Preface


Cody and Lou have just begun the tender stage of a new romance. But will their strength and love for each other be enough to conquer their biggest fears?


Chapter One


"Lou, can I ask you something?" wondered Cody as we approached the station.

I was in a playful mood, "I think you just did."

"You got me there," he laughed. "But I wanted to know if we could just keep things between us for a few days. It's not that I'm ashamed of you or anything, I'd just like to enjoy this without the boys joshin' me for a few days."

"Sure," I answered. "That's a great idea. I'd like a couple days of peace myself." Cody leaned over and sealed our agreement with a kiss.

At supper time it became apparent that we might as well have come in waving a banner announcing our new status. The other boys snickered, winked, jostled Cody and generally made fools of themselves. Even Emma just smiled and made no effort to stop their behavior. The only reason the boys didn't actually say anything or pester me was due to Teaspoon's presence.

"Do you mind sharing with the rest of us, Buck?" asked Teaspoon after Buck had nudged Cody with an elbow.

"Uh, yes, Teaspoon. It's kind of between us riders," he explained with a remarkably straight face.

"Well, I suggest you keep it that way and not bring it to meal times," recommended our station master. "What is it with these boys tonight, Emma?"

She shrugged, "Boys will be boys, Teaspoon."

It was the wrong thing to say. Her comment sent the boys into a fit of giggles. The sight of Jimmy giggling was contagious, and soon Cody and I were laughing right along with the others. Eventually my stomach began to ache because of laughing so much after a meal. Teaspoon sighed in resignation as he dug into his apple pie.

After supper, Teaspoon and Emma returned to their respective places, Emma having promised me a "good long talk" in the morning.

The boys were no better as we prepared for bed.

"Why don't you read out loud to us tonight, Cody?" asked Kid. "You know what I'm in the mood for? A good romance story." This comment sent the boys into hysterical laugher once again.

"Knock it off, Kid," Cody admonished without much feeling. I think he was actually enjoying the teasing.

"You boys need to behave yourselves around Teaspoon," I chided, and the boys seemed to calm down. We turned down the lights except for one so Cody could read. After Noah came to us, he had started us in the pattern of taking turns reading aloud before we went to sleep at night. Sometimes it was a book, but usually they were shorter stories from magazines. Listening to someone read before bed had become a nice ritual for all of us.

I was so tired from the day's ride that I had a hard time focusing on the plot, but it was relaxing to listen to Cody's voice. Eventually I fell into that state of complete relaxation-right between being half asleep and half awake.

"Cody, is Lou asleep?" asked Jimmy. My ears perked up and now I was more awake-this could be interesting. I was fortunate enough to be turned towards the wall and I kept perfectly still

"Yeah, I think so. It was a long ride today," Cody whispered. I could hear the warm smile on his lips. "Why?"

"'Cause I think you're a lucky guy, Cody," admitted Jimmy. "That's why we were givin' you such a bad time."

"Been teased about worse things," Cody said casually. "Goodnight, fellas."




After chores the next morning, Emma found an excuse to invite me over to her house. I collpased into an easy chair and looked around at all her feminine belongings. A pretty china cup and saucer here- a doily there-made me feel comforted and served as a reminder that I still could appreciate the daintier things in life.

Emma noticed my admiration and smiled, "It's nice to see soneone else appreciate a few of my finer things. Men don't seem to have an eye for it."

"My mama had some pretty things, but she had to sell them when she was sick to pay for the doctor. Only thing I have left of hers is the family Bible."

"It's a shame you don't have more things of hers," agreed Emma."You must be missing her now."

"How did you know?"

"'Cause I remember missing my mother when a new love came into my life. It's good to see you happy, Louise-does my heart glad."

"We had a good trip. We stayed up almost all night talking. I-I told him everything, and he understood. He also told me about his past, and his demons. He really cares for me, Emma."

"Of course he does. It's written all over his face when Teaspoon ain't around. He's smitten and I think it's sweet." Emma stood up and put her arms around me in a celebratory hug. She dismissed me with a kiss on the forehead. "Anytime you need to talk, I'll be here."

Chapter Two

A few days later I returned from a short run, the last one of the day. Noah and Jimmy were doing chores and came to greet me.

"I'll care for your horse," Jimmy offered. "Emma'll want you washed up before supper."

"So will Cody," teased Noah.

I chuckled as I made my way to the bunkhouse. As I neared the building, I caught part of Emma and Teaspoon's conversation.

"-cozy with Lou," Teaspoon's words stopped me cold in my tracks.

"Lou needs a little extra mothering right now, Teaspoon. You know how those boys can be and he's the youngest."

"I just think you might be sending him the wrong signals," he continued.

"HE's an impressionable young boy, Emma, and if you keep hugging him like I saw you doing he might get the wrong idea about you. After all, you are an attractive lady."

"Teaspoon, you are a suspcious old man."

"Maybe so, but I think I should have a talk with that boy."

My heart was about to fly out of my chest. How could he think...? Me and Emmma? Without thinking, I rushed inside, "You don't have to do that, Teaspoon."

"Oh?" he sounded startled and looked embrassed to see me, "And may I ask why not?"

For an answer I removed my glasses and hat, shook my hair out a bit, and tried to look as feminine as I could through a layer of dirt.

Teaspoon looked astounded. A couple of times he looked like he was going to say something, but then changed his mind. And I didn't know what to say either, so we both stood there staring at each other.

Emma took in the scene before her and found it amusing, "Teaspoon, meet Louise McCloud, one of your best riders."

"How long have you known about this, Emma?"

"Since she came here when she was so sick with anthrax. I knew right away."

"Do the boys know, too?"

"Yes, they've known for some time."

"So you're telling me I'm the only one who hasn't noticed before?"

"No Teaspoon, you're the only one who didn't find out until just now," I explained."Does this mean you're gonna fire me?"

He sat down wearily at the table, "Well now, I don't know. Never ran into this kind of situation before. This was never brought up at the station masters meetings."

"You can't fire her, Teaspoon," Emma came to my defense. "Only difference between yesterday and today is that you know."

