"You’d best get out of those wet things before you catch your death," were the first words out of Emma’s mouth when Lou returned from a mail run. Lou had gotten caught without a rain slicker in an unexpected spring downpour. The redheaded woman didn’t want her taking chances with her health.
Lou was only too glad to oblige. No one else was in the bunkhouse, so she wriggled out of her wet things and slipped on dry long johns, pants, and a shirt. "It feels good to be dry again. I was soaked to the skin." Although she tried not to show it for Emma’s benefit, she still shivered slightly.
"Sit down and I’ll fix you something hot to drink," offered Emma. She grabbed a blanket off a bunk and wrapped it around Lou’s shoulders. Four of the riders had been afflicted with scarlet fever only months prior, and Emma worried with every sneeze and chill.
Louise did not protest Emma fussing over her. Having lost her mother so young, she enjoyed having another woman look after her on occasion. There was a close bond between the two females employed by the Pony Express.
"Thanks for the tea, Emma," grinned Lou after taking a sip. "You always make me feel glad to come home." Emma stroked Lou’s short hair lovingly in response.
The chill never completely left Lou’s body, even though she was covered with extra blankets and her bunk was closest to the stove. Her throat began to feel scratchy and she knew that in spite of Emma’s best efforts, she was most likely coming down with a cold.
It was Cody who woke up to the unusual sound first. He sat up in bed, puzzling at what the noise could be in his half-asleep state. He thought it sounded like a whistle-no-make that a kind of grunt. For the life of him, he could not figure it out, and was tempted to grab his rifle. Jimmy tossed on his bunk and noticing Cody was awake whispered, "You hear that, too?"
Noah had also woken up, but being a little sharper at night than the other two, had also figured out what the strange sound was and where it was coming from.
"Cody, look at the bunk below you," he hinted.
Cody peered down and looked at the sleeping Lou, who, for the first time the boys could remember, was snoring away, unaware of all the attention her snores were attracting. All three boys had to cover their mouths to keep from laughing at tiny, quiet Lou who could actually let out snores that rivaled Buck’s!
"She must have caught cold in the rain," Cody sympathized. "Let’s not tell her about this-she’d be too embarrassed." Quietly he crept down from the top bunk to place his quilt over her. He felt Lou’s forehead gently for fever and was relieved to find it cool to his touch.
Lou stirred slightly at his touch, shifted positions, and for a moment was quiet again. A few seconds later though, she started snoring even louder than before. All the boys but Cody could not contain their laughter anymore. Lou woke up, started by the noise.
"Cody, what’s goin’ on?" she asked him sleepily. He hadn’t had a chance to scurry back up to his bunk yet.
"I think you’ve got a little cold so I was putting this quilt on you," he explained. "Go back to sleep now."
"Okay," she mumbled, closing her eyes. They didn’t stay closed for long, though. "Why are they laughing?"
"You know better than to pay those fellas any mind," was Cody’s answer. He hoped his evasiveness would work on her. Ever since he had developed feelings for her Cody felt protective of Louise. He never complained when she took a dangerous run; he knew it would be pointless to argue anyway. He did feel it was his duty to spare her any hurt feelings, though.
By this time Lou was more awake and knew the joke-whatever it was-was on her. She appreciated Cody’s thoughtfulness, but was curious about Jimmy and Noah’s snickering.
"Was I talking in my sleep again?" she guessed. She had done that once before, announcing to the bunkhouse her admiration for Cody’s blue eyes. She could hardly look any one of the boys in the eye without blushing for three whole days after that incident.
"Oh, no," Cody was quick to assure her.
"Just tell her, Cody," encouraged Jimmy between fits of laughter. For some reason, Lou had really tickled his funny bone tonight.
Cody didn’t know whether to do first-take Lou straight to Emma’s OR (for) punch Jimmy in the nose. Instead he asked Lou how she was feeling.
"Like my head is all stuffed up. I can’t even breathe through my nose"
"We know," chuckled Noah.
Lou let her jaw drop, "Cody, was I snoring?!?"
Why is she asking me this? thought Cody. I’m not the one laughing at her. What an awful position to be put in.
