he scrambled to his feet, and made a dive for us. Before we could move out of the way, he was on top of us, and the three of us were tangled in a pile. Hands and feet were sticking out everywhere, and I tried to crawl my way out from under them. Suddenly, I felt an alarming sensation. A hand was- someone's hand was where it shouldn't be!
Kid gasped at the horror of his discovery, and jumped back as if he had just touched a snake.
"What's wrong?" Cody asked him. "Are you hurt?"
"He- he's a girl," sputtered Kid.
I wasn't at all sure what to do. I could fee my face growing hot, and my heart starting to pound. I knew I couldn't deny his discovery, so I became defensive, "What's the matter with you, Kid, ain't ever touched a girl before?"
"You're- you're a girl?" Cody repeated. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, as if hoping to see something he missed earlier.
"You got a problem with that?" I demanded. "I've already proved I'm as good as you- Buck, Hickok, any of you!!"
"Now just simmer down, Lou," directed Kid.
"It's Louise," I explained, looking at the ground while Kid and Cody mentally adjusted to this revelation. "Louise Elizabeth McCloud."
The other three boys had to pick that very moment to return to the bunkhouse. A gust of wind followed them as they laughed and chatted, but when they saw us looking so solemn, they, too, quitted.
"What is it?" asked Buck, sensing the tension in the room. "Lou, are you sick? My God, you're as red as fire."
"No, I'm- well- I guess there' no use in trying to hide it anymore. Kid and Cody just found out- I'm a girl." I said lamely. I would have given anything for the floor to open up and swallow me then, I was so mortified.
The other boys did not act as shocked as I would have liked them to. I suppose my announcement did explain a few things. Jimmy's face, though, was a study. He looked aggrieved, and yet a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
"Something wrong with me being a girl, Jimmy?" I asked.
"Nope, just can't believe I got knocked flat by one is all," he replied, looking amused.
The others laughed, but I didn't have the heart to join in. I was sure that the boys would report me to Teaspoon, and that he'd fire me, for it was company policy that only boys could ride for the express.
Cody came to stand by me, and put his arm around me in a brotherly way, "Why do you look so upset? Things'll be easier for you now. You won't have to stay up half the night waiting for us to go to bed."
"You mean you ain't gonna tell Teaspoon?"
"Of course not." Buck declared. "You can do your job, that's what's important to Teaspoon. And Lou, I'm sorry we rode you so hard at the beginning."
"Oh, that's alright," I said, feeling a little embarrassed by all the attention. "And thanks for not telling Teaspoon. It's a big relief."
Ike clapped his hands together for an audience, and with a twinkle in his eye, asked if Emma knew my secret. I explained to them how Emma had known from the start, when I had arrived so sick with anthrax. They nodded, as if they finally understood my special bond with Emma.
"By the way," Ike signed, still grinning. "How did Kid and Cody find out you were a "Louise"?"
Fortunately, the boys had the grace not to answer that question, and I demurely replied, "Well, Ike, I'll just have to leave that up to your imagination."
"So, now the boys know, huh?" asked Emma as we split wood and confided the next day. "How'd they take it?"
I worked a particularly rough piece of wood before answering, "Better than I expected. It definitely explained some things to them, and they're beginnin to fit the pieces of the puzzle together, so to speak."
"How did all of this come about?" she persisted.
"I'd rather not talk about that," I blushed. "Let's just say that Kid and Cody will probably never wrestle with me again!"
She smiled, probably guessing with some accuracy what had happened. As we piled wood against the shed, Emma was curious if the boys had treated me any different since finding out this new bit of information. I thought for a minute before replying, trying to remember if the boys had acted any different than they had previously.
"Not that I've noticed," I said. "And I hope they don't. They should know by now I can handle the job."
"You know what, Louise, I admire your spunk. Not too many girls- or boys- could do what you've done; coming out here, getting sick on the way, and doing a fine job without one complaint. But I want to know one thing: why did you do it?"