"Well, I guess if everyone knows and it hasn't interfered with the job, I'll keep you on," he conceded.

Impulsively, I hugged the grizzled station master, "Thank you, I won't let you down."

"This might not be so bad after all," he agreed teasingly.

"Lou, don't let the boys know that Teaspoon found out just yet," said Emma, her eyes twinkling with mischief. "I have an idea..."




Good fortune must have been smiling down on Emma, for the next series of events played right into her hands. As we gathered here for supper one night, we noticed the Kid was missing.

"Anyone seen him?" Teaspoon asked.

"Said he was going into town," informed Noah as he took his place on the bench. "Don't know what could've kept him this long."

As if on cue, Kid opened the door, his eyes sparkling with excitement, "Hi Emma. I hope you don't mind if I brought along a friend for supper."

"Well, if Cody can spare his third helping there should be enough," she replied in good humor. "Bring him on in, Kid."

The next face that appeared in the doorway did not belong to a him, but a her. She was petite with short brown hair and eyes that were the color of grass in spring. She smiled nervously.

"Everyone, this is Aimee," Kid announced.

None of us did very well at hiding our surprise. Still, since she was a guest, no one gave her or the Kid a hard time. We welcomed her politely.

"Where are you from, Aimee?" signed Ike. Buck interpreted for him.

She swallowed her bite of fried chicken before answering, "My family is from Mississippi. My pa always had a wandering foot so we moved West. Ma liked it here so here we stayed. She said she was done wandering."

Aimee proved to be good company throughout the meal. She was friendly and outgoing and part of me wished to be able to tell her who I really was. Emma was a good friend but I sometimes longed for another girl my age to talk to. However, I noticed of the riders, it was only Cody, Ike or myself who asked her questions and kept up the conversation. Kid harldy said a word to his guest, although he did beam at her admiringly.

When desert was over, Kid said tht he needed to see Aimee back to her place.

"Why don't you take the wagon, Kid?" Emma offered.

"Thanks. Well, I'll be back in a while."

"It was nice meeting all of you. Thank you for the wonderful meal, Miss Shannon," nodded Aimee politely. "Hope I get to see y'all again real soon."

Emma smiled at her, "Come any time you like. We're not formal, but there's always plenty to eat."

Once Aimee and Kid were safely out of earshot Cody observed he'd never seen the Kid so bashful.

"Didn't he talk to any girls at the dance?" asked Teaspoon.

"He danced more than he talked," said Jimmy.

"That's like the pot calling the kettle black, Jimmy," Buck dared to say.

"Now you just hold on a minute-" Jimmy made a threatening gesture, but was quickly cut off by Emma.

"Seems to me you could all use a few lessons in how to behave with a woman. I'll see you Sunday after church at my house. We'll get started right after dinner."

It was barely perceptible, but I saw Emma give Teaspoon a quick wink from the corner of my eye. I caught on to her plan.

"Aw, Emma..." groaned Jimmy.

"You heard her, son," said Teaspoon. "Be sure to tell the Kid, too."

The boys didn't look too happy about the whole arrangement, but knew better than to argue with Emma any further.




"What do you think of this whole idea of Emma's, Lou?" asked Cody after Emma and Teaspoon had gone to their respective homes for the night. We riders ususally had an hour or two between supper and bedtime to just relax.

"Well, you boys could do with a little refining," I answered honestly. "I'm the only girl you're around mosat of the time, and it's not the same with me. I could probabl use a few lessons in how to behave more like a lady myself."

"Why don't you get all dressed up and we could practice?" suggested Buck. "Emma could probably find an excuse to send Teaspoon away for a few hours."

"I wouldn't mind that a bit," agreed Cody.

"I'd like that, too," I said.

"This idea of Emma's is souding better already," grinned Cody.




Conveniently, Teaspoon had some out of town business to attend to the next weekend. Emma arranged for me to stay in her guest roon on Saturday night so that she could put up my hair in rag curlers and to go over the plan with me.

"When Teaspoon walks in and sees you all prettied up-well, I just can't wait to see the looks on the boys' faces!" she chuckled as she rolled my hair in torn pieces of rags. It had finally grown long enough to where this was possible.

"Don't you think it's a little bit, well, tricky" I wondered.

"That is the whole point," she giggled. "These boys can take a joke. Besisdes, remember when Jimmy and Ike thought it was so funny to put a snake in the crock pot?"

I laughed out loud at the memory, "Yeah, they've had something comin' to them for a while."




On Sunday morning I stayed home to get ready while Emma accompanied the boys to church. I realized that it was the first time I had ever been all alone at the station. As I dressed I sang and whistled to myself, something I hadn't done in years. The freedom to be me-Louise-was a good feeling indeed.

Emma and the boys returned home shortly before noon. They admired and fussed over me until my cheeks started to turn color. Cody especially took great pride in seeing me all dressed up.

"You look even more beautiful than usual," he said softly. "Wish I could take you out and show you off."

"Maybe some day," I replied.

After we finished dinner Emma stood up and annouced, "Gentlemen-and lady-school is now in session. Please follow me to the parlor."

Our first lesson was in fine dining. Emma had set a fancy table out in the parlot with a dizzying array of plates, glasses and utensils. At first it was very confusing, but eventually we all got the hang of it bu working our way into the main plate. Emma also made sure that each one of the boys got a turn at helping me into a chair before seating themselves.

Next was the art of conversation. Emma asked the boys what they might talk about in the presence of a lady.

"Horses," Buck suggested.

"Gunfights," was Jimmy's contribution.

She tried not to smile, "Now James, let's hope you were just making a joke. Girls like-"

We were interupted by Teaspoon, who had managed to sneak in unnoticed, "Well excuse me, Emma. I had no idea you were havin' a party."

The boys clammored to get in front of me and shield me from his view.

"This-this ain't what it looks like, Teaspoon," Noah explained nervously..

"What do you mean? Who is that pretty girl you're hiding from me?"