"Just a little bit," he said, feeling defeated. "Really, we could barely hear you."
"Yeah, we could barely hear you in the barn," Jimmy teased.
Mortified, Lou pulled the blankets up over her head. She was used to the boys’ snoring-some rather loudly-but it just wasn’t something that girls did-not even girls who worked for the Pony Express!
Cody pulled back the blankets, "Lou, it’s really no big deal. You caught cold in the rain and can’t breathe as well. Why don’t you try and get some sleep? It’ll be morning soon."
"I don’t think I want to go back to sleep." Lou whispered. She certainly did not want to wake up to the sound of the boys’ laughter again. Lou also knew the reality of her needing all the rest she could get.
"Tell you what," began Cody as he eased her back down to a flat position on the bunk. "If I hear you, I’ll give you a little shake."
"Alright," she yawned. She knew Cody could sleep through a herd of buffalo roaming the bunkhouse, but appreciated his offer.
Cody didn’t kiss her goodnight; he knew Louise was too private for that. Instead, he stroked her cheek softly and whispered, "sweet dreams".
True to his word, Cody had to reach down and give Lou a little shake several times. He really didn’t get much sleep from keeping an ear out for her, but wanted to keep his promise
Lou woke up in the morning with a raspy voice, and the cold that had begun in her head had traveled south and settled in her chest. She was glad she didn’t have a ride scheduled although she knew there were plenty of chores to be done. With a slight groan, she got herself out of bed. Still, she didn’t want to face this day, due not only to the fact she didn’t want to deal with anymore teasing, she also just plain didn’t feel too great.
When Emma came to the bunkhouse that morning she had a mustard plaster all ready for Lou to wear around her neck. Cody had slipped out earlier in the morning and told her of Lou’s cold, and the rattling sound in her chest.
“Oh, Emma, do I have to?” Louise asked, wrinkling up her nose as Emma put the pouch around her. The odor was really awful. She tried to contain a cough but couldn’t.
“Yep, you have to,” replied Emma in a no-nonsense tone. “I think you should stay in bed today, too, but since I know it’s useless to ask you I’m at least keeping you indoors for the day.”
Louise knew better than to argue. Besides, the way she was feeling she didn’t think she’d mind staying inside today. Another rainstorm also seemed to be on it’s way and Lou had no desire to be in another downpour.
“You can help me with the canning,” said Emma as she scrambled the breakfast eggs. “It’ll be kind of nice having someone around to help me today. Not often do I get company unless it’s mealtime.” Emma didn’t mention she also wanted to keep an eye on Lou, who usually had more color in her cheeks.
No one teased Lou at breakfast. Of course, Cody looking like he would pounce on the first person who said an unkind word might have had something to do with the boys’ quietness. Lou sort of pushed the food around on her plate and hoped Emma wouldn’t notice how little she was eating. Emma, however, was no one’s fool.
“Well, guess my ride is up first,” Cody remarked as he rose from the table. He smiled at Lou, “You take it easy and do what Emma says.”
Lou spent the morning assisting Emma with the breakfast dishes, baking bread and canning fruit. She was pleased to have a break from her usual routine, and enjoyed spending some quiet time with Emma. She was surprised at how easily she became tired, though, especially given the more rigorous demands or her usual exhausting job.
“I plan on doing some mending after lunch,” announced Emma as they sat down to eat their soup. “Why don’t you lie down and rest a while then? My mending won’t disturb you.”
“That sounds good,” Lou yawned. Emma was surprised and more than a little concerned that she did not even protest, but took straight to her bed. She made sure to put another mustard plaster over Lou’s chest before the girl fell asleep. Emma moved her chair so that she cold keep an eye-and an ear-on the girl.
It wasn’t long before Louise’s deep breathing turned into soft snoring. Emma wasn’t surprised, after having been told of the night’s events by Noah. She smiled as she mended a pair of Kid’s trousers. With seven young people who rode horses for a living, Emma felt she was always mending trousers. Sometimes it was nice to get a shirt just to break the monotony.
Kid and Buck came in from their overnight run, talking loudly and stomping the mud off their boots.
Emma reprimanded them by touching a finger to her lips and pointing at the sleeping figure on the bunk. Fortunately Lou was in such a sound sleep that she didn't even stir.