"Because I had to," I replied simply. I was surprised by the cold tone of my own voice. I had not thought about my reasons for leaving in a long while, and preferred to keep it that way. Emma noticed my reaction, and after a few moments of awkward silence, tried another line of conversation.
It was always a rare occasion if all eight of us were together for any meal, but we were for supper that night.
"I'd like to call your attention, please," announced Teaspoon over the din of everyone's chatter. "Seein' how next week is Christmas, and seein' how you have such a generous station master, I thought you all might like to know that you all have Christmas Day off."
The boys hoorayed, but I was too stunned, for I hadn't realized how late in December it had gotten.
"I'll make a nice dinner," beamed Emma. "What's your pleasure, Mr. Station Master?"
"Well now, that's the only sad part. You all have the day off but I don't. Stations master's meeting of this territory is on the 24th in Lone Tree. So I don't think I'll make it back on time. But we'll have our celebration in Lone Tree- some old friends will be there who I haven't seen in years. It'll be like a reunion."
"I'm glad you'll be with friends. It's awful to be alone at Christmas," I added from experience.
Teaspoon's announcement did not dampen the boys' spirit, however. They each suggested what to have for dinner, and where we should put the trees, and all kinds of other details. They were as excited as little children.
"Lou, you haven't stated your opinion," Teaspoon noticed. "You want anything special?"
"Oh no," I said, startled a little by the question. No one had asked me if I had wanted anything for Christmas for a long time. I was safe, I was with friends, so what more could I ask for, "I'm just glad to have the day off."
On Christmas Eve Day, only a few of us had rides. Fortunately, mine was a short morning run, so I was back in plenty of time to help with the festivities. Cody, however, was not so lucky. He had to start out late in the afternoon, just as it was beginning to snow.
"Don't you worry, Lou, Cody will be fine," Buck assured me. We were trimming the tree we had found earlier, and I paused to look out the window at the storm. "I don't know why we didn't realize you were a girl earlier, 'cause you sure do worry like one."
I laughed in spite of myself. Everyone- even Jimmy- was in a festive mood as we decorated the eight foot tall fir tree. It took up nearly a whole corner of the bunkhouse. Ike and I were stringing together dried cranberries and popcorn, and the way Ike kept sneaking snacks made me wonder if there would be enough left to go around the tree.
"Emma, should we put candles on the tree?" asked the Kid.
She was alarmed, "Are you crazy? The whole place would burn down. You boys are none too careful as it is."
Despite our lack of candles, the tree did look pretty with it's garlands, strings, and colored paper ornaments.
"Won't Cody be surprised when he sees this?" I giggled. One advantage to Teaspoon being away was that I could let down my guard and just be "Louise" for a couple of days. I noticed that not having to live a lie was much more relaxed than I remembered it being.
But Cody did not come home, even after we helped Emma set the table for supper, and the storm outside grew worse. Eventually, we came to the conclusion that Cody must have taken shelter at another express station. He would not try to brave such a blizzard as this, even on Christmas Eve.
"Louise, can you come to the house with me for a minute? There's something I want you to see," beckoned Emma after dinner.
As we stepped outside into the cold, I realized just what elements Cody would have been up against had he tried to make it home. As the snow whirled around us, I thought that it was a very good thing indeed that he had taken refuge.
"What is it you want to show me, Emma?" I was curious as we entered the house.
"Come on upstairs," she said mysteriously. No one had been upstairs at Emma's house before. It was her private domain, and I felt a little in awe at the invitation to see it. So when I saw the bedroom was just an ordinary one, the mystery vanished. But another lay on the bed. A dress of red and green plaid, with black piping on the hem, sleeves, and neckline, was spread out royally.
"Oh, it's pretty, Emma. You will look so nice in it."
She smiled and placed a hand on my arm, "No, I won't sweetheart. But you will."
I was stunned into speechlessness. I had been living live as a boy for almost six months now, and here Emma was offering not only the dress, but the gift of femininity. Carefully, I reached out and touched the fabric. Somehow it must have held a magic power, because I was able to manage a small but heartfelt thank you.