"Uh, no one, Teaspoon, no one at all," said Cody.

"Really? I know my eyes are getting older but I could swear that she looks a little bit like Lou."

Jimmy sighed in resignation, "Well, you got us, Teaspoon. Emma wanted us to practice being gentlemen in the presence of ladies and Lou was the only one who fit into the dress."

At Jimmy's comment, I doubled over in laugher and made my way from behind the boys.

"You don't have to cover for me anymore boys," I panted, out of breath from laughing so hard. "He found out a couple days ago."

"It was my idea to play a joke on you," confessed Emma. "Looks like you boys have been had."

One by one they broke into smiles of realization. They were good sports and even gave Emma credit for being a good practical joke player.

"Anything else I need to know?" asked Teaspoon.

Cody simply slipped his arm around my waist, "Well..."

"I think I have seen it all," sighed our stationmaster.


Chapter 3


Eventually, everyone got used to Teaspoon knowing I was a girl. It was nice not having to thoroughly disguise my looks or my voice whenever I was in Teaspoon's presence. I still had to be on my guard in town or when another rider passed through the station, but the freedom at home was worth the mild inconveniences.

"We're all going to town, Lou. Want to come?" Cody invited me.

"Maybe next time," I replied. "I need to finish this letter to my brother and sister-it's overdue already. Are we still going on that picnic you promised me tomorrow?"

He nodded, "I have the perfect site in mind. You finish your letter. We'll be back in a while. Enjoy the quiet." Cody kissed me before leaving with the others.

Not half an hour later I heard the horses whinnying from the corral. Someone must have forgotten their shopping list, I smiled to myself.

Curious who it was, I stepped on to the porch. To my surprise someone was by the corral-and letting out the horses! I had to make a decision. If I went back in the bunkhouse and got my pistol, he might hear me and I'd lose the element of surprise. So instead, I ran to him, gaining strength as I ran, and did a flying tackle, knocking the thief to the ground. We fought tooth and nail for a few minutes, but he was much larger than me and I took an awful beating. He found a blunt object and with one blow to my temple, everything faded to black.




The first thing that I was aware of was that I hurt from my head to my toes. There was no other way to describe it. Involuntarily, I let out a groan.

"Lou? You awake?" the voice belonged to Buck.

"What happened?" my jaw ached more with every word I said.

"As far as we can guess you saw someone trying to steal the horses and tried to stop him. We found you out by the corral a couple days ago when we got back from town. How do you feel?"

"Like something the cat dragged in," I answered. "Buck, did he get the horses?"

Buck sighed, "A few, but don't worry. You probably stopped him from taking our whole stock. I should get Emma. We've been taking turns keeping watch over you. She said to fetch her when you woke up." It was then that I noticed I was in Emma's spare room.

"Where's Cody?" I asked. "I want to see him."

"He didn't leave your side for a long time," Buck said gently. "But he's on a ride now. He should be back later today. I'll tell him you want to see him first thing."

"Thanks, Buck."

"You're welcome. You heal up now."

Emma walked into the room a few minutes later followed by Noah and Ike.

"How are you feeling?" greeted Noah as he gently took my hand.

"Not so good," I replied drowsily. "That was about the worst beating I ever had."

"Do you think you're up to having some broth?" asked Emma.

"Yeah, guess I haven't eaten for a while."

Ike helped prop me up in bed so Emma could put a tray of broth in front of me. The chicken broth tasted good even though opening my mouth to insert the spoon was painful.

"Lou, we know you're feeling pretty bad now, but do you remember what the horse thief looked like?" Noah wondered. "We want to track him down before he strikes another Pony Express station."

"I don't remember too well," I faltered. "He was big -- felt like he was about twice my size. His hair was kind of like Jimmy's. Sorry that's not much to go on."

"I'll tell Sam," signed Ike. "He'll be glad for the information. Bye, Lou."

"When is Cody due back?" I asked after Ike had left. "Buck said sometime today."

At the mention of his name, both Emma and Noah started to look uncomfortable.

I grew nervous, "What's wrong? Is he alright?"

"Lou, Cody wouldn't leave your side when we first found you. He didn't eat or sleep-just watched you like a hawk," Emma explained. "He didn't want to take a run but Teaspoon said it would be good for him to get out and get some air."

"That's sweet of Cody, but still doesn't explain what's wrong."

"He blames himself for what happened to you," Noah answered me honestly. "We tried to tell him it wasn't his fault, but he won't listen. I'm afraid he's gonna make himself sick."

"Oh, poor Cody."

"Why would he think that Lou?" Emma wondered. "He won't talk to us very much either."

"I think I might know why, but it's something he told me in confidence," I revealed to them. "I want to see him as soon as he comes in."

"We'll let him know you want to see him," Emma assured me. "You get some rest now."

"I don't know if I can. I don't want to sound like I'm complaining, but I think I ache too much to sleep."

"Probably a blessing you were out for a couple days," grinned Noah.

"I think I have something that might help," she said. "I'll be back in a bit."

"And I'll see if there's any sign of Cody yet," said Noah as he backed out of the room. "You take it easy."

When Emma returned she slipped me a couple of spoonfuls of some kind of liquid. It smelled okay but burned going down my throat. I coughed and sputtered but managed to get it all down.

"What is that?" I choked. "It's awful!"

"If you must know, it's whiskey," Emma looked a little flushed. We all knew her to be a teetotaler. "I just keep a mint for medicinal purposes. It might help with the pain, but more'n likely it'll help you sleep."

"I could use that," I admitted, yawning.

Emma tenderly patted my arm, "Close your eyes and sleep now."

After a while I began to feel extremely relaxed. It was easy to drift into a deep sleep.




"I don't know if I can face her, Emma," I thought I heard Cody's voice say. I was just coming out of a heavy sleep and not sure whether I was dreaming or not. I decided to listen to the rest of the conversation to see if I could tell. The voices sounded kind of muffled.

"She wants to see you, sweetheart. She woke up asking for you."

"I-I just don't know if I should do this," said Cody, his voice sounding shaky.