"She alright?" whispered Buck.
"Caught herself a bad cold yesterday. Got caught out in the rain. Your clothes look pretty damp, too. Why don't you go over to my house to change. Kid, here's your mended pants."
Louise woke up a few minutes after they left. She should have felt rested and refreshed after her long nap but instead she felt light-headed. She decided to get up very slowly from her bunk. As woozy as she felt, Lou still did not want to just sit around, so she offered to set the table for supper.
"Cody will be back soon," commented Emma, hoping to cheer the girl. "Probably before supper, knowing that boy. But I've seen a real change come over him lately. He's more concerned for others." By the word "others" Emma actually meant "you" but dared not say it in front of Lou, even though they both knew what she meant.
"He's been right kind to me," Lou admitted, a hing of color washing over her pale cheeks.
As if on cue, Cody walked in the door. He was just in time to see the plate that Lou was holding crash to the floor, and catch Lou before she slumped and did the same.
"Emma? Emma, what's wrong with her?" he asked, holding Lou to him. Emma heard the fear in Cody's voice. She was a little alarmed herself but knew she had to stay calm for Cody's sake. "I don't know, Cody. She's been tired today and her cough was worse, but there's been no fever. Put her down on the bunk and let's take a look."
Cody placed Louise gently down on the hard bed but didn't leave her side. He could have kicked himself for leaving today. Somehow he felt he could have protected her from this illness. Emma checked Lou's pulse and felt her brow for fever. She found a strong pulse and cool, damp skin, for which she was relieved, but it still did not explain why Lou had fainted. She looked into Cody's pleading eyes and wished there were something she could tell him.
Kid, Buck and Noah walked in then, hungry for their supper. Instead of supper on the table they found Cody and Emma hovering over and unconscious Lou. It was Noah who colunteered to fetch Doc Barnes.
"Cody, I got to feed these boys. You stay with her while I get them served," she instructed. Cody didn't need any coaxing. He would have stayed right by Lou's side if it meant missing a week's worth of meals. He held Lou's hand, strocked back her hair and quietly assured her that she would be fine. Finally, her eyes fluttered open.
"Cody, what happened?" she almsot cried. She didn't remember going to sleep, so why had she woken up with Cody looking down at her with worried eyes?
"You just passed out for a few minutes is all," he told her. "Noah went to get the doc."
Lou, who did not consider herself the fainting type, and held a certain amount of disdain for those who did faint, could not believe that she had actually done so. "First snoring, now fainting. I wonder what embarrassing thing I'll do next.?"
"Well, maybe your pants will fall down in church or you'll get drunk and start singing "Clementine" off key," chuckled Cody, who, in spite of his worry, could still see the humor in the situation. Lou coudln't help but smile at his joke. She supposed worse things could happen to her.
Emma soon finished serving the others and came back to Lou's side. Emma knew she couldn't very well shoo all the boys out of the bunkhouse before Doc Barnes arrived. Instaead she had Cody bring Lou over to her house where it was quiet and more private. Cody was getting Lou settled on the sofa when Emma arrived with Doc Barnes and a plate of food for Cody.
"Well, Lou, let's listen to your lungs," greeted the doc as he opened his black bag. He placed a stethoscope on her chest with care. Being a physician and well acquainted with the human body, he was pretty sure Lou was not the boy he claimed to be. Still, it was none of his business and he never mentioned his suspicion to anyone, even his wife. Especially not his wife, who had the reputation as the town gossip.
"Yep, he's got a bad case of congestion, alright," he agreed with Emma's assessment. "Dont' think we've seen the worse of it either yet from the sound."
"Why did he collapse, Doc?" wondered Cody. "There's no fever."
"No, not yet, but it's my guess he'll break one any time," Doctor Barnes placed Cody's hand on Lou's forehead. "Feel how he's clammy? That often happens before the fever starts. Lou passed out because his body is trying to right the infection."
"What should we do for him, Doc?" asked Emma.
"Not much can be done except make sure he gets plenty to drink, gets a lot of rest, and continue with the mustard plaster. When the fever comes don't let it get too high and keep him comfortable. Why Emma, you know all this," he chided her.