"The boys helped me pick it out. Well, they approved of it anyway. We wanted to do something special for you, and with Teaspoon gone, we just thought this might be your only opportunity you'd have to wear a dress for a while, and I didn't think you'd brought one with."
"No, I had to leave them behind," I said a little dazedly.
"Well, go on and see how it fits," instructed Emma.
I slipped the beautiful dress over my union suit, and to our delight, it fit perfectly. Emma said I looked lovely, and beckoned me over to the mirror. I was pleased with the dress, but for one minute, ached to have my long hair back.
"I promised the boys they could take a look at you in this, too, so you had better get back to the bunkhouse before they're all asleep."
Suddenly, I cast off all my distance and reserve, and threw my arms around Emma. Although I tried to will myself not to cry, some tears spilled on to her dress, anyway.
"It's alright, Loulabelle," comforted Emma, "Shh... I know it's been hard on you sometimes. You're doing a wonderful job here. The boys and I- well- we're proud of you."
I was about to thank her for the kind words when we heard bells ringing in the distance. Emma explained they were from the church in town, ringing in Christmas. She waved me off, and after saying goodnight, I stepped out into the snow once more.
As I was making my way towards the bunkhouse I spotted a figure coming out of the stable. Who could be out on such a night? All the boys had done their chores earlier. When I squinted, I could see the person was limping. After two more paces, he collapsed. Running to him, I discovered in horror that it was Cody!
He was barely conscious when I reached him, "Come on Cody, you're frozen. We've got to get you inside."
"Can't, Lou, can't," he moaned.
"Yes you can," I encouraged, placing his arm around my neck. "Come on, it's just a few feet away to the bunkhouse. You're almost home."
Because Cody was bigger than me, I literally had to drag him through the snow to the bunkhouse. The boys had gone to sleep already, but left one candle burning for me. It guided us to my bunk, and thus the stove. I lay Cody on the bed, and tried to remove his outer clothes, but he shook so hard I could not get them off. He did not seem to know where he was, and moaned softly.
"It's okay, Cody," I whispered, trying to inspect his ears and fingers for frostbite. "You're safe at home now. We'll get you warmed up and you'll be just fine."
"What is it, Lou?" Jimmy asked sleepily from his bunk. When I replied that Cody had returned, he crawled from underneath his warm blankets to assist me.
"Should I get Emma?" he wondered as we gently rubbed Cody's hands, trying to bring some life back into them.
"There's no point in waking her up as long as it doesn't look like frostbite. Still, I think the cold's had a bad effect on him. Can you hold him still so I can try and take off his boots?"
"Sure," replied Jimmy. He seemed very different to me then. He held Cody firmly, but also with a gentleness I had never seen in him before. His voice was low and calm; his manner almost as any woman's might be. I was bemused to know that our self-proclaimed toughest rider, who had known his share of violence, was also vying for a place as our tenderest.
"I don't know how, but his feet aren't frostbite,"I sighed in relief, hardly believing that human toes could be that cold. I shivered myself with the thought.
By this time, Cody had dozed off.
"We shouldn't let him sleep until he's warmer," Jimmy warned. "He could go into shock and not wake up. You wake him and I'll fix some coffee."
I hated to wake Cody after such a long, cold, and hard journey. Still, Jimmy was right, and I shook him vigorously until his eyes opened.
"You need to stay awake for a while," I told him. "I'm sorry Cody, but it's for your own good. Jimmy's making you some coffee now."
"I just want to sleep," he murmured.
"Lou, what's wrong?" asked the Kid from his bunk. Evidently, we had waken the rest of the boys as well. I explained to them that Cody was home, safe but cold, and that they should go back to sleep."
"But not you," I directed to Cody, who had closed his eyes again. I sat on the bunk with him, and put my arm around his shivering shoulders, figuring that would help warm him. "Come on, Cody, you can do it. Tell me how you got home in this storm. Why didn't you stay at another station?"
"I-I wanted to be home for Christmas," he managed to say. "The storm wasn't so bad when I set out...but...it...got...worse.."