"Cody, listen to me: there's nothing you could do or say to make Louise care for you any less."

"You said she's probably sleeping; maybe I should come back later," he hesitated.

"You go in right now, young man. Lou'd kill me if I didn't send you in."

"Will you go with me?"

"No, you have to do this by yourself," she replied. "But I'll be right down the hall if you need me. Now go."

A few moments later I felt a hand softly brush my cheek. I struggled to open my eyes, and saw Cody's sky blue ones staring back down at at me.

"Hi," I smiled.

"Hi sweetheart. How are you?"

"Had better days," I tried to joke.

"Emma says you'll be up and around in a couple of days," he informed me.

"Good. I don't actually feel too bad." I fibbed. Cody's face looked so haunted that I wanted to make him feel better. "Just a few bumps and bruises."

Cody sat down in a chair next to the bed but wouldn't look me in the eye. "Lou, I know you hurt worse than you're letting on. I feel responsible. I-I should have stayed behind, or insisted that you come with. This is my fault." I saw a tiny tear escape from the corner of an eye.

"No, it's not. You quit thinking that," I chastised him as I tried to sit up. "You didn't know this was gonna happen. No one could have known. I certainly don't blame you."

"But still...I want to be able to protect you. First I couldn't protect my ma and now you. Why can't I protect the people I love?" The expression on Cody's face was one of pure agony. I reached to take his hand. "I-I want to take care of you, Louise." He reached out to caress my face with a trembling hand.

"You're a kind man, Cody. Kind and caring," I assured him.

Emma knocked and slipped in quietly, "Everything alright?"

"I think everything is gonna be just fine," winked Cody, his voice sounding more confident.

"I'm glad to hear that. Well, we'd better let Lou get her rest."

"I'd like Cody to stay with me, Emma," I asserted.

She seemed to understand, "Fine. Just let me know when you need a break, Cody, or if you need anything."

As she closed the door behind her, I began to yawn. Cody noticed and adjusted my pillows so that they lay flat on the bed, "She's right.*You'd* better get some rest. I'll be here if you need me."

"I know. Thanks, Cody."


Chapter Four


I spent the next couple of days recovering in Emma's spare room. When Cody wasn't on a ride or doing chores he stayed pretty close to me. There wasn't even that much he could do for me by then, but he did read out loud to me and told me the news from town. Emma supplied him with a few books from her own library. She and Teaspoon agreed that I could spend the next two days before my first ride recovering in the bunkhouse. I was glad to be back for the change of scenery, and also to be closer to the other riders.

One day I even had a surprise visitor. All the boys were elsewhere when Aimee let herself in the door. She wore a yellow gingham dress and carried a covered basket.

"How are you feeling, Lou?" she asked. "Kid told me what happened."

"Better," I replied, lowering my voice. "I'll be glad to be up and around again."

Aimee began to shirt her weight back and forth on her feet nervously, "Uh, Lou?"

"Yeah?"

"You, um, don't have to pretend with me anymore. I-I know you're a girl."

"Did Kid tell you?" I demanded, not believing he would betray my secret.

"Uh, no. I just-well..."she touched the neckline of her dress and smiled.

It ws then that I realized I was wearing the flannel nightgown that Emma had given me. I caught Aimee's eye and we both burst out laughing.

"To tell the truth, I'd suspected earlier, but figured it was your business," she shrugged. "In a way, I'm glad you know I know. I don't really have any friends in town and..."

"I'd like us to be friends," I offered, motioning for her to come forward.

She smiled and pulled a chair near my bunk, "You're sure I won't be a bother?"

"Positive. I haven't had a real conversation with another girl in a long time. You'll have to forgive me if I'm rusty."

"I'm sure you'll do fine," she chuckled.

"How do you like Sweetwater?" I asked.

"It's a nice town. I'm glad to be settled somewhere for once. But I feel kind of useless. I'm too old for school, and I live with my parents so I don't have much to do. Think the Pony Express would take me on?"

"I think one girl is probably one too many," I quipped. "Is there something you want to do? Teach or something?"

"What I'd really like to do is write," Aimee confided in a hushed tone. "But I don't know where to begin. No one wants to read a female author."

"Well, maybe you could try something on a smaller scale. I heard one of the boys say that Mr. Harrell was looking for an assistant. He publishes the newspaper. It might be worth a try." I encouraged.

"Oh, Lou, that's a brilliant idea. I'm sure glad we had this talk," she gushed.

At that moment, in walked the Kid, who understandably wore a very confused expression on his face. Aimee flew to him, handed him the basket, and said something about going to see Mr. Harrell right away. Poor Kid then looked even more astonished. It took a good ten minutes to explain to him all that he'd seen and heard. When we finally got everything straightened out Kid peaked into the basket and offered me an oatmeal cookie. I very happily accepted.




Before I rode out the next day, Cody approached me looking concerened, "You sure you're up to this, Lou? I mean, if you need me to cover for you I'd be glad to."

"Cody, that's sweet," I smiled sincerely. "But I'm of no use to anyone just lying in that bed. Besides, the fresh air will be good for me. I'll be fine-really."

"Well", he hesistated. "If you're sure..."

"I'm positive," I assured him. "But thanks for caring. I'm up to this, Cody."

"Okay, just hurry back," he winked.




Fortuantely my ride was short and relatively uneventful. I was a little more sore than usual when I returned but I was also proud of myself for *literaly* "getting back in the saddle". Cody was taking the next run and I handed the mochilla to him. He smiled broadly seeing me returned safe and sound. There was little time to say anything except to wish him a safe ride.

Emma came over from the clothesline to see me, "Glad you're back. I have a tub full of warm water if you're interested."

"Oh, I'm interested!"




The galvanized bathtub certainly looked inviting with its warm water and bubbles. I stripped off my clothes and slowly eased myself into the water.

"Can I come in?" called Emma.

The bubbles gave me adequate coverage, "Sure."

"Thought you might enjoy a special treat after your first ride back," she explained.

"Obliged to you," I sighed happily. "How were things around here today?"