She blushed, "I know, Doc. Just makes me feel better to hear you say it is all."
"You send someone for me if Lou seems any worse," the doctor instructed as he gathered his instruments. "Goodnight, all."
It was arranged that Lou would spend the night in one of Emma's spare rooms. Louise, remembering the night before, was just fine with that plan. Her body was beginning to ache and she knew a soft mattress underneath her would feel especially good tonight. After getting Lou settled, Cody pulled Emma out in the hallway for a private chat.
"I want to stay with her, Emma," he stated simply. "I owe that to her. You know how she hardly left my side when I was so sick with the scarlet fever."
Emma looked into his eyes and saw sincerity in them, and also a new kind of maturity. Ever since he had fallen for Lou Emma had noticed changes in Cody. Oh, he was still the biggest clown of the bunch but he had become more senstive and less concerned about himself. Emma didn't think she really needed his help but didn't want to deny Cody the chance to care for Lou if it meant that much to him.
"Sure, Cody. Why don't you go back to the bunkhouse and try to sleep for a while? Then you can come relieve me."
"I'll do that," he eagerly agreed. Emma headed back into the guest room after Cody had gone. She found Lou propped up on several pillows and supporting a book with her knees.
"Guess I'm not that tired after sleeping so much today," she explained.
"Well, there's no harm in reading for a while. You're resting your body anyway. Cody is going to come stay with you after a while so I'll set up this cot for him."
"He doesn't need to do that," protested Lou. "I mean, I just have a cold. I don't need him hovering over me."
"I know you don't," Emma grinned. "But he thinks he owes it to you, so I couldn't say no. Besides, it's hard to resist those big blue eyes of his."
"Well, at least he won't tease me if I snore," Lou sighed. She was glad for Cody's concern, but thought he was making too big a deal out of her illness.
"That's the spirit," Emma laughed, rumpling Lou's hair. "Just be glad he cares for you like he does. I'll check in on you in an hour or so."
Emma headed downstairs where she could write a few letters and sip her tea by the fireplace. Her days were so hectic and full that she treasured the couple hours in the evening that were her own. Oh, she loved all the riders and Teaspoon, but she also relished her quiet time when she could read, write, or simply stare into the fire.
She was just finishing a magazine article when she heard Cody approach the door. Emma let him in before he even had a chance to knock.
"How is she?" he asked anxiously.
"Last time I checked she was still reading, and she seems pretty comfortable. I set up a folding cot in the room for you to sleep on. You know where my room is if you need me, right?"
"Yeah, I do, thanks Emma. Well, I'll go up and check on her. Goodnight."
Cody smiled at the sight that met him upstairs. Lou must have fallen asleep reading, for the book was still in her hand at her side. Her lips were turned up into a slight smile, and yes, she was snoring, but so softly Cody could hardly hear her. He eased the book from her hand and brought the covers up around her a little more before stretching out on the cot. Tonight will be a piece of cake, he thought before drifting off to sleep.
“Water,” Lou moaned. She was so hot and her throat so parched that all she could do was call out the word. She vaguely remembered Emma saying something about Cody staying with her.
“Here’s your water, Lou,” said Cody, lifting the glass to her lips. HE knew the fever had come, just as the doctor predicted. He poured some water from the pitcher into the basin and mopped Lou’s forehead. “How’s that feel?”
Lou only nodded, but the nod indicated that the cool cloth did indeed feel good. She was glad she hadn’t protested Cody’s insistence on helping too much. It was comforting to have him there beside her.
Likewise, even though Cody had originally looked forward to an easy night, he was glad to be needed. Fortunately for him Louise was an easy patient that night. She woke up a few more times asking for water and always went right back to sleep after her request was fulfilled. In fact, one time when she asked for water Cody wasn’t sure if she had even been awake at the time, for her eyes were closed before he put the glass to her lips.
The next morning Emma peeked in on her spare room, finding both Lou and Cody still asleep. Hearing her, Cody opened his eyes and whispered, “Good morning”.
“How was she last night?” Emma got right to the point.
“The fever came but it’s not too bad. She was hot and thirsty a couple times, but otherwise she mostly slept.” Cody replied.