A little shake prevented him from falling asleep again, just in time. To keep his mind occupied, I asked him a few more questions so that he would have to think and not let his brain grow numb. Finally, after what seemed like forever, Jimmy came with the coffee. Cody still shook with chill, so Jimmy had to put the cup to his lips.
When half the coffee was gone, Cody's strength gave out, and he slumped in my arms.
"Might as well let him sleep now," Jimmy nodded. "We've done everything we can. Did you find out why he rode home in this weather?"
"He wanted to be home for Christmas," I answered, stroking Cody's hair back from his face. "Guess he made it, huh?"
A slow smile spread across his face, "Yeah, guess he did at that. You should get some rest, too, Lou. Or should I say Louise tonight?"
With his words, I realized I still had on Emma's Christmas gift. Everything had happened so fast I had forgotten until now.
"It looks nice on you, Louise," complimented Jimmy.
"Thank you," I stammered. "The dress is pretty. I think I'll stay by Cody tonight in case he needs me. Besides, he's in my bunk."
Before James went back to bed, he helped me unfold a bedroll, and lay it on the floor. That way I could sleep and be close to Cody at the same time. It worked out to be a good arrangement. Mechanically during the night, I would wake to make sure he was warm and comfortable. Fortunately, warm and life seemed to be coming back in to his hands and feet, so I knew we were past any danger.
"Should we wake her up?"
"Nah, she had a long night last night."
"Won't Emma be expecting us up, though? She'll be in to make breakfast pretty soon."
When I realized the voices were discussing me, I opened my eyes to see five pairs of eyes staring down at me.
"Mornin' Lou," winked Jimmy. "Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas," I replied. I was going to ask how Cody was when I noticed he was up and dressed with the others. "Guess I over-slept. Don't worry, I'll get to the chores."
"You don't have to worry about that", Buck grinned. He offered me his hand and pulled me to his feet. "We thought you had done plenty last night, so we let you sleep in this morning."
"Besides, you couldn't do chores in that pretty dress anyway," added the Kid. My dress looked somewhat rumpled and slept-in, but Kid was right, it was still pretty.
"Lookin' at you makes me think of a Christmas angel. And that's just what you are to me, Lou. I'm obliged to you for helping me out like you did," Cody thanked me. His voice was husky either from emotion or from being out in the cold.
"You're welcome. And I'm glad you made it home for Christmas. It wouldn't be the same without you."
Ike dramatically grabbed his handkerchief, and pretended to wipe off tears away from his eyes and blow his nose with flair. We all had a laugh over that, and as we were laughing Emma came in to prepare breakfast.
"What's so funny? Louise, you look lovely, and Cody, glad to see you home." Emma had an amazing talent for flying around the kitchen and carrying on several conversations at one time. While she was in the kitchen, I took a comb to my hair and tried to style it a little more femininely. I was not pleased with the results. Cody noticed this, and brought over a small package.
"Maybe this will help," he said softly, his eyes twinkling. I unwrapped the package to find two red hair ribbons. Cody himself placed them in my hair, and when he was finished I turned around to give him a kiss on the cheek.
"Hey, don't I get one?" asked James with a rare laugh. He thought it was a joke, but I was in such a holiday spirit that I did just that; gave everyone in the room a kiss on the cheek.
"It's good to see you so happy, Lou," Buck said thoughtfully. "You seemed so forlorn when you first got here, and so reserved...but now you're one of the family."
Although that thought should have made me happy, it gave me pause to think instead. I had come to Sweetwater and to this job with no intention of growing close to anybody, let alone becoming part of a "family." And yet here I was spending Christmas Day with the very same people I vowed I would never let into my heart. How had this happened? Was it me? Them? For an instant, the old instinct to run away came back, but my desire to be my friends- my family- overcame that.
"Louise, hello," gently called the Kid.
I was quick to come back to the present, "Sorry. Did you say something, Kid?"
"No, you just looked so far away. Were you thinking about-"
To everyone's surprise, there was a knock at the door. Instantly I fled behind a partition in case it was someone from town, or even worse, Teaspoon. I couldn't run the risk of someone else discovering my secret, and here I was all decked out in a dress and hair bows!