"Pretty average, I guess. Cody was a little quieter than usual. I think he was kind of anxious for you to return."

"Yeah, he offered to take my ride but I refused. Don't want him getting no ideas that I can't do my own work." I said firmly.

"And did he agree?" she wondered.

"Well, he let me go without too much fuss," I laughed.

"That's a good sign. I think Cody appreciates your independence. Well, I'll let you finish your bath," she waved.

I didn't stay in the tub much longer. Emma had put the towels near the stove to warm them and I wrapped them around me with pleasure. We did not have a lot of luxuries living at the way station and we learned how to appreciate the small luxuries in life, like warm towels.




Because Cody had an overnight run he was not with us for supper. I found myself missing his easy-going manner and his stories, even if they were slightly exaggerated. We all knew he mostly used the superlatives for dramatic effect and it did not bother us. The other boys were friendly enough but Cody by far was the most lively. After supper I joined in the poker game rather than allowing myself to wallow in self pity. However my mind was not on the game.

"Thinking about Cody?" Jimmy asked abruptly.

"Why do you ask?"

Noah snorted, "Because that's the third hand you've lost in a row. We can tell your mind ain't exactly on the game."

"Guess we haven't been apart very much," I said, feeling the color rise into my cheeks. "Between the scarlet fever and the beating I took we've kept a pretty close eye on each other."

"It must be nice to have someone to do that with," smiled Buck. "Hope I have that with someone some day."

"You will," I assured him. "All you boys will. Just look at Kid and Aimee."

"She's a special girl," he agreed, blusing slightly.

Jimmy cracked a grin, "I guess what we're trying to tell you is that we're happy for you and Cody. So don't mind the teasing."

"I never do, Jimmy."


Chapter Five


Cody returned the next morning tired but also glad to be home. I offered to tend to his horse and he thanked me with a little kiss. Bye the time I caught up to him in *the* bunkhouse he was sound asleep. I smiled at the sight of his boots still on his feet, and slipped them off as gently as I could.

A few hours later a much cleaner and brighter-eyed Cody approached me as I attempted to re-shod Penny.

"Sorry I wasn't much conpany when I first got home," he apologized. "I meant to stay awake 'til you got back."

"That's alright," I shrugged. "I'll think of a way that you can make it up to me."

He nodded, "I still owe you that picnic. Do you have any plans for Sunday?"

"Well, I think I can squeeze you in between the theatre and the symphony," I teased.

"I didn't realize I was courting such a high-falutin' woman," he quipped.

"I'll take care of everything, you just be ready by noon."

"Yes, sir," I saluted him.




I was ready on *Sunday* promptly at noon. Emma had seen that all of us attend church that morning, but we were home in plenty of time. To my chagrin, I had *nothing* appropriate to wear on a picnic besides my boy's clothes. At last I tied back the front sections of my hair with a piece of twine.

Cody noticed the change, "I like your hair like that. Looks like you're ready to go."

"I am," I answered. "You lead the way." I was actually getting somewhat nervous about our first planned outing. It was the first thing we'd done as a couple and I wasn't sure how to act. We were in the wagon and a good ways down the road before either of us spoke.

"I hope you like the lunch Emma and I put together," said Cody. "We put in some cold fried chicken, potato salad, apples, and she even made some brownies especially for us."

"Sounds nice," I smiled. "Everything I like."

"Uh, Lou?"

"Yeah?"

"Are you-are you angry with me about something?"

I let out a laugh in surprise, "No, what would make you say such a thing?"

"You've just been awful quiet is all," he explained.

"I'm just a little nervous," I confessed. "This is only the second time I've been courted, you know. I don't know what to talk about."

"Well, don't worry," he chuckled. "I'm sure we'll think of some interesting topics. There's still a lot I don't know about you."

"Like what?" I asked. He knew so many intimate details already that I couldn't think of what he didn't know.

"Like what your favorite color is," he grinned.

"Pink," I answered. "My first real nice dress was pink and I loved it. My school dress was brown and when I wore it everything about me was brown-hair, eyes, dress-ugh!"

"Well see, I didn't know that about you. It might come in handy if I ever need to do some shopping."

"I don't think you're gonna find any pink serge shirts," I teased.

In another ten minutes we were at Cody's perfect picnic site. And perfect was the only way to describe it. A grassy spot near a *crystal* clear pond with a few wildflowers starting to dot the fields.

"Oh Cody, it's beautiful!" I exclaimed. "This was worth the wait."

"I'm glad you like it," he said, helping me down from the wagon.

Cody had thought of everything. Along with a heaping basket of food was a blanket for us to sit on, and two bottles of sasaparilla. When I complimented him he admitted that Emma had helped him in his endeavor.

"I don't mind. You were the one who came up with the idea and found *this* place," I said lightly.

Cody's face brightened. "That's true. I guess I can take some of the credit. Lou-I mean-Louise, have you thought about the future much?"

"The what?" I choked as a pice of brownie went down the wrong pipe. Cody pat me gently on the back but I shooed him away. "This-this ain't a marriage proposal, is it?"

"No," he laughed, sounding a little relieved. "I meant have you thought about what you want to do after the Pony Express. With the telegraph expanding, we're not gonna last forever."

"It's funny. I've lived most of my life looking *for* what was around the corner. I was always hoping for something better," I reflected. "Guess the Pony Express is the best thing to happen to me ,'cause I've quit looking to what's around the bend."

"It's been one of the best things that's happened to me, too," he grinned, pulling me close. "But I can't help thinking about what might be next."

"What do you think about?"

"Well, I would like to have a family someday. I'd like a whole passel of kids. When the war comes I'll probably do something for the Union-maybe scouting. But what I'd really like to do some day is entertain folks-show them the West.

"How would you do that?" I wondered.

He giggled, "I'm not quite sure yet. I might not have a plan, but I do have an idea."

"I think it's a real interesting idea, Cody." I complimented him. "I would never have thought of that. And you're very good at entertaining people."