“I’m glad to hear that,” she sighed. “I’m gonna fix some breakfast and bring it up to you both.”
“Much obliged, Emma. My stomach’s growlin’ already.”
Emma chuckled softly at his words. Cody was by far the best eater of the bunch, and as far as she could tell, his stomach never stopped growling.
Lou blinked open her eyes a few minutes after Emma left. The foggy feeling the fever had brought had not left her brain. She didn’t exactly feel light-headed, just like she was seeing things slightly out-of-focus.
“Did you have a good sleep?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” she yawned. “Actually, I guess you should be telling me.”
Cody smiled, “Hmmm….that’s true. You had a pretty good night. You woke up for a drink of water a few times.”
“Really? I don’t remember.”
“That’s what those night fevers can do. At least you didn’t have any bad dreams.”
“I-I’m glad you stayed, Cody,” Lou told him sincerely. “At first I didn’t think I needed anyone to look after me, but I liked knowing you were here.”
No other words could have meant so much to Cody at the time. They made him feel worthy of her, privileged to be in her life. Cody felt he could do anything Louise requested of him. He was still a little shy about putting his emotions into words and simply said, “Anytime, Lou.”
Emma brought breakfast for them to eat and informed Lou that she was to take it easy for at least two more days. Lou wasn’t sure what to think about this news. She knew she was sick and needed the rest; she also knew she got bored easily when not working at her usual pace.
“If you sleep as much as you did yesterday, you won’t have time to be bored,” teased Cody.
“I won’t let you get bored,” Emma assured her. “You can snap beans, help me darn socks and even church the butter sitting down.”
For a moment, Louise wished she’d kept her mouth shut. Leave it to Emma to come up with an entire list of chores!
“And Thompkin’s got a new order of books in. I’ll go to town and see if I can find something you might like.”
“After you do your chores,” reminded Emma. She wondered at how these boys didn’t mind risking their lives on runs, but would do just about anything to get out of cleaning stalls and fixing fences.
“Well, I best get to them, then,” he winked.
Lou spent the rest of the morning on Emma’s parlor sofa. She felt well enough to snap some beans and honestly was glad to be doing something productive. Emma had left her a magazine to read and Lou took advantage of it. Mid-way through an article on “Life in San Francisco” her eyes began to feel heavy and she closed them, truly believing that she would just rest them for a few minutes.
Cody was anxious to share his finding with Louise. He had searched diligently in Thompkin’s store for just the right kind of book, and to his good fortune, found it. Cody knew she would like a book called, “Brave Women of America”. There were stories about Betsy Ross, Pocahontas, and Martha Washington, among others. He had even inscribed it with, “To Louise, whose name should be added to this book. Fondly, W. Cody”. No one else seemed to be around the property as fast as he could tell, so he strode up to the steps of Emma’s house.
He saw Lou’s sleeping form on the sofa and didn’t want to disturb her. Wanting to leave the book as a surprise, he walked over softly, planning to leave the gift near her. As he crept closer Cody noticed that Lou shook violently from chills and that she was wheezing when she took a breath. Cody reached for her forehead and discovered it was burning hot. He called her name several times before she opened her eyes.
“Help me, Cody,” she pleaded. “I’m so cold.” He took off his jacket and wrapped it around her tightly.
“I’m gonna see if someone can get the doc. I’ll be right back,” he assured her.
“No, don’t go,” begged Lou. Her mind was cloudy and the only thing she could be sure of was Cody.
“I’ll just be a minute,” he tried reasoning. Lou’s eyes welled up with tears, making Cody feel incredibly guilty, but he knew she needed the doctor. He kissed Lou on the cheek and headed out the door.
As soon as Cody stepped outside he noticed that the wind had picked up considerably. He even spotted a few tumbleweeds rolling by before he spotted Buck.
“Buck!” he called, relieved to see his friend. “Lou’s real sick. Can you run to the doc for me? I’d go myself, but she didn’t want me to leave her.”
Buck cast a nervous eye towards the windmill, “Maybe in a while. But we’re the only one’s here and need to secure the place. There’s a bad storm coming.”