Emma, dignified as usual, answered the door, "Hello. Can I help you?"
"I- I have a Christmas present here for Lou McCloud."
My heart skipped a beat- it was Jack! I'm sure Emma and the boys wondered what on earth was going on as I flew past them and practically jumped into Jack's arms.
"Oh, Jack- Jack! I can't believe you're really here," I almost sobbed.
"Hello, Louise. You are a sight for sore eyes. But you look a mite different from the last time I saw you." Jacks' eyes twinkled with their teasing.
Jimmy approached us and whispered, "Lou, you gonna introduce us to your friend? Or should I say 'cousin'?"
I was so dumbfounded that I could not even begin to speak. Fortunately, Jack took the lead and introduced himself to Emma dn the other riders. Before I knew it, we were all sitting at the kitchen table, and Jack was discussing the Pony Express outfit in St. Jo.
"As a matter of fact, I'm the one who recommended Lou for the job here," said Jack proudly. "So boys, how's she turned out?"
Amazingly, it was Cody who took his question seriously, "She does her job like a man and then some. She's been a real blessing to us."
I could hardly believe my ears. No one had ever called me a blessing before. Today everyone spoke as though they were proud of me, and I wasn't sure why. I thanked Cody with a grateful smile because I was afraid that trying to speak would only produce tears. He nodded back in understanding.
Since we were all seated at the table, Emma got up to serve breakfast, and invited jack to spend Christmas with us. Jack and the boys seemed to take to each other, and I slipped away quietly to assist Emma with the women's work.
"You're friend Jack is a very handsome man," she said when we were out of earshot.
"Yes he is," I agreed. There was certainly no use in denying that fact. "But Emma, I'm still getting over the shock of seeing him again. Sure glad I had this dress on today. Thank you again."
After breakfast came the fun of opening presents. Because the Express fairly decently, I was able to purchase some gifts for my friends, and send some to my siblings as well. Ironically, I had sent Jack's present to St. Jo., so I had nothing for him that morning. When I apologized, he said that it would keep, and that he would look for a package when he returned.
"Now, why don't you open your package from me?" he suggested, handing me a small box wrapped in tissue paper.
Everyone looked with interest as I began to unwrap the package. I opened the box to find a lovely pink and ivory cameo necklace nestled against blue velvet lining.
"It's beautiful," I said, barely above a whisper. "Thank you...thank you so much."
"Here, I'll fasten it for you," Emma offered, and in a moment the cameo was clasped around my neck. I traced my finger around its edge, partially to make sure it was really mine. I'd never owned anything like it in my life.
The others said a few admiring words, and Ike also leaned across to touch the precious jewelry. We all seemed to be in awe, transfigured.
"Mr. McShane, we'd be honored if you'd join us for Christmas dinner," invited Emma, thus breaking the mood of magic with practicality.
"I'd like this Miss Shannon, though I may have to leave before dessert," he explained.
"We'd be glad to send some pie home with you,," she accommodated. "There's still a while before dinner yet, so if you and Lou-Louise, would care to take a walk..."
My face grew warm, and the boys snickered at her broad hint. Jack did not seem at all embarrassed by this, and kept his composure quite well. He thanked Emma for the idea, and glanced at me for approval. I shrugged into my heavy coat, and guided him towards the door.
"I'm sorry about their teasing," I apologized when we were safely outdoors. "They like to have some fun on my account."
"I don't mind. You get used to joshin' each other when you live and work like this. 'Sides, it's been a long time since I've been teased about a pretty girl." Jack's gloved hand found mine, and I was tempted to turn around and see if there were six noses pressed against the window pane. but somehow, I managed to keep my eyes looking straight ahead.
Since the ground was still covered with snow, we kept within the confines of the property. Walking any further than that was a lot of effort, and Jack had made the long trip in rough conditions.
"Actually, I spent last night in town," he said when I mentioned this. "Figured it was safest, not knowing quite where the station was."