A glimmer appeared in Cody's eyes. He leaned forward and kissed me with an intensity that I had not experienced before. I was just starting to melt into his kiss when there was a sudden *splash*, followed by a gasp of horror. Quickly we jumped away from each other. On the bank of the pond stood a young boy, perhaps 7 or 8.

"My puppy just jumped into the pond!" he wailed. "He's never swum before. Please mister, can you save him?"

We looked to see the puppy who was in the middle of the pond by now, looking cold, scared and confused. He was paddling to stay afloat but wasn't sure how to get himself back to land. Cody didn't have to think twice. He pulled off his boots and dove into the cold water. Gently he nudged the little brown pup to swim in his owner's direction. Once they reached the bank Cody *school -?* up the puppy and was rewarded with kisses from a small, wet tongue.

He handed the puppy to the boy, "You best take him on home and get him warm."

"Thank you, mister," the boy choked, wiping away tears. "I was so worried about Charlie-and I don't know how to swim. Thank you for saving his life."

"Don't mention it," he shrugged. "But when the weather gets warmer you and Charlie come by the Pony Express station and I'll give you both swimming lessons." The lad waved in response.

"Charlie's not the only one who needs to sit by a warm fire," I mentioned, noticing Cody was beginning to shiver. Ever since that Christmas when he had come home half-frozen, I worried about his exposure to the cold. "You need to get out of those wet clothes."

"Lou, what would I wear on the ride back?"

I picked up the blanket we had been sitting on, "This should do."

"Please tell me you're joking."

"Do I look like I'm joking?"

"Do you know how hard everyone is going to laugh when I come back wearing only a blanket to cover what the good Lord has given me?"

"Do you know how hard everyone is going to cry if the good Lord takes you away because you froze to death?"

Cody threw up his hands in defeat. He headed for the privacy of some bushes to peel off his wet clothes. When he emerged wearing only the blanket I had to bite the insides of my cheeks to keep a straight face. He really did look pretty funny. I had to drive the wagon back home because Cody needed both hands to keep the blanket in place. Unfortuantely for us, almost as soon as we were in the wagon we saw signs that a storm was approaching. While the rain held off, the temperature dropped sharply. Since the day had started out pleasant I wasn't warmly dressed myself. I was more concerned with Cody who's hair was still wet. I didn't want him to take a chill, so I pushed the horses a little harder.

"We'll be home soon", I assured him. "Just 20 minutes or so. Does it seem like we always get caught in storms?"

He chuckled in response, "Yeah, maybe we should stick to the indoors from now on."

Much to Cody's relief, only Teaspoon, Emma and Buck were outside when we arrived. At first Buck was smiling at Cody's appearance but the smile soon faded when he saw that Cody's lips were beginning to turn blue.

Emma didn't bat an eye," Buck, get Cody some dry clothes please. Teaspoon, get these two by the fire-in my house. And put the kettle on, too."

No sooner than we were in the door, the sky opened up with thunder and lightening. Emma had me sit in her rocker near the fire and wrapped an afgahn around my shoulders. While Cody was changing in the other room, Emma asked me what happened. I explained about the puppy rescue with pride.

When Cody appeared in the room Emma put her arm around him and gently led him to the fire.

"Lou told me what happened at the pond. You have a kind heart, Cody. Does me proud."

"Can I do anything else?" asked Buck. He had heard the whole story.

"Yes. Please don't tell the others I had to ride back with just a blanket for cover. I'd never hear the end of it," Cody implored him.

"Don't worry, I won't," he promised. "But I'll remember this when I need a favor from you, Cody."


Chapter Six


Emma wanted us to keep near the fire which was fine by me. The storm continued to grow worse. Although it was only late afternoon, the sky had already gone completely dark and it looked like nightfall. Even Teaspoon began to look nervous. I tried to read the latest issue of Emma's "Godey's Ladies Book" but found it hard to concentrate with the wild weather.

Soon, the other five riders appeared at the door, looking visibly shaken.

"Uh, we just wanted to make sure everything was alright over here, Emma," explained the Kid.

She grinned slyly, "All five of you? How considerate.

"In case you needed anything," Noah piped up.

"Well, in that case, why don't you boys come in and see for yourselves that we're all fine," she offered. She knew the boys were a little scared of this fierce storm as well. With everyone in the parlor, we made quite a crowd.

Cody, who had been unsuccessfully trying to take a nap, finally gave up and started talking with the others. Emma took this opportunity to give me a cooking lesson. I helped her make chicken and dumplings for our supper. They didn't turn out too bad, probably because Emma did the majority of the work and corrected my mistakes before they got out of hand. As we ate our meal, the thunder and lightning raged on. Thankfully all the livestock had been put in the barn at the first sight of rain.

"I think you should stay here tonight," Emma declared to the boys. "You can sleep on the floor by the fire." Not suprisingly, no one argued with her.

When supper was over I helped her find blankets for everyone.

"You warmin' up yet, Cody?" I asked as I passed him an extra blanket.

"Gettin' there," he replied.

His answer seemed to alarm Emma, "You best take one of the spare rooms tonight. That goes for you also, Louise. Don't need anyone coming down with pneumonia."

We protested mildly but Emma would have none of it. She put some rocks on the fire to heat up our beds with. In the meantime each one of the boys was taking turns at telling tales. Kid used his captive audience to hone his harmonica skills. We were relieved when practice was over. Ike requested 3 oranges from the kitchen and showed off his juggling talent.

"I never knew there was so much talent in this room," I laughed.

"Do you have a secret talent, Lou?" asked Buck.

"It's pretty silly-just something I learned at the orphanage," I blushed.

"We want to see it," Cody insisted.

Reluctantly I headed for the kitchen and retrieved four spoons. I proceeded to hang them from my nose, chin, and both ears. This brought down the house. Even Emma, who would normally not approve of such antics, had to wipe away tears of laughter.

"And what are you doing back there, Mr. Hickock?" asked Teaspoon.

Jimmy had been sitting in a far corner, working on a mysterious project.

"Well, as long as we're showin' off, I thought I would, too. I'll let you know when it's ready."