Cody knew Buck was right but he still looked back at the house wishing he could return to Lou sooner. He’d never seen her need him that much before. He and Buck went about securing the windmill and nailing boards over the windows. After a half-hour they both entered Emma’s house to find that Lou had settled back into a restless sleep.
“I’ll get Doc Barnes,” Buck agreed, but as soon as they walked out onto the porch, Emma, Ike and Jimmy walked up and joined them.
“There might be a tornado heading this way,” Emma declared. “You boys fixed up the place just in time. We need to get to the root cellar, though, and let all the animals out.”
“Noah and the Kid are doing just that,” explained Jimmy. He was nervous. He had seen a year’s worth of his father’s crop destroyed by a twister.
“You boys get some supplies down there. Cody and I’ll get Lou and bring her,” instructed Emma.
“She’s worse, Emma,” Cody shook his head. “She was just shaking from being so cold. The fever’s gone up and that damp cellar isn’t gonna be good for her.”
“Wish we had another choice,” she agreed. By this time they had reached Lou, who was sobbing uncharacteristically.
“Why did you leave me, Cody? I needed you!” accused Lou.
“I-I had to help Buck,” Cody explained, trying to calm Lou by stroking her hair. “There’ s a storm coming and-“
“Just leave me alone!” she pouted, pushing back his hand.
Cody was dumbfounded, “I’m sorry, Lou.”
“Don’t listen to her, Cody. It’s the fever talkin’. She doesn’t mean what she’s saying right now.” Then turning her attention to Louise, “Sweetheart, there’s a tornado that might be coming. We need to go down to cellar now. Cody’s gonna help you.”
Lou just nodded and let Cody lift her off the sofa. Emma grabbed the pillows and blankets, not sure if the other boys had considered these items. Outside, the wind howled fiercely, making it difficult for Cody and Emma to walk, especially with their cargo.
The other boys had made it down to the cellar with food and canteens of water, and had lit the lantern for a light source. To Emma’s surprise, someone had fixed up a bed of sorts for Lou. She suspected it was either Ike or Noah that had thought of it. Both boys had a quiet thoughtfulness about them. Not that the other boys were thoughtless; they just didn’t always pay attention to detail.
Cody placed Lou on the makeshift bed and gave her a few sips of water from the canteen. The cellar was cramped but he made sure there was room to sit beside the girl he cared for and admired.
With little light and not much room to move about, the boys didn’t have much to occupy themselves. Fortunately Kid happened to have a deck of cards in his coat pocket and a card game soon ensued. Emma was relieved; she knew six boys with nothing to do would soon get on her nerves.
“Should I deal you in, Cody?” asked Jimmy.
“Ah, no thanks,” he shook his head. “I should stay with Lou.” He didn’t want to make her feel bad again. Lou was still awake and it was getting harder for her to take a deep breath without wheezing. Cody thought the dampness of the cellar was making her breathing more difficult.
“Suit yourself,” Jimmy shrugged. He didn’t understand why Cody couldn’t keep watch on Lou from three feet away, especially with Emma right there. He grudgingly gave Cody some respect though; after all, you couldn’t fault the man’s loyalty. Also, Cody had won Lou’s heart that Jimmy couldn’t help but admire.
Emma, too, was a little mystified at the extent of Cody’s willingness to be Lou’s nursemaid. She placed a hand on his arm, “Let me know when you need a break. I’ll be happy to sit with Lou.” Cody nodded his thanks.
Even Louise in her feverish state was a little concerned about Cody. She tugged at his sleeve to get his attention.
“I’m sorry I got so upset,” she whispered. “I was just alone and scared and sick. I had no right to say those things. Don’t feel like you have to sit here every minute.”
Cody smiled in spite of himself. Maybe he was being over-protective. “You’re the boss. Why don’t I sit with you a little longer and then I promise I’ll play some cards?” Lou nodded and closed her eyes.
After an hour had passed, Emma came over to sit by Lou, who was resting but not asleep. Cody took this for his cue and ambled over to where the others were still playing cards.
“Deal me in, fellas,” he said cheerfully.
From inside the cellar everyone could still hear the shrieking wind. Out of curiosity Kid opened the trap door to see if the tornado was anywhere close to them yet.
