Thanks to my beta Lisa who let me use her story 'Left at the Altar'…again…
It was almost two years he was East fighting and Cody hadn't thought about his Southerner friend since long. After his disastrous wedding day, when Lou left him at the altar and ran away with his best friend Jimmy, Kid had returned to his homeland and nobody had seen him again.
The Pony Express ended few weeks after that fateful day and the three remaining riders were left without a job. It was then than Cody and Noah decided to join the Army, to Teaspoon's great dismay. For the young and enthusiastic Billy Cody, to serve as a soldier was just another great adventure but, when Noah died in his arms -shot in the chest in a skirmish not too far from Rock Creek - something changed and he decided to go East.
His friend's death made him realize that he didn't want to make a name for himself chasing Indians and outlaws, that there were higher ideals to fight for, ideals like the ones Noah had. For this reason he decided to do what he thought to be the right thing against slavery and went to fight in the Union Army.
The thought that he could face Kid, who most likely was enlisted in the Confederate Army, never crossed his mind. But, when the blond man spotted a familiar paint horse in the midst of a particularly fierce battle, his heart skipped a beat. Cody said to himself that that horse wasn't Katy, that it only resembled her; but then, how many paint horses had he seen since he went East?
When the bloody carnage finally ended with the victory of the Northerner's side, Cody came back to the battlefield looking for that horse, hoping that he was wrong, but his keen eyes had seen right.
He found a skittish and scared Katy wandering near a bunch of dead soldiers, he managed to calm the animal down and then he braced himself to look among those corpses, because if Katy was there, then his beloved master couldn't be too far.
Seeing those poor bodies, ravaged by the explosion of a cannonball, Cody found himself thinking for the umpteenth time if ideals - even if noble and high - were worth of all that death and destruction. He was sick of the horror and the pity, but he forced himself to scan the faces of those men, hoping against hope not to find familiar blue eyes staring sightlessly at him.
After few minutes of search, he found him. Half covered by the bodies of his fellow brothers in arms, immobile and bloodied, there was the Kid.
Cody sank on his knees, dropping near his friend's head. He called for him, desperately looking for some vital signs, removing the others men's bodies from above him.
'Kid Kid Kid please be alive Kid…not again, please, not again…' his mind was reeling, reliving the horrible day when Noah's died.
Finally a faint moan escaped from Kid's dry lips.
"Kid!" Cody exclaimed at that sound, his heart gladdening for the hope.
He ran back to his camp, yelling that there was still a man alive. The medical officer had already taken care of the injured and wounded men of his unit, so he came back after him, bringing a stretcher and the first supplies.
When he saw the man Cody was pointing at, Sergeant Taylor stopped dead in his track.
"He's a Confederate, Corporal," He said stiffly.
"I know this Sergeant, but he's family to me," Cody replied vehemently. "Please…Doctor."
The older man saw his desperate eyes, the way the blond Corporal was crouching near that man, regardless of the blood and the horror around him.
'C'mon, Corporal. Let's take him," he said.
Once they came back to the camp, Cody had to fight with his superiors to have the permission to take care of Kid even if he was a prisoner, but finally they gave in. The man Corporal Cody brought back with him most likely wouldn't survived long, to not let Cody comfort his friend would be only a useless cruelty.
So Cody went to tent where the doctor was tending the Kid's several wounds, and stood there until he to let him in.
Kid lay on a low makeshift bed, pale and unconscious. The only sign that he still was alive was the painfully slow rise and fall of his chest. His left side had been disfigured by the explosion. The doctor had to amputate his leg and his torso and left arm were covered by bloodied bandages.
Cody swallowed hard and looked at the doctor.
"I've done all what I can," Doc Taylor told him. "But I don't know if he'll make it."
"Here," the doctor added, handing him a small bottle of laudanum, "Put few drops in the water and let him sip it when the pain is too strong. There isn't much else we can do for him."
He exited and Cody approached his friend's bed.
"Hello Kid…" he said caressing his curly head.
Suddenly eyes flickered open and Cody was taken aback by the pain he saw in them.
"Kid." he said softly, forcing himself to smile.
He stared at him unrecognising.
"Kid it's me…Cody."
"Cody…" his voice was a hoarse whisper, his features tense and drawn.
"Here, drink a little."
He lifted his friend's head, making Kid sip a little of water mixed with laudanum.