For a while we talked of light subjects- station life, how the folks in St. Jo were doing, and comparing our stock. During the conversation, I grew increasingly cold. I had become used to the warmth and convenience of men's trousers, and now cold air was blowing right up my skirt. I tried not to show how cold I was, but Jack noticed.
"Let's get you back inside," he insisted. We took a few steps when he suddenly blurted out, "Lou, I've missed you."
"I've missed you, too," I replied, giving his hand a gentle squeeze. There were other beautiful, more poetic words we could have used, but that simple, heart-felt expression said it all. We smiled at each other, and stepped into the bunkhouse where we were greeted with warmth, friends, and the smell of a delicious dinner.
After dinner was over, I walked Jack out to the stable where he had put his horse, Ranger. Conversation was out of the question, because of a huge lump in my throat that just seemed to get bigger every time I tried to speak. Jack seemed to understand, and did not pressure me to talk.
"You take care of yourself, Louise. I'm glad things have gotten easier for you here. I'll be by again. Adios!" He kissed me gently, and then was gone.
I leaned against the corral fence and watched Jack retreat. On clear, cold days like this, you could see a figure ride a long ways a way. Soon though, my feet and hands were numb, and Jack disappeared into the horizon.
"Hey," said a gentle voice beside me. I looked up to see Buck. How had he approached me so quietly. "Lou, you'd better get inside before you freeze."
"I know," I choked past the lump in my throat that refused to go away.
Buck put his hand on my elbow, and silently guided me back to the bunkhouse. Once inside, I expected some joshing from Emma and the boys, but they were either too absorbed in eating dessert, or too acutely aware of the look on my face to tease. Emma brought me a slice of apple pie, but I could only eat a few bites, and they tasted like sawdust because of my dry mouth. Although I had not done a regular day's work, I felt exhausted.
"We all like Jack a lot, Lou," said Cody, trying to cheer me. "He's a good man. How did the two of you meet, anyway?"
"He was riding shotgun for the stage I took to St. Jo. I- I'd had to leave St. Louise in a hurry, and Jack was very kind to me. I remember now that when he mentioned Russell, Majors, and Waddell, I thought he was talking about a law firm!" I laughed. Everyone else joined in the laughter. It was not so hard to talk about pleasant memories.
The holidays seemed somehow just to fly by. First Christmas, then New Year's, and suddenly it was the end of January 1861. It had been a cold, gloomy month, too. This was especially noticed during morning chores when the ground froze, and frost covered the little grass we had left.
"Hey, Lou, how'd you like to go into town with Ike and me?" Cody offered on one such morning as we cleaned the horses stalls.
I hadn't been to town in weeks, and the invitation sounded like a nice departure from my routine, "Sure. When are you going?"
"About an hour," he replied easily. "So Emma can make her list, and so we have time to clean up so we don't have to go to town smelling like manure."
In an hour, Emma handed us a list of supplies and helped us hitch the horses to the wagon.
"Better bring a saddle horse, too, Emma. Your list is so long there won't be any room left even for little Lou on the buckboard on the way back!" teased Cody. I laughed out loud, Ike silently. Emma just looked chagrined.
"It ain't me who packs away all that meat, beans and cornbread," she retorted. "And mind you don't go asking Mr. Tompkins to help load it. You're all young and strong."
After a final warning to keep clear of the saloon, we were finally on our way to town. Cody and Ike rode in the wagon seat, but I preferred the horse. These leisurely rides were a nice change from the usual break-neck pace of mail delivery.
We were having a pleasant ride until we came to the edge of town. People filled the street, although I saw many women fleeing indoors, some of them ushering their children, covering their eyes.
"What's going on?" I whispered. "Was someone shot?"
I don't think so signed Ike. Not enough screaming.
Cody suggested we pull on ahead, so we rode through the street practically unnoticed. As we got closer to the commotion, people could be heard voicing their opinions of whatever it was causing the ruckus.
"Ain't fittin' for a decent town."
"Children shouldn't have to see..."
"Looks like this one-horse town in livening up!"