“I don’t see it myself,” he reported upon his return. His windswept hair stood up in about every direction. “Doesn’t mean it ain’t comin’ though. Those tornadoes can play tricks on you.”
“Well, looks like we’ll be spendin’ the night here,” Emma observed. “So if you boys got to do anything out-of-doors, do it now.” Normally Emma didn’t like to address such personal needs, but would rather the boys go out now than in the middle of the tornado. Eventually they all headed for a brief trip outside.
“Emma, what about me?” asked Lou. She had been drinking extra water and was feeling the effects.
“We’ll go when the boys come back,” she promised.
Lou held onto Emma tightly when it was their turn to venture outside. She felt like the wind would sweep her away any minute. It was a relief when they both returned to the safety of the cellar.
Louise was glad to crawl back into her bed for the night. She couldn’t believe how bone weary she was after her little excursion. She briefly wondered if she was sick with something else besides a cold, but dismissed the idea quickly. Certainly Emma would say something if that were the case.
Cody made his way back over to Lou. He was glad he had played cards with the others and let himself have a break. Although Lou looked tired, she also looked like she was improving, and hadn’t been coughing so much.
“Guess we’d better settle in for the night,” he suggested.
“You ever been in a tornado before, Cody?” asked Lou. By chance she hadn’t and wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Would they wake up the next morning to find no bunkhouse or barn?
“Sure have. I grew up in Iowa, remember?”
“I never have,” she admitted. “But I’ve heard stories.”
Cody shook his head, “Well, most tornadoes ain’t even worth talkin’ about. A lot don’t even hit the ground and if they do they just pick up a lot of dirt. Why Louise McCloud, you ain’t scared, are you?”
“No not scared,” she bristled. “I just don’t’ know what to expect is all.”
“There’s nothin’ to be scared of,” he reassured her, knowing that deep down inside she was a little frightened. Heck, so was he! “And we’re here safe and that’s the most important thing. Now close your eyes and try and get some sleep.” Cody took Lou’s hand in his. He didn’t’ know why she had to try and act so brave all the time. Everyone has a fear or two.
One of Cody’s worst fears happened later that night. He woke up to the sound of Lou gasping for air. In the dim light he noticed beads of perspiration on Lou’s face and how her hair was so damp from sweat that it stuck to her skin.
“Cody,” she choked, “Can’t breathe too good.”
By now all the other riders were awake and Emma was at Lou’s side. One careful listen to Lou’s chest and she knew Lou’s cold had developed into something far more serious.
“It’s pneumonia,” she announced gravely. “And it’s bad, too. Boys, we need to get to work.”
“What can we do, Emma?” asked Jimmy. It unnerved him to see the usually strong Lou lying there so ill and he was anxious to do something to help.
“We’re lucky we’re in the root cellar because I’m gonna try an onion poultice. It’s old fashioned, but it works-most of the time. Buck, you got your knife with you?” Buck nodded, his eyes obedient but questioning.
“Starting choppin’ up all the onions you can find. There should be a bushel’s worth down here. Kid, can you get a small fire going?” At Kid’s not Emma added “Thanks. Now, did anyone bring down a frying pan or cooking pot?” Emma doubted the boys would have thought of that particular item; she could have kicked herself for not thinking of it, but between the tornado and Lou here mind was elsewhere.
No one had brought any cookware, but Ike managed to find an old pot that someone had left there on his or her last trip to the cellar.
“Bless you, Ike,” she sighed gratefully. “Jimmy, you can start cooking the onions as soon as Buck chops a couple up. Cody, try to get Lou to take as much water as she can.” Emma felt like a bit of a drill sergeant, but knew she needed to give orders to make everything run smoothly in a situation like this.
By now Louise’s fever had spiked dangerously high. She was vaguely aware of Cody’s arms supporting her, the feel of water going down her throat and the strong odor of onions in the air. She wished she could sleep, or even faint again to escape the misery, but she was too uncomfortable to do either.