"My fellows…my unit…"
Cody grimaced a little, there was a time when he and the other riders were Kid's fellows and friends. Now the people Kid called his friends were dead and Cody was one of the men responsible for that.
"There isn't anybody left, Kid. I'm sorry…"
His friend's blue eyes filled with tears.
"Why'd you saved me…?"
"What are you saying?! You're family. Rachel…"
Cody stopped. He was going to say 'Rachel will kill me if I don't bring you back home with me' but the truth was that there wasn't a home to go back to, at least not anything Kid could call home.
The Rock Creek waystation had been closed not longer after the Southerner's departure. Neither Rachel nor Teaspoon lived there anymore. They had gone to stay with Jimmy and Lou and there wasn't anything left of the old Express station.
"You should've let me die…" Kid slurred before passing out again, and Cody's heart crushed at his words.
Kid had been so full of hope and dreams for the future. Back then he seemed the only rider who knew what he wanted in life: to marry Lou and start a horse ranch, he hadn't want anything else. But the person lying before his eyes was a broken man.
William Cody heard things too intimate that night, things that weren't directed at him and that he felt he shouldn't hear, things he suspected only Lou knew; but she wasn't there, nor was Rachel, or Teaspoon, and as much as the blond man felt himself inadequate to listen Kid pouring his soul out, right now he was the only friend Kid had.
The young Southerner was burning with the fever and in his delirium he called for his mother, for his brother Jed, and also for some other men Cody didn't know but he supposed to be his fellow soldiers. He blamed himself for not having been able to save them.
'Always the same Kid' Cody smiled bitterly 'Ready to bring the weight of the world on his shoulder if he can't do the right thing.'
He cradled his friend's head in his arms, trying to soothe him, while Kid relieved the horrible fights with his father and wept like a child. Then, when the night grew old and his wounded body was becoming weaker and weaker, Kid began to ask for Lou.
He never stopped thinking about her, Cody realized. After almost three years Kid still tormented and blamed himself for what happened. The young Corporal felt guilt grip his heart. He never reflected about what being left at the altar had done to the Kid. His friend thought he must have somehow let Lou down and, worse, he doubted that the girl's love for him was only a lie.
Cody grimaced. That day he had done a stupid question asking to him if he was going to chase Lou and Jimmy. Rachel had slapped him hard on the head, but in the end neither she or Teaspoon stopped him from going away. None of the riders had really talked to Kid about what he was feeling. All what they saw was Kid's rage and, once he calmed down, they thought that everything would be fine. What they didn't understand was how deep he had been hurt and how much he needed a friend.
Cody wished he was able to comfort Kid, to tell him that he could have that horse ranch he dreamed of, that there was a family waiting for him and that he could be happy despite of all was happened. But it would have been a lie. Kid would barely be able to walk if he even survived the night, and the truth was that his family seemed to have forgotten him .
At dawn, Kid seemed to find some peace, his thrashing and cries had finally stopped and the fever had broken, but the little color he had on his face had drained away, he looked white as a sheet and his breathing was almost imperceptible.
Cody had fallen asleep leaning on Kid's bed, with his head near his friend's. A sunray hit his closed eyelids waking him up. For a moment the blond Corporal rubbed his eyes, not remembering where he was but when he saw the curly head near him, all that had happened the night before came rushing back and he lifted his head abruptly to look at the Kid.
When he saw him so still and pale he dreaded his friend had died.
"Oh God, Kid…please." His heart was thumping wildly n his chest, how could he have left him alone in a moment like this?
"Kid…no…" he began to sob.
"Lou…Lou is that you?"
Cody brushed away his tears. "No Kid, it's me Cody…"
"Cody…" Kid opened his eyes, he looked completely disoriented. "Cody, where's Lou? On a run?"
"Yes, Kid, yes…she is away…" the blond man didn't know what also he could say.
"She…she's still angry at me…?" the Southerner looked at him in such a pleading tone it wrung Cody's heart. Where had the level-headed, strong minded Kid of the Express days gone?
"No, Kid, no. She's coming back to you."
Billy's voice was creaking. Kid was dying and this time, neither he nor the doctor could do anything.
"Really. She will be there soon."
An ecstatic smile appeared on the young man's haggard face. His eyes filled with tears of joy. "Lou…"
Cody caressed softly his head.
"Here, Kid. Sip a little of water."
He made him drink the last bit of laudanum he had.