Suddenly, I saw why the town was so full of excitement. Right outside the saloon, girls wearing fancy, brightly colored dresses walked the platform. Most had very pale skin, although some looked Chinese. Whatever their color, they all exposed lots of skin. Seeing all this brought back memories I thought I had buried, and it took all my strength not to flee back to the station.
"What is this?" wondered Cody, his blue eyes wide and cheeks red from seeing so much women's flesh at once.
"The chippy parade," I answered before I could think. The boys looked surprised by my language, and asked how I knew. To cover my mistake I became defensive, "I know more than you think."
Finally we hitched the horses to a post in front of the mercantile. Eager to see us, Mr. Tompkins waved us a greeting from the doorway, "Quite a day to come to town, boys. Miss Sophie just opened her parlor yesterday. Reckon we'll have folks coming from miles around to get some- entertainment. Now, what does Emma want today?"
While the boys did the purchasing, I went to the back of the store, not so much as to look at merchandise, but to try and calm my queasy heart and stomach. Couldn't I go anywhere to escape whorehouses? For the past few months I had tried so hard to forget about that part of my life, and here it was, in my face again.
When I truly suspected I might become ill, I fled outside, brushing past the boys with a quick, "I just need some air." Unfortunately, once outside, all I could see were the prostitutes advertising themselves with a little help from the woman who must be Miss Sophie. I sunk to the step on the porch, and leaned my head against the railing.
"You okay, son?" asked an old miner who was entering the store. "You look a little green around the gills to me."
I glanced at him and nodded, "I'll be fine." He smiled sympathetically and went about his business. I was going to put my head back down but something caught my eye. A poorly dressed girl came out of the parlor. She was thin, with straggly brown hair, and could not have been more than thirteen. Miss Sophie barked something at her, and then slapped her, and the girl ran back inside. That girl- I had been that girl! At this realization, my whole body started shaking, and couldn't stop.
"Lou, we're ready to go now- hey, are you alright?" asked Cody, setting down a sack of cornmeal, and kneeling down by me. I looked up, but couldn't speak. "What is it, Lou? Are you sick? You can tell us, honey."
When I still didn't respond, Cody asked Ike to get me on the horse, and take me home. He would come along directly with the loaded wagon.
"Tell Emma she was fine, then got a chill or something. Thanks, Ike."
Somehow Ike managed to get me off the porch and into the saddle. He climbed on in back of me, and when we were out of sight from the town, he pressed my body to his to help quell the trembling. In spite of his best efforts, I still shook uncontrollably. For the first time since I'd known him, I was glad Ike couldn't talk, because he couldn't ask me questions. Then I thought about facing Emma and the others, and the shakes bordered on convulsions. Ike noticed, shifted his reins to one hand, and gently cradled my head with the other.
t was not Emma, but Teaspoon who met us out by the corral. With gestures, Ike explained the situation, and Teaspoon reached for me. I closed my eyes to try and escape from everything. Maybe if I didn't see it, the whole situation would go away.
"Easy now, son," he said softly. "We'll get you up to Emma's. She'll have you feelin' better in no time."
At the sound of her name, Emma was by my side, pestering the men with questions. When they explained what they could, she hustled Teaspoon up to her room. He lay me on the bed, and Emma shooed him out.
"Louise, sweetheart, do you feel sick? You're not feverish... answer me, Lou, please."
I felt like I had been struck mute, like Zacharias in the Bible. I tried to speak out, but it came out more of a muffled sob. Feeling utterly helpless, I curled up in a fetal position. Emma spread a quilt over me, and sat down on the bed, keeping close watch over me like a guardian angel. "We'll get you through this, Loulabelle. It's gonna be okay. There now, you're alright."
I don't know how long we were in that position when there was a knock at the door. I felt Emma slip off the bed, and saw her let in Cody.
"How is she?" he asked, and I could hear the concern in his voice.
"I don't think she's sick," she replied. "There's no fever and her skin feels normal. Cody, did something happen in town today that I should know about?"