The scent of onions soon permeated the small crowded cellar. Several times someone opened the trap door to let in some fresh air. Emma and the others had tear-streaked faces from the overwhelming smell. Cody was almost glad for an excuse to release tears, because the ones he cried were not just from the onions but from the fear of losing Lou. He saw something he had never seen before in Lou-a willingness to give up. She wasn’t fighting this illness, instead he saw her succumbing to it.
“The first batch of onions is ready,” announced Emma. “Cody, can take off Lou’s shirt? I want to get this poultice right on her union suit.”
Even under the circumstances, Cody was a little embarrassed by this intimate act. He began unbuttoning her shirt with shaky fingers. Emma tore off a piece of material from her petticoat, spooned the cooked onions on it and lay the whole thing on Lou’s chest. When the onions had cooled, Emma removed them, turned Lou on her back and repeated the process with the next batch of onions.
Meanwhile, the storm raged on outside. They could all hear it, but it simply wasn’t the first thing on the rider’s minds. Louise was their first concern even though there was the chance that a tornado could strike any minute.
“How much longer now, Emma?” asked Jimmy. He had been witnessing the onion poultices process for some time now and hadn’t seen any improvement in Lou. Like Cody, he noticed a change in Lou. She was not fighting against the pneumonia and that worried him.
“Shouldn’t be long now,” said Emma a little too brightly. She was acutely aware of the agony on Cody’s face. They both knew that if Lou did not get the fluid out of her lungs she could stop breathing altogether.
Buck spooned the last batch of hot onions onto the torn piece of petticoat and shook his head. If this doesn’t work… Noah came to sit by Cody, simply offering his presence as a gesture of support.
For the next few minutes no one spoke and everyone figuratively held his or her collective breath. Only the wind could be heard. Cody was the picture of despair and wept openly now, his face buried in his hands. He didn’t care what the other thought; he just cared about Louise. Emma scooped Lou into her arms and held the girl tight to her bosom, just as she had with her own child only a few years ago. The pain she had felt when she lost her baby came back to her intensely at that moment. The other boys could do nothing but watch, wait and pray. The tornado they had been expecting touched down outside but no one paid it any mind.
Then, by some miracle the onions did their work. Lou sat bolt upright and began to cough up the thick mucus that had been making it so difficult to breathe. Thinking quickly, Emma grabbed the cooking pot and held it under Lou’s chin so she’d have somewhere to expectorate. One look at the highly colored phlegm that she produced left no doubt in anyone’s mind why she had been so sick. Several of the boys had to turn their head to keep from getting sick themselves.
The coughs made Lou’s small frame shake with every paroxysm. Cody supported her and she leaned against him, exhausted from all the work her body was doing.
“Just rest now, sweetheart,” Emma instructed the girl. “That’s the worst of it.” Lou gladly remained slumped against Cody and rested. She was breathing heavily from all the exertion, but at least she was breathing.
Cody held onto Lou a little tighter than necessary, “Oh God, Lou. I can’t believe I almost lost you.”
“But I’m still here, aren’t I?” she smiled weakly, reaching up to touch his tear-stained cheek.
“And we’re sure glad of it,” grinned Noah.
“Hey, listen!” exclaimed Buck.
“I don’t hear anything,” said Kid, with a puzzled expression.
“Exactly. The storm has passed. The tornado is gone.”
Everyone looked at each other for a minute and wondered the same thing: how much damage had been done. No one really wanted to know and yet they did, so Jimmy and Ike volunteered to venture outside. They climbed out of the trap door hoping they wouldn’t find the whole station destroyed.
However, the night had a second miracle in store for the Sweetwater Pony Express. Ike and Jimmy joyously reported that not a single structure had been damaged, nor the animals harmed!
“What a night,” sighed Noah after the initial cheers upon hearing the good news. He felt a little overwhelmed by the night’s events.
“Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning,” quoted Emma, who looked at her watch and realized it was 2:00 a.m.
Due to her utter exhaustion, Lou had settled into a deep restful sleep in spite of the commotion. She was still nestled in Cody’s arms and he was content just to feel the rise and fall of her body as she breathed. When all was quiet, everyone turned their attention toward them. Still a bit congested, Lou snored softly.
“Isn’t that the sweetest sound?” Cody smiled, kissing the top of her head.
The others had to agree with him.