"Nice to know you all have talents other than horses and guns," Emma commented. "Why don't we pop some corn before going to bed?" Everyone agreed that it was a good ideas. We pursuaded Kid to read aloud to us as we munched on the treat. When the story was over, Emma annoucned it was time for bed.

"Wait, I'm finished," Jimmy annouced. He produced a wood carved rose with many intricate petals and leaves. It was one of the most beautiful piece of whittling I had ever seen. Everyone marveled at his work.

"This is for you, Emma," he offered.

"That's sweet of you, James. I'll put it on the kitchen table where we can all enjoy it. Now, to bed, y'all. Come on, Cody, I'll show you where you can sleep."

We followed her up the stairs. I headed for the familiar guest room and Emma showed Cody the room across the hall from it. She had left my nightgown on the bed and I slipped it on gladly. Anything warm and cozy was welcome on this night, I thought as the wind howled on and the rain continued to pour. Because it was such a "dark and stormy night" I didn't turn down the lamp completely. I did snuggle under the blankets and tried to find a comfortable position because I knew sleep would not come easily tonight.

A few minutes later as I lay dozing in the semi-darkness I heard a light tap on my door, "Lou, you asleep?"

"No, Cody, come on in," I called quietly. I sat up in bed, "Can't sleep?"

"I've never cared much for storms," he admitted a little sheepishly. He crossed to sit at the foot of the bed.

"I usually don't mind storms but this one seems so-" I searched for the right word. "Ominous."

"It's an unusual one, coming so quick and staying right over Sweetwater for so long," he commented.

"It reminds me of that one we got caught in a while back. You know, when we stayed in that cabin?"

"How could I forget?" he grinned. "That was some night. It was the first time I realized I had feelings for you. Seeing you in that nightgown for the first time-you were a sight,"

I thought back to that night and remembered seeing Cody's shoulders heave with sobs as he lay by the fire. When I didn't respond he gave me a little nudge, "Hey, what are yout thinking about?"

"I was thinking about that night, too. Cody, I have to tell you, I didn't sleep so well that night. The pain in my ankle kept me awake. One time when I woke up I heard you-I saw you-" I lowered my head so he wouldn't hear the last word.

"I was having a hard night," he said huskily. "Ghosts, you know?"

I reached for his hand, "I know. I wanted to go to you-comfort you, but I thought you needed your privacy. I'm sorry Cody, I should have told you earlier."

"There's nothing to apologize for, Lou. And thank you for letting me have some space. I was missing my parents that night and wishing I could've done more for them."

"I've had that same thought myself, many times," I said softly.

Cody looked at me tenderly, "I can imagine. Well, I'd better let you get some sleep."

"Stay for a while?" I asked, not letting go of his hand.

"Sure," he whispered. "As long as you like."

Satisfied, I leaned back again and closed my eyes.


Chapter Seven


I awoke the next morning to discover that Cody and the storm had vanished in the night. Emma knocked on the door and asked if she could enter.

"Sure, come in," I called softly, sitting up in bed.

"Sleep well?" she asked, crossing to sit at the foot of the bed.

"Guess I did after the storm passed," I answered. "Is everything alright around the place?"

"Nothin' broke that can't be fixed," she shrugged. Emma seemed oddly uncomfortable, like something was on her mind but she didn't know quite how to approach the subject.

"Emma, is something on your mind?" I finally asked.

She hesitated for a moment, "Louise, honey, do we need to have a woman to woman talk?"

"A what?" I was confused.

"I saw Cody come out of your room real early this morning. I-I just want to make sure that-"

"Now hold on a minute!" I interrupted. I could feel color creeping up into my neck and cheeks. "You have to understand, Cody was just sitting with me because I don't care too much for storms. Nothing happened between us, Emma." By the time I had finished my little speech I could feel hot tears of embarrassment stinging in my eyes.

Emma smiled sympathetically, "Don't worry, I believe you. There's nothing to be ashamed of Lou. I'm just glad Cody's been so sweet to you."

"Me, too. And thanks-if I ever do need your advice you know I'll come to you right away," I assured her. She excused herself and I got dressed to handle the chores of the day.




Emma was right about the storm damage. Nothing was broken beyond repair, however, almost everything needed repairing! Debris was scattered all over the property and many of the outbuildings needed some fixing up. We all worked diligently until one of us had to ride. It was lucky that Emma had insisted we stay at her house because the wind had torn off a small section of the bunkhouse roof. Ike and I were assigned the task of patching it.

We worked together silently until Ike caught my attention. "Do you love Cody?" he signed.

It was a good thing no one else could see my flushed cheeks, "I dunno. I mean, I care for him a lot. To be honest, I haven't thought about it much."

"He loves you."

"How can you tell?"

Ike laughed silently, "The way he looks at you, how he acts when he's around you. His whole face lights up. You haven't noticed?"

"Sounds like I might have to start paying better attention," I grinned.




A few days later I returned from one of my hardest runs. I wanted a bath, a meal and a nice soft bed to crawl into. Instead I settled for a quick shower, a leftover biscuit that was partly stale and a hard bunk. My surroundings didn't matter though, since I was asleep in about 30 seconds.

Just as I was waking up I got the sense that I was being watched. Before I could even open my eyes I felt the weight of my mattress shift as someone sat down on it.

"Hey," I grinned sleepily, rolling onto my back so I could see Cody. "What are you looking at?"

He winked "Did you know you're beautiful when you're asleep?"

"Did you know you're a big liar?" I countered back. I ran my fingers through my hair, which was sticking out from my head in about every direction possible.

Cody didn't seem to care. He put his arms around me and kissed me with a passion I hadn't experienced before. It was nice, but a little startling, too. Gently he knelt on the bunk and nearly laid down on top of me. As we kissed I could feel his body tremble against mine. I liked the way Cody was making me feel, but I was scared, too. I wasn't sure if I was more afraid of him or myself.

All those feelings created a little explosion inside of me. Without thinking I forced Cody off of me with all my might and fled, running nowhere in particular.