He thought for a minute before answering, "Not that I can think of. There were a lot of people there today on account of Miss Sophie's new parlor opening yesterday."
At the mention of the town's new business, I tried to stifle a cry, but didn't quite succeed. Miraculously, the trembling stopped, but the tears that hadn't been released in so long started the flow. Both friends rushed toward me when they noticed this sudden change. Cody gathered me in his arms, tenderly rocking me as he would a small child.
"Did somebody hurt you, Louise?" Emma inquired.
"The- the whorehouse... I was that scrub girl!" I wept incoherently. "I thought I could escape them by dressing as a boy- they're gonna do things to her..." I raved on for a while until they probably thought I was crazy. Still, it felt good to let all my emotions out at last. When my tears were spent, I buried my face in Cody's shoulder and closed my eyes, completely exhausted.
When I awoke it was lamplight, not sunlight, that filled the room. I was no longer in the protective arms of Cody, but under a log cabin quilt. Emma realized I was awake, and was soon by my side, "Lou?"
"I think- I think I'm okay," I said a little dazedly. "I'm sorry Emma."
"There's nothing to apologize for. We were worried about you, and now we're just glad you're okay. I think I kind of pieced your story together, but I'm here if you want to talk about it."
Feeling ashamed, but also a deep desire to talk, I asked Emma if she'd ever been around houses of pleasure.
"Can't say that I have," she answered. "My mama warned me to stay away from them."
"Mine, too," I sighed. "But she died before I was old enough to know what it meant. Life at the orphanage was pretty bad, so I ran away at fourteen."
"Where did you go from there?"
"Here and there, mostly," I replied. "I kind of wandered around for a while, doing odd jobs. I looked young, and people feel sorry for young orphans. They don't generally for older ones. It wasn't too bad, but I didn't have a permanent place to live. One day when I was selling apples in St. Louis, a man named Frank Wicks offered me a job doing laundry, and a place to live. I- I had no other choice, Emma. It was either take his offer, or starve."
"I know that," she replied sympathetically. "No one is judging you for what you did."
Those words were the most comforting I had heard in years, so I took a deep breath before continuing, "I'd never seen a house that fancy before. At first I didn't even know what kind of a place it was, even with all the men who called at all hours. I was pretty innocent. I was the scrub girl, and most of the ladies treated me like a slave. So when I saw that girl getting slapped today.."
"You felt the sting as much as she did," said Emma, naming my feelings exactly. She noticed I was choking back a sob,, and massaged my hand lightly.
The rest of the story tumbled out before I even had a chance to think about what I was saying. I told Emma about Charlotte, and the abusive Mr. Wicks. Then finally, about my last night there, and how he came to me with a proposition.
"'Now that you're all grown up, Louise, you'd be worth more to me as a sportin' gal'," I quoted him, almost spitting the words. "But I refused. It was bad enough being the scrub girl, but I knew it was 100 times better than being one of Wicks 'ladies'".
"What did he do to you, Louise?" Emma pressed, her eyes looking troubled and pained.
"He- he gave me what some of the women called 'the Wicks treatment'. I- I hadn't known what it was 'til then. Charlotte found me soon after. She and Elanora snuck me out of there and put me on the first stage that was leaving that morning."
Emma asked where I had gone, and I told her all about the journey west, meeting Jack, and my friends who had helped me along the way. I told her about the men who had grabbed me, and the awful, hungry look in their eyes.
"So I took advantage of what Ida gave me," I explained. "Rebecca cut off my hair, and lent me these prop glasses." I took the spectacle off, and regarded them for a moment.
Emma shifted restlessly on the bed, "You know, Louise, the boys and I will often mention how brave you are. I've always felt it was a different kind of bravery, not the brash, daring kind. Yes, you have a special kind of courage."
"What kind of courage?" I wondered.
"A kind that has been passed down for generations of women," she said dreamily. "The kind of courage to do what you have to in order to survive. The kind to work through your fears, and face them head on. The kind of courage that lets you be tender as well as strong. You have the kind of courage that is shaping this West of ours."