"Sleep now, sleep. Tomorrow Lou will be there."
He rocked Kid gently, with his head leaning on his chest, as if he was a child. He could feel his faint breath becoming weaker by the minute.
"I love you Lou…" Kid murmured.
Cody hugged him tighter and began to weep.
When, half an hour later, Sergeant Taylor came in to check the Confederate, he found Cody rocking him, tears flowing freely down his aquamarine eyes. "I'm sorry" he continued to repeat, and this touched the older man. He never imagined that someone as braggart and boisterous as the Corporal William Cody, could be so devoted, assisting a friend who was dying, regardless of the fact he was the enemy.
"I'm sorry, Corporal," He said clutching Cody's shoulder.
Cody nodded, unable to respond, and tried to regain his composure. He gently laid Kid on the bed and then he straightened up himself.
"Where's Katy?" he said when he was sure to control his voice.
"His mare. The painted horse that was near him when we found him." He had forgotten about her until that moment, but he was sure that Kid would have wanted his beloved mare to be well cared of. "I'd like to take her with me."
The sergeant nodded. "It's with the other horses. Some of the privates are tending them."
"Wow! Look here! Seems that one of the Grey bellies was a lover-boy."
A couple of soldiers were rummaging in Kid's sacks and one of them had grabbed a little photo.
'Ride Safe, Louise.'
"Sorry, Louise. You're too skinny for me." he laughed, soon imitated by his mate.
"Hey! What do we have here?!" The other man had taken an envelope that was too heavy to contain only a letter. He ripped it open and an ancient-looking gold locket came out. "What do you think Blake? Do you think my girl will like it?" He said holding the locket.
A strong grasp blocked the soldier's wrist and with his other hand Cody snatched back the photo.
"Enough!" he said icily. "Leave these things. I'm in charge of this horse from now on."
The pair muttered angrily but went away, and Cody looked at the small items in his hands. A seventeen years old Lou was smiling at him from the photo. Her hair was short and she was wearing the pink dress she wore the day of her 'coming out party' in Emma's parlor, so many years ago.
'Happy Birthday, Kid.' was written behind the photo and in one of the corners was 'Ride Safe, Louise'.
He took the golden chain and put it back in the envelope. There was a letter inside, Cody noticed.
My dearest Louise,
The blond man looked away. Kid must have written it the night before what he thought would be his wedding day.
Slowly he pulled out the other things in Kid's sack: his mother and brother's photos, a few letters written by Rachel, what looked to be a sort of journal. Finally he pulled out a small velvet pouch. There were two wedding rings inside. Cody felt a great bitterness, that was all what remain of Kid's dreams and hopes, of all what he had been.
Noah's death had broken his heart, but it had been mercifully swift and his friend died doing what he believed in. Kid had died because his hopes had been shattered, and this made him angry and sad and guilty at the same time.
He approached Katy, nobody had groomed her and the poor animal was in a pretty bad shape. The war had taken its tool on her too.
"Hello girl," He saluted the animal. "I'll take care of you from now, if it's ok with you…"
He was talking to the mare the way Kid used to. How many times they had teased the Southerner for doing this…
Cody began to cry again.
Where had the family they had became gone? There was a time when they were as brothers and sister, and they could trust each other with their own life. And now?
He felt such a rage towards Lou and Jimmy at that moment, why did they do something like that? Kid had his faults but he didn't deserve this. He didn't deserve to be betrayed by the people he trusted or have a family who didn't understand his pain. 'It was also my fault Kid ended up like this' Cody thought, 'and I will never forgive myself for this'.
They buried the Kid near his unit. Cody didn't wanted him to be put in the mass grave with the other men and he laid his friend in a separate grave with the photos of his relatives and of Lou clutched in his hands. He kept the other things with him. He wanted to give Kid's letter to Lou once he went back, but he still hadn't decided what to do with the journal. Kid must have written very intimate thoughts in there so he felt as if he was profaning his friend's intimacy by reading his writings, but on the other hand he didn't want the memories of what Kid had been to fade away.
Billy posed the last stone of the heap. He wanted to inscribe or write something, but then he realized that he didn't know Kid real name, nor did he remember his birth date.
He raised himself and looked up at the sky.
"Noah, you and Ike take good care of him, ok?"
He brushed away his last tears and look at the grave before him.
"I hope you'll find some peace, now" he said. "Ride safe up there, Kid."