Lou, are you alright?" he called after me, sounding dumbfounded.

I didn't answer him, and to my relief he didn't follow me. I didn't realize how far I'd run until I found myself at the edge of town.

Just as I was going to turn and run the other direction, I heard Emma's voice cry out my name in surprise. She came running down the street,

"Lou? Is something wrong? Did something happen at home?" She seemed to realize then that we couldn't exactly have a private conversation right there and guided me towards the church. Fortunately school was over with for the day and we found it empty. I slumped down in the back pew.

"Do you want to talk about it, Louise?" she asked quietly.

Hot tears of shame burned in my eyes, "Cody was in the bunkhouse when I woke up from my nap. He kissed me like he never had before. He-he was nearly lying down on me. I kind of liked the way it felt, but it scared me, too. It brought back so many memories, but I know Cody isn't that kind of man. Oh Emma, he must think I'm horrid and immature. I don't know how I can look him in the eye again."

"Well, now he might be feeling pretty confused, too," she said thoughtfully. "Maybe even hurt. After all, he was trying to romance you, and you ran away. And Cody's never forced you to do anything you didn't want, right?"

"You're right," I sighed. "Oh Emma, I'm such a fool."

She stretched out a hand to rumple my hair, "Not a fool. Just growin' up and in love, and dealing with a difficult past. There is a difference. Now come on, I'll give you a ride back to the station."


Conclusion


It was almost a relief to discover that Cody was gone on an overnight run. He must have left quietly, for none of the other riders seemed aware of what had happened. Thankfully, Cody's name wasn't even mentioned during super. Emma kept a watchful eye on me to be sure that I ate. The bites that I took were more to oblige her than from having much of an appetite.

Not surprisingly, I didn't sleep well that night. I missed the sound of Cody's rhythmic breathing and wondered if it would ever sound the same to me. To make matters worse, I had an early morning ride. Needless to say, it was not the best of circumstances. Fortunately it was a short ride and there was no cause to have to make polite conversation with anyone.

Still, I arrived back home more tired and irritable than when I had left.

"I'll tend to your horse, Lou. You best get washed up before supper," offered Noah.

I managed a weak grin, "Much obliged."

As I approached the bunkhouse, I heard Cody and Jimmy's voices. Before reaching the step that squeaked, I decided to eavesdrop for a minute; partly out of curiosity, partly because I was hesitant to enter.

"I just don't know what to tell her, Jimmy."

"All you have to do is say the words. It can't be that hard."

Cody sighed audibly, "It ain't that easy. Lou's been kind of sensitive lately. I want to make sure the timing is right."

"Well, if you really want my advice I'd tell her sooner than later."

I crept away as quietly as I could, my heart sinking into my knees. So Cody doesn't care for me anymore, but he doesn't have the heart to tell me! I wasn't sure that I blamed him after what had happened but still...I thought he understood.

With my eyes smarting I made my way over to Emma's house. She took one look at me and paled herself.

"Louise, what is it? Has something happened to one of the boys?"

"Cody!" I burst out, surprised to hear more anger than sadness in my voice.

Emma gently led me to the sofa, "Did you quarrel?"

"No, but he doesn't care for me anymore since, well, since I ran away from him."

"That doesn't sound much like Cody," she said evenly. "Did he tell you that straight out?"

"Not exactly," I admitted, starting to calm down a little. "I overheard him talking with Jimmy in the bunkhouse. Cody said he had something to tell me but didn't know when he should because I've been sensitive lately. And Jimmy told him he was better off telling me soon."

"Louise, I realize you're tired and a little confused, but does that really sound like a rejection to you?" she asked.

I shifted in my seat, "Well, it did at the time..."

A slow smile spread across Emma's face. I knew she thought I'd been hasty in my conclusion. "What you need, honey, is a bath and a good long nap. I think maybe then you'll see things a little differently. Why don't you help me get the tub full? Then you can have the whole house to yourself for a while. How does that sound?"

The idea was as great as it sounded. I only took a quick bath for fear that I would fall asleep in the tub. Still it felt good to be clean once again, and put on a fresh shirt and trousers. Emma had a fire going in the front room and it looked so inviting that I stretched out on the sofa.

The next thing I was aware of was the feeling that my cheek was being caressed. I knew it was by Cody's hand, but I couldn't tell if his intention was to wake me or not, the strokes being so light and gentle. I wasn't even sure if I wanted to open my eyes, but finally did.

A look of loving concern filled Cody's eyes, "Are you all right, Lou? I've been so worried about you. Emma didn't want me to disturb you. I tried not to wake you up, but-"

"I'm fine," I yawned. "Just tired is all. I didn't get much sleep last night." I couldn't bring myself to look into Cody's face so I stared down at my hands instead.

"Lou, about the other day-" he began. I resisted the childish urge to cover my ears with my hands. "I'm sorry if I upset you or made you feel uncomfortable. I've been feeling terrible over the way I acted."

"The way you acted?" I echoed in surprise. "And here I've been feeling bad about what I did. I shouldn't have run out on you like I did."

"I thought I had lost you forever," he sighed. "I wanted to go after you, but thought you needed some time."

"I was never angry at you-only ashamed of what I had done and then scared you didn't care for me anymore. Don't blame yourself for my actions, Cody." I squeezed his hand.

Cody hugged me to him and I buried my face in his jacket, "There's something I've been wanting to tell you Louise. I've been waiting for the right time-maybe this is it now. I love you, sweetheart."

Cody's grip on me became even tighter, like he was afraid to let me go. I wanted to respond but thought he wouldn't hear me as I was pressed so tightly against him. Finally I wriggled free so I could face him, "I love you, too, Cody. I have since you came frozen on Christmas Eve, so determined that you'd be with your family for Christmas."

"And I've loved you since I found out you were a girl. Heck, maybe even before," he grinned.

For a moment we just stood there looking at each other, not knowing what else to say.

"Well, now what?" I giggled.

"I guess now our adventures really begin," smiled Cody.

And he was right.

The End.

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